MacroScope

Inequality and the crisis: the other missing link of macroeconomics?

Ever since an epic financial crisis hit the United States in 2008, mainstream economists, most of whom utterly failed to foresee the oncoming train wreck, have been scrambling to introduce a financial sector dimension to their models. It was a conventional approach that detached the study of financial stability from macroeconomic variables, the narrative goes, that prevented the experts from seeing the build-up of an unsustainable housing bubble that, when it crashed, took down the economy down with it.

Research by James Galbraith, professor of public policy at the University of Texas at Austin, suggests finance is only one blind spot for the economics profession. Another key and increasingly relevant factor in the public debate that has been largely ignored is the issue of inequality. The first chapter of Galbraith’s latest book, “Inequality and Instability,” begins like this:

In the late 1990s, standard measures of income inequality in the United States – and especially of the income shares held by the very top echelon – rose to levels not seen since 1929. It is not strange that this should give rise (and not for the first time) to the suspicion that there might be a link, under capitalism, between radical inequality and financial crisis.

The link, of course, runs through debt. For those with a little money, it is said, the spur of invidious comparison produces a want for more, and what cannot be earned must be borrowed. For those with no money, made numerous by inequality and faced with exigent needs, there is also the ancient remedy of a loan. The urges and the needs, for bad and for good, are abetted by the aggressive desire of those with money to lend to those with less. They produce a pattern of consumption that at times appears broadly egalitarian; the rich and the poor alike own televisions and drive automobiles, and until recently in America members of both groups even owned their homes.

But the terms are rarely favorable; indeed, the whole profit in making loans to the needy lies in getting a return upfront. There will come a day, for many of them, when the promise to pay in full cannot be kept.

Euro zone gymnastics

Sometimes, a week away from the fray can bring perspective. Sometimes, you miss all hell breaking loose.
My last day in the office saw European Central Bank President Mario Draghi utter his “we will do whatever it takes” to save the euro declaration. The markets took off on that, only to sag when the ECB didn’t follow through at last Thursday’s policy meeting.

In fact, it was never that likely that the ECB would rush to act, particularly since Draghi’s verbal intervention had started to push Italian and Spanish borrowing costs lower and the troika of lenders was still musing over Greece. But it seems to me that, despite German reservations, the ECB president has shifted the terms of trade, something market action is beginning to reflect.

There can be little doubt now that the ECB will intervene decisively if required – and the removal of that doubt takes away the main question that has kept markets on edge every since a bumper first quarter evaporated. Yes, there are caveats – notably the fact that Draghi said the ECB would only step in if countries first request assistance. With that will come conditionality and surveillance but it seems highly unlikely that Spain, for example, will be required to come up with any further austerity measures given what it is already doing. Spanish premier Rajoy seemed to soften Madrid’s opposition to seeking help last week, though he said he wanted to know precisely what the ECB might do in return. Until now, seeking sovereign aid has been a taboo for Spain. If that’s changed, it’s also big news.

U.S. bond bulls ready to charge after payrolls report, survey says

(Corrects to show CRT is not a primary dealer)

Bond bulls are ready to charge after Friday’s July U.S. employment data, according to a survey by Ian Lyngen, senior government bond strategist at primary dealer CRT Capital Group.

Says Lyngen:

Despite the vacation season and the multitude of ‘out of office’ responses we got, participation in this month’s survey was above-average and consistent with a market that’s engaged for the big policy/data events of the summer. As for the results of the survey, in a word: BULLISH.

Lyngen argued the survey results were the most bullish since November 2010, a point that was followed by a selloff that brought 10-year yields from 2.55 percent to 3.75 percent over the following four months.

Who would benefit from floating-rate Treasury notes?

The U.S. Treasury Department announced on Wednesday it would begin issuing floating rate notes (FRNs), even if such a new program is at least a year away from implementation. The rationale behind these short-term securities is to give investors protection against the possibility of a sudden spike in interest rates. The Federal Reserve has held overnight rates near zero since late 2008, helping to anchor borrowing costs of all maturities.

But is issuing variable rate securities really a good idea from the taxpayers’ standpoint? Stephen Stanley, chief economist at Pierpoint Securities, thinks not. He believes Treasury officials are getting played by sell- and buy-side investors and their respective vested interests. The Treasury has made the decision in part due to the recommendations of the Treasury Advisory Borrowing Committee (TBAC), made up exclusively of members of the financial industry.

Argues Stanley:

Sell-side participants love it because FRNs represent a new product to trade and one that will be much less liquid and thus may exhibit juicy bid-ask spreads. Buy-side participants love FRNs because they are starving for yield at the short end and FRNs will undoubtedly yield noticeably more than comparable conventional securities.

Glacial progress flagged at G20

The G20 summit may have marginally exceeded the lowest common denominator of expectations with euro zone leaders pledging to work on integration of their banking sectors as part of a push towards fiscal union. But it’s not clear that a banking union will happen any quicker than we thought before.

