Tag Archive | "Economic Growth"

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ECB Holds Rate, Euro falls


While Washington continues to embarrass the world’s largest economy, the ECB released a dismal projection for the euro zone economy in 2013. The forecast has the ECB considering an interest rate cut to help countries trim their borrowing costs. Bad economic news in Europe spells big trouble for American business, which ships more products to the region than any other area.

In meetings with the ECB’s Governing Council, President Mario Draghi entertained a discussion about not only paring interest rates but also about cutting the deposit rate. In the end, the ECB took no action but Draghi is holding the door open on both possibilities. The historically low lending rate of 0.75 percent remains in effect. This rate has prevailed for the past five months but has not done much to fuel economic growth.

The ECB reported their projections for the euro zone showing that Gross Domestic Product (GDP) would fall between -0.9 and +0.3 percent in 2013. In a region that definitely needs growth, hopes are dim.

Berenberg Bank spokesperson Holger Schmieding told reporters, “The somewhat downbeat ECB forecasts, the somber tone of the ECB statement and Draghi’s admission that the ECB had a ‘wide discussion’ over many issues including a potential rate cut also keep the door open for a cut in early 2013.”

The euro zone and European Union have watchful eyes on the Fiscal Cliff negotiations, or lack thereof. As an importer and exporter, the US negotiations are making analysts work overtime to figure the repercussions of the US debt negotiations. The euro zone is clearly counting on the world’s largest economy to be running at optimum speed in 2013. A failure to do so would not only put the US in recession but would have the same effect on the euro zone and other economies.

One positive outcome of the ECB meeting was that Draghi indicated that the bank would continue to supply euro zone banks with necessary liquidity through the middle of 2013.

Now that the European Union and the IMF have taken action to help Greece, the ECB will be challenged to navigate through a regional recession. Inflation is expected to rise between 1.1 and 2.1 percent in 2013.

Euro zone interest rates vary greatly in the 17 nations. The ECB hopes that its continued reduced rates will stabilize nationals lending rates and reduce them as much as possible. But, like the US where corporations are sitting on more than $2 trillion in capital reserves, euro zone businesses are hoarding their cash. They remain unconvinced that the region’s debt crisis will settle and are prepared for worst case scenarios.

The euro zone’s most puzzling dilemma is Spain. The country is suffering 25 percent unemployment and is in the midst of national outrage and even threats of secession. The ECB has a new debt relief program called the Outright Monetary Transactions (OMT). Under this mechanism, Spain could receive funding assistance.

However, Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy must apply to the euro zone for assistance. Rajoy has asked Draghi to guarantee that borrowing costs would not increase, a commitment Draghi cannot make. Spain would be the first nation to use the OMT.

In the euro zone, the political dialogue has lessened. In the US, Republicans have walked out of Congress and Washington. Talks appear to be stalled and the fiscal cliff is becoming a little too real for Americans.

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Forex: Bank of Canada Stays Put On Rates


Canada’s central bank painted a dour picture for the world’s 11th largest economy following a decision to keep rates on hold at 1% – as well as corresponding deposit rates.  The move wasn’t all too surprising given the global market and its current headwinds.  But, what was surprising was the bearish sentiment going forward, which forced policymakers to lower forecasts for the near term.

As before, Governor Mark Carney pointed towards Europe’s financial woes as adding volatility and uncertainty to global markets, which are already being underlined by “greater than anticipated” contraction in China and other emerging countries.  The central bank noted the current situation as dampening commodity export growth, which the Canadian economy partially depends on for overall economic growth.  In addition, policymakers noted the current pace of government spending to be minimal in adding to the country’s expansion as consumers deal with “record high household debt”.

As a result, the central bank is foreseeing a 2.1% pace of expansion in the current year, with a slight increase of a 2.3% growth rate next year.  Both rates are lower than the previously anticipated 2.4% forecasted rate – with consumer prices remaining around 2%.

The decision and subsequent central bank text should place some downward pressure on the Canadian dollar in the near term, which is currently being fueled higher by positive correlations with crude oil.

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G20 Ministers Ask Now What?


After a hectic run on Friday, the euro marked a surprisingly strong rally by crossing the $1.34 threshold.  Presumably, the market anticipated a successful G20 summit this weekend in Mexico City.  Many voices have been heard at the summit but as usual the fate of Greece and the rest of the euro zone resides firmly in the hands of Germany.  The divide between Germany and Greece has not eased, despite Greece’s stifling austerity revisions.

Germany cannot get comfortable with Greece, the bailout and the political instability that, despite indications, could place Greek commitments in the hands of a new reign.  On Friday, the G20 ministers delved into a more comprehensive view of the euro zone and European Union’s plans for GDP growth.  This is a subject that has been pushed aside due to Greece’s calamity.

However, the region’s plan for economic growth should have received more attention before now. Let’s be clear that if there is no growth in the future, there are no investors today. In reality, the Europeans have played their cards close to the vest.  Any gains in the euro are simply short-term wagers.  The long-term view of Greece, Portugal, Italy, Ireland and Spain and some of the northern nations is not good.

The only way for the euro nations to recover demands steep austerity cuts and economic growth. Concentrating on growth makes Greece’s case very weak. The country is experiencing its fifth year of declining growth and this year might be the most damaging.  This is why long-term investors are wary of the entire region.  The happiest investors are the ones that are not invested in the region.

The G20 ministers voiced their opinion and the majority cautioned against austerity cuts that might be too severe.  At the same time., Germany has not wavered on its position that Greece must trim even more and must commit to meet the conditions of the bailout plan that calls for a reduction of debt to GDP to 120 percent.

France cautioned against deeper cuts.  This was a rebuke for Germany who takes a contrary view of the Greek deal.  Most of the G20 ministers agreed that steep cuts now will only slow growth.  The ministers voiced concern that the solutions on the table now were merely short-term fixes. 

European nations are entering their second recession in three years.  Greece has been in recession for five years. 

The IIF represents 450 premium banking and insurance companies. In Europe, there exists a stiff credit crunch. The credit market has already shrunk 25 percent in year-over-year comparisons.  The IIF submitted a paper stating that, “Although a degree of financial and household sector balance sheet adjustments clearly has been necessary, policies that promote further deleveraging at this time should be reconsidered.”

G20 doctrines that extend capital surcharges to large domestic banks and insurance companies may well lead to further deleveraging and crippling competitive participation.

Where Does Germany Stand?

After all the rhetoric and ideas have been considered, the burning question is will Germany soften on its position relative to expanding the firewall or the region.  Politically, this is a challenge for Angela Merkel.  Financially, it is hard to tell if this action is in Germany’s best interests.  Emotionally, Germany does not favor Greece.

However, most G20 ministers acknowledge the need for a larger financial firewall.  To date, most European nations are prepared to move ahead but Germany is uncompromising.  G20 nations are ready to make contributions to the firewall but no funds will arrive unless Germany is on board.

Sources at the G20 report that China may contribute $100 billion and Japan may throw in another $60 billion.  The IMF will administer all funds contributed by foreign investors.

It is clear that German apprehension has some history.  The nation is most concerned about not only Greece’s but other nation’s willingness to abide by the austerity programs once they have the funding in their hands.  Discipline and enforcement mechanisms are not tight enough for Germany or the German taxpayer. Private investors outside the region quietly share the same concerns.

