Opinion

The Great Debate

from Anatole Kaletsky:

What’s Europe’s best hope for avoiding a second euro crisis?

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This week’s theatrical resignation threat by Manuel Valls, the French prime minister, combined with deep European anxiety about deflation, suggest that the euro crisis may be coming back. But a crisis is often an opportunity, and this is the hope now beginning to excite markets in the eurozone.

Investors and business leaders are asking themselves three questions: Will European governments and the European Central Bank recognize the unexpected weakness of the eurozone economy as an opportunity to change course? If they do, will they know how to grasp it? And will they be allowed to do what is necessary by the true economic sovereign of Europe, German Chancellor Angela Merkel?

First, the opportunity. Europe still has a chance to save itself from a Japanese-style lost decade of stagnation and deflation. And this may well be a last chance, because a lost decade in Europe could produce some very un-Japanese social rebellions and political upheavals. Europe, after all, lacks Japan’s social consensus, national unity and financial cohesion. It is far from clear that Europe could survive 10 years of recession without up the eurozone breaking up and even perhaps the European Union.

Second, what must Europe do to save itself from stagnation and disintegration? The obvious answer is to follow something similar to the “three arrows” program popularised (though not genuinely implemented) by Japan’s prime minister, Shinzo Abe. Abe’s “three arrows” were: aggressive monetary stimulus; fiscal easing requiring suspension of deficit and debt targets, and structural reforms to correct long-term weaknesses in both supply and demand.

Judging by ECB Chairman Mario Draghi’s speech at Jackson Hole, Wyo., all three of these policies are becoming feasible. The central bank is hinting at more growth-oriented monetary policy, the European Commission seems willing to interpret its fiscal rules more flexibly, and national governments are promising to undertake more structural reforms.

from MacroScope:

Did France cause The Great Depression?

Economist Douglas Irwin of Dartmouth College has stirred up a bit of a fuss by concluding in some academic research that it was France, not the United States, that was most to blame for The Great Depression.

Irwin's theory, in a paper posted here by the National Bureau of Economic Research, is that France created an artificial shortage of gold reserves when it increased its share from 7 percent to 27 percent between 1927 and 1932.  Because major currencies at the time were backed by gold under the Gold Standard, this put other countries under enormous deflationary pressure.

To prove his point, Irwin ran a model looking at what would have happened without the French move. The results:

Dr Strangelove and the threat of deflation

Fear of deflation haunts investors and stalks the halls of the Federal Reserve in Washington.

But how bad are declining prices, and why have they become a problem? Should investors and the Fed stop worrying and learn to love deflation, at least at moderate levels?

For 70 years, deflation was a distant threat as policymakers and economists wrestled with the problem of taming high and persistent inflation rates instead. It started to become an issue in the 1990s when inflation dipped below 3 percent for the first time in three decades, sparking a debate about “optimal inflation rates” and how the Fed should define its price stability mandate.

Inflation or Deflation, why settle for just one?

If you are trying to decide whether to fret about inflation or deflation, don’t bother: you may just get both.

Yes, in the spirit of these austere times, it is a two for one offer; deflation comes first, followed by an almighty inflation after central banks press the “go nuclear” button on the quantitative easing machine.

It seems clear that, at least in the near term, the stars are aligned for deflation. Rather than lancing a massive debt bubble, policy-makers have added to it and the intense pressure to clean balance sheets has spread from corporations and households to nations.

G20 recipe for deflation, protectionism

It may be folly or it may be prudence, but the move to fiscal austerity and restraint will be deflationary, will be bad for risky asset prices and will raise further the threat of protectionism.

The weekend’s meeting of the Group of 20 wealthy nations in Korea ended in a muddle of policies, with the final communique appearing to praise fiscal retrenching, expansionary policy, tighter regulation and slower implementation of that tighter regulation all at the same time, and all in the same impenetrable thicket of euphemism, buzzwords and consultant-speak.

To wit:

“The recent events highlight the importance of sustainable public finances and the need for our countries to put in place credible, growth-friendly measures, to deliver fiscal sustainability, differentiated for and tailored to national circumstances. Those countries with serious fiscal challenges need to accelerate the pace of consolidation. We welcome the recent announcements by some countries to reduce their deficits in 2010 and strengthen their fiscal frameworks and institutions. Within their capacity, countries will expand domestic sources of growth, while maintaining macroeconomic stability,” the communique issued at the conclusion of the meeting read.

Council of perfection on lost decades

Deflation and a lost decade can be avoided it seems; all we need are perfect central bankers, sensible politicians, a biddable electorate and cooperative investors.

Nothing to worry about there, then.

In a speech on Monday, Bank of England Monetary Policy Committee member Adam Posen, a leading expert on Japan’s lost decade of deflation and recurring recessions, laid out Japan’s experience.

The good news: Japan wasn’t cursed, it simply suffered from repeated policy mistakes which choked off growth during recoveries. Deflation was surprisingly persistent but recoveries were punctuated by policy errors which pretty much add up to not having loose enough monetary or fiscal policy.

Deflation pressure not just from housing

It will take more than a recovery in housing to reignite inflation in the U.S. economy, a state of play that argues for the continued threat of deflation and a Federal Reserve that is pinned to the mat, unable, even if willing, to raise interest rates.

The strong disinflationary forces in the United States are deeper and wider than a simple, if bloody, aftermath of a housing bubble.

Many took encouragement from a report by Reis Inc that apartment rents in the United States rose in the first quarter for the first time in a year and a half even as the apartment vacancy rate stayed at an all-time high of 8 percent. Besides indicating a possible recovery in jobs and household formation, which tracks jobs, there is a hope that stabilization in housing values and rents would remove a powerful disinflationary force.

Economy volatility a hurdle for stocks

Rather than inflation, it may turn out that economic volatility is the true test facing equities in the years to come.

Coming in the wake of an almost unprecedented set of circumstances and policies, the outlook for growth and inflation is extremely murky. For equity investors that means there is far less certainty over both the outlook for profits and how to value them than they had grown used to in the 25 years to the onset of the current crisis.

It is not simply that very low interest rates and bloated central bank balance sheets may cause inflation. That is true, but it is also possible that Japanese-style deflation takes hold. There is a higher chance now of wild swings in inflation, growth and monetary policy than any time in the post-World-War-Two period.

Japan, nominally lost, not really so

Al Breach was Russia economist with UBS and Goldman Sachs and is currently managing partner of TheBrowser.com. The views expressed are his own.

albreachHOSTENTAL, Switzerland – How bad was Japan’s “lost decade”? As we look east for clues as to the possible fate of western economies, it is worth dwelling on what actually happened, and not just how it was reported.

Japan’s stock market bubble burst at the end of 1989, and house prices started to fall about a year later. Asset prices at the peak were wildly inflated. Stock prices were trading at ratios of well above 50 times boom-time earnings, while the total value of housing represented around 300 percent of GDP.

Here lies the Great American Consumer

jamessaft1.jpg–James Saft is a Reuters columnist. The opinions expressed are his own–

Rest in peace, Great American Consumer. We will not see your like again.

“Cash-for-clunkers” aside, consumers seem bent on actually paying back debt rather than racking it up, a change that if sustained, as it is likely to be, will dampen economic growth not for months but for years, and not just in the U.S.

Outstanding U.S. consumer borrowing fell by a jaw-dropping $21.6 billion in July, according to data released this week by the Federal Reserve, five times more than analysts expected and the second largest monthly drop since the end of World War II.

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