Tuesday, 30 December 2014

Crude benefits of falling oil prices

The ending of QE in the US and the fall in the price of oil from over $115 a barrel to under $60 a barrel were the defining economic events of 2014, but their consequences will not be felt until next year.  The ending of QE in the autumn brought to an end the huge expansion of the US Federal Reserve’s balance sheet, since 2008 the Fed has pumped some $2.3tn of “new money” into the world economy which has had a wondrous effect on asset prices in all sorts of weird and wonderful places.  London property prices have boomed, stocks in emerging markets reached new heights and bond prices sky rocketed as yields collapsed – also commodity prices boomed and oil was not left out of the party.  Between 2009 and 2011 oil prices rose from $40 to $125 a barrel, driven by ever increasing demand from emerging markets and $1.9tn of US and UK QE.  Following the boom in commodity prices between 2011 and 2013 prices stabilised at a high level before falling off a cliff in 2014.
The Crude Story

Thursday, 27 November 2014

Floating free from Germany

Mario Drahgi has called for more integration and “sweeping powers” for the ECB to control fiscal policies and efforts to reform the Eurozone's economy. Is this “joined-up” thinking is a throw-back to the darkest days of the Euro crisis, when it became obvious that there was lack of cohesion between member states?  Or is this a power grab by the ECB, using the interminable recession, as an excuse to take control of a “fiscal and economic union”.  Currently the ECB owns interest rates and sets budget targets (roundly ignored by all but Germany), in this new and enlightened world the EBC would like set tax rates and drive to through supply side reforms to drive productivity and competiveness.

Drahgi believes in the “importance of each country sticking to its commitments under the stability and growth pact “and that this should now be beyond debate”.  He would like to go further by saying that in matter economic “sovereignty should be exercised jointly” – what a great line!!  What are the things that could do with harmonisation?

1. Actual interest rates
2. Rates of business taxation
3. Minimum wages and hours of work
4. Actual spending limits (properly enforced)

Living in Harmony

Friday, 21 November 2014

Winning the productivity race

Seven years on from the start of the Great Recession the slump looks set to go on and on.  Even David Cameron who seldom mentions the economy was stirred this week to reinforce the message that - the worst may not be over.

Certainly, in the UK we have had some growth but we still have high levels of government debt and a crippling trade deficit and our main trading partner is in real trouble.  It is now certain that the major economies in the developed world will never recover the lost demand that has opened up between actual GDP and the trend line established over the last 20 years.  This puts us in new territory, as in every other recent recession the global economy has always been able to close gap in “temporary” lost demand during the expansion phase of the economic cycle.  In real terms, people in virtually every developed country will be poorer at the end of this economic cycle than in 2007!  This is a pretty stunning revelation – we have forgotten how to grow!

Friday, 7 November 2014

What a hedgehog knows

When, in 1948, Mikhail Naimy  wrote “The more elaborate his labyrinths, the further from the Sun his face” he was already living in a world that was being over-run by complexity.  Most of the greatest insights in art and science since the end of the Second World War have been conceived in a dense soup of analysis.  There will no more be simple insights that change the world – mastering the complexity is everything.  The keen amateur who is able to think freely and creatively is no longer taken seriously;  the potting shed had been replaced by the data centre such is the explosion of data and variables required to understand the problems we face. We are living in the age of the Fox (who knows many small things).
This up-tick in complexity is obvious in the world of macro-economics as the simple relationships between money, prices, capacity and rates of interest no longer seem to work.  Also old certainties about productivity and wealth have been debunked – this is an uncomfortable world for the Hedgehog – (who only knows one big thing).  Obvious problems create resolutions that can be faced with bravery, although tactics may vary we can unite behind a shared vision or oppose it full on.   If the problem is too complex to articulate then there will be no solution only a vacuum.

Where are the hedgehogs

Wednesday, 29 October 2014

Time up for QE

No one really understands it and because of this opinions are all the more divided and intransigent. Despite this incoherence the market has understood enough to know that it drives asset prices and confidence in future prices.  It is QE – quantitative easing.

Ben Bernanke - the Godfather of QE

QE is where Central Banks print themselves some money to buy bonds and other instruments from the banks, the idea is that this puts cash / liquidity into the economy increasing the money supply and making credit more freely available.  Under “normal” conditions of growth (+2-3% annually)and inflation (around 2% annually) equilibrium this would drive up aggregate demand (growth)  and inflation as the banks push this extra liquidity out into the market in the form of loans.