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Pound Correction is Already Underway


Last week, I was preparing to write a post about how the British pound was overvalued and due for a correction, but was sidetracked by a series of interviews (the second of which – with Caxton FX – incidentally also hinted at this notion). Alas, the markets beat me to the bunch, and the pound has since fallen more than 3% against the dollar- the sharpest decline in more than six months. Moreover, I think there is a distinct possibility that the pound will continue to fall.

Not much has changed since the last time I wrote about the pound. If anything, the fundamentals have deteriorated. Fortunately, the latest GDP data showed that the UK avoided recession in the latest quarter, but this is offset by the fact that overall GDP remains the same as six months ago and still 4% below pre-recession levels. Despite a slight kick from the royal wedding in April, the UK will almost certainly finish 2011 towards the low end of OECD countries, perhaps above only Japan. Ed Balls, shadow chancellor of the UK, has conceded, “We’ve gone from the top end of the economic growth league table to being stuck at the bottom just above Greece and Portugal.”

Of course, the question on the minds of traders is whether the Bank of England (BOE) will raise interest rates. Initially, it was presumed (by me as well) that the BOE would be the first G4 central bank to hike, if only to contain high inflation. In fact, at the March monetary policy meeting, three members (out of nine) voted to do just that. However, there stance softened at the April meeting, and they have since been beaten to the bunch by the European Central Bank (ECB) which is notoriously more hawkish.

Now, it seems reasonable to wonder whether the BOE might also fall behind the Fed. While still high (4%), the British CPI rate has slowed in recent months. “The bank’s Governor Mervyn King said on Jan. 26 that rising prices would be temporary.” Moderating commodity prices have reduced the need for a rate hike, and bolstered the case for keeping the pound week. Unemployment is high, construction spending is falling, and the current account deficit remains wide. Moreover, budget cuts (declined to contain a national debt that has almost doubled in the last three years) and a a hike in the VAT rate have dampened the economy further, to the point that it might not be able to withstand even a slight rate hike.

Furthermore, record low Gilt (the British equivalent of the US Treasury bond) rates reflect expectations for continued low rates for the immediate future. If Q2 GDP growth – which won’t be released for another 3 months -is strong, the BOE might conceivably vote to tighten. Still, we probably won’t see more than one 25 basis point before 2012.

It seems that the only thing that kept the pound afloat so long was its correlation with the euro, which recently rose above $1.50. It has since fallen dramatically and dragged the pound down with it. In fact, the pound probably needs to fall another 3% just to stay on track with the euro. If this correlation were to break down, it would almost certainly fall much further.

It has become cliched to suggest that the forex markets have become a reverse beauty pageant, whereby investors vote not on the most attractive currencies, but rather on the least ugly. At this point, it is safe to say that among G4 currencies, the pound is the ugliest.

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Chinese Yuan Continues to Tick Up


At the very end of 2010, the Chinese Yuan managed to cross the important psychological level of 6.60 USD/CNY, reaching the highest level since 1993. Moreover, analysts are unanimous in their expectation that the Chinese Yuan will continue rising in 2011, disagreeing only on the extent. Since the Yuan’s value is controlled tightly  by Chinese policymakers, forecasting the Yuan requires an in-depth look at the surrounding politics.

While American politicians chide it for not doing enough, the Chinese government nonetheless deserves some credit. It has allowed the Yuan to appreciate nearly 25% in total, which should be just enough to satisfy the 25-40% that was initially demanded. Meanwhile, over the last five years, China’s trade surplus has fallen dramatically, to 3.3% of GDP in 2010, compared to a peak of 11% in 2007. In fact, if you don’t include trade with the US, its surplus was basically nil this year.

Therein lies the problem. Despite the fact that prices in Chinese exports should have risen 25% (much more if you take inflation and rising wages into account) since 2004, the China/US trade balance has remained virtually unchanged, and its current account surplus has actually widened. As a result, China’s foreign exchange reserves increased by a record amount in 2010, bringing the total to a whopping $2.9 Trillion! (Of course, these reserves should be thought of as a monetary burden rather than pure wealth, to the same extent as the US Federal Reserve Board’s Balance Sheet must one day be wound down. In the context of this discussion, however, that might be a moot point).

Meanwhile, China is trying to slowly tilt the structure of its economy towards domestic consumption, which is increasing by almost every measure. Its Central Bank is also slowly hiking interest rates and raising the reserve requirements of banks in order to put the brakes on economic growth and rein in inflation. Finally, it is trying to encourage internationalization of the Yuan. There now 70,000 Chinese trade companies that are permitted to settle trades in Chinese Yuan. In addition, Bank of China just announced that US customers will be able to open up Yuan-denominated accounts, and the World Bank became the latest foreign entity to issue an RMB-denominated “Dim-Sum Bond.”


There is also evidence that the Chinese Government’s top leadership – with whom the US government directly negotiates – is actually pushing for a faster appreciation of the RMB but that it faces internal opposition. According to the New York Times, “The debate over revaluing the renminbi… has not advanced much partly because of a fight between central bankers who want the currency to rise and ministers and party bosses who want to protect the vast industrial machine that depends on cheap exports for survival.” In fact, the Bank of China (PBOC) recently warned, “Factors such as the country’s trade surplus, foreign direct investment, China’s interest rate gap with Western countries, yuan appreciation expectations, and rising asset prices are likely to persist, drawing funds into the country,” while a senior Chinese lawmaker pushed back that a “rise in the yuan’s value won’t help the country to curb inflation.”

Some analysts expect a big move in the Yuan that corresponds with this week’s US visit by China’s Prime Minister, Hu Jintao. The average call, however, is for a continued, steady rise. “China’s currency will strengthen 4.9 percent to 6.28 by the end of 2011, according to the median estimate of 19 analysts in a Bloomberg survey. That’s over double the 2 percent gain projected by 12-month non-deliverable forwards.” As I wrote in my previous post on the Chinese Yuan, however, it ultimately depends on inflation – whether it keeps rising and if so, how the government chooses to tackle it.

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Currency Wars: Will Everyone Please Stop Whining!


I read a provocative piece the other day by Michael Hudson (”Why the U.S. Has Launched a New Financial World War — and How the Rest of the World Will Fight Back“), in which he argued that the ongoing currency wars are the fault of the US. Below, I’ll explain why he’s both right and wrong, and why he (and everyone else) should shut up and stop complaining.

It has become almost cliche to argue that the US, as the world’s lone hegemonic power, is also the world’s military bully. Hudson takes this argument one step further by accusing the US of using the Dollar as a basis for conducting “financial warfare.” Basically, the US Federal Reserve Bank’s Quantitative Easing and related monetary expansion programs create massive amounts of currency, the majority of which are exported to emerging market countries in the form of loans and investments. This puts upward pressure on their currencies, and rewards foreign speculators at the expense of domestic exporters.

Hudson is right that the majority of newly printed money has indeed been shifted to emerging markets, where the best returns and greatest potential for appreciation lies. Simply, the current economic and investing climate in the US is not as strong as in emerging markets. Indeed, this is why the (first) Quantitative Easing (QE) program was not very successful, and why the Fed has proposed a second round. While there is a bit of a chicken-and-egg conundrum (does economic growth drive investing, or do investors drive economic growth?) here, current capital flow trends suggest that any additional quantitative easing will also be felt primarily in emerging markets, rather than in the US. Not to mention that the US money supply has expanded at the same pace (or even slower) as the US economy over the long-term.

