Italy Braces Itself For The Full Monti

The Italian government, Mario Monti informed the country’s parliament last Thursday, is now planning to concentrate its attentions on achieving economic growth. A timely decision this, since the statistics office announcement a day earlier that the country had once more fallen back  into recession, while not being a surprise nonetheless does constitute a cause for concern.

Not that Italy is any stranger to recession, since the country has now had five of them since entering Europe’s Monetary Union at the turn of the century. In fact the Italian economy has now contracted in eight of the last 15 quarters, and GDP is back in the good old days of 2003, stuck below the level it first attained in the first three months of 2004. And of course it is now going backwards in time again. Depending on the depth of the recession now being provoked it is touch-and-go whether the economy might not at some point even revisit levels last seen in the closing years of the 1990s. And remember, this is not deflation ridden Japan, this is real, not nominal GDP we are talking about here. So far Italy hasn’t been experiencing deflation, or at least not yet it hasn’t. Continue reading

If you don’t want to read about the content, this is the post for you

So, a bit of Euro-summit processology and diplo-speak. Why not? This was a failure of diplomacy, after all – all the states involved are allies and have largely convergent interests, the problem is managing conflict politely, but here we are.

The first question I’d really like answered is why David Cameron didn’t take the same course as the other states that disagreed, and simply say that he needed to consult parliament. It is theoretically possible for a British prime minister to both sign and ratify treaties executively, but it’s been assumed since the first world war that they must be at least seen by the House of Commons, and anyway this one required some very serious legislation at the national level.

I can’t imagine that the Tory hard right would be anything other than delighted by the chance to kick it out, even if the fact of being consulted and given power over a real goddamnit treaty didn’t fix them in itself. Had the Commons killed it, there’s no reason why it wouldn’t just have been another ratification foul-up, like the ones we regularly have with Irish referendums and decisions from the courts in Karlsruhe. Of course, it might never have happened – the treaty will need ratifying, quite probably this will mean one or more referendums, super-majority votes, recourses to the supreme court, and the like.

This raises a further question. Why did we need all 27? They’re not all in the Euro. The Eurogroup is a thing, and the French especially are in favour of it. It is, I suppose, still considered important to pretend that everyone will one day join, but this seems a bit remote as an argument.

And why was daft pork like the location of the European Banking Authority even up for discussion? It’s the sort of thing you expect from someone like Berlusconi, whining that there’s no food in Finland in the hope of some marginal-constituency shiny. The best explanation I can think of was that somebody was hoping that this would derail the whole project, without spoiling Franco-German relations, but it got a bigger response than they expected.

Another way of looking at it is that the European Commission has come out weaker – the new new thing is a pure side-deal, even if the Commission (or at least its EMU Directorate-General) has been very austerity-minded. Either a full 27-state amendment, or a Eurogroup one, would have protected its status and special role.

But then, I seem to recall Daniel Davies arguing that the Commission could be seen as Germany’s soft currency lobby. There ought to be such a thing – it’s Germany! the great exporter! – but it often seems to be nonexistent. On the principle that a revived mark would rise relative to the euro, the logic goes, the European institutions are the lobby for a lower German currency.

If this is so, it makes a lot of sense that the German hard-currency lobby would want to cut out the Commission and even the ECB, which implies going for an intergovernmental solution. Form requires, however, that it stays officially all blue and yellow, so all 27 must be involved in a treaty revision. The French didn’t like the idea much, but liked the idea of openly disagreeing with the Germans less, and hoped the Brits would kill it. The Brits thought it was the final triumph of euro-socialism, or something, and over-reacted. As a result, it went through anyway, with any waverers whipped-in by being told that it was just the Brits being bad Europeans. I think this story fits the facts.

Irrelevant Merkozy

So “Merkel acts to save the euro”, as various British headline writers misleadingly put it. This action consists of proposing that the 17 eurozone states make a side-agreement – therefore not requiring a full Inter-Governmental Conference – to have a European authority scrutinise their budgets and fine them if they run big budget deficits. Crucially, this would be approved by qualified-majority voting rather than unanimity, so there would be no national veto over the sanctions. It is somehow amusing how literally every great and little issue in the European Union seems to end up in a row about qualified-majority voting. Of course, this is an example of the basic truth that politics is about power. But it is in practice pretty rare that the distinction matters much.

