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Walls Come Tumbling Down

August 16, 2014 5 comments

Yesterday I quickly commented the disappointing growth data for Germany and for the EMU as a whole, whose GDP Eurostat splendidly defines “stable”. This is bad, because the recovery is not one, and because we are increasingly dependent on the rest of the world for that growth that we should be able to generate domestically.

Having said that, the real bad news did not come from Eurostat, but from the August 2014 issue of the ECB monthly bulletin, published on Wednesday. Thanks to Ambrose Evans-Pritchard I noticed the following chart ( page 53):
IMG_4407.PNG

The interesting part of the chart is the blue dotted line, showing that the forecasters’ consensus on longer term inflation sees more than a ten points drop of the probability that inflation will stay at 2% or above. Ten points in just a year. And yet, just a few pages above we can read:

According to Eurostat’s flash estimate, euro area annual HICP inflation was 0.4% in July 2014, after 0.5% in June. This reflects primarily lower energy price inflation, while the annual rates of change of the other main components of the HICP remained broadly unchanged. On the basis of current information, annual HICP inflation is expected to remain at low levels over the coming months, before increasing gradually during 2015 and 2016. Meanwhile, inflation expectations for the euro area over the medium to long term continue to be firmly anchored in line with the aim of maintaining inflation rates below, but close to, 2% (p. 42, emphasis added) 

The ECB is hiding its head in the sand, but expectations, the last bastion against deflation, are obviously not firmly anchored. This can only mean that private expenditure will keep tumbling down in the next quarters. It would be foolish to hope otherwise.

So we are left with good old macroeconomic policy. I did not change my mind since my latest piece on the ECB. Even if the ECB inertia is appalling, even if their stubbornness in claiming that everything is fine (see above) is more than annoying, even if announcing mild QE measures in 2015 at  the earliest is borderline criminal, it remains that I have no big faith in the capacity of monetary policy to trigger decent growth.  The latest issue of the ECB bulletin also reports the results of the latest Eurozone Bank Lending Survey. They show a slow easing of credit conditions, that proceed in parallel with a pickup of credit demand from firms and households. While for some countries credit constraints may play a role in keeping private expenditure down (for example, in Italy), the overall picture for the EMU is of demand and supply proceeding in parallel. Lifting constraints to lending, in this situation, does not seem likely to boost credit and spending. It’s the liquidity trap, stupid!

The solution seems to be one, and only one: expansionary fiscal policy, meaning strong increase in government expenditure (above all for investment) in countries that can afford it (Germany, to begin with); and delayed consolidation for countries with struggling public finances. Monetary policy should accompany this fiscal boost with the commitment to maintain an expansionary stance until inflation has overshot the 2% target.

For the moment this remains a mid-summer dream…

 

ECB: Great Expectations

June 5, 2014 4 comments

After the latest disappointing data on growth and indeflation in the Eurozone, all eyes are on today’s ECB meeting. Politicians and commentators speculate about the shape that QE, Eurozone edition, will take. A bold move to contrast lowflation would be welcome news, but a close look at the data suggests that the messianic expectation of the next “whatever it takes” may be misplaced.

Faced with mounting deflationary pressures, policy makers rely on the probable loosening of the monetary stance. While necessary and welcome, such loosening may not allow embarking the Eurozone on a robust growth path. The April 2014 ECB survey on bank lending confirms that, since 2011, demand for credit has been stagnant at least as much as credit conditions have been tight. Easing monetary policy may increase the supply for credit, but as long as demand remains anemic, the transmission of monetary policy to the real economy will remain limited. Since the beginning of the crisis, central banks (including the ECB) have been very effective in preventing the meltdown of the financial sector. The ECB was also pivotal, with the OMT, in providing an insurance mechanism for troubled sovereigns in 2012. But the impact of monetary policy on growth, on both sides of the Atlantic, is more controversial. This should not be a surprise, as balance sheet recessions increase the propensity to hoard of households, firms and financial institutions. We know since Keynes that in a liquidity trap monetary policy loses traction. Today, a depressed economy, stagnant income, high unemployment, uncertainty about the future, all contribute to compress private spending and demand for credit across the Eurozone, while they increase the appetite for liquidity. At the end of 2013, private spending in consumption and investment was 7% lower than in 2008 (a figure that reaches a staggering 18% for peripheral countries). Granted, radical ECB moves, like announcing a higher inflation target, could have an impact on expectations, and trigger increased spending; but these are politically unfeasible. It is not improbable, therefore, that a “simple” quantitative easing program may amount to pushing on a string. The ECB had already accomplished half a miracle, stretching its mandate to become de facto a Lender of Last Resort, and defusing speculation. It can’t be asked to do much more than this.

