March and April have seen a marked 70% rebound in the oil price from the January lows of about $26 a barrel. The move owes much to the dynamics of the energy market itself, but it is being interpreted by financial markets as a sign that global demand should be sufficient to deliver at least trend growth (say, 3% - 3½%) in world output in 2016. The mood has changed sharply from January’s alarmist hysteria, much of it due to so-called “analyses” from the Bank for International Settlements, the International Monetary Fund and leading investment banks. (These organizations ought to have known better, bluntly.) The line taken in International Monetary Research Ltd. notes has been that recession in 2016 is extremely unlikely. Only hopelessly incompetent monetary policy decisions could cause a recession to start from a situation in which upward pressures on inflation have been and remains weak, and the price level has been and remains more or less stable. I don’t have much respect for the top brass in the major relevant institutions (i.e., the Fed, the ECB, etc.). But, to initiate a recession, they would have had to be yet crasser than they were in the last period of idiocy, in late 2008. In practice, the absence of upward pressures on the price level has allowed significant monetary-policy easing in China and the Eurozone. It seems that in China M2 growth has run about 1% - 1½% a month (i.e., at annualised rates of 13% - 20%) in early 2016. In the four major developed “countries” (i.e., taking the Eurozone as a country) – the USA, the Eurozone, Japan and the UK – the annual rates of broad money growth are currently 3.9%, 5.0%, 2.6% and 4.5%, and the three-month annualised growth rates are 5.1%, 4.4%, 2.8% and 5.0%. If asked for an ideal rate of money growth, Milton Friedman would typically reply – at least for the USA – “5% a year”. The Bank of Japan seems unable to see the light in the “broad money vs. monetary base” debate. But in truth money growth trends in the main countries are not far from perfection at present.
Some commentators seem anxious that early 2016 feels like early 2007. But banking systems are not over-stretched and do not face heavy loan write-offs because of bad debts, while inflation is exceptionally low. Governments and central banks can readily implement expansionary policies (such as QE) if they have to. The overall prospect is for steady, if rather slow, growth of banking systems in the major countries, and so for moderate growth of broad money, and also of nominal GDP. There are worries (e.g., the oil market), but the world economy is not characterized by major macroeconomic instabilities In qualification, officialdom seems committed to imposing extra capital requirements on banks across the globe, in the belief that highly-capitalised banks are safe banks and that another Great Recession could not happen if all banks were ‘safe’. Key central bankers and regulators seem not to understand that the Great Recession of 2008 – 10, like the Great Depression in the USA 1929 – 33, was caused by a collapse in the rate of change of the quantity of money. They seem further not to appreciate that the effect of tightening bank regulation will be to depress the rate of growth of the quantity of money, with wider disinflationary/deflationary consequences. Although oil prices must be expected to spike upwards at some point in the next three years (as Saudi Arabia again restricts production), underlying, ex-energy inflation will still be low/negligible in 2017 and early 2018. Money growth has turned upwards in China and India in the last few months, which argues against too much pessimism about the global outlook for 2016. A truly alarming message is that officialdom still cannot see the connections between regulatory tightening in the banking industry and weak broad money growth, and then between weak broad money growth and sluggish economic activity.
