Tag Archive for 'Europe'


Monetary policy, fear of commitment and the power of infinity

This is a fascinating time to be thinking about monetary policy…

Like everybody else, central banks can do two things:  they can talk, or they can act.

Some people say that talk is cheap and, in any event, discretion implies bias.

Other people point out that things like central bankers’ concern for their reputation mean that it’s perfectly possible to promise today to implement history-dependent policy tomorrow. Some cheeky people like to point out that this amounts to saying that, when in a slump, a central bank should “credibly commit to being irresponsible” in the future.

In fact, some people argue (pdf) that, in my words, “all monetary policy is, fundamentally, about expectations of the future.”  But if that’s the case, why act at all? Why not just talk and stay away from being a distorting influence in the markets?

There are two reasons: First, since since talk is cheap, credibility requires that people know that you can and, if necessary, will act to back it up (talk softly and carry a big stick). Second, because if you can convince people with actions today, you don’t need to explicitly tell them what your policy rule will be tomorrow and central bankers love discretion because no rule can ever capture what to do in every situation and well, hey … a sense of mystery is sexy.

OMO stands for “Open Market Operation”. It’s how a central bank acts.  Some scallywags like to say that when a central bank talks, it’s an “Open Mouth Operation.” Where it gets fun (i.e. complicated) is that often a central bank’s action can be just a statement if the stick they’re carrying to back it up is big enough.

In regular times, a typical central bank action will be to announce an interest rate and a narrow band on either side of it. In theory, it could be any interest rate at all, but in practice they choose the interest rate for overnight loans between banks. They then commit to accepting in or lending out infinite amounts of money if the interest rate leaves that narrow band. Infinity is a very big stick indeed, so people go along with them.

So what should a central bank do when overnight interest rates are at (or close to) zero and the central bank doesn’t want to take them lower, but more stimulus is needed?

Woodford-ites say that you’ve got to commit, baby. Drop down to one knee, look up into the economy’s eye and give the speech of your life. Tell ’em what you promise to do tomorrow. Tell ’em that you’ll never cheat.  Pinky-swear it … and pray that they believe you.

Monetarists, on the other hand, cough politely and point out that the interest rate on overnight inter-bank loans is just a price and there are plenty of other prices out there. The choice of the overnight rate was an arbitrary one to start with, so arbitrarily pick another one!

Of course, the overnight rate wasn’t chosen arbitrarily. It was chosen because it’s the price that is the furthest away from the real economy and, generally speaking, central bankers hate the idea of being involved in the real economy almost as much as they love discretion. They watch it, of course. They’re obsessed by it. They’re guided by it and, by definition, they’re trying to influence it, but they don’t want to be directly involved. A cynic might say that they just don’t want to get their hands dirty, but a realist would point out that no matter the pain and joy involved in individual decisions in the economy, a cool head and an air of abstraction are needed for policy work and, in any event, a central banker is hardly an industrialist and is therefore entirely unqualified to make decisions at the coalface.

But as every single person knows, commitment is scary, even when you want it, so the whole monetarist thing is tempting. Quantitative Easing (QE) is a step along that monetarist approach, but the way it’s been done is different to the way that OMOs usually work. There has been no target price announced and while the quantities involved have been big (even huge), they have most definitely been finite. The result? Well, it’s impossible to really tell because we don’t know how bad things would have been without the QE. But it certainly doesn’t feel like a recovery.

Some transmission-mechanism plumbers think that the pipes are clogged (see also me).

Woodford-ites say that it’s because there’s no love, baby. Where’s the commitment?

Monetarists say that infinity is fundamentally different to just a really big number.

Market monetarists, on the other hand (yes, I’m sure you were wondering when I’d get to them), like to argue that the truth lies in between those last two. They say that it’s all about commitment (and without commitment it’s all worthless), but sometimes you need an infinitely big stick to convince people. They generally don’t get worked up about how close the central bank’s actions are to the real economy and they’re not particularly bothered with concrete steps.

So now we’ve got some really interesting stuff going on:

The Swiss National Bank (a year ago) announced a price and is continuing to deploy the power of infinity.

The European Central Bank has switched to infinity, but is not giving a price and is not giving any forward guidance.

The Federal Reserve has switched to infinity and is giving some forward guidance on their policy decision rule.

The Bank of England is trying to fix the plumbing.

It really is a fascinating time to be thinking about this stuff.