M3 Money Supply 2010

While the point about QE being ineffective is well-taken, Hudson completely ignores the strong case to be made for investing in emerging markets. He dismissively refers to all such investing as “extractive, not productive,” without bothering to contemplate why investors have instinctively started to prefer emerging markets to industrialized markets. As I said, emerging market economies are individually and collectively more robust, with faster growth and lower-debt than their industrialized counterparts. Calling such investing predatory represents a lack of understanding of the forces behind it.

Hudson also overlooks the role that emerging markets play in this system. The fact that speculative capital continues to pour into emerging markets despite the 30% currency appreciation that has already taken place and the asset bubbles that may be forming in their financial markets suggests that their assets and currencies are still undervalued. That’s not to say that the markets are perfect (the financial crisis proved the contrary), but rather that speculators believe that there is still money to be made. On the other side of the table, those that exchange emerging market currency for Dollars (and Euros and Pounds and Yen) must necessarily accept the exchange rate they are offered. In other words, the exchange rate is reasonable because it is palatable to all parties.

You can argue that this system unfairly penalizes emerging market countries, whose economies are dependent on the export sector to drive growth. What this really proves, however, is that these economies actually have no comparative advantage in the production and export of whatever goods they happen to be producing and exporting. If they can offer more than low costs and loose laws, then their export sectors will thrive in spite of currency appreciation. Look at Germany and Japan: both economies have recorded near-continuous trade surpluses for many decades in spite of the rising Euro and Yen.

The problem is that everyone benefits (in the short term) from the fundamental misalignments in currency markets. Traders like to mock purchasing power parity, but over the long-term, this is what drives exchange rates. Adjusting for taxes, laws, and other peculiarities which distinguish one economy from another, prices in countries at comparable stages of development should converge over the long-term. You can see from The Economist’s Big Mac Index that this is largely the case. As emerging market economies develop, their prices will gradually rise both absolutely (due to inflation) and relatively (when measured against other currencies).

Economist-Big-Mac-Index-July-2010
Ultimately, the global economy (of which currency markets and exchange rates represent only one part) always operates in equilibrium. The US imports goods from China, which sterilizes the inflows in order to avoid RMB appreciation by building up a stash of US Dollars, and holding them in US Treasury Bonds. Of course, everything would be easier if China allowed the RMB to appreciate AND the US government stopped running budget deficits, but neither side is willing to make such a change. In reality, the two will probably happen simultaneously: China will gradually let the RMB rise, which will cause US interest rates  to rise, which will make it more expensive and less palatable to add $1 Trillion to the National Debt every year, and will simultaneously make it more attractive to produce in the US.

Until then, politicians from every country and hack economists with their napkin drawings will continue to whine about injustice and impending economic doom.

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Betting on China Via Australia


There are plenty of investors that think betting on China is as close to a sure thing as there could possibly be. The only problem is that investing directly in China’s economic freight train is complicated, opaque, and sometimes impossible. The Chinese government maintains strict capital controls, prohibits foreigners from directly owning certain types of investment vehicles, and prevents the Chinese Yuan from appreciating too quickly, if at all. For those that want exposure to China without all of the attendant risks, there is a neat alternative: the Australian Dollar (AUD).

Those of you that regularly read my posts and/or follow the forex markets closely should be aware of the many correlations that exist between currencies and other financial markets, as well as between currencies. In this case, there would appear to be a strong correlation between Chinese economic growth and the Australian Dollar. If the Chinese Yuan were able to float freely, it might rise and fall in line with the AUD. Since the Yuan is fixed to the US Dollar, however, we must look for a more roundabout connection. HSBC research analysts used Chinese electricity consumption as a proxy for Chinese economic activity (why they didn’t just use GDP is still unclear to me), and discovered that it fluctuated in perfect accordance with the Australian Dollar.

Australian Dollar and Chinese electricity consumption 1990-2008
Before I get ahead of myself, I want to explain why one would even posit a connection between China and the Aussie in the first place. There are actually a few reasons. First, Australia is economically part of Asia: “Today, 43 per cent of Australia’s total merchandise trade is with north Asia. A further 15 per cent is with Southeast Asia.” Second, Australia’s economy is driven by the extraction and sale of natural resources, of which China is a major buyer and investor: “In 2008-9, China was the biggest investor in the key resource sector with $26.3bn involvements approved, 30 per cent of the total.” Third, Chinese demand has come to dictate the prices of many such resources, causing them to rise continuously. Thus, Australia’s natural resource exports to countries other than China still draw strength (via high commodity prices) from Chinese demand.

As one analyst summarized, “China is buying raw materials from Australia in leaps and bounds, and that’s what’s driving that currency’s growth.” Sounds like an Open and Shut case. In fact, this presumed correlation has become so entrenched that any indication that China is trying to cool its own economy almost always prompts a reaction in the Aussie. To be sure, warnings that China’s annual legislative conference (scheduled for October 17) would produce a consensus call for a tightening of economic policy have made some forecasters more conservative. Still, as long as the Chinese economy remains strong, the Australian Dollar should follow.

It’s worth pointing out that the correlation between the Aussie and the Chinese economy doesn’t exist in a vacuum. For example, the Australian Dollar has also closely mirrored the S&P 500 over the last decade, which suggests that global economic growth (and higher commodity prices) are as much of a factor in the Aussie’s appreciation as is Chinese economic activity. The Aussie is also vulnerable to a decline in risk appetite, like the kind that took place during the financial crisis and flared up again as a result of the EU Sovereign debt crisis. During such periods, Chinese demand for commodities becomes irrelevant.

AUD USD 2006-2010
On the other hand, part of the reason the Australian Dollar has surged 10% since September and 20% since June is because other countries’ Central Banks (such as China) have increased their interventions on behalf of their respective currencies. Australia is one of a handful of countries whose Central Bank not only hasn’t actively tried to depress its currency, but whose monetary policy (via interest rate hikes) actually invites further appreciation. As the Aussie closes in on parity and Australian exporters and tourism operators become more vocal about the impact on business, however, the Reserve Bank of Australia (RBA) might be forced to act.

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China Sends a Message That It Will Not Tolerate Western Lending Policy


China continues to drive and surprise the world economy.  An overnight release that China’s banks would be required to increase their reserve requirements sent ripples throughout global currency, commodity and equity markets.  The surprise announcement also served to give notice that China would not tolerate the lax lending policies western countries utilized to ignite the recession.

china

The People’s Bank of China had raised the reserve requirement last month.  A second increase was projected but not expected this quickly.  Global markets reacted with concern.  Fearing that a tightening of credit would harness world economic growth, all commodity markets reeled.

The 50 basis point increase takes effect February 25th, 2010 and comes in the wake of some fairly encouraging news.  On Thursday, China announced an unexpected inflationary slowdown falling back to 1.5%.  The Central Bank viewed the news as a seasonal slowdown and focused on the longer-term.  The Central Bank’s January announcement failed to slow aggressive lending policies.  The country’s banks lent $203.4 billion in the month, the third largest monthly total on record.

The new requirement means that China’s largest banks will now have to place 16.5% of deposits on hold at the Central Bank.  Aggressive lending by commercial banks will be severely curtailed.  The increase raises reserves by about $43.9 billion.  The bank indicated more increase were forthcoming.

