Archives for January 2012

The Iron (Germany) tells the Ship (Greece) that it is not to Pass Go and Collect E130bn

The recent film, The Iron Lady recaptured Mrs Thatcher’s steadfastness to maintain tough economic policies in the face of much opposition. Today that soubriquet should be awarded to Mrs Merkel. Throughout the last two years since the euro crisis broke, Germany’s leader has consistently stuck to her beliefs that the solution to the economic problems of the periphery is that they become more German, and adopt the policies of public and private sector austerity that followed the deterioration of their budget deficit following the integration of East Germany in the early 1990s and their competitiveness problems from entering the euro at too high an exchange rate in 1999. To German minds, what is required to resolve these problems is not a quick dose of bailout money from Germany that may merely mean the problems reappear in a few years time, but years of hard work, sacrifice and belt-tightening by the countries themselves.

At first the rest of Europe went along, knowing that there was some truth to the German analysis of their problems, but also believing that were they to proclaim that they would be more German in the long term, then Germany would actually bail them out in the short term as well. In recent months, as the crisis hit Italy, Spain and Belgium, the pressures from the other Eurozone countries demanding more German assistance have been compounded by pressure from both the US and UK governments concerned that the recession in the Eurozone will drag their own economies back down into recession again. At Davos recently where the great and the good of the world economy get together to sort out the world, the overwhelming consensus was that if only Germany would offer more money, then everything could get resolved. German leaders remained unimpressed.

In recent weeks, it has been very noticeable how many comments there have been in the press from German officials indicating that essentially Greece is bust and a major default of its debt is inevitable. To date Germany has actually put up very little cash to bail out the crisis-hit countries, however March 20 marks the due date for repayment of a large Greek bond, money that Greece does not have unless the second round E130 bn bailout plan initially agreed last summer is confirmed. Were that bailout not to proceed, Germany would save itself a great deal of money it would otherwise be unlikely to ever see again.

Otmar Issing,(the former member of the Bundesbank and the ECB Governing Council who resigned last year in protest at the ECB’s buying of government bonds in the secondary market) in a recent newspaper interview may have rather given the game away when he said that although it was legally impossible to kick Greece out of the EU, if it required external financial help then what could be done is to tell them to implement reforms you know that they cannot manage to achieve, and when they fail you can say that the basis for financial help is not there, and leave the Greeks to decide what they want to do. Schauble, the German Finance minister recently told reporters that Greece must implement the agreed measures and reforms and that all the Greek parties must agree to them as well – a remark that fits Issing’s strategy exactly.

Further the ECB’s move late last year to provide almost E500bn in liquidity to banks for 3 years at 1% in a Long-Term Repurchase Operation (LTRO), to be followed by another one at the end of February, could easily be interpreted as ensuring that all Eurozone banks have access to sufficient liquidity to survive a Greek default to permit their solvency issues to be dealt with at a later date.

A Greek default looks very near; preparations are being made by the authorities, markets are to a great extent ready for it, but the chain of consequences of such an event is very uncertain.

Elections and political transitions in 2012 – January 2012

This year brings elections or organised transitions in political leadership in Russia, the US, China and France. Such periods can lead to unpredictability in economic policy ahead of these transitions as current leaders seek to avoid bad news in order either to win the election or to go out on a high. Similarly the period immediately after an election or leadership transition is usually one where the leader has most political capital and will generally seek to execute his or her most vital or most cherished policies. These may not necessarily be those policies which are most appropriate in an economic sense but are the most appropriate in a political sense. With so many transitions in such important nations this year, the scope for good politics to triumph over good economics is very large.

The US election is now underway with the Republican primaries firing the starting gun. The two parties are ideologically further apart than at any time in living memory (the phrase “class warfare” is being used a lot), and the Democrat President is unable to get the Republican Congress to agree to anything he wants to do. This year policy is in limbo, US politicians are unlikely to agree on doing anything  with regard to economic policy – this is understood and to some extent accepted by the markets, but action must be taken in 2013 to start reducing the fiscal deficit and the candidates are unlikely to reveal to the electorate just how bad things will need to be in terms of spending cuts or tax increases. In addition, upcoming elections require all candidates to stand up very strongly for American interests in any international dispute – in trade matters this can easily spill over into protectionist policies to “safeguard American jobs”.

