Sunday, 28 August 2011

When Confidence Goes

The Malta Independent on Sunday

Those who left on holiday at the end of June and return to their desk in September will find a different economic world they have to grapple with.

The world economy is in much worse shape than it was only a few weeks ago. Economic growth in the second quarter has slowed sharply and forecasts for the rest of 2011 and 2012 have been scaled back in all areas especially America and Europe. Even countries in the emerging world, which had kept the world economy going after the 2008 financial crisis, are now cutting down their growth forecast under the weight of measures to control inflation. Global share prices have dropped by some 15 per cent since end June and consumer confidence has slumped. Major corporations, rather than investing their cash hoards in innovation and new production facilities, in the absence of perceived growth in global demand, are buying back their own shares in the market at discounted prices or making acquisitions. None of this augurs well for future growth.

In the space of a few weeks, confidence about a steady even if slow recovery has given way to fears of a double dip recession. Confidence grows in small steps like going up a slow moving escalator. When it goes, it plummets quickly, like falling down a lift shaft.

Why this sudden change in sentiment` The answer to such question cannot be a single event. For some time it is mostly guesswork and educated hunches, rather than scientifically proven cause-effect dynamics. However, there is no doubt that the tragic earthquake and tsunami in Japan of last March may have been a trigger to set in motion a series of events that played on each other to reinforce a negative change in overall sentiment.

These dramatic events caused the disruption of the supply chain and loss of efficiency in production on a global scale. This came at a time when the Libyan crisis was peaking, causing loss of supply of high quality crude oil which forced oil prices to escalate as much as 20 per cent in a short time just when economic sentiment was already wounded by the Japan events. This double blow was followed by economic statistics which started to flow out in the beginning of July showing that economic GDP figures for the first quarter had been over-estimated, that expectations for second quarter were even lower, that job growth in the US had fallen off dramatically in May and June, that orders for new machinery had slowed down and that consumer sentiment had turned pessimistic.

In circumstances like these, Keynesian economics would argue in favour of additional fiscal stimulus on the part of governments. However, governments are suffering from fatigue of stimulus following the 2008 crisis and their debt situation does not permit much room for further stimulus which would demand increase public borrowing at a time when the bonds markets and rating agencies are showing increased concerns on the debt sustainability of the US, Japan and various European countries, both on the periphery as well as in the core of the euro area.

Such concerns kept the market under stress during July, but that was a sideshow compared to what happened in August when the markets normally take a nap while most operators go to the beach. Not this year! The trigger point was the unthinkable downgrade of the US credit status by S & P on 5 August following the political shenanigans in the US Congress for agreeing a last minute deal to raise the US debt limit without which the US would have defaulted on its debt. A new criterion was brought into the rating agencies dictionary. It was no longer the ability to repay debts, something that is never in doubt in the US, which enjoys reserve currency status; it was about the political willingness to repay such debt. The light-hearted manner in which the Republicans in Congress, held in bondage by the newly elected Tea Party right-wing faction, were prepared to accept default by the US Treasury not to sacrifice their credo for a smaller government, shocked confidence and made many other forms of formerly unthinkable matters no longer unthinkable.

Among such unthinkable matters was the implosion of the euro monetary system. This is no longer unthinkable and possibly it is no longer improbable. European politicians, handicapped as they are by the need to solve a Europe-wide problem but being accountable only to their domestic electorate on whom they depend both for democratic legitimacy as well as for re-election, have proved no match to the speed of the market which is driving contagion from the peripheral countries in genuine distress to core countries like Italy, Spain and France whose distress is only due to the psychological effects of contagion.

In circumstances like these, the major burden for saving the world from slipping into a prolonged recession or an outright depression rests with Central Banks. Freed from democratic responsibilities towards their constituents and enjoying autonomy in their operating structures, Central Banks can move with a speed matching the markets. Just as in the good times Central Banks are expected to take the punchbowl away when the party is getting too hot, in these hard times it is the responsibility of Central Banks to neutralise the political necessity to administer austerity in a low or no growth environment by loosening their monetary policy. The Federal Reserve in the US and the Bank of England have understood this by keeping their interest rates at near zero levels for a very long time and by undertaking various rounds of monetary easing (creating money by buying bonds on the market).

The ECB, moulded as it is in the Bundesbank tradition and influenced by its location in Frankfurt, has still to show that it understands the need to loosen monetary policy to the degree required by present circumstances. The mandate to be responsible solely for inflation does not help but the ECB would be failing its mandate if it allows the euro system to collapse or the euro area as a whole to fall into depression. Two interest rate increases in the first half of this year were therefore unhelpful if not downright detrimental. Some call such measures as crazily out of touch with what is happening on the ground around them in the economic terrain for which the ECB is responsible.

The underlying problem in the euro area is that many banks are zombies. They are only alive because they have been permitted to value their holdings of sovereign debts at a price unrealistically detached from their official market price. The market has considered the stress tests that have avoided this anomaly as being unreliable.

The ECB should take the bull by the horns and insist that EU regulators force banks to value their sovereign holdings at their true market price. This will mean that the equity cushion of many banks will be wiped out. So be it! To retain stability and confidence in the system the ECB should create a Euro Bank Recapitalisation Super Fund (EBRSF) – a European equivalent of the US TARP, which because of the EU structure cannot be a fiscal initiative like in the US – to recapitalise as necessary all euro banks that lose capital through the mark-to-market stress test. That is the only stress the market will accept.

As the ECB itself is now a holder of such sovereign debt, it may have to recapitalise itself as well.

In better times, the EBRSF will re-privatise its holdings of the equity acquired in euro banks through the recapitalisation process. It will refund the credit from the ECB and like the TARP experience in the US will not cost the taxpayer a single cent.

It is time for the ECB to bypass the politicians and let them play the games they know best in their quest to preserve power. The ECB has the ability to save the euro, which bears the signature of its president, through determined, imaginative and creative measures to address the existential problem that it is facing. It needs to show that with the ability it also has the will.

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