Wednesday, 15 October 2014

Solving Secular Stagnation

There is now a sense of gloom that pervades the corridors of power in the developed world, six years on from the Lehman Brothers' default and the ensuing “great recession” we are still in the economic dead-zone.  In particular Europe is marred by low growth, high unemployment, falling prices and the worry is that this is the “new normal”.  Most economist are satisfied that the problem is poor aggregate demand, caused by falling investment in both the private and public sectors combined with diminishing disposable income - wages have been flat for years.  This malaise has been characterised as “Secular Stagnation” (SS), a term made famous by Larry Summers a former Head of the US Treasury department.
Larry Summers - feeling the torpor of Secular Stagnation

Wednesday, 8 October 2014

The IMF gives more poor advice

The IMF have made some interesting pronouncements over the last few years – having missed the credit crunch and the “great recession” that followed they at first endorsed the UKs plan A and then decried it just as it was starting to work – so we shouldn’t hold up too much hope that the Fund will have anything sensible to say on the matter of European recovery.  No one was too interested when they published their World Economic Outlook, which is normally like a school report – “the UK could try harder”, “France needs to apply herself and complete home work on time” – you get the picture.  But this time round it was a bit more specific and surprisingly so; normally the IMF is reasonably hawkish, looking to solve problems through monetary policy (what would expect, it’s a bank) but in this report the IMF suggest substantially increased public spending on infrastructure investment, and across much of the world.   It asserts that when unemployment is high and interest rates are low, the benefits will be greater if investment is paid for by increased borrowing, rather than cutting other spending or raising taxes. Most interestingly, the IMF declares that good infrastructure investment will reduce rather than increase government debt burdens as public infrastructure investments pay for themselves.  Confusingly the whole 44 page synopsis of the WEO highlights a number of risks to the world economy – political risk in Russia, property bubbles, shortages of natural gas, etc;  but report hardly mentions the debts run up by governments and leverage in the banking system - convenient eh!
Christine Lagarde Head of the IMF points the way forward

Monday, 6 October 2014

Cutting Taxes and Axing Osborne

In 2010 the Tories had plan A, deficit reduction, and by and large the British public bought the idea, which was simple, “We have to cut the deficit because sky-high public debt will kill growth and investment and lead to long term depression”.  Some of this proved to be wrong but enough of the narrative still works.  In all polls that ask the question “who do you trust to manage the economy?” the Tories are in a comfortably lead. We Brits have a long memory and the Brown / Balls bubble will not be forgotten and more recently Ball’s idiotic call for a plan B made him the laughing stock of Westminster.

Despite the Tory’s hard talk on deficit reduction the reality is that progress has been hampered by the coalition’s bargaining (with the illiberal Lib Dems), which ring fenced welfare, the NHS and pensions from the ravages of austerity.  Nearly all the cuts imposed in this Parliament have been born by spending departments that receive less 40% of the entire public sector budget.  There have been some interesting results – less spending on police has reduce crime, less spending on “enterprise” has helped growth take off, lower spending on Europe has made Europe even less popular and a huge increase in international aid has seen our stock in the world fall dramatically!

Monday, 15 September 2014

Bonny Prince Alex

Prior to the union with England Scotland had a long and glorious tradition of following the wrong leader and creating the wrong alliances and this poor judgement eventually created the need for union with England 1706, when the Scottish Parliament voted by 106 votes to 69 for dependence.  Since the Union there have also been a number of moments when the Scots have thrown their lot in with leaders (Bonny Prince Charlie for one) and alliances (The French) who offered more than they were able to deliver.
Queen Anne's floral badge of Union

Tuesday, 2 September 2014

Germany's most important export is unemployment

Some time ago I posted a short piece entitled Austerity may be Wunderbar, the simple message in this blog was that Germany was the problem in the EuroZone not the solution.  Having joined the Euro at a grossly undervalued rate the German economy has been on the PIIGS back for the last fifteen years.  The net result of this competitiveness advantage was that in the years 1999-2008 German was able to re-boot its ailing economy by exporting cheaply to its European Partners where all control of credits markets had lapsed.  

