Archive for the 'Eurozone crisis' Category

What Hath Merkel Wrought?

In my fifth month of blogging in November 2011, I wrote a post which I called “The Economic Consequences of Mrs. Merkel.” The title, as I explained, was inspired by J. M. Keynes’s famous essay “The Economic Consequences of Mr. Churchill,” which eloquently warned that Britain was courting disaster by restoring the convertibility of sterling into gold at the prewar parity of $4.86 to the pound, the dollar then being the only major currency convertible into gold. The title of Keynes’s essay, in turn, had been inspired by Keynes’s celebrated book The Economic Consequences of the Peace about the disastrous Treaty of Versailles, which accurately foretold the futility of imposing punishing war reparations on Germany.

In his essay, Keynes warned that by restoring the prewar parity, Churchill would force Britain into an untenable deflation at a time when more than 10% of the British labor force was unemployed (i.e., looking for, but unable to find, a job at prevailing wages). Keynes argued that the deflation necessitated by restoration of the prewar parity would impose an intolerable burden of continued and increased unemployment on British workers.

But, as it turned out, Churchill’s decision turned out to be less disastrous than Keynes had feared. The resulting deflation was quite mild, wages in nominal terms were roughly stable, and real output and employment grew steadily with unemployment gradually falling under 10% by 1928. The deflationary shock that Keynes had warned against turned out to be less severe than Keynes had feared because the U.S. Federal Reserve, under the leadership of Benjamin Strong, President of the New York Fed, the de facto monetary authority of the US and the world, followed a policy that allowed a slight increase in the world price level in terms of dollars, thereby moderating the deflationary effect on Britain of restoring the prewar sterling/dollar exchange rate.

Thanks to Strong’s enlightened policy, the world economy continued to expand through 1928. I won’t discuss the sequence of events in 1928 and 1929 that led to the 1929 stock market crash, but those events had little, if anything, to do with Churchill’s 1925 decision. I’ve discussed the causes of the 1929 crash and the Great Depression in many other places including my 2011 post about Mrs. Merkel, so I will skip the 1929 story in this post.

The point that I want to make is that even though Keynes’s criticism of Churchill’s decision to restore the prewar dollar/sterling parity was well-taken, the dire consequences that Keynes foretold, although they did arrive a few years thereafter, were not actually caused by Churchill’s decision, but by decisions made in Paris and New York, over which Britain may have had some influence, but little, if any, control.

What I want to discuss in this post is how my warnings about potential disaster almost six and a half years ago have turned out. Here’s how I described the situation in November 2011:

Fast forward some four score years to today’s tragic re-enactment of the deflationary dynamics that nearly destroyed European civilization in the 1930s. But what a role reversal! In 1930 it was Germany that was desperately seeking to avoid defaulting on its obligations by engaging in round after round of futile austerity measures and deflationary wage cuts, causing the collapse of one major European financial institution after another in the annus horribilis of 1931, finally (at least a year after too late) forcing Britain off the gold standard in September 1931. Eighty years ago it was France, accumulating huge quantities of gold, in Midas-like self-satisfaction despite the economic wreckage it was inflicting on the rest of Europe and ultimately itself, whose monetary policy was decisive for the international value of gold and the downward course of the international economy. Now, it is Germany, the economic powerhouse of Europe dominating the European Central Bank, which effectively controls the value of the euro. And just as deflation under the gold standard made it impossible for Germany (and its state and local governments) not to default on its obligations in 1931, the policy of the European Central Bank, self-righteously dictated by Germany, has made default by Greece and now Italy and at least three other members of the Eurozone inevitable. . . .

If the European central bank does not soon – and I mean really soon – grasp that there is no exit from the debt crisis without a reversal of monetary policy sufficient to enable nominal incomes in all the economies in the Eurozone to grow more rapidly than does their indebtedness, the downward spiral will overtake even the stronger European economies. (I pointed out three months ago that the European crisis is a NGDP crisis not a debt crisis.) As the weakest countries choose to ditch the euro and revert back to their own national currencies, the euro is likely to start to appreciate as it comes to resemble ever more closely the old deutschmark. At some point the deflationary pressures of a rising euro will cause even the Germans, like the French in 1935, to relent. But one shudders at the economic damage that will be inflicted until the Germans come to their senses. Only then will we be able to assess the full economic consequences of Mrs. Merkel.

