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.

ECB eclipsed by BOJ

The European Central Bank takes centre stage. While others in the euro zone are saying the way Cyprus was bailed out – with bank bondholders and big depositors hit – could be repeated, the ECB insists it was a one-off.

Fearful of any signs of contagion it will continue to talk that talk and there’s no sign of it having to do more so far, with no bank run even in Cyprus let alone further afield. But the last two weeks has reignited debate about what the ECB might have to do in extremis. It’s no nearer deploying its bond-buying programme but it could flood the currency area’s financial system with long-term liquidity again if called upon.

Interest rates are expected to be held at a record low 0.75 percent. Hints of policy easing further out are not out of the question. As ever, Mario Draghi’s hour long press conference will be minutely parsed but there will be nothing to match the Bank of Japan which earlier announced a stunning revamp of its policymaking rules – setting a balance sheet target which will involve printing money faster and pledging to double its government bond holdings over two years.

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.

Cyprus Plan B – phoenix or dodo?

They’ve only been looking for it for a day but Cyprus’s Plan B has already taken on mythical status. A myth it might remain.

Ideas being floated include nationalizing the pension fund (back of the envelope calculations suggest that will raise less than a billion euros) and issuing bonds underpinned by future natural gas revenues (but no one is really sure how much they are worth). So to avoid default it still looks like the Cypriots may have to return to the bank levy they rejected so decisively in parliament on Tuesday, to raise the 5.8 billion euros the euro zone is demanding in return for a bailout.

Finance minister Sarris is still in Moscow hoping for some change out of the Russians and is out this morning saying discussions are ongoing about banks and natural gas.

To print or not to print

It’s ECB day and it could be a big one, not because a shift in policy is expected but because journalists will get an hour to quiz Mario Draghi on the Italy conundrum after the central bank leaves monetary policy on hold.

To explain: The story of the last five months has been the bond-buying safety net cast by the European Central Bank which took the sting out of the currency bloc’s debt crisis. But now it has an Achilles’ heel. The ECB has stated it will only buy the bonds of a country on certain policy conditions encompassing economic reform and austerity. An unwilling or unstable Italian government may be unable to meet those conditions so in theory the ECB should stand back. But what if the euro zone’s third biggest economy comes under serious market attack? Without ECB support the whole bloc would be thrown back into crisis and yet if it does intervene, some ECB policymakers and German lawmakers will throw their hands up in horror, potentially calling the whole programme in to question.

In Italy, outgoing technocrat premier Monti is due to meet centre-left leader Bersani, the man still harbouring hopes of forming some sort of government. Whether he succeeds or not it seems unlikely that any administration can ignore the dramatic anti-austerity vote delivered by the Italian people.

Euro zone triptych

Three big events today which will tell us a lot about the euro zone and its struggle to pull out of economic malaise despite the European Central Bank having removed break-up risk from the table.

1. The European Commission will issue fresh economic forecasts which will presumably illuminate the lack of any sign of recovery outside Germany. Just as starkly, they will show how far off-track the likes of Spain, France and Portugal are from meeting their deficit targets this year. All three have, explicitly or implicitly, admitted as much and expect Brussels to give them more leeway. That looks inevitable (though not until April) but it would be interesting to hear the German view. We’ve already had Slovakia, Austria and Finland crying foul about France getting cut some slack. El Pais claims to have seen the Commission figures and says Spain’s deficit will will come in at 6.7 percent of GDP this year, way above a goal of 4.5 percent. The deficit will stay high at 7.2 percent in 2014, the point so far at which Madrid is supposed to reach the EU ceiling of three percent.

2. Banks get their first chance to repay early some of the second chunk of more than a trillion euros of ultra-cheap three-year money the ECB doled out last year. First time around about 140 billion was repaid, more than expected, indicating that at least parts of the euro zone banking system was returning to health. Another hefty 130 billion euros is forecast for Friday. That throws up some interesting implications. First there is a two-tier banking system in the currency bloc again with banks in the periphery still shut out. Secondly, it means the ECB’s balance sheet is tightening while those of the Federal Reserve and Bank of Japan continue to balloon thanks to furious money printing. The ECB insists there is plenty of excess liquidity left to stop money market rates rising much and a big rise in corporate euro-denominated bond sales helps too. But all else being equal, that should propel the euro yet higher, the last thing a struggling euro zone economy needs.

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.

A statement of non-intent

The flurry of activity about a G7 currency statement yesterday can now be put in perspective. It will almost certainly happen but it’s very much going through the motions.

We’ve been saying for a while that having urged it to reflate its economy for some time, Japan’s partners could hardly complain now that it is. Lael Brainard of the U.S. Treasury basically let that cat out of the bag last night, warning against competitive devaluations but saying that Washington supported Tokyo’s efforts to reinvigorate growth and end deflation.