Gold Slides Down

Early Friday morning, gold gave up 1.5% and fell below $1,080 per ounce.  The dollar hit a seven-month high against a basket of currencies.  On Thursday, gold reached a high of $1,097.75.

gold

Early morning equity losses were broad based.  In the U.S. triple digit losses struck the DOW, before a brief rally formed.  The dollar picked up the slack as investors reacted to the tightening monetary policy.  The dollar hit its highest levels since late July and drove dollar-priced commodities lower.

Gold priced in euros had captured gains on Thursday but were off sharply on Friday.  Silver, platinum and palladium also fell well back of Thursday’s gains.

Oil Falls Below $74

After topping $75 on Thursday, oil quickly shed more than $1 per barrel Friday morning.  The International Energy Agency still maintained that oil consumption would increase by 1.6 million barrels in 2010.  China is the world’s second largest oil consumer.

U.S. crude fell to $73.96 from $75.28 on Thursday.  London Brent Crude fell $1.20.

The severe winter experienced by the easy coast of the U.S. led to a 4% rise in consumption last week.  Despite pledge’s to resolve the financial crisis in Greece, it is perceived there are harder times ahead for euro zone economies, and especially the Portugal, Italy, Greece (PIG) economies.

U.S. equity markets closed the week at nearly flat.  There will surely be some soul searching on the holiday weekend as U.S. policy and politics continue to clash.

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Making Sense of the Yen: Forex Intervention, Debt and Deflation


Last week, Hirohisa Fujii resigned as finance minister of Japan. Since Fujii was an outspoken commentator on the Japanese Yen, the move sent a jolt through forex markets. Those who were expecting that his replacement, Deputy Prime Minister Naoto Kan, would be be more consistent than his predecessor were quickly disappointed, as Mr. Kan managed to contradict himself repeatedly within days of assuming his new post.

On January 6, he said it would be “nice” to see the Yen weaken, going so far as to designate 95 Yen/Dollar as the level he had in mind. One day later, he said that the markets should in fact determine the Yen: “If currency levels deviate sharply from the estimates, that could have various effects on the economy.” After he was rebuked by Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama, who noted that the government should not talk to reporters about forex, he went on tell US Treasury Secretary that forex levels should be stable. In short, Japan’s official governmental position on the Yen still remains muddled, and it’s no less clear whether it will – or even should – intervene.

Japanese yen
Fortunately, they may not have to. Not only because the Yen still remains more than 5% off of the record highs of November, but also because economic and financial forces are coalescing that could send the Yen downward. Despite a recovery in exports, the Japanese economy remains beleaguered, having most recently contracted to the lowest level since 1991, as part of a “tumble [that] is unprecedented among the biggest economies.” Now that we are into 2010, it can be said officially that Japan has now suffered from the “second lost decade in a row.”

When economic growth collapsed in 1990, Japanese consumers became famously frugal, and the domestic market still hasn’t recovered. Neither has the stock market, for that matter: “The Nikkei is 44.3% below where it stood at the end of 1999. It is 72.9% below its peak near the end of 1989.” The performance of the bond market, meanwhile, has been a mirror image, rallying 78% since 1990.

Japan Nikkei stock market and bond market 1989 - 2009

The resulting decline in real interest rates has combined with economic stagnation to produce a perennial state of deflation. In fact, prices are once again falling, this time by an annualized pace of 2%.

Deflation in Japan 2009
As many economists have been quick to diagnose, the problem lies in a tremendous (perhaps the world’s largest) imbalance between savings and investment, as “Japan still has ¥1,500 trillion ($16.3 trillion) of savings.” It’s not clear how long this can last, however, as Japanese demographic changes tax the nation’s pool of savings. “More than a fifth of Japanese are over 65…The nation’s population began shrinking in 2006 from 127.8 million, and will drop by 3.2 percent in the coming decade.”

This brings me to the final component of Japan’s perfect economic storm: debt. Japan’s gross national debt is projected by the IMF to touch 225% of GDP this year, and 250% as early as 2014. As a result of the aging population, the pool of cash available for lending to the government is shrinking at the same rate as the tax base, which is exerting fiscal pressure on the government from both sides. According to one commentator, “Japan’s fiscal conditions are close to a melting point.” Another frets: “I doubt there is any yield that international capital markets can find acceptable that will not bankrupt the Japanese state.”

US and Japan budget deficit 2002 - 2009
What is the government doing about all of this? Frankly, not too much. It is spending money like crazy – exacerbating its fiscal state and pushing it closer to insolvency – in a (vain) attempt to prime the economic pump and avoid deflation from further entrenching. The Central Bank, meanwhile, just announced a new round of quantitative easing, also aimed at fighting deflation. At only 2% of GDP, however, the measures are “pretty tame” and unlikely to accomplish much. Considering that its monetary base has only expanded by 5% this year (compared to 71% in the US), it still has plenty of scope to operate. At the present time, however, it is still reluctant to do so.

Ironically, the aging population phenomenon could end up restoring Japan’s economy to equilibrium. The worse Japan’s fiscal problems become, the sooner it will be forced to simply print money, so as to deflate its debt and avoid default. This will stimulate the economy and put upward pressure on prices (solving two problems), and exert strong downward pressure on the Yen. The way I see it, that’s four birds with one stone!

As for the Yen, then, I would expect it to hover over the near-term, since price stability and a strong credit rating don’t signal immediate catastrophe. No, Japan’s economic problems are more long-term, which means it could be a while before they more clearly manifst themselves.

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Interview with Edward Hugh (Part 2): The Dollar’s Demise is Vastly Overstated


Today, we bring you an interview (the second part, and complete transcript) with Edward Hugh, a macro economist, who specializes in growth and productivity theory, demographic processes and their impact on macro performance, and the underlying dynamics of migration flows. Edward is based in Barcelona, and is currently engaged in research into the impact of aging, longevity, fertility and migration on economic growth. He is a regular contributor to a number of economics blogs, including India Economy Blog, A Fistful of Euros, Global Economy Matters and Demography Matters.

Forex Blog: I’d like to begin by asking if there is any significance to the title of your blog (”Fistful of Euros”), or rather, is it only intended to be playful?

Obviously the title is a reference to the Segio Leone film, but you could read other connotations into it if you want. I would say the idea was basically playful with a serious intent. Personally I agree with Ben Bernanke that the Euro is a “great experiment”, and you could see the blog, and the debates which surround it as one tiny part of that experiment. As they say in Spanish, the future’s not ours to see, que sera, sera. Certainly that “fistful of euros” has now been put firmly on the table, and as we are about to discuss, the consequences are far from clear.

Forex Blog: You wrote a recent post outlining the US Dollar carry trade, and how you believe that the Dollar’s decline is cyclical/temporary rather than structural/permanent. Can you elaborate on this idea? Do you think it’s possible that the fervor with which investors have sold off the Dollar suggests that it could be a little of both?

Well, first of all, there is more than one thing happening here, so I would definitely agree from the outset, there are both cyclical and structural elements in play. Structurally, the architecture of Bretton Woods II is creaking round the edges, and in the longer run we are looking at a relative decline in the dollar, but as Keynes reminded us, in the long run we are all dead, while as I noted in the Afoe post, news of the early demise of the dollar is surely vastly overstated.

