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Lagarde: A Rookie Mistake?

March 12, 2020 Leave a comment

So the ECB has spoken in response to the Coronavirus crisis, and it was a problematic response to say the least. I watched Christine Lagarde’s Q&A with journalists, which as usual was the most interesting part of the press conference. But boy, I wish today it had not taken place…

The bottom line is that Lagarde made a huge misstep in stating that the ECB is not going to close the spreads. I hope it is just a communication misstep, otherwise Italy (and probably other countries) will pay a heavy price.

But let’s see what happened today.

First, there is an attempt to put on the Eurozone governments’ shoulders most of the burden of reacting to a shock that will be “significant even if temporary”. Lagarde said clearly, towards the end of the press conference, that what she fears most is insufficient fiscal response coming out from the Eurogroup meeting next Monday:

It is hard to disagree with this approach. To target firms’ liquidity problems one cannot count on banks alone, (especially in countries where they have still not completely recovered from the sovereign debt crisis). As a side note, I welcome the provisions contained in the Italian €25bn package, such as the temporary lifting of short-term businesses obligations towards the government (VAT, social contributions, taxes). These seem to be the right measures to ease short term liquidity constraints.

But let’s look into what the ECB itself commits to do. Besides technicalities that I did not study yet, there will be two sets of measures:

  1. The first set concerns (continued) provision of cheap liquidity to banks, in order to ensure continuing supply of credit to the real economy. This will be ensured through a new and temporary long-term refinancing scheme (LTRO), together with significantly better terms for the existing targeted loan programs. This amount to a large subsidy to banks. Loans conditions will be more favorable for banks lending to Small and Medium Enterprises, which are the ones more likely to become strapped for liquidity in the current situation. Furthermore, as a supervisor, the ECB engages in operational flexibility when implementing bank specific regulatory requirements, and to allow full utilization of the capital and liquidity buffers that financial institutions have built. I am unclear on how much this will work in order to keep the flow of credit flowing, but overall, my sentiment is that on cheap and easy financing to banks and (hopefully) to firms, there is little more ECB could do.
  2. The second set of measure is a ramping up of QE, with additional €120bn (until the end of the year). Lagarde seemed to suggest that the ECB could use flexibility to deviating from capital keys, the quota of bonds the ECB can buy from each country. This means that maybe more help will be given to countries like Italy, and the ambiguity was probably on purpose.

But then came the Q&A, and with it, disaster. At a question by a journalist on Italian debt and yields, Lagarde replied the following:

This also made it on the ECB twitter feed:

This simple sentence was a reversal of Mario Draghi 2012 “whatever it takes“. Mario Draghi, in 2012, had basically announced that the ECB would act as a crypto-lender of last resort (conditional, way too conditional, but still), and since then the scope for speculation has been greatly reduced. Spreads have been much less variable since then (I wrote a paper with Roberto Tamborini, on that, that just came out).

Protection from the ECB against market speculation is what countries like Italy would need most. Fiscal policy is the tool that can be better targeted towards supporting the supply side of the economy and preventing liquidity problems from evolving into bankruptcies. Lagarde herself stated it many times in the past few days, and again today.

So, governments should be put in the conditions not to worry, at least for a while, of market pressure. Lagarde should have said the exact opposite: “we commit to freezing the spreads for n months so that governments can focus on supporting their productive sector, and restoring more or less normal aggregate demand conditons”. Lagarde said the opposite. And here is the effect of that on Italian ten year rates. Look what happened at around 3pm, when she answered the question:

The yields Other Eurozone peripheral countries had similar behaviours. Why did Lagarde say that? Maybe Because she wanted to appease fiscal hawks ahead of the Eurogroup meeting of next week, so that they are more willing to agree on a fiscal stimulus? Or because she was afraid to be accused to be too soft on Italy? Or to actually care about one single country, which is what the ECB is not supposed to do? Or was it simply a communication misstep? A rookie mistake? Whatever the reason, it is clear that Lagarde made a huge mistake, and even apparently she partially backpedaled in a NBC interview shortly thereafter, this is what remain of today’s press conference.

