This series of articles aims to provide a summary analysis of some of the key economic governance methodologies in application in the world today. Starting with the world’s largest economy the United States of America – characterised by its free-market orthodoxies. Onto Germany, the beating economic heart of the European Union. Through the hybrid phenomenon that is the contemporary Chinese economy and its direct democratic counterpart in India. The series will finish with an examination of “The Nordic Model” in Sweden and finally the enigma that is Post-USSR Russia.
The Economic Governance 101 series consists of 6 main articles:
5. Economic Governance 101: Sweden
6. Economic Governance 101: Russia
Economic Governance 101: Sweden
Sweden today enjoys a reputation as one of the most developed and equitably run countries in the world, a status forged through its rapid socio-economic development over the course of the 20th century and the implementation of an economic model that neatly straddles the line between socialism and capitalism. Since its formal introduction in the 1950's the so called "Swedish Model" has seen its fair share of ups and downs. This article will examine Sweden's economic policy making from the golden age of the 1950's and 1960's, through the more turbulent 1970's and 1980's and the collapse of the early 1990's which prompted the major economic reforms that define the modified Swedish economic governance model in place today.
The Swedish Model
The modern Swedish economy is a mixed one, with strong socialist tendencies and a comprehensive welfare state. Under the Swedish Model, “social policies are designed to ensure a basic quality of living to all citizens, while economic policies are focused on the labor market and fiscal policy with the goal to achieve economic growth with price stability” (Viana and Cunha, 2016, p. 267). It may be surprising to learn that Sweden’s adoption of this approach has been relatively recent. In 1960 Sweden’s public-sector spending sat below the weighted average for European OECD countries. From the late 1970s onward however “public sector expenditures have fluctuated in the interval of 60–70 per cent of GNP”, as “compared to 45–50 per cent for the (weighted) average of European OECD countries” (Lindbeck, 2007, pp. 1278 – 1279). Lindbeck, in his seminal 1997 paper “The Swedish Experiment”, describes “Two broad targets of economic and social policy” which emerged in Sweden in the direct aftermath of World War Two. These are “economic security, including full employment, and egalitarianism, including both a general compression of income differences and the mitigation of poverty” (Lindbeck, 2007, p. 1274). The contemporary “Swedish Model” is one then predicated upon the targeted elimination of the inherent inequalities of a capitalist system while retaining the essential auspices of a market-based economy.
Rehn-Meidner and the Swedish Model
Any discussion of what has come to be termed “The Swedish Model” requires an examination of the original policy blueprint that inspired this rethinking of Swedish economic governance. Though a target of reaching full employment status had been mooted as early as the 1930’s (Lindbeck, 2007), little tangible evidence emerged of the active pursuit of such a policy until some two decades later when the report “‘Trade Unions and Full Employment’” was presented by trade union economists Gösta Rehn and Rudolf Meidner at a 1951 meeting of the Swedish Trade Union Confederation (Viana and Cunha, 2016). The report “advocated an active labour market policy, a wages policy of solidarity and a restrictive macroeconomic policy – primarily indirect taxes – to combine full employment with fair wages, price stability and high economic growth” (Erixon, 2008, p. 1).
Rehn and Meidner theorised that a controlled general wage would reduce the capitalist tendency toward extreme profit margins. More specifically, “the Rehn-Meidner strategy viewed the excessive profits as an inflationary element” (Viana and Cunha, 2016, p. 270). Given the freedom to set wages on a localised or firm by firm basis, firms and business leaders would naturally elect to pay as little as possible to maximise profits. “The high profits would stimulate workers inefficient companies to demand wage increases. Likewise, the workers of the least efficient sectors, visualizing the gain of that group of workers, would also request wage increases. Therefore, this whole process would impact the cost of business and tend to generate inflationary pressures.” (Erixon, 2000, as cited in Viana and Cunha, 2016, p. 270).
