Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Can't help but put ISM and Confidence surveys together: looks a little off

Today I digress from my recent Eurozone obsessions to compare the U.S. Consumer Confidence report (released today) to the PMI production surveys, a "soft" comparison of supply and demand. According to the Conference Board today:
The Conference Board Consumer Confidence Index, which had decreased in February, rebounded in March. The Index now stands at 52.5 (1985=100), up from 46.4 in February. The Present Situation Index increased to 26.0 from 21.7. The Expectations Index improved to 70.2 from 62.9 last month.
Consumers’ assessment of current-day conditions was less negative in March. Those claiming conditions are "bad" decreased to 42.8 percent from 45.1 percent, while those claiming business conditions are "good" increased to 8.6 percent from 6.8 percent. Consumers’ assessment of the labor market was also less pessimistic. Those saying jobs are "hard to get" declined to 45.8 percent from 47.3 percent, while those saying jobs are "plentiful" increased to 4.4 percent from 4.0 percent.
This report is nothing to write home about. Consumer confidence remains at excruciatingly low levels.

In a post back in September, I argued that the expectations index is a better indicator of consumer spending. As such, the expectations component remains stronger than the composite, having rebounded to its level at the onset of the recession. However, like the composite index, the expectations index is moving rather laterally since May 2009.

Notice the bigger picture, with the Confidence survey illustrated alongside the ISM manufacturing and non-manufacturing surveys. The story remains to be very one-sided on the production side, which is more likely to drop back to meet weak consumer demand UNLESS THE JOBS MARKET IMPROVES...FOR REAL. See my previous post on the temporary effects of the Census hirings.

The underlying demand for goods and services, as determined by the 70% of the economy that is the Consumer, is weak, especially at this stage of the recovery (having already posted a positive quarter of economic growth). (By the way, if you want National Income data, the BEA offers an exceedingly easy way to download it here.)

These numbers challenge even the most optimistic of us all (that used to be yours truly).

Rebecca Wilder

Thoughts on the Eurozone, Greece, and the EMF

I was asked by PeriĆ³dico Diagonal to answer a few questions related to the Eurozone, based on several articles that I wrote (here, here, and here). I don't know if these will be published, but "enquiring minds want to know". Here we go:

1. In a recent article you announced that the next cycle of crisis in Europe will be determined by the struggle for exports. Does that mean that the country which lags behind in this struggle for exports will suffer from falling wages?

Rebecca: What I meant was that the Eurozone might find itself in a “race to the bottom”. The prescript coming out of the IMF and the European Union is one of harsh and deep reductions in nominal income (wages) and prices in order to reduce relative prices enough to drive export income. Normally, downward pressure on internal prices via recession occurs alongside a sharp devaluation in the currency, where external demand pulls the economy back onto its feet. But the main problem across the Eurozone IS ITS CONSTRUCT, one currency “to rule them all”. Greece, nor any of the other GIIPS countries – Greece, Italy, Ireland, Portugal, and Spain – can devalue the currency in order to drive export growth.

The problem is that without proper export growth, the internal devaluation would more accurately take the form of “infernal devaluation”. Cuts to nominal income, wealth (via pensions), and other labor variables will restrict current consumption and aggregate spending to a point where such measures then pressure government deficits. It’s a vicious circle, not to mention a fallacy of composition to think that the aggregate can export its way out recession if wages are falling – spending, by definition, must be falling, too.

2. In this sense, the IMF´s advice is to decrease wages and promote privatization of common services. Are we facing the first IMF´s serious intervention in (¿most developed?) the North countries? In that case, what is the aim of these adjustment policies? Do you think they will benefit countries like Greece or Iceland? Or is it just a matter of financial balance and euro´s credibility?

Rebecca: The Iceland economy received IMF support in November 2008, but IMF lending comes at the cost of conditional fiscal austerity programs and macroeconomic measures, including trimming the government-funded pension system, reduced wages, and other related budget cuts. Iceland has muddled through, though, because it has something that Greece (nor any other Eurozone country) doesn’t have: a free-floating, non-convertible currency.

The Iceland case is very different from Greece (or any of the GIIPS), though, because it issued a lot of debt that is denominated in foreign currency. But nevertheless, the Iceland krona depreciated around 50% against the US dollar between July 2008 and December 2009, driving exports and reducing imports. In 2009, real GDP in Iceland fell 6.5%, the biggest drag came from government spending that shaved 12.2% off of GDP growth. However, the contribution coming from exports and imports was +14.2%, which more than offset the drag from the IMF’s “austerity measures”.

Greece doesn’t have this option, since it cannot devalue its currency. Greece can only reduce wages and prices enough to generate internal devaluation resulting in the prescribed export growth. That’s just not going to fly when the Eurozone as a whole is fighting for export income.

But worse yet, there’s a positive feedback loop here that will likely result in a debt deflation scenario, normally resulting in private-sector default. Let’s use Iceland, again, as an example. In 2009, private consumption dragged GDP growth a large 7.8%. In Greece’s case, the effect on consumption would be magnified, since without the benefit of external income generation the private sector must take a larger hit. As consumption falls, so too do tax receipts and the primary deficit rises once more – the positive feedback loop.

3. You say it is impossible for all European countries to decrease wages in order to increase exports because –we suppose- this would reduce, in some way, domestic demand and, therefore, trade within the European Union, seeming to be no other way out. How can we get out of this situation? Could it be the end of the monetary union -so that some countries prefer currency devaluation in order to gain competitiveness?

Rebecca: It probably won’t be the end of the EMU, but I wouldn’t be surprised if some countries defaulted, which then increases the likelihood of the “end of the EMU”. What we have is an unsustainable situation in the Eurozone, as key countries face “infernal devaluation”. Without an epic surge in export growth, the government austerity programs called upon by the E.U. (or the IMF) will force the private sector to accumulate debt in order to balance out the aggregate forces of income and spending. That’s just fact.

The Eurozone was built upon the premise that there would be a unified currency and an un-unified fiscal system. In order to balance the inherent fiscal challenges that come along with inherently different saving motives across the 16 EMU countries, strict rules were set in place: no government is “allowed” to run fiscal deficits in excess of 3% nor accumulate debt in excess of 60% of GDP. Countries are fined, but that didn’t stop them from hiding government obligations from the European Union via sophisticated derivative securities. In the end, you have a band-aid plan to satisfy markets so that Greece can attempt to rollover its near-term debt. This “bailout” comes with no specifics as to threshold levels that must be crossed in order to get the central E.U. players to offer support, which is no doubt by design. Nothing has changed here; no lessons learned; the Eurozone is still just as flawed as it was ten years ago.

What has now become obvious to those who did not see this coming, is that the Eurozone, in its construct, was never meant to withstand the financial contagion and ensuing global recession of 2007-2009.

4. The European media are suggesting this week that the European Union should “let Greece fall” as a sign of credibility. What do you think of this issue?

