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!

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?

The wealth of the masses

From the Davos-timed Oxfam analysis of global wealth distribution –

In 2015 the net wealth of the 3.6 billion people living in the bottom 50
percent was $1.75 trillion.

That means average wealth for those 3.6 billion people was US$486. It’s a wonder they’re not all trying to move to richer countries, but at that wealth level, they probably can’t afford to!

Asymptotic Austerity

OBR_Nov2015

If George Osborne continues to be able to find enough new future cash via changed modeling assumptions to spread around, he might yet get the growth of GDP, and eventually the level, back to where it would have been before austerity started!

Figure source Office for Budget Responsibility Economic and Fiscal Outlook November 2015. Chart 2.1: Selected vintages of ONS real GDP estimates and OBR forecasts.

Chasing the numbers

IMF statement on Ukraine, yesterday –

Despite these positive developments, in view of the larger than expected economic decline in the first half of the year, the mission revised down growth projections for 2015 to -11 percent.

IMF previously published growth projection for 2015 — in August:

The 2015 baseline growth projection has been marked down to -9 percent (relative to -5½ percent at the EFF approval), driven by a delayed pick up in industrial production, construction, and retail trade, and expectations of a weaker agricultural season.

So in 2 months, from a projection already set over half way into the year, another 2 percentage points has been knocked off the growth rate, which itself is now nearly 6 percentage points off its original assumption. And that’s in a context where the eastern conflict situation has been stable compared to the earlier part of the year.

With the business news industry about to fixate on every number that is uttered in Lima at the IMF-World Bank meetings, it’s worth considering the shelf life of these projections.

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 Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City central bankers symposium 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 over Spain 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.

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?

Continue reading

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.