Terrible news from Apple (AAPL)

Apple just reported their profits for 2011Q4.  It turns out that they made rather a lot of money.  So much, in fact, that they blew past/crushed/smashed expectations as their profit more than doubled on the back of tremendous growth in sales of iPhones and iPads.  [snark] I’ll bet nobody’s talking about Tim Cook being gay now. [/snark]

It’s an incredible result; stunning, really. I just wish it didn’t make me so depressed.

I salute the innovation and cheer on the profits. That is capitalism at its finest and we need more of it.

It’s that f***king mountain of cash (now up to $100 billion) that concerns me, because it’s symptomatic of what is holding America (and Britain) in the economic doldrums.

The return Apple will be getting on that cash will be miniscule, if it’s positive at all, and conceivably negative.  Standing next to that, their return on assets excluding cash is phenomenal.

Why aren’t they doing something with the cash? Are they not able to expand profits still further by expanding quantities sold, even in new markets? Are there no new internal projects to fund? No competitors to buy out? Why not return it to shareholders via dividends or share buybacks?

Logically, a company holds cash for some combination of three reasons: (a) they use it to manage cash flow; (b) they can imagine buying an outside asset (a competitor or some other company that might complement them) in the near future and they want to be able to move quickly (and there’s no M&A deal that’s agreed upon faster than an all cash deal); or (c) they want to demonstrate a degree of security to offset any market perceived risk with their debt.

Apple long ago surpassed all of these benefits.  The net marginal value of Apple holding an extra dollar of cash is negative because it returns nothing and incurs a lost opportunity cost.  So why aren’t their shareholders screaming at them for wasting the opportunity?

The answer, so far as I can see, is because a significant majority of AAPL’s shareholders are idiots with a short-term focus. They have no goddamn clue where else the money should be and they’re just happy to see such a bright spot in their portfolio.  Alternatively, maybe the shareholders aren’t complete idiots — Apple’s P/E ratio has been falling for a while now — but the fundamental point is that they have a mountain of cash that they’re not using.

In 2005 that wouldn’t have been as much of a problem because the shadow banking system was in full swing, doing the risk/liquidity/maturity transformation thing that the financial industry is meant to do and so getting that money out to the rest of the economy.[*] Now, the transformation channel is broken, or at least greatly impaired, and so nobody makes any use of Apple’s billions. They just sit there, useless as f***, while profitable SMEs can’t raise funds to expand and 15% of all Americans are on food stamps.

Don’t believe me?  Here’s a graph from the Bank of England showing year-over-year changes in lending to small- and medium-sized enterprises in the UK.  I can’t be bothered looking for the equivalent data for the USA, but you can rest assured it looks similar.  The report it’s from can be found here (it was published only a few days ago).  The Economist’s Free Exchange has some commentary on it here (summary:  we’re still in trouble).

So what is happening to all that money?  Well, Apple can’t exactly stick it in a bank account, so they repo it, which is a fancy way of saying that they lend it to a bank (or somebody else in the financial industry) and temporarily take some high quality asset like a US government bond to hold as collateral.  They repo it because that’s all they can do now — there are no AAA-rated, actually safe, CDO tranches being created by the shadow banking system any more, they’re too big to make use the FDIC’s guarantee (that’s an excellent paper, btw … highly recommended) and so repo is all they have left.

But the financial industry is stuck in a disgusting mess like some kid’s hair with chewing gum rubbed through it. They’re all just as scared as the next guy (especially of the Euro problems) and so they’re parking it in their own accounts at the Fed and the BoE.  As a result, “excess” reserves remain at astronomical levels and the real economy makes no use of Apple’s billions.

That’s a tragedy.

 

 

 

[*] Yes, the shadow banking industry screwed up. They got caught up in real estate fever and sent (relatively) too much money towards property and too little towards more sustainable investments. They structured things in too opaque a manner, failed to have public price discovery and operated under distorted incentives. But they operated. Otherwise useless cash was transformed into real investment and real jobs. Unless that comes back, America and the UK will stay in their slow, painful household deleveraging cycle for another frickin’ decade.


It’s not a fiscal union and Cameron didn’t veto it

A fiscal union would have transfers from various parts of the union to various other parts over the business cycle.  A guarantee to stand behind somebody’s debt while simultaneously insisting that you’ll never actually need to cough up a cent because you’ve made them pinky swear is not a fiscal union.

A veto stops a thing from happening (think of the UN Security Council).  The fiscal compact is going to go ahead, just without Britain.  Therefore, Britain did not veto it; they declined to take part.

That is all.