In China, a new generation of leaders will come to power just before the US election – at the top level there will be no shocks but there is much manoeuvring still going on for the next level down, who will form the leadership team in five years time. Chinese officials will struggle to allow or tolerate “bad” economic news, and any further weakness of the type seen in recent months may well generate another dramatic stimulus response of the sort seen in early 2009. In foreign and trade policy also, it will be important for the Chinese to be seen to be stoutly defending their interests to safeguard Chinese jobs.

France is the most interesting story with its May Presidential elections. First it means that Sarkozy cannot allow anyone to leave the euro before the elections, because all his efforts over the last two years to “save the euro” would have visibly failed – therefore more summits and buying of time with new initiatives is very likely. However were he to remain President (unlikely from the current opinion polls), he would never have to face the French voters again – he could afford to try to be a European statesman and actually may be prepared to adopt a more German solution to the euro crisis, even at the expense of traditional French interests. By contrast markets might get a nasty shock were his main challenger Francois Hollande to win the Presidency. He is a fairly unreconstructed socialist, and would have few political soulmates in Europe, and has already declared that the current policies of austerity and institutional change to force countries into more restrictive fiscal policies are unacceptable to him. It is difficult to see Angela Merkel willing to give much of the ground that Hollande would require in order for France and Germany to continue to lead the efforts to save the euro. Either way the French election looks likely to be absolutely pivotal in determining which way the euro crisis gets resolved.

Amidst all this, the UK looks to be a rather stable place. The coalition looks set to soldier on – the Liberals cannot afford to leave since the ensuing election would see them almost wiped out, whilst Cameron benefits from pursuing the economic policies that he believes is necessary but seeing the blame laid on the Liberals. The economic policy of steady austerity has been set for the next few years and no change will be considered until much closer to the planned 2015 election. For Cameron, current economic policy is both economically and politically appropriate and he stands in a place that many of his fellow world leaders would wish to be.

Both Osborne and Cameron can count themselves a little unlucky- December 2011

As with football managers, the ability of politicians to keep their jobs can be defined by the formula – Success = Outcome minus Expectations.

A year ago, George Osborne set out his plans for getting the UK public finances onto a more secure footing. To counteract the Treasury’s longstanding record of over-optimism in forecasting trends in the UK economy, he set up the Office of Budget Responsibility, as an independent body to give greater credibility to his plans, believing that they would adopt a less rosy view of the world. Then he went further and gave himself a target of eliminating the structural budget deficit in 5 years, but his actual plans were forecast to achieve this in 4 years. His aim in all this was to maximise the expectation of the pain required in his deficit reduction plan and so minimise his chances of his plan not achieving their goals by the time of the next election. He was trying very hard to ensure that the economy and the reduction in the budget deficit actually came in better than expected in the later years of this Parliament, leaving him some scope for reining back on spending cuts or cutting taxes just before the May 2015 election.

The last year has not been kind to him. First the performance of the global economy has been much worse than was expected a year ago – this is not just the result of the mess in Europe, but also much weaker growth in the US and high food price inflation in many developing economies forcing them to slow their economies by raising interest rates – and this has contributed to a weaker than expected UK economy, making the job of reducing the deficit even m ore difficult. Secondly, the OBR made some key assumptions in its work that in hindsight were still too optimistic – they took the view that much of the reduction in tax revenues suffered in 2009 and 2010 was cyclical and thus short term rather than structural and so long term. Thus, they had tax revenues recovering quite sharply once growth got going again. This year’s deficit forecast is close to target, because there was little growth expected but the deficit forecasts for the next few years have had to be increased to account for weaker world growth and the OBR’s recognition that tax revenues from the banking system will not bounce back as fast due to the ongoing crisis and that weak productivity growth is likely to mean a slower rate of reduction in the unemployment rate.

In his first year then, Mr Osborne has not been seen as a success because he has had to reset expectations to an even lower level. From here though, it might just work out well for him. First, both he and Mervyn King have explicitly stated that all forecasts are dependent on the eurozone crisis being resolved fairly quickly, which is not unreasonable, and secondly that this time round it could well be that the OBR’s assumptions are too pessimistic in that they now assume that the loss of tax revenues were structural and long term and not at all cyclical and short term. Mr Osborne now has more pessimistic forecasts, for which he is criticised today, but which give him a greater capacity to produce a positive surprise, for which he can take credit, in a few years time.