Rebecca: Unless the structure of the EMU was changed for the better, meaning fiscal consolidation, the Eurozone would be no more “credible” after the default of Greece.

5. What is your opinion concerning the possibility of creating a European Monetary Fund, which has recently come up in the news?

Rebecca: It is an awful idea and ridden with disruptive side effects. In essence, the EMF would be established to prevent sovereign default from causing contagion throughout the Eurozone. If funds are dispersed immediately, the obvious result is the lop-sided power engendered to those countries that contribute, rather than borrow, from the fund. From the get-go, the EMF would bring political pressures from the creditor countries to the unduly strained debtor countries.

With such power comes abuse, as illustrated by the International Monetary Fund’s involvement during the Asian Financial Crisis. The IMF proved itself to be highly intrusive into local sovereignty and adopted a one-size-fits-all policy to its conditional lending programs. There is a reason that capital controls are the policy du jour in Asia, and consequently not part of the IMF’s “prescription”.

It is NOT unlikely that the same [abuse] would happen under the EMF.

Rebecca Wilder

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Marshall Auerback on Greece


by Marshall Auerback

As before, this is in fact another statement that indicates no checks are to be written.

The purpose is probably the hope that it be read as a statement of support which will facilitate continued funding of Greek debt.

It is a clear statement that no funding is available until Greece fails to find funding elsewhere. However, understood but unstated, is that the process of finding funding is necessarily that of price discovery. Greece, like all borrowers, simply offers securities at ever higher rates until it finds the needed buyers. Failure, in theory, is defined as the rate reaching infinity with no buyers. At that time, the euro members would step in with a loan offer at a non concessional rate which would then presumably be infinity.

This makes no sense at all, of course. The statement is in fact a statement that Greece must first drive rates to infinity before euro zone member loans are available. In other words, it's a statement that says Greece is on its own, and that they will stand by without taking action as observers of the standard market default process of Greek funding rates going into double and then triple digits as happens to all failed borrowers of externally managed currencies, including nations with fixed exchange rates.

"In this context, Euro area member states reaffirm their

willingness to take determined and coordinated action, if needed, to safeguard financial stability in the euro area as a whole, as decided the 11th of February.

As part of a package involving substantial International Monetary Fund financing and a majority of European financing, Euro area member states, are ready to contribute to coordinated bilateral loans.

This mechanism, complementing International Monetary Fund financing, has to be considered ultima ratio, meaning in particular that market financing is insufficient. Any disbursement on the bilateral loans would be decided by the euro area member states by unanimity subject to strong conditionality and based on an assessment by the European Commission and the European Central Bank. We expect Euro-Member states to participate on the basis of their respective ECB capital key.

The objective of this mechanism will not be to provide financing at average euroVarea interest rates, but to set incentives to return to market financing as soon as possible by risk adequate pricing. Interest rates will be non-concessional, i.e. not contain any subsidy element. Decisions under this mechanism will be taken in full consistency with the Treaty framework and national laws."
The problematic institutional structures for the euro zone have been present since inception. But it's always been unclear as to what triggered the crisis at this particular time. ECB President Trichet gives a clue:
ECB President Jean-Claude Trichet took some pressure off Greece today by extending emergency lending rules, saying its bonds won’t be cut off from ECB refinancing operations next year in case Moody’s Investors Service lowers its rating to a level comparable with other companies.
Trichet’s remarks marked a reversal for the ECB, which said in January that it wouldn’t soften its collateral policy for the sake of a single country. The bank was scheduled to reintroduce pre-crisis rules at the end of 2010.

This basically confirmed my earlier suspicions that this whole crisis was triggered by the ECB. They closed the window, which placed attention on the perverse institutional structures at the heart of the EMU. The markets began to query the solvency of Greece as a consequence.

The problems of the EMU have been in existence since inception (Jan, you've written about this for over a decade). But it's always been curious to me that the crisis came when it did. I always thought that the ECB was responsible. But at whose behest did they unilaterally change the rules of the game on Greece? I suspect Germany was responsible here.

Early Feb ECB decided to unwind QE. Remember, Greek banks were doing backdoor monetization: buying Greek government debt, reporting it to ECB, and then taking the reserves from that and buying more government debt. Germans surely took offense to that, since it is Weimar 2.0 from their paranoid perspective. Irish have also been using this loophole. In Randy's book, turn to the page with the vertical and horizontal money diagram: this was the only way to get vertical money into Greece, once ECB stopped expanding its balance sheet as the crisis died down. So they start mentioning in front of microphones that ECB rule waiver will be up at year end, the one that lets ECB hold and repo low quality rated eurozone government debt, and away we go."

Friday, March 26, 2010

I’m still confused about this whole Eurozone thing…

This is a post about my confusion, rather than my reporting, of the Eurozone saga. Here are some pieces worth reading if you want to catch up:

The NY Times (the basics); Ed Harrison (via Naked Capitalism); From the billy blog; The Financial Times (Martin Wolf, a must read); The Economist (will reference below).

Okay, a conditional guarantee for possible lending, maybe, with consultation from the IMF has been agreed upon by the Eurozone countries (Germany and France, really). But what I don’t understand is pretty well stated in the Economist article:
The Greek government has somehow to keep its economy on an even keel while pushing through a huge fiscal tightening. Countries that seek IMF help generally have to endure brutal cuts in public spending, which deepen recessions. To counter that effect, the IMF typically counsels a weaker currency. Sadly, this is not an option for Greece. Stuck in the euro, its exchange rate with its main trading partners is fixed. Greece cannot devalue, so it needs more time to adjust than the three years it has agreed with its EU partners—and a bigger safety net while it does.
Sadly? This is not an option? The Economist completely skips over the VERY LARGE issue of a singular currency and on to the competitiveness story, one that must be derived through internal devaluation, i.e., dropping wages and other nominal variables.

Financial crises, especially those in small-open economies (Sweden, for example), generally end with a massive currency devaluation that drives export growth (provided there is external demand to suffice). I honestly don’t see how a sufficient export-generated rebound is even a possibility, given that the rest of the Eurozone is essentially trying the “internal devaluation” bit simultaneously (chart above).

And who’s going to pick up the slack? In 2008, 64% of Greece’s export income was derived by the EU 27 countries, 70% for Spain, and 74% for Portugal. If the Eurozone as a whole is using this same internal deflation mechanism to spur export growth, only the “zone” as a whole really benefits, not any one country.

WIHTOUT a massive surge in export-driven GDP growth no "zone" country can drop its financial deficit without incurring behemoth debt burden growth (in the case of the Eurozone, the term “burden” actually applies since Greece, nor any one economy, can print its own money).

Look at the government’s period budget constraint (left), where the lower-case letters "d" and "p" stand for the debt and primary deficit as a share of GDP, respectively. r is the nominal interest rate, and (1+g) is the rate of NOMINAL GDP growth (including price appreciation). (Email me if you want the algebra.)