And what will happen if QE is tapered or stopped?‘Quantitative easing’ is understood in this note as the purchase of assets from the non-bank private sector by the central bank. (Other definitions are available!) The central bank finances these purchases by issuing cash reserves to the commercial banks, while the bank deposits of the non-bank private sector increase as it receives the proceeds of its asset sales. As bank deposits can be used to make payments, they are money. The effect of QE is therefore to cause an increase in the quantity of money, with bank balance sheets showing extra deposits on the liabilities side and extra cash reserves on the assets side. The change in banks’ cash assets measures, more or less, the effect of QE on the quantity of money. (I say ‘more or less’ because there are some technical caveats. They may become important, but they are not relevant to this note and are not further discussed.) The Federal Reserve’s ‘QE3’ operations are an example of this form of quantitative easing. The Fed has purchased mortgage-backed securities, mostly from non-banks (but also to some extent from banks, one of those ‘technical caveats’), and that has boosted banks’ cash reserves enormously and been a major positive influence on the quantity of money. QE is expected to be ‘tapered’ soon and ended at some point in the next few months. What effect will that have on the growth of the quantity of money in the USA? Will M3 – which has been rising slowly since 2011 – continue to increase? The analysis in this note suggests that, unless banks were to resume the expansion of ‘bank credit’ in the usually understood sense (i.e., of claims on the private sector), the growth of US broad money would come to a complete halt with a cessation of QE. It is very important for International Monetary Research subscribers to realize that the Fed does not analyse the monetary situation by inspection of quantity-of-money data; its officials would have no interest in the conclusion I will now reach.
Press reports have suggested that the International Monetary Fund has become unhappy with the Greek government’s austerity measures, since it felt not enough was being done to maintain fiscal solvency. Anyhow the latest tranche of money has been credited to the Greek government and life goes on, although Greece’s international creditors are watching the budget numbers month by month. The following note recognises that the Greek government is not far from achieving a ‘primary budget balance’ (i.e., non-interest public expenditure is only slightly above tax revenues). In that sense, much has been done to restore the creditworthiness of the Greek state. However, the cost has been calamitous, with falls of about a quarter in real terms in both national output and government expenditure. Even worse, it is not clear that the big austerity drive so far will be sufficient. Two points have to be emphasized. First, output has fallen so heavily from the peak (i.e., in 2007), and is still falling at such a rate, that a budget surplus would be needed to stop the debt/to/GDP ratio from rising further. There is no sign of that. Despite the defaults to private sector creditors, IMF data show the debt-to-GDP ratio now at about 175%. Second, the drop in output has of course a large cyclical element and, sooner or later, a cyclical recovery must surely happen. However, a deeper problem is now emerging, that international investors are shunning Greece and the trend level of output may be going down. To halt the rise in the debt-to-GDP ratio, Greece therefore needs an overall budget surplus over a series of years and not just a primary surplus in an emergency period Again, there is no prospect of that in any relevant planning horizon.
The Eurozone resembles a vast dyke which is full of holes and liable to disintegrate at any moment. This note concentrates on Portugal, where the recent resignation of the very able finance minister, Vitor Gaspar, was a huge disappointment. (It must be said that the Eurozone’s holes in Greece, Spain, Italy and France also remain large and conspicuous, despite international officialdom’s attempts to patch them.) Portugal’s problems arise partly because the economy’s trend rate of growth is now very low, perhaps even zero or negative. Gross domestic product per head is lower than ten years ago. With inflation almost zero, nominal GDP is at best flat. As a result, any deficit leads to an increase in the ratio of public debt to GDP. A May 2011 bailout negotiation with the ‘troika’ extended €78b. of loan and other financing, to help the Portuguese government and banking system. It must be acknowledged that Portugal has tried hard, with Gaspar at the finance ministry, to meet the conditions attached to the bailout plan. The cyclically-adjusted budget deficit fell from 9.0% in 2010 to 4.0% in 2012. Nevertheless, the debt-to-GDP ratio has kept on rising and is now over 120%, the kind of figure that was associated with the Greek dégringolade in 2012. (A fair verdict is that a debt-to-GDP ratio of 120% is sustainable when the nominal interest rate on the debt is 5% or less, but – once the interest rate goes into double digits – the debt interest burden runs amok like a Frankenstein monster.) The Portuguese people are apparently weary with austerity, and it has to be said that – without a resumption of growth and particularly of asset price appreciation, which would help banking solvency – the danger has to be that further deficit-reduction measures would not restore fiscal sustainability or national solvency. Holders of Portuguese banks’ bond liabilities and depositors with Portugal’s banks, you have been warned! PEXIT (Portuguese exit from the Eurozone) is – almost certainly – a better option than staying in.
