Opinion

The Great Debate

from James Saft:

Icelandic mulishness wins the day

Iceland's remarkable return to growth shows once again that in this crisis the best policy is often the one that will make international partners most angry.

Having been reviled and chastised when it refused to make good the outsize debts of its banks, Iceland this week capped a striking turnaround when it announced that its economy expanded by 1.2 percent in real terms in the most recent quarter, its first such rise in two years.

This is in stark contrast to Ireland, whose pliability and inability as a member of the euro zone to act unilaterally leaves it with a still crashing economy which must service ever more debt by making ever deeper cuts to public spending.

Iceland, which sailed into the crisis in 2008 as essentially a small fishing fleet with a massive hedge fund attached, looked its predicament square in the eye and followed a set of policies seemingly designed to tick off both its friends and enemies, doing its small but mighty best to beggar its neighbors by letting its currency crash, imposing capital controls and, crucially,  refusing to make whole the global creditors of its three failed international banks.

While an International Monetary Fund and multilateral package was eventually agreed, and a deal with Britain and the Netherlands over debts from Icesave Bank are currently being hammered out, Iceland's leaders, at least the current ones, seem convinced that making bank creditors share its pain was the right course.

from James Saft:

Pension savers get the boot

From Dublin to Paris to Budapest to inside those brown UPS trucks delivering holiday packages, it has been a tough few weeks for savers and retirees.

Moves by the Irish, French and Hungarian governments, and by the famous delivery company, showed that in the post-crisis world retirees, present and future, will be paying much of the price and taking on more of the risk.

This goes beyond merely cutting back on pension benefits, rising to actual appropriation of supposedly long-term retirement assets to help fund short term emergencies.

California voters back weakened climate law

-The opinions are the author’s own-

California voters on Tuesday rejected a measure to suspend the state’s innovative climate change law. But the state’s emission trading scheme has been substantially diluted to buy off opposition from energy-intensive industries and allay fears about job losses.

If it is true that “as California goes, so goes the nation”, the past 10 days have confirmed the lack of political support for tough emissions curbs.

The survival of California’s cap-and-trade scheme has kept alive hopes for enacting a patchwork of state and regional schemes in the absence of a federal program. Supporters hope establishing even a diluted system will lay the groundwork for a program that can be toughened as the economy improves.

U.S., China and eating soup with a fork

-The opinions expressed are the author’s own-

Are economists the world over using an outdated tool to measure economic progress?

The question, long debated, is worth pondering again at a time when two economic giants, the United States and China, are sparring over trade, currency exchange rates and their roles in the global economy.

In the run-up to U.S. mid-term elections on November 2, politicians from both parties, for different reasons, blamed trade with China for American job losses. China responded with irritation and hit back by accusing the U.S. of “out of control” printing of dollars tantamount to an attack on China with imported inflation.

Foreclosures, capital and sickening cures

-James Saft is a Reuters columnist. The opinions expressed are his own-

A dilemma at the heart of the response to the financial crisis is that the antidote to so many ills actually causes the symptoms to worsen.

Take for examples bank capital levels and the chaos surrounding home mortgage foreclosures.

Both issues are the fruit of the same tree: the desire to do things quickly, cheaply and with minimal safeguards.
And both, if you want to fix them, are probably going to slow the economy and lower asset prices in the short term.

There is no such thing as inflation

In 1987, UK Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher whipped up a firestorm of criticism from her opponents on the left when she told a magazine reporter that “there is no such thing as society”, only individual men and women, and families.

The interpretation of those comments remains fiercely controversial. From the context it is not certain the prime minister was clear what she was trying to say.

But according to one interpretation the prime minister was encouraging her listeners to look beyond the impersonal aggregate of “society” to the individuals behind it.

The wrong sort of inflation

Chairman Ben Bernanke’s Fed is beset by demons of its own design.

Terrified by memories of the 1930s and Japan’s more recent experience in 1990s and 2000s, the academics who now dominate the Federal Open Market Committee display a hyperactive compulsion to tinker with monetary policy in a bid to solve all the problems besetting the U.S. economy.

But if inflation is always and everywhere a monetary phenomenon, as Milton Friedman argued, Fed policy has a smaller role in solving real-economy problems such as a gaping trade deficit, moribund housing market, sluggish growth and joblessness.

Expectations of another substantial round of quantitative easing (QE2) have gone too far for the Fed to pull back now. The Fed must press ahead or risk a massive, disorderly correction across all asset classes (bonds, equities, commodities and currencies).

Euro zone faces QE2 pain test

QE2 — a second round of quantitative easing — means that soon the U.S., Japan and Britain will all be busily exporting their deflation, raising the question: Just how much pain can the euro zone take?

If by November we have three of the largest economies printing money and buying up their own debt, the outcome — in fact the intention — will be to drive their currencies lower against their trading partners, opening new international markets for their goods and, by raising the price of imported goods, fighting deflation before its debilitating psychology can take hold.

That is the plan, at any rate, and, unless something else happens, it will force the euro up against all major currencies, including, as it is tied to the dollar, the Chinese yuan. The euro has risen about 9.5 percent against the dollar in the past month, a trend that ultimately will murder European exporters and its stock market.

QE2 to speed triumph of emerging markets

While “decoupled” is not the same as “immune”, look for growth and investment performance in emerging markets to be better than in the sclerotic developed world.

In the short term emerging markets will be free riders as the U.S. launches the second round of quantitative easing. A portion of the stimulus generated by “QE2″ will inevitably leak cross border, while the risks of the gambit will fall almost entirely on the U.S. and on dollar-denominated assets.

QE2 is designed to work in two ways: to stimulate investment by making it cheaper to borrow money and to lift consumption by boosting asset prices.

The post-bubble world: what’s next?

The American Enterprise Institute is hosting a panel with Nouriel Roubini and Reuters contributor Chris Whalen on “living in the post-bubble world: what’s next?” It is being livestreamed today from 2pm – 4pm ET. You can watch the video of it here:

From AEI’s website:

Americans are living in the wake of the great credit bubble of the twenty-first century. They have experienced the crisis of its collapse, massive increases in government intervention and debt, and now more uncertainty. What’s next? Are we in for a long slog, or will the economy rebound? What will happen to housing prices, mortgage defaults, commercial real estate, the banking system, and post-bubble Europe? Will we have defaults on sovereign debt? Deflation? How big will the Fed’s balance sheet get? What steps should be taken now? These and related questions will be discussed by our panel of economic and financial experts.

The debate is moderated by AEI fellow and former president and chief executive officer of the Federal Home Loan Bank of Chicago Alex J. Pollock. Other panelists are:

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