Headline chasing

IMF note to the G20 meeting in Shanghai in February –

The global recovery has weakened further amid increasing financial turbulence and falling asset prices. Activity softened towards the end of 2015 and the valuation of risky assets has dropped sharply, especially in advanced economies, increasing the likelihood of a further weakening of the outlook. Growth in advanced economies is modest already under the baseline, as low demand in some countries and a broad-based weakening of potential growth continue to hold back the recovery. Adding to these headwinds are concerns about the global impact of China’s transition to more balanced growth, along with signs of distress in other large emerging markets, including from falling commodity prices. Heightened risk aversion has triggered global equity market declines and brought a further tightening of external financial  conditions for emerging economies. Strong policy responses both at national and multilateral levels are needed to contain risks and propel the global economy to a more prosperous path.

IMF note to the G20 meeting in Chengdu in July–

“Brexit” marks the materialization of an important downside risk to global growth. The global outlook, set for a small upward revision prior to the U.K.’s referendum, has been revised downward modestly for 2016 and 2017, reflecting the expected macroeconomic consequences of a sizable increase in economic, political, and institutional uncertainty. But with “Brexit” still very much unfolding, more negative outcomes are a distinct possibility.

The two notes, which are written barely 6 months apart, read together bizarrely. The earlier note sees anxiety in financial markets and searches around for any narrative that could justify that — to the point where even a fall in oil prices could be bad! The new note has the luxury of an actual negative shock — Brexit — to work with, but with one big problem relative to the doom-and-gloom narrative of February:– it says that if it wasn’t for Brexit, the IMF was ready to along with the evaporated panic from February, and anyway financial markets haven’t taken Brexit particularly badly!

Could it be that the financial market-led narrative in February was a panic in search of a problem, except that the markets — and thus anyone using that as their lens — missed the one problem that was actually on the horizon, namely Brexit? As it happens, financial asset prices could well be a bit player in the way Brexit eventually plays out.

Ukip’s sinister double bill and failed political leadership

Until early this year it seemed unlikely that an extreme idea lingering for two decades on the political fringe could turn into a mainstream choice preferred by majority of British voters as happened on June 23. Ukip’s leader Nigel Farage declared victory: he has for decades championed leaving the European Union but that was only half of his political double bill.

“The phrase, ‘I’m not racist, but…’ could be invented for some of the things Farage has done in politics,” Tory MP Damian Green said on BBC’s Daily Politics on the day Farage announced his resignation as Ukip’s leader. Stressing he was not accusing Farage of being a racist, Green added: ”He encourages feelings that are unhelpful and destructive, and that’s what he’s always done for his political career.”

Farage denies it, leading “Leave” politicians also deny it but in addition to the Ukip fanfare policy of leaving the European Union, Farage and Ukip have unashamedly brought something else to British politics, propagated by the whole “Leave” campaign: xenophobia and outright racism.

The political legacy of the victorious Farage is not only Brexit but the destructive sentiment of xenophobia, particularly appealing to older voters. However, Brexit would never have happened without support from established politicians, most notably Tory politicians like Boris Johnson, Michael Gove, Andrea Leadsom and Labour politicians like Gisella Stewart. With their support, the once so extreme view of leaving the EU, laced with xenophobia, is now mainstream.

The treacherous road from January 22 2013 to June 23 2016

In a speech on 22 January 2013 Prime Minister David Cameron promised to renegotiate UK’s membership of the European Union: no later than 2017 should the British people be given a “simple choice” of a continued EU membership on renewed terms – or leaving the EU.

As so many of his generation in the Tory party Cameron had never shown any particular interest in European matters but the EU has always come handy when a scapegoat was needed: all evil came from Brussels, the brilliance from Tory policies and their leaders.

Given the momentous pledge in 2013, Cameron’s attitude towards the EU was strangely enough no more enthusiastic than earlier. So, after eleven years as a Tory leader and six years as prime minister two months of campaigning didn’t make up for his earlier disinterest in all things European.

At the time of Cameron’s pledge, Farage’s Ukip was enjoying a record following of 10% in the polls, also worrying for Labour. Cameron was not prepared to call a referendum to rid the Tory party of dissident anti-EU ideas and Ukip’s influence.

What Cameron and those around him didn’t seem to understand or didn’t believe was that Ukip’s speak was permeating the mind of so many Tory MPs underpinning not only Brexit but also the other part of the Ukip double bill: the xenophobia and racism. These two currents united in the “Leave” campaign where the political pondus of the likes of Johnson and Gove gave wings to Ukip’s mission.

