It’s not just the currency

Paul Krugman writing in June 2012 on the UK-Spain interest differential, attributing it to the constraints of currency union -

Then there’s the lender of last resort issue, which turns out to be broader than even those who knew their Bagehot realized. Credit for focusing on this issue goes to Paul DeGrauwe, who pointed out that national central banks are potentially crucial lenders of last resort to governments as well as private financial institutions. The British government basically can’t face a “rollover” crisis in which bond buyers refuse to purchase its debt, because the Bank of England can always step in as financier of last resort. The government of Spain, however, can face such a crisis – and there is always the risk that fears of such a crisis, leading to default, could become a self-fulfilling prophecy. As DeGrauwe has pointed out, Britain’s fiscal outlook does not look notably better than Spain’s. Yet the interest rate on British 10-year bonds was 1.7% at the time of writing, whereas the rate on Spanish 10-years was 6.6%; presumably this liquidity risk was playing an important role in the difference.

At the Jackson Hole central bankers conference yesterday, one of the more interesting papers, by Faust and Leeper –

Why, if Spanish debt was in safe territory, did its 10-year bond yields begin to rise in 2011? Figure 14 suggests that more than bond-market vigilantism was in play. During the decade of good fiscal housekeeping, Spanish inflation was chronically above union-wide inflation, at times by more than a percentage point. Thoughtful observers would note that in a monetary union, Spain’s persistently higher-than-union-wide inflation rates could damage the country’s competitiveness and future growth prospects. With weak future economic growth come lower tax revenues and higher social safety-net expenditures that reduce the expected flow of Spanish primary surpluses and shift the country’s fiscal limit in toward prevailing and growing debt levels. Whether from lack of competitiveness or some other source, Spain did experience a second dip in economic growth from 2011 through the middle of 2013. Unemployment continued the upward march that it began during the recession, rising well above 20 percent before peaking at 27 percent in February 2013. These developments raised concerns about Spain’s ability to finance government debt that rose from 69 to 92 percent of GDP between 2011 and 2013. Movement of debt toward Spain’s fiscal limit coincided with an inward shift in the country’s limit distribution, a combination that Bi’s (2012) fiscal limit analysis predicts would raise risk premia.
Fiscal limits tell us that debt-GDP ratios are an incomplete—and potentially misleading— summary of a country’s fiscal health. What matters is the distance between current debt and the fiscal limit distribution. The position and shape of that distribution, in turn, depend on the great many factors that determine the discounted value of future primary surpluses. As the Spanish and U.S. fiscal stress examples illustrate, interactions between cyclical outcomes (inflation and unemployment) and longer-run developments (fiscal financing and sustainability) run in both directions to compound the confounding dynamics.

Bottom line: the interest differential that seemingly favoured the UK is about more than the Bank of England’s ability to finance the government in a crisis. It’s also about the other factors which determine the likelihood of such a crisis in the first place.

Growth is a driver of migration. Get used to it.

A seriously important blog post. Migration is a problem of success, not failure.

As sub-Saharan Africa increasingly rises out of deep poverty, more people can afford to emigrate and are aware that life might be better somewhere else. The propensity to migrate is positively correlated with real per-capita GDP. In Latin America, however, the correlation is negative. Potential migrants are likely to be better off at home, except the poorest of the poor.

The conclusions we can draw from this are salutary. First of all, they’re not going away. The development train has left the station, and one of its effects is that migration has become an option. Perhaps the pressure will reduce as more countries reach the middle-income level, but it’s not as if there aren’t plenty of migrants from Latin America to the US.

Second, neither calling for more development aid (that you have no intention of delivering) or giving lectures on corruption and good governance will help at all, because migrants, as opposed to refugees, are not motivated by desperation but rather by hope. Nor will yelling about “benefits”, because they’re not beggars but economic migrants in the truest sense of the word.

It’s also worth pointing out that the distinction between a refugee and a migrant is a spectrum rather than a bright line – if you can’t think of a way to persecute people by economic means you’re not trying, and as Rick points out above, development encourages movement for refugees, too.

Third, very visibly, they are following the same routes trade follows, carrying their smartphones and wearing their FC Barca shirts. You can’t have 44-tonne trucks driving in two or three days from Dover to eastern Turkey and not have people moving along the same roads.

The overwhelming conclusion is that we’ll just have to live with them. Punkt, ende. However I expect a lot of squirming on the hook before this sinks in. Like the War on Drugs or the rules of the eurozone, immigration is one of those issues where nobody believes in the system, nobody would design anything like it again, but it stumbles forward by the sheer inertia of incumbency.

What is happening to the soft Eurosceptics?

A while ago I wrote at the Pol that British public opinion had been moving steadily towards staying in the European Union. I used the YouGov poll series as my source. This is a different polling firm, Survation, but it is telling that their basic result is 45% YES, 37% NO, 18% DK. They also provide a breakdown of voters by level of conviction.

suv

There are substantially more hard YES voters than hard NOs. Interestingly, there are fewer soft YES voters than soft NOs (12% vs 14%), which is good news for the YES – they have fewer potential switchers from their side, and more potential gains from the NOs.

