Archives for October 2012

The UK‘s choice – Perseverance or Printing

The UK economy grew by 1.0% in the third quarter, the fastest quarterly growth rate for five years.  After several quarters of negative data and a slump into double-dip recession, this would appear, at first sight, to be very good news.  Though the news is welcome, it cannot yet be described as good. First there are two, significant one-off items that should be stripped out; the Diamond Jubilee holiday last June is estimated to have reduced the economy by 0.5% in the second quarter.  Absent anything else happening, there would have been a statistical rebound in growth of that amount in the third quarter.  Additionally, in August the sales of Olympic tickets were estimated to have contributed 0.2% to economic growth.  This leaves 0.3% as the underlying figure for economic growth once these have been taken into account.  Rather surprisingly, in an age of government austerity, the increase in output of government services accounted for 0.36% in the third quarter, which leaves the non-government sector still in decline!

A clearer view would appear from looking at the data over the last twelve months as a whole.  Over this period, growth in the economy has been essentially zero, as it has been since the third quarter of 2008 when Lehman Brothers collapsed.  Four years of zero growth is a far better description of what has occurred than the sequence of recessions and recoveries that media headlines would imply.

The number of people employed in the UK recently reached an all-time high, beating the previous record set in 2007. However, the UK economy is actually 3% smaller than at the time of that peak in employment – this implies that productivity (the amount of output produced for each worker) in the economy has actually been falling, which is very unusual, and has been causing much head-scratching amongst economists.  The explanation comes from two sectors.  First, North Sea oil production has peaked and is becoming progressively more difficult and expensive to produce, so productivity is in decline.  The second area is financial services;  over the last five years there has been a 16% fall in measured output from banks and insurance companies with no significant decline in employment.

In a recent speech in Cardiff, Mervyn King, the Governor of the Bank of England, made it very clear that he believes that this period of zero or very low growth is likely to continue for some years.  He stated that Western banking systems had still not recognised the full extent of bad assets remaining on the books of the banks. Until the banks do this and recapitalise themselves, monetary policy alone (including QE) was not going to be able to solve the economies’ problems.  The effectiveness of QE is really limited to offsetting some of the weakness in demand that this consolidation of the banking sector would generate, rather than generating economic recovery.

Lord King’s perspective is that the policy choice for the UK (and indeed the other indebted Western countries) is between Perseverance and Printing.  As befits a Central Banker, he believes that Perseverance is the best path back towards economic growth.  This requires enduring more (un-quantified) years of near zero growth (as the banking system corrects itself and consumers and governments cut back their spending so that they can reduce their debts), while the Central Bank supports the economy through QE.  The alternative of Printing, which he would not endorse, but has been hinted at by Lord Turner, a potential successor to Lord King next year, is one of “helicopter money”, in which newly created money is handed out to the public.  This is clearly the inflationary solution to the debt problems facing Western economies.  However, it is not a solution that is yet being promoted, but the concern must be that the longer the period of low or zero growth, the more that politicians will seize on such ideas as a means of creating employment and growth, and hence votes.

It is for this reason that gold should have a key part of everyone’s portfolios, as the insurance policy that Printing overcomes Perseverance through a long period without growth.

The time is ripe for politicians to act

Next month’s US Presidential election has been a very firm check on any significant economic policy action by politicians not just in America but also in Europe and China.  It has been left to those in charge of the Central Banks to make all the policy running this year.  In response to the weakening economic data and political stalemates over the last six months, both Bernanke and Draghi have taken it upon themselves to take significant policy action and encourage their politicians to do the right thing.

This year, being an election year, it proved impossible to get any bipartisan agreement in the US on anything to do with the budget deficit – the Republicans insisted on no tax rises of any kind, and the Democrats were not prepared to contemplate any spending cuts.  Instead, they created an outcome of Mutually Assured Destruction, in which in the absence of any other agreement before the end of this year, substantial tax increases and spending cuts will automatically take effect from the start of next year.  If fully enacted, these policies would undoubtedly push the US economy into recession in 2013. It is only after the election in early November that the politicians will begin to get to grips with this issue.  The world economy needs a compromise to be effected between the two parties, assuming, as currently appears likely, that one party does not hold all three of the Presidency, the Senate and the Congress.

Markets are currently expecting that such a compromise does in fact occur.  The best time for any politician to make a politically difficult decision is immediately after an election, when any future electoral consequences are as far away as they will ever be.  Mr Bernanke has indicated that he holds an insurance policy in the event of no agreement and he will become much more aggressive with his QE programme, further to concentrate the minds of the Republicans.