It's not just cars, but unemployment, that Germany exports

Monday, 1 September 2014

Where no hawks dare to fly

The doves at the Fed led by the chief "cooer" Janet Yellen have found a new reason to keep interest rates at an historical low.
Not a hawk in sight
The latest buzz words are “Pent up wage deflation” and they provide an elaborate excuse for ultra loose monetary policy. The essence of the idea is that in the Great Recession of 2009-2011 the market rate for jobs fell appreciably but that because wages are "sticky" and actual wages remained flat. This stickiness of wages is a function organised labour (Trade unions), employee nervous to move jobs and employers who are reluctant to loose key staff.

Tuesday, 26 August 2014

Janet Yellen - barking up the wrong tree

Over the last 40 years (well up until 2008) the role of central bankers was pretty clear – keep inflation under control - and it’s no surprise that during the great inflationary period 1970-2000 monetarist held sway.  Interest rates were raised, money supply was squeezed, unemployment rocketed (and then fell) and it was possible to pronounce the demise of Keynesian economics with complete certainty.  The fun went out of economics - the “Great Moderation” proved that once and for all we were the masters of our own economic destiny.  Then the credit crunch struck and the financial crisis kicked off which in turn led to the “Great Recession”, from which the developed world is still trying to escape.

Thursday, 7 August 2014

Central Bankers - from heroes to zeros

The Bank for International Settlements (BIS), the only institution to call the financial crisis in 2007, has weighed back into the macro economic debate in the last few days in its annual report.  The report sets out a significant criticism on the current crop of central bankers, in essence the BIS lays the blames Yellen and Co for the falling: growth, demand and employment.  The expansion of national balance sheets and negative real interest rates are now the problem not the solution. The Keynesian approach that all central bankers have followed is now coming under close scrutiny as the global economy struggles to gain economic momentum. The process of piling the "cart" with more and more debt means Central Bankers are running a huge risk as the road ahead may not be as smooth as the would like!
Let's hope there are no pot holes ahead

Tuesday, 5 August 2014

La Belle Époque - revisited

As we remember 1914 and the horrific shock that World War inflicted on Europe and the terrible waste of life the two World Wars inflicted it might also be sensible to recognise the economic shockwaves that these events triggered.  The two World Wars and the depression that was sandwiched between them, changed everything economically.  The old colonial powers lost their possessions and incomes from abroad; inflation was unleashed on the world as never before – destroying the inherited capital of the über- rich, labour organised and the world was changed. 1914 destroyed the La Belle Époque and changed almost everything!
By the '50s the old rich where on skid row!

Thursday, 8 May 2014

Believing in Secular Stagnation

Across the fault lines of Adam Smith and Keynes, those who take an interest in the global economy fall into two camps - those who are general optimistic about humankind’s instinctive ability to create wealth an prosperity and those who believe we are pre-disposed to muck (no typo) things up.  You would think that those on the left are most agitated about market failures and the inefficiencies of capitalism - and many are, but social media exposes the truth that at least as many on the right are doomsayers.   Every article in the press welcoming the signs and firm evidence of recovery in the UK is met with a barrage of comments from conservatives foretelling the end of the world – house bust, savings dearth, public debt ruin, balance of payments crisis and so it goes on!

Friday, 2 May 2014

Let Them Eat Cake

The key to good economics is timing, Adam Smith was banging on about pins when pins where the last word in precision technology, Keynes was lucky to be at the height of his powers when the world needed him most and Milton Friedman took his bow when everyone had gotten bored of trying to make Keynes ‘General Theory' work.  Enter stage right Thomas Piketty, who is also lucky to be making his pronouncements on inequality as a new gilded age dawns bright.  Incidentally, one of the last gilded ages led to Equality, Fraternity and Liberty by way of the Guillotine so M. Piketty, a Frenchman, should be careful what he wishes for.
Exécution de Marie Antoinette 16 octobre 1793

Wednesday, 23 April 2014

Selling England by the Pound

The English are having a bad year, we are on the brink of losing our last meaningful colony and these storm blasted islands have endured the worst weather on record and we are only in April! Despite all this we are still standing and there remain three things that the English can be proud of:

  • Getting drunk and then fighting for their lives 
  • Being polite and stand-offish
  • Having a weak currency
A Spaniard - what you find when you Google an image of a drunk English Gentleman!

The starkly contrasting social habits of the English are well documented but the relatively value of our currency has been brushed under the (garishly patterned) carpet  by the long line of Keynesian and neo-Keynesian economist who believe that  we will eventually take our place on the global top table of exporters if we continuously devalue our currency.