When Greece starts dropping p (the primary deficit), the fundamentals of the economy (i.e., nominal gdp growth (1+g)) must be robust enough to prevent a surging debt burden. And here's the cycle: to drop the primary deficit, it does so by reducing G and raising T, which drags Y (as of Y = C + I + G + Ex - Im) and growth of Y, (1+g), since export growth is unlikely to be there to offset the decline in private spending; these effects then flow back to the primary deficit to raise p.

And likewise, only under the circumstances of heroic export growth can the government reduce its fiscal deficit to 3% WITHOUT the private sector levering up their balance sheets and contributing to a larger default risk (of the depressionary type). I’m confused.

All I’m saying is that this plan, in its current form, is really not much of a plan at all. The internal devaluation model has a lot of holes.

Rebecca Wilder

Monday, March 22, 2010

China’s got options

This morning there was an abundance of links evidencing the building anxiety over U.S.-China relations. Edward Harrison at Credit Writedowns links to a Reuters article, China vows to hit back if targeted by U.S. on yuan. Calculated Risk refers to commentary at the Financial Times and the Washington Post referencing China Losing Support of American Business Community.

Let's think about the currency from a U.S. auto exporter's viewpoint. The China Daily looks at China's relatively “young” automotive market compared to its developed U.S. counterpart. But what if the yuan appreciates more than expected against the U.S. dollar? This market would develop much quicker than the article portends, and the room for revenue growth is vast.

Deutsche Welle also reports the benefits that Europe would incur from a stronger yuan compared to the U.S. dollar, which gives me pause: why exactly would Europe profit from an appreciation of the Chinese yuan against the U.S. dollar? The U.S. export industry, yes, but Europe? Deutsche Welle tells us:
"But Europe stands to benefit a lot, because with a revaluation, European products would become more affordable for Chinese consumers and companies alike and we would definitely feel the benefits in terms of better exports," said Schularick.
This is an entirely one-sided argument: if the Chinese yuan appreciates, then export income would be diverted away from Chinese exports and toward Chinese imports, paving the way for Europe to reap the benefits. Same story as in the U.S. auto maker case, but with a twist: China has options.

First, China drops the currency peg, allowing its exchange rate to float (appreciate) against the U.S. dollar (USD). In this situation, the USD will depreciate not only against the Chinese yuan (CNY), but more likely against all currencies to which the USD is implicitly pegged via the yuan.

It’s pretty simple, really, if you think about cross rates: USD:CNY / EUR:CNY = USD:EUR. If USD:CNY falls (i.e., the U.S. dollar depreciates against the Chinese yuan), and that depreciation is not matched by an equal increase of the EUR:CNY (appreciation of the Eurozone euro against the Chinese yuan), then you get a depreciation of the U.S. dollar against the euro (the USD:EUR falls).

Point 1: as the Chinese yuan floats, it’s very likely that all else equal, the U.S. dollar depreciates against the euro. This improves the near-term prospects for U.S. exports to Europe, and reduces those for European exports to the U.S. (given sticky prices). Therefore, the increased demand for European exports to China will be offset somewhat by the decline in demand for those to the U.S.

Second, given that the Chinese do not allow the yuan to float (much more likely), who’s to say that the Chinese will not simply substitute one peg for another, i.e., target the euro to a larger degree? This would be very simple; and frankly, a euro peg would make more sense, given the trade flows between Europe and China.

Europe is a natural market for Chinese exports: in 2007, 24% of China’s exports landed in Europe, while 21% shipped to North America. All else equal, a euro peg would be quite an effective “export growth tool” if the Chinese shifted their asset base from U.S.-denominated assets toward Euro-denominated assets.

Point to 2: Europe would be very much worse off if China simply increased the weight of the euro in its currency target basket. The biggest economy in the Eurozone, Germany, is an “exporter” itself. Talk about trade wars!

U.S.-China bi-lateral relations SHOULD BE TREATED as a multi-lateral story; they're interconnected.

Rebecca Wilder
Rebecca Wilder

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Marshall Auerback: Britain Not Part of Any Greek Tragedy

Marshall Auerback's latest at the Roosevelt Institute's New Deal 2.0.

They certainly know what “schadenfreude” means in Germany. But the attempt by the German paper, Der Spiegel, to link the UK to the travails of Greece, takes the concept to a malicious and irrational extreme:
The British pound is tottering. The economy finds itself in its worst crisis since 1931, and the country came within a hair’s breadth of a deep recession. Speculators are betting against an upturn. Instability in the banking sector has had a more severe impact on government finances in Great Britain than in other industrialized countries. London’s budget deficit will amount to £186 billion (€205 billion, or $280 billion) this year — fully 12.9 percent of gross domestic product.
Sounds pretty, grim, especially given that Britain’s budget deficit is even higher than that of the “corrupt” Greeks, whom the Germans also seem so intent on abusing in print and punishing for their alleged fiscal profligacy.

But the article itself is rife with intellectual dishonesty. You cannot mindlessly conflate EMU states — Germany included — which operate with no real fiscal authority as sovereign states in the full sense — with countries, such as the United Kingdom, which fortunately has a government with currency issuing monopolies operating under flexible exchange rates (even though the British haven’t quite figured it out). And, as strange as it may sound, public sector profligacy at this time is preferable to Germanic style prudence, because as the private sector’s spending and borrowing go into hibernation, government borrowing must expand significantly to compensate. Even the French Finance Minister, Christine Lagarde, seems to understand that fact (and is taking heat from her German “allies” as a result). Her sin? She had the temerity to suggest that Berlin should consider boosting domestic demand to help deficit countries regain competitiveness and sort out their public finances. Noting that “it takes two to tango”, Lagarde suggested that an expansionary fiscal policy had a role to play here, not simply “enforcing deficit principles”.

Of course, that’s harder to do in the euro zone, given the insane constraints put forward as a condition of euro entry. As a consequence of these rules, the EMU nations cannot even run their own region properly. They have established a system which has consistently drained aggregate demand and brought increasingly high levels of unemployment to bear on their respective populations. In the words of Bill Mitchell:
The rules that the EU made up and then imposed on the EMU via the Maastricht Treaty’s Stability and Growth Pact were not based on any coherent models of fiscal sustainability or variations that might be encountered in these aggregates during a swing in the business cycle. The rules are biased towards high unemployment and stagnant growth of the sort that has bedeviled Europe for years.
Having conspicuously failed to deliver prosperity to their own countrymen, the Germans now see fit to lecture the UK (after taking out the Greeks, of course) on the grounds of Britain’s “crass Keynesianism” (in the words of Axel Weber, the President of the German Bundesbank).