While monetary policy is given almost obsessive attention, there is virtually no discussion about the instrument that in a liquidity trap should be given priority: fiscal policy. The main task of countercyclical fiscal policy should be to step in to sustain economic activity when, for whatever reason, private spending falters. This is what happened in 2009, before the hasty and disastrous fiscal stance reversal that followed the Greek crisis. The result of austerity is that while in every single year since 2009 the output gap was negative, discretionary policy (defined as change in government deficit net of cyclical factors and interest payment) was restrictive. In truth, a similar pattern can be observed in the US, where nevertheless private spending recovered and hence sustained fiscal expansion was less needed. Only in Japan, fiscal policy was frankly countercyclical in the past five years.

As Larry Summers recently argued, with interest rates at all times low, the expected return of investment in infrastructures for the United States is particularly high. This is even truer for the Eurozone where, with debt at 92%, sustainability is a non-issue. Ideally the EMU should launch a vast public investment plan, for example in energetic transition projects, jointly financed by some sort of Eurobond. This is not going to happen for the opposition of Germany and a handful of other countries. A second best solution would then be for a group of countries to jointly announce that the next national budget laws will contain important (and coordinated) investment provisions , and therefore temporarily break the 3% deficit limit. France and Italy, which lately have been vocal in asking for a change in European policies, should open the way and federate as many other governments as possible. Public investment seems the only way to reverse the fiscal stance and move the Eurozone economy away from the lowflation trap. It is safe to bet that even financial markets, faced with bold action by a large number of countries, would be ready to accept a temporary deterioration of public finances in exchange for the prospects of that robust recovery that eluded the Eurozone economy since 2008. A change in fiscal policy, more than further action by the ECB, would be the real game changer for the EMU. But unfortunately, fiscal policy has become a ghost. A ghost that is haunting Europe…

ECB: One Size Fits None

March 31, 2014 18 comments

Eurostat just released its flash estimate for inflation in the Eurozone: 0.5% headline, and 0.8% core. We now await comments from ECB officials, ahead of next Thursday’s meeting, saying that everything is under control.

Just this morning, Wolfgang Münchau in the Financial Times rightly said that EU central bankers should talk less and act more. Münchau also argues that quantitative easing is the only option. A bold one, I would add in light of todays’ deflation inflation data. Just a few months ago, in September 2013, Bruegel estimated the ECB interest rate to be broadly in line with Eurozone average macroeconomic conditions (though, interestingly, they also highlighted that it was unfit to most countries taken individually).

In just a few months, things changed drastically. While unemployment remained more or less constant since last July, inflation kept decelerating until today’s very worrisome levels. I very quickly extended the Bruegel exercise to encompass the latest data (they stopped at July 2013). I computed the target rate as they do as

Target=1+1.5\pi_{core}-1(u-\overline{u}).

(if you don’t like the choice of parameters, go ask the Bruegel guys. I have no problem with these). The computation gives the following:

EMU_Taylor_March_2014

Using headline inflation, as the ECB often claims to be doing, would of course give even lower target rates. As official data on unemployment stop at January 2014, the two last points are computed with alternative hypotheses of unemployment: either at its January rate (12.6%) or at the average 2013 rate (12%). But these are just details…

So, in addition to being unfit for individual countries, the ECB stance is now unfit to the Eurozone as a whole. And of course, a negative target rate can only mean, as Münchau forcefully argues, that the ECB needs to get its act together and put together a credible and significant quantitative easing program.

Two more remarks:

  • A minor one (back of  the envelope) remark is that given a core inflation level of 0.8%, the current ECB rate of 0.25%, is compatible with an unemployment gap of 1.95%. Meaning that the current ECB rate would be appropriate if natural/structural unemployment was 10.65% (for the calculation above I took the value of 9.1% from the OECD), or if current unemployment was 11.5%.
  • The second, somewhat related but more important to my sense, is that it is hard to accept as “natural” an unemployment rate of 9-10%. If the target unemployment rate were at 6-7%, everything we read and discuss on the ECB excessively restrictive stance would be significantly more appropriate. And if the problem is too low potential growth, well then let’s find a way to increase it

Mario Draghi is a Lonely Man

January 10, 2014 7 comments

I just read an interesting piece by Nicolò Cavalli on the ECB and deflationary risks in the eurozone. The piece is in Italian, but here is a quick summary:

