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Edward Hugh is only able to update this blog about once a month at the moment, but he does have a lively and enjoyable Facebook community where he publishes frequent breaking news economics links and short updates. If you would like to receive these updates on a regular basis and join the debate please invite Edward as a friend by clicking the Facebook link at the top of the right sidebar.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Why Not Unravel The IMF Too While We're At It?

If you're really good at making a pigs ear of things, why not join the EU? Of course, this is not meant as a piece of solid advice, rather it is a cry of frustration at being impotently forced to watch so many things done so badly, each in turn, and one after the other. Southern Europe's problem is essentially a competitiveness problem, and not a fiscal one, and if many states have been having growing difficulty with their negative fiscal balances, this is a symptom of the problem, and not its cause. Even in the worst of cases - countries like Greece and Portugal - the rising recourse to fiscal outlays has been a response to lack of "healthy" growth, and the root cause of this continuing difficulty in generating real growth has been the underlying lack of competitiveness, and the inability to export your way out of trouble once the burden of debt starts to rise, so simply pruning the fiscal side isn't going to cure the problem, and by now that simple point should be obvious, I would have thought.

Naturally a lot of financial markets attention has been focusing recently on whether or not the Euro is about to unravel. Even the ever-so-prudent Ralph Atkins winds up his mamoth "Defiant Berlin" review with a quote from Jörg Krämer, chief economist at Commerzbank in Frankfurt who says the next few years may see the eurozone becoming more of a “transfer union”, one in which better performing countries have to help out weaker members. “That" - he argues - "could mean Germany says, ‘we are no longer willing to support the weaker parts of the EU’, while the Greeks say that they are not prepared to have policy dictated by the Germans," Thus: “The risk cannot be totally excluded of a eurozone break-up within 10 to 15 years – and this is a consequence of widening eurozone divergences.” To which Atkins adds "If that risk rose, Europe would be facing a very different ballgame". You bet it would!

To some extent I cannot help feeling that a congenital inability to take bite-the-bullet type decisions is resulting in an ongoing process of passing the buck ever onwards and upwards. The latest exemple here is the issue of IMF involvement in the Greek adjustment process. Now, as with any issue, there are good reasons and there are bad reasons why IMF involvemnet might be considered desireable. Among the good reasons are the vast experience and technical expertise of the fund, or the fact that representatives of the IMF might find it easier to say "no", given that the underlying sovereignty issues are not exactly identical when posed in terms of the IMF as they are in terms of the EU.

But among the bad reasons would be the idea that the IMF could fund any eventual Greek loan more cheaply. As far as I can see, a lot of the EU interest in having an IMF loan to Greece stems from the need to make the rate of interest applied cheap enough to bring the spread down. This is an important concern, since it is not obvious why a country which is making its best effort to put things straight should need to be paying an exorbitant charge for the money it borrows while it does this. Earlier this week European Central Bank President Jean-Claude Trichet spoke out strongly against offering the kind of low-interest loans for which the Greek government has been pressing - “There shouldn’t be any subsidy element, no concessionary element” in any eventual loan to Greece, he told members of the Economic and Monetary Affairs Committee of the European Parliament. And maybe this is the only reasonable position the ECB can take (given its Charter), but evidently the Eurogroup of countries are not bound by the same constraints and they themselves could do this (via recourse to Group-backed EuroGroup bonds, or whatever), which raises the obvious question: why don't they?

Well, one of the reasons lying behind all the reluctance we are currently seeing may not be the issue of the German constitution, or even the question of changes to the Lisbon Treaty, or any of the major issues of principal which arise and would require lengthy and onerous debate. Maybe the question is a much more simple one: perhaps Europe's leaders are simply worried that if they make a cheap loan to Greece, then Spain, Portugal, Ireland, Italy, Austria, Slovenia and Slovakia may all soon argue they also need one.

My view is that this is an issue where the EU itself needs to bite the bullet, and make large changes, ones which lead, as Wolfgang Munchau has been arguing, to much closer political union. If we need the IMF in Greece, and I think we do, it is for its proven capacity to implement programmes, and its extensive technical resources, NOT for the money.

Indeed the Indian economist Subroto Roy just raised a very important issue in this regard on my Facebook. If IMF funds are used to bailout Greece, wouldn't that be a bit like the poor pampering the rich. Shouldn't IMF money be being used for other things? Shouldn't the IMF have other priorities? Evidently stabilising Europe is important, but shouldn't the EU be doing that (and not just as a matter of pride, as a matter of international solidarity)? As Roy asks, what happens if...