Greece did default, but the European Community succeeded in imposing draconian austerity measures on Greece, while Italy, Spain, France, and Portugal, which had all been in some danger, managed to avoid default. That they did so is due first to the enormous cost that would have be borne by a country in the Eurozone to extricate itself from the Eurozone and reinstitute its own national currency and second to the actions taken by Mario Draghi, who succeeded Jean Claude Trichet as President of the European Central Bank in November 2011. If monetary secession from the eurozone were less fraught, surely Greece and perhaps other countries would have chosen that course rather than absorb the continuing pain of remaining in the eurozone.

But if it were not for a decisive change in policy by Draghi, Greece and perhaps other countries would have been compelled to follow that uncharted and potentially catastrophic path. But, after assuming leadership of the ECB, Draghi immediately reversed the perverse interest-rate hikes imposed by his predecessor and, even more crucially, announced in July 2012 that the ECB “is ready to do whatever it takes to preserve the Euro. And believe me, it will be enough.” Draghi’s reassurance that monetary easing would be sufficient to avoid default calmed markets, alleviated market pressure driving up interest rates on debt issued by those countries.

But although Draghi’s courageous actions to ease monetary policy in the face of German disapproval avoided a complete collapse, the damage inflicted by Mrs. Merkel’s ferocious anti-inflation policy did irreparable damage, not only on Greece, but, by deepening the European downturn and delaying and suppressing the recovery, on the rest of the European community, inflaming anti-EU, populist nationalism in much of Europe that helped fuel the campaign for Brexit in the UK and has inspired similar anti-EU movements elsewhere in Europe and almost prevented Mrs. Merkel from forming a government after the election a few months ago.

Mrs. Merkel is perhaps the most impressive political leader of our time, and her willingness to follow a humanitarian policy toward refugees fleeing the horrors of war and persecution showed an extraordinary degree of political courage and personal decency that ought to serve as a model for other politicians to emulate. But that admirable legacy will be forever tarnished by the damage she inflicted on her own country and the rest of the EU by her misguided battle against the phantom threat of inflation.

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What Makes Deflation Good?

Earlier this week, there was a piece in the Financial Times by Michael Heise, chief economist at Allianz SE, arguing that the recent dip in Eurozone inflation to near zero is not a sign of economic weakness, but a sign of recovery reflecting increased competitiveness in the Eurozone periphery. Scott Sumner identified a systematic confusion on Heise’s part between aggregate demand and aggregate supply, so that without any signs that rapidly falling Eurozone inflation has been accompanied by an acceleration of anemic growth in Eurozone real GDP, it is absurd to attribute falling inflation to a strengthening economy. There’s not really much more left to say about Heise’s piece after Scott’s demolition, but, nevertheless, sifting through the rubble, I still want to pick up on the distinction that Heise makes between good deflation and bad deflation.

Nonetheless, bank lending has been on the retreat, bankruptcies have soared and disposable incomes have fallen. This is the kind of demand shock that fosters bad deflation: a financial crisis causes aggregate demand to shrink faster than supply, resulting in falling prices.

However, looking through the lens of aggregate supply, the difficulties of the eurozone’s periphery bear only a superficial resemblance to those plaguing Japan. In this case, falling prices are the result of a supply shock, through improved productivity or real wage reduction.

Low inflation or even deflation is testament to the fact that (painful) adjustment through structural reforms is finally working.

In other words, deflation associated with a financial crisis, causing liquidation of assets and forced sales of inventories, thereby driving down prices and engendering expectations of continuing price declines, is bad. However, the subsequent response to that deflationary shock – the elimination of production inefficiencies and the reduction of wages — is not bad, but good. Both responses to the initial deflationary contraction in aggregate demand correspond to a rightward shift of the aggregate supply curve, thereby tending to raise aggregate output and employment even while tending to causes a further reduction in the price level or the inflation rate.

