Monthly Archives: September 2011

Read Gavyn’s latest piece for the FT’s A-List site:

Financial markets are driving the world towards another Great Depression with incalculable political consequences. The authorities, particularly in Europe, have lost control of the situation. They need to regain control and they need to do so now.

Three bold steps are needed. First, the governments of the eurozone must agree in principle on a new treaty creating a common treasury for the eurozone. In the meantime, the major banks must be put under European Central Bank direction in return for a temporary guarantee and permanent recapitalisation. The ECB would direct the banks to maintain their credit lines and outstanding loans, while closely monitoring risks taken for their own accounts. Third, the ECB would enable countries such as Italy and Spain to temporarily refinance their debt at a very low cost. These steps would calm the markets and give Europe time to develop a growth strategy, without which the debt problem cannot be solved. Read more

Euro symbol at the European Central Bank

Euro symbol by the European Central Bank headquarters. Image by Getty.

When the idea of leveraging the European Financial Stability Facility to increase its firepower was touted as the solution to the European sovereign debt crisis at the International Monetary Fund meetings last weekend, markets rallied sharply. They saw this (rightly) as the first sign of a policy initiative which might actually be large enough to get ahead of the deteriorating crisis. But I commented here on Sunday that there was no real indication that Germany was ready to embrace the scheme and, sure enough, Wolfgang Schäuble, finance minister, yesterday described the approach as “a silly idea” which “makes no sense”.

Germany’s public opposition to increasing the size of the EFSF may be partly tactical, given tomorrow’s key vote on the fund in the Bundestag. But it is also based on a crucial sticking point. The strong economies fear that increasing the size of the fund would result  in them losing their own triple A status and they have consistently given a greater weight to these costs than to the less certain, but potentially much larger, costs of a euro breakdown. Read more

At the gloomy IMF/World Bank meetings in Washington this weekend, everyone seemed to agree on one thing, and one thing only. The European debt crisis is now by far the most urgent matter facing the world economy. Not only has it already taken the eurozone to the brink of renewed recession, but it threatens to envelope the rest of the world as well. ”The threat of cascading default, bank runs, and catastrophic risk must be taken off the table, as otherwise it will undermine all other efforts, both within Europe and globally”, said Tim Geithner, US treasury secretary. He is right. But there is still no unanimity on what exactly should be done to take take this catastrophic risk off the table. Read more

The Fed decision was fairly close to what was anticipated in this earlier blog – all “twist” and no “shout”. However, on balance, the statement was slightly more dovish than I expected. Concerns about downside risks to economic activity were at least as great as in last month’s FOMC statement, with new downside risks from financial strains being specifically mentioned, and this has swayed the majority of the committee to introduce a slightly more aggressive operation “twist” than expected. Inflation concerns, while marginally greater than in the August FOMC statement, are clearly insufficient to impress the committee, which remains biased towards further easing even after today’s announcement.

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Gavyn Davies plans to comment after the FOMC meeting finishes.

Ben Bernanke

Ben Bernanke. Image by Getty.

As the Fed starts its special two-day FOMC meeting today, economists are uniformly expecting a further easing in monetary policy, and markets have priced this in. It would be surprising if the Fed did not deliver. The FOMC will be mindful of the fact that US core inflation has risen in the past few months, but the majority still seems confident that this will prove temporary. Recession risks, on the other hand, would quickly return if the Fed allowed financial conditions to tighten. That will be uppermost in their minds at this meeting. Read more

Mervyn King

Mervyn King. Image by Getty.

A few weeks ago, the big central banks were calmly embarking on their “exit” strategies from unconventional monetary accommodation. Then the global economy slowed but for a while inflation remained too high for the Fed or the ECB to consider further easing. Their hands were tied until inflation peaked. Recognising this, markets collapsed. But now that there are some tentative signs of inflation subsiding, the central banks are rediscovering their ammunition stores.

There are basically three types of action that they are considering. In order of orthodoxy, and stealing some of Mervyn King’s terminology, here is a taxonomy of possible measures:

1. Conventional liquidity injections

This is safe territory for the central banks, and they are willing to act swiftly and decisively if necessary. Yesterday’s injections of dollar liquidity into the European financial system are a case in point. Some European banks, especially those in France, were finding it very difficult to raise dollar financing, which they needed in order to pay down earlier dollar borrowings, and to make loans to customers in dollars. The resulting strains in the money markets were undermining confidence in the ability of these banks to remain liquid, and markets were increasingly unwilling to accept their credit. This presented a classic case for the ECB to inject liquidity, using conventional currency swap arrangements to raise dollars from the Fed. Although the ECB will incur a minimal amount of currency risk in the process, and will also incur some credit risk (which will be collateralised), this is very much business as usual for any central bank, as it was in 2008. Read more

Angela Merkel

Angela Merkel. Image by Getty.

The Greek financial tragedy seemed set to enter the end game last week, when the troika representing big official lenders (the EU, ECB and IMF) was close to abandoning the next tranche of official loans to the country. Without these official loans, a disorderly default would have been inevitable within a month, and the departure of Greece from the euro, if not from the EU itself, would have been on the agenda.

Germany was reported to be examining these radical options at the weekend. However, having looked over the precipice, Angela Merkel, German chancellor, seems to have recoiled from them, for now. We will learn more in the next few days, but yesterday she hinted that she would still prefer a delayed, “orderly” Greek default, rather than an immediate and disorderly one. Unfortunately, neither option looks very appealing. Read more

A couple of months ago, financial markets realised that the developed economies were slowing sharply, while the policy response from central banks and finance ministries was slow, or confused, or in some cases, like the debt ceiling debacle in Washington, directly damaging. Since then, some policy makers have woken up and smelled the coffee. There have been significant policy shifts in the US, and at the ECB. But there has been no progress whatsoever in the eurozone sovereign debt crisis. Last week, that became by far the most urgent problem facing the global economy. Read more

Barack Obama

Barack Obama. Image by Getty.

In recent months, the economy has set the agenda for President Obama, and has greatly damaged him in the process. Yesterday’s speech, launching the American Jobs Act, was the president’s attempt to set the agenda for the economy. Clive Crook says that this revitalised president was politically impressive, and adds that we should have seen more of him before now. I will leave the politics to others, and instead ask whether Mr Obama’s plan represents good economics.

That, of course, depends on your definition of “good economics”. Recently, mainstream economic advice (from the IMF, for example) has frequently recommended that there should be some fiscal easing in the short term in order to support demand, and that this should be combined with credible plans to ensure that the government debt ratio is sustainable in the long term. In addition, many economists have argued that any new measures to support the economy should have desirable supply side effects, rather than simply boosting demand in the short term. Against this benchmark, how do the president’s proposals stack up? Read more

The decision of the Swiss National Bank to set a limit on the strength of the Swiss franc so that it cannot trade below a minimum rate of CHF 1.20 against the euro is one of the most dramatic interventions seen in the foreign exchange markets for many years. The Swiss economy may only account for 0.8 per cent of global gross domestic product, but its currency and the influence of its central bank far outweigh its economic size. Read more