Tuesday, January 14, 2014

The Irish Insignia

The most difficult part about taking a 'blog-break' is coming back. You want to, sometimes you even try to. But it just doesn't happen. Well, Fintan O'Toole's piece for the New York Times finally got me out of the shell. It's simply superb, and you must read it to know how, what Krugman calls the VSP's (Very Serious People [Peoples?]) are opportunistic as ever and eager to pounce on a half-opportunity to showcase what they perceive as a victory. 

What O'Toole cleverly does is to develop a simple humanist view. If Ireland is willingly or unwillingly being put up as a poster-boy of eurozone austerity success, then what explains the seemingly contrarian reality on the ground? 

The premise here, and what has been since the beginning of the crisis, is the Northern view that the prolonged pain of austerity (nobody's denying the pain at least!) is necessary for the good reward in the end. But history can't be written till the present is complete,  and with several years of results to observe, perhaps we'll be seeing more of these in the near-future. So, O'Toole uses the age-old 'Rocky' analogy. There is no victory. After all, 'still-standing' is a victory dependent entirely on perspective and although the 'slump' seems past, are we capable of asking ourselves firstly whether it had to take that long and secondly (and quite obviously!), are we really 'cured'?

For this, examples are brought forward and light is shed on what O'Toole terms as the 'irrational exuberance' of the North exemplified no better, than by Schauble's irrationally exuberant "Ireland did what Ireland had to do. And now everything is fine.

Irrational exuberance is too kind. Idiocy would be shorter and sweeter.

For there is an Ireland that begs to differ: 

"The domestic economy outside the gated community of high-tech multinationals. Outside Dublin, property prices are still falling. Wages for most workers have dropped sharply. Unemployment remains very high at 12.8 percent — and that figure would be higher if not for emigration. 

There’s always been a simple way to measure how well Ireland is doing: Go to the ports and airports after the Christmas vacation and count the young people waving goodbye to their parents as they head off to the United States, Canada, Australia or Britain, where they have gone to find work and opportunity. 

Other people protest in bad times; the Irish leave. And they’ve been doing so in numbers that haven’t been recorded since the 1980s. Nearly 90,000 people emigrated between April 2012 and April 2013 and close to 400,000 have left since the 2008 crisis...There’s no great mystery about why they’re going: They don’t believe in the success story. A major study by University College Cork found that most of the emigrants are graduates and that almost half of them left full-time jobs in Ireland to go abroad. 

These are not desperate refugees; they’re bright young people who have lost faith in the idea that Ireland can give them the opportunities they want. They just don’t buy into the narrative of a triumphant rebound."

But of course there's more. In contrast to the No Bondholder Left Behind initiative, now acknowledged by all even in the North to be as foolish an idea as any, the ordinary citizen has borne the full brunt of austerity. Lavishness on one hand, good old fashioned cuts on the other. 

Asmussen, Djisselbloem, Rehn, Schauble. They all have different faces but they are cut from the same cloth and sing the same tune together in harmony. If anything, Ireland could be a eurozone poster-child for a mirage or an oasis - something that you want desperately to be there but it isn't - an economic facade that tries its best to mask the reality within. 

O'Toole ends in the best way possible - with numbers. In 2009, Ireland's debt-to-GDP was 
64%. Last year, it peaked at 125%. Blossoming debt with shrinking spending. It's a dubious duo that Ireland has the misfortune of representing. 

Thursday, September 5, 2013

Summertime in the Fed

I'm half certain there's been a slight overkill in the whole "Next-Fed-Chair" frenzy and it's still continuing. You have people defending Summers, people defending Yellen, a lot of people attacking Summers and even a few ushering in the issue of gender. So here's a short two-cent bit not on who should be the next Fed Chair, but why it shouldn't be Summers.

It's just near-impossible to quantify the impact of Fed statements. And when appointing the leader, consensus-builder and in many ways, the most important economic figurehead for the entire world, you need to check off a gazillion boxes before making such a decision. 

It's hard to argue against Summer technically, but then again, this is the Chairman of the Federal Reserve! 
I guarantee you - if someone released an audio-less 10 second clip on Vine of Bernanke mouthing a few words that looked anything like "pinterest's fate", lip-readers would pile onto it and that thing would go Gangnam viral. 