It is also interesting to take note of the peculiar euphemism for cutting money wages adopted by Heise: internal devaluation. As he puts it:

The eurozone periphery is regaining competitiveness via internal devaluation. This could even be called “good deflation.”

Now in ordinary usage, the term “devaluation” signifies a reduction in the pegged value of one currency in terms of another. When a country devalues its currency, it is usually because that country is running a trade deficit for which foreign lenders are unwilling to provide financing. The cause of the trade deficit is that the country’s tradable-goods sector is not profitable enough to expand to the point that the trade deficit is brought into balance, or close enough to balance to be willingly financed by foreigners. To make expansion of its tradable-goods sector profitable, the country may resort to currency devaluation, raising the prices of exports and imports in terms of the domestic currency. With unchanged money wages, the increase in the prices of exports and imports makes expansion of the country’s tradable-goods sector profitable, thereby reducing or eliminating the trade deficit. What Heise means by “internal devaluation” in contrast to normal devaluation is a reduction in money wages, export and import prices being held constant at the fixed exchange.

There is something strange, even bizarre, about Heise’s formulation, because what he is saying amounts to this: a deflation is good insofar as it reduces money wages. So Heise’s message, delivered in an obscure language, apparently of his own creation, is that the high and rising unemployment of the past five years in the Eurozone is finally causing money wages to fall. Therefore, don’t do anything — like shift to an easier monetary policy — that would stop those blessed reductions in money wages. Give this much to Herr Heise, unlike American critics of quantitative easing who pretend to blame it for causing real-wage reductions by way of the resulting inflation, he at least is honest enough to criticize monetary expansion for preventing money (and real) wages from falling, though he has contrived a language in which to say this without being easily understood.

Actually there is a historical precedent for the kind of good deflation Heise appears to favor. It was undertaken by Heinrich Bruning, Chancellor of the Weimar Republic from 1930 to 1932, when, desperate to demonstrate Germany’s financial rectitude (less than a decade after the hyperinflation of 1923) he imposed, by emergency decree, draconian wage reductions aimed at increasing Germany’s international competitiveness, while remaining on the gold standard. The evidence does not suggest that the good deflation and internal devaluation adopted by Bruning’s policy of money-wage cuts succeeded in ending the depression. And internal devaluation was certainly not successful enough to keep Bruning’s government in office, its principal effect being to increase support for Adolph Hitler, who became Chancellor within less than nine months after Bruning’s government fell.

This is not to say that nominal wages should never be reduced, but the idea that nominal wage cuts could serve as the means to reverse an economic contraction has little, if any, empirical evidence to support it. A famous economist who supported deflation in the early 1930s believing that it would facilitate labor market efficiencies and necessary cuts in real wages, subsequently retracted his policy advice, admitting that he had been wrong to think that deflation would be an effective instrument to overcome rigidities in labor markets. His name? F. A. Hayek.

So there is nothing good about the signs of deflation that Heise sees. They are simply predictable follow-on effects of the aggregate demand shock that hit the Eurozone after the 2008 financial crisis, subsequently reinforced by the monetary policy of the European Central Bank, reflecting the inflation-phobia of the current German political establishment. Those effects, delayed responses to the original demand shock, do not signal a recovery.

What, then, would distinguish good deflation from bad deflation? Simple. If observed deflation were accompanied by a significant increase in output, associated with significant growth in labor productivity and increasing employment (indicating increasing efficiency or technological progress), we could be confident that the deflation was benign, reflecting endogenous economic growth rather than macroeconomic dysfunction. Whenever output prices are falling without any obvious signs of real economic growth, falling prices are a clear sign of economic dysfunction. If prices are falling without output rising, something is wrong — very wrong — and it needs fixing.

Mrs. Merkel Lives in a World of Her Own

I woke up today to read the following on the front page of the Financial Times (“Merkel highlights Eurozone divisions with observations on interest rates”).

Angela Merkel underlined the gulf at the heart of the eurozone when she waded into interest-rate policy, arguing that, taken in isolation, Germany would need higher rates, in contrast to southern states that are crying out for looser monetary policy.