Recent survey news on the British economy has been satisfactory, even quite good, particularly given the continuing travails of the Eurozone. The purpose of the current note is to relate these developments to the latest monetary trends. The central point is that broad money growth has been consistent with the recovery, in that it has been running in the mid-single digits (at an annual rate) for several quarters. However, the monetary expansion has not been the result of banks’ increasing their loan portfolios. Instead it has been due to the Bank of England’s purchases of long-dated government bonds from non- banks (i.e., to ‘quantitative easing’, as it has become known). The Monetary Policy Committee of the Bank of England appears to be split on the wisdom of maintaining QE in coming months, with one supporter of continued QE (Sir Mervyn King, the governor) due to step down in a few weeks. The main cause of the persisting weakness of credit growth is that the banks remain subject to official pressure to raise capital/asset ratios, to ‘tidy up their balance sheets’ and so on. The government and the Bank of England have pushed artificial schemes – such as Funding for Lending and the Help to Buy (i.e., to buy a home) initiative – without apparently understanding that the regulatory assault on the banks is to blame for their reluctance to expand their assets. At any rate, over the last year or so a moderate rate of money growth and very low interest rates have been associated with healthy rises in asset prices, and private-sector balance sheets (i.e., the balance sheets of households and companies) have improved dramatically compared with early 2009. As long as broad money growth remains positive and in the mid-single digits (at an annual rate), a steady recovery is to be expec The new Bank of England governor, Mark Carney, is something of an unknown quantity as regards money targeting, although he has expressed interest in ‘nominal GDP targeting’. (The subject of nominal GDP targeting is not discussed here.)
Four years ago, at the worst point in the Great Recession, several leading American economic gurus said that the Fed’s easy monetary policy risked higher inflation which might imperil the recovery. In some of the early commentaries from International Monetary Research (in the spring and summer of 2009), I argued that these gurus – who included the revered Alan Greenspan and Martin Feldstein, a prominent adviser to President Reagan – were seeing ‘ghosts’. I brought together evidence from earlier recoveries to show that the typical US recovery was accompanied by the continuation of low inflation and indeed often by falling inflation. In other words, the macro news tended to be excellent during recoveries, with above-trend growth in output and profits associated with declines in inflation. This sort of macro backdrop usually saw strong gains in equity prices. Monetary policy is nearly always controversial, and the last four years have seen even more bitter and intense controversies than usual. Expansionary open market operations of a traditional kind have been labelled ‘quantitative easing’, and described as ‘unconventional’ and innovatory. Silly rants – such as those from Liam Halligan in his Sunday Telegraph column – have claimed that by its very nature QE (and regardless of the quantities and timing involved) is inflationary, redolent of ‘banana republics’, ‘the last refuge of dying empires’, etc. In fact, QE has barely failed to offset the contractive effect on money growth of tighter bank regulation and officialdom’s determination to raise banks’ capital/asset ratios. Anyhow, the latest American data show that inflation is under good control, and is in fact much lower than in 2007 and 2008. (It is not lower than in 2009 when the price level, not the level of inflation, was falling, and observers were understandably concerned about deflation)
Mario Draghi denies that he is an actor. But in July last year he is reported to have paused, with great effect, between two sentences in an interview for the Financial Times. The two sentences were, ‘Within our mandate, the ECB is ready to do whatever it takes to preserve the euro. And, believe me, it will be enough.’ On the basis of these two sentences, which were followed by a spectacular rebound in the euro on the foreign exchanges and in European share prices, the FT made Draghi its ‘Person of the Year’ for 2012.* But Mario Draghi, like King Canute, is not omnipotent. He cannot break the laws of arithmetic and the principles of accountancy which depend on those laws. He cannot – by mere pronouncement – conjure up the real resources required to fill the hole in Cypriot banks’ balance sheets. Equally, if that hole is €17b. (or about 80% of Cyprus’s GDP of €22b.), the Cyprus Parliament cannot by rejecting the terms of an international bail-out make the people of Cyprus richer in any meaningful sense. The cost of filling a hole of €17b. is the cost of filling a hole of €17b. It was supposed to be met by an increase in Cyprus’s public debt of over €10b. and the highly controversial deposit haircut of €5.8b. The Cyprus Parliament’s unanimous rejection of the haircut does not mean that – automatically, immediately, magically and finally – the €5.8b. has fallen like manna from heaven. We have a stand-off. The ECB has indicated that, on the provision of the appropriate collateral (Greek government bonds?), it will lend to the central bank of Cyprus sufficient amounts for it to meet cash calls from the commercial banks. These banks would then have enough cash to repay depositors with legal-tender notes. But do Cyprus’s banks have appropriate collateral in sufficient amounts? Do they, in Draghi’s terms, have ‘enough’?