The “simple choice” of 1975 v the muddled choice in 2016

The seeds for the Brexit disaster were already sown by Cameron when it came to posing the 2016 referendum question: the choice was no longer simple, as it had indeed been in 1975, but a muddled one.

In 1973 the British Tory government led by Edward Heath, decided to join the European Community, a decision tested in a referendum under Labour’s Harold Wilson in 1975; 67% of those voting said yes. Although the motives and arguments were manifold the question – to join or not – was clear and unequivocal.

The recent referendum had a clear “yes” option in the “Remain” but the “no” option, “Leave,” was ambiguous. Wrapped up in the “Leave” was Ukip’s original goal of Britain leaving the EU, never a mainstream opinion in Britain until the referendum – and the stated goal of many Tories inter alia Boris Johnson who argued for his position by claiming Britain would secure a better deal by voting “Leave.”

Bumpy start… towards ashen Tory faces

Farage’s “out” and the “get a better deal” propagated by non-Ukipers gave the “Leave” campaign a bumpy start. Interviews with the Tory “Leavers” waving the “better deal” gave rise to the obvious question what would qualify for a “better deal” leading to unexciting answers.

With the “Take control” slogan things took a better turn for the “Leavers.” Although that also invited convoluted discourse – control of what and what would this new era of British control imply – this slogan could be connected to all relevant issues, be it immigrants or the NHS.

Now, the various sentiments awoken earlier by the fringe Ukip could easily be merged into mainstream Tory speak, useful not only to unruly Tory backbenchers but to leading Tories like Johnson and Gove.

As the voting stations closed June 23 Farage still seemed to believe his long-time apparently so ludicrous goal of pulling Britain out of the EU was lost; seven hours later he was a triumphant if stunned winner.

Contrast Farage’s celebratory appearance with the funeral demeanour of Johnson and Gove when they finally made a public appearance late Friday morning. Their ashen faces indicated they realised they would now need a plan, which they didn’t have. Demagogy and burning ambitions are two sentiments notoriously difficult to harness – a few days later their political fortunes had turned but that is another story.

Farage, leading a fringe party, didn’t feel obliged to have a plan. He had wanted a Brexit, getting it was all he needed to claim victory and he could resign (though given his career of resignations it’s a different matter if he really is leaving politics).

The Ukip xenophobia: from extreme to mainstream

Damian Green’s epitaph of Farage building his political career by encouraging destructive ideas sums up one view of Farage’s political contribution.  Farage may fade out of UK politics but his message lingers on among those who took note of his message as they had never before. Not because his message was better or different than it has been for decades but because established and leading politicians adopted and legitimised his stance.

By adopting Farage’s stance on the EU, Brexit supporters like Gove and Johnson, not to forget Andrea Leadsom, also propagated the other part of the Ukip’s political bill, the xenophobia with a whiff of racism. Here, the “Remain” stance of the Labour leadership, especially Jeremy Corbyn, was lamentably weak.

Leading Brexiters from the two big parties vehemently deny xenophobic intentions and undertones but that is too late: thanks to the Brexiters outside of Ukip these views have entered the political discourse. Again, what once was extreme is now mainstream.

The once so loony and laughable

To be exact, this legitimation hasn’t only happened in the last few months. For years, instead of rebutting the often hugely misleading statements from Ukip on immigration with facts and figures established mainstream politicians came to echo the Ukip view. Also, by not engaging the fact that concerns on immigration were the embodiment of simmering anger over political failures since the 1980s was lost.

Already in 2006 Cameron called Ukip “a bunch of … fruticakes and loonies and closet racists mostly.” Like Cameron, established politicians saw Ukip as a crazy fringe party: there was no need to argue with Ukip, no need to correct Ukip-ers’ misleading statements. In the media, largely sympathetic to Ukip’s views, the party was often ridiculed but almost in an endearing underdog way with Farage clowning on BBC’s Have I Got News For You.

With time, there was the seducing option for established politicians to use these sentiments for their own political advantage inter alia by blowing problems with immigration out of all proportions and blaming the immigration on EU rules.

The referendum “Leave” campaign showed that Ukip had by now shaped the immigration debate: further, its views were legitimised by Tory “Leavers” campaigning for a cause earlier only touted by Ukip with arguments earlier only used by Ukip. – This is the grin the parting Farage leaves in British politics.

Danish echoes

The Danish political environment is fundamentally different from the British one but similarly to what has been happening in Britain, xenophobic sentiments, tinged with racism permeated Danish politics in the years up to the elections in 2001. Ukip’s sister party Danish National Party emanating these ideas, jumped from a fringe position with 7% of votes to being the third largest party with 12% of votes and a decisive influence.