So, my assessment of today’s ECB move is mixed. It was as good as it gets on financing the banking sector, and we just have to cross finger that this is enough to keep credit flowing.

But it is disappointing on the support of expansionary fiscal policies. All the more disappointing that the ECB and Lagarde have insisted on the need for a fiscal response “first and foremost”.

My only hope is that that was a misstep, or just lip service to fiscal responsibility. If market pressure prevents governments from supporting their firms, and if liquidity problems evolve into solvency problems, a “significant but temporary” shock will become a permanent hit to long-term growth capacity. And let’s not forget that the Eurozone economy is today more diverse and less resilient than it was in 2008.

Brace yourself

ps. You can find my live tweeting during the Q&A (a bit confused at times. Live tweeting is not my thing!) here:

Public Debt. I can’t Believe we are Still There

January 25, 2018 3 comments

The crisis is supposedly over, as the European economy started growing again. There will be time to assess whether we are really out of the wood, or whether there is still some slack. But this matters little to those who, as soon as things got slightly better, turned to their old obsession: DEBT! Bear in mind, not private debt, that seems to have disappeared from the radars. No, what seems to keep policy makers and pundits awake at night is ugly public debt, the source of all troubles (past, present and future).

Take my country, Italy. A few days ago this tweet showing the difference between the Italian and the German debt made a few headlines:

 

The ratio increased, so DEBT is the Italian most pressing problem. Not the slack in the labour market. Not the differentials in productivity. I can’t stop asking: why aren’t Italians desperately tweeting this figure?

2018_01_25_Public_Debt1

This shows the relative performance of Italy and Germany along two very common measures of productivity, Multifactor productivity and GDP per capita. I took these variables (quick and dirt from the OECD site), but any other measure of real performance would have depicted a similar picture.

So what? The public debt crusaders will argue that precisely because of debt, Italy has poor real performance. The profligate public sector prevented virtuous market adjustments, and hampered real convergence.  The causality goes from high debt to poor real performance, they will argue. Reduce debt!

Well, think again. Research is much more nuanced on this. A paper by Pescatori and coauthors shows for example that countries with high public debt exhibit high GDP volatility, but not necessarily lower growth rates. High but stable levels of debt are less harmful than low but increasing ones. In a recent Fiscal Monitor the IMF has shifted the focus back to private debt (which, it is worth remembering is the root cause of the crisis), arguing that the deleveraging that will necessarily continue in the next few years will require accompanying measures from the public sector: on one side, renewed attention to the financial sector, to make sure that liquidity problems of firms, but also of financial institutions) do not degenerate into solvency problems. On the other side, the macroeconomic consequences of deleveraging, most notably the increase of savings and the reduction of private expenditure, may need to be compensated by Keynesian support to aggregate demand, thus implying that public debt may temporarily increase in order to sustain growth (self promotion: the preceding paragraph is taken from my book on the relevance of the history of thought to understand current controversies. French version available, Italian version coming out in March, English version coming out eventually).

In just a sentence, the causal link between high debt and low growth is far from being uncontroversial.

Last, but not least, it is worth remembering that Italy was not profligate during the crisis; unfortunately, I would add.  Let’s look at structural deficit (since 2010; ask the Commission why we don’t have the data for earlier years), which as we know washes away the impact of cyclical factors on public finances.

2018_01_25_Public_Debt2

The Italian figures were slightly worse than the German ones, but not dramatically so. And if we take interest expenditure away, so that we have a measure of what the Italian government could actually control, then Italy was more rigorous (Debt obsessive pundits would use the term “virtuous”) than Germany.

The thing is that the Italian debt ratio is more or less stable, in spite of sluggish growth (current and potential) and low inflation. It is not an issue that should worry our policy makers, who should instead really try to boost productivity and growth. Said it differently, it is more urgent for Italy to work on increasing the denominator of the ratio between debt and GDP than to focus on the numerator. And I think this may actually require more public expenditure and a temporary increase in debt (some help from the rest of the EMU, starting from Germany, would not hurt). It is a pity that the “Italian debt problem” is all over the place.

