Monthly Archives: January 2012

Qou Vadis, QE?

Ever since the first rounds of quantitative easing (QE) by the US Federal Reserve, I’ve raised questions about how sound and sustainable this form of monetary policy is? How big is the risk that the greatest economic experiment in modern history may eventually fail? More than three years later, I’m still not sure. The only thing I’m sure of, is that the need for extreme measures is greater than ever.

“It doesn’t matter whether new investment is financed by more government borrowing, quantitative easing or redistribution. What matters is growth.”

George Irvin

(Photo by freakingnews.com)

While Mr. Ben Bernanke in the USA is trying to figure out new and more creative ways to flow the financial system with money in order to kick-start the nation’s economy, European politicians are obsessing over new and creative austerity measures in order to save money and regain the union’s financial balance. But nothing seems to work. 

In 2008 I called for the launch of a so-called “Keynesian war” – but with a twist:

Instead of increasing public spending the traditional way, by investing in infrastructure like transport and housing or by upgrading public institutions like the military, I suggested to aim the financial “guns” at research and education, closing  the gap between the rich and the poor, and developing clean energy.

The “Keynesian war” was launched, all  right. But the ammunition was poured into the banks and other financial institutions who barely manged to save their own asses, in addition to dump the problems on their respective  national governments.

The financial crisis is currently well beyond the stage I regarded as a “worst-case-scenario” only two years ago.

So, where do we go from here?

One thing ought to be clear: It’s no longer a question of method – the only thing that matters is the result.

Honorary professor George Irvin at University of London makes a pretty good summary in his latest blog post at the EUobserver.com.

The Debt Trap 

“Europe is obsessed with the growing stock of public sector debt; fiscal austerity has become the watchword of our time. Little does it seem to matter that fiscal austerity means reducing aggregate demand, thus leading to economic stagnation and recession throughout the EU as all the main forecasts are now suggesting,” Professor Irvin writes.

Even the credit rating agencies are worried, as S&P’s downgrading of France and eight other countries shows. Whether it’s Angela Merkel or David Cameron speaking, public debt is denounced as deplorable, and all are told to get used to hard times.

As Larry Elliot puts it:

“The notion that economic pain is the only route to pleasure was once the preserve of the British public school-educated elite, now it’s European economic policy”.

In Britain, immediately after the general election, the Tory-led coalition decreed that in light of the large government current deficit, harsh cuts were necessary to win the confidence of the financial markets.

But although the current deficit was high, the stock of debt (typically measured by the debt/GDP ratio) was relatively low and of long maturity, the real interest rate on debt was zero (and at times negative) and, crucially,

Britain had its own Central Bank and could devalue. As Harriet Harman argued in June 2010, Osborne’s cuts were ideologically motivated. The aim was to shrink the public sector, and the LibDems—fearing a new general election—chose to go along with the policy.

In the euro zone (EZ), where a balance of payments crisis at the periphery has turned into a sovereign debt crisis, the German public has been sold the idea that if only all EZ countries could be like Germany and adhere to strict fiscal discipline, all would be well.

The ultra-orthodox Stability and Growth Pact (SGP) has now been repackaged under the heading of ‘economic governance’ under which Germany and its allies will vet members’ fiscal policies and impose punitive fines on those failing to observe the deflationary budget rules to be adopted.

Never mind the fact that indebtedness in countries like Spain and Ireland was mainly private, or that the draconian fiscal measures imposed on Greece have, far from reducing public indebtedness, increased it.

Is debt always a bad thing?

In the private sector, obviously not since corporations regularly borrow money for expenditure they don’t want to meet out of retained earnings, while most households aim to hold long-term mortgages.

Public debt instruments like gilts in the UK or bunds in Germany are much sought after by the private sector, mainly because such instruments are thought to act as an excellent hedge against risk.

Remember, too, that when a pension fund buys a government bond, it is held as an asset which produces a future cash stream which benefits the private sector.

So ‘public debt’ is not a burden passed on from one generation to the next.

The stock of public debt is only a problem when its servicing (ie, payment of interest) is unaffordable; ie, in times of recession when growth is zero or negative and/or interest rates demanded by the financial market are soaring.

The question is when is debt sustainable?

Sustainability means keeping the ratio of debt to GDP stable in the longer term.

If GDP at the start of the year is €1,000bn and the government’s total stock of debt is €600bn, then the debt ratio is 60%; the fiscal deficit is the extra borrowing that the government makes in a year – so it adds to the stock of debt.

But although the stock of debt may be rising, as long as GDP is rising proportionately, the debt/GDP ratio can be kept constant or may even be falling.

Consider the following example. Suppose the real rate of interest on debt is 2% (say 5% nominal but with inflation at 3%, so 5 – 3 = 2). That means government must pay €12bn per annum of interest in real terms. But as long as real GDP, too, is rising—say at 2% per year—there’s no problem since real GDP at the year’s end will be €1020bn.

