Normative Narratives


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Economic Outlook: Europe (Finally) Gets It’s Stimulus Program

Youth Unemployment Europe October 2013

After EU Parliamentary elections in late May, many people were concerned (or jubilant, depending on the circles you run in) about gains by anti-EU “Euroskeptic” parties. These parties did not gain enough seats to dictate policy, but they did gain a platform to push their agenda in future policy decisions.

For every action, their is a reaction. It seems that gains from anti-EU parties have refocused pro-European forces, forcing them to adopt more “people-friendly” policies to counter the depression level unemployment rates (which have hit young people particularly hard).

As any development economist will tell you, youth unemployment presents many unique problems, both individual (high depression rates, future income losses “wage scaring”) and societal (increases in criminal / anti social behavior, drags on economic growth).

Systematic under-investment in young people is short sighted economically and causes untold human suffering. Such under-investment, while always reprehensible, is not surprising in the worlds least developed countries (LDCs), but this is Europe we’re talking about here.

Europe’s leaders have responded with pragmatic policies in recent months (finally, it only took 5+ years!). In Early June, the European Central Bank took the unprecedented step of introducing negative interest rates for keeping deposits in the ECB, a policy likely to not be popular with people who have wealth to invest, but which nonetheless should help spark short-term economic growth.

In arguably more meaningful news, last week the European Parliament announced a “Public-Private” stimulus program:

Jean-Claude Juncker won a wide endorsement from the European Parliament on Tuesday to be the next head of the executive European Commission after setting out a “grand coalition” investment programme to help revive Europe’s economy.

Belying his reputation as a grey back-room fixer, Juncker spoke with passion of his ambition to “reindustrialise” Europe and put the European Union’s 25 million unemployed, many of them young, back into work.

He promised a 300-billion-euro ($409-billion) public-private investment programme over the next three years, combining existing and perhaps augmented resources from the EU budget and the European Investment Bank with private sector funds, to build energy, transport and broadband networks and industry clusters.

“We need a reindustrialisation of Europe,” the 59-year-old former Luxembourg prime minister said. He won support from the Socialists and Liberals as well as his own centre-right bloc, the largest in the EU legislature.

Juncker acknowledged many Europeans had lost confidence in the EU and said only economic results and full employment, not endless debate over EU institutions, would restore their trust.

…his emphasis on public investment, reaffirmation of a target of raising industry to 20 percent of EU economic output and call for a minimum wage in each EU country, were designed to appeal to the left.

In a speech delivered in French, German and English, Juncker sought to reassure Germany and other north European fiscal hawks that the 28-nation bloc’s strict rules on budget deficits and debt reduction would be maintained.

Juncker said euro zone countries should get financial incentives if they make ambitious structural economic reforms, funded by the creation of a separate budget for the 18 countries in the currency area.

He also vowed to protect public services in Europe from what he called “the whims of the age” – an apparent reference to privatisation and restrictions on state aid.

Europe’s stimulus act will not be a panacea. By all accounts, EU countries (with the exception of Germany) have recovered much more slowly from The Great Recession than the U.S. Unemployment remains too high, and is especially troubling in certain countries and demographics.

Compounding the problem, this stimulus budget is too small to adequately address the problems facing the EU. The American Reinvestment and Recovery Act (ARRA) was less effective than imagined largely because it wasn’t big enough, and it’s funds came in at almost twice as much as its European Counterpart ($831 billion vs. $490 billion).

However, only 2/3 of the ARRA was in the form of spending, while the remainder took the form of tax breaks (which, in the context in which it was passed, had a much lower “fiscal multiplier” than direct spending). The European program seems to be more spending focused, meaning dollar for dollar (or euro for euro) this smaller stimulus plan may go further in addressing the social and economic problems facing the EU. The EU plan also leverages public funds to stimulate private investment–Europe’s leaders are doing what they can given budgetary constraints barring a larger stimulus program.