In the previous years DNP, founded in 1995 but an offspring of 1970s right-wing currents, had put pressure on the established parties, both the centre-right parties and the Social Democrats, leading many politicians to concede to and echo the DNP view instead of debating it. Buoyed by its 2001 results DNP came to shape Danish immigration policy and the political language: what could earlier not be said had been legitimised. With 21% of votes in the 2015 DNP is now the second largest party in Denmark after the Social Democrats.

Interestingly, in Denmark immigration hasn’t been blamed on EU but been a domestic bone of contention. In spite of sceptic EU-attitude there is no appetite in Denmark to leave the EU and hasn’t been for years. DNP, which used to be anti-EU has without fanfare abandoned its anti-EU stance.

There is however a Danish Brexit effect: opinion polls show increased support for Danish EU membership and less appetite for a Danish referendum on membership. Before the British referendum 40% of Danish voters wanted a referendum on Danish EU membership, 60% preferred to stay in the EU and 22% wanted to leave; now these numbers are respectively 32%, 70% and 18%.

Abdicating political responsibility

When David Cameron, under pressure from Ukip, promised a referendum he might have been lured by an easy game against “loony fruitcakes.” Following an albeit narrow win in the 2014 Scottish referendum and in the 2015 general elections he lost the EU referendum and together with that loss, xenophobia and worse has come to stay in British political debate.

The economist Joseph Schumpeter (1883-1950) claimed the welfare system would be in danger when the sense of entitlement to gain from it was greater than the will to contribute to it. Similarly, democracy is in danger when politicians take it too much for granted and can’t be bothered to argue with ideas that undermine it. After all, being in power means not only having power to take action but also to sway and influence opinion.

Cross-posted on Icelog.

How many people care about immigration?

I wrote this for Politico Europe, but they won’t have it, perhaps because it’s not OMG BREXIT enough. To update it, let’s note that Ipsos MORI reckons only 20% care about immigration and more people think they, personally, have benefited from it than not.

With ten days to go, the two Brexit campaigns are talking about almost nothing but immigration. Gone, the expansive talk about whether the “Norway model”, the “Canadian model”, or indeed the “Albanian model” so dear to Michael Gove’s soul would be preferable. Nobody is now pushing the virtues of unilateral free trade. Instead, it’s all about immigrants, immigrants, immigrants, or sometimes Turkey, a placeholder for immigrants.

This worries a lot of people. Immigration polls badly. Surely this is the Leavers’ strongest suit? The problem, though, is that something can be your strongest suit and still be pretty damn weak. Consider a chart I used back in April, 2015, for this Politico piece. Back then, using YouGov’s online poll, immigration was rated the No.1 issue nationally, with 50% of the public saying it was their biggest concern for the country.

If you asked them what they, themselves, worried about, well. Immigration plummeted from 50% to 20%, far behind the economy, the NHS, pensions, and tax. Even UKIP voters displayed the same effect, although the level was different. 90% thought immigration was the top issue for the country, until they had to put some skin in the game, when it came down to 49%.

YouGov’s most recent referendum poll, from the 6th-7th of June, hammers the point home. This was a forced-choice question, where the respondents had to pick one issue and one only. Only 20% of the public say immigration will decide how they vote. 31% say the economy. Another 31% say it’s:


Which is likely to strike a better balance between Britain’s right to act independently, and the appropriate level of co-operation with other countries

And 4% say it’s foreign policy in the classic sense. Now, Remain is camped all over the economy, which it’s hitting from all angles, and Leave has pretty much stopped even trying. We can try different assumptions about the vaguely defined “appropriate co-operation” question. If the Remain side is getting as little as a third of those, though, it suggests they are addressing about 45% of the electorate, with an upper bound around 60%. The problem with All Immigrants, All The Time is that only about 20% of the public care all that much.

Of course, perhaps there are so many more people worked up about immigration out there. They’ve managed not to show it at any general election in their lifetimes. But now der Tag is upon us, and they will rise like lions after slumber. Could happen, as we said in Yorkshire. Meaning: don’t hold your breath.

Daniel Kahneman, of Judgment under Uncertainty and Thinking, Fast and Slow fame, got his Nobel prize in part for his contribution to prospect theory, the study of how human intuitions about risk diverge from rationality. In principle, a 40% chance of gaining €100 should be worth exactly as much as a 100% chance of gaining €40. In practice, it’s much more complicated than that; the curve bends, so people generally prefer the sure thing even when the expected value is identical.

