Posts Tagged ‘financial times’

The Question of Debt Sterilization is not for Today. But it Needs to be Discussed

December 11, 2020 Leave a comment

Yesterday I read an interesting FT piece (signed by the editorial board) arguing against debt cancellation. The piece is interesting and in my opinion its title (The case against cancelling debt at the ECB) is misleading. Summarizing, the piece argues that today countries like Italy have no market access problem, that spreads and interest rates are at an all time low, that debt cancellation would not free cash for Italian immediate needs. This are all reasonable arguments, but they would be relevant in assessing benefits of debt cancellation for a country facing a sovereign debt crisis. The current discussion on debt cancellation is nothing of that sort. It is more similar to debates that in the past were common after extraordinary shocks such as wars or… pandemics.

So, what is wrong with the FT way to approach the issue of debt cancellation (or sterilization, as I would prefer to call it for reasons to be clear below)? First, the excessive focus on Italy is off the mark. Any serious discussion on sterilizing the exceptional debt that was generated by the contrast to the pandemics should concern all EMU countries. All of them have had a spike in deficit and debt. Second, as I said, the piece focuses on the short run arguing that debt sterilization would not bring fresh cash. Of course it would not, and of course it would not be needed. EMU public debt is today (and for a long period to come) in excess demand. On top of that, we learned yesterday to no surprise that the ECB will keep the PEPP umbrella open for a while: March 2022 at the earliest, with no tapering to begin before 2023.

Thus, the discussion should not be on short term market access or liquidity needs (nor on the macroeconomic impact of debt sterilization in the current situation). Sterilizing the EMU pandemics-related public debt is a medium term issue, related to future fiscal space. The question to ask is whether the exceptional stock of debt that built in the past few months will constrain EMU countries in their ordinary fiscal policies in the future. If the answer is yes (I believe it is), then sterilizing that debt is eventually going to be an issue to be dealt with. And in that case it is hard to imagine that the ECB will not be part of the solution. In the end, this is what the FT editorial board seems to suggest too (this is why the piece is more nuanced than the title would make it believe), when they argue that

Italy could act by itself to make its debt easier to deal with over the long run, in case the ECB ever decides to sell its holdings back to the private sector and rates go up. In particular it could issue much longer dated debt to lock in the current low rate of funding, and gain more time to fix the country’s sluggish growth rate. Italy could even try to sell perpetual debt.

In short, the piece suggests that extending the maturity of debt (in principle to perpetuity) should be a strategy for the medium term. If the ECB were to buy that debt, we’d have monetization.

As a side note: The macroeconomic impact of cancellation and of monetization are alike. But cancellation poses a number of (mainly political) issues. I think it is wise to take it off the table and discuss pros and cons of a permanent increase of the ECB balance sheet size. Furthermore, I do not enter into the issue of monetization vs QE (that yielded “reservization”). That issue is very neatly addressed by my colleagues Christophe Blot and Paul Hubert (in French).

The FT editorial board then goes on with a discussion of helicopter money (making a link with debt write-off that I don’t quite see, but whatever) in managing deflationary pressures; once again the verbatim is instructive:

There may be monetary reasons to cancel government debt holdings. Many economists argue that “helicopter money” — a permanent increase in the money supply, likened by the economist Milton Friedman to central bankers dropping cash from a helicopter — will be necessary to rescue the eurozone from potential deflation. This would be most easily enacted by simply writing down the ECB’s existing holdings of government debt to zero. Any move towards this policy should come from central bankers keen to hit their inflation targets and not politicians playing with populist slogans.

What is interesting is the last sentence of the paragraph: The initiative should come from the ECB in pursuing its objectives, not from governments. I made the exact same point a couple of days ago (in Italian, unfortunately). Interestingly, the strong independence of the ECB in this case could help in making the one-off nature of monetization credible and to avoid triggering expectations of fiscal dominance.

So in the end the FT editorial board case against cancellation boils down to timing and to the opportunity that politicians (especially Italians) bring it up now. But the FT acknowledges that the issue of dealing with the Covid related extra debt is on the table and that some sort of ECB sterilization of that debt may in the future be part of the equation.

I am perfectly fine with this article. In spite of the title!


The Commission on Portugal: Is This for Real?

April 8, 2013 27 comments

A quick note on Portugal. Let’s start from three facts:

  • Austerity did not work. Portugal is in a recessionary cycle. The economy will shrink by 2.3 per cent this year, more than twice as much as the previous government forecast (and the slowdown of exports to the rest of the eurozone, is not helping).
  • Austerity is self defeating: the deficit-to-GDP ratio widened from 4.4 per cent in 2011 to 6.4 per cent last year, and is forecasted to be 5.5 per cent in 2013. Far above the target of 3 per cent that the government had agreed with the Troika. My guess is that it will be even larger than that.
  • The magic wand of confidence is not magic. The budgetary cuts did not boost private spending, and expectations remain gloomy. The Financial Times article cites the Portuguese daily Público writing “Portugal has entered a recessionary cycle. People have no reason to believe the future will be any better. The [adjustment] programme has failed and has to be changed.” So long for the confidence fairy…

Is this surprising? Not at all. Austerity is likely to be recessionary and self-defeating, when a number of conditions are met. (a) Monetary policy is at the zero lower bound, and cannot compensate the recessionary effects of budget cuts with interest rate reductions. (b) Trading partners are also in a slump (and/or they are also implementing austerity measures), and hence exports can not substitute for decreased domestic demand. (c) The private sector is deleveraging, and subject to a credit crunch. Read more

Austerity and Ideology

January 8, 2013 6 comments

Wolfgang Munchau has another interesting editorial on austerity, in yesterday’s Financial Times. He argues that the US may become the next paying member of the austerity club, thus making the perspective of another lost decade certain.

Munchau’s article could be the n-th plea against austerity, as one can by now read everywhere (except in Berlin or in Brussels; but this is another story). What caught my attention are two paragraphs in particular.

Read more…

Be Smart, Borrow More!

June 4, 2012 3 comments

Larry Summers has a very interesting piece on yesterday’s Financial Times.

He argues that a few countries (the US, Germany, Japan, the UK; I would also add France) enjoy extremely low borrowing rates, both short and long run. In particular, real rates (nominal rate minus inflation) are negative or zero for maturities up to 5 years, and extremely low for longer ones.  Summers’ conclusions are then straightforward:

  • Focusing on further quantitative easing is not particularly useful;  given the already very low rates, further reductions are unlikely to trigger private spending (it has a name: liquidity trap. And Paul Krugman has been insisting a lot on this, for example here)
  • More importantly, government should borrow now, like crazy, taking advantage of the favorable conditions to reinforce their long term fiscal sustainability. This is what any reasonable CEO would do, and there is no reason why governments should act differently.

Summers makes a point that is almost obvious: Any project that has positive expected return would improve the country’s fiscal position, if financed with debt at negative real rates: This is the time for example to borrow to buy government buildings that are currently leased. Or to accelerate the rate of  replacement of aging capital; or again, to engage in long term infrastructure building/renovation. Makes sense, right? It makes so much sense, that chances are that it will not be done…

I would like to add two considerations. The first is to stress that to get private demand started, it is important that growth perspectives are stronger. Firms today do not invest, not because of borrowing costs, but because even at very low interest rates, expected demand is so low that investment is not profitable. The second is that, for Europe, increased borrowing in Germany, France and the UK would be crucial. Countries enjoying low rates could not only significantly improve their long term prospects, as Summers argues. They could also sustain demand in countries that are consolidating, thus favoring the rebalancing I have repeatedly argued for.