Combined with the ECB’s negative interest rates, EU leadership is proving it has moved past “bleeding the patient” and is taking a more proactive approach to economic recovery. I know it is hard to get excited about European leadership learning lessons after 5+ years of policy failure, but better incomplete and late than never, right?

While generally well received, this program has its notable detractors, headed by “Euroskeptics”, fiscal hawks, and Britain. Britain and other non-Euro EU countries must make their own decisions about their future in the EU based on what they believe is in their country’s best interests. As French President Hollande said last year, “I can understand that others don’t want to join (the single currency). But they cannot stop the euro zone from advancing.”

Sometimes you have to cut off the limb to save the patient. For the euro zone to survive, closer fiscal, taxation, and regulatory integration are needed. If Britain or any other country cannot accept this reality, they must seriously questions their future position within the EU (which, it seems, Britain will do with a membership referendum next year).

Leaving the EU need not be marked with retaliatory economic barriers or deteriorating political relationships; it could be done in a way that largely preserves existing interdependence while opening avenues for greater policy flexibility. As no country has ever left the EU, the punitive impacts of such a move are undecided. Like any breakup, it could be ugly and painful, or it could be clean and leave the possibility of “remaining friends”. 

 

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Economic Outlook: Quantitative Easing, Monetary Policy Coordination, and the IMF

I was going to write a  conflict watch about the chemical gas attack in Syria, but as different actors are aligning with their interest and using mostly circumstantial evidence (Russia / Assad Regime: rebels did it, why would we launch chem weapons while U.N inspectors here?; Opposition / Western governments: Assad did it, emboldened by lack of international intervention after previous chem attacks, Assad subsequently shelled area so time would pass, now UN inspectors cannot get reliable results), I will refrain from speculating on these troubling events until more information emerges.

Continuing the narrative that has come to the forefront since G-20 finance talks in Moscow and the focus surrounding extra-territorial consequences of loose monetary policy at the Fed’s annual Jackson Hole meeting, policy coordination between central banks and new policy responses by IMF are needed to ensure as smooth as possible a transition from Q.E. to Fed monetary policy tightening (exactly when this will occur is uncertain, I am of the mind that it will be later rather than sooner).

Original articles:

Reuters:

Central banks should coordinate to avoid unwanted side effects as they exit from ultra-easy monetary policies that have left the world awash in cheap money, top policymakers were told on Saturday.

“The main challenge will be to manage the consequences of monetary policies, and their evolutions, on cross-border liquidity movements,” Jean-Pierre Landau concluded in a paper he presented to an audience that included top central bankers from advanced as well as emerging market economies.

The Fed’s bond buying, or so-called quantitative easing, has been at the heart of its aggressive efforts to revive U.S. economic growth after it cut interest rates to nearly zero in 2008. Interest rates in Europe and Japan are also ultra-low.

However, the purchases have spurred massive capital inflows into faster growing emerging economies, which are now suffering as investors anticipate an end to the easy money.

But he lamented that the necessary coordination on monetary policy was unlikely, and warned of the potential for the “fragmentation” of global capital markets.

Stocks and currencies plunged in India, IndonesiaBrazil and Turkey this week as investors fretted over a looming reduction in the U.S. Federal Reserve’s monthly bond purchases.

Landau acknowledged that central bankers dislike the idea of coordinating monetary policy because their job is to focus on domestic goals. But they worked well together during the 2007-2009 financial crisis, when the Fed, European Central Bank, Bank of Japan and other central banks coordinated rate cuts and currency swap lines.

As cross-border liquidity pressures build, they will find it productive to do so again, although cooperation is more likely through regulatory and financial structures aimed at preventing excessive leverage or harmful asset bubbles, he said.

In an ideal world, the cooperation would extend to monetary policy because policies in major economies such as the United States can have an international impact that amplifies their magnitude with domestic implications, Landau argued.

“The system itself is producing more accommodative monetary conditions than warranted by the situation,” he said. “In a reverse environment, when monetary policies need tightening, the effects could be symmetrical and complicate the exit from non-conventional measures.”

