Hard-working Greeks

At the epicenter of Europe’s financial crisis, Greece has taken a lot of heat for setting off the panic that now threatens to engulf the rest of the continent. One common story line is that inefficient Southern European states are dragging down a more industrious North, a theme we have previously questioned on this blog.

A research note from Marc Chandler, head of currency strategy at Brown Brothers Harriman, highlights the disconnect between a negative perception of Greek workers with actual readings of hours worked from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

We’ll start with the picture, which pretty much tells the story:

Chandler suggests prejudice has gotten in the way of sound economic analysis:

The conventional narrative about the European debt crisis largely accepts the contention that the periphery of Europe have different work habits and these account to a large extent the economic and financial problems. Yet often time the discussion takes on such ethnocentric dimensions that sometimes it is difficult to see what is real.

The most recent data from the OECD covers 2008 and shows that in that year, Greek workers on average worked 48% more than their industrious German neighbors. The OECD data shows the average Greek worker spent 2120 hours at work compared with 1429 hours in Germany. Moreover, Greece is one of the only OECD countries in which workers were working longer in 2008 than in 1998. With 1802 hours at work, the average Italian employee spent more than 25% more time at work than the average German worker.

While many will be initially surprised by the data, on reflection it makes intuitive sense.   In crude terms, wealthier countries typically work smarter–more capital intensively–than poor countries, not longer. Contrary to conventional wisdom, the lack of Greek competitiveness, for example, does not seem to lie in hours working but with the combination of productivity and wages/benefits (unit labor costs).

Is regulation really impeding employment?

It has become a common refrain in both politics and finance: intrusive regulations, an overreaction to Wall Street’s 2008 crisis, are generating uncertainty and preventing employment from bouncing back. Some top Federal Reserve officials have joined the chorus. Dallas Fed President Richard Fisher made the argument to business executives in Austin, Texas last month to justify his lack of support for additional monetary stimulus.

I maintain that no matter how much cash you have on your balance sheet, or how compliant your banker might be, or how cheap the cost of money, you will not commit substantial capital to expanding your payroll or investing significant amounts to expand plant and equipment until you know what it will cost you to run your business; until you know how much you will be taxed; until you know how federal spending will impact your customer base; until you know the cost of employee health insurance; until you are reassured that regulations that affect your business will be structured so as to incentivize rather than discourage expansion; until you have concrete assurance that the fiscal “fix” the nation so desperately needs will be crafted to stimulate the economy rather than depress it and incentivize job creation rather than discourage it.

Jeffrey Lacker, head of the Richmond Fed, also gives credence to the view that regulations are a burden on hiring: