MacroScope

Corporate responsibility: it’s time to start investing those record profits and cash piles

Corporate profits and cash piles have never been higher. But it’s not just an economic imperative that firms get spending and investing, it’s their social and moral responsibility to do so.

Three of the four sectors that make up the economy got battered by the global financial crisis and Great Recession:

    - Households: millions of workers lost their jobs, households retrenched their finances and times got extremely tough - Governments: they rescued and guaranteed the global economy and financial system at a cost of trillions - Banks: often vilified for their role in causing the crisis and apparent lack of punishment or contrition, they’re being forced to undergo huge structural change that will cost them billions

The one sector that flourished – even more than banks (and bankers) – is the corporate sector. By some measures, it has never had it so good – profits, cash reserves and share prices have rarely been higher:

The problem is, hardly any of that is being reinvested and relatively few are enjoying the spoils. Management and shareholders are sitting pretty, thanks to dividend payments and share buybacks. According to financial market consultant and author Andrew Smithers, US companies invest barely twice as much as they  pay out to shareholders. In the 1970s that ratio was as high as 15:1.

Smithers argues this is largely down to the distorted and myopic monetary short-termism of management incentives.

Europe may still be ‘on path for a meltdown’: former Obama adviser Goolsbee

Reporting by Chris Kaufmann and Walden Siew

For all the enthusiasm about the euro zone’s exit from recession, many experts believe the currency union’s crisis is more dormant than over. That was certainly the message from Austan Goolsbee, former economic adviser to President Barack Obama and professor at the University of Chicago. He spoke to the Reuters Global Markets Forum this week.  

Here is a lightly edited excerpt of the discussion:

What is your biggest worry about the U.S. economy right now?

A nagging worry is that if we grow 2 percent, it’s going to be a hell of a long time before the unemployment rate comes down to something reasonable. The nightmare worry is that Europe is still basically on path for a meltdown and that it ignites another financial crisis.

In my view the root of the problem is that most of southern Europe is locked in at the wrong exchange rate and will not be able to grow. Normal economics says that with a currency union you can 1) have massive labor mobility, 2) subsidies, 3) differential inflation, 4) grind down wages in the low productivity countries. But those are the only four things.

A Marshall Plan for Greece

The spectacular failure of “expansionary austerity” policies has set Greece on a path worse than the Great Depression, according to a study from the Levy Economics Institute of Bard College.

Using their newly-constructed macroeconomic model for Greece, the Levy scholars recommend a recovery strategy similar to the Marshall Plan to increase public consumption and investment.

“A Marshall-type recovery plan directed at public consumption and investment is realistic and has worked in the past,” the authors of the report said.

India seeks to entice yield-seeking investors in a tapering world

 

India’s concerted effort to shore up the battered rupee over the past two weeks has had one goal in mind: raising currency-adjusted yields to a level where even investors wary of a withdrawal of cheap money from the U.S. would still buy emerging market assets. The central bank has raised overnight money market rates by more than 300 basis points – a spate of tightening not seen since early 2008 – and sharply inverted the swap and the bond yield curve in less than two weeks.

From an offshore perspective, FX implied yields have jumped from a chunky 6 percent last month to well over 8 percent this week. But the risk-reward has not come cheap. For all the pain caused in the world of domestic interest rates, the Indian rupee has barely edged higher. Part of the reason is the Reserve Bank of India’s sledgehammer steps last week have been offset by other actions taken by the central bank and conflicting talk from government officials assuring lenders – the biggest players in the domestic bond markets – that these measures are temporary.

While New Delhi and Mumbai seem to be at last reading from the same page on communications policy this week, there seem to be two scenarios evolving. The first and more optimistic option is that bond investors give the thumbs up to the RBI’s steps and start shoveling money again into the markets after taking nearly $8 billion out of bonds since June.

Raskin’s warning: ‘Shouldn’t pretend’ Fed capital rules are a panacea

Post corrected to show Brooksley Born is a former head of the Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC) not a former Fed board governor.

