The ECB’s Balance Sheet at a Glance

What follows is essentially the fruit of the last week’s labour. It is a detailed look at the ECB’s balance and the related question of whether we can call, what it is that ECB the is doing quantiative easing or not?

Needless to say, I think that this question is an important one in a general context since if my intuition that the epicentre of the global financial and economic crisis has now migrated from the shores of the United States to the periphery of Europe is right, then a detailed look at the ECB’s policies and arsenal is not only merited, it is essential reading.

With the distinct risk of turning this into a cheesy copy of the Oscars show I should thank Edward Hugh for his patient and thorough back-editing of my English language blunders and for his seemingly unlimited availability when I needed someone to sound out about the arguments themselves. All mistakes and mishaps naturally fall on my shoulders and criticism should be directed accordingly. Here I simply reproduce the executive summary but you can download the full report – which is currently in the form of a working paper online here. The analysis includes data up to week 35 (and up to July in the case of monthly data). If you want a copy of the spread sheet, I will willingly provide if you simply let me know.

Executive Summary

Is the ECB deploying a variant of Quantitative Easing in any fashion, way, shape or form?

If you are talking about Quantitative Easing senso strictu then my answer has to be a simple and straightforward no. However, if we stop being quite so by the letter of the book, and broaden our definition slightly, then I would strongly suggest that the battery of credit enhancing measures put in place by the ECB when taken together with the steady increase in securities accepted onto the balance sheet as collateral, do make it evident that the ECB – whether wittingly or unwittingly – has moved into some form of what we could at least call “quasi” Quantitative Easing.

Is the ECB indirectly monetizing the debt issuance of Eurozone governments?

If my initial answer to this question – before actually going through the books – would have been an outright yes, I now feel the need to tread much more carefully on this point, since I have most definitely not been able to conjure up that proverbial smoking gun. In fact, it has proved very difficult to establish any kind of direct link between the amount of funding drawn from the ECB refinancing operations and the purchase of government bonds by the MFIs at the national level.

This is not to say, however, that circumstantial evidence is not available that this process is taking place to some extent, and in some countries. I do believe, for example, that the massive purchase by Spanish MFIs of government bonds in that country does offer prima facie evidence that some such connection may well exist, and thus all I can say at this point is that further research is called for, and especially a much more detailed and discriminating data-mining dig-down.

What are the prospects and possibilities for a viable exit strategy for the ECB from its non-standard monetary policy measures?

The measures collectively known as Enhanced Credit Support are by their very nature flexible. However, if there is anything we have learnt from the operation of monetary policy in Japan over the last twenty years it is that premature exit from the sort of substantial support the ECB is offering only makes matters worse, and in addition this kind of massive liquidity easing is a lot easier to get into than it is to get out of.

A true economic recovery will inevitably be somewhat selective, and it is at this point that the ECB‘s problems will really start, since the recovery will begin in some countries and not in others. To take the extreme case: it will be awfully hard to maintain massive monetary easing for a Spanish economy which remains stuck in an “L” shaped non-recovery if in France headline GDP growth were to start to tick back again towards – say – 2%. Then the real dilemmas which face the ECB will begin in earnest. As such, it is going to be much more difficult for the ECB to instigate that dearly beloved exit strategy than many currently like to believe.

Escaping Original Sin in Hungary?

According to the well known textbook in international economics by Maurice Obstfeld and Paul Krugman [1] the notion of original sin refers to the fact that many developing economies are not able to borrow in their own currencies but are forced to denominate large parts of their sovereign debt in order to attract capital from foreign investors. The argument then goes that if and when the goings get tough those countries will face difficulties paying off their liabilities and once the dust have settled the sin, as it were, has only become more binding when these same economies yet again venture onto international capital markets.