But here's why the technical aspect matters. The more you know, the more you appreciate how little you know. And in the past decade, nothing holds truer. One of Bernanke's greatest strengths, apart from his demeanor and rigorous analytic way of thinking is his latent humility. He understands how little we still know about business cycles and capital flows, how data still lacks, how little conventional monetary policy can accomplish in extraordinary circumstances. 

This is where Summers might fail. Here, try this little exercise, close your eyes and imagine a voice shouting "LARRY SUMMERS!" in your head. Then list what comes to mind. 

By all accounts, here's what I came up with (in no particular order):

1) Bleeds blue - (Samuelson and Arrow)
2) Came off as an arrogant jerk in 'The Social Network' as Harvard President
3) Harvard era (Women in science + Schleifer (Russia) + Cornel West + bad interest rate gamble for Harvard's endowment)
4) Smiley-Face on the Committee to Save the World :)
5) Glass-Steagall
7) World Bank
8) Ill-timed "Luddite" barb directed at current RBI governor
9) General consensus-based impression of arrogance, abrasiveness and aptitude - a deadly combination for someone in power.

Now to be fair, those are negatives. There's no denying the fact that Summers has held influential positions (Treasury Secretary anyone?) and is aware of how to conduct himself, manage relationships and delegate responsibility. But being a Treasury Secretary, or a Harvard President or a World Bank Chief Economist is DIFFERENT from being the Fed Chair. 

You have to: 
1) bite your tongue a million times, 
2) swallow your pride even more, 
3) measure your words by the letter, 
4) build consensus, 

and above all, 

5) bask in the humility of your position and its limits, and understand and appreciate that there are things you don't know and things you won't understand. 

Somehow, I have a hard time imagining Summers fitting this bill. Accomplished economist, suitable for anything and everything, but Chairman of the Federal Reserve? 

They play a different game there.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

No(ah) More Excess Reserves

Noah Smith has a far better critique of Feldstein's attempt to link excess reserves with the inflationary dog that didn't bark. It's a bit late in the day and believe me, it's not an admission of guilt. Rather, you could view it as a sort of I-know-why-this-hasn't-happened-somebody-gamed-the-system sort of article.

But Smith's approach is simple. Treat the IOER (Interest on Excess Reserves) as the 'safe asset'. If it's less than the T-bill rate then the latter is the safe asset. Thus,

"The IROR is 0.25%. The T-bill rate is just over 0%. This means that the difference in the expected real rate of return between a world with an IROR and a world without an IROR is about 0.25%. In a world without an IROR, banks lend to any risky project with an expected real rate of return of S. In a world with an IROR, banks lend to any risky project with an expected real rate of return of S + 0.25%"

What he means in terms of Feldstein's claim, is that the band between a project's real rate of return and the +0.25% IOER has a lot of activity (projects to lend for) - R<project<R+0.25%

Basically it is, as Feldstein tries to assert, this that is holding back the excess reserves. If that spread disappeared and the 'safe asset rate' decreased by 0.25% (IOER), the reserves would flood the economy like chimera and inflation would finally bite, forget bark.

So where does the answer lie?

"The answer must lie elsewhere; it must be the case that either S is very high, or there are very few projects with decent expected rates of return, or maybe some sort of institutional constraint on the speed with which banks can ramp up lending. But that little 0.25% IROR can't be what's holding the economy back."

It's true, and it makes sense both on the surface as well as with a bit more thought. Otherwise, the moment the Fed cuts the IOER (stops paying interest on excess reserves), all hell will break loose. I'm pretty sure that's not happening.

And of course, it never hurts to look at Japan.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

World Economic Outlook Update (July)

The July WEO update doesn't really say much. Well, on second thought, it doesn't say much that wasn't already known. Perhaps a bit more could have been said on the recent rise in treasury yields and the resulting constraints being faced by EM economies but all in all, the outlook seems muted and there seem to be very few notes of optimism.

A few more points:

- Weakening commodity prices

- Tail-risk mitigation including no more US debt ceiling drama and euro-backstop action on the do-what-it-takes front.