In the Eurozone, the politicians have clearly adopted stalling tactics with regard to making a decision on whether to give further help to Greece, and have delayed receiving the Troika report from an initial late August date until mid November, just after the US elections.  The much smaller Cyprus bailout has also been delayed to be sorted out at the same time as Greece.  The Spanish bailout has also been delayed, first by the Spanish Prime Minister, who has regional elections on October 21st and who does not want to be seen asking for money before then. Also by Germany and some EU officials who are concerned about the knock-on effects in markets of a Spanish bailout request, most particularly for Italy.  Dealing with all of these together in November appears to be the preferred strategy, and as in the US markets are expecting there will be a satisfactory resolution (at least for now).  The longer term issues of enforced austerity weakening growth prospects and the lack of competitiveness in the Southern European economies will no doubt create further crises in due course.

China too is going through leadership change, with the new Politbureau team being unveiled just two days after the US elections.  Here too there has been evidence of policy drift this year with the slowing Chinese economy met by silence from the politicians, though the Central Bank have been easing policy a little during the year.  It is not known what the economic priorities of the new leadership team will be, but markets would appreciate an idea of the direction of policies that will be followed.

The last two months of the year thus provide the opportunity for politicians around the world to resolve several uncertainties about economic policy that have been allowed to build up ahead of the electoral time frame.  Some clear leadership in the next few weeks should boost market confidence, but political indecisiveness would be very damaging to markets. The time is therefore ripe for politicians to act.

Why most economic forecasts have been so wrong in recent years

In its recent six-monthly World Economic Outlook report, the IMF included a section examining why it, and just about all other economic forecasters, had been consistently too optimistic in its forecasts of economic growth over the last three years. This has been particularly painful for those governments undergoing austerity programmes, where the shortfall in growth relative to forecasts has meant larger deficits and the need for further austerity programmes.

The very clear conclusion is that their estimates of the fiscal policy multipliers have been far too low. The fiscal policy multiplier measures the degree to which the economy is impacted by a change in fiscal policy (either a tightening of policy created by raising taxes or cutting spending, or an easing of policy created by cutting taxes or boosting spending). For the 30 years up to 2007, economists had identified this multiplier to have a value of about 0.5, so that a fiscal tightening equivalent to 1% of GDP, could be expected to reduce the growth rate of the economy as a whole by about 0.5%. However since 2008 this previously stable relationship has changed and the multipliers now appear to range between 0.9 and 1.7. Further, it was  those economies which underwent greater austerity which saw the higher multipliers on final economic demand.

For the UK, this is unfortunate news for Mr Osborne, since this is exactly what his Labour opponent, Mr Balls, has been saying for some time. It means that the steady approach to austerity at about a 1% rate of tightening per annum, that he adopted is having a greater effect on the overall economic growth than he envisaged.

The higher multipliers identified where there is greater austerity is probably due to an economic confidence effect, as the deep cuts in government spending and large increases in taxes will lead everyone to believe that recession is imminent and thus curtail their spending immediately. For Greece, Spain and Portugal this goes some way to understanding why their previous austerity plans have not worked – those who are bailing them out have demanded that they get their fiscal houses in order in a short space of time and this has resulted in even weaker economies and larger than expected budget deficits.

At the same time as the fiscal policy multipliers have risen, so the monetary policy multipliers appear to have fallen. Cutting interest rates from 6% to 5% has a far more dramatic effect on the economy than cutting the from 1% to 0% and Quantitative Easing policies are generally agreed to work best the first time they are used and have less effect with each repeated use. Keynes is often attributed with describing such policies as “pushing on a string”. Central Banks are now having to make significant monetary policy changes to have any effect on the economy.

So the world finds itself in a real policy bind. The area of policy being tightened (fiscal) is working too effectively on growth, and the area of policy being eased (monetary) is not working at all effectively on growth. This approach does help to provide an understanding of why economic growth is consistently disappointing the economic forecasters. The policy implications are at odds with conventional wisdom – governments should adopt a slow but sure approach to austerity, and a more effective form of Quantitative Easing needs to be adopted with the concept of the Modern Debt Jubilee (espoused here), appearing to be an increasingly interesting idea.