Even if the government were to pay none of the interest, the end-of-year debt/GDP ratio would be 612/1020 or 60%; ie, the debt ratio remains unchanged.

By contrast, if real GDP growth is zero, the ratio would be 612/1000 = 61.2; ie, the debt ratio rises only slightly. 

The rule is that as long as the real economy is growing by at least as much as the real rate of interest on debt, the debt/GDP ratio doesn’t rise.

Moreover, this holds true irrespective of whether the debt ratio is 60% or 600%.

But there’s a catch.

In a modern economy, the public sector accounts for about half the economy.

If a country panics about its debt ratio and cuts back sharply on public sector spending, this reduces aggregate demand and may lead to stagnation or even recession.

When a country stops growing, financial markets decide that its debt ratio may rise and so become more cautious about lending and demand a higher bond yield (ie, interest rate).

The gloomy prophecy of growing public indebtedness becomes self-fulfilling. This is exactly the sort of “debt trap” which faces much of the EU and other rich countries. The way out cannot be greater austerity.

What works for a single household or firm doesn’t work for the economy as a whole. A household can tighten its belt by spending less, saving more, and thus ‘balancing the books’, but an economy cannot.

If everybody saves more, national income falls.

Of course, Germany and some Nordic countries can balance the government books because an export surplus offsets domestic private saving. But the Club-Med countries cannot match them.

When no EZ country can devalue, to ask each EZ country to balance the books by running an export surplus is empirically and logically impossible.

Even if all could devalue, what would follow is 1930’s-style competitive devaluation.

The way out of the ‘debt trap’ is the same as the way out of recession: if the private sector won’t invest, the public sector must become investor of the last resort.

It doesn’t matter whether new investment is financed by more government borrowing, quantitative easing or redistribution (some combination of the three would be optimal).

What matters is growth.

By George Irvin

George Irvin is a retired professor of economics and for many years was at ISS in The Hague. He is now honorary Professorial Research Fellow in Development Studies at the University of London, SOAS.

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“Euro Zone Crisis is Germany’s Fault”

Now, this is an interesting point of view: According to Director of the Division on Globalization and Development Strategies at UNCTAD Heiner Flassbeck, the European financial crisis are all Germany‘s fault. Here at econoTwist’s, however, we belive that the responsibility should be shared among several others – like the incompetent EU parliament and the ridiculous artificial institution called the EU Council. But Mr. Flassbeck makes some valid arguments, and it’s certainly a theory worth taking into account.

“Since the end of Bretton Woods, Germany’s economic policy has been based on two main pillars: competition of nations and monetarism. Both are irreconcilable with a monetary union.”

Heiner Flassbeck

“There is no solution to the current euro zone crisis as long as no one effectively challenges the consistency of Germany’s economic policy strategy with the logic of a monetary union. Captain Merkozy’s boat approaches the rocks at high speed,” Heiner Flassbeck writes.

This commentary is syndicated by www.eurointelligence.com:

A German End to the Euro Vision

Once upon a time European leaders believed in a step-by-step approach of European integration.

Each step would bring Europe closer to the target of closely related but still independent states.

According to this vision states would be willing to relinquish more and more of their independence, in order to gain advantages of peace, global strength through political cooperation and economic strength as a result of a big common market.

“Germany is considered by many as the role model for the rest of the union. That is the biggest mistake and the real reason why Europe is committing economic suicide instead of tackling its problem at the root.”

In this approach, the creation of a monetary union was just one of these consecutive and unavoidable steps on the path to strengthen political cooperation and to completethe common market with its indisputable advantages for all European citizens.

Unfortunately, twelve years after the start of the European Monetary Union (EMU) reality tells a different story.

EMU is in troubled water and captain Merkozy is steering the boat towards some dangerous rocks that could mark the end to a long and peaceful ride of a formerly war torn region.

Much has been said about the folly of pushing countries to cut public expenditure, increase taxes and put pressure on wages in the middle of one of the deepest recessions in modern history.

However, even the outspoken critics of the Merkozy approach rarely discuss Germany’s economic policy approach.

To the contrary, Germany is considered by many as the role model for the rest of the union. That is the biggest mistake and the real reason why Europe is committing economic suicide instead of tackling its problem at the root.

“Since the end of Bretton Woods, Germany’s economic policy has been based on two main pillars: competition of nations and monetarism. Both are irreconcilable with a monetary union.”

A monetary union is in essence a union of countries willing to harmonize their rates of inflation and to sacrifice national monetary policies.

A country like Germany, fighting for higher market shares in international markets, tries to achieve the opposite. It has to undercut the cost and price level of its main trading partners by all means.

A monetary union formed by already closely integrated countries becomes a rather closed economy and needs domestic policy instruments like monetary policy to stimulate growth time and again.

German monetarism asks for the opposite, the absence of any discretionary action of central banks and relies solely on flexibility of prices, in particular wages.

