Catch Up Growth and Demographics - Evidence from Eastern Europe

Over at Demography.Matters I have a longer research note up on the nature of economic growth convergence and catch-up growth. The note ties in with the situation in Eastern Europe as I have been following it recently but also provides a general outline of, at least some, of the theoretical and practical issues I am working and thinking with and about. As a general frame for the topic at hand the following excerpt from one of Edward's recent notes over at GEM is a good initial entry point. 

(...) what is about to happen next in Eastern Europe is about to establish, and I suspect beyond all possible doubt for the company of reasonable men, that the widely accepted neoclassical idea of general economic convergence towards a - even hypothetical - situation of "steady state growth" is quite simply a mistaken and non-valid one. Demography does matter, and fertility with a lag of twenty or so years does seem to be important.

Below, I reproduce the full note as it is presented over at DM.  


By performing a series of adept Googling exercises various sources on the internet will tell you that certain species of the lynx are able to travel at speeds of up to 50 kph (31 mph). Wikipedia informs us that the Eurasian lynx, on average, commands a hunting area of between 20-60 square kilometers in which the lynx is able to walk and run about 20 kilometers in one single night. All in all, a pretty rugged and constitutional little thing this lynx.

In this way, and perhaps because, at that particular point in time, the Eastern European Economies looked as if nothing could come in their way of economic prosperity and growth they were paired, by the Economist, with the region's sturdy feline coining the notion of 'Lynx Economies.' Thus, 'that particular point in time' was sometime back in the spring of 2006 where the Economist's (and my own) coverage of the CEE and Baltic economies came in hot on the heels of publications by the World Bank and and the Vienna Institute of Comparative Economic Studies speaking favorably of the future prospects of economic prosperity and thus 'catch-up' growth in the CEE and Baltic Economics.

Yet, merely 1 year and a tad later things seem to have changed quite significantly with respect to the discourse on the economic situation in Eastern Europe. Many of the contributors to this blog has been pitching on the change in discourse but also some of major institutional actors have been flagging the red banner. Not least the World Bank seems to have changed their attitude somewhat with most notably a recent report on the demographics of Eastern Europe entitled From Red to Gray - The Third Transition of Ageing Populations in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union as well as a recent writ with specific focus on the macroeconomic risks prevailing in the region. Yet, also the IMF in their latest World Economic Outlook devotes a chapter to the managing of large capital inflows where Eastern European economies also take center stage of the general tone of warning; in essence this note of warning concerning Eastern Europe seems to be the general talk of the day amongst economic analysts and journalists. As such, perhaps even the lynxes roaming the forests and planes of Eastern Europe are beginning to feel that the otherwise catchy notion conjured by journalists at the Economist is becoming something of a stretch according to the reality of the situation. Sure, things are moving fast now but it is what happens next which might finally serve to make the allegory rather unrealistic. In this entry I set out to explicitly investigate an issue which in fact has been treated several times on this blog and perhaps most often in the context of the CEE and Baltic Economies. Simply put and in the form of one simple question;

  • How do changing demographics and more specifically the final and ongoing stages of the demographic transition affect the notion and principle of economic catch up growth and thus economic convergence as it is stipulated by (neo-classical) economic growth theory?

As I have hinted above in the introduction my main subject of analysis on which the general theoretical argument is based is the current and ongoing situation in the CEE and Baltic economies. A lot has been written about this recently not least from the hands of the contributors to this blog (see also above). As a one-stop overview of the concrete issues at hand this recent note by Edward over at Global.Economy.Matters should provide you with suitable ammunition to get you started. In particular, the following three point overview of the current economic situation in Eastern Europe should always be in the back of your mind as we move forward from this point ...

Basically the principal outstanding issues confronting the EU10 countries are threefold:

  • Labour capacity constraints (which are normally a by product of long-term low fertility and large scale recent migration flows) are producing significant wage inflation and strong overheating.
  • A structural dependence on external financing - which is in part a by-product of the effect of low levels of internal saving, and which is another factor which separates the EU 10 from those like India or China who are benefiting from a typical demographic dividend driven catch up, is leading to large current account deficits, and potentially high levels of financial instability.
  • A loss of control over domestic monetary policy due to eurozone convergence processes which - with or without the presence of formal pegs - make gradual downward adjustment in currency values as a alternative to strong wage deflation virtually impossible. This issue is compounded by the likely private "balance sheet consequences" of any sustained downward movement in the domestic currency given the widespread use of mortgages which are not denominated in the local currency.
Traditionally a rigorous economic analysis in the light of the immediate events would focus a lot on point 2 and 3 but in this note we shall look specifically at number 1 and the issues of labour capacity, its constraints, and what it means of the economic growth of less to medium developed countries. Now, the most obvious caveat in this entry is that I really don't have the time at this point to really lay out the whole theoretical framework of economic growth theory and as such the precise slot in which my argument should be inserted within the wider theoretical framework. This will be the topic of a more rigorous article not suited for the blog format. However, I still need to attach some comments to set the scene where I should also immediately note that my previous note here at DM about catch up growth in Eastern Europe serves as a good state of the game post for what comes next.

