MacroScope

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.

You believe that? That Europe is still on a path for a meltdown?

So, 1) and 3) seem very unlikely. Either northern euro/Germany says they are willing to subsidize permanently to hold together or I think there is a crisis every nine months until someone says they can’t take it and bail.

That may not mean global recession – nobody has been counting on much growth from the euro zone lately (unlike, say, the impact of a big slowdown in China). But the euro banks have major capitalization issues and if the euro zone melts, it could lead to some runs which would not be good at all for the rest of the world.

Interview with IMF Managing Director Christine Lagarde

IMF Managing Director Christine Lagarde sat down for an interview with Thomson Reuters Editor of Consumer News Chrystia Freeland to discuss the European debt crisis and U.S. fiscal problems.

Lagarde also outlined the Fund’s agenda for 2013 at a news conference following the release of a $4.3 billion tranche of aid to Greece, which she said is moving in the right direction with reforms.

Bank safety is in the eye of the beholder

Too-big-to-fail banks are bigger than ever before. But top regulators tell us not to worry. They say the problem has been diminished by financial reforms that give the authorities enhanced powers to wind down large financial institutions. Moreover, supervisors say, the new rules discourage firms from getting too large in the first place by forcing them to raise more equity than they had prior to the financial meltdown of 2007-2008.

New York Fed President and former Goldman Sachs partner William Dudley said in a recent speech:

There has already been considerable progress in forcing firms to bolster their capital and liquidity resources. On the capital side, consistent with the Dodd-Frank Act, Basel III significantly raises the quantity and quality of capital required of internationally active bank holding companies. This ensures that the firm’s shareholders will bear all the firm’s losses across a much wider range of scenarios than before. This should strengthen market discipline. Meanwhile, to the extent that some of the specific activities that generate significant externalities are now subject to higher capital charges, this should cause banks to alter their business activities in ways that reduce both the likelihood and social cost of their failure.

Repo market big, but maybe not *that* big

Maybe the massive U.S. repo market isn’t as massive as we thought. That’s the conclusion of a study by researchers at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York that suggests transactions in the repurchase agreement (repo) market total about $5.48 trillion. The figure, though impressive, is a far cry from a previous and oft-cited $10 trillion estimate made in 2010 by two Yale professors, Gary Gorton and Andrew Metrick. The Fed researchers, acknowledging the “spotty data” that complicates such tasks, argue the previous $10-trillion estimate is based on repo activity in 2008 when the market was far larger, and is inflated by double-counting.

Repos are a key source of collateralized funding for dealers and others in financial markets, and represent a main pillar of the “shadow” banking system. The market was central to the downfalls of Lehman Brothers and Bear Stearns in the 2008 crisis, and now regulators from Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke on down are looking for a fix. Earlier this year, the New York Fed itself said it might restrict the types of collateral in so-called tri-party repos, after being dissatisfied with progress by an industry committee.

The study published by the New York Fed on Monday slices the complex market into five segments, mapping the flow of cash and securities among dealers, funds and other players. Because dealers represent about 90 percent of the tri-party market, the Fed study extrapolates that onto the broader repo market, to arrive at its estimates. Bottom lines: U.S. repo transactions total $3.04 trillion; U.S. reverse repo transactions total $2.45 trillion.

Is Germany the next domino?

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Throughout Europe’s financial crisis, German government bonds have been seen as a safe-haven for those seeking protection against the troubles of southern Europe. However, the confidence of financial markets in Germany’s finances may finally be starting to falter as the cost of a festering financial crisis rises – and the country is seen as ultimately holding the bag.

Demand at the latest government bond auction remained solid. However, the slide in German bunds continued into a second day and, worryingly, it was driven in part by worries about contagion after Spain’s poorly-received 100 billion euro bank bailout.

According to Capital Economics:

The last few days have brought clear signs that bunds are finally losing their safe-haven status.

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.

Fed’s Tarullo not making any promises

We’re pretty sure that Daniel Tarullo, the Federal Reserve’s point person on regulation, expects the United States will finally understand exactly what financial reforms are coming “some time next year.” But the Fed governor made doubly sure to qualify that statement lest anyone – especially any press “in the back” – take it as gospel.

At a conference in New York Wednesday morning, Tarullo was asked how long it would take for the various regulatory agencies to give final details on the raft of financial crisis-inspired reforms, everything from Basel III capital standards to the Volcker ban on proprietary trading. Here’s what he said:

“I know it’s frustrating for people not to have the proposed rules out. On the other hand, doing them simultaneously does allow us to see whether something in one of the proposed capital rules will affect something in another proposed capital rule, so that we end up, when we publish the final rules, with fewer anomalies, questions and the like, which will undermine the ability of a firm or academic or just anyone in the public to see and understand how these things are going to function. I hesitate to give a time line on exactly when we’ll get there. But I think…it seems to be reasonable to expect that some time next year the basic outlines – and I don’t just mean the ideas, I mean the details associated with the major reform elements – should be reasonably clear to people even though questions will inevitably rise in implementation. (You) don’t want to take that as a promise. But as I think about these various streams, that is my expectation… To have gotten it done this year would have meant the sheer magnitude of the task would have lead to a lot of inconsistencies or open questions, which then would have just produced another round of change. So you’ve got me on the record saying some time next year, but I tried to qualify it as much as possible – that’s for all you people in the back…”

European rescue: Who benefits?

The words “European bailout” normally conjure up images of inefficient public sectors, bloated pensions, corrupt governments. But market analyst John Hussman, in a recent research note cited here by Barry Ritholtz, says the reality is a bit more complicated:

The attempt to rescue distressed European debt by imposing heavy austerity on European people is largely driven by the desire to rescue bank bondholders from losses. Had banks not taken on spectacular amounts of leverage (encouraged by a misguided regulatory environment that required zero capital to be held against sovereign debt), European budget imbalances would have bit far sooner, and would have provoked corrective action years ago.

In other words, even if state actors mishandled government finances, Wall Street was, at the very least, an all-too-willing enabler.

Two cheers for financial innovation

Protests against Wall Street and the U.S. financial system are hanging over an annual gathering of economists and social scientists in Chicago. Yale economist Robert Shiller offered two cheers for capitalist finance, saying that while the U.S. free market system has contributed to higher living standards, the vehemence of the recent public outcry points to a need for greater democratization. This is how he put it in a speech:

Occupy Wall Street … was something that in some sense you could see coming. I think we have increasing concerns about inequality, which is getting worse, about the distribution of power.

But rather than throw the financial system out, Shiller called for tinkering. Financial institutions and structures such as insurance or mortgage securitization have a role in improving social and human welfare, Shiller argued. U.S. economic success is due to a financial system that has evolved over centuries and helped improve the quality of life, he added.  A shortcoming of the Occupy Wall Street movement is that it doesn’t accept those contributions, he said.

MF Global knows its former clients’ pain

Futures customers who smartly pulled their money out of failed MF Global Holdings Inc. in the weeks or months before the broker’s Oct. 31 collapse may not have escaped calamity after all.

As Reuters’ Jeanine Prezioso reports, some are worried the bankruptcy trustee could come after those funds to force them to share in any losses.

MF Global knows the feeling. It’s been there, and done that.

After futures broker Sentinel Management Group Inc failed in 2007, the trustee in that case, Frederick Grede, sued 50 of its former customers to recoup $600 million in funds withdrawn prior to the bankruptcy.