It is interesting to ponder this story in relation to Eastern Europe where far from being a sin the ability to denominate liabilities in foreign currencies such as Euros and Swiss Francs was almost seen as a virtue of modern capital markets during the boom years which followed the famous meeting in Copenhagen which saw the European family expand to 25 countries, a number which now has risen to 27. On the face of it, it is not difficult to see where this virtue came from. Aggressive expansion by western European banks into the CEE and a low volatility environment ultimately driven by the notion of a road map towards convergence bound to bring forth an equalization in living standards and, in the case of many CE economies, a certain membership into the Eurozone underpinned the fact that the ability to shop foreign currency loans was hardly a sin, but a natural counter product of the newly formed European community.

Now, all this has capsized and those economies who where so busy raising rates going into crisis in order to quell the massive inflationary pressures, which further intensified the flow of foreign currency loans, are now effectively stuck with no ability to tweak monetary policy since the low rates which are needed are either impossible (in the case of the Baltics and their Euro pegs) or de-facto impossible in the context of e.g. Hungary and Romania. Moreover, and in a world where major central banks are stuck at the zero bound and where the level of volatility may itself be volatile as we move from optimism to pessimism all that liquidity may yet again prove to be a destabilising factor in the context of Eastern Europe where we were all, I am sure, amazed, to learn a couple of months ago how some analysts were advising clients to play the carry trade with Eastern European economies as designated targets, for more on this see this post.

So what does all this has to do specifically with Hungary? Well, today we learned from Finance Minister Peter Oszko that Hungary would certainly prefer to issue local currency debt in the future, but given the fact that the IMF loan is not, by nature of it being a loan, permanent Hungary also need to find a viable way to make its policy tools work most effectively. The following excerpt is from Bloomberg;

Hungary doesn’t plan to raise foreign-currency debt in the “near future” and will increase sales of forint-denominated bonds to finance the budget, Finance Minister Peter Oszko told Nepszabadsag. “In the short term, the budget doesn’t need foreign- currency denominated financing sources,” Oszko said in an interview with the Budapest-based newspaper. The Finance Ministry has confirmed the comments to Bloomberg. “Increasing forint-based issuance is more worthwhile.”

Hungary sold 1 billion euros ($1.42 billion) of debt last week in its first offering since the flight of investors forced it to take a 20 billion-euro bailout from the International Monetary Fund, the European Union and World Bank in October. The country is working to wean itself off emergency financing. The IMF-led loan, which “secures a comfortable situation,” runs out in March 2010 and the government must work to ensure the country can finance itself from the market at lower rates by then, Oszko said.

“The July auction’s primary importance wasn’t to secure financing but rather to strengthen confidence in the country,” Oszko said. A “smaller” foreign debt sale is possible in the future as “it’s our basic interest to be active in the market.” Hungary could next target U.S. investors with the sale of dollar-based bonds, the newspaper Napi Gazdasag reported today, citing Laszlo Balassy, a Budapest-based executive at Citigroup Inc., which helped organize last week’s sale.

It should immediately be clear that this represents the original sin issue in full vigour although somewhat in reverse one could argue. Consequently and notwithstanding the obvious problems facing Hungary in the context of lowering rates, the country needs to balance the between issuing debt in foreign currency which would mean further currency translation risk and an even further entrenchment of the high domestic interest rates or issuing in domestic currency which might not be possible at current rates (i.e. rates would need to go up further) or simply not viable given the future financing needs.

To put all this in the context of a solid macroeconomic analysis I am in luck since Edward has just dished out an up to date look at Hungary’s economy. As Edward notes straight away, Hungary has now embarked on the great experiment also currently being tested in Latvia of internal devaluation and the long hard climb, through deflation, towards the competitiveness Hungary so badly needs. Now, I know that I tend to move closely together with Edward on many accounts but I dare anyone not to share the sentiment expressed by Edward as he points to the obvious point. The current strategy taken in Hungary to battle the crisis is not working and at some point one really has to stop to ask why.