The German chancellor’s highly unusual intervention on Thursday, a week before many economists expect the independent European Central Bank to cut its main interest rate, highlights how the economies of the prosperous north and austerity-hit south remain far apart.

What could Mrs. Merkel possibly have meant by this remark? Presumably she means that inflation in Germany is higher than she would like it to be, so that her preference would be that the ECB raise its lending rate, thereby tightening monetary policy for the entire Eurozone in order to bring down the German rate of inflation (which is now less than 2 percent under every measure). The question is why did she bother to say this? My guess is that she is trying to make herself look as if she is being solicitous of the poor unfortunates who constitute the rest of the Eurozone, those now suffering from a widening and deepening recession.

Her message is: “Look, if I had my way, I would raise interest rates, forcing an even deeper recession and even more pain on the rest of you moochers. But, tender-hearted softy that I am, I am not going to do that. I will settle for keeping the ECB lending rate at its current level, or maybe, if you bow and scrape enough, I might, just might, allow the ECB to cut the rate by a quarter of a percent. But don’t think for even a minute that I am going to allow the ECB to follow the Fed and the Bank of Japan in adopting any kind of radical, inflationist quantitative easing.”

So the current German rate of inflation of 1-2% is too high for Mrs. Merkel. The adjustment in relative prices between Germany and the rest of Eurozone requires that prices and wages in the rest of the Eurozone fall relative to prices and wages in Germany. Mrs. Merkel says that she will not allow inflation in Germany to go above 1-2%. What does that say about what must happen to prices and wages in the rest of the Eurozone? Do the math. So if Mrs. Merkel has her way — and she clearly speaks with what Mark Twain once called “the calm confidence of a Christian holding four aces” – things will continue to get worse, probably a lot worse, in the Eurozone before they get any better. Get used to it.

It’s Déjà vu All Over Again

On Thursday, it was Pascal Salin in the Wall Street Journal; now on Friday, as if not to be outdone, comes Nobel laureate Edmund Phelps in the Financial Times. Salin told us on Thursday that the cause of the eurocrisis is not the euro, but the profligacy of and bad management by the various governments now on the brink of insolvency; Phelps tells on Friday that the cause of the crisis is not Chancellor Merkel’s insistence on austerity measures and labor-market reforms, but the failure of the governments on the verge of insolvency to emulate the German model.

Chancellor Angela Merkel and Wolfgang Schäuble, her finance minister, are right to oppose fiscal and bank unions without political union. Without any teeth in such agreements, the nations now besotted with wealth, private and social, could use the loans and grants for financing more deficits and more entitlements – another round of corporatist excess – rather than for smoothing the way to fiscal responsibility.

It is entirely possible, even likely, that wage reductions and labor-market liberalization would be beneficial for all European countries. But that is not the issue. France and Italy and other European countries can choose their own budgetary and labor-market policies. Those choices imply costs and consequences. High taxes and unproductive government expenditures will tend to depress growth rates. If France and Italy choose to grow at a slower rate than Germany, they have the right, as sovereign countries, to do so. The choice of a reduced rate of growth need not entail insolvency, and it is not Germany’s job to impose a higher rate of growth on France and Italy than they want. Except for Greece, which is a special case, the potentially insolvent countries in Europe are facing insolvency not because of their budgetary and labor-market policies, but because of a sharp slowdown since 2008 in rate of growth in nominal GDP in the Eurozone as a whole (averaging just 0.6% a year since the third quarter of 2008). Why has nominal GDP not increased as rapidly since 2008 as it did before 2008? Some of us think that that it has something to do with policies followed by the European Central Bank, policies that by and large are determined by the country in which the ECB is domiciled. (Can you guess which country that is?)

But for some reason – I can’t imagine what it would be — in the 670 words in his piece in the Financial Times, Professor Phelps, in discussing the causes of the Eurozone crisis and in defending Chancellor Merkel’s role in the crisis, didn’t mention the European Central Bank even once. Go figure.

There’s No Euro Crisis; It’s an ECB crisis

Pascal Salin is a distinguished French economist.  I met him many years ago at a conference and subsequently corresponded with him.  He was also a contributor to  Business Cycles and Depressions:  An Encyclopedia which I edited.  His op-ed in Thursday’s Wall Street Journal is a cut above the usual fare in the Journal‘s opinion section.

