Secular Stagnation Part II – On Bubble Business Bound

“I now suspect that the kind of moderate economic policy regime…… that by and large lets markets work, but in which the government is ready both to rein in excesses and fight slumps – is inherently unstable.”
Paul Krugman – The Instability of Moderation

“Conventional macreconomic theory leaves us in a very serious problem, because we all seem to agree that whereas you can keep the federal funds rate at a low level forever it’s much harder to do extraordinary measures that go beyond that forever. But the underlying problem may be there forever. It’s much more difficult to say, well we only needed deficits during the short period of the crisis if equilibrium interest rates can’t be achieved given the prevailing rate of inflation.”
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Mario Draghi’s Ongoing Faustian Pact

Word has it that Mario Draghi is busily working up a new version of his “whatever it takes” methodology. This time the objective is not saving the Eurozone, but maintaining the region’s inflation at or near the ECBs official 2% inflation objective. The first time round the President of the Euro Area’s central bank had it easy, since market participants took him at his word and he effectively needed to do nothing to comply. This time though, as they say, it will be different.

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Greek Re-entry (or Grentry) Not The Game Changer Many Think It Is

There is no doubt that Greece’s recent bond sale was an exciting and even invigorating moment for many people. The WSJ’s Simon Nixon, for example, called it “a symbolically important moment for the euro crisis”. Reuters’ Marius Zaharia suggested the speed of the come back could even be a game-changer for the heavily indebted southern European country. Certainly there can be little doubt that, as Nixon puts it, the turn round in market fortunes was a remarkable achievement, illustrative of just “how far market sentiment toward Southern Europe has changed”. 
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On The Trail Of Italian Debt

Looking for trends and correlations in that landslide of economic data which arrives, day in and day out, on our desks is normally something akin to trying to find a needle in a very large and raggedy haystack. From time to time, however, some things are just to obvious not to be noticed, like the ever rising levels of debt on the EU periphery and the growing demand from political leaders there for some kind of QE type initiative from the European central bank, for example. Sure, there is no obvious causal connecting here – the missing “middle term” linking the two would probably be all that ongoing deflation risk – but the inability of governments to contain their debt levels is a consequence of having low growth and low inflation, as is the wish being ever more insistently expressed by Southern Europe’s political leaders that the ECB were more like the Bank of Japan. Continue reading

Inflate!

Here’s an interesting chart.

The eurozone version of this is the debate about to what extent the relative increase in prices in southern Europe in the 2000s represented an increase in wage costs, and to what extent it represented wider inflation. I certainly remember a lot of concern about “mileuristas”, and of course the Greek version of living on €1,000 a month was living on €700 a month. The classic example is the fact that the CPI doesn’t include housing costs, and there was a housing bubble, dammit.

I used to be quite snarky about people who claimed there was really huge inflation because they saw someone selling this or that for so much and it wasn’t like that in my day. I am less so now. In a real sense, if inflation doesn’t include food or housing or healthcare or energy, is it a useful measurement?

So you might think I would be pleased at the content of this piece. But I’m very far from it. The reason is, basically, Piketty.

If you want r to get under g and stay there, inflation and financial-repression is a big part of the picture. And for this to be of any use, it has to be proper inflation – i.e. the sort that includes wages. You could make a case that the price stability the ECB achieved was actually more like “wage stability”. I wonder if prices expressed in terms of earnings is a measure we should monitor.

Firmly Anchored Expectations, No Postponement of Purchases?

This article from former European Central Bank board member Jürgen Stark (Doomsayers risk a self-fulfilling prophecy) has been occasioning a lot of commentary over the last week or so. According to Stark, the current deflation debate “lacks three important points: an in-depth analysis of the forces driving inflation down; a clear distinction between “benign disinflation” and “bad deflation”, with a spiral of decreasing prices, wages and output triggered by negative expectations; and a better understanding of the European Central Bank’s approach”. Continue reading

Price and quantity

An upshot from the last post. Markets can adjust by price, or by quantity. Economics usually assumes that they do both simultaneously, although the maths usually doesn’t work that way. There is no reason I can think of to prefer either mode of adjustment a priori, but practical applications will usually show that one or the other would be better.

In the radical view that markets are institutions that are defined by the societies that create them, it is a very important question whether a new one (or an old one undergoing change) will tend to adjust price-first or quantity-first.

