The Perrenial Euro Story (or lack of it)

Brad Setser has a post, the perrenial dollar story, which IMHO, has one large and significant ommission: it doesn’t really mention the euro. Personally I don’t really see how you can consider the future evolution of the dollar without taking the euro into account. This realisation provoked a rather long comment from me on Brad’s blog, and it is this comment, in a slightly modifed form, that I am now posting here. (Update: incidentally, I notice that Claus Vistessen has two highly relevant summaries of the great greenback debate (here, and here) which. among other things, serve as an excellent introdiction to the issues involved).
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When The Curves Invert

Two bits of news this week appear to be unrelated. The interesting question is whether appearances are once more deceptive.

Firstly the US Treasury note situation:

At 6:23 am ET. the 10-year note yielded 4.393 percent while the two-year note yielded 4.396 percent.

Or as the FT puts it:

Yields on 10-year US Treasuries briefly fell below those on two-year notes on Tuesday for the first time in five years – a rare event that in the past has often heralded a recession.

Now there is – more or less – a consensus of opinion that this is not a harbinger of imminent recession this time round. So what then does it mean? Aha, would that we knew! There has however been another curve inversion was officially announced during the last week. According to this AFP report:

Japan’s population fell for the first time in 2005, the government said, calling it a “turning point” that will force the world’s second largest economy to adapt to a rapidly aging society….Deaths are likely to outnumber births by about 10,000 this year, the first decline since 1899 when Japan began compiling the data, health ministry figures showed

.”

The data suggest that Japan’s population may actually have been falling since October 2004.So where might the connection be? Well, back in April the soon-to-be Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke made his now notorious Global Savings Glut speech. In that speech he said the following:

one well-understood source of the saving glut is the strong saving motive of rich countries with aging populations, which must make provision for an impending sharp increase in the number of retirees relative to the number of workers. With slowly growing or declining workforces, as well as high capital-labor ratios, many advanced economies outside the United States also face an apparent dearth of domestic investment opportunities. As a consequence of high desired saving and the low prospective returns to domestic investment, the mature industrial economies as a group seek to run current account surpluses and thus to lend abroad

So he was arguing that ageing populations tend to increase the savings motive and produce an investment dearth. This flow of savings looking for investment tends to nudge down global interest rates. Perhaps the best discussion I have seen anywhere of the inversion phenomenon is this one from the Morgan Stanley GEF team. Clearly this is a complex problem, and they themselves have no consensus, but I did note this point from the Japan-based Robert Feldman:

In how many of the eight inversions over the last 40 years were international markets as closely intertwined as they are today? My point is that, as long as Bank of Japan still has huge quantitative easing in place and the yen carry trade is alive and well, part of the yield curve flattening in the US will be due to international factors and doesn’t necessarily signal a recession

.”

Here there are two points, the increasing efficiency and integration of global capital markets, and the special situation in countries like Japan. So to return to where I started, are the two inversions related. My answer would be a qualified yes. There is some relation. The hard part is to determine the nature and extent of the relation.

No Answers Only Questions

One person who could rightly claim to know more about global ageing and its possible consequences than anyone else in the business is the German Director of the Manheim Research Institute for the Economics of Ageing Axel B?rsch-Supan. If there’s a conference being organised, he seems to be there. Actually his comments at both these meet-ups are well worth reading in and of themselves (here, and here).

In a sense B?rsch-Supan is almost uniquely qualified to express opinions on the topic since he has both devoted a large part of his professional career to studying the question, and he lives and works in a society which is already reeling under the impact. As he says:

“Today?s Germany has essentially the demographic structure that the United States will reach in a quarter of a century. The dependency ratio (the ratio of persons aged 65 and over to those aged from 20 to 59) is at 28 percent, and it will reach 75 percent in 2075, if we dare project that far. Almost one-fifth of the German population today are aged 65 and over. One quarter are aged 60 and over, which is relevant because the average retirement age in Germany is 59.5 years. Thus, in this sense the United States is not ?entering largely uncharted territory,? …. Rather, they can look to Europe?in particular to Germany and Italy?to see what will happen in the United States.”

I mention B?rsch-Supan because he serves as a good pretext for going over where we are to date with the issue. As he says himself. watching demography change is rather like watching a glacier melt, on a day-to-day basis it’s hard to see that anything is happening, but over time the impact is important.

One of his recent papers has the intriguing title: “Global Ageing: Issues, Answers, More Questions“. It is a good up-to-date review of the ‘state of the art’, and a quick examination of the points he makes probably serves as a good starting point, since I can’t help thinking, in the case of global ageing, it isn’t so much what we know that matters, it’s what we don’t know.

So here we go, a review of what we “know”, what we think we know, and what we don’t know:
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