There is no question that the UK has some unique features which make it more than just another casualty of the global credit crunch. It foolishly leveraged its growth strategy to the growth in financial services and is now paying the price for that misconceived policy, as the industry inevitably contracts and restructures as a percentage of GDP. This structural headwind will no doubt force the UK authorities to adopt an even more aggressive fiscal posture than would normally be the case. This is politically problematic, given that the vast majority of the UK’s policy makers (and the chattering classes in the media) still cling to the prevailing deficit hysteria now taking hold all over the world. But the reality is that the UK has considerably greater fiscal latitude of action than any of the euro zone countries, including Germany.

Let’s go back to first principles: In a country with a currency that is not convertible upon demand into anything other than itself (no gold “backing”, no fixed exchange rate), the government can never run out of money to spend, nor does it need to acquire money from the private sector in order to spend. This does not mean the government doesn’t face the risk of inflation, currency depreciation, or capital flight as a result of shifting private sector portfolio preferences. But the budget constraint on the government, the monopoly supplier of currency, is different than what most have been taught from classical economics, which is largely predicated on the notion of a now non-existent gold standard. The UK Treasury cuts you a benefits check, your check account gets credited, and then some reserves get moved around on the Bank of England’s balance sheet and on bank balance sheets to enable the central bank (in this case, the Bank of England) to hit its interest rate target. If anything, some inflation would probably be a good thing right now, given the prevailing high levels of private sector debt and the deflationary risk that PRIVATE debt represents because of the natural constraints against income and assets which operate in the absence of the ability to tax and create currency.

Unlike Germany, or any other EMU nation, there is no notion of “national solvency” that applies here, so the idea that the UK should follow Greece down the road to national suicide reflects nothing more than the traditional German predisposition to sado-monetarism and deficit reduction fetishism. A commitment to close the deficit is also what doomed Japan throughout most of the 1990s and 2000s, when foolish premature attempts at “fiscal consolidation” actually increased budget deficits by deflating incipient economic activity. Why would you tighten fiscal policy when there is anemic private demand and unemployment is still high?

Remember Accounting 101. It is the reversal of trade deficits and the increase in fiscal deficits, which gets a country to an increase in net private saving, ASSUMING NO STUPID SELF IMPOSED CONSTRAINTS along the lines proposed by Germany under the Stability and Growth Pact (which should be re-christened the “Instability and Non-Growth Pact”). Ideally, we want the deficits to be achieved in a good way: not with automatic stabilizers driving the budget into deficit because unemployment is rising and tax revenue is falling as private demand falters, but one in which a government uses discretionary fiscal policy to ensure that demand is sufficient to support high levels of employment and private saving. That in turn will stabilize growth and improve the deficit picture. Once this is achieved, any notions of national insolvency (or more “Greek tragedies”) should go out the window.

The UK can do this, even if its policy makers fail to recognize this. But not in the eyes of Der Spiegel, which warns that “tough times are ahead for the United Kingdom, so tough, in fact, that none of the parties has dared to say out loud what many in their ranks already know. At a minimum, Britons can look forward to higher taxes and fees.” And much lower growth if that prescription is followed.

We suspect that many in Germany and the rest of Europe understand this. So what other motivations are at work here? Clearly, calling attention to the state of Britain’s public finances and drawing specious comparisons to Greece in effect invites speculative capital to take its collective eye off the euro zone and focus it on the UK. Given that the alleged “Greek solution” proposed recently by the European Commission does nothing to resolve the country’s underlying problems, it behooves the euro zone countries to draw attention elsewhere before their collective resolve to defend their currency union comes under attack again.

And heaven forbid that the UK was actually successful (admittedly unlikely today, given the paucity of British political leaders who truly understand how modern money actually works). If Her Majesty’s Government spending actually managed to conduct fiscal policy in a manner which supported higher levels of employment and a more equitable transfers of national income (via, for example, a government Job Guarantee program) then what would be the response in the euro zone? Wouldn’t this cause its citizens to query what sort of bogus economic “expertise” that has been fed to them from their technocratic elites over the past two decades? The same sort of neo-liberal pap fed to the US courtesy of groups such as the Concord Coalition.

No question that public spending should be carefully mobilized to ensure that it is consonant with national purpose (not corporate cronyism). But the idea perpetuated by Der Spiegel that the government is somehow constrained by some self imposed rules with no reference to the underlying economy is comedy worthy of a Brechtian farce. Unfortunately, this particular German joke is no laughing matter.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

9 months after the most economically atrocious piece of legislation in 2009 (Cash for Clunkers)

Okay, I've seen a lot of whoppers in my time, but the Cash for Clunkers legislation (CFF, colloquial for Car Allowance Rebate System) takes the cake. And today's CPI report reiterates the net welfare-reducing impacts of CFF on the economy. I present my case in three parts, but skip on down to point three if you want to see the gist of it.

First, the cars that should have been scrapped were unlikely scrapped; better put: the bottom of the distribution of environmentally sound vehicles are still on the road. Why? The trade-in value for any given vehicle that qualifies for the program would be its scrap value, not the re-sale market value. And those that own used cars with market value close to the scrap value benefit the most from the program. However, those same people were very unlikely to participate in the program when the labor market was contracting...precipitously.

So what do you get? The cars that were scrapped were likely the ones that only marginally needed scrapping (compared to the cars that should have been scrapped but were not).

I would venture to say that the net-benefit on the environment was much lower than Congress had intended; but we'll never know because the environmental impact is essentially unobservable. Edmunds.com estimates that each Cash for Clunker cost tax payers $20,000.

Second, the net impact on auto and parts sales was, according to the Census retail sales figures, negative. To date, retail sales by motor vehicles and parts dealers (part of the Census advanced retail sales report) is -0.6% spanning the period July 2009 to February 2010.

So, according to this measure, there has been NO additional auto sales created since CFF; no new jobs, no new spending, no aggregate benefit. There was some confusion about the CFF start date, so including July 2009 retail auto sales were up 1.1%. This is positive growth, but still nothing to call home about.

To be sure, consumer autos and trucks production has grown 23% since the program's initiation, but the growth was more than accounted for in the two months after the July CFF start. Basically, since September 2009, the industrial production numbers show essentially flat growth in new auto production.

Third - and this is the most deleterious side effect of the program - used car prices are up 13.7% since July 2009.

Used car prices are higher than they were when the recession started. One cannot blame the CFF in full for the growth in used car prices, but the ex post correlation is pretty striking. The government reports that 677,081 vehicles were traded in under the Cash for Clunkers program, which is code for dropping the supply of used cars by 677 thousand vehicles. What did Congress think was going to happen?

Now, try and tell those aged 16-19 years, the age category that is currently experiencing a 25% unemployment rate, that Cash for Clunkers was a successful piece of legislation.

Rebecca Wilder

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Thank you for what, exactly?

Before you join Pete Davis, Brad DeLong, and Robert Waldmann in thanking Marjorie Margolies-Mezvinsky, look at this chart.