Still in search of requisite variety: UK housing edition

The search for requisite variety goes on. At the moment, the big guessing game in British macroeconomics is “when does the Bank put up interest rates?” The following story suggests that this is beside the point.

The statement noted that mortgage demand was up 40% in the year to January, while surveys by the main mortgage lenders suggested prices were around 10% higher in February than a year earlier.

It said: “In a continuation of a longer-term trend, mortgages at loan-to-income ratios above four times accounted for a higher share of new mortgages in the third quarter of 2013 than at any time since the data series began in 2005. New mortgage lending at high loan-to-value ratios remained low by historical standards, though the number of mortgage products offering higher loan-to-value ratios had doubled over the previous six months.

“Given the increasing momentum, the FPC will remain vigilant to emerging vulnerabilities, will continue to monitor conditions closely and will take further proportionate and graduated action if warranted.”

Threadneedle Street intends to oblige banks and building societies to carry out stringent stress tests later this year to see whether they would find themselves in trouble in the event of a slump in house prices or a sharp rise in interest rates.

Oh jesus here we go again

Yeah. Interestingly, most of the classic bubble pathologies are showing up – try this for size – but for the first time in my life, this seems to be accompanied by dread, not euphoria. Nobody is cheering.

These stress tests are interesting. First of all, the fact that the Bank needs to audit the banks to work out if it is actually possible to increase the policy rate without triggering a major bank failure is itself evidence that the situation I described in the original In Search of Requisite Variety post is coming to pass. The rest of the economy is more than lacklustre but the housing market is going ape again.

Secondly, the version of that story that appeared in the paper contained several paragraphs that don’t appear in the web version. For example:

Amid growing concern that the central London property market is already overheating, the Bank’s financial policy committee said that from June it wanted to have the powers to set the interest rate scenarios lenders would have to consider when granting home loans

Another quotes Brian Hilliard of Société Générale as saying:

Both of these metrics, loan-to-value and loan-to-income, appear in the list of potential future tools the committee could use. The FPC would probably move first on loan-to-income. The problem with controlling loan-to-value ratios is that it might be thought to run contrary to the idea of the government’s Help to Buy scheme

What’s going on here is that the Bank is seeking requisite variety. Specifically, they’re trying to create policy tools to address a housing bubble without imposing monetary contraction on the whole economy. Setting “the interest rate scenarios lenders must consider” and then auditing them should lead the lenders to turn down more applications for very large mortgages. Setting a limit in terms of loan-to-income would have a similar effect on mortgages applied for by borrowers who might struggle to repay them. Rather than changing the price of credit economy-wide, this would mean that some new applications would be credit-rationed.

This, of course, represents finance being re-regulated. In the de-regulation era, it was thought that the big issue was the overall price of credit, which a central bank could control. Its distribution among borrowers, sectors, and geography would find its own level. Brad DeLong’s Republic of the Central Bankers gets at this weird combination of enormous central-planning power vested in the Fed, and its restriction to hugely general and rough measures.

It was hoped that this represented a sensible compromise between the need for a stabilisation policy, and the avoidance of what was thought to be harmful bureaucracy. But another way of looking at the republic of the central bankers is that it is rather like Russia – it has a stash of nuclear weapons with which it can destroy the economy and that’s basically it. Precisely because its chief policy options are “Nobody notices” and “Blow everything up”, its day to day influence is often less than it imagines. It is also superbly, peerlessly unaccountable.

I am much in favour of re-creating a variety of policy responses. I am, though, worried that the regulatory power is being re-created in the unaccountable and often explicitly anti-democratic domain of the central bank. This is evidence, though, that the political system itself lacks requisite variety. Who do I vote for to re-regulate mortgage finance? As a result, the problem landed with the people who did have enough degrees of freedom to do something: the Bank.

Mark Carney agrees.

“This focus initially made sense since one of the greatest challenges for macroeconomic policy in the late 1970s and 1980s was the fight against inflation,” he said. “However, with time, a healthy focus became a dangerous distraction.”

He described the move by Brown in 1997 to give the Bank independence to set interest rates focusing on an inflation target as a “deconstruction of the old model of central banking”.

“In my view, while there were enormous innovations of enduring value during this period, the reductionist vision of a central bank’s role that was adopted around the world was fatally flawed,” Carney said in his Mais Lecture at the Cass Business School in London.