Who are the Radicals in Europe?

January 25, 2015 6 comments

As I write the Greek people are voting.  I was puzzled in the past weeks by the fear (more in the media than in markets, actually) of a “radical” left win. Puzzled, because the radical and ideological policy makers do not seem to live in Greece, today. On January 20 I wrote a piece for the Greek website Macropolis, where I claimed that we should not expect an Armageddon if Syriza wins, but rather some welcome fresh air.  I reproduce the piece here:

It is most likely that from the elections of January 25 will emerge a Syriza-led government, the main uncertainty being how large a coalition Alexis Tsipras will have to gather to obtain a comfortable parliamentary majority. This is seen with a fair deal of preoccupation in Europe. A preoccupation that does not seem warranted. Syriza is no longer the radical party of the beginning, which called for the exit from the euro and for a default on Greek public debt. Today it is party whose program can hardly be defined revolutionary, and whose label of “radical” left is justified mostly by the drifting of other social democratic party in Europe  (for example in Italy and in France) towards the center of the political spectrum, and towards a de facto acceptance of the European macroeconomic orthodoxy. Syriza’s leader, Tsipras, as the prospects of victory become more concrete, has further softened his tones and is already actively negotiating with the Commission and with the major countries, in view of a compromise on the key points of his program. However, some of the media and some political leaders around Europe continue to present the Greek elections as an incoming Armageddon, and the possibility of a Syriza victory as the beginning of the end for the monetary union.

Let’s see what are the reasons for concern. Regarding Europe, Syriza’s agenda has two key elements. First, in case of victory Tsipras would ask to renegotiate a substantial chunk of Greece’s unbearable public debt, that today is mostly (for around 80%) in the hands of official creditors. Of course, this would mean a loss for creditors to absorb. But, as the Financial Times noted as well,  it is difficult to imagine a durable exit from the crisis that has choked Europe since 2008,  if at least a part of the debt burden that is stifling the recovery is not removed. The French finance minister has agreed yesterday that some compromise on Greek debt will be have to be found, even if some northern countries are at least as of now inflexible. What seems increasingly evident, in fact is that with the European economy back into deflation the costs, for creditor countries as well as for debtors,  of a long stagnation, seem far more important than the loss associated with the debt restructuring. The second key point of Syriza’s electoral agenda is the abandonment of austerity that, albeit less stringent than in previous years, continues to characterize European economic policy   In other words, Syriza asks to address the problem of unsustainable debt, so far hidden under the rug, and to finally acknowledge the need for a comprehensive plan to restart the European economy, that goes well beyond the accounting tricks of the Juncker plan. Syriza may seem radical to some German economist. But it is in good company of other well-known extremists such as Paul De Grauwe, the IMF, the US government, and much of the Anglo-Saxon press. The European economy is unbalanced and stuck in a deflationary  liquidity trap, Mario Draghi’s faces fierce political opposition, and his arrows are increasingly ineffective; it is therefore increasingly clear that only fiscal policy will be able to get us out of trouble.

On closer inspection, it seems far more radical the position of those who, despite having grossly underestimated the negative effects of austerity, ask for more of the same; of those who insist on advocating supply-side reforms to cope with a chronic lack of demand; and of those who boast having achieved a balanced budget one year ahead of forecasts, when Europe would benefit from a recovery of domestic demand in Germany.

What will happen then, if “radical” Syriza will win the election? Actually not much. Tsipras, comforted by opinion polls among his fellow citizens, does not consider the Grexit option. He will sit at the negotiating table to try to obtain for his country a substantial restructuring of debt, and for Europe change towards a more Keynesian policy. If on the latter objective it is hard to imagine that substantial progress will be made, debt restructuring in some form will probably happen. First, because as we said above, it seems to be an unavoidable event, just waiting for the political conditions to be reunited. And second, because Greece will negotiate from a position of strength.  Its primary budget surplus (a proof, if needed, that contrary to widespread beliefs Greece actually did its homework; and painfully so), and the low share of debt held by private investors, around 15%, would allow it not to be subject to market pressures in case of exit and default.

