Monday, February 25, 2013

Monetary Challenges for Europe and the U.S.

Both European and U.S. politicians suggest that we've weathered the worst of the financial crises. However, articles from the Wall Street Journal and Telegraph suggest that all that has been done is to kick the can a little farther down the road.

First, as to Europe, the Wall Street Journal discusses "Why the Euro Crises Isn't Over." The relevant portion:
The European political class, he says, believes that the crisis "hit its high point" last summer, "because that was when there was an imminent danger, from their point of view, that their wonderful dream would disappear." But from the perspective "of real live people, and families and firms and economies," he says, the situation "is just getting worse and worse." Last week, the EU reported that the euro-zone economy shrank by 0.9% in the fourth quarter of 2012. For the full year, gross domestic product fell 0.5% in the euro zone.
Two immediate solutions present themselves, Mr. Connolly says, neither appetizing. Either Germany pays "something like 10% of German GDP a year, every year, forever" to the crisis-hit countries to keep them in the euro. Or the economy gets so bad in Greece or Spain or elsewhere that voters finally say, " 'Well, we'll chuck the whole lot of you out.' Now, that's not a very pleasant prospect." He's thinking specifically, in the chuck-'em-out scenario, about the rise of neo-fascists like the Golden Dawn faction in Greece.
... Superficially, there is some basis for the official view that the worst of the crisis is over: Interest-rate spreads, current-account deficits and budget deficits are down. Greece's departure from the single currency no longer seems imminent.

Yet unemployment is close to 27% in Spain and Greece. The euro-zone economy shrank ever-faster throughout 2012. And—most important in Mr. Connolly's view—the economic fundamentals in France are getting worse. This week France announced it would miss its deficit-reduction target for the year because of dimming growth prospects.

It's one thing to bail out Greece or Ireland, Mr. Connolly says, but "if the Germans at some point think, 'We're going to have to bail out France, and on an ongoing, perpetual basis,' will they do it? I don't know. But that's the question that has to be answered."

The official view is that the bailouts of Greece, Ireland and Portugal—and maybe soon Spain—are aberrations, and that once those countries get their budgets on track, their economies will follow and the bad patch will be a memory. Mr. Connolly calls this "propaganda."

And here we get to the heart of Mr. Connolly's rotten-heart argument against the single currency: The cause of the crisis, according to the "propaganda," he says, was "fiscal indiscipline in countries like Greece and financial-sector indiscipline in countries like Ireland." As a consequence, "the response is focused on budgetary rules, budgetary bailouts and rules for the financial sector, with the prospect, perhaps, of financial bailouts through the banking union, although that remains unclear."

But even if the Greeks were undisciplined, he says, "both the sovereign-debt crisis and the banking crisis are symptoms, not causes. And the underlying problem has been that there was a massive bubble generated in the world as a whole by monetary policy—but particularly in the euro zone" by European Central Bank policy.

The bubble formed like this: When countries such as Ireland, Greece and Spain joined the euro, their interest rates immediately dropped to near-German levels, in some cases from double-digit territory. "The optimism created by these countries' suddenly finding that they could have low interest rates without their currencies collapsing, which had been their previous experience, led people to think that there was a genuine rate-of-return revolution going on," he says.

There had been an increase in the rates of return in Ireland "and to some extent in Spain" in the run-up to euro membership, thanks to structural reforms in those countries in the pre-euro period. But by the time the euro rolled around, money was flowing into these countries out of all proportion to the opportunities available.

"And what kept the stuff flowing in," Mr. Connolly says, "was essentially the belief, 'Well, yes, there is a high rate of return in construction.' " That in turn depended on "ongoing expectations" about house appreciation "that were in some ways not dissimilar to what was happening to the United States in the middle of the last decade. But it was much bigger."

How much bigger? "If you scale housing starts by population, then the housing boom in Spain and Ireland was something like three or four times as intense as the peak of the boom in the U.S. That's mind boggling."

That torrent of money drove up wages far faster than productivity improved, while cheap borrowing led to major deficit spending. After the 2008 financial panic, the bubble inevitably burst.

So what's needed now is not simply a fiscal retrenchment, or even a retrenchment along with banking reform. Wages and prices have to adjust to something like their pre-bubble trends, Mr. Connolly says, to make these economies competitive again. One way to accomplish that would be a massive depreciation of the euro—"really massive."

If that's not feasible, he says, Europe can try to "recreate the bubble" by bringing back the conditions that allowed Spain to borrow so cheaply. That is "essentially what [Mario] Draghi"—the European Central Bank president—"appears to be trying to do: to recreate a bubble." Mr. Draghi, by threatening to intervene in the sovereign debt markets, has driven interest rates in Spain down substantially. But because the banking system is distressed, and because house prices continue to fall, even these lower rates are not driving investment into the country the way they did before. And even if Mr. Draghi were to succeed, Mr. Connolly says, the ECB president would merely be "recreating exactly the dangerous, unsustainable situation that we had in the middle of the last decade."

Which leaves Europe with the last option: Germany pays. As Mr. Connolly puts its: "You can say to a country like Spain: 'No need to adjust your competitiveness, you don't need to have full-employment trade balance. You can still have full-employment current-account balance because we will give you transfers instead.' And by definition, if the point of that is to avoid adjustment, you have to do it this year, the next year, the year after, and every year, forever."
I don't think that Germany can or will want to afford to carry most of Europe for an indefinite period. Which means that the whole European Union is still at risk of flying apart.

