what you get here

This is not a blog which expresses instant opinions on current events. It rather uses incidents, books (old and new), links and papers as jumping-off points for some reflections about our social endeavours.
So old posts are as good as new! And lots of useful links!

Friday, October 28, 2011

Our Gaddarene swine

This blog generally tries to steer away from crises since there are so many others in the blogosphere who have more insights than me on these – be they economic, financial or political. I try to be a distinctive voice on the things I know best – organisational change in transition countries - and otherwise try to pass on what seem to be sensible comments on ongoing events. The financial crisis, however, which has been rumbling on since late 2007 has, I feel, few real experts – in the sense of both contextual understanding and insights into what interventions would actually help put Humpty Dumpty together again. There are a lot of people, of course, who have the skills, understanding and contacts to exploit this situation for their own benefit but few (like George Soros and Nicolas Talib) able and willing to offer solutions in the interests of ordinary citizens.
Today, however, Paul de Grauwe has a useful comment on Social Europe/ which I would like to share in its entirety -
Imagine an army going to war. It has overwhelming firepower. The generals, however, announce that they actually hate the whole thing and that they will limit the shooting as much as possible. Some of the generals are so upset by the prospect of going to war that they resign from the army. The remaining generals then tell the enemy that the shooting will only be temporary, and that the army will go home as soon as possible. What is the likely outcome of this war? You guessed it. Utter defeat by the enemy.
The European Central Bank (ECB) has been behaving like the generals. When it announced its programme of government bond buying it made it known to the financial markets (the enemy) that it thoroughly dislikes it and that it will discontinue it as soon as possible. Some members of the Governing Council of the ECB resigned in disgust at the prospect of having to buy bad bonds. Like the army, the ECB has overwhelming (in fact unlimited) firepower but it made it clear that it is not prepared to use the full strength of its money-creating capacity. What is the likely outcome of such a programme? You guessed it. Defeat by the financial markets.
Financial markets knew that the ECB was not fully committed and that it would stop the programme. As a result, they knew that the stabilisation of the price of government bonds would only be temporary and that after the programme is discontinued prices would probably go down again. Few investors wanted to keep these bonds in their portfolios. As a result, government bonds continued to be sold, and the ECB was forced to buy a lot of them.
There is no sillier way to implement a bond purchase programme than the ECB way. By making it clear from the beginning that it does not trust its own programme, the ECB guaranteed its failure. By signalling that it distrusted the bonds it was buying, it also signalled to investors that they should distrust these too.
Surely once the ECB decided to buy government bonds, there was a better way to run the programme. The ECB should have announced that it was fully committed to using all its firepower to buy government bonds and that it would not allow the bond prices to drop below a given level. In doing so, it would create confidence. Investors know that the ECB has superior firepower, and when they get convinced that the ECB will not hesitate to use it, they will be holding on to their bonds. The beauty of this result is that the ECB won’t have to buy many bonds.
Why has the ECB not been willing to use this obvious and cheaper strategy?
Part of the answer has to do with the objections that have been raised against the idea that the central bank should be a lender of last resort in the government bond markets of a monetary union. Some are serious (moral hazard); others are phony (inflation risk). I discussed these in De Grauwe (2011) (see also Wyplosz 2011). My impression, however, is that these objections hide another more fundamental reason. The people sitting around the table in Frankfurt continue to believe that financial stability is not part of their core business, and, to use the words of Trichet, that there is only one needle on the Frankfurt compass and that is inflation. As long as this view prevails the ECB will be reluctant to do the obvious.
The result of this failure of the ECB to be a lender of last resort has been that a surrogate institution, the EFSF/ESM, had to be created that everybody knows will be ineffective. It has insufficient firepower and has an unworkable governance structure where each country keeps its veto power. In times of crisis it will be paralysed. As markets know this, its credibility will be weak.
To hide these shortcomings European leaders are now creating the fiction that by some clever leveraging trick the resources of the EFSF/ESM can be multiplied, allowing the ECB to retire to its Panglossian garden of inflation targeting. European leaders should know, however, that leverage creates risk, very large risks. These appear with full force when liquidity crises erupt. Thus when the leverage trick will be most needed, it will fail as it will show how risky the positions are of those who have guaranteed the leverage construction. Governments which now enjoy AAA creditworthiness will take the full blow of a 100% loss on their equity tranches and will lose their creditworthiness in one blow. The whole risky construction will collapse like other clever financial constructions of the recent past.
Academics have the reputation of living in an ivory tower far away from the realities of the world. My impression is that instead of the academics, it is the European leaders who have been living in an ivory tower. Disconnected from the economic and financial realities, they have created an institution that does not work and will never do so properly. Now they are creating a financial gimmick that, in their fantasies, they expect to solve the funding problems of major Eurozone countries. It is time for the European leaders to step back into the real world.
Craig Murray also has a brief and very succinct comment on the issue as does Der Spiegel in its article Politics stupid And I recommend the daily press summaries from Open Europe as the best there are at the moment on this issue.

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