"the US, Britain, ANZ and everyone else in the IMF who is not in the Eurozone.... (decide to)... legitimately ask why the effective subsidy of Greece by its Eurozone partners should be transferred to the rest of the world ... (after all) .... the Europeans have enough clout in the IMF to, say, insist some of their own IMF-directed resources be directed towards Greece specifically, which would spell the unravelling of the IMF if it became a general habit."

Exactly.

On a slightly different, but somewhat related topic, I basically agree with a lot of what Martin Wolf wrote in his Excessive Virtue piece in the FT yesterday. As Martin points out, in saying "nein" to those who suggest that its economy should become a little less competitive what the German government is effectively saying is that the eurozone must become some kind of greater Germany - a huge export machine which generates a massive surplus with the rest of the world, a surplus which enables all those highly indebted member countries to pay down their debts. But, as Wolf argues, this policy would have profoundly negative implications for the entire world economy.

He cites the German secretary of state Ulrich Wilhelm, who, in a letter to the FT, argues that:

“The key to correcting imbalances in the eurozone and restoring fiscal stability lies in raising the competitiveness of Europe as a whole. The more countries with current account deficits are able to increase their competitiveness, the easier they will find it to decrease their public and foreign trade deficits. A less stability-oriented policy in Germany would damage the eurozone as a whole.”

This worries Wolf, who argues that Mr Wilhelm is inviting everybody to join a zero-sum world of beggar-my-neighbour policies in which every country tries to grab market share from the rest (strange how all of this sounds very similar to the way things wound up back in the 1930's, now isn't it?). As he suggests, at a time of generalised global weakness, this is a self-defeating recommendation for both the eurozone and the world. If we take a look at Japanese exports, which after an initial surge, are basically now near enough to being stationary, it is obvious that deficient aggregate demand in Europe is now part of the problem:



And obviously with all the fiscal pruning and "good housekeeping" we are now about to see, this problem is set to get worse, not better. Being well apprised of the problem Wolf then goes on to put forward an alternative:
"An alternative solution might be to help the world absorb larger export surpluses from the eurozone, the US, Japan and the UK. True, no sustainable exit from the present quagmire can be envisaged without increased net capital flows into emerging countries. It also seems evident that this is where the world’s surplus savings ought to end up. But it is going to take time and much reform to make this happen."

Really, I entirely agree, but a quantum leap in thinking is necessary here. If the books are to balance - and if we want growth and pensions in the OECD then they have to - what we need to do is help cheaper finance reach those countries with capacities to grow and absorb others exports, while the EU takes on in-house responsibility for sorting out the financing (but not necessarily the disciplining) of its own members. That is, if cheap loans need to be provided to anybody it is to those in need in the Emerging Countries, and not to Europeans who have happily spent their own way into difficulty.

In fact, in my New Year questions to Paul Krugman I raised some sort of similar point, but unfortunately his response was not exactly positive.

E.H.: One of the standard pieces of economic observation about countries recovering from financial crises is that their recoveries are export driven. This has now almost attained the status of a stylised fact. But as you starkly ask, at a time when the financial crisis is generalised across all developed economies - whether because those who borrowed the money now have difficulty paying back, or those who leant it now struggle to recover the money owed them - to which new planet are we all going to export? Maybe we don’t need to look so far afield. Many developing economies badly need cheap and responsible credit lines, and access to state-of-the-art technologies. Do you think there is room for some sort of New Marshall Plan initiative, to generate a win-win dynamic for all of us?

P.K.: Um, no. Not realistically as a political matter. We’ll be lucky if we can get the surplus developing countries to spend on themselves. My guess is that our best hope for recovery lies in environmental investment: taking on climate change could, in terms of the macroeconomic impact, be the functional equivalent of a major new technology.

So the solution to our problems is not politically realistic. And meantime we keep trying to play around with policies which simply won't work. It is now pretty clear to me at least just how so much valuable time was lost back in the 1930s, thrashing around playing with solutions which didn't, and wouldn't, work. As Krugman himself likes to say, "history has a habit of repeating itself, the first time as tragedy, and the second time as yet another tragedy".

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Why We Don't Want To Have The "Instruments of Torture" Used in Spain

We may not want the instruments of torture, but if the Spanish government doesn't do something to change course and restore growth to the economy, they will be applied. This post is just to draw the attention of anyone who might be interested to my new blog on the Spanish newspaper Expansión (in Spanish). The latest post is about why it would be better for Spain's political parties to get together and take the decisions themselves, rather than wait for the European Monetary Fund to wheel out Herr Schäuble's "Instruments of Torture".

