Inflation is always and everywhere a monetary phenomenon…Government spending may or may not be inflationary. It clearly will be inflationary if it is financed by creating money, that is, by printing currency or creating bank deposits. If it is financed by taxes or by borrowing from the public, the main effect is that the government spends the funds instead of the taxpayer or instead of the lender or instead of the person who would otherwise have borrowed the funds. Fiscal policy is extremely important in determining what fraction of total national income is spent by government and who bears the burden of that expenditure. By itself, it is not important for inflation.
–Milton Friedman, “The Counter-Revolution in Monetary Theory” (emphasis in original)
Friedman’s idea was radical when he suggested it in 1970, but it has since become boringly mainstream. Nowadays the standard line is that central banks have all the power and (usually) offset the impact of fiscal policy changes.
So it was refreshing to read a speech by Christopher Sims at this year’s Jackson Hole economic symposium suggesting that the common view has things backwards. To the extent central banks have any impact on inflation, it’s by tricking elected officials: Read more
Janet Yellen opened the festivities at this year’s Jackson Hole economic symposium by musing on what central bankers had learned since the crisis and how they can deal with future recessions in a world where interest rates are far lower than in the past.
Unsurprisingly, bond-buying and “forward guidance” featured prominently in Yellen’s narrative of successful new tools. (On the other hand, scholars have estimated the combined impact of these measures was an unemployment rate a mere 0.13 percentage points below where it would have been using purely conventional instruments.) Read more
It may take a few minutes to wrap your head around it, but this chart from Richard Koo, borrowing heavily from the insights of W. Arthur Lewis, is a pretty good framework for understanding the history of the world since the start of the industrial revolution:
For most of human history, technological progress was achingly slow, especially when it came to agricultural productivity. Unable to boost yields, populations couldn’t expand unless additional farmland were brought under cultivation. There were about as many people alive on Earth in the age of Caesar as there were more than a thousand years later. When that finally changed, farmers moved to urban factories and joined the proletariat. Read more
Here’s an interesting thought from Grant Spencer, the Deputy Governor in charge of financial stability at the Reserve Bank of New Zealand:
While boosting the capacity for development and housing supply is paramount, it is also important to explore policies that will keep the demand for housing more in line with supply capacity…We cannot ignore that the 160,000 net inflow of permanent and long-term migrants over the last 3 years has generated an unprecedented increase in the population and a significant boost to housing demand…There may be merit in reviewing whether migration policy is securing the number and composition of skills intended. While any adjustments would operate at the margin, they could over time help to moderate the housing market imbalance. Read more
Why did Americans (and Spaniards and Irish) borrow so much against housing in the 2000s, only to find themselves stuck with more debt than assets? It sounds like a simple question, but it’s surprisingly difficult for economists to agree on an answer.
The standard approach is to attribute the excesses to changes in the behaviour of lenders, who, for whatever reason, became much more eager to give mortgages to people they previously would have avoided with terms they previously would have considered reckless. (For more on the European cases, see here.)
For example, about a third of all mortgage debt originated in 2005 and 2006 was either subprime or “alt-A”, according to data from Inside Mortgage Finance, compared to the stable 1990-2003 average of about 10 per cent. Subsequent experience tarnished these product segments so badly they effectively disappeared. Read more
Until relatively recently, academics and Western policymakers overwhelmingly supported the official position of the European Union. Nowadays we live in a world where the head of the International Monetary Fund — who also happens to be the former Finance and Economy Minister of France — publicly says the “inherent volatility” of cross-border capital movements is a problem. Read more
Being a corporate tax haven can do strange things to your national accounts.
Consider the Republic of Ireland, which just reported that its economy expanded by somewhere between 19 and 26 per cent in 2015, depending on whether you count the value of what’s produced in Ireland (gross domestic product) or the value of what’s produced by Irish citizens and companies domiciled in Ireland (gross national product). Read more
American interest rates imply the economic outlook has worsened considerably in the past eight months. Optimists think the markets are wrong, pointing to the continued improvement of the job market and the rebound in consumer price inflation. But other data corroborate the pessimism of the fixed-income markets.
Recall the world five months ago, when fears of a downturn were far more pronounced than today. Back then, plunging industrial commodity prices, yawning risk spreads, and sharp declines in stock prices led many to worry a downturn was imminent. When we looked at the data we were cautiously optimistic, noting previous recessions had been mostly attributable to sharp contractions in residential construction and spending on motor vehicles, which in turn were often associated with big changes in credit conditions: Read more
The European Union’s economy is a “sinking ship” and Britain would be better off “detaching itself” from the bloc, Michael Gove, the U.K.’s Justice Secretary and prominent leave campaigner told CNBC on Tuesday.
“By voting to leave we can not only take back control of hundreds of millions of pounds that we send to the European Union, we will also be detaching ourselves from the sinking ship that is the European Union economy,” Gove, who is hoping for a Brexit vote on Thursday’s referendum, said.