The natural functioning of the labour market without state intervention would lead to what was termed “wage drift” – a rising wage disparity characterised by disproportionately higher wages in certain industries and at certain firms over others. “High expected profits from recruiting labour and high actual profit margins lead, they argued, to widespread wage drift, i.e. to wage increases outside central agreements, in leading wage sectors” (Erixon, 2008, p. 4). Under the proposals of the R-M model, “A wage policy of solidarity through coordinated wage negotiations implies that employees with similar jobs are paid the same wage regardless of the profit situation of firms and industries” (Erixon, 2008, p. 7). This hands-on approach to the functioning of the labour market would reduce levels of income disparity amongst workers across different industries and by extension across Swedish society as a whole. Rehn and Meidner also suggest that a centralised wage agreement policy would foster a dynamic and innovative competitive economic environment, dubbing such a wage policy a “‘fair’ instrument of economic growth”. By keeping wages to a default above what a standard free market operating model would dictate “Low-productivity firms and plants that cannot bear solidarity wages must rationalise or disappear, freeing resources for the expansion of dynamic firms” (Erixon, 2008, p. 7).
Intriguingly then the R-M model is designed with the dual intention of increasing competition amongst firms, whilst levelling the playing field amongst workers. By effectively eliminating the ability for firms to outbid each other in terms of wages, successful firms, or those with significantly greater financial resources are prevented from achieving the market dominance they might otherwise expect to attain. “This wage policy is supposed to hold back wage increases in profitable companies willing and able to pay higher wages than solidaristic ones” (Erixon, 2007, p. 7). By decreasing wage competition, competition for productivity would instead take its place. This leads to “structural changes” in the economy as weaker firms are culled. Newly freed resources in turn “migrate to profitable companies in the dynamic sectors” (Erixon, 2000, p. 15. as cited in Viana and Cunha, 2016, p. 271). Supplementary labour policies aimed at guaranteeing full employment such as vocational education and retraining raise the overall level of human capital (knowledge, skills and ability), increasing overall production efficiency in the economy as a whole (Viana and Cunha, 2016).
Leaders in Equal Gender Opportunity
The drive toward equalisation in the labour force had a much wider-reaching societal impact. “In accordance with the R-M principle of equal pay for similar work a radical equalisation of wages between industries (and plants) and between men and women took place in Sweden from the late 1950s to the mid-1970s” (Erixon, 2008, p. 14). A legacy which lives on to this day with Sweden recording one of the highest rates of female employment – 70.0 per cent as of February 2022 (Statistics Sweden, 2022) – amongst developed world economies. While Sweden has made notable strides in its attempts to reduce institutionalised gender inequality there has been evidence of this progress stalling in recent years. With specific reference to workforce participation Heikkilä et al detail that although for Nordic nations as a whole “the gender gap in work participation is considerably smaller than elsewhere in Europe,” it also “remained relatively unchanged from the mid-1990s to 2008”, (Heikkilä et al., 2021).
On a brighter note, there have been more positive developments about gender equal remuneration with the gender pay gap in Sweden having fallen from 16.3 per cent in 2005 to 9.8 in 2020, a reduction of 6.5 per cent (Swedish National Mediation Office, 2020). While in the Swedish public sector “46% of Swedish members of parliament are women”, and “more women than men currently hold management positions” (Savage, 2019). This trend has not been replicated in the Swedish private sector however with women accounting for a mere 36 per cent of management positions (Sanandaji, 2018). The official establishment of the Swedish Gender Equality Agency in 2018 with the aim “to support government agencies with the work of integrating a gender perspective in all of their operations” (Swedish Institute, 2022) indicates the nation’s continued dedication to achieving economic gender equality.
Beyond the Golden Age
The Rehn-Meidner Model enjoyed what has been termed a “Golden Age” from its adoption in the 1950s through to the early 1970s characterised by “robust GDP growth, high productivity and moderate inflation”, (Viana and Cunha, 2016, p. 282). Life under the Swedish Model has not always proven plain sailing, however. The 1970s saw the Swedish economy beset by assaults on multiple fronts. The oil crises of 1973 and 1979 prompted a dramatic rise in global inflation (Schneider, 2022). While the collapse of the Bretton Woods fixed international exchange rate system – designed with the intention of keeping international currency rates within stable, predictable parameters led to a mass of uncertainty across western economies at large (IMF, 2008).
The adoption of a “restrictive monetary policy to reduce inflationary pressure after the two oil shocks” in the United States and West Germany, in particular, served to further reduce international demand (Erixon, 2008, p. 21). Meanwhile the rising strength of Japan and other newly industrialised nations led to an “overcapacity on international markets in traditional (“basic”) industries of great importance in Sweden, such as mining, steel, and shipbuilding” (Lennart Schön 1994 as cited in Lindbeck, 1997, p. 1302). This confluence of events greatly hindered Sweden’s competitiveness in key markets and “led to a major crisis for Swedish export industries” (Erixon, 2008, p. 21). On a general footing, Sweden’s “specialisation of exports in raw materials, semi-finished goods and investment goods was unfavourable to Swedish manufacturing during a period with deep international recession” (Erixon, 2008, p. 21).
