Global Investing

The “least worst” option?

Western governments saddled with mountainous debts will “repress” creditors and savers via banking regulation, capital controls, central bank bond buying and currency depreciation that effectively puts sovereign borrowers at the top of the credit queue while simultaneously wiping out real returns for their bond holders. So says HSBC chief economist Stephen King in his latest report this week called “From Depression to repression”.

Building on the work of U.S. economist Carmen Reinhardt and others, King’s focus on the history of heavily indebted governments applying “financial repression” to creditors arrives at several interesting conclusions. First, even though western governments appeared successful in using these tactics to reduce massive World War Two debts alongside brisk economic growth during the 1950s and 1960s, King argues that the debt was cut mainly by the impressive economic growth and tax revenues during that “Golden Age” – and this was mostly down to the once-in-a-century period of relative peace that involved unprecedented integration and cooperation among western governments also engaged in a Cold War with the Soviet Union. Compared to this boost, the financial repression was a “sideshow”, he reckons.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                           To show that, he applies the interest rate and inflation conditions of the 1950s and 1960s to the current US government debt trajectory and then compares the growth scenario back then with the one faced now. The graphic is revealing. So, for repression to work, it needs to generate higher growth first. And despite lower real rates today than in the days of Mad Men, that seems not to be the case.

Instead, King says governments will adopt this repression tactic anyway just to stave off draconian austerity now and prevent a destabilising surge in economy-wide borrowing rates. This will effectively reduce the amount of credit to the rest of the private sector, or at least elevating its cost, while reducing the pressure on governments to cut the debt levels quickly. The net result, then will likely be “persistently lower growth”, whatever your conclusion about the desirability of  state or the market allocation of resources.

And, in the absence of an obvious alternative, repression may also be the “least worst” option, King argues.

 

 

 

“Ultimately, however, we’re likely to be stuck with repression unless we find some other alternative source of growth, whether through, say, new technologies, ingeniously-funded infrastructure projects or mass immigration of people of working age (thus increasing both production and tax revenues). However, in the absence of growth – and with the democratic process valuing the minimisation of short-term pain at the possible expense of long-term gain – repression seems an easy, if ultimately damaging, way of avoiding tough decisions.”

Regulate Us? We’re Hurt.

Obama advisor Paul Volcker wants more regulation.

Obama advisor Paul Volcker wants more regulation.

The popular image of Wall Street institutions involve swagger: the ability to absorb the competition’s blows, taking no prisoners, raking in the money… until it seems like the government could force them to rein in their excesses. It’s at that point that Wall Street’s tough guys suddenly sound wounded.

In Tuesday’s Wall Street Journal, an article about the derivatives legislation being considered in Washington has this comment from Bank of America spokesman James Mahoney—the bank is “concerned that we won’t be able to provide our customers with financial products they need to manage risk and grow and that foreign banks will step in and take that business.”

There are several layers of bruised egos at work here – the assertion that America’s economic future is imperiled by the regulation of derivatives, and the boogeyman specter of a “foreign bank” that will take over. Add the obligatory reference to customers (which recalls the braying from various corners about how the threat to BP’s dividends are really an attack on “pensioners” and “retirees”), and there’s a lot of guilt being laid on in the statement.

Standard Chartered: Far from declaring victory over crisis

Peter Sands, Chief Executive Officer of Standard Chartered says the grip of the global financial crisis has loosened but there is still a lot of work to be done to fix the damage. He spoke with Reuters on the sidelines of the Clinton Global Initiative where he said the public has a right to be angry with bankers about their pay but capping compensation on a global level is not likely to happen. Watch his responses here and tell us what you think. Is it possible to have a global cap on executive compensation?