– Britain needs to jump from EU’s ‘sinking ship’: UK lawmaker (June 21, 2016).
We would never defend the economic management of the euro area, which is often conflated with the policies recommended by the European Union as a whole. But it’s worth noting most of the UK is actually quite poor compared to large areas of Western Europe, and particularly deprived relative to greater London. Read more
The collapse of the Greek economy is almost without precedent. Real household consumption has dropped by 27 per cent since the peak. During the global financial crisis, this figure “only” fell by 6 per cent before rebounding:
If you’d asked any observer four or five years ago which country would be the first to leave the European Union, few would have guessed it would be the UK. Of all the countries in the EU, the UK is probably the one with the least to gain from meaningful changes in its economic relationships with its neighbours. Yet here we are.
London’s stock markets, priced in sterling, probably understate the expected impact on the UK economy given the sectoral and geographic earnings mix of the listed companies. So we looked at the short-term interest rate markets to get a sense of how traders think the Bank of England will react to the vote. Read more
It’s been eight lean years for residents of the euro area:
A quick reminder that we’ll be hosting a special edition of Macro Live today at 1:50pm to cover the release of the FOMC statement and subsequent presser.
Back in December 2015, Federal Reserve policymakers expected they would raise the policy interest rate band to 1.25-1.5 per cent by the end of 2016, implying a cumulative increase in short-term rates of 1 percentage point, or four separate decisions to raise rates by 25 basis points. At the time, the prices of overnight index swaps implied an 11 per cent chance this would happen, according to Bloomberg’s WIRP function. Read more
The replacement of market funding with increasingly concessional loans from the “official sector” may have reduced the Greek government’s balance sheet debt by as much as €200bn, yet the headline numbers haven’t captured any of this alleged gain.
In our previous post we looked at whether this was reasonable, focusing on several sets of accounting guidelines to see how they might apply to Greek sovereign obligations: International Financial Reporting Standards (IFRS), International Public Sector Accounting Standards (IPSAS), the European System of Accounts (ESA 2010), and Eurostat’s Manual on Government Deficit and Debt (MGDD). Read more
We’ve raised the possibility Greece’s sovereign debt burden is far lower than the headline figures — and the potential significance of this — in previous posts. Now it’s time to dig in.
(The idea was brought to our attention by Paul Kazarian, whose Japonica Partners has a position in Greek government bonds and would stand to profit from a compression in risk premiums. His interest in the outcome doesn’t necessarily mean he’s wrong.) Read more
After years of failed attempts to stabilise the Greek economy, the Greek government finally got debt relief in 2012. As we explained in our previous post, interest payments fell by more than half between 2011 and 2013. Since the 2012 modifications, Greece’s sovereign debt service costs have been significantly smaller as a share of total output than in Italy or Portugal.
Yet it hasn’t helped much. The economy continues to contract and Greece’s depression since 2008 is among the absolute worst of any country in the world since 1980. Investment spending had already plunged by 60 per cent in real terms between the peak in 2007 and the end of 2011. Since then, it’s dropped another 13 per cent. Overall, Greece has had no economic growth since the beginning of 2013:
Part of the reason: the debt modifications failed to convince private investors to return to Greece, despite having “solved” the problem of government debt service costs. Read more
Last week, we revealed a significant discrepancy between the Greek government’s net debt as reported by the International Monetary Fund’s World Economic Outlook database and what you’d get if you replicated the IMF’s standard methodology for netting out “financial assets corresponding to debt instruments” using data published by the Bank of Greece.
Neither the IMF nor the Bank of Greece had responded to our requests for an explanation of the discrepancy at the time we wrote our original post, nor did either institution respond in time for our follow-up discussion of the Greek government’s equity portfolio. Four days after we’d emailed our original question (while we were on holiday) we finally got some responses. Read more
For the past three years, the Federal Reserve has surveyed thousands of Americans about their finances, their hopes, and their fears. We wrote about the first version of the survey when it was released in August, 2014. The third iteration came out this week. Unsurprisingly, the answers to the repeated questions haven’t changed much. But there are some new questions compared to two years ago, which means a few new interesting things to learn about the American economy.
Some highlights: Read more
According to data published by the Bank of Greece, which follows common standards set by the European Central Bank and Eurostat, the general government sector of the Greek economy owned financial assets worth about €86bn at the end of 2015.
Of that, about €18bn consisted of claims by various levels of government on each other, specifically about €3bn in T-bills, €7bn in Greek government bonds, and €8bn in short-term loans from local government to the central government. Net out those claims and the general government sector of the Greek economy held financial assets of about €68bn at the end of 2015. Read more
According to the International Monetary Fund, the Greek government’s financial assets were worth around €3bn in 2015, or less than 2 per cent of GDP. That’s what you get if you take the difference between general government gross debt and net debt, as reported in the latest version of the World Economic Outlook Database.