Now, don’t kid yourself that any of this is going to happen quickly. All 17 will have to get round a table, agree, ratify, etc. Although Merkel apparently said that it wouldn’t affect German sovereignty (I’m moving home and reliant on spotty Internet connectivity, so I don’t have her actual words to hand, so this may be wrong), I find it hard to imagine that the same little caucus of law professors as always will not demand that the Constitutional Court rule on the matter, so we’ll probably be waiting a good long time while the sages of Karlsruhe mull it over.

But speed is not really the biggest problem here. It’s a big problem – one of the underreported issues in the mainstream media is the degree to which this crisis is still about banks and the dread of a run on the banks, and few things move faster than a bank crisis. Here’s a data point – the volume of funds banks (and big industrial companies that happen to have a bank licence somewhere around, like Siemens) are holding on deposit at the European Central Bank, for fear of putting them anywhere else, is spiking. But it’s not the only problem with this proposal. The problem with this proposal is that it is simply irrelevant in terms of its content.

Had it been in force through the 2000s, what would have been different? It would have been much easier to sanction the decade’s violators of the Stability & Growth Pact – Germany and France. Of course they got sanctioned anyway, but perhaps they would have had to pay a fine. Let’s be charitable for a moment and assume that this would indeed have caused them to run a lower public sector deficit. This would have changed what, precisely? Had it depressed internal demand in Germany, all other things being equal, it would have caused Germany to increase its trade surplus. A bigger trade surplus implies a bigger deficit elsewhere, and it also implies that German and French banks would have lent the private sector “elsewhere” the money they needed to buy the additional exports. An additional problem might have been that, had German bonds been in shorter supply, investors would have sought other AAA-rated assets and piled up even more bubbly mortgage-backed securities, which the banks would have been delighted to sell them.

Perhaps lower deficits in Germany or France would have inspired German and French consumers to spend via the magic of Ricardian equivalence, but this does feel awfully like assuming a pony. You can argue about that.

But one thing this proposal would categorically not have done is to stop Italy or Spain or Ireland running up more public debt. Public debt fell in these countries from 1995 to 2007. Even Portugal and Greece didn’t exactly explode. Ireland would still have a budget surplus if it hadn’t massacred itself to save the banks (in part because the ECB wouldn’t help). Greece, well, perhaps, but it seems to be clear that just yelling at the Greeks is insufficient to fix Greece’s problems.

Public debt/GDP for EU crisis states, 1995-today

We’ve had a massive asset price bubble, funded by an explosion of private debt, largely borrowed from a few huge banks that grew to enormous size processing the international settlements required by the huge intra-eurozone trade imbalance. But this proposal says nothing about asset prices, private debts, banks, or trade, and very little about growth. Instead, if we were to try to reverse engineer this proposal’s purpose from its design, we would have to conclude that the source of the eurozone crisis is that the German Government has too much debt.

And I think we can all agree that, whatever explanation you prefer for the crisis, that isn’t it.

There are other problems, too. The combination of “Durchgriffsrechte” – rights of direct intervention – with no eurobonds has toxic politics, as it gives whoever will “durchgreifen” power without giving them any responsibility, and also doesn’t give the other eurozone states any benefit (like lower interest rates) in exchange for this concession. It seems hard to imagine why anyone would accept this.

Last Days Of Pompeii?

This week we got what seemed to be some good news in the ongoing Euro debt crisis. Bond spreads in many of the countries on Europe’s periphery tightened vis-their German equivalents. Unfortunately we also got some bad news to go with it (no silver lining these days without the accompanying black cloud it seems): the tighter spreads were the result of a weakening of German bunds (or a rise in their yields) following what many considered to be a failed bond auction.
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Occupy the space to the left of the European Council. There’s a lot of it

This morning’s Irish Times reports that German opposition leader, former environment minister, and Social Democrat Sigmar Gabriel was in town. And what did he say? Every damn thing.

THE AUSTERITY measures being imposed on Greece are “mad”, and indicate that Europe learned no lesson from the rise of the Nazi Party, Germany’s main opposition leader said yesterday. Sigmar Gabriel, the chairman of the Social Democratic Party and potential future chancellor, said the measures were “mad” and amounted to an “evil circle”….At a seminar organised by the Institute of International and European Affairs in Dublin yesterday, Mr Gabriel cited the example of Weimar Republic chancellor Heinrich Brüning, who cut successive budgets during the Great Depression. Germany ended up with six million people unemployed. Brüning’s cutbacks contributed to a rise in support for the Nazi Party, which grabbed power in 1933.