And contrary to some declarations that resemble to pre-electoral tactics (the Greek election game is played in the European arena as well), Greece’s exit from the euro would not arrange its European partners either. First, because it would be accompanied by default, and losses for creditors would be significantly larger than in the case of restructuring. Then, probably more important, because Grexit would have unpredictable contagion effects on other peripheral economies, which not hazardously today look with concern to the increasingly harsh tones used in particular by the German Government. In case of a Syriza victory Angela Merkel will most probably soften the tone and agree to negotiate. It is hard to imagine that orthodoxy will go as far as to push Greece out of the euro.

It goes without saying that the negotiation will be harsh, and that tensions will emerge. But today the ECB is more active in assisting countries in difficulty, and its program OMT, which recently received preliminary clearance by the European Court of Justice, is a good protection against speculative attacks.

To conclude, Europeans should stop worrying and let democracy play its role. A Syriza-led government (possibly forming an alliance with George Papandreou’s To Kinima) would not cause an earthquake. Rather the contrary, it could help stirring things up, and bring within the European debate discussion about measures the need for which is now obvious to all except to those who will not see.

A Lender of Last Resort for the EMU

January 14, 2015 2 comments

Update: The Court ruled the OMT “Legal in Principle“. The final ruling will be later this year, but it is safe to assume that it will confirm the preliminary one.

Today is an important day for the ECB, as the European Court of Justice will issue an interim ruling on the Outright Monetary Transactions program launched in the fall of 2012. The Court needs to rule, upon demand by the German Constitutional Court, whether the program overstepped the boundaries set by the Treaties to ECB action. The ruling of course may have an impact on furture action by the ECB, notably the decision to launch a round of QE.

I think it is important to clarify once more that QE and the OMT (welcome to the wonderful world of EU acronyms) are not the same thing. If Mario Draghi manages to rally the Governing Council behind him, QE will consist of a vast program of sovereign bond purchases, in order to try to lift the European economy out of deflation. A European version in short, of what was done three years ago by the Fed and other major central banks in the world.

The OMT responded to a very different need, notably the need to defuse speculation on sovereign debt markets and to protect peripheral countries (at the time Spain and Italy) from the risk of default. The summer of 2012 was very difficult, as economic and political problems in Greece caused investors to flee from peripheral countries and spreads on sovereign bonds to increase at unprecedented levels. After the “whatever it takes”  speech in July (But there is another message I want to tell you. Within our mandate, the ECB is ready to do whatever it takes to preserve the euro. And believe me, it will be enough), the ECB in September engaged almost unanimously to step in the market for sovereign bonds and, if necessary, to stretch its mandate by acting as a lender/buyer of last resort for countries in trouble.
With the OMT program, the ECB commits to buy unlimited amounts of sovereign bonds of countries in trouble that request assistance, thus de facto transforming itself into a lender of last resort. In exchange for ECB protection countries need to engage in a program of fiscal austerity and structural reforms. In other words with the OMT program the ECB offered insurance in exchange for reforms and austerity. A deal that would entail the loss of a good deal of sovereignty. It is not by chance that Spain always refused to apply for the program, in spite of heavy pressure, and that as of today no country ever used it. At the time the OMT program was wrongly interpreted as a clumsy attempt to implement quantitative easing in the Eurozone. It was instead clear, since the beginning that, as with any insurance scheme, its success would be measured precisely by the fact that the ECB would not have to intervene on bond markets.

So we need to be clear here. The European Court of Justice today and in the next months will not be deciding on QE and macroeconomic management. It will be deciding whether the EMU has the right to rely on an insurance mechanism that all countries have . It will be deciding whether EMU governments borrow in their own currency, or in a foreign one. A major decision indeed.