More interestingly, your decision depends on your starting point. If you’re in the money, rather than being more recklessly confident, you’ll pass up more chances. If you’re out of the money, though, you’ll tend to double down and pick opportunities with worse chances and bigger payoffs in order to chase your losses. Like: betting the farm on those 20%. That said, that YouGov poll does say 40% of the public think #Brexit would be good for the NHS. I stick by my call, but chance is chance.

A simple solution for #Brexit-related uncertainty

Prominent Brexiter Andrew Lilico, I see, argues that we could avoid the uncertainty created by triggering the Article 50 process by not doing so:

The Treasury says an instant triggering of Article 50 post-referendum would be a driver of uncertainty. In which case, maybe don’t do that?

Indeed. Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty lays down the process for voluntary withdrawal from the EU. You trigger it if you want to leave the EU. If you haven’t, you haven’t left the EU. Not triggering it – staying in the EU – would indeed avoid quite a lot of uncertainty.

But, Andrew, we could go one better. We could completely eliminate it. All we need do is vote to stay in.

#Brexit, trade, and the J-curve

A couple of thoughts on the economic consequences of #Brexit. HM Treasury, the Institute for Fiscal Studies, and others have published their efforts to forecast the short- to medium-term impacts of leaving the EU, and it’s fair to say none of them are good. The point I would like to highlight is that everyone seems to expect a big – 15% is a consensus number – devaluation in sterling post-Brexit.

I’m usually quite a “cheap pound” guy, so you might think I’d see this as an offset to the risks of Brexit. Actually I don’t, and here’s why. Just as a “strong” currency isn’t good in itself, but instead good for some groups in society and bad for others, a “weak” currency is good for some people – exporters, basically – and bad for others – importers, basically. A fall of 15% in the sterling trade-weighted index will help exporters in that it’s an immediate 15% price cut, and harm importers by the 15% increase in their prices. On balance, you’d expect it to reduce the current account deficit by 15% * some elasticity parameter.

It’s not that simple, though – there’s the famous J-curve effect. It might take time for exporters to increase their volumes, while import prices go up straight away. As a result, devaluations often have a contractionary effect immediately, and then a greater, expansionary one later. The problem, in the Brexit scenario, is that we propose to do something that will induce a substantial devaluation at the same moment that we commit ourselves to a whole lot of uncertainty regarding trade with Europe.

The case for it all turning out OK is basically a bet that the lower sterling trade-weighted index will lead to enough growth in export volumes to make it up. However, we’re meant to be taking this bet just at the time we do something that’s likely to constrain volumes on about 44% of our exports, even if only temporarily. Also, a lot of export-heavy companies are manufacturers integrated in international supply chains, who probably use quite a lot of intermediate products sourced from inside the EU. These companies will see their input prices rise sharply, while they may not be able to take advantage of the cheap pound on about half their market. As a result, they will experience quite a dramatic margin squeeze.

I can certainly see this leading to a beast of a J-curve recession, even if it doesn’t manage to push the housing market off the wall. One important trigger for a big drop in sterling, by the way, would be a drop in foreign portfolio investment in the UK. A hell of a lot of that is real estate, and there is already evidence of investors putting purchases on hold.

Before you all write at once, I stick with the 44% number. This has been criticised due to the so-called Rotterdam effect, where goods going to the wider world get trans-shipped through EU load centre ports like Rotterdam, Antwerp, or Hamburg, and therefore counted in the port statistics as exports to the Netherlands, Belgium, or Germany. There’s a good account of it here. I do not accept that this is a problem. Rather, I do not accept that it is a valid argument that European trade is less important than we think.

If shippers in the UK choose to ship to, say, China via Rotterdam rather than direct ex-Felixstowe or Southampton, they presumably do so for a reason, typically that bigger volumes and bigger ships mean lower freight rates and more choice of routes and sailings. There is no reason, I think, to expect Maersk or whoever to call at UK ports more often post-Brexit. Shipping via Rotterdam to somewhere extra-European represents trade with the EU in that the UK imports port services from the Netherlands, paid for out of the revenue from exporting. If we had a port the size of Rotterdam, we certainly wouldn’t discourage European shippers from using it! And of course, we do – just it’s an airport, and it’s called Heathrow, and just listen to the business lobby hollering for more capacity there.