Yet according to our independent analysis of data from the Bank of Greece — and using the IMF’s preferred definitions of what should and shouldn’t be counted — the Greek government’s financial assets appear to be worth around €30bn in 2015, or about 16 per cent of GDP. Read more
Here’s an odd argument the Bank of England is somehow to blame for BHS’s massive pension hole. This is the key bit:
The investment environment fundamentally changed post-2008. To keep the UK economy liquid in the crisis, between August 2008 and March 2009, the Bank of England cut the base interest rate from 5% to a record low of 0.5%, where it has stayed ever since…The problem arises in the difference between the amount of money set aside to cover eventual pensions and the obligations. The entire DB scheme is a bet that today’s investments will always come good, forever, and cover tomorrow’s guaranteed payments.
Schemes had been banking on annual returns from their investments of at least 5%. Suddenly, with low interest rates, and stocks going through the post-crisis trough, it’s down to 0.5% as a base. That means they have to put up a lot more new money to get the returns they need.
Contrary to what’s implied in the piece, it’s quite simple to manage a defined-benefit pension properly — especially if most of the beneficiaries are already retired. The level of interest rates only matters if you’re doing it wrong. Read more
Venezuela is in dire straits. Once one of the richest countries in the western hemisphere, the average wage is now estimated to be less than half what it is in Cuba using market exchange rates.
There are many ways to measure how much money is currently fleeing the clutches of Bolivarian socialism, either to repay debts contracted when the oil price was far higher, or simply to shield the wealth of apparatchiks worried by the prospect of state collapse. (Miami condo developers send their regards.) Read more
Time is a flat circle, which is why the Greek government is set to run out of money before debt payments are due to the European Central Bank in July — just like last year, and despite last summer’s supposed deal between the Greek government and its various “official sector” creditors.
As before, the immediate cause of this latest crisis is the persistence of disagreements about the size of the budget surpluses (excluding interest) the Greek government is expected to generate, the specific “reforms” the government needs to implement, and the need for debt relief. The fundamental cause, however, is that the Greek government can’t raise money from the private sector at reasonable rates.
Why? Read more
The trick with investing is owning things that go up and not owning things that go down. Unfortunately, it’s really hard to know which is which in advance. For most people, the best choice is to buy lots of different things and hope the stuff that goes up makes more money than the stuff that goes down loses — a strategy that, over time, tends to work pretty well.
But if you could somehow avoid buying the worst assets before it’s obvious to everyone else how bad they are, you could do even better. This, in a nutshell, is the appeal of the short-seller. Read more
Sticking with a plan after it seems to have stopped working can be admirable persistence — or it can be bull-headed stubbornness. The question is whether recent difficulties are just temporary setbacks bound to reverse or, instead, you’re on the wrong side of a fundamental change in the way the world works.
Consider the steady decline in real yields since the early 1980s. Back then, long-term US Treasury bonds paid more than 15 per cent each year and American stocks traded at less than 7 times earnings, cyclically-adjusted. Nowadays 30-year Treasury bonds yield less than 3 per cent and, on a cyclically-adjusted basis, US equities are priced at roughly 25 times earnings. These changes delivered huge capital gains for investors. Read more
Alphachatterbox is available on Acast, iTunes, and Stitcher. Read more
We recently had a chance to chat with a senior Canadian economic policymaker. Among other topics — he estimated fiscal stimulus would boost growth by around half a percentage point in 2016 and by a full percentage point in 2017 — we discussed his belief the depreciation of Canada’s currency could help export growth offset some of the weakness in the oil economy. What follows is an attempt to assess Canada’s progress so far.
For context, the Canadian dollar has lost about 21.5 per cent of its value against the currencies of its trading partners since the most recent peak in mid-2011, although the loonie had dropped as much as 31 per cent before the recent rally in risky assets:
Donald Trump — one of the few remaining American presidential candidates who failed to attend Camp Alphaville last summer — has repeatedly promised he will build a wall along the southern border, with construction costs to be covered by the Mexican government. Since last August, Trump has asserted he can extract this concession by threatening to close America’s trade deficit with Mexico and by threatening to confiscate southbound remittances.
Despite being one of Trump’s signature policies for more than six months, the release of a memo fleshing out a few additional details has led to a flurry of additional coverage, much of it concerned with the possible humanitarian consequences.
We don’t want to focus on whether the idea is actually sound, but on what the proposal can teach us about the balance of payments. It’s possible Trump’s plan, if enacted, could actually cause America’s trade deficit to widen. Read more
Back when the Basel III regulations were being debated in the wake of the crisis, it was common to hear dire warnings that rules limiting how much banks can borrow would constrict lending and lower real output. Even some who ostensibly support higher equity capital requirements think there are “trade-offs” between a safer financial system and economic growth.
New research from Leonardo Gambacorta and Hyun Song Shin of the Bank for International Settlements suggests this thinking is backwards: “both the macro objective of unlocking bank lending and the supervisory objective of sound banks are better served when bank equity is high.” Read more