What we’ll get is a bland recommitment to market-determined exchange rates and not much more.

Market/economy disconnect?

Italy comes to the market with a five- and 10-year bond auction today and, continuing the early year theme, yields are expected to fall with demand healthy. It could raise up to 6.5 billion euros. A sale of six-month paper on Tuesday was snapped up at a yield of just 0.73 percent. Not only is the bond market unfazed by next month’s Italian elections, which could yet produce a chaotic aftermath, neither is it bothered by the scandal enveloping the world’s oldest bank, Monte dei Paschi, which is deepening by the day.

Even before this week (it also sold nearly 7 billion euros of debt on Monday), Italy had already shifted 10 percent of its annual funding needs. Clearly it, and Spain, is off to a flying start which removes a lot of potential market pressure.

But the disconnect with the miserable state of the two countries’ economies should still give pause for thought. Flash Q4 Spanish GDP figures, out later, are forecast to show its economy contracted by a further 0.6 percent in the last three months of the year, with absolutely no end to recession in sight. That looks like a good opportunity to detail the state of the Spanish economy and how it could yet push Madrid towards seeking outside help. Italian business confidence data are also due.

from The Great Debate:

The year ahead in the euro zone: Lower risks, same problems

Financial conditions in the euro zone have significantly improved since the summer, when euro zone risks peaked because of German policymakers’ open consideration of a Greek exit, and the sovereign spreads of Italy and Spain reached new heights. The day before European Central Bank President Mario Draghi’s famous speech in London in which he announced that the ECB would do “whatever it takes” to save the euro, bond yields in Spain and Italy were at 7.75 percent and 6.75 percent, respectively, and rising. When the ECB announced its outright monetary transactions (OMT) bond-buying program, the euro zone was at risk of a collapse.

Since then, risks have abated significantly, thanks to a number of factors:

    The ECB’s OMT has been incredibly successful in reducing the risks of breakup, redenomination and a liquidity/rollover crisis in the public debt markets of Spain and Italy. Although the ECB has yet to spend a single additional euro to buy the bonds of Spain and Italy, both short-term and longer-term sovereign spreads against German bonds have fallen substantially. Following a number of political and legal hurdles, the successful operational start of the European Stability Mechanism (ESM) rescue fund provides the euro zone with another €500 billion of official resources to backstop banks and sovereigns in the euro zone periphery, on top of the leftover funds of its predecessor, the European Financial Stability Facility (EFSF). Realizing that a monetary union is not viable without deeper integration, euro zone leaders have proposed a banking union, a fiscal union, an economic union and, eventually, a political union. The last is necessary to resolve any issue of democratic legitimacy that might result from national states transferring power from national governments to EU- or euro zone-wide institutions. This transfer of power also would have to involve the creation of such institutions to ensure solidarity and risk-sharing are developed in the banking, fiscal and economic unions. The open talk in the summer by some German authorities about an exit option for Greece has turned into a tentative willingness to prevent and postpone such an exit. There are several reasons for this. First, Greece has done some austerity and reforms in spite of a deepening recession, and the current coalition is holding up. Second, an orderly exit of Greece is impossible until Spain and Italy are successfully isolated. Such an exit would lead to massive contagion, which would hurt not only the euro zone periphery but also the core, given extensive trade and financial links. Third, an economic disaster in Greece would be damaging to the CDU Party’s chances of winning the German elections. Thus, even when Greece inevitably underperforms on its policy commitments, Germany and the troika (the IMF, EU and ECB) will hold their noses and keep the funds flowing as long as the current coalition holds up.

Given these developments, the risk of a Greek exit in 2013 has been significantly reduced, even if the risk of an eventual Greek exit from the euro zone is still high, close to 50 percent by my estimation. Meanwhile, the narrowing of Spanish and Italian sovereign spreads has significantly diminished the risk that either country will fully lose market access and be forced to undergo a full troika bailout like Greece, Portugal and Ireland. Both Spain and Italy may in 2013 opt for a memorandum of understanding (MoU) that opens the taps of ESM and OMT support, but such official financing would inspire confidence as it would not be associated with rising, unsustainable spreads and a loss of market access.

While there is a much lower likelihood of disorderly events in the euro zone, there are still significant obstacles to deeper integration, as well as country-specific economic and political vulnerabilities. The biggest obstacle to the formation of a banking, fiscal, economic and political union is that Germany is pushing back against the time line for action, with the initial skirmish on ECB supervision of euro zone banks. This backpedaling reflects deep German skepticism on whether the resolution of the euro zone crisis requires a move toward greater union. Without a more credible commitment to austerity and reforms from euro zone periphery countries, lurching forward would imply that risk-sharing will turn into a large, long-term transfer union, which is unacceptable to Germany and the core. Thus, Germany will do whatever is necessary to delay the integration process, at least until after elections in fall 2013.