Put another way, while Bretton Woods II has surely seen its best days, till we have some idea what can replace it it is hard to see a major structural adjustment in the dollar. Europe’s economies are not strong enough for the Euro to simply step into the hole left by the dollar, the Chinese, as we know, are reluctant to see the dollar slide too far due to the losses they would take on dollar denominated instruments, while the Russians seem to constantly talk the USD down, while at the same time borrowing in that very same currency – so read this as you will. Personally, I cannot envisage a long term and durable alternative to the current set-up that doesn’t involve the Rupee and the Real, but these currencies are surely not ready for this kind of role at this point.

So we will stagger on.

On the cyclical side, what I am arguing is that for the time being the US has stepped in where  Japan used to be, as one side of your carry pair of choice, since base money has been pumped up massively while there is little demand from consumers for further indebtedness, so the broader monetary aggregates haven’t risen in tandem, leaving large pools of liquidity which can simply leak out of the back door. That is, it may well be one of the perverse consequences of the Fed monetary easing policy that it finances consumption elsewhere – in Norway, or Australia, or South Africa, or Brazil, or India – but not directly inside the US.

This is something we saw happening during the last Japanese experiment in quantitative easing (from 2002  – 2006) and that it has the consequence, as it did for the Yen from 2005 to 2007, that the USD will have a trading parity which it would be hard to understand if this were not the case. I am also suggesting that this situation will unwind as and when the Federal Reserve start to seriously talk about withdrawing  the emergency measures (both in terms of interest rates and the various forms of quantitative easing), but that this unwinding is unlikely to be extraordinarily violent, since the Japanese Yen can simply step in to plug the gap, as I am sure the Bank of Japan will not be able to raise interest rates anytime soon given the depth of the deflation problem they have. Indeed, investors will once more be able to borrow in Yen to invest in  USD instruments, to the benefit of Japanese exports and the detriment of the US current account deficit, which is why I think we are in a finely balanced situation, with clear limits to movements in one direction or another.

Forex Blog: In the same post, you suggested that the Fed will be the first to raise interest rates. Why do you believe this is the case? How will this affect the Dollar carry trade?

Well, I would want to qualify this a little, becuase things are not that simple. In fact, as Claus Vistesen argues in this post, the ECB has rather “locked itself in” communicationally, and by  talking up the eurozone economies they now have markets expecting clear exit road maps and even pricing in interest rate rises from the third quarter of next year. But if we look at the underlying weaknesses in some of the Eurozone economies – evidently Spain, but Italy is hardly likely to have a strong robust recovery, and the German economy needs exports and hence customers to really return to growth – it is hard to see monetary tightening being applied with any kind of vigour at the ECB, so they may move up somewhat – say  to 2% – and then stop for some time.

I was also suggesting that in the short run they may do this to assist in the process of unwinding the global imbalances, since allowing the Fed to lead the world out of the monetary easing cycle would almost certainly provoke a rebound in USD, and problems for correcting the US current account deficit.

Really none of the developed economies (not even Norway) seem to be looking at the sort of really strong “V” shaped rebound some investors were anticipating, and it is more a question of who is weaker among of the weak. But if we look a little further ahead, at potential growth and inflation dynamics, then it is clear that the deflationary headwinds are stronger in Europe, while headline GDP growth may well turn out to be stronger in the US, and both these factors suggest that the Fed will at sometime be tightening faster than the ECB, in a repetition of what we saw from 2002 to 2005.

Forex Blog: You have pointed out that fiscal problems are not unique to the US. While the UK and Japan are certainly in the same fiscal boat, there seem to be plenty of examples of economies that aren’t, or at least not to the same extent, such as the EU. Do you think, then, that the long-term prospects for the Euro (especially as a global reserve currency) are necessarily brighter than for the Dollar?

Well, actually I wouldn’t say the UK and Japan are in the same fiscal boat. Let me explain. The UK evidently has severe short term problems (as does the US) with its sovereign debt, due to the high cost of resolving the lossses produced by the current crisis. But Japan has still not resolved debt problems which were produced in the crisis of the late 1990s, and indeed both gross and net debt to GDP simply continue to rise there. So I would say – as long as they can weather the present storm – the outlook for US, UK and French sovereign debt is rather more positive than it is for Japan. Indeed in the longer term it is hard to see how Japan can resolve its problems without some kind of sovereign default. This is the problem with deflation, as nominal GDP goes down, debt to GDP simply rises and rises.

But the principal reason I am rather more positive on UK, US and French sovereign debt in the mid term is simply the underlying demographic dynamic. These countries have a lot more young people (proportionately) than the Germany’s, Japan’s and Italy’s of this world, and hence their elderly dependency ratios (which are the important thing when we come to talk about structural deficits into the future) will rise more slowly.

It is also important to realise that the EU – at this point at least – is not a single country in the way the US is, and indeed there is strong resistence among European citizens to the idea that it should be. So it is impossible to talk about the EU as if it were one country. That being said, the lastest forecast from the EU Commission suggests that average sovereign debt to GDP will breach the 100% threshold across  the entire EU by 2014, so I would hardly call the situation promising. Basically some cases are much worse than others. In the East there are countries like Latvia and Hungary which are currently implementing IMF-lead structural transformation programmes, ut it is far from clear that these programmes will work, and sovereign debt to GDP has been rising sharply in both cases. In the South a similar problem exists, with Greek gross sovereign debt to GDP now expected by the Commission to hit 135% by 2011, and Italian debt set to increase significantly over the 110% mark. At the same time the future of government debt in Spain and Portugal is becoming increasingly uncertain. I would also point to the strong gamble Angela Merkel is making in Germany, and indeed ECB President Jean Claude Trichet singled the German case out during the last post rate-decision-meeting press conference for special mention in this regard. The future of German sovereign debt is far from clear, and markets certainly have not taken in this underlying reality.

So basically, and I think I have already explained my thinking on this in earlier questions, we have a structural difficulty, since I am sure the way out of Bretton Woods II will not be found by simply substituting the Euro for the USD. Europe is aging far more rapidly than the US, and the dependency ratio problems are consequently significantly greater.

Forex Blog: Current EU economic policy seems to be favoring government spending and exports, at the expense of investment and domestic consumption. Does this imply that the current EU economic recovery is unsustainable?

I don’t think the current EU expansion is unsustainable as such, but I do think it faces tremendous headwinds. Basically one Eurozone country stands out among the rest, France, since France has a sustainable, internal demand driven, recovery, despite all the longer term issues she faces with the structural fiscal deficit. But the story begins and end there, with France. Most of the rest of the Euro Area 16 have problems, although like Tolstoy’s unhappy families, each is problematic in its own special way. Countries like Germany and Finland are heavily export dependent, and thus have had far deeper recessions than many of the rest, while countries in the South, lead by Spain and Greece, have been running sizeable current account deficits. Since financial markets are now longer willing to fund these, and the ECB isn’t prepared to support the unsupportable forever, these economies too are now being steaily pushed towards dependence on exports for growth (and for paying down their debts), and this raises the issue of where the final end demand is going to come from.  France on its own cannot supply the export surplus needs of the other 15, so external customers are needed, and this makes the value of the Euro more of an issue than it was.

Forex Blog: It seems that the reason that the the the Fed’s liquidity injections have not resulted in price inflation is because much of the funds have been plowed back into capital markets, rather than used for consumption. Given that this liquidity must at some point be pumped out by the Fed, does this imply that a “correction” is inevitable?