Along these lines the story of EMU’s failure is quickly told. From the very beginning of the monetary union, German politicians put enormous pressure on trade unions to help realise an increase of unit labour cost and prices that was less than in other countries.

Since member states no longer could devalue their currencies to maintain competitiveness as they had done hitherto this was a rather easy task. The effects got stronger as small annual effects accumulated over time and, after ten years, created a huge gap in competitiveness in favour of Germany.

“Germany built up huge current account surpluses and Southern Europe and France accumulated the complementary deficits.”

The ECB, in good German monetarist tradition, celebrated the achievement of the two percent inflation target, while ignoring the fact that this was built on two-sided violation of the inflation target.

Without Germany’s undershooting of the target the overshooting in Southern European countries would not have been compatible with two percent overall.

The result is disastrous for the southern European economies as they are losing permanently market shares without being able to successfully retaliate the German attack. They would need a number of years with falling wages to come back into the markets.

However, the time to do that is not available.

Falling wages mean falling domestic demand and recession especially in countries like Italy or Spain with small export shares of some 25% of GDP. The resulting depression would be politically unbearable.

“Even a political tour de force would in vain as long as Germany is blocking the indispensable short and medium term relief measures.”

Until EMU as a whole recovers strongly, deficit countries will remain in current account deficits and will not be able to reduce their budget deficits.

What would be required is direct intervention by the ECB to bring down bond yields as well as Eurobonds to bridge the time until the deficit countries’ competitiveness is restored.

These measures are blocked by the German economic policy doctrine.

There is no solution to the current euro zone crisis as long as no one effectively challenges the consistency of Germany’s economic policy strategy with the logic of a monetary union.

Captain Merkozy’s boat approaches the rocks at high speed.

By Heiner Flassbeck

Director of the Division on Globalization and Development Strategies at UNCTAD.

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Credit Ratings Are Now Officially A Joke

With the downgrade of EU’s emergency funding fund, the US credit rating agency Standard & Poor have made the whole rating business a fucking joke. If you think this will make waves in tomorrow’s markets, forget it! Nobody takes this shit serious anymore…

“Triple-A or no triple-A, I couldn’t care less.”

Shakeb Syed

“On Jan. 13, 2012, we lowered to ‘AA+’ the long-term sovereign credit ratings on two of the European Financial Stability Facility‘s (EFSF’s) previously ‘AAA‘ rated guarantor member states, France and Austria,” S&P writes in a press release.  Adding: “The EFSF’s obligations are no longer fully supported either by guarantees from EFSF members rated ‘AAA’ by Standard & Poor’s, or by ‘AAA’ rated securities.”  Well, we already know that, morons!

And you can’t say A without saying B, also, in this business. So, in light of last weeks mass downgrade of European core nations, this is just a natural consequence.

But it becomes rather ridiculous when we’re talking about an international emergency fund that the EU leaders are able to do whatever they want with. Perhaps they choose to “print” enough euros to ten-fold the size of the fund?

Nobody knows anything for sure, these days.

And that’s why most financial pros just don’t give a damn about the rating actions anymore; it’s no longer  possible to take the rating business serious.

And, as Norwegian chief economist Shakeb Syed, rightfully points out – there are far more important things to worry about when it comes to the EU economy than its stupid stability facility.

“Triple-A or no triple-A, I couldn’t care less,” Shakeb Syed at Sparebank 1 Markets says in an interview with Norwegian website www.dn.no.

Syed recon there will be some reactions in the financial markets on Tuesday, but not much,

“In the market, the fund have implied interest costs that is not consistent with a triple-A. So,  in practice, the difference is not that great,” Syed points out.

The Norwegian analyst also says what many financial pros are thinking these days;

“The EFST is a dead-end.”

“Triple-A or not, the fund will never be big enough th cover both Spain and Italy,” he notes.

And Shakeb Syed seems too keeping the right focus, stating that investors should be more worried about  the ECB than the EFSF.

Anyway – here’s a little more from today’s “shocker” by Standard & Poor’s:

“The developing outlook on the long-term rating reflects the likelihood we currently see that we may either raise or lower the ratings over the next two years.”

“We understand that EFSF member states may currently be exploring credit-enhancement options. If the EFSF adopts credit enhancements that in our view are sufficient to offset its now-reduced creditworthiness, in particular if we see that once again the EFSF’s long-term obligations are fully supported by guarantees from EFSF member-guarantors rated ‘AAA’ or by securities rated ‘AAA’, we would likely raise the EFSF’s long-term ratings to ‘AAA’.”

“Conversely, if we were to conclude that sufficient offsetting credit enhancements are, in our opinion, not likely to be forthcoming, we would likely change the outlook to negative to mirror the negative outlooks of France and Austria. Under those circumstances we would expect to lower the ratings on the EFSF if we lowered the long-term sovereign credit ratings on the EFSF’s ‘AAA’ or ‘AA+’ rated members to below ‘AA+’.”

So, anyway the wind blows……

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