Lagarde leads from the front on Europe

By Felix Salmon
August 30, 2011
Ben Bernanke, which turned out to be incredibly boring. The most important speech of the meeting, by far, came on Saturday, and came from the new head of the IMF, Christine Lagarde.

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Going into the Jackson Hole conference, everybody was breathlessly awaiting Friday’s speech from Ben Bernanke, which turned out to be incredibly boring. The most important speech of the meeting, by far, came on Saturday, and came from the new head of the IMF, Christine Lagarde. In decidedly undiplomatic prose she came right out and said what needed to be done:

Two years ago, it became clear that resolving the crisis would require two key rebalancing acts—a domestic demand switch from the public to the private sector, and a global demand switch from external deficit to external surplus counties… the actual progress on rebalancing has been timid at best, while the downside risks to the global economy are increasing…

I would like to delve deeper into the different problems of Europe and the United States.

I’ll start with Europe…

Banks need urgent recapitalization. They must be strong enough to withstand the risks of sovereigns and weak growth. This is key to cutting the chains of contagion. If it is not addressed, we could easily see the further spread of economic weakness to core countries, or even a debilitating liquidity crisis. The most efficient solution would be mandatory substantial recapitalization—seeking private resources first, but using public funds if necessary. One option would be to mobilize EFSF or other European-wide funding to recapitalize banks directly, which would avoid placing even greater burdens on vulnerable sovereigns…

The United States needs to move on two specific fronts.

First—the nexus of fiscal consolidation and growth. At first blush, these challenges seem contradictory. But they are actually mutually reinforcing. Credible decisions on future consolidation—involving both revenue and expenditure—create space for policies that support growth and jobs today. At the same time, growth is necessary for fiscal credibility—after all, who will believe that commitments to cut spending can survive a lengthy stagnation with prolonged high unemployment and social dissatisfaction?

Second—halting the downward spiral of foreclosures, falling house prices and deteriorating household spending. This could involve more aggressive principal reduction programs for homeowners, stronger intervention by the government housing finance agencies, or steps to help homeowners take advantage of the low interest rate environment.

The diagnosis of what needs to be done in the U.S. is spot-on. Revenues have to be raised — in the future, not yet. Mortgage principal needs to be reduced. And the government needs to help the private sector translate low interest rates into growth, because right now it’s looking like a deer in the headlights and refusing to take advantage of them.

But it’s Lagarde’s diagnosis of her native Europe which is proving highly controversial. Anonymous “officials”, quoted in the FT, rapidly said that she had it all wrong:

Officials said Ms Lagarde’s comments missed the point of banks’ current difficulties. “The key issue is funding,” said one experienced central banker. “Banks in some countries have had trouble securing liquidity in recent weeks and that pressure is going to mount. To talk about capital is a confused message.

This is simply delusional: anybody who knows anything about banking knows that the distinction between a liquidity problem and a solvency problem is not nearly as clear-cut as this makes out. Indeed, if there weren’t any worries about European banks’ solvency, then they wouldn’t have any kind of liquidity problems. If a bank has “trouble securing liquidity,” any responsible regulator must take that as a message that the markets are worried about that bank’s solvency — especially if the problems are happening, as these ones are, in a broader global context where liquidity remains abundant.

And if the markets are worried about a bank’s solvency, then that bank’s solvency is what must be addressed — perception is reality in such matters.

Elsewhere in the FT, other anonymous officials said that the European stress tests were already doing what Lagarde was calling for. This despite the fact that only nine European banks failed those stress tests. Where Lagarde sees a huge systemic problem, European officials, it seems, still thinks it can patch things up by triaging the worst banks and applying band-aids.

All of which, in and of itself, makes Lagarde’s concluding words ring rather hollow:

We have reached a point where actions by all countries, doing what they can, will add up to much more than actions by a few.

There is a clear implication: we must act now, act boldly, and act together.

Obviously, that’s not going to happen. It’s not going to happen in Europe, where officials immediately rejected her proposals. And it’s certainly not going to happen in the US, where she’s significantly to the left of the Obama administration and where her policies could never, ever pass either the House or the Senate.

This is depressing — but the FT does manage to find a sliver of a silver lining: Lagarde, they write, “has said publicly what most policymakers have avoided addressing since the crisis began”. Maybe she’s just leading from the front, here: even if policymakers don’t embrace her position immediately, they might come round to her way of thinking as the world’s developed economies continue to stagnate and financial markets continue to fret over a possible sovereign crisis. If such a crisis starts looking imminent, then at least Lagarde has already laid out a plan for how the banks — a crucial vector of contagion — might be turned instead into a kind of firebreak.

Certainly one can’t ever imagine Lagarde’s predecessor, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, giving a speech like this. He was the consummate behind-the-scenes diplomat; he wasn’t given to big set-piece public speeches. Lagarde, in that sense, is a breath of fresh air at the IMF, and quite un-French in how she’s operating. I do suspect, though, that it’s going to take little a while before Europe’s leaders to come around to her point of view.

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