Yes, this is true, the global capital markets have acted as a kind of “back door” on US monetary policy, and much of the excess liquidy the Fed has been trying to pump in has simply “leaked out” via that channel. Why this should be is an interesting question in its own right, since while initially the “credit crunch” meant that funds were not available to borrow the money is now there but it is the banks who have difficulty identifying creditworthy customers given the prevailing levels of unemployment, foreclosure and bankruptcy. My feeling is that a sharp correction is not coming, unless there is a large event (Greek sovereign default, for example) in Europe or elsewhere, which leads to a sharp contraction in risk sentiment of the kind we saw after the fall of Lehman Brothers. I wouldn’t like at this point to put a figure on the probability of such an event, but the risk is evidently there.

I don’t think the risk of a correction driven by a rapid withdrawal of US liquidity is that real since I don’t think we are going to see that kind of speedy withdrawal, and even if we did, “ample liquidity” is going to be on offer over at the Bank of Japan until the cows come home. I don’t think we are going to see any precipitate removal of monetary support at the Federal Reserve, since I think exiting this situation is going to be more complicated than many imagine. The tussle which has been going on between the Japanese Ministry of Finance and the Bank of Japan over many years now may well offer a much better guide to exit issues than anything in recent US history, simply because, at least since the 1930s, the US has not been here before. Essentially it will be difficult to withdraw both fiscal and monetary support at one and the same time, but my feeling is that in the US (unlike Japan)  there may well be consensus that the fiscal issue is the most pressing one, and thus this would suggest the Federal Reserve will keep monetary conditions easier for longer, simply to provide an environment in which fiscal consolidation to take place.

Forex Blog: Given the strong economic and fiscal fundamentals of Norway’s economy, do you think currency traders will begin to pay more attention to the Kroner? Do you think it could be taken up as a reserve currency by Central Banks that have become disenchanted with the Dollar?

Well, I think they already are, and evidently the Kroner has become a favoured carry currency. But equally, I doubt the Norwegian authorities would want their country to go the same way as Iceland in the longer term, so I am not sure they would welcome central banks buying Kroner in any large quantity, since this would obviously unrealistically raise the value of the currency, and lead to serious sustainability issues in the domestic manufacturing sector. Basically, as I suggested in the previous interview, I think dollar disenchantment is now likely to be seriously tempered by concerns about Euro weakness.

Forex Blog: It seems that the financial crisis has exposed some of the problems of a common economic/monetary/currency policy for the EU. What are the implications for the future of the ECB and the Euro?

Most definitely. Following Dubai a lot of attention is now focused on sovereign debt, and on who exactly is responsible for what. We should take note of the fact that the  Greek government had to raise 2 billion euros in debt recently via a private placement with banks, against a backdrop of credit downgrades and steadily rising spreads. The ECB undoubtedly agreed to this move given the degree of policy coordination which must now exist behind the scenes, they are, after all,  the ones who are financing the Greek banks, but it does highlight just how things have moved on in recent months. Only last year it was imagined that the being a member of the Eurozone in and of itself gave protection from the kind of financing crisis Greece increasingly now faces, and this was why only eurozone non-members, like Latvia and Hungary, were sent to the IMF. Now it is clear that the ECB could keep protecting Greece from trouble for ever and ever, but they cannot simply keep financing unsustainable external deficits and continue to retain credibility. In this sense the financial crisis has now “leaked” into the Eurozone itself. And this has implications I would have thought, for countries like Estonia, who see Eurozone membership as a “save all”, whatever the price. The difficulty is that the ECB has the capacity to fund troubled countries, but it does not have the power to enforce changes.

The problem of Europe’s institutional structures was highlighted again this week when the Latvian constitutional court ruled that pension cuts included in the recent IMF-EU package are not legal. Personally I find the decision rather significant since pension reform lies at the heart of the whole structural reform programme currently being demanded of “risky” EU states by the IMF, the EU Commission and the Credit Rating Agencies. Indeed the whole credibility of the EU’s ability to manage it’s own affairs could be called into question in this case. As Angela Merkel recently said:

“If, for example, there are problems with the Stability and Growth Pact in one country and it can only be solved by having social reforms carried out in this country, then of course the question arises, what influence does Europe have on national parliaments to see to it that Europe is not stopped…..This is going to be a very difficult task because of course national parliaments certainly don’t wish to be told what to do. We must be aware of such problems in the next few years.”

So obviously, the EU authorities badly need to plug this hole in their armour, or the entire concept of having a common monetary system can be placed at risk, Angela Merkel and Nicolas Sarkozy (who are ultimately the paymaster generals) need to have the power and authority to see to it that national parliaments do what they need to do in the common interest, and they need to get this power and authority in the coming weeks and months, and not simply in the “next few years”. And Europe’s leaders need to be aware that a crisis of sufficient proportions in any one country can very rapidly become a systemic one for the Euro, in much the same way that a problem in a key bank can lead to a crisis of confidence in a whole banking system. I do not feel a sufficient sense of urgency about this in the recent pronouncements of Europe’s leaders.

Forex Blog: So from what you are saying, there is still a risk of a resurgence in the financial crisis on Europe’s periphery. Would you say another round of financial turmoil is now inevitable?

Well the risk is certainly there, and evidently Europe’s institutional structure is in for a very testing time. But no war is ever lost before the battles are fought, although what we can say is that new and imaginative initiatives are certainly going to be needed. Sovereign risk has now spread from non-Eurozone countries like Latvia and Hungary, straight into the heart of the monetary union in cases like Greece and Spain. Mistakes have been made. As I argued in Let The East Into The Eurozone Now! in February 2009, the decision to let the Latvian authorities go ahead with their internal devaluation programme never made sense, and the three Baltic countries and Bulgaria should have been forced to devalue – and the accompanying writedowns swallowed whole – and then immediately admitted into the Eurozone as part of the emergency crisis measures. Perhaps some would feel that this lowering of the entry criteria would have damaged credibility, but as I am stressing here, leaving so many small loose cannon careering around on the lower decks can cause even more issues if matters get out of hand and contagion sets in. So it is a question of pragmatism, and being able to accept the “lesser evil”.

Unfortunately, the situation has simply been allowed to fester, and in addition the much needed change in the EU institutional structure – to allow Angela Merkel the power she is asking for to intervene in Parliaments like the Latvian, Hungarian, Greek and Spanish ones, as and when the need arises – has not been advanced, with the result that we are increasingly in danger of putting the whole future of monetary union at risk. It is never to late to act, but time is, inexorably running out. As the old English saying goes he (or she) who dithers in such situations is irrevocably lost. Caveat emptor!

1. I’d like to begin by asking if there is any significance to the
title of your blog (”Fistful of Euros”), or rather, is it only
intended to be playful?

Obviously the title is a reference to the Segio Leone film, but you
could read other connotations into it if you want. I would say the
idea was basically playful with a serious intent. Personally I agree
with Ben Bernanke that the Euro is a “great experiment”, and you could
see the blog, and the debates which surround it as one tiny part of
that experiment. As they say in Spanish, the future’s not ours to see,
que sera, sera. Certainly that “fistful of euros” has now been put
firmly on the table, and as we are about to discuss the consequences
are far from clear.

2/  You wrote a recent post outlining the US Dollar carry trade, and
how you believe that the Dollar’s decline is cyclical/temporary rather
than structural/permanent. Can you elaborate on this idea? Do you
think it’s possible that the fervor with which investors have sold off
the Dollar suggests that it could be a little of both?