Salin correctly points out that there is no reason why a default by one government should have an adverse effect on another government just because the two governments are using the same currency.  And certainly Professor Salin is also right in observing that joint European responsibility for the debts incurred by individual European governments is not logically entailed by the existence of a common currency. And I think he is very much on target when he makes the further point that the crisis is being used by those with a political agenda of creating a more centralized European super-state despite the apparent opposition to such a state by most Europeans.

The “euro crisis” is a pure political construction. It is a splendid opportunity for many politicians to impose some of their longstanding goals on everyone else. For instance, before the introduction of the euro, many politicians who called themselves Europeans considered monetary union a stepping stone to political union. I was opposed to the euro before its creation, precisely because I feared that the currency’s stewards would take this arbitrary link between the monetary system and national policies as a pretense to further centralize political decisions.

Politicians now argue that “saving the euro” will require not only propping up Europe’s irresponsible governments, but also centralizing decision-making. This is now the dominant opinion of politicians in Europe, France in particular.

But despite those valid points, I am afraid that Salin misses the key point, simply ignoring the indefensible role that the European Central Bank has played in this awful mess. Salin argues as if the difficulties of European governments in repaying their debts were entirely the result of their own profligacy and bad management, though I would not suggest that the governments in question are entirely blameless. But he says not a word about stagnation in European nominal GDP growth, as if nominal GDP were determined independently of monetary policy.  In fact, since the bottom of the downturn in the second quarter of 2009, nominal GDP in the Eurozone has grown at an annual rate of 2.3%, slowing to a rate of 0.84% from Q2 2011 to Q1 2012.   Cyprus, Italy, Netherlands, Portugal, and Spain have all experienced contractions in NGDP in the last three quarters.  That is an unconscionable performance.

The New York Times reported on Wednesday that the IMF is now warning of a sizable deflation risk in the Eurozone. Guess what?  The deflation has already started. If it’s not showing up in the official price indices, that’s probably because of improperly constructed prices indices (perversely counting increases in VAT as price increases). The problem is not that some European countries won’t pay their debts; the problem is that a deflationary ECB monetary policy is preventing them from earning the income with which to pay their debts. Talk about blaming the victim.

How Monetary Policy Works

These are exciting times. Europe is in disarray, unable to cope with a crisis requiring adjustments in relative prices, wages, and incomes that have been rendered impossible by a monetary policy that has produced almost no growth in nominal GDP in the Eurozone since 2008, placing an intolerable burden on the Eurozone’s weakest economies. The required monetary easing by the European Central Bank is unacceptable to Germany, so the process of disintegration continues. The US, showing signs of gradual recovery in the winter and early spring, remains too anemic to shake off the depressing effects of the worsening situation in Europe. With US fiscal policy effectively stalemated until after the election, the only policy-making institution still in play is the Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) of the Federal Reserve. The recent track record of the FOMC can hardly inspire much confidence in its judgment, but it’s all we’ve got. Yesterday’s stock market rally shows that the markets, despite many earlier disappointments, have still not given up on the FOMC.  But how many more disappointments can they withstand?

In today’s Financial Times, Peter Fisher (head of fixed income at BlackRock) makes the case (“Fed would risk diminishing returns with further ‘QE'”) against a change in policy by the Fed. Fisher lists four possible policy rationales for further easing of monetary policy by the Fed: 1) the “bank liquidity” rationale, 2) the “asset price” rationale, 3) the “credit channel” rationale, and 4) the “radical monetarist” rationale.

Fisher dismisses 1), because banks are awash in excess reserves from previous bouts of monetary easing. I agree, and that’s why the Fed should stop paying banks interest on reserves. He dismisses 2) because earlier bouts of monetary easing raised asset prices but had only very limited success in stimulating increased output.

While [the Fed] did drive asset prices higher for a few months, there was little follow-through in economic activity in 2011. This approach provides little more than a bridging operation and the question remains: a bridge to what?