Survation polled the same question back in May, and they got 47% YES 40% NO 13% DK. However, at the time they had a different relationship between soft and hard votes; 30% soft-YES, 16% hard-YES, 27% soft-NO, 12% hard-NO.

Clearly there’s movement from the “soft” category to the “hard” category. It’s not the same for the NOs as it is for the YESs, though. The percentage of hard YESs has doubled (16% to 30%), while that of soft-YESs has fallen only 4 percentage points (16% to 12%). The percentage of hard NOs has increased rather less (13% to 23%), while the soft NOs have roughly halved (28% to 14%). Although both camps seem to be firming up their vote, the YESs are gaining overall and the additional voters are coming from the soft NOs. This is roughly what I predicted in the Pol.

This is fascinating, given that since May we’ve had the #Grexit drama and a massive refugee crisis. Perhaps, though, when bits of Kent can’t restock the shops because the M20 is full of lorries parked up due to disruption at the Tunnel and the port of Calais, it’s unusually obvious that we are in fact part of Europe, and it’s not as if leaving the EU would change anything. Does anyone imagine the tunnel would be bricked up, or the flow of trade down the M20 just stop? No. Does anyone seriously want that? I doubt it.

Greek politics and poisonous statistics – an on-going saga

Why the Troika and the EU member states find it so difficult to trust Greece

The word “trust” has been mentioned time and again in reports on the tortuous negotiations on Greece. One reason is the persistent deceit in reporting on debt and deficit statistics, including lying about an off market swap with Goldman Sachs: not a one-off deceit but a political interference through concerted action among several public institutions for more then ten years.

As late as in the July 12 Euro Summit statement “safeguarding of the full legal independence of ELSTAT” was stated as a required measure. Worryingly, Andreas Georgiou president of ELSTAT from 2010, the man who set the statistics straight, and some of his staff, have been hounded by political forces, also Syriza. Further, a Greek parliamentary investigation aims at showing that foreigners are to blame for the odious debt, which should not be paid while there is no effort to clarify a decade of falsifying statistics.

In Iceland there were also voices blaming its collapse on foreigners but the report of the Special Investigation Committee silenced these voices. – As long as powerful parts of the Greek political class are unwilling to admit to past failures it might prove difficult to solve its results: the excessive debt and deficit.

“This is all the fault of foreigners!” In Iceland, this was a common first reaction among some politicians and political forces following the collapse of the three largest Icelandic banks in October 2008. Allegedly, foreign powers were jealous or even scared of the success of the Icelandic banks abroad or aimed at taking over Icelandic energy sources. In April 2010 the publication of a report by the Special Investigation Committee, SIC, effectively silenced these voices. It documented that the causes were domestic: failed policies, lax financial supervision, fawning faith in the fast-growing banking system and thoroughly reckless, and at times criminal, banking.

As the crisis struck, Iceland’s public debt was about 30% of GDP and budget surplus. Though reluctant to seek assistance from the International Monetary Fund, IMF, the Icelandic government did so in the weeks following the collapse. An IMF crisis loan of $2.1bn eased the adjustment from boom to bust. Already by the summer of 2011 Iceland was back to growth and by August 2011 it completed the IMF programme, executed by a left government in power from early 2009 until spring 2013. Good implementation and Iceland’s ownership of the programme explains the success. For Ireland it was the same: it entered the crisis with strong public finances and ended a harsh Troika programme late 2013; its growth in 2014 was 4.8%.

For Greece it was a different story: high budget deficit and high public debt were chronic. From 1995 to 2014 it had an average budget deficit of -7%. Already in 1996, government debt was above 100% of GDP, hovering there until the debt started climbing worryingly in the period 2008 to 2009 – far from the prescribed Maastricht euro criteria of budget deficit not exceeding 3% and public debt no higher than 60% of GDP. Both Greek figures had however one striking exception: they dived miraculously low, below their less glorious averages in time for joining the euro. Yet, only the deficit number ever went below the required Maastricht criteria, which enabled Greece to join the euro in 2001.

Greece had an extra problem not found in Iceland, Ireland or any other crisis-hit EEA countries: in addition to dismal public finances for decades there is the even more horrifying saga of deliberate hiding and falsifying economic realities by misreporting Excessive Deficit Procedure, EDP and hide debt and deficit with off market swaps.*

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Ireland and Greece, again

Hans-Werner Sinn has an op-ed in Saturday’s New York Times calling (again) for a Greek exit from the Euro, a recommendation on which he agrees, as he notes, with Paul Krugman and Joseph Stiglitz. Part of his argument is that is that an official lending “bailout” program within the Euro won’t work because it will impede the necessary decline in local prices to make Greece competitive again within the single currency. His evidence that not getting a bailout improves competitiveness is … Ireland:

Take the case of Ireland. Like Greece, Ireland became too expensive, as interest rates fell sharply during the introduction of the euro. When the bubble burst, in late 2006, no fiscal rescue was available. The Irish tightened their belts and underwent a drastic internal devaluation by cutting wages, which in turn led to lower prices for Irish goods both in absolute and relative terms. This made the Irish economy competitive again.