Well, first of all, there is more than one thing happening here, so I
would definitely agree from the outset, there are both cyclical and
structural elements in play. Structurally, the architecture of Bretton
Woods II is creaking round the edges, and in the longer run we are
looking at a relative decline in the dollar, but as Keynes reminded
us, in the long run we are all dead, while as I noted in the Afoe
post, news of the early demise of the dollar is surely vastly
overstated.

Put another way, while Bretton Woods II has surely seen its best days,
till we have some idea what can replace it it is hard to see a major
structural adjustment in the dollar. Europe’s economies are not strong
enough for the Euro to simply step into the hole left by the dollar,
the Chinese, as we know, are reluctant to see the dollar slide too far
due to the losses they would take on dollar denominated instruments,
while the Russians seem to constantly talk the USD down, while at the
same time borrowing in that very same currency – so read this as you
will. Personally, I cannot envisage a long term and durable
alternative to the current set-up that doesn’t involve the Rupee and
the Real, but these currencies are surely not ready for this kind of
role at this point.

So we will stagger on.

On the cyclical side, what I am arguing is that for the time being the
US has stepped in where  Japan used to be, as one side of your carry
pair of choice, since base money has been pumped up massively while
there is little demand from consumers for further indebtedness, so the
broader monetary aggregates haven’t risen in tandem, leaving large
pools of liquidity which can simply leak out of the back door. That
is, it may well be one of the perverse consequences of the Fed
monetary easing policy that it finances consumption elsewhere – in
Norway, or Australia, or South Africa, or Brazil, or India – but not
directly inside the US.

This is something we saw happening during the last Japanese experiment
in quantitative easing (from 2002  – 2006) and that it has the
consequence, as it did for the Yen from 2005 to 2007, that the USD
will have a trading parity which it would be hard to understand if
this were not the case. I am also suggesting that this situation will
unwind as and when the Federal Reserve start to seriously talk about
withdrawing  the emergency measures (both in terms of interest rates
and the various forms of quantitative easing), but that this unwinding
is unlikely to be extraordinarily violent, since the Japanese Yen can
simply step in to plug the gap, as I am sure the Bank of Japan will
not be able to raise interest rates anytime soon given the depth of
the deflation problem they have. Indeed, investors will once more be
able to borrow in Yen to invest in  USD instruments, to the benefit of
Japanese exports and the detriment of the US current account deficit,
which is why I think we are in a finely balanced situation, with clear
limits to movements in one direction or another.

3. In the same post, you suggested that the Fed will be the first to
raise interest rates. Why do you believe this is the case? How will
this affect the Dollar carry trade?

Well, I would want to qualify this a little, becuase things are not
that simple. In fact, as Claus Vistesen argues in this post

http://clausvistesen.squarespace.com/alphasources-blog/2009/11/13/random-shots.html

the ECB has rather “locked itself in” communicationally, and by
talking up the eurozone economies they now have markets expecting
clear exit road maps and even pricing in interest rate rises from the
third quarter of next year. But if we look at the underlying
weaknesses in some of the Eurozone economies – evidently Spain, but
Italy is hardly likely to have a strong robust recovery, and the
German economy needs exports and hence customers to really return to
growth – it is hard to see monetary tightening being applied with any
kind of vigour at the ECB, so they may move up somewhat – say  to 2% –
and then stop for some time.

I was also suggesting that in the short run they may do this to assist
in the process of unwinding the global imbalances, since allowing the
Fed to lead the world out of the monetary easing cycle would almost
certainly provoke a rebound in USD, and problems for correcting the US
current account deficit.

Really none of the developed economies (not even Norway) seem to be
looking at the sort of really strong “V” shaped rebound some investors
were anticipating, and it is more a question of who is weaker among of
the weak. But if we look a little further ahead, at potential growth
and inflation dynamics, then it is clear that the deflationary
headwinds are stronger in Europe, while headline GDP growth may well
turn out to be stronger in the US, and both these factors suggest that
the Fed will at sometime be tightening faster than the ECB, in a
repetition of what we saw from 2002 to 2005.

4. You have pointed out that fiscal problems are not unique to the
US. While the UK and Japan are certainly in the same fiscal boat,
there seem to be plenty of examples of economies that aren’t, or at
least not to the same extent, such as the EU. Do you think, then, that
the long-term prospects for the Euro (especially as a global reserve
currency) are necessarily brighter than for the Dollar?

Well, actually I wouldn’t say the UK and Japan are in the same fiscal
boat. Let me explain. The UK evidently has severe short term problems
(as does the US) with its sovereign debt, due to the high cost of
resolving the lossses produced by the current crisis. But Japan has
still not resolved debt problems which were produced in the crisis of
the late 1990s, and indeed both gross and net debt to GDP simply
continue to rise there. So I would say – as long as they can weather
the present storm – the outlook for US, UK and French sovereign debt
is rather more positive than it is for Japan. Indeed in the longer
term it is hard to see how Japan can resolve its problems without some
kind of sovereign default. This is the problem with deflation, as
nominal GDP goes down, debt to GDP simply rises and rises.

But the principal reason I am rather more positive on UK, US and
French sovereign debt in the mid term is simply the underlying
demographic dynamic. These countries have a lot more young people
(proportionately) than the Germany’s, Japan’s and Italy’s of this
world, and hence their elderly dependency ratios (which are the
important thing when we come to talk about structural deficits into
the future) will rise more slowly.

It is also important to realise that the EU – at this point at least –
is not a single country in the way the US is, and indeed there is
strong resistence among European citizens to the idea that it should
be. So it is impossible to talk about the EU as if it were one
country. That being said, the lastest forecast from the EU Commission
suggests that average sovereign debt to GDP will breach the 100%
threshold across  the entire EU by 2014, so I would hardly call the
situation promising. Basically some cases are much worse than others.
In the East there are countries like Latvia and Hungary which are
currently implementing IMF-lead structural transformation programmes,
but it is far from clear that these programmes will work, and
sovereign debt to GDP has been rising sharply in both cases. In the
South a similar problem exists, with Greek gross sovereign debt to GDP
now expected by the Commission to hit 135% by 2011, and Italian debt
set to increase significantly over the 110% mark. At the same time
the future of government debt in Spain and Portugal is becoming
increasingly uncertain. I would also point to the strong gamble Angela
Merkel is making in Germany, and indeed ECB President Jean Claude
Trichet singled the German case out during the last post
rate-decision-meeting press conference for special mention in this
regard. The future of German sovereign debt is far from clear, and
markets certainly have not taken in this underlying reality.

So basically, and I think I have already explained my thinking on this
in earlier questions, we have a structural difficulty, since I am sure
the way out of Bretton Woods II will not be found by simply
substituting the Euro for the USD. Europe is aging far more rapidly
than the US, and the dependency ratio problems are consequently
significantly greater.

1.  Current EU economic policy seems to be favoring government spending and exports, at the expense of investment and domestic consumption. Does this imply that the current EU economic recovery is unsustainable?

I don’t think the current EU expansion is unsustainable as such, but I do think it faces tremendous headwinds. Basically one Eurozone country stands out among the rest, France, since France has a sustainable, internal demand driven, recovery, despite all the longer term issues she faces with the structural fiscal deficit. But the story begins and end there, with France. Most of the rest of the Euro Area 16 have problems, although like Tolstoy’s unhappy families, each is problematic in its own special way. Countries like Germany and Finland are heavily export dependent, and thus have had far deeper recessions than many of the rest, while countries in the South, lead by Spain and Greece, have been running sizeable current account deficits. Since financial markets are now longer willing to fund these, and the ECB isn’t prepared to support the unsupportable forever, these economies too are now being steaily pushed towards dependence on exports for growth (and for paying down their debts), and this raises the issue of where the final end demand is going to come from.  France on its own cannot supply the export surplus needs of the other 15, so external customers are needed, and this makes the value of the Euro more of an issue than it was.