This is not a persuasive critique. Increased asset prices reflected a partial recovery in expectations of future growth in income and earnings. A credible monetary policy with a clearly articulated price level of NGDP target would have supported expectations of higher growth than the anemic growth since 2009, in which asset prices would have risen correspondingly higher, above the levels in 2007, which we have still not reached again.

Fisher rejects 3), the idea “that if the Fed holds down long-term interest rates it will stimulate private credit creation and, thus, economic expansion.” Implementing this idea, via “operation twist” implies taking short-term Treasuries out of the market and replacing them with longer-term Treasuries, but doing so denies “banks the core asset on which they build their balance sheets,” thus impairing the provision of credit by the banking system instead of promoting it.

I agree.

Finally Fisher rejects 4), “the idea more central bank liabilities will eventually translate into ‘too much money chasing too few goods and services’ at least so as to avoid a fall in the general price level.” Fisher asks:

What assets would the Fed buy? More Treasuries? Would the Fed embark on such a radical course in a presidential election year?

Perhaps the Fed could buy foreign currencies, engineer a much weaker dollar and, thereby, stimulate inflation and growth. Would the rest of the world permit this? I doubt it. They would probably respond in kind and we would all have a real currency war. Nor is it clear the US external sector is large enough to import enough inflation to make a difference. If energy and commodity prices soared, would American consumers “chase” consumption opportunities or would they suppress consumption and trigger a recession? Recent experience suggests the latter. How much “chasing behaviour” would we get in a recession? Engineering a dollar collapse would be to play with fire and gasoline. It might create inflation or it might create a depression.

These are concerns that have been expressed before, especially in astute and challenging comments by David Pearson to many of my posts on this blog. They are not entirely misplaced, but I don’t think that they are weighty enough to undermine the case for monetary easing, especially monetary easing tied to an explicit price level or NGDP target. As I pointed out in a previous post, Ralph Hawtrey addressed the currency-war argument 80 years ago in the middle of the Great Depression, and demolished it. FDR’s 40-percent devaluation of the dollar in 1933, triggering the fastest four-month expansion in US history, prematurely aborted by the self-inflicted wound of the National Recovery Administration, provides definitive empirical evidence against the currency-war objection. As for the fear that monetary easing and currency depreciation would lead to an upward spiral of energy and commodity prices that would cause a retrenchment of consumer spending, thereby triggering a relapse into recession, that is certainly a risk. But if you believe that we are in a recession with output and employment below the potential output and employment that the economy could support, you would have to be awfully confident that that scenario is the most likely result of monetary easing in order not to try it.

The point of tying monetary expansion to an explicit price level or spending target is precisely to provide a nominal anchor for expectations. That nominal anchor would provide a barrier against the kind of runaway increase in energy and commodity prices that would supposedly follow from a commitment to use monetary policy to achieve a price-level or spending target.  Hawtrey’s immortal line about crying “fire, fire” in Noah’s flood is still all too apt.

“This Behavior Is Totally Unacceptable in Germany”

Reading a review, not long ago, by John Lanchester of Michael Lewis’s book Boomerang: Travels in the New Third World in the New York Review of Books, I was struck by the following quotation of an unnamed German official explaining why there was no credit boom in Germany.

“There was no credit boom in Germany,” an official told Lewis. “Real estate prices were completely flat. There was no borrowing for consumption. Because this behavior is totally unacceptable in Germany.”

For a generation or two after World War II, the rest of the world was thankfully spared such expressions of insufferable German self-satisfaction. But as memories of the second World War gradually fade, and the victims of German megalomania are rapidly disappearing, it is apparently again acceptable in Germany to make statements as unbearably self-congratulatory as the horrendous quotation recorded above.  And lest I be misunderstood, I am in no way suggesting that it is only Germans that are capable of the barbarities committed in World War II by the Nazi regime. “It can’t happen here” is a conceit too often refuted by bitter experience for anyone to feel very confident about his country’s (or his own) conduct in extreme situations.

