Friday, March 29, 2013

"Cyprus Should Leave The Euro. Now."

Yesterday banks in Cyprus opened for the first time in a week. Markets were seemingly calmed by the absence of immediate bank runs, however the ability of depositors to actually create a bank run has been prevented by strict capital controls. The real test for Cyprus banks will come when the capital controls are finally lifted. Although the restrictions are only supposed to be in place for 7 days, recent experience in Iceland suggests the better question is not when but IF the capital controls will be lifted. Based on the IMF’s recommendation, Iceland instituted capital controls back in 2008 for what was supposed to be a few months. Five years later the capital controls remain in place and are expected to continue for at least a couple more years. As a base case we should expect an announcement next week that Cyprus’ capital controls will remain in place for a few more weeks (possibly months).

While the implementation of capital controls presents an interesting storyline, Paul Krugman has raised a much bigger question into the public spotlight. After being challenged to expand the boundaries of political possibility, Krugman offered the following recommendation (emphasis added):
So here it is: yes, Cyprus should leave the euro. Now.
The reason is straightforward: staying in the euro means an incredibly severe depression, which will last for many years while Cyprus tries to build a new export sector. Leaving the euro, and letting the new currency fall sharply, would greatly accelerate that rebuilding.
The question for Cyprus is therefore whether “internal” or “external” devaluation offers the best prospects for the future? Let’s consider both of the options...

“Internal devaluation” (i.e. income deflation) - In return for continued assistance from the Troika (EU/ECB/IMF), Cyprus has agreed to impose losses on equity and debt holders, as well as uninsured depositors, of the two largest banks (Bank of Cyprus and Laiki Bank). This marks a distinct change in policy, especially with regard to the latter two groups.* Since uninsured depositors held a majority of those banks’ liabilities, the focus has naturally been on that group. Based on recent estimates uninsured depositors in the Bank of Cyprus may lose approximately 40%, while Laiki Bank’s uninsured depositors will be entirely wiped out.

The sharp reduction in (perceived) wealth stemming from these actions will put severe downward pressure on national income. Individuals and businesses experiencing losses will try to increase saving by reducing spending. Banks fearing deposit flight and falling asset prices will try build a stronger base of capital by restricting the supply of credit and possibly selling assets. Adding to the fall, the government will be forced to accept a MoU (Memorandum of Understanding) that establishes policies to increase taxes and reduce spending. Combining these deflationary pressures, the overall economic results may rival (or exceed) Greece’s recent history.

During the past 5 years Greece’s real GDP has declined by 20%
and unemployment has nearly quadrupled from ~7% to ~27%.

To offer some historical perspective, US unemployment during the Great Depression peaked at 25% and real GDP loss only exceeded 16% for one major European nation (Austria). Perhaps even more disheartening than the current data is recognition that output and unemployment appear unlikely to improve anytime soon.

Returning to Cyprus, unemployment has already quadrupled over the past 5 years (~3.5% to ~14%; shown above). Based on current estimates of a 20-30% drop in real GDP, Cyprus’ unemployment rate could easily approach or eclipse Greece’s in the next few years.

“External devaluation” (i.e. new currency) - If Cyprus were to leave the Eurozone, one of the first actions would be re-introducing the Cypriot pound at a heavily devalued rate against the euro. Not unlike the imposed losses on uninsured depositors, currency devaluation immediately imposes significant losses on all depositors. In this sense the impact on private demand would still be extremely deflationary, perhaps even more so. Though output and employment would fall dramatically, external devaluation presents reasons for potential optimism on both the foreign trade and government fronts.

Based on the recent bank losses and capital controls, Cyprus can no longer rely on its financial sector to support exports. By heavily devaluing its currency, Cyprus would be increasing its price competitiveness on the foreign market. However, as Barkley Rosser points out:
even with large elasticities [of trade relative to the exchange rate], there is the J-curve effect. Exports do not increase immediately, whereas the value of imports tends to jump up immediately with their price increases.
Aside from these timing issues, there is also a concern regarding the certainty of each effect. A large devaluation will definitely raise the cost of living for Cypriots but as JW Mason comments, it:
might not lead to higher net exports in the next few years, or ever. That’s the question -- not how big the devaluation would be, but how strongly it will affect trade flows.
As for the government sector, returning to the Cypriot pound would remove some of the current fiscal constraints. This would permit the government to increase spending (ideally investment in a new export sector) and not raise taxes, raising private sector income. While these adjustments will not come remotely close to overcoming the other deflationary effects in the short-run, the counterbalance provided will be a significant improvement over current policy.

In asking “Why Won’t Cyprus Obey Krugman?” Rosser concludes:
While this devaluation might make it easier for Cyprus to recover several years down the road, that recovery would indeed be several years down the road, and in the meantime there would be a lot of pain for the entire citizenry that will not happen if they stay with the euro.
If Greece has taught us anything about remaining with the euro, it’s that a lot of pain for the entire citizenry will happen regardless and a recovery may be decades down the road.