He went there. Wham.

Mr Gabriel said it would be “impossible” for Greece to solve its problems without a policy for growth and unemployment. He accused the European Council of leading the country into a “dead-end street”.

Mr Gabriel said countries such as Greece and Italy should have taken advantage of lower interest rates when they joined the euro zone to develop their economies and infrastructure and become more competitive. Instead, they used it for current spending.

That, at least, isn’t controversial. But this is:

He also criticised his own country, which had accumulated about €1 trillion in savings that could have been invested in the real economy, but instead went into high-risk investments and real estate.

Well, yes. As I said back in May, 2010:

Every Sparbuch is the flipside of a tax break for a mobbed-up developer setting fire to a Greek hillside. Obviously, it would be silly to hold individual German savers responsible – but the Great Banks of Frankfurt, the institutions through which the German trade surplus is recycled?

However virtuous all those savers in Exportland were (if you go with Angela Merkel) or however successful German internal devaluation was (if you go with Kantoos) or however ruthless German politicians and executives were in demanding wage cuts in Germany and a massive trade surplus with the rest of Europe (if you go with me), it seems pretty clear that the European financial sector failed to allocate the capital it collected up north into productive uses. Instead, well, we got golf courses in the semi-desert of Andalusia and ships flagged-out to Liberia.

You might not be surprised to find that Gabriel’s remarks were part of a coordinated push. Here’s the piece the German, Swedish, and UK opposition leaders pushed out later in the day. The key points are that austerity everywhere isn’t helping, that something needs to be done about banks, that the politicians have lost legitimacy and authority, and that we need the surplus states to reflate and enjoy some sunshine, already.

It’s high time there’s an opposition program in Europe. This could be better, but it’s a start.

Meanwhile, of all people, Marine Le Pen is going to Occupy Wall Street. That’s what narrative power sounds like.

The ECB is still very much in the game

It was widely reported last week that the Bundestag had “ruled out” or set a “red line” against any further ECB intervention in the market for government bonds. This is nonsense, and based on the common practice of not reading German. The vote, which for a start was a vote taken after debating a statement from Angela Merkel and not anything more concrete, expressed the Bundestag’s agreement with a text containing three statements. The first of these is under the heading “Sachverhalt” (Factual Background) and summarises the current state of play with regard to the EFSF.

The second is headed “Vor diesem Hintergrund stellt der Deutschen Bundestag fest:” (In the light of these facts, the Bundestag understands/recognises/realises) and contains the statements that the Bundestag (I’ll use the abbreviation, Bt. from here on) knows that the EFSF must be used more efficiently, and that it is aware that leveraging it carries a risk, that the existing instruments will be used and that the EFSF shall only be used under the terms of the treaty creating it, and finally, that “with the entry into force of the EFSF, the continuation of the ECB Secondary Market Program is no longer necessary”.

Note that, well, the opinion of the Bt. is a jolly one to have. It explicitly doesn’t say that “The ECB SMP shall not be continued”, and of course the ECB is banned by its charter from accepting any instructions from politicians. Also, this clause – which is the one that was doing the work – is in the first section of the resolution, which merely takes note of its content as facts.

The second section begins very differently: “Der Deutsche Bundestag fordert die Bundesregierung auf:” (The Bt. calls on the Federal Government to…). You will note that we have moved from merely taking note of the facts and expressing an opinion, to a demand from the legislature, which is the supreme power in the German constitution, that the executive do something. There is no reference to the SMP in this section of the document. The only reference to the ECB in it refers to the fact that it is forbidden to buy government bonds direct from government, rather than buying them in the open market or accepting them as collateral on the discount window. This neither rules out continued ECB intervention, nor does it even rule out the EFSF buying bonds from governments and then selling them to the ECB (or, if it gets its bank licence, posting them for rediscount).

On Friday, of course, the rate on Italian paper hit 6% and, as has repeatedly happened before, the ECB presses rolled into action. In fact, it seems that the ECB is operating an implicit decision-rule that it will buy whenever the rate on Italian debt hits 6%. There’s a nice discussion here of the semantics of Merkel’s use of the words “firewall” and “Schutzwall” – the most common meaning of the first is something which selectively permits access to a network, and the second manages to combine both Nazi and East German connotations in one sweeping infelicity.