- The forecasts assume that recent volatility and associated rises in yield reflect a sort of one-off repricing of risk due to a protracted EM growth outlook slowdown and taper-talk in the US. This also comes with the warning of additional portfolio shifts and further rises in yields (USTs) that exacerbate capital outflows from EMs and diminish the growth outlook even more.

- For advanced economies, the priority remains near-term growth accompanied by credible medium-term fiscal consolidation (yep!). It cites low inflation and sizeable slack while advocating for continued monetary stimulus and mix of regulatory and macroprudential policy. Of course, clear communication continues to be an integral factor in mitigating volatility.

- For the euro-area, another push towards a full(er) banking union and policies to reduce fragmentation, lift demand and reform product and labor markets.

- Lastly, it stresses cyclical vulnerability in EMs - that sudden capital flow reversals have amplified trade-off risks. Lower than expected potential output has lead to higher fiscal constraints and while monetary easing can still function as the first line of defense, real rates are already low enough and outflows putting depreciation pressure on exchange rates are likely to constrain further easing.

- And there's a footnote (almost like a post-script) on sustainable consumption rebalancing for China and investment for Germany.

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

On a September Taper

Over at Tim Duy's Fed Watch, there's a marked consensus on the tapering taper talk of a few weeks ago. The point to be stressed here is not the Fed's reaction function but the market's. The blur between QE and interest rates is what caused and perhaps is still causing global jitters and flow reversals and even if the Fed realized that it jumped the gun, or that it needed to appear like it didn't jump the gun, the focus now should be on actual policy.

With the state of the labour market in mind (as it should be because essentially QE was a safety net to provide some semblance of a 'bottom' for the economy'), Duy says that three scenarios look probable

From BAML:

1) The economy converges to the labor data and the Fed starts to steadily move toward a September exit
2) The Fed thinks that reduced downside risks warrant a one-off taper (September) but then move to a wait-and-watch approach for broad-based improvement
3) The Fed plays the wait-and-watch game and doesn't move until December

Option 2 is the relative enigma here but according to Duy, "as we approach the September meeting, weak economic data will be considered less important for the outcome of that meeting relative to subsequent meetings. Barring a substantial negative turn in the data, the Fed will cut the pace of asset purchases in September, but a softer data flow may reduce the magnitude of the cut and the pace of subsequent tapering."

The problem, as evidenced by the recent reaction of the markets, is that a one-off taper followed by a pause doesn't seem to be entirely in the Fed's interest. The easiest path is a calendar path and therefore, it's possible that they start trimming their asset purchases by $15-20 billion per meeting till it hits zero by the end of the year.

Either way, it's important that the Fed convinces the markets of the distinction between QE and the path of short-term rates as policy tools - exactly how they differ in use and function. Most importantly, although it should seem more obvious than it is - a reduction in asset purchases does not and should not signal the end of the ZIRP.

What it does end up signalling, unfortunately, is an around-the-corner-possibility, which then leads to an invariable jumping of the gun. And that's why a September taper seems more and more likely. 

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

On Reserves, Excess Reserves and Yes, Inflation

Martin Feldstein has long since (make that loongg!) been warning of inflationary doomsday scenarios. Perhaps not to the tune of Meltzer but significantly nonetheless. Meltzer, as Krugman loves to recall has repeatedly stated his opinions such as: 

"Besides, no country facing enormous budget deficits, rapid growth in the money supply and the prospect of a sustained currency devaluation as we are has ever experienced deflation. These factors are harbingers of inflation. When will it come? Surely not right away..."
Of course, you could nitpick right away. The US budget deficit as compared to an EZ budget deficit, the rapid growth of money supply is not relatively not very rapid at all. And currency devaluation? Currency devaluation??

But Feldstein backs the excess reserves argument once again over in a piece at Project Syndicate. While the warnings are less dire, they're still present. And it brought to mind the Keister/McAndrews paper back in 2009 on excess reserves. 

Now to be sure, you can't argue with the logic on the surface. If the money multiplier had a temporary demise and the Fed is paying interest on the excess reserves (the IOER has long since been 0.25%), then those parked reserves might see the day of light soon. After all, rapid monetary growth is the best harbinger of inflation!