The Greek government recorded a surplus on its finances in January, an apparently heartening development in the continuing Eurozone melodrama. The surplus was the result of huge cuts in expenditure combined with the seasonal pattern of tax payments, which has the effect of making January a month of unusually high tax receipts in every financial year. (Greece had a budget surplus in January 2010, also.) Key decisions on Greek public finances are now being taken by the troika, the group of international bodies (the International Monetary Fund, the European Commission and the European Central Bank) acting more or less in unison to ensure that financially distressed Eurozone countries can honour (some of) their international debts. Can these organizations at last start celebrating? Is austerity having the desired effects? In fact, the wider macroeconomic background in Greece remains appalling. The January outturn is unsustainable, and reflects both desperation and severe fiscal trauma. Needs must when the troika drives. Tax revenues were lower, by over 9%, in January 2013 than a year earlier. The surplus was ‘achieved’ only by a fall of over 20% in expenditure, from €5,362m. in January 2012 to €4,239m. last month. It should also be emphasized that in January 2011 expenditure was €8,408m. In other words, Greek government expenditure at the start of 2013 was half (yes!) the level of two years ago. The Greek state is having difficulty controlling its borders, with immigrants widely reported to be responsible for a crime wave. There is still a high risk that Greece and/or Cyprus will leave the Eurozone.
Since 2009 Greece has been a barometer of the Eurozone’s continued viability. The rake’s progress of the four years to early 2009 had been remarkable. It had run current account deficits (relative to GDP) of 7.6% in 2005, 11.4% in 2006, 14.6% in 2007 and 14.9% in 2008 or, over the four years combined, of about 50% of GDP. The big external creditors included international banks, particularly European banks, which had acquired large holdings of Greek government debt and made loans to Greek banks. The extra debt could be serviced in the long run only if Greece reduced its current account deficit substantially. A devaluation against the currencies of its main trading partners was therefore sensible, in order to motivate the necessary switch of production towards exports. Unfortunately, as a member of the Eurozone single currency area Greece could not devalue. It could leave the Eurozone, but that would shatter the geopolitical dreams of the Eurozone’s architects in Germany and France. For them the single currency area was a permanent structure which foreshadowed ever-increasing economic and political integration in the European Union. As devaluation within the Eurozone was impossible, the focus of the policy drive to improve Greece’s financial position was on the budget deficit. The Eurozone sovereign debt crisis escalated in early 2010. Since then negotiations have been held between international bodies (usually “the troika” of the European Commission, the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund) and the Greek authorities, about targets for the reduction of budget deficits and public debt. The Greeks have repeatedly missed the targets. Fiscal austerity and the implosion of the banking system have been associated with a drop in real GDP of almost a quarter in five years. The GDP decline has further pushed up the debt/GDP ratio. This note examines the latest developments. Although the budget deficit numbers have been better in 2012 than in 2011, the macroeconomic trauma is so severe and unrelenting that Greece must leave the single currency area as soon as possible.