Now, go and read L. Randall Wray, Marshall Auerback, Paul Krugman, Dean Baker, Paul Krugman, and Brad Setser. Update, read billy blog, too.


Monday, March 15, 2010

The currency play - Act 1, Scene I

(For those of you who are familiar with the writing of a screenplay, I am sorry for the botchery; I tried, though.)



U.S. President Barack Obama and Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao are sitting in the local Starbucks - no specific country location, Starbucks is global - talking about gardening (or something of the sort), when suddenly the conversation turns sour.


You must move to a more market-based currency. We must rebalance!


I don't think that the nominal exchange rate is undervalued. Look at what we've done since 2005!


Geithner's got the radio blaring - Don't Stop Believin' by Journey; he's out for a drive to clear his head.


I just don't know what to do! Should I or should I not cite China as a currency manipulator? Hmmm.



Don't worry, the non-deliverable forward market (NDF) tells me what China's going to do!

No it doesn't.

Okay, Rebecca here for real (exit character, and I'm not a currency trader). Don't let anybody tell you that they know what the Chinese government will do with the yuan because they don't. If you are interested in the pros and cons of yuan revaluation, some time ago Michael Pettis wrote a nice article worth revisiting. Basically, all signs economic point toward yuan appreciation.

The fact is, that nobody in the entire world, except for a handful of people of course, knows the plan for the yuan. Markets have become more and more convinced that the yuan will appreciate over the next year.

The chart above illustrates the implied currency rate for the value of the US dollar (USD) in Chinese yuan (CNY) one year from the date shown on the X-axis, as derived from the 1-yr ahead non-deliverable forward. For some time, markets have "thought" that the Chinese would let the yuan appreciate (a movement down the Y-axis is an appreciation of the yuan and a depreciation of the US dollar) against the US dollar.

But ex post, markets have no clue.

The chart above illustrates the implied currency rate for the value of the US dollar in Chinese yuan by the 1yr non-deliverable forward one year before the X-axis date in blue. The the current ex post spot rate one year later (the date on the X-axis) is in red.

Basically markets are just fine at predicting trends, i.e., the positive correlation between the spot and forward rate spanning 2006 and 2007. But the reality is, that markets have absolutely no idea how the Chinese will value the yuan in one year, as illustrated by the -0.47 correlation coefficient spanning the years 2008-current. In fact, markets were looking for further yuan depreciation one year ago, but guess what: the yuan hasn't budged since 2008, roughly 6.83 CNY per USD.

Rebecca Wilder

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Thoughts for the day: the Fed and the South Boston St. Patrick's Day parade

The first thought for the day: the Fed's unwinding (i.e., exit) continues, and mortgage rates will be under pressure without the Fed even touching the policy target. The Fed's MBS program is set to expire March 31, 2010. The Treasury's program has already expired.

According to my calculations - you have to track the net purchases at the NY Fed rather than the weekly H.4.1 statement of Fed holdings due to the delayed settlement dates - the Fed now holds $1.226 tn in MBS through March 10, 2010, or 98% of its total allocation, while the Treasury holds a $192 bn. Together, the government holds $1.42 tn in GSE-backed MBS. That's 26.4% of the entire stock of outstanding Agency-backed MBS (see the recent Q4 Flow of Funds, table L.125).

I attach a positive probability to the Fed raising the MBS purchase program limits (don't really know what a limit is when the Fed prints the money); they won't double it, but maintain a slightly positive flow.

The asset purchase program was a success. Just look at mortgage spreads since the program's start.

Spreads will likely widen once the flow stops. I've heard estimates that mortgage rates will rise roughly 40-50 bps (of course, that's just a guess because nobody has a clue).

The housing market remains in shambles. Demand is low, the unemployment rate is high, and the shadow inventory (i.e., foreclosures in the pipeline that will eventually turn into a home for sale) is sizable.

Any reference to housing must include links to Calculated Risk blog - I just browsed through the history, and here , here, here, here, and here are a few articles of note. Whatever improvements there have been are riding on the wave created by the Fed's $1.25 tn in MBS purchase program.

The Fed has already "implicitly" tightened simply by reducing the flow of asset purchases and closing emergency liquidity facilities (notice that TAF lending is down roughly $460 bn since last year). And with the velocity of money showing little, if any, sign of recovery, it's hard to imagine further tightening, especially when the Treasury is in selling mode.

The Fed must react to the fiscal policy, and that for the housing market is tight: the first-time homebuyer credit set to expire in April (that could, of course be extended too), and the Treasury is selling MBS. We'll see; but given the fragility of the economy at this point in time, don't count out further credit easing on the part of the Fed.

The other big news today is that the St. Patrick's Day parade in South Boston, MA will go on. I should note that I live in "Southie", and it is raining cats and dogs right now.

This parade has a long history, dating back to 1901. I attended the parade two times (lived in Southie for three years now), and it is a hoot. They have horses, the Boston Fire Department, bands, pipers, and so much more. Here are some neat photos of the parade in the 1960's.

The big to-do on St. Patrick's Day is to attend a party on the parade route. And those are being canceled left and right. (I wasn't planning to attend any such party because I have other annoying things on my plate right now.) Next year, I'll have a News N Economics party in Southie for the St. Patrick's Day parade. We're not directly on the parade route, but close enough.

Rebecca Wilder

Saturday, March 13, 2010

O.K., let's just think about this budget thing for a while, Part I

To be sure, the U.S. government deficit is shocking; but it's not anymore shocking than the recession through which we have all lived. Tax receipts plummeted (see the second chart from this post) and spending on cyclical social programs (like unemployment benefits) is surging. This adds up to an exponentially rising budget deficit, and thus an increasing debt burden.

The resulting hysteria leads to headlines like that from Reuters on March 11, 2010: "Fed's Dudley: Waiting to fix fiscal problems risky".

Be very careful when reading these articles, as the title implies that William Dudley, president of the New York Federal Reserve Bank, is advocating "fixing fiscal problems" right now - cutting spending and/or raising taxes now - while that is not the case at all. According to Reuters, Dudley says:
The issue, Dudley said, is not fiscal stimulus, which he noted had been necessary in the United States to stabilize the economy, even though it drove up the deficit. That spending is temporary, he added. The bigger long-term problem for the United States and other advanced economies is structural deficits -- those likely to persist absent changes in tax and spending policies.
A link to Dudley's speech. He does refer to structural deficits that may result from recent countercyclical policy. However, these long-term structural deficits have essentially nothing to do with the current downturn, in my view. In fact the effects of the current deficits are simply a speed bump on the road to structural indebtedness.

Just look at the CBO's extended-baseline projection for the long-term budget published in June 2009.

This above scenario projects the spending share on social security, Medicare and Medicaid, and Other Federal Noninterest Spending through the medium and long term under current law. Notice the blip that is 2009 and 2010?