In conclusion, one of the contradictions of Brexit that bothers me is that its strongest advocates seem to believe that relatively petty regulatory burdens are enormous restraints on the economy, whose removal would lead to a surge of growth, while they also seem to believe that incurring even relatively petty trade barriers would mean, well, nothing much. You can’t have it both ways. Either the economy is robust to petty interference, in which case we might as well stay in, or it’s not, in which case we surely have no business putting a new layer of it between us and Europe. After all, it’s unrealistic to imagine the electorate ever agreeing to some sort of Donner Party libertarian utopia – we wouldn’t be swapping open trade, with levels of regulation that don’t seem to do German exporters any harm, for a tariff, but zero regulation. Instead we’d likely get a worse relationship with Europe by quite a lot, offset by a few doubtfully useful regulatory changes at the margins.

I find this baffling. Perhaps, in the end, the belief is that even trivial regulatory changes would be transformative, and the relationship with the EU would, well, somehow turn out OK in an unspecified manner. That strikes me as too many leaps of faith for one lunchtime.

PS – don’t trust me, ask a Felixstowe docker!

It will make a difference. FXT will surely suffer as they will no longer be able to tranship to R’dam and elsewhere without documentation as they can now. Why would shippers go through two lots of clearance procedures when they can cut FXT out and ship straight to the continent?

Timeliness challenge

The IMF Board considered the annual surveillance of the UK economy barely 2 weeks ago, and the associated report was published even more recently. And a couple of days after that, its main findings about fiscal policy — trumpeted by George Osborne during the visit — are effectively dead. Here’s what the Fund says (page 10) –

Relative to the last pre-election budget (March 2015), the authorities’ latest fiscal plans as announced in the 2015 Autumn Statement envisage a smoother path of deficit reduction. Consolidation is also now based somewhat less on spending cuts than previously projected, partly due to revised revenue and interest expenditure projections and new revenue measures. The consolidation path is appropriate in the baseline scenario. Continued consolidation is needed to rebuild buffers, thereby allowing more aggressive countercyclical policy during the next recession.  

Similar language is peppered throughout the report. The problem is now out in the open in that Osborne used a G20 trip to Shanghai and a linked interview with the BBC’s Laura Kuenssberg to confirm what had been obvious to analysts for a long time: the revenue, growth, and modeling assumptions underlying the Autumn Statement cannot be met.

Imagine if an African country finance minister uncorked a worse economic scenario than he’d told the Fund just weeks after their visit!

Ireland and Iceland: when cosiness kills

The fate of the Irish and the Icelandic banks are intertwined in time: as the Irish government decided on a blanket guarantee for the Irish banks, the Icelandic government was trying, in vain, to save the Icelandic banks. In spite of the guarantee six Irish banks failed in the coming months; the government bailed them out. The Icelandic banks failed over a few days. Within two months the Icelandic parliament had decided to set up an independent investigative committee – it took the Irish government almost seven years to set up a political committee, severely restricted in terms of what it could investigate and given a very limited time. The Irish report now published is better than nothing but far from the extensive overview given in Iceland: it lacks the overview of favoured clients and the favours they enjoyed.

A small country with a fast-growing banking sector run by managers dreaming of moving into the international league of big banks. To accelerate balance sheet growth the banks found businessmen with a risk appetite to match the bankers’ and bestowed them with favourable loans. Lethargic regulators watched, politicians cheered, nourishing the ego of a small nation wanting to make its mark on the world. – This was Iceland of the Viking raiders and Ireland at the time of the Celtic tiger, from the late 1990s, until the Vikings lost their helmets and the tiger its claws in autumn 2008.

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Language adjustment

The IMF World Economic Outlook update is out. Despite all the China and financial markets talk, the movement in the forecast is more about the uselessness of BRICS as an economic concept: deeper recessions than foreseen even 6 months ago in Brazil and Russia, extreme sluggishness in South Africa, what the Fund still views as an adjustment and not a crash in China, and strong growth in India.

But anyway, the projection contains its typical sentence from the post-2008 years: Risks to the global outlook remain tilted to the downside.

Why does it never say The projection remains tilted to the upside?

Edward Hugh, RIP

Unfortunately the dark and cold days of winter tend to bring some untimely departures and this season’s deaths now include our blogging colleague Edward Hugh, who we gather died yesterday in Spain. Edward’s posts here and on other platforms marked him out as someone with the fresh eyes of an economist who had made his own way to an analytical framework that found its ideal subject in the Eurozone financial crisis. The slow-burning demographic strains of which Edward had long written remain even as the banks get very slowly cleaned up, and are of course a subtext to the current migration crisis. Here’s a link to the New York Times profile of Edward from a few years ago which further broadened his audience.  Our condolences to those who knew Edward best.

UPDATE: The New York Times has a nice obituary.