There would be no point in highlighting an absurd statement by a tone-deaf German official if the statement did not reflect the views of many Germans, and none more so than the German Chancellor, Mrs. Merkel, though she is surely far too adroit a politician ever to express such a view within earshot of a journalist. But clearly the smug conviction in the utter rectitude of Germany’s anti-inflation posture and of the German insistence that the burden of discharging the sovereign debts incurred by the debtor countries fall entirely on the individual countries, and not on the Eurozone as a whole (i.e., not on Germany), stems from the moral certainty that the debtor countries are asking to be forgiven for “behavior that is totally unacceptable in Germany.” What self-respecting German could possibly agree to absolve those countries from the consequences of actions that no German would ever dream of undertaking?

That is the hubristic mindset that impels Mrs. Merkel and her countrymen to lead the European Union into the abyss. The whole point of the European Union was somehow to embed and contain Germany within the democratic framework of a larger union in which Germany might play an important, but never a dominant, role. For almost 60 years, the Federal Republic of Germany was in almost every way an admirable modern European state, playing a cooperative and constructive role in both European and world affairs. But especially after reunification, Germany has gradually assumed an increasingly preeminent role in Europe, and now the fate of Europe, and perhaps of the world, again lies in the hands of a German Chancellor, a leader perfectly attuned to the sentiments and intuitions of her people, and utterly oblivious to the consequences of what she is about to do. What we are witnessing is not a Greek tragedy, but a German one. But, I greatly fear that we shall all suffer the consequences of her misplaced confidence in the uprightness of her position and in her flawed understanding of Germany’s national self-interest.

Inflation Expectations Are Falling; Run for Cover

The S&P 500 fell today by more than 1 percent, continuing the downward trend began last month when the euro crisis, thought by some commentators to have been surmounted last November thanks to the consummate statesmanship of Mrs. Merkel, resurfaced once again, even more acute than in previous episodes. The S&P 500, having reached a post-crisis high of 1419.04 on April 2, a 10% increase since the end of 2011, closed today at 1338.35, almost 8% below its April 2nd peak.

What accounts for the drop in the stock market since April 2? Well, as I have explained previously on this blog (here, here, here) and in my paper “The Fisher Effect under Deflationary Expectations,” when expected yield on holding cash is greater or even close to the expected yield on real capital, there is insufficient incentive for business to invest in real capital and for households to purchase consumer durables. Real interest rates have been consistently negative since early 2008, except in periods of acute financial distress (e.g., October 2008 to March 2009) when real interest rates, reflecting not the yield on capital, but a dearth of liquidity, were abnormally high. Thus, unless expected inflation is high enough to discourage hoarding, holding money becomes more attractive than investing in real capital. That is why ever since 2008, movements in stock prices have been positively correlated with expected inflation, a correlation neither implied by conventional models of stock-market valuation nor evident in the data under normal conditions.

As the euro crisis has worsened, the dollar has been appreciating relative to the euro, dampening expectations for US inflation, which have anyway been receding after last year’s temporary supply-driven uptick, and after the ambiguous signals about monetary policy emanating from Chairman Bernanke and the FOMC. The correspondence between inflation expectations, as reflected in the breakeven spread between the 10-year fixed maturity Treasury note and 10-year fixed maturity TIPS, and the S&P 500 is strikingly evident in the chart below showing the relative movements in inflation expectations and the S&P 500 (both normalized to 1.0 at the start of 2012.

With the euro crisis showing no signs of movement toward a satisfactory resolution, with news from China also indicating a deteriorating economy and possible deflation, the Fed’s current ineffectual monetary policy will not prevent a further slowing of inflation and a further perpetuation of our national agony. If inflation and expected inflation keep falling, the hopeful signs of recovery that we saw during the winter and early spring will, once again, turn out to have been nothing more than a mirage

No Alternative to Austerity?