But it seems to me that the ECB is operating something more like an electric fence. Cows will try to push through the electric fence a few times, unwisely prodding it with their sensitive noses and getting zapped. But then they will leave well alone. The question is how often you need to zap a bond trader before they get the point.

UK shadow chancellor, Ed Balls, for one, got the point faster than either the cows or the bond trader:

I think the most important thing in the markets today is that the European Central Bank has actually intervened and bought Spanish and Italian debt and that shows that the ECB is doing its job. But fundamentally will there be the scale of financial backing for sovereign countries like Italy? We don’t know. What will the actual details of this plan be? We don’t really know. What is going to be the bank recapitalisation? We don’t know. Will the European economy grow next year? That’s really in doubt…I don’t think it’s sensible for Britain to make bilateral contributions to a euro bailout fund. The ECB should be doing this job.

Meanwhile, perhaps we should all worry more about the fact that the European Council communiqué promised “very specific measures” to boost competitiveness and growth, without naming any very specific measures. It’s reminiscent of the famous company launched during the South Sea Bubble to “carry on an enterprise of great advantage, but no-one to know what it is”. But this is the opposite – the South Sea Anti-Bubble, even if the original South Sea Company was in fact a device to inflate away government debt.

Update: Mooo!

Yes, the banks are to blame

Daniel Davies’s effort to become the most popular man in Britain has, apparently, not developed to his advantage, to quote the Emperor Hirohito. It struck me that there are two opposed explanations for the unusual toxicity of the comments thread that ensued, and they tell us quite a lot about the Great Bubble and the Great Recession that followed.

The first would be Daniel’s explanation. Look at them! It took only six comments for someone to analogise him to a soldier whose commander pays him in whiskey and cigarettes to cut the ears off prisoners, and sixty-five for someone to compare him to one of the anonymous organisers of the Holocaust. We got to Josef Stalin by comment 115 and to Megan McArdle by 108. Surely, this is evidence that there is an unreasoning and unproductive rage around at anything that smacks of banks, bankers, or banking.

The second would be mine. Fans of Daniel Davies’s work since the distant era of will appreciate that he is a practised and expert troll, and distinguished among the guild of ancient Norwegian bridge-guardians by the fact he can turn it on and off as desired. Knowing that bankers are unpopular (were they ever popular?), and that Crooked Timber is a website full of left-wing people, he crafted a post that would cause them all to freak out amusingly.

You will of course notice that the basic distinction here is that one explanation is demand-driven and one supply-driven. The first assigns agency to the buyer, the second to the seller. The distinction is important in economics – one of the most standard assumptions is that consumer sovereignty holds and that firms are generally price-takers. Another key assumption is that industry fundamentally responds to demand. Electrical engineers would say that it is load-following, like a power plant whose output can be throttled up or down to respond to the needs of the grid.

In itself, this isn’t controversial. Industries produce what they can sell. There are lags in the supply-chain, and it’s possible to have temporary shortages or surpluses, but basically, the rate of production is both constrained and driven by demand. But the stronger form of this argument, and the one that is baked into essentially all economic models, is that not just the quantity of goods, but also their quality and kind, is demand driven. The distinction between drivers and constraints is important here. It is obvious, and trivial, to say that things nobody will buy won’t be produced for very long. But that is only half the argument.

How did we decide to try making fireguards out of chocolate, or self-certifying mortgages with negative-amortising interest rates, in the first place? Obviously, there are cases where new products do respond to an identifiable demand. At the level of the whole economy, though, this implies that every conceivable product or service already exists in latent form in the minds of customers, as if there was a statue in every block of stone waiting to get out. This is…somehow implausible and unsatisfying. Among other things, it has the curious consequence that being really true to the core assumptions of economics implies eliminating the role of the entrepreneur, at least as an inventor or product designer rather than as an operational manager.

If entrepreneurs are a thing, on the other hand, we have to accept the possibility that firms have agency in structuring the markets they sell into, that even if aggregate supply doesn’t create its own aggregate demand, it is possible for specific supply to create its own specific demand. It’s Milan fashion week, after all – an institution exquisitely dedicated to the proposition that producers can at least try to define what consumers will want.