What is key to this outlook is the assumption on economic growth and productivity trends (among others, of course!). GDP is assumed to grow an average 2.2% per year. I didn't delve into this full report and conduct a full alternative scenario test. But it is pretty clear that GDP growth of anything less than 2.2% (on average) - holding all else equal, of course - would have a deleterious impact on the outlook for government financing.

Japan provides a perfect case study of what not to do when the economy is recovering from a financial crisis: raise taxes too soon. You do that, and the probability of a "lost decade" rises quickly. You suffer a lost decade, and the outlook on the structural budget looks a lot worse than that illustrated above.

Marshall Auerback has argued time and time again that the government should run deficits until private saving adjusts so that the economy can stand on its own two feet, i.e., grow. As long as the currency floats and is fully non-convertible, the government's debt burden will not become a solvency issue. Hence, his interview titled fighting deficit hysteria.

I would say, rather, that the deficit hysteria is appropriate, but very much misallocated intertemporally toward the short-term outlook.

Part II coming to a post near you!

This article is crossposted with Angry Bear

Rebecca Wilder

Friday, March 12, 2010

Marshall Auerback on the "Deficit Hysteria"

Marshall Auerback on BNN:

SqueezePlay : March 11, 2010 : Fighting Deficit Hysteria (click on picture for the video)

Marshall points us to Rajiv Sethi's comments:
A government can change expenditure policies and tax rates, but has no direct control over realized revenues and outlays. As a result, raising tax rates or trimming expenditures (such as unemployment benefits) in the face of severe deficiencies in aggregate demand can worsen rather than improve its balance sheet position.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Get ready for a little EM inflation

This is something that I wrote over at Angry Bear

Today I was thinking about tightening cycles in emerging markets; and more specifically, about that in China. Because let’s face it, China matters. China matters to the rest of Asia via competition for export income. China matters to Europe via competition for jobs. China matters to Brazil via domestic production via imports. China matters.

The inflation pressures are building in key emerging economies, especially in the BIICs (Brazil, India, Indonesia, and China) – see this previous post regarding my new acronym, and this article at the Curious Capitalist (curiously posted just shortly after my post), which leaves my omitted “R” but relays the intuition behind the second “I”.

Although the inflation is not prevalent in any BIIC except India, really, I wanted to comment about why it will build…quickly.

First round, the construction of consumer prices is heavily weighted toward food and energy costs across the BIICs. Indonesia, India, and China are highly susceptible to food price shocks (either driven by shortages or demand growth). Expect this as a first-round driver of inflation as the global economy recovers further. It’s already happening.

Second round, the BIICs are growing quickly and nearing, or are already at, potential. Annual industrial production growth has recovered or surpassed its pre-crisis rate in China, Brazil, and India, 19%, 16%, and 17%, respectively. This is expected, given the drop-off in world trade (an illustration can be found from this May 2009 pos), but unsustainable as the output gap closes.

Third round, interest rate differentials.
This year, the BIICs' central banks are expected to raise policy rates. In fact, Brazil, China, and India have already boosted reserve requirements. But with US rates expected to stay low for an “extended period”, international interest rate differentials will change and monetary flows will shift. Capital inflows can lead to inflation if not properly sterilized.

To date, inflows are not properly sterilized, as evidenced by the ongoing accumulation of reserves and rising money supply growth (again, I refer you to my previous post on M1 growth rates.

The chart above illustrates the one-year-ahead nominal interest-rate differential between the 2yr forward government rate for each respective BIIC country versus the 2 yr forward US Treasury rate. The forward differentials for China and India are on a steady upward trajectory, while those for Brazil and Indonesia are simply steady. I believe that this appropriately represents the sterilization efforts and monetary policy management on the part of the BIICs’ central banks: more managed in Brazil and Indonesia, not as much in China and India.

So where does this analysis leave us? With a very interesting policy mix in the emerging market space. In fact, in my view this is the riskiest part of the emerging market cycle: the recovery. If policymakers get this wrong, we could see a lot of price action, final goods and assets alike, on the horizon.

Monday, March 8, 2010

It Takes Two to Tango: A Look at the Numerator AND Denominator

This is a guest contribution by Marshall Auerback, Braintruster at the New Deal 2.0

by Marshall Auerback

A new book by Kenneth Rogoff and Carmen Reinhart, "This Time It's Different: Eight Centuries of Financial Follies", has occasioned much comment in the press and blogosphere (see here and here)

The book purports to show that once the gross debt to GDP ratio crosses the threshold of 90%, economic growth slows dramatically.

But that's too simplistic: a ratio is just a number. Debt to GDP is a ratio and the ratio value is a function of both the numerator and denominator. The ratio can rise as a function of either an increase in debt or a decrease in GDP. So to blindly take a number, say, 90% debt to GDP as Rogoff and Reinhart have done in their recent work, is unduly simplistic. It appears that they looked at the ratio, assumed that its rise was due to an increase in debt, and then looked at GDP growth from that period forward assuming that weakness was caused by debt instead of that the rise in the ratio was caused by economic weakness. In other words, they have the causation backwards: Deficits go up as growth slows due to the automatic countercyclical stabilizers.They don't cause the slow down, etc.

After the Second World War, the debt ratio came down rather rapidly—mostly not due to budget surpluses and debt retirement but rather due to rapid growth that raised the denominator of the debt ratio. By contrast, slower economic growth post 1973, accompanied by budget deficits, led to slow growth of the debt ratio until the Clinton boom (that saw growth return nearly to golden age rates) and budget surpluses lowered the ratio.

From 1991 through 2001 the growth of government debt had been falling and since then rising most recently at a faster pace. The raw data comes courtesy of the St. Louis Fed (and attached spreadsheet).

The Ratio of the rates of change of Debt / GDP is rising faster than the change in Debt indicating that both the increase in Debt and the fall in GDP are contributing to a rising Debt / GDP ratio. For policy makers who obsess about a rising Debt / GDP ratio, they fail to understand that austerity measures that cut GDP growth will cause a rise in the Debt to GDP ratio. Basically, it boils down to this simple observation: it is foolish, dangerous, and thoroughly counterproductive to treat fiscal balances in isolation. In particular, setting a fiscal deficit to GDP target equal to expected long run real GDP growth in order to hold public debt/GDP ratios at a completely arbitrary (indeed, literally pulled out of thin air) public debt to GDP ratio without for a moment considering what the means for the feasible range of current account and domestic private sector financial balance is utterly nonsensensical.

It is crucial that investors and policy makers recognize and learn to think coherently about the connectedness of the financial balances before they demand what is being currently called fiscal sustainability. As it turns out, pursuing fiscal sustainability as it is currently defined will in all likelihood just lead many nations to further private sector debt destabilization. To put it bluntly, if the private sector continues to pursue a high net saving/financial surplus position while fiscal retrenchment is attempted, unless some other bloc of nations becomes large net importers (and the BRICs are surely not there yet), nominal GDP will fall in the fiscally "sound" nations, the designated fiscal deficit targets WILL NEVER BE ACHIEVED (there can also be a paradox of public thrift), and private debt distress will simply escalate.