Turning to the U.S., Ambrose Evans-Pritchard writes about "Trade protectionism looms next as central banks exhaust QE." From his piece:
A new paper for the US Monetary Policy Forum and published by the Fed warns that the institution's capital base could be wiped out "several times" once borrowing costs start to rise in earnest.
A mere whiff of inflation or more likely stagflation would cause a bond market rout, leaving the Fed nursing escalating losses on its $2.9 trillion holdings. This portfolio is rising by $85bn each month under QE3. The longer it goes on, the greater the risk. Exit will become much harder by 2014.

Such losses would lead to a political storm on Capitol Hill and risk a crisis of confidence. The paper -- "Crunch Time: Fiscal Crises and the Role of Monetary Policy" -- is co-written by former Fed governor Frederic Mishkin, Ben Bernanke's former right-hand man.

It argues the Fed is acutely vulnerable because it has stretched the average maturity of its bond holdings to 11 years, and the longer the date, the bigger the losses when yields rise. The Bank of Japan has kept below three years.

Trouble could start by mid-decade and then compound at an alarming pace, with yields spiking up to double-digit rates by the late 2020s. By then Fed will be forced to finance spending to avert the greater evil of default."Sovereign risk remains alive and well in the U.S, and could intensify. Feedback effects of higher rates can lead to a more dramatic deterioration in long-run debt sustainability in the US than is captured in official estimates," it said.
... In America, the Fed would face huge pressure to hold onto its bonds rather than crystalize losses as yields rise -- in other words, to recoil from unwinding QE at the proper moment. The authors argue that it would be tantamount to throwing in the towel on inflation, the start of debt monetisation, or "fiscal dominance". Markets would be merciless. Bond vigilantes would soon price in a very different world.

Investors have of course been fretting about this for some time. Scott Minerd from Guggenheim Partners thinks the Fed is already trapped and may have to talk up gold to $10,000 an ounce to ensure that its own bullion reserves cover mounting liabilities.

What is new is that these worries are surfacing openly in Fed circles. The Mishkin paper almost certainly reflects a strand of thinking at Constitution Avenue, so there may be more than meets the eye in last week's Fed minutes, which rattled bourses across the world with hints of early exit from QE.

Mr Bernanke is not going to snatch the punch bowl away just as the US embarks on fiscal tightening this year of 2pc of GDP, one of the most draconian budget squeezes in the last century. But he may have concluded that the Fed is sailing too close to the wind, and must take defensive action soon.

Monetarists say this is a specious debate -- arguing that the losses on the Fed balance sheet are an accounting irrelevancy -- but Bernanke is not a monetarist. What matters is what he thinks.

If this is where the Fed is heading, the world is at a critical juncture. The US economy has not yet reached "escape velocity", and in fact shrank in the 4th quarter of 2012. Brussels has slashed its eurozone forecast, expecting a second year of outright contraction in 2013.

The triple "puts" of the last eight months -- Bernanke's QE3, Mario Draghi's Club Med bond rescue, and Beijing's credit blitz -- have done wonders for asset markets but have not yet ignited a healthy cycle of world growth. Nor can they easily do do since the East-West trade imbalances that caused the 2008-2009 crisis remain in place.

We know from a body of scholarship that fiscal belt-tightening in countries with a debt above 80pc to 90pc of GDP is painful and typically self-defeating unless offset by loose money. The evidence is before our eyes in Greece, Portugal, and Spain. Tight money has led to self-feeding downward spirals. If bondyields are higher thannominal GDP growth, the compound effects are deadly.

America may soon get a first taste of this, carrying out the epic fiscal squeeze needed to bring its debt trajectory back under control with less and less Fed help. Gross public debt will hit 107pc of GDP by next year, and higher if the recovery falters as pessimists fear.

With the fiscal and monetary shock absorbers exhausted -- or deemed to be -- the only recourse left is to claw back stimulus from foreigners, and that may be the next chapter of the global crisis as the Long Slump drags on.

Professor Michael Pettis from Beijing University argues in a new book -- "The Great Rebalancing: Trade, Conflict, and the Perillous Road Ahead" - that the global trauma of the last five years is a trade conflict masquerading as a debt crisis.

There is too much industrial plant in the world, and too little demand to soak up supply, like the 1930s. China is distorting the global system by running investment near 50pc of GDP, and compressing consumption to 35pc. Nothing like this has been seen before in modern times.

... In the Noughties the $10 trillion reserve accumulation by Asian exporters and petro-powers flooded the global bond market. At the same time, the West offset the deflationary effects of the cheap imports by running negative real interest rates.

The twin policy regimes in East and West stoked the credit bubble, and this in turn disguised what has happening to trade flows. These flows were disguised yet further after 2008 by QE and fiscal buffers, but the hard reality beneath may soon be exposed as these are props are knocked away.

"In a world of deficient demand and excess savings, every country will try to acquire a greater share of global demand by exporting savings," he writes. The "winners" in this will be the deficit states. The "losers" will be the surplus states who cannot retaliate. The lesson of the 1930s is that the creditors are powerless. Prof Pettis argues that China and Germany risk a nasty surprise.

America's shale revolution and manufacturing revival may be enough to head off a US-China clash just in time. But Europe has no recovery strategy beyond demand compression. It is a formula for youth job wastage, a demented policy when youth a scarce resource. The region is doomed to decline until the boil of monetary union is lanced.

Some will take the Mishkin paper as an admission that QE was a misguided venture. That would be a false conclusion. The West faced a 1931 moment in late 2008. The first round of QE forestalled financial collapse. The second and third rounds of QE have had a diminishing potency, while the risks have risen. It is a shifting calculus.

The four years of QE have given us a contained depression and prevented the global strategic order from unravelling. That is not a bad outcome, but the time gained has largely been wasted because few wish to face the awful truth that globalisation itself -- in its current deformed structure -- is the root cause of the whole disaster.

It will be harder from now on if central banks conclude that their arsenal is spent. We can only pray that their help will not be needed.

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