MacroScope

German ghost of inflations past haunting European stability: Posen

“Reality is sticky.” That was the core of Adam Posen’s message to German policymakers on their home turf, at a recent conference in Berlin.

What did the former UK Monetary Policy Committee member mean? Quite simply, that the types of structural economic changes that Germany has been pushing on the euro zone are not only destructive but also bound to fail, at least if history is any guide.

Posen, who now heads the Peterson Institute for International Economics in Washington, argued Germany’s imposition of austerity on Europe’s battered periphery is the product of an instinctive but misguided fear of an inflation “ghost” that has haunted the country since the hyperinflationary spurt of the Weimar Republic in the 1920s and 1930s. However, Posen offers a convincing account of modern economic history that shows inflation episodes are rather rare events associated with major political and institutional meltdown — and not always around the corner.

The risks of inflation going up quickly, or in the long term, are smaller than are usually recognized in Germany. The issue is not that inflation is harmless; it certainly has its harms. The issue is, realistically, when you are facing choices, how much risk do you think there actually is of inflation occurring. I don’t want to pretend that there is some kind of exact, scientific, precise answer, but there is more of a historical record to draw on than most people acknowledge. This historical record is not often taught to German economic elites. […]

Inflation is actually quite sticky when you don’t have huge political breakdowns. Focusing on this period of the 1920’s in Germany — this horrible, horrible period — is economic solipsism instead of a good basis for current policymakers. To pretend that this source of the German hyperinflation is anything other than the political breakdown at the time is misleading; there is nothing economic that causes this situation on its own. You can say it was because the money supply grew too fast, or you can say it was because the central bank lost independence, but that is just telling you what happened technically. The cause was the breakdown of civil society, or at least of political decision-making, not the effect.

Abe’s European spring break: Japan stimulus sends euro zone yields to record lows

It wasn’t just the Nikkei. Euro zone government bonds rallied following Japan’s announcement of a massive new monetary stimulus. That sent yields on the debt of several euro zone countries to record lows on bets that Japanese investors might be switching out of Japanese government bonds into euro zone paper, or might soon do so.

The Bank of Japan on Thursday announced extraordinary stimulus steps to revive the world’s third-largest economy, vowing to inject about $1.4 trillion into the financial system in less than two years in a dose of shock therapy to end two decades of deflation.

Austrian, Dutch, French and Belgian borrowing costs over ten years fell to record lows as investors piled into euro zone debt offering a pick-up over Germany. The bond rally was led by 10- and 30-year maturities after the BOJ said it would double its holdings of long-term government bonds.

Firefighting in the euro zone

Money markets largely braved Cyprus’s bailout saga last week, but figures showing liquidity conditions are tightening suggest sentiment may not be as resilient the next time around.

Data from CrossBorder Capital, an independent financial firm that specialises in analysing global liquidity flows, shows the euro zone saw its biggest capital outflow in March since late 2011 – around the time the ECB injected liquidity into the financial system.

Financial institutions and governments took a net $175 billion worth of bonds and stocks, on an annualised basis, out of the euro zone in March – the biggest outflow since $201.4 billion in December 2011, according to the data.

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.

100-years of solitude in the euro zone

The euro zone slipped deeper into recession than economists expected in the fourth quarter of 2012 as Germany and France– the region’s two largest economies – shrank 0.6 percent and 0.3 percent respectively on a quarterly basis.

The data is a reminder of the plight still facing the euro zone as it struggles to shake off a three-year debt crisis, which the region has sought to fight with harsh, growth-crimping austerity.

The European Central Bank’s promise to buy the bonds of struggling sovereigns has spurred investors back into those markets and helped reduce borrowing costs. While one trillion euros of cheap funding made available to banks in late 2011 and early 2012 also gave investors greater confidence, the benefits of such policies have yet to translate into improvements in the real economy.

Italian political curveball

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Italy’s borrowing costs over ten years drew closer to five percent after a decision by Prime Minister Mario Monti to step down early left the country’s political future unclear, hurting riskier euro zone debt.

Monti said on Saturday he would resign once the 2013 budget was approved, raising questions over who will take the reins of the euro zone’s third largest economy at a time when it remains a focus of the region’s three-year debt crisis.

His announcement, potentially bringing forward an election due early next year, came after former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi’s party withdrew its support for the government — and Berlusconi himself said he would run to become premier for a fifth time.

America is not Greece: Low funding costs give U.S. government room to borrow

Is the U.S.on the road to Greece, as some politicians have proclaimed?

Most economists say the comparison is nonsense. At a towering $15 trillion, the U.S. economy is not only the world’s largest, it is also more than 50 times the size of Greece’s. This gap makes any type of comparison difficult – it would be like analyzing trends in Maryland in relation to the entire euro zone.

Another key difference: Unlike Greece, the U.S. actually controls its own currency. That means a debt default is effectively impossible. This reality, coupled with strong monetary stimulus from the Federal Reserve, helps explain why U.S. bond yields remain near historic lows despite larger deficits.

Mark Weisbrot, co-director of the progressive Center for Economic and Policy Research in Washington, says a country’s interest burden is far more important than its total debt levels in determining the government’s ability to service it. He argued in a recent editorial:

Spain’s house of cards

Looking at some of the recent trends in the euro zone debt market, one could be forgiven for thinking the region is doing alright.

Spanish and Italian funding costs have come down sharply. Data from the European Central Bank on Thursday showed consumers and firms put money back into Spanish and Greek banks in September. And there are budding signs that foreign investors are venturing back to the Spanish sovereign debt market. As one trader this week put it, the market is “healing”:

Liquidity is coming back, liquidity meaning the market can digest larger customer repositioning and flows again.