  • Persisting high unemployment, coupled with inflation well below the 2% target, put deflation at the top of the list of ECB priorities.
  • Mario Draghi was adamant that monetary policy will remain loose for the foreseeable horizon.
  • As we are in a liquidity trap, the effect of quantitative easing on economic activity has been limited (in the US, UK and EMU alike).
  • Then Nicolò quotes studies on quantitative easing in the UK, and notices that, like the Bank of England, the ECB faces additional difficulties, linked to the distributive effects of accommodating monetary policy:
    • Liquidity injections inflate asset prices, thus increasing financial wealth, and the value of large public companies.
    • Higher asset prices increase the opportunity costs of lending for financial institutions, that find it more convenient to invest on stock markets. This perpetuates the credit crunch.
    • Finally, low economic activity and asset price inflation depress investment, productivity and wages, thus feeding the vicious circle of deflation.

Nicolò concludes that debt monetization seems to be the only way out for the ECB. I agree, but I don’t want to focus on this. Read more

Of Actions and Words in Frankfurt

November 12, 2013 Leave a comment

Last Thursday the ECB cut rates, somewhat unexpectedly. This shows that it takes the risk of deflation very seriously. Good news, I’d say. But unfortunately, press conferences follow ECB Council meetings. And I say unfortunately, because Mr Draghi words often fail to match his actions. Here is what he said on Thursday (I could not resist adding some bold here and there):

If you look at the euro area from a distance, you see that the fundamentals in this area are probably the strongest in the world. This is the area that has the lowest budget deficit in the world. Our aggregate public deficit is actually a small surplus. We have a small primary surplus of 0.7%, compared with, I think, a deficit of 6 or 7% deficit in US, – 6 I think – and 8 % in Japan. This is the area with the highest current account surplus. And it is also the area, as we said before, with one of the lowest – if not the lowest – inflation rate.

Fascinating. Truly fascinating. I will pass on the fact that one of the strong “fundamentals” Mr Draghi quotes, low inflation, is actually the main source of worry for economists and policymakers worldwide, including the ECB, that had to rush into a rate cut that was not planned at least until December! I will also pass on his praise of high current account surpluses while the Commission itself is considering opening an infraction procedure against Germany, for perpetuating an important source of imbalances within the eurozone and worldwide.

No, what I find more shocking is the list of fundamentals Draghi gives: public debt and deficit; inflation; current account balance. Now, it dates back a little, but I remember all of those, in Econ 101, to be defined as instruments of economic policy, supposed to serve the final objectives of growth and employment. It is true that we do rather well in what Draghi calls fundamentals, but I continue preferring to call instruments. Look at this table:

PostDraghiObjectivesFig1
I have reported, for ease of comparison, data from the IMF World Economic Outlook (October 2013), therefore they are not the latest (quarterly or monthly) data. Also, I have highlighted in red the worst performer, and in green the best. And boy, Draghi is right! (Notice incidentally that eurozone inflation was 2.5 percent on average in 2012. With the latest data at 0.7 percent, this suggests that  we are running, not walking, towards deflation.)

But if we look at the supposed objectives of economic policy (how would Draghi call these?), the picture changes, quite a bit:

PostDraghiObjectivesFig2

No other major advanced economy is doing nearly as badly as the eurozone in terms of unemployment and GDP. But according to the ECB President we have “the strongest fundamentals in the world”. Does this means that Draghi did not take Econ 101? No, I know for sure that he did take it, and  he actually had excellent mentors. To understand Draghi’s claim, it may be useful to read his whole sentence. After arguing that the eurozone has strong fundamentals he goes on:

This does not translate automatically into a galloping recovery. But, actually, it gives you the fundamentals upon which you can pursue the right economic policies. Structural reforms are the necessary and sufficient condition for this to happen. In the absence of that, unfortunately, we are going to stay here for quite a long time.

Here is the answer. The only and one answer. Focusing on instruments instead of targets is the strategy of those who do not believe that a role exists for active economic policies. It is a pity that one of these guys is heading the second most important central bank of the world. And it is paradoxically reassuring that the situation is currently so bad that he is forced to abandon his creed and implement active monetary policies.

Advice for the next episodes: praise Mario Draghi actions, and avoid reading the transcripts of his press conferences.

Would Eurobonds be Enough?