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

Cyprus. Been There, Seen That

March 19, 2013 2 comments

A small country is on the verge of bankruptcy. It is so small that the amount of money needed to save it (17bn euros) amounts to less than 0.12 per cent of the eurozone GDP (no typos here. It is around 30 euros per European citizen).
Been there, seen that. Just three years ago in another small country, Greece. At the time, procrastination, self interest, ineptitude, unpreparedness, made the small problem become huge. And we are all still paying the bill. The Greek crisis management was so successful that our leaders are happily embarking in the same dynamics: improvised, dangerous, half-baked solutions, supposedly designed to avoid free riding (the protestant syndrome, once again) and in fact destabilizing the whole system.

There is no need for me to repeat what has been understood everywhere except, as usual, in Berlin, Frankfurt and Brussels: the tax on deposits breaks an implicit pact between governments and depositors, and fragilizes the banking systems of the whole periphery of the eurozone. Read More

It’s the Denominator, Stupid!

February 25, 2013 1 comment

This weekend’s news was the downgrade of the UK by Moody’s. Chancellor Osborne took this as a sign that austerity should be strengthened even more, probably because he had little choice (never put all your eggs in one basket…). And yet, if only somebody in Downing Street bothered going through the text, they would have read this:

The key interrelated drivers of today’s action are:
1. The continuing weakness in the UK’s medium-term growth outlook, with a period of sluggish growth which Moody’s now expects will extend into the second half of the decade;
2. The challenges that subdued medium-term growth prospects pose to the government’s fiscal consolidation programme, which will now extend well into the next parliament;
3. And, as a consequence of the UK’s high and rising debt burden, a deterioration in the shock-absorption capacity of the government’s balance sheet, which is unlikely to reverse before 2016.

Thus, Moody’s analysts clearly state the direction of causality: Read more

IMF Schyzophrenia

October 10, 2012 5 comments

I had already noticed that the IMF at times looks like Jekyll and Hide. But not to this point. Last time I cited a simple working paper. This time we are talking about the most important document produced by the IMF. Here are some excerpts from the October  IMF World Economic Outlook, released on Monday:
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The Tree and the Forest

September 7, 2012 10 comments

What to do of yesterday’s decision of the ECB? The tree looks very rather nice, the forest much less. First, a look at what Mario Draghi announced:

  • “[…] the Governing Council today decided on the modalities for undertaking Outright Monetary Transactions (OMTs) in secondary markets for sovereign bonds in the euro area. […] We aim to preserve the singleness of our monetary policy and to ensure the proper transmission of our policy stance to the real economy throughout the area. OMTs will enable us to address severe distortions in government bond markets which originate from, in particular, unfounded fears on the part of investors of the reversibility of the euro. […] we act strictly within our mandate to maintain price stability over the medium term.” The technical note accompanying the decision explicitly states what markets wanted to know: “No ex ante quantitative limits are set on the size of Outright Monetary Transactions” In other words, bond purchases will be unlimited.The technical note also specifies the conditionality, the fact that the purchases will be on short maturities, and that they will be fully sterilized.
  • Let’s go back to Draghi: “we decided to keep the key ECB interest rates unchanged.  […] inflation rates are expected to remain above 2% throughout 2012, to fall below that level again in the course of next year and to remain in line with price stability over the policy-relevant horizon.

To summarize, the ECB will try to bring down the spreads, acting within its mandate, because speculation is perturbing the transmission mechanism of monetary policy and threatening stability.  This can also help explain the decision to keep the rates unchanged: there is no point in using that lever, unless it is  sure it works.

Why is the tree rather good? And what makes the forest more worrisome? The tree first.

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The Strange Case of Dr IMF and Mr Troika

August 31, 2012 5 comments

With Greece desperately trying to obtain more time to carry on its fiscal consolidation plan, it is interesting to read a recent IMF working paper on “Successful Austerity in the United States, Europe and Japan”. The study tries to assess how fiscal consolidation and the growth rate affect each other, in expansions and in contractions. I copied and pasted (from their page 7; I just suppressed a couple of technical points) the main results of the paper:

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