In fact, if austerity measures are based on measures of debt relative to economic growth there is a very real risk of a downward spiral where economic growth declines at a faster pace than government debt and the rising Debt / GDP ratio leads to ever greater austerity measures. At a minimum, focusing only on the debt side of the equation risks increasing the Debt / GDP ratio that is the object of purported concern is likely to lead to policy incoherence and HIGHER levels of debt as GDP plunges. The solution is to recognize that the increase in the ratio is in some fair measure the result of declining economic growth and that only by increasing economic growth will the ratio be brought down. This may cause an initial rise in the ratio because of debt financing of fiscal stimulus but if positive economic growth is achieved the problem should be temporary. The alternative is to risk a debt deflationary spiral that will be much more difficult (and costly) to reverse.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

The endgame for Europe: wage cutting and the battle for exports

Yesterday I argued that Latvia's cost-cutting efforts are evident compared to a cross-section of European Union countries. Latvia's efforts, while commendable, were very much a function of the emergency IMF loan in December 2008 and the ensuing recession in 2009.

After an email exchange with Marshall Auerback, and thinking more about the cross-section of Europe, I now see a very scary trend emerging across Europe: the fight for exports.

To be sure, Latvia's efforts are of note, as the acceleration in hourly labor costs dropped from a 22% pace spanning 2007-2008 to just 2.8% in the first three quarters of 2009 compared to the same period in 2008 (the Eurostat data are truncated at Q3 2009).

But look at the similar wage-cutting behavior occurring across the European Union, especially in the Eurozone hopefuls (Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia are preparing to adopt the euro in coming years).

The battle for exports has begun. Compared to the same period in 2008, Q1-Q3 2009 annual hourly labor costs growth are down 4.9% in Lithuania, 0.8% in the U.K., and 0.5% in Estonia. In fact, every country across the 26 countries listed except Belgium, Germany, Greece, and Spain, saw the rate of hourly wage growth decrease since 2008. The currency is pegged, so the only mechanism to increase external competitiveness is through price (wages) declines. To be sure, this growth model cannot work for the Eurozone as a whole.

Latvia's model: drop wages to increase export income. Greece: drop wages to increase export income. France, Germany, Spain, Portugal, etc., etc. It's impossible that the whole of the Eurozone will drop wages to increase export income. It's especially bad for countries like Latvia or Hungary, where the lion's-share of trade occurs withing the boundaries of Europe.

And what happens when export income does not provide the impetus for aggregate demand growth? Well, there's not much left. Can't devalue the currency (via printing money), and tax revenues will fall faster than a ten-pound weight: rising deficits; rising debt; rising debt service (via surging credit spreads). Sovereign default seems like a near-certainty somewhere in the Eurozone!

Rebecca Wilder

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Latvia's cost cutting does stand out

Latvia recently reported a 12% decline in average wages in Q4 2009 compared to Q4 2008. I was referred to A Fistful of Euros blog, specifically Edward Hugh's points, regarding the economic implications of this decline (later, Morten Hansen followed up).

Edward Hugh asserts that Latvia's progress in raising competitiveness via wage cuts is little indeed. The lat is pegged to the euro, and the economy is in deep recession so work hours are falling. Therefore, the proper measure of competitiveness is hourly wage growth measured in euros. And by this measure, the headline 12% drop measured overstates the nature of Latvia's competitiveness.

I disagree. In order to address relative wage shifts, one must analyze a cross-section of wage data across the European Union rather than that of Latvia alone. And in that respect, Q3 labor costs - hourly labor costs measured in euros - fell at quicker pace than most of the EU countries. Furthermore, the annual trend illustrates much progress in 2009 compared to 2008.

The chart below illustrates the Q3 quarterly growth rate of hourly labor costs across 24 EU countries for which Q3 data is currently available. Latvia's hourly labor costs are worth note, -6.8% over the quarter, or -2.7% over the year.

Although Latvia it is in good company - hourly labor costs declined in 13 of the 24 EU countries - it did see the fourth biggest drop. And compared to to Greece, +4.9% Q/Q, Latvia's efforts certainly stand out.

But Latvia's wage-cutting efforts are not limited to Q3 2009.

The chart above illustrates the growth of hourly labor costs in the first three quarters of 2009 over the same period in 2008 (red) compared to the 2008 annual growth rate (blue), sorted by the 2009 rates. Although Latvia's labor cost cutting efforts are mainly a Q3 story, hourly labor costs have dropped from growing at a 22% annual pace in 2008 to just a 2.8% clip in 2009 (to date).

Latvia's progress has been significant, but the Eurostat data is only 3/4 of the 2009 story. Latvia has released average (gross) wage growth through Q4 in lats, another -3.5% over the quarter.

Latvia's relative economic importance in the European Union pales to that of even Greece, 2007-2008 average 0.9% and 1.9% of EU GDP, respectively. However, compared to key EU sovereigns, Latvia is taking the necessary steps toward improving its export contribution to growth. But more is needed, since exports barely crossed over the 0% threshold into positive Y/Y growth territory in December 2009, +4.4%.

Note: You can follow the IMF updates on Latvia's progress here.

Rebecca Wilder


This is a guest contribution by Marshall Auerback, Braintruster at the New Deal 2.0

By Marshall Auerback

My colleague, Rebecca Wilder, recently concluded a "Tale of Two Recoveries: Malaysia vs Germany" which brought back memories of my own time in the Far East and some of the advisory work I did for the government of Malaysia during the financial crisis of 1997/98.

Before the historical revisionists get hold of this period, it is important to note that Malaysia’s initial response to the crisis was a textbook illustration of how to exacerbate, not alleviate, a financial crisis. Of course, it was a consequence of taking stupid and economically ruinous advice from the International Monetary Fund, which is to economic development what John Meriwether is to asset management. If anybody had any doubts, those of us who observed the crisis first hand realized that the IMF and the so-called “Committee to Save the World” were more interested in saving the first-world banks who were exposed than caring about the local citizens who were scorched by harsh austerity programs. Same old, same old.
It was only when the Deputy PM/Finance Minister was ousted from the Cabinet and his pro-IMF policies completely repudiated, that Malaysia’s economy began its long road back to successful recovery.

There is little question that former PM Mahathir Mohammed was a political thug, but not an economic illiterate. But his sacking of Anwar from the Cabinet and decision to press ludicrous sodomy and abuse of power charges against his former heir apparent foolishly undermined his economic legacy. It is certainly wrong, however, to criticise his response to the Asian financial crisis of 1997/98. Vindicated now with the benefit of hindsight, at the time his embrace of exchange controls, and a 180-degree reversal away from the policies of austerity advocated by the Fund, were viewed as dangerously anti-free market, destined to render Malaysia an investment pariah.