Monday, 10 March 2014

Float my boat?

The image of a rising tide lifting all the boats is a picture politicians like to paint – a fair recession and recovery, the reality maybe that the posh yachts and the scruff dinghies may be okay but the smartly kept but modest day boats may be stuck in the mud for a while yet!
Who will float my boat?
Five years after the Great Recession there is a sense that the world’s economy no longer adheres to normal rules, the tide is moving in a mysterious way.  In a recession wages are meant to be sticky and as a result of this unemployment rises sharply as workesr price themselves out of the market.  Following a recession, typically, productivity and wages pick-up quickly and eventually unemployment should fall.  This time around rates of employment have remained quite high through the recession, wages and earnings have fallen sharply and productivity has not bounced back; so why?

Friday, 14 February 2014

A sticky mess for economists

I have spent a fair amount of my leisure time racing on sailing boats, where one becomes paranoid about wasting the wind, the tide or ones position on the water.  This is in stark contrast to the rest of my life where waste is everywhere; I waste time in mindless meetings and commuting, I waste money on an over indulged family and some would argue that I am wasting my life away writing this blog!  But all that is going to change; waste is out and utilisation is in – or so says the Governor of The Bank of England (BoE).

Having spent the last five years providing as much slack as possible to keep the banking system on its feet and the economy off its deathbed, there is now a new mood and doctrine.  When Mark Carney arrived in the UK in July last year he promised us Forward Guidance on interest rates – he would hold rates at 0.5% until we achieved full employment.  So like a seasoned skipper he turned the yacht downwind and let all her sails out.  The economy (helped by a friendly gust of overseas investment) has picked up speed, employment rates have shot up and people are wondering when we will need to tighten things up.  If we don’t tighten things up and the economic tail-winds pick-up we could get into a real mess.

He should have tightened up a bit earlier

Friday, 7 February 2014

European Hunger Games

For anyone who was growing up in the 1970s there is a short list of things that one has to be concerned about:  The music of The Bay City Rollers, the instant pudding - “angel delight”, playing rugby against the Welsh and inflation.
The Great Barry John laying waste to England

Although the oil price shocks affected all industrialised economies inflation had a particularly severe impact on the UK, we quickly became known as the sick man of Europe.  Our smoke stack industries were failing against new competitors and trades unions made it impossible for us to improve productivity; this labour intransigence forced unemployment to horrific levels.  But worst of all, Inflation was in double digits eating up savings, wealth and security and against all the laws of Keynesian economics we had high inflation, high unemployment and high interest rates – stagflation!  Like a creeping terminal disease it infected all parts of our economy and did untold social damage; many of today’s most potent social problems steam directly from this time – rising divorce rates, poor parenting, plunging standards in education, rising crime rates and so it goes on.

Tuesday, 4 February 2014

Emerging market emergency?

The mere thought of the US Federal Reserve tapering their asset purchase programme (QE) in May last year put the world into a spin.  As sellers sold out their positions, currencies were devalued and Central Banks had to step in with higher interest rates.  Nine months on and the Fed has begun to taper by $10 billion a month and the impact on emerging markets is ratcheting-up.  This time last year the Fed started buying $85bn of asset purchases a month they and least we forget they are still pouring $65 billion a month into the world economy?  On the face of it this is a small reduction, $20bn a month after $2tn or more of asset purchases in four years, but it is having a material effect in emerging markets and may well come home to haunt us in the West .
The QE 1 - just a good excuse to remember this grand ship

Friday, 24 January 2014

Judgement Day for Economists

The economic discussion on how to solve the evolving recession and global stagnation has become increasingly political with Krugman and Summers on the left and Rogoff and Co on the right.  Too much energy is now being spent on self-defence,  protecting one's reputation takes precedence over new thinking.

The depression in the 1930s gave us Keynes and stagflation in the 70's gave us Friedman and I am pretty sure there will be a new luminary to rise from the ashes of the current mess we are in. Frankly, neither of the "old schools" looks likely to predict the "first best solution" correctly.

Keynesians really struggle to find an elegant solution to the ending current cash hoarding and low private sector investment when their demand side policies would further raise public debt.  Why would a company or an individual risk investing in new ventures in a country where sovereign debt is increasingly out of control and where there is a risk of default or very high interest rates in the future(particularly when most investors are not followers of Keynes)?  The risk of slowly reducing asset value is always preferable the risk of a total loss investment.   Followers of Keynes offer no insights into how this conundrum is resolved.