Cyprus is therefore faced with a choice between two terrible outcomes:
1) Remain in the Eurozone and experience a relatively slower “internal devaluation” whereby real output and employment experience large declines spread out over several years. A potential recovery is pushed even further into the future.
2) Leave the Eurozone and experience a quick “external devaluation” whereby real output and employment fall dramatically in the next year or two, but a recovery several years down the road becomes far more probable.

Where Rosser and I find agreement:
is that the real real issue here has to do with time preferences. It may get down to hyperbolic discounting. People do not want to have pain in the near term. So, the fear by the whole population of near term pain in terms of standard of living may outweigh fear of a more gradual decline with rising unemployment, even though the shorter term sharp pain is likely to lead to a sooner turnaround to growth.
Although this psychological tendency is very normal, it can at times be detrimental to achieving longer-term goals. The cases of Greece, Spain, Italy, Portugal, Ireland, and now Cyprus are examples of such times. The severe pain of reduced standards of living and high unemployment will be felt one way or another, but the option of “external devaluation” offers potential for a better future five and ten years down the road. Therefore I concur with Krugman, “Cyprus should leave the euro. Now.”        

* From my perspective, imposing losses on debt holders should have been done from the outset in the US and Europe. The apparent change in policy may raise costs of debt financing for the largest banks, but that should be a welcome change after years of enjoying a TBTF subsidy.

Friday, March 15, 2013

Hudson, Keen, Smith and Others Explain Why Private Debt is the Problem

This past Wednesday I attended The Atlantic’s Second Annual Economy Summit featuring many previously high ranking government officials (e.g. Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker, Secretary of the Treasury Robert Rubin, and FDIC Chairman Sheila Bair). Though these former public officials and many others remained focus on the issue of public debt and deficits, the conference was actually promoted on the basis of turning the focus to private debt. Since my understanding of economics suggests concerns over private debt should be the main focus of current policy, I was personally excited to hear from Steve Keen, Michael Hudson and Yves Smith.

To provide a quick gist of the discussion during these morning panels and the detrimental effects of excessive private debt, here are a few snippets from Michael Hudson’s prepared remarks:

The result of the private-sector debt overhang is a self-feeding spiral of debt deflation. Revenue earmarked to pay bankers is not available to spend on goods and services. Lower consumer spending is a major reason why firms are not investing in tangible capital to produce more output. Markets shrink, shopping malls close down, and empty stores are appearing for rent on major shopping streets from New York City to London.
Slowing employment is causing a state and local budget squeeze. Something has to give – and it is largely pension plans, infrastructure spending and social programs.
However, the one kind of debt we are not worried about is government debt. That’s because governments have little problem paying it. They do not need to balance their budget with tax revenue, because their central bank can simply print the money. On balance, the overall public debt rarely needs to be paid down. As Adam Smith noted in The Wealth of Nations, no government in history ever has paid off its public debt.
The policy lesson for today is that to avoid debt deflation, falling markets and unemployment, the economy needs to be revived. The way to do this is what was called for and indeed promised four years ago: a write-down of debts in keeping with the ability to pay.
Once this debt overhead is addressed, tax reform is needed to prevent a debt bubble from recurring. A tax system that favors debt financing rather than equity, and that favors asset-price “capital” gains and windfall gains over wages and industrial profits earned by producing tangible output, has been largely to blame. Also needing reform is tax favoritism for the offshore fictitious accounting that has become increasingly unrealistic in recent years.
Unless government fiscal policy addresses these issues, the U.S. economy will face the same kind of debt-deflation pressures and fiscal austerity that is now tearing the eurozone apart.
As the only two economists in attendance who predicted the financial crisis and subsequent stagnation, Hudson and Keen’s panel stood out in offering practical policy responses that will not further increase wealth inequality or the financial sector’s profits/influence:
Good Debt, Bad Debt & Real Options for Economic Growth from The Atlantic on

A brief detour from discussion of the conference, Professor Steve Keen has been working hard on building a computer program for building & visually simulating dynamic, monetary economics models:
There are only 2 days left to show your support for the project on Kickstarter and help reach the secondary funding goal of $100,000. Please check out the Kickstarter page for more information and consider making a pledge to improve the future of economics:
MINSKY: Reforming economics with visual monetary modeling

Returning to the conference and giving credit where its due, The Atlantic has been working with and, in the afternoon session, featured Richard Vague’s work on “How to Deal With America’s Private Sector Debt Challenge”:

How to Deal with America's Private Sector Debt Challenge from The Atlantic on

Slides from the presentation and a host of other fantastic data can be found at the Debt Economics website.

Lastly I’ll recommend watching the first panel of the day which included not only Yves Smith but deficit doves Paul McCulley and Robert Kuttner:

Robert Kuttner & Others Debate U.S.'s Addiction to Debt from The Atlantic on

(Unfortunately the moderator was particularly determined to focus the conversation on the Ryan budget and public debt issues).

While I don’t know how many conference attendees will have been swayed by the presentations above, I think it’s a step in the right direction that these discussions are at least taking place within the mainstream community.