For David Cameron, the bad luck may not be so easy to turn around. A successful resolution of the eurozone crisis requires much greater co-ordination of fiscal policy across the Eurozone. This will require tighter rules and international bodies with real power – in other words deeper political union amongst the Eurozone as Mrs Merkel has been saying for some time. The UK’s economic interests are clearly best served by a resolution of the crisis, but such a resolution is not, from a Conservative perspective, in the UK’s foreign policy interests. A deeper political union amongst the eurozone members, will lead to far larger and more powerful area, which will make policies affecting the UK but over which the UK will have little influence. It re-opens the European faultline within the Conservative Party, which Mr Cameron has worked so hard to paper over. The UK will have to make a fundamental reassessment of its policy towards Europe if the euro survives and a deeper, political union results. Such a debate has always proved to be very damaging for the Conservative Party.

Germany cheerfully leads the Eurozone towards misery – November 2011

At the previous G20 meeting, European leaders were sent away with the message to agree a solution to the debt problems of the Eurozone which were hitting the economies of the rest of the world. The Brussels agreement on the latest round of measures to be adopted by the Eurozone was a triumph for Mrs Merkel but does nothing to resolve Europe’s economic problems despite the initial positive reaction from markets. In the agreement, Germany commits no more money to the Eurozone bailout programme than it had previously agreed to, it has not given any guarantee of the debts of any other country, it has kept down the amount of recapitalisation required of the banking system to a level that its banks should be able to raise from the private sector alone and so avoid another unpopular state bailout of banks and it has blocked French attempts to get the ECB to intervene massively to support the Spanish and Italian bond markets. On top of that, all Eurozone countries are now committed to balanced budget constitutional amendments and Italy was forced to bring to the summit, in an almost schoolboy-like manner, a detailed plan as to how it would take further steps to reduce its spending. On Greece, the inevitable default is acknowledged but only for private sector lenders, and not public sector lenders such as the ECB, the IMF and the EU, who remain favoured creditors.

Unfortunately, what the Germans believe to be a good plan is terrible news for the near term health of the Eurozone economy. Greece will still owe a very high 120% of its GDP by 2020 (on optimistic assumptions) – this is double the old Maastricht Treaty maximum of 60% and leaves the capacity of the Greek economy to grow its way out of its problems severely hampered. For the other Eurozone countries the ability ever again to use fiscal policy as a tool to boost their economies in future times of trouble will disappear, leaving the ECB and monetary policy as the only route to stimulate economies. Germany is securing an economic straitjacket around its Eurozone partners, at the exact moment when their economies have become hugely uncompetitive compared with Germany.  Their only path back to economic growth is for prices and private sector wages to fall by about 25% and thus re-establish competitiveness – that path means several years of a real economic Depression.

The German misunderstanding is in taking what have been sound long term economic policies for a relatively small open economy (where exports and imports are high proportions of the economy), and which have delivered a strong and stable economy for Germany since the war and more particularly since the Euro started, and assuming that they must therefore be the best policies for the Eurozone as a whole. However the Eurozone is not a small, open economy – rather it is a large and relatively closed economy (once intra-Eurozone trade is stripped out), very similar to the US economy. If the entire Eurozone is cutting back on its spending, then domestic demand within the Eurozone will be anaemic and exports outside the Eurozone are not a significant enough force to lead the whole economy back towards growth.

It is ironic that the British Conservative Party, which has always sought to avoid being drawn into European attempts at greater integration, is now one of the loudest voices calling on the Eurozone to become more integrated and adopt a pan-Eurozone approach to its problems rather than the national approach that has been adopted by Germany and France today. Their economic analysis is right though, the sum of the individual Eurozone economies is very different from any one of them. Helmut Kohl and Jacques Delors had the truly European perspective in the 1990s that is now required of, but sadly lacking in, Angela Merkel and Nicolas Sarkozy.

Sadly this latest package will merely buy a little time before the next crisis (ignoring the mini-crisis generated by the on/off Greek referendum). Worryingly, each crisis in this saga is bigger and more serious. The next problem to occur will be in Italy, where despite buying of its bonds by the ECB, yields are already over 5% for 2 year bonds and over 6% for 10 year bonds. There is little scope for these to move higher before the market comes to the conclusion that they are unsustainable and will refuse to fund them, as they have with Greece, Ireland and Portugal already. Italy is too big to save.