Update:

Okay, that isn’t quite all.  Just to be clear, I think that Cameron did the wrong thing.  I believe that, at a minimum, he should have committed to bringing the proposal to the UK parliament.  It may well have been voted down at that point, but nevertheless it should have happened.  Parliament is sovereign in the UK.  This was a serious proposal with potentially significant consequences from either agreeing to it or walking away from it; the people of Britain deserved to have their elected representatives decide.

I am undecided on whether signing up to the pact would be in the best interests of the UK.


Policy options for the Euro area [Updated]

I here list a few policy options for the Euro area that I support, broadly in descending order of my perception of their importance.  Everything here is predicated on an assumption that the Euro itself is to survive and that no member nation of the Euro area is to exit the union.  I don’t claim that this would solve the crisis — who would make such a claim? — but they would all be positive steps that increase the probability of an ultimate solution being found.

  • Immediately establish a single, Euro area-wide bank deposit guarantee scheme.  A single currency must absolutely ensure that a Euro held as money in Greece be the same as a Euro held as money in Germany.  That means that retail and commercial deposits in each should be backed by the same guarantee.  I have no firm opinion on how it should be funded.  The classic manner is through a fee on banks proportional to their deposits, but if Euro area countries ultimately prefer to use a Tobin-style tax on transactions, that’s up to them.  Just get the thing up and running.  Of course, a unified deposit guarantee also requires a unified resolution authority in the event of an insolvent bank collapsing.  There are many and varied forms that fiscal union can take; this is the most urgent of them all.  I am shocked that this does not already exist.
  • The ECB should switch from targetting current inflation to expected future inflation.  The Bank of England already does this.  Accepting that any effect of monetary policy on inflation will come through with a lag (or at least acknowledging that current inflation is backward looking), they “look through” current inflation to what they expect it to be over the coming few years.  This is important.  Current inflation in the Euro area — i.e. the rate of change over the last 12 months — is at 3%.  On the face of it, that might make an ECB policymaker nervous, but looking ahead, market forecasts for average inflation over the coming five years are as low as 0.85% per year in Germany.  They will be much lower for the rest of the Euro area.  Monetary policy in the Euro area is much, much too tight at the moment.  At the very least, (a) interest rates should be lowered; and (b) the ECB should announce their shift in focus toward forward inflation.
  • The ECB should start to speak more, publicly, about forms of current inflation that most affect future inflation.  This follows on from my previous point, but is still logically distinct.  The Fed likes to focus on “core” inflation, stripped of items with particularly volatile price movements.  I don’t much care whether it is non-volatile prices or nominal wages, or even nominal GDP.  I just want the ECB to be speaking more about something other than headline CPI, because it is those other things that feed into future headlines.
  • The ECB’s provision of liquidity to the banking system, while currently large, is not nearly large enough.  The fact that “German Bunds trade below the deposit facility rate at the ECB and well below the Overnight Rate” is clear evidence of this.  I currently have no opinion on whether this ought to be in the form of increasing the duration of loans to Euro area banks, relaxing the collateral requirements for loans or working with member countries’ treasuries to increase the provision of collateral.  I certainly believe (see my second point above) that interest rates should be lowered.  The point, as far as is possible, is to make replacing lost market funding with ECB funding more attractive to banks than deleveraging.
  • A great deal of Euro area sovereign debt is unsustainable; hair-cuts are inevitable and they should be imposed as soon as possible (but, really, this requires that a unified bank resolution authority be established first).  The argument for delaying relies on banks’ ability to first build up a cushion of capital through ongoing profitability.  When banks are instead deleveraging, the problem is made worse by waiting.
  • Credit Default Swaps must be permitted to trigger.  The crisis may have its origins in the the profligacy of wayward sovereigns (frankly, I think the origins lie in the Euro framers not appreciating the power of incentives), but the fundamental aspect of the crisis itself is that various financial assets, previously regarded as safe, are coming to be thought of as risky.  By denying market participants the opportunity to obtain insurance, Euro area policymakers are making the problem worse, not better.  Market willingness to lend to Greece in 2025 will in no way depend on how we label the decisions made in 2011 and 2012.
  • Every member of the Euro periphery should be in an IMF programme.  Yes, I’m looking at you, Italy.  If the IMF does not have sufficient funds to work with, the ECB should lend to it.  All politicians in Euro periphery countries should be speaking to their electorates about multi-decade efforts to improve productivity.  These things cannot be fixed in two or three years.  They can, at best, be put on the right path.
  • For every country in an IMF programme, all sovereign debt held by the ECB should be written down to the price at which they purchase it.   If the ECB buys a Greek government bond at, say, a 20% discount to face value, then that bond should be written down by 20%.  The ECB should not be in a position to make a profit from their trading if Europe finds its way through the overall crisis.  Similarly, the ECB should not be in a position to take a loss, either — they should not be required to take a hair-cut below the price they pay for Euro area sovereign debt.