(Note: Although I was already a big supporter of Keen, Hudson, and Smith’s work, I should note that all three were incredibly gracious in conversation when I approached them. Separately, I apologize for the lack of blogging during the past couple weeks. My last midterm is Monday night and I hope to return to more frequent shortly thereafter.)

Saturday, March 2, 2013

Targeting Nominal Wealth Leads to a Bubble Economy, Not Stabilizing the Business Cycle

Over the past few years it has become increasingly clear that the Federal Reserve and federal government are targeting rising asset prices, rather than incomes, as a way of generating economic growth. A recent post outlined some of the dangers of persistent negative real interest rates:
Households and businesses “with access to cheap borrowing” have been pouring money into stock, bond, housing and commodity markets rather than investing in tangible capital. The remarkable rise in asset prices has unfortunately not funneled down to households in the bottom four quintiles of income and wealth, only furthering the inequality gap.
Cullen Roche addressed a similar issue yesterday in a post on The Fed’s Disequilibrium Effect via Nominal Wealth Targets:
Fed policy and the monetarist perspective on much of this can be highly destabilizing by creating this sort of ponzi effect where asset prices don’t always reflect the fundamentals of the underlying corporations.  It’s not a coincidence that we’ve have 30 years of this sort of policy and also experienced the two largest nominal wealth bubbles in American history during this period.
The title of this blog is also not a coincidence, since my formative years encompassed both the dot-com and housing bubbles. My relatively limited experience with financial markets and macroeconomics (based on age) has been punctuated by financial instability. These memories are the driving factor behind my desire to study financial instability and inform policy decisions that can stabilize the business cycle.

In a recent post on The Spinning Top Economy, Matthew Berg helps further my goal with insight on measuring financial instability (my emphasis):

Now we have Government IOUs on the bottom, serving as the base of the economy. Bank and Non-Bank IOUs are leveraged on top of those IOUs – somewhat precariously.
In fact, you can think of the economy as a spinning top rather than a pyramid. Like a spinning top, the more top-heavy the economy becomes, the greater its tendency to instability, and the more readily it will topple over and collapse in a financial crisis.

Now, what happens if, as was the case during the dot-com bubble and the housing bubble, private sector net financial assets go negative but net worth continues to grow?
In fact, the difference between the measures of net financial assets and net worth provides us with a good rule of thumb for how to spot a bubble economy. If private sector net worth is growing at a greater rate than private sector net financial assets are growing, then that means that the economy – symbolized by our spinning top – is growing more top-heavy.
So, what happens if we make the spinning top more top-heavy? You can go ask your nearest Kindergartener – it becomes more likely to topple over.
Since Matthew provides the guidelines for spotting “a bubble economy,” let’s take a look at the empirical data to see how well it aligns with the story. The first chart displays the growth rates of private sector net financial assets (NFAs) and private net worth over the past 20 years*:
The negative growth rate in private NFAs corresponds with the Clinton surpluses, while the two positive surges are due to the Bush tax cuts and Bush/Obama stimulus measures. Turning to the growth in private net worth, the brief decline stems from the bursting dot-com bubble and the massive drop from cratering house prices. Combining the two measures will show when/if the economy was becoming “top-heavy” (first chart displays the past 50 years; second chart is the same data but only the past 20 years, for clarity):

Past 50 Years
Past 20 Years
Growth of private net worth began outpacing the growth of private NFAs in 1995 for the first time since 1979. The difference in growth rates then remained positive for 10 of the next 11 years. This streak is truly remarkable given that prior to 1995, the difference had only been positive in five other years dating back to 1961.** At the end of 2006, the U.S. economy was clearly more “top-heavy” than any previous time in the post-war era.

Over the past three decades, growth in private debt exceeding income and declining nominal interest rates have generated enormous returns for asset holders. Throughout the 1980’s and early 1990’s, federal deficits provided more than enough NFAs to keep pace with rising private net worth. Then, in 1995, deficits began decreasing just as the growth of net worth (and private debt-to-GDP) began accelerating higher. The unsurprising result has been more than a decade of meager asset returns, subpar economic growth and high unemployment.

The government policy of targeting nominal wealth, driven by an expansion of private debt, has failed not only at increasing net worth but also, and more importantly, at creating sustainable growth in output and employment. Going forward the focus of policy must return to promoting the growth of income and assets, which in turn will fuel higher output, employment and ultimately wealth.   

*Data for private net worth comes from the Federal Reserve’s Flow of Funds Accounts of the United States (Z.1). Data for private net financial assets (NFAs) comes from the National Income and Product Accounts (NIPA) at the BEA.

**Aside from 1979, growth of private net worth exceeded the growth of private NFAs in 1961, 1965, 1969 and 1978 (0.05%).

Related posts:
The Rise of Debt, Interest, and Inequality
Fear of Bubbles, Not Inflation, Returns to the Fed
Why the Federal Reserve Mandate Means That Bernanke Doesn't Have to Worry About Bubbles