Before the temporary triumph of the so-called “Washington consensus” school of economics in the late 1990s, the so-called “interventionist” East Asian alliance model of capitalism was highly lauded by institutions such as the World Bank and even the IMF itself. A common thread characterizing the economic development of countries such as Thailand, Korea, Singapore, and, yes, Malaysia, were policies which transferred resources away from “unproductive” toward “productive” uses—often in the form of transfers from unproductive groups to productive groups and sometimes in the form of policies to convert unproductive groups into productive ones. Creating “rents” (above normal market returns) by “distorting” markets through industrial policies was essential, first, to induce more-than-free-market investment in activities that the government deemed important for the economy’s transformation, and second, to sustain a political coalition in support of these policies. Disciplining rent-seeking so that it remained consistent with these two objectives was also essential.

It was precisely this model that came under such sustained attack during the late 1990s. Then Secretary of the Treasury Robert Rubin, his Deputy, Lawrence Summers, and their lieutenants saw the crisis as the perfect opportunity to destroy this model once and for all, and to do this, they wanted the International Monetary Fund to impose conditions on the economies of emerging Asia that went far beyond the Fund’s traditional boundaries. Thus the U.S. Treasury kept steady pressure on Fund officials to extract more and more concessions from South Korea, Thailand, Indonesia, and Malaysia including instant resolution of all trade related issues in favor of the United States. The exasperated Asians were soon accusing the IMF of always raising new issues at the behest of the United States—something that the Fund officials readily acknowledged later.

Foremost in the minds of Treasury officials was also the interest of Wall Street, especially American financial services firms. These biases were manifested in the types of IMF conditions imposed on the emerging Asian economies during the height of the crisis, which clearly served the brokerage firms on Wall Street far better than the needs of emerging Asia.

In the early 1990s the economies at the core of the world economy (the U.S., “Euroland,” Japan), began to generate hugely excessive liquidity. In the early 1990s, mutual funds, pension funds, other institutional investors, hedge funds and—last but not least—banks became awash with deposits. They scoured the world for high returns. Investment houses like Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley sought the business of arranging the privatizations, securities placements, mergers, and acquisitions that surged on the wave of liquidity—business that became their main growth area. As a consequence, financial capital poured in to “emerging markets” (middle-income countries of recent interest to institutional investors).

Capital flows to developing nations in Asia and Latin America jumped from about $50bn a year before the end of the Cold War to about $300bn a year by the mid-1990s. From 1992-96, Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, and the Philippines were all experiencing money and credit growth rates of between 25-30 per cent a year. Emerging market stock markets boomed, nearly doubling their share of world capitalization between 1990 and 1993.

Proponents of capital liberalization justified these inflows on the grounds of (a) maximizing the efficiency of capital worldwide, (b) allowing a specific country to invest more than could be financed from its own savings, (c) bringing modern financial institutions into the country, and (d) deepening the liquidity of the country’s financial system and lengthening investor horizons, thereby making markets more efficient and more stable. In the end the case for free capital flows came down to the classic theory of comparative advantage, as though trade in dollars was essentially similar to trade in widgets.

In reality, however, the funds went into increasingly marginal and speculative developments and simply exacerbated an underlying credit bubble. Although they did not speak out at the time, a number of prominent economists and financiers have since pointed out the dangers of such “gypsy capital”. Joseph Stiglitz, for example, argued that the origins of the Asian financial crisis rested, in the first place, with the excessively rapid financial and capital market liberalization that the U.S. Treasury had pushed on these economies, on behalf of Wall Street, and over the protests of the Council of Economic Advisors, of which he was the chairman. “At the Council of Economic Advisors we weren’t convinced that South Korean liberalization was a matter of U.S. national interest, though obviously it would help the special interests of Wall Street” (Globalization and Its Discontents, New York: W. W. Norton, 2002, p. 102).

Similarly, Jagdish Bhagwati, one of free trade’s most passionate supporters for developing nations, argued that the idea of free trade had been “hijacked by the proponents of capital mobility”.

The end result of this drive to liberalise capital accounts in immature emerging economies was a series of booms and busts, culminating in financial crisis. Capital flows into emerging markets turn out to be less a diversification of assets, more another instance of “investment herding”, especially within regions, where market allocation was propelled less by differences between countries in their “fundamentals” (including “good” or “bad” policy) than by “push factors”—macro push factors like the amount of excess liquidity in different parts of the core zone of the world economy; and micro push factors like the incentives on institutional money managers and the corresponding drive to match the “benchmark weightings” devised by pension fund consultants, many of knew nothing of the various underlying markets. Money managers tend to be evaluated relative to the median performance of money managers in the same asset class. This encourages them to move in and out of markets together, producing “herding” or “trend chasing” or “positive feedback trading” and the crisis of 1997/98 was a textbook illustration of that phenomenon.

Malaysia was heading down this road in 1997. The currency, the ringgit, was collapsing, as the contagion effects from Thailand, Korea and Indonesia gradually extended into the country. Although Anwar had not placed the country under a formal imf program, he had been following the imf recipe: to forestall capital flight, fiscal policy was tightened and interest rates were hiked in order to protect the external value of the currency.

Based largely on their experience in Latin America, the Fund had already imposed directly these measures on Thailand, Indonesia, and Korea. The problem, however, is that whereas fiscal deficits have tended to be large and inflation chronic in Latin America, in the economies of emerging Asia, budgets had long been roughly in balance. In addition, as the Funds’ economists were unschooled in the links between macro conditions and corporate balance sheets, they failed to perceive the danger of high real interest rates in economies with high debt/equity ratios and low inflationary expectations. High real interest rates have deflationary and crisis-signalling consequences that prompt capital outflows regardless of the attractions of the high rates themselves.

Which is precisely what began to occur in Malaysia. The Malaysian economy experienced a contraction of credit growth from 30 percent in 1997 to minus 5 percent in 1998, reflecting a massive pullback of bank loans. The ringgit plunged, as capital outflows accelerated. A real estate collapse loomed.

Ultimately, seeing the failure in these policies, Prime Minister Mahathir sacked Anwar, and re-imposed capital controls to insulate his economy from the deleterious consequences of rapid hot money outflows. (The trumped-up political charges, which led to the latter’s imprisonment, only came later.) Monetary and fiscal policy became expansionary, the ringgit was pegged to the US dollar, and crisis credit conditions began to diminish as domestic rates were reduced drastically. Although Western finance ministries and institutional investors protested apocalyptically and predicted that Malaysia would remain beyond the pale of the investment world for the foreseeable future, six months later even The Economist, one of the IMF’s great apologists, was forced to acknowledge that the embrace of capital controls had done “short-term wonders” in assisting recovery.

This is all old history. But it is worthwhile recalling the actions of the Fund in the context of what it is advising countries like Iceland and Latvia to do today. Or when considering the hair shirt economics which seems to be championed by Germany’s economic elites.