The external factors at play during this period arose in parallel with a host of domestic policy errors. The Swedish government attempted to reduce the economic impact of the recessionary international environment by adopting an expansionary fiscal policy at odds with the restrictive macroeconomic mandate of the R-M model. These attempts which included large scale industrial subsidisation culminated in what Lindbeck terms “a wage-cost explosion” with the hourly wage in Sweden increasing by “about 65 percent during the three-year period 1974–1976” leading to “sluggish production and investment in the tradables sector” (Lindbeck, 1997, p. 1302). The end result was a sharp decline in GDP growth, down by half as compared with the 1960’s in combination with “a significant increase of inflation rates with an annual average of 8.5%, more than doubling in comparison with the average of 3.8% in the period 1960-1969” (Viana and Cunha, 2016, p. 275).
The Battle with Inflation
This inflationary trend would carry into the 1980’s when in an effort to maintain Sweden’s competitiveness in export markets the Swedish government twice devalued its currency the Swedish Krona “in 1981 and 1982 (by 10 and 15 percent, respectively) (Lindbeck, 1997, p. 1303). With the economy already at risk of overheating off the back of these large currency devaluations, in the mid-1980’s the government embarked on “An instant dismantling of monetary-policy instruments”. This significant lowering of restrictions regarding access to domestic capital markets “was followed by an expansion of bank credit by about 20 percent per year” alongside a generous interest rate policy that allowed nominal (current market price) interest rate repayments to be made “fully deductible against high marginal income-tax rates” (Lindbeck, 1997, p. 1303). This combination of policy decisions that would lead directly “to a credit financed consumption, construction and stock-market boom” (Erixon, 2008, p. 36).
This policy of financial deregulation was implemented in attempt “to increase the dynamism of the economy and in line with the neoliberal prescription adopted by several economies in the 1980s” (Viana and Cunha, 2016, p. 275). Instead it led to an enormous credit fuelled property bubble which would burst in devastating fashion in the early portion of the 1990’s (McKinsey, 2012). Between the years 1991-1993 Swedish GNP fell by 4 percent, manufacturing output declined by 15 with total employment falling by around 11 percent (Lindbeck, 1997) Extensive job losses across the public and in particular private sector economies led to skyrocketing unemployment rates, with 6.7 percent in 1992 – “the highest recorded rate since World War II” rising to “10.9% in 1993 and 11.3% and 1994” (Viana and Cunha, 2016, p. 277). ). Tax revenues also dropped significantly as a result of lower taxable income being generated placing enormous pressure on Sweden’s established welfare state model.
Reforms of the 1990s
The dire economic conditions of the early 1990’s would prompt a series of pro market reforms, with the aim “to reduce the size of the Government in the economy” (Viana and Cunha, 2016). Having ranked fourth amongst OECD countries in 1970 in terms of GDP per capita, by 1993 Sweden had fallen to 14th. A fall attributed to “stagnating productivity growth, largely due to insufficient competition in many markets” (McKinsey, 2012). Widespread deregulation across the Swedish economy took place in response, “notably in the telecom, electricity, gas, postal, retail and banking sectors” while Swedish competition laws were strengthened in order to prevent “cartel formation and exploitation of a dominant market position” (McKinsey, 2012, p. 29).
Sweden’s ascension to both the EU and the newly created WTO in 1995 served to enhance the ease with which international trade could be conducted. Strong access to skilled labour, a history of prioritising investment in Research and Development, strong professional leadership and an early move toward globalisation meant that Swedish companies were perfectly poised to capitalise on the newly favourable market conditions. International Trade in Sweden “grew at a 50 per cent higher rate than the global economy from 1993 to 2010” (McKinsey, 2012, p. 30). Domestically an “explicit inflation target” was established by the Swedish central bank of “a two percent rise in the CPI (Consumer Price Index) (plus/minus one percent)” (Lindbeck, 1997, p. 1305). Under this new economic directive the “Riksbank (Swedish Central Bank) has the sole purpose of targeting price stability, leaving the background aspects such as income level or export competitiveness to be managed by the exchange rate” (Heikensten and Vredin, 2002 as cited in Viana and Cunha, 2016, p. 277). The exclusive focus of the inflation targeting policy bore impressive results with Sweden recording an average inflation rate of 3.2 percent for the 1990’s vs 7.9 for the preceding decade (OECD, 2015 as cited in Viana and Cunha, 2016, p. 277).
