Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Let's hope "zombie companies" don't become a zombie idea

The OECD has a certain reassuring predictability. When explaining a perceived crisis, they will conclude that the country needs reforms and it needs market-based solutions and, most of all, it needs reforms that unleash market-based solutions.

I first noticed this pattern when I was following the education reform debate (where the OECD figured prominently). I also noticed something else. Though the organization put out reams of impressive looking studies and data, the actual arguments tended to have a context-free snapshot quality. “This country is not following our list of rules and it is in trouble.” It didn't matter that the country had never followed the rules and had previously been doing fine or that some other country (in the case of ed reform, usually Canada) was even further from the OECD prescriptions and was doing great.

Which brings us to this recent piece by Catherine Mann and Dan Andrews (chief economist and deputy head of the structural policy analysis division, respectively, for the OECD).

Second, in well-functioning markets we would expect strong incentives for productive companies to aggressively expand and drive out less productive ones. The opposite has happened. The propensity for high-productivity companies to expand and low-productivity companies to downsize or exit the market has declined over time. This pattern is evident in the U. S. and is particularly stark in southern Europe, where scarce capital has been increasingly misallocated to low-productivity firms.

Third, across the 35 countries in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, we are seeing a drop in the dynamism of the business sector. Not only has the share of recent entrants into the market declined, but marginal companies, which would typically exit or be restructured in a competitive market, are more likely to remain. At the same time, the average productivity of these marginal businesses has fallen. In other words, it has become easier for weak companies that do not adopt the latest technologies to survive.

The survival of weak companies drags down average productivity, but the consequences for growth are even worse. Since such firms take up scarce resources, their prolonged survival (or their delayed restructuring) inflates wages relative to productivity, depresses market prices and undermines investment -- all of which deters the expansion of productive companies, particularly startups, and amplifies the mismatch of skills.

Today, the risk is that this phenomenon may contribute to a period of macroeconomic stagnation, as occurred in Japan during the 1990s.

There is no single fix to the productivity problem. But, over time, a strategy centered on encouraging innovation in firms, facilitating entries and exits from the market and helping workers retool can combat the structural weaknesses afflicting advanced market economies. Clearing the path for higher productivity growth is the surest way to ensure that economic expansion helps workers and doesn’t fizzle.

Just to be clear, I am not necessarily opposed to many (perhaps not even most) of these proposals. Furthermore, I certainly agree that we should make it easier for badly run businesses to go away (though my definition of "badly run" may be different than that of the authors). That said, there is a great deal here that gives me pause and it is entirely consistent with the pause-giving elements of other OECD studies.

One troubling aspect was particularly well illustrated by the mention of Japan. Many of the policies that the organization objects to have been in place for a long time, and during that time, many of the countries used as examples have had both very good and very bad economies. For example, I'm under the impression that Japan has long had official practices in place that make innocent young freshwater economists cry themselves to sleep, but those same practices were in place during both the boom of the 60s, 70s, and 80s and the bust that followed. Likewise (though to a lesser degree) the United States has experienced highs and lows in the past few decades that seem unconnected with the reforms the OECD proposes.

And, with the all-important caveat that I am desperately out of my depth, I would assume that the more competitive and uniform markets of the European Union and the far greater employee mobility (at least until last year) would have been just the sort of reforms that the authors insist are the best way of fighting our economic woes.

I am even more troubled by the chronology with respect to the claims about the impact of bringing down barriers to entry for new businesses. The trouble is that we have seen a recent and, as far as I know, unprecedented drop in these barriers due to the rise of the Internet and mobile, and it happened…




Once again I'm not saying that the proposals are bad and I am certainly not arguing that barriers to entry for new businesses are good; I am just saying that, even if our friends from the OECD are getting the direction right (which they very well may be), it is difficult to reconcile the magnitudes of impact they promise with the historical record.

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