This is what's happened over the past 10 years as far as inflation and the monetary base and M2 are concerned. All have been indexed to the start for a clearer comparison:

And this is what the money growth actually looks like on a monthly and year on year basis:

Lastly, the level of excess reserves is, in fact, unprecedented:

So when Feldstein states, "When businesses and households eventually increase their demand for loans, commercial banks that have adequate capital can meet that demand with new lending without running into the limits that might otherwise result from inadequate reserves. The resulting growth of spending by businesses and households might be welcome at first, but it could soon become a source of unwanted inflation," does he have a point?

What about the Fed? Feldstein has little faith - "The Fed could, in principle, limit inflationary lending by raising the interest rate on excess reserves or by using open-market operations to increase the short-term federal funds interest rate. But the Fed may hesitate to act, or may act with insufficient force, owing to its dual mandate to focus on employment as well as price stability."

You see, you can't forget a few things. For starters, the fractional reserve banking system operates on the premise of a money multiplier. So the idea of excess reserves contradicts the existence of a multiplier. It works like this: 

increase in bank reserves -> increase in broad money (lending/deposits) -> expansion of deposits raises reserve requirements. 

Clearly this has not occurred. And this is where the IOER (interest on excess reserves) checks in. Any bank holding excess reserves should seek to lend at a positive rate and this lending, in turn should decrease the short-term rate. 

From Keiseter/McAndrews, this: 

"leads to a small increase in reserve requirements, as described in the previous section. Because the increase in required reserves is small, however, the supply of excess reserves remains large. The process then repeats itself...until one of two things happens. It could continue until there are no more excess reserves,...In this case, the money multiplier is fully operational. However, the process will stop before this happens if the short-term interest rate reaches zero. When the market interest rate is zero, banks no longer face an opportunity cost of holding reserves and, hence, no longer have an incentive to lend out their excess reserves. At this point, the multiplier process halts."

But the Fed does pay interest on these excess reserves, so the multiplier process stops far sooner. Instead of continuing till the market interest rate is 0, it continues till this rate reaches the rate paid by the central bank on reserves. So if the central bank pays interest on excess reserves at its target interest rate, the multiplier ceases to exist. 

As for the looming inflationary risks lurking deep within, they hold in a traditional framework - where the Fed influences interest rates by changing the quantity of reserves. But if it's paying interest?

With no interest being paid, as demand for loans pick up etc. etc., the central bank must remove the excess reserves to arrest or check this multiplicative process. Only by removing these reserves can the CB check banks' willingness to lend and cause a rise in short-term rates.

But with interest being paid, the link between the quantity of reserves and willingness to lend breaks. It allows the CB to be independent, (in a way), of the level of reserves. 

Which is not to say that the point or the process is moot. It's not. But to suggest, weakly as Feldstein does, that the Fed may act hesitatingly or insufficiently because of its dual mandate is not correct.

At some point, trade-offs between labor market conditions and price levels may emerge. But that's an argument for another occasion. 

Monday, July 1, 2013

External Scenario Update: India

Courtesy Alex Etra, some updates on the external scenario over in India:

"Total external debt rose to 390 billion at March-end (21% of GDP), up from 376 billion in December and 345 billion in March 2012. Of particular concern is the rising share of short-term debt at residual maturity (44% of total) which comprises both short-term debt and long-term debt maturing in the next year. Combining the 172 billion in short-term debt at residual maturity and the expected CAD of about 100 billion provides a starker picture of the external financing requirement facing India over the next year (~13% of GDP)"


"With 57% of total external debt denominated in dollars (~89 billion) and previous estimates that about 50% of companies’ foreign borrowing is unhedged, the 10% depreciation of INR over the last month will further add to the rollover risk this year"

There's pressure. The Fed's played it a bit wrong this time and shifts in flows have become a bit messy. As usual, while external scenarios don't factor into Fedspeak and Fedthought, that's where the major consequences are seen.

And I think the RBI's hands seem more tied than before. Any possible room has certainly got smaller and the transmission mechanism, in any case doesn't work too well (e.g: 100 bps of rate cuts in 2012-13 leading to 30 bps in bank lending rates?), not to forget that real deposit rates have been in negative territory for over a year approximately. Moreover, corporate and bank balance sheets are far from healthy and if anything at all, understated in terms of risk.

And you know what's worse? 
It's an election year.