Apart from my studies of selected pieces of the economic growth literature one of the best overviews of the concept of economic convergence as a function of the theoretical and practical assumptions vested in the growth models is to be found in an article by Norbert Fiess and Marco Fugazza on economic integration in Europe (PDF).  As such it is important to note that convergence of GDP per capita levels is not a holy grail within the fields of economic growth theory. Rather, the process of convergence should be seen as an inbuilt consequence of the fact that as economies mature returns to production inputs decrease; that is to say that this discussion essentially revolves around the concept of increasing v. decreasing returns to scale in our economic model. If we think about decreasing returns to scale and introduce the concept of marginal productivity to production inputs we can then see that less developed countries are likely to exhibit higher rates of growth than their more mature counterparts in the sense that their marginal productivity is higher which then leads to a process of convergence. Now, this argument in its most strict sense is usually applied in the context of capital as a production input and coupled with the properties of an open economy and subsequent free flow of production factors this would lead to a rather rapid process of convergence or absolute convergence as the technical term. As regards to labour as a production input is has also been argued that the universal transition from an agricultural to manufacturing over to service (?) based economy produces a mechanism of convergence in the sense that this process implies a move up the value chain and thus that every unit of labour becomes more productive. Of course and even though we are talking about stylised facts here, this is also where the whole debacle begins in the context of my immediate argument because how certain is this process? Also, we need to take into account the distinction between stocks and flows (of labour) which is a crucial issue to consider when talking about ageing economies.

However and it does not take much of an economist to see that empirical facts do not support the idea of absolute convergence or at least it seems as if the process takes much longer to materialize than predicted by the theory. This has lead, among other factors, to a 'new' strand of economic growth models which allows for persistent growth divergence to exist between countries. The crucial aspect to understand here is the mechanism through which persistent divergences can occur. In this way, one of the widest contributions by economist to this thesis has dealt with the possibility that technological processes and thus accumulation of technological advances exhibits increasing returns to scale. The fundamental brilliancy of this notion is that it allows for a model where there is indeed decreasing returns to labour and capital but where different levels of technological effort leads to internal positive feedback mechanisms and thus explains persistent divergences in growth and 'prosperity' across countries.

Ok, I think that I have already said enough at this point and in order to get us back to track one crucial assumption and conceptual idea needs to be pinned down. As such and if we look at the rudimentary description of the economic growth process above it is not wholly unreasonable to argue that the growth process of an economy is somewhat directly related to the process of the demographic transition. Or as Robert Lucas puts it in a widely cited article ...

That is, the industrial revolution is invariably associated with the reduction in fertility known as the demographic transition.

As such,  why don't we take a look at Eastern Europe where the economies have experienced, quite as expected by the conventional theory of economic growth, economic dynamics tantamount to catch-up or convergence. Especially the economic data since the expansion from EU15 to EU25/27 and, for some countries, the subsequent anchoring to the Euro has been very impressive indeed. Yet as Edward and I have been at pains (see link above) to explain again and again these countries are not your average emerging markets. This follows from the fact that their demographic structures have been fundamentally distorted due to a collapse of fertility in the beginning of the 1990s which has been aggravated by a persistent net outflow of migrants serving to further speed up the decline in the working and essentially also most productive cohorts. In order to capture this development and in order to frame the current situation the following point I made in a previous note is worthwhile to repeat.

In short, we are dealing with countries where the demographic transition by far, and indeed worryingly, has out paced the traditional economic process of economic convergence.

This is exactly what we are talking about here and apart from going to the heart of the imminent issues in Eastern Europe it also strikes right smack into the concept of economic growth theory and how to deal with the fact that the demographic transition does not occur the way it was originally anticipated. Most emphatically, we can see in the context of the Eastern European countries that the final stages of the transition have arrived far before and quicker than the twists and turns of history allowed for these economies to really get on with business. Yet, the general argument can just as easily be expanded into a discussion of the ageing part of OECD where it is painfully clear at this point that conventional economic theories are wholly incapable of explaining what is likely to happen next. In fact, we could stretch it so far as to say that modern economic growth theory is not able to explain what happens when fertility drops to a level below replacement level and stays there!

In Summary

Even though that a lot words have been written in this entry I am afraid that only superficial contributions have been made to the final answer of the proposed question. This entry principally had one main task, namely to initiate a line of reasoning which ultimately and hopefully can lead to a better understanding of modern economic growth processes in a context of the current demographic profile of many developed and developing economies. Specifically, this entry revolved around the concept of catch-up growth/convergence where the countries in Eastern Europe were suggested as an example to demonstrate how demographics can fundamentally alter the principles by which the economic growth process is likely to conform. In this way, the message is not that modern economic growth theory and growth accounting methods are rendered obsolete in the face of changing demographics but rather that considerable adjustment needs to be made; especially in the context of catch up growth/convergence but also crucially in the context of the notion of a steady state of economic growth.  Returning briefly to the real world before we sign off it could seem as if the branding of the lynx economies never was more than a quick and essentially expensive make-up which is set to quickly wear off as we venture on. Specifically, recent signs coming out of the ECB and the European commission suggest that expectations are aligning towards an outlook where the process of convergence effectively risks grinding to a halt. My advice would then be not to exchange the carrot too swiftly into a stick since this would only serve to kick those who are already on the ground.