Now, back to the mortgage market. Mortgage brokers are a fine example of a business that really is demand-driven. People come to them and say how much house they are trying to buy, and the broker tries to find someone who will lend them the money. As they were both in competition as firms, and usually rewarded on commission as individual workers, their structural incentives were to follow the housing market wherever it went. In that sense, property buyers had real agency and hence culpability. The broker/originator sector was also meant to evaluate their creditworthiness, but as it didn’t take the risk on the loans itself, it didn’t have any incentive to turn people down. It had agency, and therefore also blame.

But what about the banks? Just treating them as a normal business is illuminating. Businesses invent new products all the time – sometimes following demand, sometimes reaching ahead of it. Sometimes, what they invent is dangerous to the public and they have to be restrained. Nobody would argue, for example, that in inventing the RBMK nuclear reactor, the Soviet nuclear industry wasn’t berserkly irresponsible and directly to blame when one blew up.

And one product the banks surely did invent was outsourced mortgage-servicing. This practice may yet prove to be one of the most pernicious of the Great Bubble, not because it led to illegality as such (although there’s plenty of that), but because it is a major obstacle to recovery, and it is the more profitable the longer it stays that way. When lenders were responsible for collecting payments and dealing with borrowers themselves, they were much more likely to be reasonable with borrowers who struggled to keep up the payments. They had good economic reasons for this; typically, they would recover much more of their money in a negotiated settlement than in a foreclosure, an expensive process in itself that usually ends with the property going for auction at a fire-sale price.

But once the servicing function is outsourced, the incentives are actually reversed. Not only does the servicer, the party who has direct contact with the borrower, have no incentive to agree a modification of the original loan, they have every reason to insist on foreclosure. They get paid based on the tasks they carry out, and foreclosure generates a lot of lawyering and letters, all of them chargeable to the lender.

Now, there are three ways out of a balance-sheet recession. One is economic growth itself. As, I recall, Daniel Davies once said, if you are in debt as an individual, the best solution of all is to increase your income if it is at all possible. And the Kulmhof-Ranciere study argues that increasing real wages is the best way out of the crisis at the macro-level. Another is inflation. And the point has been made, by one Daniel Davies among others, that inflation is a rather simple mechanism to adjust all sorts of contracts that were set at nominal prices that have become unpayable, one which avoids all the complex machinery of courts and loan officers.

And a third is bankruptcy, in which we recognise by law the fact that both the lender and the borrower agreed on a contract that has become impossible to honour, and both of them share in the cost of cramming it down to a realistic level. Here is a case in which a major new product invented by the financial sector, in advance of demand, is directly blocking one of the three roads to economic recovery. To what extent the banks are responsible for the lack of progress on the other two is left as a topic for discussion.

In my next post, I’m going to look at some more people who are to blame. They are not Greek schoolteachers.

Maggie Thatcher, Hard ECUs, and the Eurozone shambles

House of Commons, 30 October 1990 —

Mr. Terence Higgins (Worthing)  Will my right hon. Friend [the PM, Mrs Thatcher] take time between now and the conference in December to explain to her European colleagues what any first-year economic student could tell them, which is that the imposition of a single currency, as opposed to a common currency, would rule out for all time the most effective means of adjusting for national differences in costs and prices? Will she explain that that in turn would cause widespread unemployment, which would probably exist on a perpetual basis, and very serious financial imbalances?

The Prime Minister Yes, I agree entirely with my right hon. Friend. It would do just that. It would also mean that there would have to be enormous transfers of money from one country to another. It would cost us a great deal of money. One reason why some of the poorer countries want it is that they would get those big transfers of money. We are trying to contest that. If we have a single currency or a locked currency, the differences come out substantially in unemployment or vast movements of people from one country to another. Many people who talk about a single currency have never considered its full implications.

But wait, there’s more.

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Crying All The Way To The Bank

Ireland’s Minister for Finance Michael Noonan is an optimistic man. He is also a persistent one. He is optimistic, since he clearly feels that his country’s 85 billion euro IMF/EU programme is going to work as planned, and he is persistent as he patently refuses to let sleeping dogs lie. The dogs in question here would be the bondholders of Anglo Irish Bank and Irish Nationwide Building Society senior debt. The heir to these banks owes them some 3.8 billion euros, and the first repayment of 719 million euros of Anglo debt falls due on November 2.
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