Underlying the Federal Reserve recent announcement on new capital rules was a general sense of “mission accomplished.” The U.S. central bank, also a key financial regulator, has finally implemented requirements that it says could help prevent a repeat of the 2008 banking meltdown by forcing Wall Street firms to rely less heavily on debt, thereby making them less vulnerable during times of stress.

As Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke put it in his opening remarks:

Today’s meeting marks an important step in the board’s efforts to enhance the resilience of the U.S. banking system and to promote broader financial stability.

Portugal crisis to test ECB´s strategy

Portuguese bond yields surged to more than 8 percent as a government crisis prompted investors to shun the bailed-out country, raising concerns about another flare-up in the euro zone debt saga.

The resignation this week of two key ministers, including Finance Minister Vitor Gaspar who was the architect of its austerity drive, tipped Portugal into a turmoil that could derail its plan to exit its bailout next year.

Portuguese bond yields surged to levels near which it was forced to seek international aid two years ago. The sell-off spread to Italian and Spanish debt markets, but was not as pronounced there.

Why a German exit from the euro zone would be disastrous – even for Germany

Let’s face it: “Gerxit” doesn’t roll of the tongue nearly as smoothly as a “Grexit” did. While Europe continues to struggle economically, fears of a euro zone break-up have receded rapidly following bailouts of Greece and Cyprus linked to their troubled banking sectors.

Mounting anti-integration sentiment in some of region’s largest economies, raise concerns about whether the divisive monetary union will hold together in the long run. Indeed, the rise of an anti-Europe party in Germany begs the question of what would happen if one of the continent’s richer nations decided to abandon the 14-year old common currency. Never mind that, viewed broadly, the continent’s banking debacle has actual saved Germans money so far.

Billionaire financier George Soros, has argued that Germany should either accept a closer fiscal union with its peers, including so-called debt mutualization – the issuance of a common Eurobond – or give up on the euro. Hans-Werner Sinn, head of Germany’s influential Ifo Institute, strongly disagrees, blaming the crisis on southern Europe’s “loss of competitiveness.”

Europe’s ‘democratic deficit’ evident in Cyprus bailout arrangement

The problem of a “democratic deficit” that might arise from the process of European integration has always been high on policymakers’ minds. The term even has its own Wikipedia entry.

As Cypriots waited patiently in line for banks to reopen after being shuttered for two weeks, the issue was brought to light with particular clarity, since the country’s bailout is widely seen as being imposed on it by richer, more powerful states, particularly Germany.

Luxembourg has accused the Germans of trying to impose “hegemony” on the euro zone.  The country, whose banking system, like Cyprus’, is very large relative to the economy’s tiny size, fears that similarly harsh treatment could be imposed on its depositors.

Is Slovenia the next shoe to drop?

The Cypriot saga has thrown the spotlight on Slovenia, which is also a small euro zone country struggling with an over-burdened banking sector.

Slovenia’s mostly state-owned banks are nursing some 7 billion euros of bad loans, equal to about 20 percent of GDP, underpinning persistent speculation that the country might have to follow other vulnerable euro zone countries in seeking a bailout.

According to Standard Bank’s head of emerging market research Tim Ash:

The latest crisis in the euro zone, this time in Cyprus, continues to raise questions as to possible contagion effects throughout the region, and in particular which economies could be next.

EU lets genie out of the bottle in Cyprus bailout

Breaking with previous EU practice that depositors’ savings are sacrosanct, Cyprus and international lenders agreed at the weekend that savers would take a hit in return for the offer of 10 billion euros in aid.

Cypriot ministers are now scrambling to revise a plan to seize money from bank deposits before a parliamentary vote on Tuesday that will either secure the island’s financial rescue or threaten its default.

Whatever the final result, analysts say the genie is out of the bottle and the mere consideration of making savers pay for bailouts sets a dangerous precedent for the euro zone.