Germany is happy for cross-border oversight, maybe in the hands of the European Central Bank, to be zipped through but on the really vital parts of the structure – particularly a deposit guarantee scheme to guard against bank runs – it has clearly said it would only be possible once the drive towards fiscal union is set in stone. It will also not countenance mutual debt issuance until the fiscal union is in place.

Onus was put on next week’s EU summit to put flesh on the bones, although no definitive decisions are expected there and EU Commision President Barroso he would present its plan on banking integration in September. Here’s the reality check: European Council President Van Rompuy spelled out the vision of a much deeper economic union to underline the irreversibility of the euro project and said it would take less than the 10 years that ECB chief Draghi has talked about. And for many countries, particularly France, the surrender of that much sovereignty will be very hard to take.

No Greek relief for pain in Spain

There was no Greek relief rally (though at least we had no meltdown) and Spanish 10-year yields shot back above seven percent as a result, setting a nasty backdrop to today’s sale of up to 3 billion euros of 12- and 18-month T-bills.

Madrid has had little problem selling debt so far, particularly shorter-dated paper, but it’s beginning to look like the treasury minister’s slightly premature assessment two weeks ago that the bond market was closing to Spain is beginning to come true.
The 12-month bill was trading on Monday at around 4.9 percent. As last month’s auction it went for a touch under three percent. If that is not hairy enough, Spain will return to the market on Thursday with a sale of two-, three- and five-year bonds.

We’re still awaiting the independent audits of Spain’s banks which will give a guide as to how much of the 100 billion euros bailout offered by the euro zone they need. Treasury Minister Montoro was out again yesterday, pleading for the ECB to step in – presumably by reviving its bond-buying programme – something it remains reluctant to do, although a strong sense of purpose and commitment on economic union at the EU summit in a fortnight could embolden the central bank to act.

Breaking up is hard to do – even for stoic Germany

German Bund futures have just had their second straight week of losses. This has left many scratching their heads given the timing – right before Greek elections that could decide the country’s future in the euro and the next phase of the euro zone debt crisis. That sort of uncertainty would normally bolster bunds, which are seen as a safe-haven because of the country’s economic strength.

To explain the move, analysts pointed to profit-taking on recent hefty gains, and to a bout of long-dated supply from highly-rated Austria, the Netherlands and the European Financial Stability Fund this week. They also noted changes in Danish pension fund rules as an additional technical factor reducing demand for longer-dated German debt.

The losses, however, have also prompted some debate about whether contagion is spreading to Germany, the euro zone’s largest economy.

Spanish bailout blues

100 billion used to be a big number. These days, it barely buys you a little time.

Euro zone finance ministers agreed on Saturday to lend Spain up to 100 billion euros ($125 billion) to shore up its ailing banks and Madrid said it would specify precisely how much it needs once independent audits report in just over a week. 

A bailout for Spain’s banks, struggling with bad debts since a property bubble burst, would make it the fourth country to seek assistance since the region’s debt crisis began, after Greece, Ireland and Portugal.

Channels of contagion: How the European crisis is hurting Latin America

If anything positive can be said to have come out of the global financial crisis of 2008-2009, it may be that the theory arguing major economies could “decouple” from one another in times of stress was roundly disproved. Now that Europe is the world’s troublesome epicenter, economists are already on the lookout for how ructions there will reverberate elsewhere.

Luis Oganes and his team of Latin America economists at JP Morgan say Europe’s slowdown is already affecting the region – and may continue to do so for some time. The bank this week downgraded its forecasts for Brazilian economic growth this year to 2.1 percent from 2.9 percent, and it sees Colombia’s expansion softening as well. More broadly, it outlined some key ways in which Latin American economies stand to lose from a prolonged crisis in Europe.

Latin America has exhibited an above-unit beta to growth shocks in the U.S. and the euro area over the past decade; resilient U.S. growth until now had offset some of the pressure coming from lower Euro area growth, but U.S. activity is now weakening too.

Eurobond or bust

Many market analysts consider a deeper fiscal union the only way to hold together a troubled euro zone. And while Germany continues to loudly reaffirm its long-standing opposition to shared euro zone bonds, the region is in many ways already headed towards implicit mutual responsibility for national debts. Berlin will likely come under increasing pressure to succumb, especially now that “core” European countries are entering the crosshairs of speculators .

The region’s complex TARGET2 payments system, which hosts payment flows between euro zone member states, suggests there is already a good deal of risk-sharing implicit in regional structures, not to mention the exposure the European Central Bank has to peripheral debt. That shared liability may fall short of the kind of joint risk-taking foreseen for a common bond, where one country is responsible for the non-payment of debt by another.

But analysts say the build-up of imbalances in the system – as the ECB replaced private sector lending which dried up for peripheral countries – reflects the latest in a number of crisis-fighting steps that have increased regional integration.