One striking data point is the fact that while the real economy seems in absolute free fall real wages are still rising and given the inevitable point that Hungary needs wages to fall, and a lot, absent devaluation one wonders silently what kind of contractory jolt the real economy needs in order to engender this effect. Meanwhile, Hungary has also recently pulled out the good old trick of raising the VAT something which will surely to push up the main inflation index, once again pulling in the wrong direction.

As usual Edward is thorough, very thorough, and I can only suggest to spend the 20 minutes it takes to superficially digest his points. Especially the point about a monetary policy trap is mandatory reading. In terms of a summary of the situation the following gets to the heart of the matter;

And in case you had forgotten, here is what is happening to Hungarian GDP: while wages and prices are rising steadily, GDP is in free fall. Year on year it was down 4.7% in Q1 and Hungary’s government currently expects the economy to contract 6.7 percent this year, the most since 1991. My view is a total policy trap is in operation here, since neither monetary (interest rates are currently 9.5%) or fiscal policy are available, so there is little support to put under the economy at this point. The only way to break the circle in my opinion is to let the forint drop, bring down rates, and restructure the CHF loans.

As will no doubt come as a big surprise, I completely agree. Hungary needs to address the already existing asymmetry inherent in the economic edifice which should entail a strategy on how to deal with the stock of CHF loans on the households’ and corporates’ balance sheet. This also gives a final spin on the actual topic of play in this entry.

In all probability the dilemma difficulties facing the Hungarian treasury in terms of constructing a viable and solid platform on which to finance its operations is greatly dependent on the issue with the already existing fx denominated loans. If Hungary were to construct a credible and realistic solution to the issue of how to write down/pay off the stock of CHF loans my guess is that the original sin would be a little easier to escape even if not all together.

[1] Who follow the lead of Eichengreen and Hausmann.

VAT Hikes And Ageing Costs

I think anyone, even those with a sceptical view on the importance of demographics, can agree that there have to be ageing costs for any society, and specifically so in a macroeconomic context. . Moreover, as a natural consequence of ageing population economies need to grow and progress if they are to be able to financially support the ongoing demographic transition. We really don’t need to be growth fundamentalists here, but it is abundantly clear that if an economy such as Germany is going to finance its current and rising old age liabilities it needs growth in output (and income); otherwise the system falters.

Of course, in the absence of growth another way to pay for ageing oncosts is through tax hikes, and in this particular context Germany has provided us with a truly wonderful experiment, since a couple of years ago (1st January 2007, to be exact) the VAT consumption tax was hiked 3 % – in part to try to secure the good functioning of German welfare institutions in the future. As I argued at the time, I found the general interpretation of this initiative strange, and so I tried to provided a rather wonkish theoretical argument to justify my opinion. Time has now passed, and as we can see in countries like Latvia and Hungary this German initiative is now being repeated (or at least the possibility of repeating it is being discussed). So what can we say about what has happened in Germany in the meantime? Continue reading

A Week On the Wild Side (Latvian Edition)

Peering out of the window on a rainy and cold Sunday (election) afternoon in Copenhagen it is difficult not to paraphrase, yet again, one the Economist’s many classic cover stories but really; it sure has been one hell of ride this week in Latvia. One wonders whether politicians and economists in the central bank really want to see what happens come tomorrow as markets and the flow of news re-commence. The truth however is that they really do not have a choice. Consequently and what actually started a little more than a week ago has now steadily turned into the well known story of politicians and official authorities doing their best to maintain a crumbling edifice. Markets, analysts, and commentators, on the other hand, are beginning to smell a rat and this particular rat looks set to gnaw its way right to the core of the Latvian economic edifice in the form of the Latvian peg. Continue reading

Update on the Potential for Devaluation in Latvia

As I pointed out recently in the context of Latvia and the impending potential for a devaluation there is a distinct risk of falling victim to the sin of crying wolf. Yet, as the plot inevitable thickens I am maintaining, as it were, my cry. There are two significant points to think about in the context of what we might call recent developments. First of all there is the news that the 2009 deficit envisaged in the budget before the Latvian parliament will amount to 9.2% of GDP – significantly higher than the original IMF agreed “limit” of 5%, and even well above the latest negotiating objective of the Dombrovskis government of 7%. Of course, this is just number salad but at the end of the day it is important because it determines whether and under what condition the IMF funded bailout packaged continues. The fact that Latvia reports a deficit of this magnitude almost amounts to throwing in towel in my opinion or at least it means that the playing field is now a different one when it comes to IMF funding. Continue reading

Devaluation Imminent in the Baltics?