Note that I have not yet used the phrase “Euro bond” anywhere.  Note, too, that a central bank is only meant to be a lender of last resort to banks.  The lender of last resort to governments is the IMF.

If Euro area policymakers really want to engage in a fiscal union (a.k.a. transfers) beyond the absolutely essential creation of a unified bank deposit guarantee scheme, it is perfectly possible to do so in a minimal fashion that does not lessen the sovereignty of any member nation:  Have a newly created European Fiscal Authority (with voluntary membership) provide the minimum universally agreed-on level of unemployment benefits across the entire area, funded with a flat VAT.  Any member country would retain the ability to provide benefits above and beyond the minimum.  This will have several benefits:

  • Since its membership would be voluntary and it would provide only the minimum universally agreed level, it cannot, by definition, constitute a practical infraction on sovereignty;
  • It will help provide pan-European automatic stabilisers in fiscal policy;
  • It will provide crucial intra-European stabilisation;
  • It will increase the supply of long-dated AAA-rated securities at a time when demand for them is incredibly high; and
  • It will decrease the ability of Euro member countries to argue that they should be able to violate the terms of the Maastricht Treaty at times of economic hardship as at least some of the heavy lifting in counter-cyclical policy will be done for them.

———————-

Update 30 Nov 2011, 13:05 (25 minutes after first publishing the post):

It would appear that the world’s major central banks have announced a coordinated improvement in the provision of liquidity to banks.  This is a good thing. Press releases:


Basel III will help fix the Euro

The Basel III compromise is out.  Via Free Exchange, you can read the text here.  Or you can just look at the BIS’s handy-dandy little chart:

Let me quote Ryan at Free Exchange:

The minimum common equity requirement has been increased from 2% to 4.5%. Common equilty is what is called “core” Tier 1 capital. Regulators have agreed on an additional 2.5% “conservation buffer”. Most large banks will likely maintain such a buffer, as falling below it will lead to additional regulatory scrutiny. The likely impact, then, is a pretty substantial increase in the common equity reserves banks need to hold.

What he said. Anyway …

The asterisk on the countercyclical buffer has this note against it: “Common equity or other fully loss absorbing capital”.  Here’s some more detail, from the press release itself:

A countercyclical buffer within a range of 0% – 2.5% of common equity or other fully loss absorbing capital will be implemented according to national circumstances. The purpose of the countercyclical buffer is to achieve the broader macroprudential goal of protecting the banking sector from periods of excess aggregate credit growth. For any given country, this buffer will only be in effect when there is excess credit growth that is resulting in a system wide build up of risk. The countercyclical buffer, when in effect, would be introduced as an extension of the conservation buffer range.

In other words, the countercyclical buffer is expressly designed to allow for different rates of credit expansion across different countries.  This is excellent news for the Euro area, because (as I mentioned previously) it explicitly allows — heck, even encourages! — individual member countries to re-assert some control over monetary policy.  Remember that the level of credit in an economy is not just affected by demand for the stuff (which is itself influenced largely through interest rates), but also through the supply of the stuff, which falls under the umbrella of macro-prudential regulation (since, it is assumed, banks will generally supply all the credit they can subject to the restrictions of capital adequacy regulations).  The former may remain the remit of the ECB, but the latter can be economy-specific.

This is arguably desirable because, since the Euro-area economies are not perfectly synchronised, we have for many years seen monetary policy be overly tight for low-inflation countries like Germany and overly lax for high-inflation countries like Spain.

To some extent, one might view Germany’s reluctance to accept tighter capital requirements as evidence that they have been tacitly using this logic all along:  that is, they were already compensating for the (to them) overly-high interest rate with relatively lenient policies on the supply side.  To a German’s mind, it may therefore appear that with these higher minimum ratios, a neutral position for the German economy will require lower interest rates on average than previously prevailed.

The risk, from the Germans’ point of view, is that in a Eurozone world with higher capital ratios but lower interest rates, countries like Spain may be tempted to avoid making use of the countercyclical buffer and so may still end up with faster-than-ideal credit expansion.  How to convince the central banks and/or regulatory authorities in Mediterranean countries to be financially conservative, even when their governments aren’t, is clearly the next challenge.