A layman’s guide to Quantitative Easing

Until very recently, Central Banks generally conducted their monetary policy through changing their key reference interest rate, which was generally the rate at which they would lend to the commercial banks on a short term basis supported by acceptable collateral. Thus the economy was regulated by changing the price of money. Theoretically, by increasing the rate of interest in the economy, the desire to borrow and spend would be reduced and the desire to save would be increased, and economic growth and inflation should fall back. Conversely, reducing interest rates should help to boost economic growth. It is generally accepted by monetary economists that the impact of changing interest rates takes between one and two years to have its full effects on the economy.

However in late 2008, the shock to the global economy from the financial crash that most Central Banks cut interest rates to the lowest practical levels (somewhere between zero and 1%, depending on the system), but still felt that they needed to ease policy further to offset the strong recessionary forces that were being experienced.

Thus, they turned from easing through changing the price of money in the economy to easing through changing the quantity of money in the economy (hence the rather ugly term “Quantitative Easing” (“QE”)). The Federal Reserve and the Bank of England began their QE programmes in April 2009, but in fact the Bank of Japan had been engaging in QE policies since 2003, its rates having reached zero in the previous global downturn.

Until this century, QE had only ever been seen as a theoretical tool in the Central Banker’s arsenal. It was a lesson that some (most notably Ben Bernanke) learned from the Great Depression, where once interest rates reached a low point, the Central Banks felt that there was nothing else they could do. There is thus no history or experience to examine to determine if it works or how it works. The current policy is therefore a live economic experiment.

The manner in which Central Banks have indicated they expect QE to work is as follows. The Central Bank goes into the financial markets and buys securities, typically government bonds, although the Federal Reserve has also bought mortgage-backed securities, and the Bank of Japan has also bought equities and REITs. To finance this they create the money (digitally) and use it to pay the seller of the security (typically a bank). The bank’s assets now consist of more cash and less securities. Typically the income return on the cash will be lower than the income return on the securities they have just sold, and so they have a decision to make. They could choose (i) to maintain the lower income stream, because they might have a great need for liquidity, (ii) to go back into the securities markets and buy some other securities to maintain their income, or (iii) increase their lending to companies or households. Choosing (i) has no impact on the real economy and choosing (iii) clearly has a major impact because it is helping directly to boost demand and spending in the economy.

In practice, what has happened is that banks have chosen (ii), and have sought to maintain their income stream by investing in higher-risk securities. Thus yields have fallen first on government bonds, then on investment-grade corporate bonds and finally on high-yield bonds. This then gives companies the opportunity to borrow at lower rates of interest in the financial markets, which could be used to fund investment. QE, to date, has been a policy that has clearly supported financial markets – it is difficult to see a direct effect on bank lending and economic growth, but it is likely (and claimed by the Central Banks) that economic growth would have been much weaker without QE.

There are some problems with continued applications of QE. Firstly, it is generally believed by economists that QE policies have less impact as they are repeated. Since it is such an unusual policy, the first time it is deployed it has a shock effect, but later iterations do not as the financial system adapts its behaviour to the policy. Secondly, the liquidity of the underlying financial markets may be damaged. For example, the Bank of England now owns more than one-third of all gilts outstanding, and has no current plans to sell them, so the level of liquidity in the gilt market has been reduced by the policy.

The great fear that many commentators have about QE is that by creating more and more money in the financial system without greater economic output, the end result must inevitably be higher prices. In fact higher expected inflation is one of the objectives of the policy, since if people expect higher prices in the future it is rational to buy things now before they rise in price, and so boost demand in the economy today. The response of the Central Bankers would be to say that QE is a reversible policy, and the bonds that they have purchased, can very easily be sold back into the financial markets, so reducing the excess liquidity in the system, and the inflationary threat.

To date, a more realistic concern has been that there is no evidence anywhere in the world where QE has worked. It clearly has not brought Japan out of its long term stagnation, and so far neither the US or UK economies can be said to have recovered strongly. The reason for this is that the extra liquidity generated has remained within the financial system and not found its way into the real economy, and so boosted real demand. If the underlying causes of weak economic growth are that the banking system has overlent relative to its capital, that consumers feel their debt levels are too high, and both feel that they need to retrench (or in the jargon, deleverage their balance sheets), then the current policy of QE will not actually affect the desire to borrow or to lend.

A more radical policy option would be to print money and ensure that it was only used in ways that directly benefitted the consumer’s balance sheet. Thus £450 billion (only a little more than the total QE to date) could be used to give every adult in the country £10,000 to be used either to repay debt, or towards a deposit for the purchase of a first home or into a pension pot. By improving the savings to debt ratio of each adult in the country, the time at which they will once again feel happy to spend more will be brought forward.