2. It seems that the reason that the the the Fed’s liquidity injections have not resulted in price inflation is because much of the funds have been plowed back into capital markets, rather than used for consumption. Given that this liquidity must at some point be pumped out by the Fed, does this imply that a “correction” is inevitable?

Yes, this is true, the global capital markets have acted as a kind of “back door” on US monetary policy, and much of the excess liquidy the Fed has been trying to pump in has simply “leaked out” via that channel. Why this should be is an interesting question in its own right, since while initially the “credit crunch” meant that funds were not available to borrow the money is now there but it is the banks who have difficulty identifying creditworthy customers given the prevailing levels of unemployment, foreclosure and bankruptcy. My feeling is that a sharp correction is not coming, unless there is a large event (Greek sovereign default, for example) in Europe or elsewhere, which leads to a sharp contraction in risk sentiment of the kind we saw after the fall of Lehman Brothers. I wouldn’t like at this point to put a figure on the probability of such an event, but the risk is evidently there.

I don’t think the risk of a correction driven by a rapid withdrawal of US liquidity is that real since I don’t think we are going to see that kind of speedy withdrawal, and even if we did, “ample liquidity” is going to be on offer over at the Bank of Japan until the cows come home. I don’t think we are going to see any precipitate removal of monetary support at the Federal Reserve, since I think exiting this situation is going to be more complicated than many imagine. The tussle which has been going on between the Japanese Ministry of Finance and the Bank of Japan over many years now may well offer a much better guide to exit issues than anything in recent US history, simply because, at least since the 1930s, the US has not been here before. Essentially it will be difficult to withdraw both fiscal and monetary support at one and the same time, but my feeling is that in the US (unlike Japan)  there may well be consensus that the fiscal issue is the most pressing one, and thus this would suggest the Federal Reserve will keep monetary conditions easier for longer, simply to provide an environment in which fiscal consolidation to take place.

3. Given the strong economic and fiscal fundamentals of Norway’s economy, do you think currency traders will begin to pay more attention to the Kroner? Do you think it could be taken up as a reserve currency by Central Banks that have become disenchanted with the Dollar?

Well, I think they already are, and evidently the Kroner has become a favoured carry currency. But equally, I doubt the Norwegian authorities would want their country to go the same way as Iceland in the longer term, so I am not sure they would welcome central banks buying Kroner in any large quantity, since this would obviously unrealistically raise the value of the currency, and lead to serious sustainability issues in the domestic manufacturing sector. Basically, as I suggested in the previous interview, I think dollar disenchantment is now likely to be seriously tempered by concerns about Euro weakness.

3. It seems that the financial crisis has exposed some of the problems of a common economic/monetary/currency policy for the EU. What are the implications for the future of the ECB and the Euro?

Most definitely. Following Dubai a lot of attention is now focused on sovereign debt, and on who exactly is responsible for what. We should take note of the fact that the  Greek government had to raise 2 billion euros in debt recently via a private placement with banks, against a backdrop of credit downgrades and steadily rising spreads. The ECB undoubtedly agreed to this move given the degree of policy coordination which must now exist behind the scenes, they are, after all,  the ones who are financing the Greek banks, but it does highlight just how things have moved on in recent months. Only last year it was imagined that the being a member of the Eurozone in and of itself gave protection from the kind of financing crisis Greece increasingly now faces, and this was why only eurozone non-members, like Latvia and Hungary, were sent to the IMF. Now it is clear that the ECB could keep protecting Greece from trouble for ever and ever, but they cannot simply keep financing unsustainable external deficits and continue to retain credibility. In this sense the financial crisis has now “leaked” into the Eurozone itself. And this has implications I would have thought, for countries like Estonia, who see Eurozone membership as a “save all”, whatever the price. The difficulty is that the ECB has the capacity to fund troubled countries, but it does not have the power to enforce changes.

The problem of Europe’s institutional structures was highlighted again this week when the Latvian constitutional court ruled that pension cuts included in the recent IMF-EU package are not legal. Personally I find the decision rather significant since pension reform lies at the heart of the whole structural reform programme currently being demanded of “risky” EU states by the IMF, the EU Commission and the Credit Rating Agencies. Indeed the whole credibility of the EU’s ability to manage it’s own affairs could be called into question in this case. As Angela Merkel recently said:

“If, for example, there are problems with the Stability and Growth Pact in one country and it can only be solved by having social reforms carried out in this country, then of course the question arises, what influence does Europe have on national parliaments to see to it that Europe is not stopped…..This is going to be a very difficult task because of course national parliaments certainly don’t wish to be told what to do. We must be aware of such problems in the next few years.”

So obviously, the EU authorities badly need to plug this hole in their armour, or the entire concept of having a common monetary system can be placed at risk, Angela Merkel and Nicolas Sarkozy (who are ultimately the paymaster generals) need to have the power and authority to see to it that national parliaments do what they need to do in the common interest, and they need to get this power and authority in the coming weeks and months, and not simply in the “next few years”. And Europe’s leaders need to be aware that a crisis of sufficient proportions in any one country can very rapidly become a systemic one for the Euro, in much the same way that a problem in a key bank can lead to a crisis of confidence in a whole banking system. I do not feel a sufficient sense of urgency about this in the recent pronouncements of Europe’s leaders.

4. So from what you are saying, there is still a risk of a resurgence in the financial crisis on Europe’s periphery. Would you say another round of financial turmoil is now inevitable?

Well the risk is certainly there, and evidently Europe’s institutional structure is in for a very testing time. But no war is ever lost before the battles are fought, although what we can say is that new and imaginative initiatives are certainly going to be needed. Sovereign risk has now spread from non-Eurozone countries like Latvia and Hungary, straight into the heart of the monetary union in cases like Greece and Spain. Mistakes have been made. As I argued in my Let The East Into The Eurozone Now! blog post (http://globaleconomydoesmatter.blogspot.com/2009/02/let-east-into-eurozone-now.html)  back in February 2009, the decision to let the Latvian authorities go ahead with their internal devaluation programme never made sense, and the three Baltic countries and Bulgaria should have been forced to devalue – and the accompanying writedowns swallowed whole – and then immediately admitted into the Eurozone as part of the emergency crisis measures. Perhaps some would feel that this lowering of the entry criteria would have damaged credibility, but as I am stressing here, leaving so many small loose cannon careering around on the lower decks can cause even more issues if matters get out of hand and contagion sets in. So it is a question of pragmatism, and being able to accept the “lesser evil”.

Unfortunately, the situation has simply been allowed to fester, and in addition the much needed change in the EU institutional structure – to allow Angela Merkel the power she is asking for to intervene in Parliaments like the Latvian, Hungarian, Greek and Spanish ones, as and when the need arises – has not been advanced, with the result that we are increasingly in danger of putting the whole future of monetary union at risk. It is never to late to act, but time is, inexorably running out. As the old English saying goes he (or she) who dithers in such situations is irrevocably lost. Caveat emptor!

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