I also deal with the arguments the Spanish government presents about growth, and foreshadow today's ruling by the EU Commission that the forecasts for 2011 and 2012 are way too optimistic.

According to the Commission, the Spanish government forecast that it will be able to slash its budget deficit to 3 per cent of GDP in 2013 from 11.4 per cent last year is based on excessively optimistic growth forecasts for growth of 1.8 per cent next year, 2.9 per cent in 2012 and 3.1 per cent in 2013.

The Commission also pointed to the slow pace of public sector bank restructuring in Spain. It said Spain should take action to improve the long-term sustainability of its public finances, notably by means of a pensions system reform (a point I have addressed separately in this post).

The Stability Programme update of Spain reflects that the current crisis is severely affecting its public finances, with an estimated deficit of 11.4% of GDP for 2009 and a rapidly-rising government debt ratio. The Spanish update aims at sizeable continued fiscal consolidation from 2010 on, with a view to gradually reducing the government deficit to 3% of GDP by 2013 in line with the Council recommendation of 2 December 2009. However, the favourable macroeconomic assumptions after 2010 may imply a lower contribution of economic growth to fiscal consolidation than envisaged and the adjustment path after 2010 would still need to be backed up with measures. Public debt, which stood at below 40% of GDP in 2008, is expected to grow to 55% of GDP in 2009 and swell further to 74% of GDP by 2013. Based on this assessment, the invitations to Spain refer to the specification of the budgetary strategy to correct the excessive deficit and reduce debt, improvements to long-term sustainability and the old-age pension scheme, the fiscal framework and the quality of public finances.


¿Pacto Nacional o herramientas de tortura?

Una de las cosas más curiosas que he observado últimamente mirando la televisión, es que mientras ha habido muchos comentarios relacionados a propósito de poner en marcha un Fondo Monetario Europeo, parece que nadie ha sentido la necesidad de explicar cuáles serán los primeros clientes de esta entidad, ni mucho menos se ha atrevido a nombrar el país que tiene muchos números de encabezar la lista de invitados a la fiesta: el Reino de España.


Semejante lapsos ya lo voy a corregir yo, en este espacio. Es evidente que el nombre de Grecia está en la mente de todos, pero el de España no queda demasiado atrás, ni tiene razones de sentir ningún tipo de envidia por el tratamiento especial que Grecia está recibiendo en estos momentos.
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Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Waiting For Something To Turn Up: Europe's Looming Pensions-based Sovereign Debt Crisis

As Irwin Stelzer argued in a recent opinion article in the Wall Street Journal, Spain’s Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero seems to be an admirer of Charles Dickens's character Mr. Micawber. When asked what he plans to do about Spain’s 11.4% fiscal deficit, first he promises to extend the retirement age, only to later tell us the measure may not be necessary. Then he promises a public-sector wage freeze, only to have his Economy Minister, Elena Salgado, say he really doesn't mean exactly what he seems to say. And in any event, we shouldn’t worry too much, since given that Spain is a serious country, somehow or other the fiscal deficit will be cut to 3% by 2013, even though most serious analysts consider the economic growth numbers on which the budget plans are based to have their origins more in the dreams of an Alice long lost in Wonderland than in any kind of sobre analysis of real possibilities. "We do have a plan," deputy prime minister, Maria Teresa Fernandez de la Vega assures us, but to many that plan now seems to be little better than hoping, like the proverbial Mr. Micawber, that "something will turn up."

The lastest to draw attention, to the problematic nature of this "wait and see" approach - and to the gaping hole which is now yawning in Spain’s national balance sheet - is the credit ratings agency Fitch, who only last week warned that many Western governments now face unsustainable debt dynamics following measures taken to address the financial crisis.

The agency singled out Britain, France and Spain as being in special and urgent need of outlining plans to strengthen their public finances if they don’t want to risk losing their current highly prized AAA ranking.

This strong and direct warning was issued by Brian Coulton, Head of Global Economics at Fitch, who said "High-grade sovereign governments need to articulate more credible and stronger fiscal consolidation plans during the course of 2010 to underpin confidence in the sustainability of public finances over the medium-term and their commitment to low and stable inflation. The UK, Spain and France in particular must outline more credible fiscal consolidation programmes over the coming year given the pace of fiscal deterioration and the budgetary challenges they face in stabilising public debt."