In the same way monetarist struggle to solve the problem of very low private sector investment when real interest rates have been and are likely to be negative for years to come.  They argue for more public sector austerity, that would reduce demand and further endanger recovery.  They also can’t resolve the problem that supply side solutions would further erode labour share (the % of national income earned by employees), which is one of the main reason for falling demand and productivity.
Rogoff on the left and Krugman on the right - just for a change

Thursday, 16 January 2014

The morning after the night before

Like a terrible hangover that takes an age to clear the developed world has been limping along, since the aftermath of the financial crisis.  There is lack of vigour, a kind of listlessness that Larry Summers has characterised as “secular stagnation”.   Economies, unable to return to the optimistic per-party state they enjoyed from 1995 to 2007, are now settling for survival rather than growth – the pounding headache makes future endeavours unthinkable – we are definitely in the bunker. There are four connected things going on here: dehydration, nausea, a sense of injustice and finally despair – sounds familiar? Secular stagnation is not inevitable we can find a cure. But as Larry tells us “ without a clear diagnosis of our problem and a commitment to structural increases in demand, we will be condemned to oscillating between inadequate growth and unsustainable finance”. And he goes on to say that " A strategy that relies on interest rates significantly below growth rates for long periods of time virtually guarantees the emergence of substantial bubbles and dangerous build-ups in leverage"  - which is exactly where we are low growth, poor levels of employment, low levels of investment - but the very high risk of bubbles and other financial risks.

The Morning after the night before

Monday, 6 January 2014

Debts Still Matter

The mind of George Osborne works in a strange and Machiavellian way.  His announcement today that austerity will continue unabated into 2016 - 17 was greeted with howls of protest from all sides, could it be that the British Chancellor knows something that we don't?  
which one is George?
Five years after the default of Lehman Brothers and three year since taking office the world is still a dangerous place even after years of pain.  What is now clear is the history of this crisis; and most developed countries have faced a number of distinct phases in this recession.

1. The credit crunch caused by a lack of liquidity in the banks 2008

2. Falling growth and a deep recession, caused by the banking failure and the subsequent free fall in asset prices in 2009

3. A false recovery 2009 – 2010 temporarily fuelled by growth in the Commodities, BRIC economies and emerging markets

4. The sovereign debt crisis triggered the very high public spending required to off-set recession (centred on the EuroZone) that rumbled on over 2011 -12

5. (Secular) Stagnation – weak growth in demand and GDP and deflationary pressure on prices in 2012-14?

As I have discussed in a recent blog there have been a number of strategies that have been deployed since 2008 with varying degrees of success.  These strategies (Abenomics, austerity, QE, etc.) have been blurred and muddled by the realpolitik of the day and no country has been able to pursue a fundamentalist approach, not even the UK under Osborne's guidance.  The main policy argument has been around the need for and the pace of debt reduction.  In a nutshell, can advance economies grow whilst carrying substantial levels of public (or private) debt?  There are good reasons for thinking that high levels of debt will be a drag on growth and these are pretty obvious:

Thursday, 2 January 2014

Economists playing with fire

I have a sixteen year old daughter who is working hard on her final secondary school exams (UK ‘A’ levels) the results of which will determine the type of degree and which university she will attend – these are important times!  Being a more focused individual than her father she is already weighing her options and it’s straight fight between Economics and History.  Over the Christmas holiday we had a number of discussions around the relative merits of these options; initially I supported the view that Economics would be a more relevant and “useful” degree but now I am not so sure.
Having missed the vital signs of the credit crunch and the ensuing recession in 2008/09 economists around the world are red faced again and having to play catch up on the startling and unexpected rebound that the US and UK economies kicked off in 2013.  Not a single note-worthy economist was able to forecast up-tick in GDP growth or the stellar year stock markets enjoyed in 2013!   Famously, Olivier Blanchard (the International Monetary Fund's chief economist)  warned George Osborne that his austerity programme was "playing with fire" just as the UK emerged into recovery!

Economists playing with fire  

So if they can't tell us what is going to happen what are economists for?  It's a legitimate question to ask - if economist can’t forecast what is going to happen do they have any practical use? Being increasingly unsure of the future, they spend their days trying to piece together the past and polishing their excuses.  But why should economists worry about the past - as James Buchan told us “Economists, like royal children, are not punished for their errors”.

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