In today’s Financial Times, Gideon Rachman proclaims, without even a hint of irony (OK perhaps I am a bit tone deaf, but in this case, I don’t think so) that there is no alternative to austerity in the Eurozone.  Rachman notes further that despite the rhetorical objections to austerity now being raised by the likely winner of the French Presidential election next Sunday, the socialist Francois Hollande, even Mr. Hollande will be unable to do more than tinker around the edges of a tight fiscal policy that is being imposed by circumstances on the bloated European welfare states now comprising the European Union. Mr. Rachman is a clever fellow, and he has a way with words, and makes several good points. For example,

If building great roads and trains were the route to lasting prosperity, Greece and Spain would be booming. The past 30 years have seen a huge splurge in infrastructure spending, often funded by the EU. The Athens metro is excellent. The AVE fast-trains in Spain are a marvel. But this kind of spending has done very little to change the fundamental problems that now plague both Greece and Spain – in particular, youth unemployment. . . .

But warming to his subject, he starts to get a bit confused.

As for Italy and Spain, they are not cutting their budgets out of some crazed desire to drive their own economies into the ground. Their austerity drives were a reaction to the fact that markets were demanding unsustainably high interest rates to lend to them. There is no reason to believe that the markets are now suddenly prepared to fund wider deficits in southern Europe. The “end austerity now” crowd respond that it is the responsibility of Europe’s dwindling band of triple A rated countries to go on a consumption binge and so pull their neighbours out of the mire. But the assumption of unlimited Dutch and German creditworthiness is unconvincing – as the market reaction to the Dutch failure to agree a budget, last week, illustrated.

Mr. Rachman, like most supposedly knowledgeable commentators can’t seem to get the difference between a debt crisis (which is what Greece had) and a nominal GDP crisis (which is what Spain and Italy are having). Markets are demanding high interest rates from some countries because of a risk of default caused not by overspending, which has been going on for years without causing the bond markets to panic, but because in Spain and Italy public debt is now growing faster than nominal income (which is actually contracting). The Dutch failure to agree on a budget is itself attributable, at least in part, to the fact that nominal income began contracting in the Netherlands in the last quarter of 2011 as did nominal income in the Eurozone as a whole. And if that continues long enough, then Mr. Rachman is indeed right that not even German creditworthiness can forever be taken for granted.

Mr. Rachman then widens his discussion to France:

Even in France, the centre of the revolt against austerity, it is hard to argue that the problem is that the state is not doing enough. This is a country where the state already consumes 56 per cent of gross domestic product, which has not balanced a budget since the mid-1970s, and which has some of the highest taxes in the world.

Mr Hollande, who is not an idiot, knows all this. That is why, behind all the feel-good rhetoric about ending austerity, the small print is less exciting. In fact, all the Socialist candidate is promising to do is to take a year longer than President Nicolas Sarkozy to balance France’s budget.

Mr. Rachman is no idiot either, and he is right that most European countries would probably benefit economically from shrinking rather than expanding their public sectors, allowing increased scope for the private sector to create wealth. But that long-term problem is not the source of the current crisis. What Rachman seems not to have grasped is that the address for a solution to the real crisis in the Eurozone — the nominal GDP crisis — is in Frankfurt — by some random coincidence the seat of the European Central Bank.

The ECB, seemingly in thrall to the whims of Mrs. Merkel and German inflation-phobia, is stubbornly refusing to ease monetary policy, a step that would do more than anything else to solve the Eurozone nominal GDP crisis, aka the debt crisis. In the 1930s the way out of the Great Depression was to leave the gold standard, and in every country that had sense enough to escape from the golden fetters that were imprisoning them in the Depression, a recovery started almost immediately. Escaping from the euro is now much, much harder than leaving the gold standard was in the 1930s, so it is only the ECB that can provide an escape from this crisis. But Mrs. Merkel refuses to allow the ECB to do so, and today the clever Mr. Rachman, whether intentionally or not, provides her and the ECB with a useful tactical diversion, distracting everyone from their responsibility for the ongoing tragedy now playing itself out in Europe.


About Me

David Glasner
Washington, DC

I am an economist in the Washington DC area. My research and writing has been mostly on monetary economics and policy and the history of economics. In my book Free Banking and Monetary Reform, I argued for a non-Monetarist non-Keynesian approach to monetary policy, based on a theory of a competitive supply of money. Over the years, I have become increasingly impressed by the similarities between my approach and that of R. G. Hawtrey and hope to bring Hawtrey's unduly neglected contributions to the attention of a wider audience.

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