Monthly Archives: June 2009

Last week the Eurosystem performed a €442bn injection of one-year liquidity into the Euro Area banking system.  They did this at the official policy rate – the Main refinancing operations (fixed rate) – of 1.00 percent, against the usual collateral accepted for Longer Term Financing Operations, effectively anything euro-denominated, not based on derivatives and rated at least BBB-.  It was a fixed-rate tender, that is, the ECB was willing to meet any demand at the 1 percent interest rate, as long as eligible collateral was offered; 1121 banks participated in the operation.

You will not be surprised to hear that this was the largest one-day ECB/Eurosystem operation ever.  Even more remarkable than its scale are the terms on which the one-year funds were made available.  There can be no doubt that this operation represents both a subsidy and a gift from the Eurosystem to the banks that participated in the operation.  I hope to clarify the distinction between a subsidy and a gift in what follows.

As long as the financial stability role of central banks remained in the background, the notion of central bank independence appeared to have something to recommend it.

The too big to fail problem has been central to the degeneration and corruption of the financial system in the north Atlantic region over the past two decades. The ‘too large to fail’ category is sometimes extended to become the ‘too big to fail’, ‘too interconnected to fail’, ‘too complex to fail’ and ‘too international’ to fail problem, but the real issue is size.  The real issue is size.  Even if a financial business is highly interconnected, that is, if its total exposure to the rest of the world and the exposure of the rest of the world to the financial entity are complex and far-reaching, it can still be allowed to fail if the total amounts involved are small.  A complex but small business is no threat to systemic stability; neither is a highly international but small business.  Size is the core of the problem; the other dimensions (interconnectedness, complexity and international linkages) only matter (and indeed worsen the instability problem) if the institution in question is big.  So how do we prevent banks and other financial businesses from becoming too large to fail?

Whenever the cumulative effect of the daily observation, looking out of my window or into the mirror, of human inequity and wretchedness brings me to the point that I am convinced the human race is an evolutionary dead end, something incredible happens to restore my faith that a hunger for freedom and an unquenchable thirst for justice and fairness are part of our genetic code. Crowds often become mobs and mobs are mostly ugly and destructive. The sight of large numbers of unarmed people, most of them young, facing heavily armed police, regular army, militia or other armed thugs is awe-inspiring.

For the past week, I have put the Green Shootometer in the garden and have taken regular readings.  The upshot is: the glass is definitely half empty – or half full.  Let me explain.

To think I believed I had seen it all as regards creative uses and abuses of credit default swaps (CDS).  But then came Amherst Holdings.

A credit default swap written on a security (a bond, say) is a contract that pays the owner a given amount when there is a default on that security. In the simplest case, the owner of the CDS receives from the issuer or writer of the CDS the face value of the bond that is in default.  The writer of the CDS sells insurance against an event of default.  The insurance premium is the price of the CDS.  The buyer of the CDS buys insurance against default.  If the default does not occur, the writer of the CDS wins, because he has received the insurance premia, but has not had to pay out on the insurance policy.

In response to my previous blog, “The fiscal black hole in  the US”, ‘Peter’ makes the comment that much of the unfunded ‘liabilities’ under social security and Medicare are index-linked and cannot be inflated away.  This is an important point.  Inflation reduces the real value of nominal liabilities. If these nominal liabilities are interest-bearing, and have fixed market-determined interest rates that mas or menos reflect the rate of inflation expected at the date of issuance of these liabilities over the maturity of the liability, then only actual inflation higher than the inflation expected at the time of issuance actually reduces the real value servicing that liability.  If longer-maturity nominal debt instruments are floating rate securities, whose variable interest rate is linked to some short-term nominal rate benchmark, it becomes very difficult to inflate the real burden of that liability away.  

If the liability is index-linked, it is impossible to inflate its real value away.  The same holds if the liability or the commitment is denominated in foreign currency, something that is uncommon in the US, but common elsewhere.  Only a change in the real exchange rate can affect the real burden of foreign-currency-denominated liabilities.

US budgetary prospects are dire, disastrous even. Without a major permanent fiscal tightening, starting as soon as cyclical considerations permit, and preferably sooner, the country is headed straight for a build up of public debt that will either have to be inflated away or that will be ‘resolved’ through sovereign default.

To those of you prone to apoplexia gravis, a word of caution: this post does not advocate smoking anything, other than possibly herring.  Nor does it represent a defence of tobacco companies or other enterprises dedicated to the challenge of profiting from the sale of highly addictive toxic substances.  It is instead a plea not to abandon reason and the careful use of language when writing about stuff we strongly disapprove of.  Overstating a strong case often hurts it. It is also dishonest.

I am fortunate in that my kids, when they were mere tots, bullied me into giving up smoking.  As soon as I lit up in their vicinity, they would cry out “daddy, you are going to die!”.  Worse than that, they used to rat me out to my wife when I snuck outside for a quick smoke behind the shed.  It was a battle I could not win, so I quit.  Filthy habit.

You must have seen headlines stating something like “Smoking ‘kills five million a year’” (the year in question was 2000).  What does this mean?  Is this a bad thing or a good thing? Does it mean that five million people who died in 2000 would not have died when they did?  That they would not have died ever, if only they had not smoked? That they would have died later (if so, by how many years or months), and that the manner of their dying would have been more comfortable that their smoking-caused deaths?

The headline in question really ought to have read: “Smoking-related illness and disease caused the premature deaths of five million people worldwide in the year 2000.  Average life spans were -reduced by N years. If they had not smoked, the five million would not have died of smoking-related illnesses and diseases – cancer (lung, throat, mouth, larynx oesophagus, lung, kidney, bladder, pancreas, stomach, blood and cervix), diseases of the cardiovascular system (atherosclerosis, stroke, heart disease, aneurysms of the aorta and peripheral vascular disease), diseases of the respiratory system (emphysema, bronchitis and pneumonia), increased health risk and risk of death to the unborn from smoking pregnant women, periodontal disease, brittle bones, cataracts, ulcers.  Instead they would have died, had they not smoked, at some later date, of cardiovascular diseases, infectious and parasitic diseases, ischemic heart disease, assorted cancers, strokes, lower respiratory tract infections, respiratory infections, respiratory diseases, unintentional injuries, HIV/AIDS, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, perinatal conditions, digestive diseases, diarrheal diseases, intentional injuries (suicide, violence, war, etc), tuberculosis, malaria, road traffic accidents, neuropsychiatric disorders, diseases of the genitor-urinary system, cirrhosis of the liver, nephritis/nephropathy, Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias, musculoskeletal diseases, hepatitis B, Parkinson’s disease, alcohol use, drug use, upper respiratory infections, skin diseases, hepatitis C, Huntington’s disease, multiple sclerosis, motor neurone disease or some other condition.

Today’s guest blogger is Dr.  André Lara Resende, a well-known Brazilian economist.  His fascinating contribution was brought to my attention by Dr. Mônica de Bolle, another outstanding Brazilian economist whom I first met when I was an external examiner for her LSE PhD thesis.  I am particularly intrigued by Lara Resende’s argument that this downturn is different from all past downturns, including the Great Depression of the 1930s, because of the continuing high level of private sector indebtedness, and that under these conditions neither monetary policy nor Keynesian fiscal policies are likely to be effective.  But judge for yourself.

Maverecon: Willem Buiter

Willem Buiter's blog ran until December 2009. This blog is no longer active but it remains open as an archive.

Professor of European Political Economy, London School of Economics and Political Science; former chief economist of the EBRD, former external member of the MPC; adviser to international organisations, governments, central banks and private financial institutions.

Willem Buiter's website

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