But, you might object, I have a clear memory of Ireland getting a Troika bailout? Indeed –

Granted, Ireland also received fiscal aid. But that came much later, toward the end of 2010, and when it came, the internal devaluation stopped almost immediately. Twelve of the 13 percentage points of the Irish decline in relative product prices came before that date.

This interpretation of Ireland plays an important role in Sinn’s recommendation for Greece: it showed that it’s possible to manage a real devaluation without a bailout, but Greece began too late and had too far to go for this route to be feasible, hence it should leave the Euro.

But is this valid?

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IMF: Eastern Mediterranean country with unfair debt service requirement

From new IMF report on a certain country –

The case for fiscal adjustment is also grounded in fairness. Without it and with ever more debt, interest payments will soar to some 12 percent of GDP, or about 40 percent of total spending, crowding out essential social programs and infrastructure projects and largely benefitting public debt holders at the expense of the less-privileged. Thus lack of fiscal adjustment is also costly and inequitable.

That country where debt service will ever more crowd out social spending and be increasingly unfair: Lebanon.

Pofalla

Remember Roland Pofalla? Sure ya do. The minister in charge of Angela Merkel’s private office, and therefore Germany’s intelligence services, who vehemently denied anyone had been spied upon when the Snowden leaks hit. Pofalla denied everything, on the basis that the Americans had told him so. When it became clear from the documents that huge amounts of mobile network data were available in XKEYSCORE from a German source, he said it came from the German army’s field ELINT team in Afghanistan.

At every turn he denied everything, and it may have been him who invented the talking point that European intelligence services picked things out like a harpoon, rather than scooping everything up like a trawler, like the horrible Americans. This would later be used repeatedly to justify French surveillance legislation and was presumably coordinated with them. Of course, you can’t “pick out” items of signals intelligence without first scooping them up and examining them to see if they’re the ones you want to “pick out”.

Now it turns out they were listening to Pofalla’s mobile phone, on the number he still uses today.

Water under the bridge

From that Eurogroup Greece prior actions draft still under discussion in the middle of the night in Brussels –

There are serious concerns regarding the sustainability of Greek debt. This is due to the easing of policies during the last twelve months, which resulted in the recent deterioration in the domestic macroeconomic and financial environment.

It’s a truly remarkable statement that concerns about the sustainability of Greek debt only arose in the last year, since the 2010 IMF bailout — an event that everyone, including the IMF, seems to have forgotten — was only rammed through by ignoring the normal IMF debt sustainability criterion.

UPDATE: The identical statement is in the final draft.

 

What Icelandic business practices can (possibly) tell us about China

Many controlling shareholders in China have pledged shares as collaterals for bank loans – this was a common practice in Iceland up to the October 2008 banking collapse. Now, this practice seems to be causing suspensions of trading in shares in China. If this is indeed a widespread Chinese practice the well-studied effects in Iceland provide a chilling lesson: when the steady rise of Icelandic share prices, both in banks and other companies stopped and prices fell this practice turned into a major calamity for the banks and companies involved. In hindsight, it was a sign of an incestuous and dysfunctional business environment. The Icelandic experience was well covered in the 2010 report by the Icelandic Special Investigation Committee, SIC, and provides food for thought for other countries where these practices surface.

One of the most stunning and shocking findings of the Icelandic SIC report was the widespread use of shares as collaterals for loans in all Icelandic banks, small and large but most notably the three largest ones – Kaupthing, Landsbanki and Glitnir.

It is necessary to distinguish between two types of lending against shares as practiced in Iceland: one is a bank funding purchase of its own shares, with only the shares as collaterals. The other type is taking other shares as collaterals.

These loans with shares as collaterals were mainly offered to the banks’ largest shareholders – in the big banks these were the main Icelandic business leaders – their partners and bank managers. In the smaller banks local business magnates who in many cases were partners to those Icelandic businessmen who operated abroad, as well as in Iceland. Thus, this practice defined a two tier banking system: with services like these to a small group of clients – that I have called the “favoured clients” – and then normal services for anyone else.

As a general banking model it would not make sense – the risk is far too great. But this lending mechanism and the ensuing stratospheric risks seem to have been entirely unobserved by not only the regulators in Iceland but also abroad where the Icelandic banks operated.

The SIC report, published 10 April 2010, explained in depth the effects of shares as collaterals: when share prices fell the banks could not make margin calls without aggravating the situation further. Consequently the banks lost their independent standing vis à vis their largest shareholders and clients – effectively, the banks and the business elite were tied to the same mast on the same ship and all would sink together in case the ship ran aground (as then happened).

Being familiar with the Icelandic pre-collapse situation it was with great interest that I read an article in the FT,* explaining what might be the reason behind the suspended trading in shares of almost 1500 Shanghai- and Shenzen-listed companies, mostly on the ChiNext stock exchange:

“Some analysts believe the suspensions are instead related to one of the scariest “known unknowns” surrounding the market meltdown — just how many controlling shareholders have pledged their shares as collateral for bank loans.”

If this is indeed the case the Icelandic experience indicates a truly scary outlook and dysfunctional Chinese banking. There might be further troubles ahead.

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