Even when liars tell the truth, they are never believed. The liar will lie once, twice, and then perish when he tells the truth.

One thing which is certain at the moment is that the rumour mill is grinding hard and that it is very difficult to get a clear picture of what is going on. It is too cumbersome for me to go into the entire background here (I assume most of you are familiar with the Baltic and CEE situation), but if you want some background try this or this which will give you the opportunity to browse a myriad of articles. The situation is however pretty simple. Ever since it became clear that the Baltics was going to suffer not only a hard landing, but a veritable collapse on the back of the financial crisis one obvious question always was whether these economies could maintain the Euro peg throughout the correction process. Continue reading

The Carry Trade and Global Monetary Credit Transmission (Wonkish)

Daedalus warned his son not to fly too close to the sun, nor too close to the sea. Overcome by the giddiness that flying lent him, Icarus soared through the sky curiously, but in the process he came too close to the sun, which melted the wax. Icarus kept flapping his wings but soon realized that he had no feathers left and that he was only flapping his bare arms. And so, Icarus fell into the sea. – Wikipedia entry on Icarus

Whether you see the current “stabilisation phase” as merely temporary or a sign of something more durable, it is hard to escape the feeling that as the discourse on green shoots and second derivatives lingers we seem to be entering a new leg of this crisis. Since, make no mistake about it, as far as the so-called OECD developed economies go, we are very much still stuck in the mire and it is difficult to see where any speedy recovery is going to come from.

On the other hand the “world and all that is the case” is not completely exhausted by the perimeters of these selfsame countries, and it is exactly the potential for an asymmetric “recovery” and how global monetary policy might serve to transmit such a recovery which is the topic of this entry. Continue reading

Horrid Outlook in Ukraine

Not to beat a dead horse or anything, but it seems that Krugman, via Edward, was right after all. This does indeed seem to be a great depression if there ever was one.

(from Bloomberg)

Ukraine’s economy probably shrank as much as 23 percent in the first quarter of the year as the global financial crisis took its toll on the eastern European nation, President Viktor Yushchenko said. “The economic contraction is expected between 20 percent to 23 percent in the first three months of the year,” said Yushchenko today, according to a statement posted on his Web site. “The pace of the decline is one of the fastest in Europe.” Yushchenko urged the government to review the state budget for this year, which still assumes the economy will expand 0.4 percent, according to the statement. A global recession is compounding problems in eastern European economies, which are being battered by a lack of credit, weakening currencies and plunging demand for their products. Ukraine was forced to turn to the International Monetary Fund with other emerging-market countries, including Hungary and Latvia, to boost its financial system in November.

Ukraine’s economy shrank 8 percent in the fourth quarter, the first contraction since 1999. The state statistics committee is expected to release gross domestic product figures for the first quarter in late June.

Of course, we need confirmation and I would not be surprised if the number reported by the government turned out to be wrong (in either direction!), but the the initial shot across the bow suggests a veritable collapse.

Japanese Housewives Back in the Game?

I am sure all those deadly serious investors, analysts, and commentators we hear so much from have been hard at it of late, trying to keep track of the broadest possible range of indicators in an attempt to to discern whether all those shoots of green would continue sprout, or whether what we have been seeing was merely a blip on the horizon of what may well be a very long recession. Clearly, what we have been seeing in the economic data does now seem to be a bit more than a mere blip, although what actually happens next may well take many of the consensus analysts completely by surprise. Continue reading