A “comprehensive reform of the welfare state services, with the introduction of vouchers for education and health services” (Viana and Cunha, 2016, p. 277) served to reduce the burden on the lagging Swedish welfare state system. An overhaul and simplification of the tax system resulted “in lower rates of marginal income tax, lower rates of corporate tax, a broader tax base and more uniform taxation of different types of income”, while a pension reform “introduced self-funding and linked the size of pensions to economic performance” incentivising continued participation in the labour force through old age (McKinsey, 2012, p. 31). These reforms in combination with the introduction of new budget rules which set a hard limit on government expenditure served to reduce Swedish public debt from “77 per cent of GDP in 1993 to 39 per cent in 2010.” (McKinsey, 2012, p. 32).
Departure and Continuity
The reforms of the 1990s represented a simultaneous departure and retention of certain key R-M model principles. The targeting of a two percent inflation target may be seen as being at odds with the explicit R-M model goal of full employment given the classic inverse economic trade-off between inflation and employment. The “increase in wage dispersion in Sweden in the 1990s and 2000s” (Erixon, 2008, p. 51) marks a further departure from the R-M model with the move away from a centrally negotiated “solidarity wage” proving emblematic of a wider “tendency to higher profit margins and a higher profits share in the business sector” (Erixon, 2008, p. 51) with higher sustained levels of unemployment an inevitable outcome.
The continued implementation of extensive supply side assistance however through “the increasing weight of employment subsidies in Swedish labour market policy” lends further credence to the notion that “the application of the R-M model has contributed to a situation in which low rates of unemployment and small wage gaps have been institutionalised in Sweden.” (Erixon, 2008, p. 64). The implementation of the "Knowledge Boost” campaign which ran from 1997-2002 with the aim to “increase the level of education and to reduce unemployment among adults with only grammar school education”, and successfully “engaged 10 percent of the labour force during the first four years” (Albrecht et al., 2004, as cited in Erixon, 2008, p 46) serves as an excellent example of the core supply oriented labour policies of the R-M model having been retained.
In spite of Sweden’s egalitarian approach to economic governance rising regional inequality has proven problematic of late. While levels remain low by OECD and wider international standards larger cities continue to attract “an increasing share of the younger population and enjoy higher productivity growth, while providing adequate public services to an ageing population is increasingly challenging in rural areas” (OECD 2021, p. 11). The Covid-19 pandemic has also served to exacerbate the plight of lower-skilled and non-native members of the Swedish labour force with the highly advanced Swedish economy offering a “labour market mismatch, with unfilled vacancies coinciding with high unemployment for low-skilled workers and immigrants” (Andre et al., 2021, p. 10). Though greater efforts have been made in improving the functionality and education level of lower-skilled workers such investment will take time to bear fruit. The advanced level of digitisation within Sweden’s economy can serve to assist in the prospective shortening of the urban-rural divide, not least by enabling the more efficient provision of public services throughout the country (Andre et al., 2021). While unemployment has risen rapidly over the course of the Covid Pandemic, it should be noted that Sweden has on average retained one of the lowest unemployment rates in Europe (European Parliament, 2017), (Andre et al., 2021) and has already evidenced strong evidence of a coming return to pre-pandemic employment norms (Statistics Sweden, 2022).
The Swedish Model of Today
In the aftermath of the major economic reforms of the late 1980s and early 1990s the contemporary “Swedish Model” is very much a hybrid of its Rehn-Meidner roots and a more liberalised open market approach. While diminished from its operational peak of the 1950’s and 1960’s the Swedish state retains a stronger than usual presence in the operation of the economy at large. Though total employment is no longer an explicit policy goal Sweden continues to operate with one of the lowest long term unemployment averages in Europe and continues to offer a host of public sector services aimed at improving skill development and employment prospects amongst its workforce. Strong welfare state provisions and a continuous striving toward greater societal equality indicate that Sweden has not lost sight of its roots, it has merely adapted to a newly globalised environment.
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