October 7, 2013 4 comments

George Soros writes a piece on Project Syndicate, that is both pedagogical and very clear in outlining a possible answer to the current EMU crisis. He starts with a diagnosis of the EMU imbalances that rejects the “Berlin View”, and argues for the existence of structural imbalances

Normally, developed countries never default, because they can always print money. But, by ceding that authority to an independent central bank, the eurozone’s members put themselves in the position of a developing country that has borrowed in foreign currency. Neither the authorities nor the markets recognized this prior to the crisis, attesting to the fallibility of both. Read more

Mr Weidmann and the Classics

October 1, 2013 1 comment

Bundesbank President Jens Weidmann strikes again. In a tribune on today’s Financial Times he argues that to break the sovereign-bank nexus, the only solution is to impose, through regulation, an extra burden on sovereign debt holdings (he is gracious enough to concede that a transition period could be accorded).
I find this fascinating. Germany is the country that most opposes a fully fledged banking Union, that to be effective would require common deposit insurance, a crisis resolution mechanism, and I would add, an enhanced role of the ECB as a lender of last resort.
This would break the vicious circle between sovereigns and the financial sector, without denying the special role of banks and credit in a modern economy; nor, also relevant in today’s situation, their capacity to finance governments. Weidmann stubbornly refuses to see any specificity to banks, and has nothing else to propose than imposing by regulation what de facto is a downgrading by default of sovereign debt.
Mr Weidmann is a talented economist. He should maybe go back to Bagehot’s Lombard Street

Dani for President

June 13, 2013 6 comments

Dani Rodrik has an excellent piece on Project Syndicate. I strongly advise reading and sharing it. Rodrik points out that structural reforms (if well designed, I’d add) tend to destroy jobs in low productivity sectors, and to create them in high productivity ones. He then argues that for the second effect  to happen, the high productivity sectors need to face strong demand. This is not happening right now, so that structural reforms, where implemented, are only contributing to depressing employment and growth. He concludes that the very success of structural reforms depends on fixing the short run aggregate demand deficiency problem, through standard Keynesian policies. The zest of the paper is in the last two paragraphs:

Ultimately, a workable European economic union does require greater structural homogeneity and institutional convergence (especially in labor markets) among its members. So the German argument contains a kernel of validity: In the long run, EU countries need to look more like one another if they want to inhabit the same house.

But the eurozone faces a short-term problem that is much more Keynesian in nature, and for which longer-term structural remedies are ineffective at best and harmful at worst. Too much focus on structural problems, at the expense of Keynesian policies, will make the long run unachievable – and hence irrelevant.

Rodrik states something rather obvious:  Read more

Fear and Confusion in Frankfurt

April 4, 2013 3 comments

I must say I am puzzled by today’s decision of the ECB to leave rates unchanged. It simply does not fit with what Mario Draghi said during the press conference. Let me quote him.

Inflation expectations for the euro area continue to be firmly anchored in line with our aim of maintaining inflation rates below, but close to, 2% over the medium term. At the same time, weak economic activity has extended into the early part of the year and a gradual recovery is projected for the second half of this year, subject to downside risks. Against this overall background our monetary policy stance will remain accommodative for as long as needed.

If words actually mean what they mean, Draghi informed us that (a) inflation, and inflation expectations, are in line with forecasts and objectives; (b) at the same time, economic activity is weaker than expected, and the future recovery is at risk; (c) the ECB is willing to have an accommodative monetary stance.
Two considerations: first, the king is naked; it was obvious from the very beginning that the recovery in the second half of the year was not in the cards. I already discussed the systematic bias in official forecasts. It turns out that simply saying to markets that things will go well, is not sufficient to make them act accordingly. The confidence fairy, as Krugman calls it, is nowhere to be seen. I would add that this systematic bias risks making EMU institutions less credible, and hence further weaken their capacity to anchor private sectors’ expectations…
And then the puzzle: if inflation is under control, and if economic activity is weak, and if the ECB deems accommodation to be needed, why, why on earth are rates kept constant? Should we remind to Mario Draghi what is written in article 127 of the Lisbon Treaty?

The primary objective of the European System of Central Banks, hereinafter referred to as “ESCB”, shall be to maintain price stability. Without prejudice to the objective of price stability, the ESCB shall support the general economic policies in the Union with a view to contributing to the achievement of the objectives of the Union as laid down in Article 3 of the Treaty on European Union.

Among the general policies that the ECB should support there is growth and employment. And lowering the rates today would certainly not lead to “prejudice to the objective of price stability”

Why is the ECB so frightened to send the signal to markets that it is ready to boost economic activity? Is there an hidden agenda we are unaware of?