Yet, while criticising Portugal's gradual approach to fiscal consolidation as a matter of "concern" Fitch senior director Paul Rawkins also argued that the Spanish govenment had acted swiftly in announcing plans to consolidate public finances. Nonetheless he did still warn that the economic risks facing Spain remain very high, especially since the pace of decline in tax revenues is dramatic enough to be preoccupying, while continuing “labour market inflexibilities could well prolong the economic adjustment”.

The current problem facing Spain (and other similarly affected countries) has its roots in two quite distinct sources. In the first place measures taken to counteract the impact of the financial crisis have been inadequate and have simply produced large short term deficits. However to this short term liquidity and adjustment problem must now be added the further dimension of longer term impacts on public finances which have their origins lie in ageing populations, and the effect on economic growth of having older and smaller working-age populations.


Regarding the first, as Willem Buiter, now chief economist at Citi has pointed out, more than 40 per cent of global GDP is currently being produced in countries (overwhelmingly advanced economies) running fiscal deficits of 10 per cent of GDP or more. Over most of the last 30 years, this level fluctuated in the 0-5 per cent range and was dominated by debt form emerging economies. So the crisis marks a watershed, from which there will likely be no turning back, and in many ways could not have come at a worse moment for those countries who still have to undertake substantial pension reform to put their nation finances on a solid footing when faced with the unprecedented ageing which lies ahead.

Indeed, to take the Greek case, while the short term fiscal deficit has been the focus of most of the press attention, the longer term problem associated with the funding of Greek pensions far outweighs issues associated with the falsifying of national accounts in the early years of this century. A recent report by the European Commission found that Greek spending on pensions and health care for its ageing population, if left unchecked, would soar from just over 20 percent of GDP today to around 37 percent of G.D.P. by 2060. And Greece is simply an early warning indicator of troubles to yet to come, in larger countries like Germany, France, Spain and Italy who have all relied for decades on pay as you go type state-financed pension schemes. Now, governments across Europe are being pressed to re-examine their commitments to providing generous pensions over extended retirements because fiscal issues associated with the downturn have suddenly pushed at least part of these previously hidden costs up to the surface.

In fact, unfunded pension liabilities far outweigh the high levels of official sovereign debt. According to research by Jagadeesh Gokhale, an economist at the Cato Institute in Washington, bringing Greece’s pension obligations onto its balance sheet would show that the government’s debt is in reality equal to something like 875 percent of its gross domestic product. That would be the highest debt level in the 16-nation euro zone, and far above Greece’s official debt level of 113 percent. Other countries have obscured their total obligations as well. In France, where the official debt level is 76 percent of economic output, total debt rises to 549 percent once all of its current pension promises are taken into account. Similarly, in Germany, the current debt level of 69 percent would soar to 418 percent. Of course, these numbers are arguable, and may well be in the excessively high range, but the fact still remains: outstanding and unfunded liabilities are huge, and would have been difficult to honour even without the present crisis. As it is, we are now in danger of spending the seedcorn which could have been harvested later on down the road.

Public opinion has yet to assimilate the seriousness of the issues involved here. As Pimco Chief Executive Mohamed El-Erian said in a recent FT Opinion article, the importance of the shock to public finances in advanced economies is not yet sufficiently appreciated and understood. With time, this issue will prove to be highly consequential. The latest Fitch report is simply another warning shot. The sooner we all recognise the, the greater the probability of our being able to stay ahead of the disruptions this adjustment to reality will cause. It is time to stop simply waiting around to see what is going to turn up, since if we do continue like this we won’t like what we eventually find.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Serious Problems Emerge For The F-UK-De Group Of Countries

Well, I for one can't help thinking that it's now well time we all stopped getting carried away with the use of so many acronyms. Not only may one man's meat easily prove to be another's poison, it may even be that for some the entire meal will be so distasteful as to prove totally indigestable. And so it is with the latest set of proposals to appear on that diagnostic lab bench which has been hastily erected in the search for that magic "cure all" for the eurozone's many ills.

Daniel Gros, in a well meaning, but I feel fatally flawed, move to get us all away from talking about some of the members of our own community as if they were PIGS, has decided to tell us that they are not pigs at all, they are merely GIPSYs. Of course, depending on which way you look at it, such forms of reference could be taken as a compliment ("you sure do eat like a pig"), or not, but stopping to think for a moment about the kind of controversy which has been provoked by the arrival of large numbers of Roma in Italy, perhaps telling the countries which lie on Europe's periphery that the best way to conceptualise them is as a bunch of "gitanos" is not the best way to get reasoned debate going. Nor is it necessarily the best way to do this to tell the members of core Europe that they as things stand they are essentially F-UK-De. But there it is. That's just how things are these days.