In addition, much could be gained through an international “lender of last resort,” which would remove the motive for some nations to maintain massive foreign exchange reserves, he added.

“All countries have a common interest in finding ways to disconnect reserve accumulation from exchange-rate management,” Landau said. “The need for national reserves could be reduced if credible mechanisms exist to provide for the supply of official liquidity on a multilateral basis.”

Economix:

The stimulus campaigns of the Federal Reserve and the central banks of Europe and Japan, by depressing domestic interest rates, have helped to push trillions of dollars into developing markets in recent years.

The question of what central banks are supposed to do about it dominated the formal agenda here at the Kansas City Fed’s annual monetary policy conference.

The answers were surprisingly mellow. The rest of the world would like the Fed to explain its plans clearly, and then to travel slowly. Bankers from developing nations said they might need to impose some restrictions on the outflow of capital, but expressed little concern over the potential for serious economic disruptions.

Christine Lagarde, the managing director of the International Monetary Fund, struck the same sanguine tone in a Friday speech, declaring that “Central banks handled entry well, and we see no reason why they should not handle exit equally well.”

She added that the fund – and by extension, the major economies – accepted that some developing countries might need to impose some financial controls. “In some circumstances, capital flow management measures have been useful,” she said.

This is not the way that policymakers used to talk. The big countries and the I.M.F. spent the last few decades pushing for the liberalization of financial markets. They argued that developing nations were creating their own problems by failing to take the painful steps necessary to moderate capital inflows, notably by allowing their currencies to appreciate. And they showed no tolerance for capital controls.

The argument for global monetary policy coordination– mainly that in today’s globalized world, where unfathomable amounts of money can and do flow at the click of a mouse, that a large countries monetary policy choices have a direct impact on other countries–has already been explored in depth.One of the most important developments in monetary policy over the last generation is the conclusion that central banks can increase the power of their actions by talking about their goals, thereby shaping the expectations of investors.” Managing expectations and policy coordination are logically related and present a synergy point for global monetary policy coherence. 

Central banks historically have served a dual mandate, to manage unemployment and inflation. A 3rd (secondary) mandate has emerged since the Great Recession; to manage the extra-territorial effects of monetary policy decisions.

Two other interesting points are raised in these articles; the issue of capital controls and flexible credit lines.

Capital Controls:

International  capital investments are necessary for helping least developed countries (LDCs) escape poverty traps / expedite their development process. However, the mobility and liquidity of capital in today’s digital and globalized age make capital flows intrinsically volatile–capital controls help temper this volatility. IMF managing director Christie Lagarde has endorsed the use of capital controls in certain instances, which represents a complete 180 from the IMFs “Washington Consensus” policies of the 1980s and 90s. When money is “cheap” (as it is now), it flows to places that offer a higher rate of return (i.e. developing countries). Capital controls provide a buffer from capital flight when monetary policy tightens (which is inevitably as the global economy recovers), which can otherwise have devastating standard of living / human rights implications.

Capital flight may lead to less investment / higher “risk premium” (investors will not like the idea of not having complete control over their investment), but it is surely should be a countries own decision what investments it allows in its country and under what conditions, considering the destabilizing nature of unchecked financial inflows. If speculative money does not wish to come into a country, that may be in that countries best long term interests anyways. The failure of “Washington Consensus” policies, culminating in global financial contagion during the Great Recession, has led the international financial community (headed by the IMF) to reverse it’s previous stance on capital controls.

Flexible Credit Lines:

Jean Pierre-Landau alluded to flexible credit lines with this comment;

In addition, much could be gained through an international “lender of last resort,” which would remove the motive for some nations to maintain massive foreign exchange reserves, he added.

“All countries have a common interest in finding ways to disconnect reserve accumulation from exchange-rate management,” Landau said. “The need for national reserves could be reduced if credible mechanisms exist to provide for the supply of official liquidity on a multilateral basis.”

Flexible Credit Lines are available to countries through the IMF if they meet certain preconditions (a shift by the IMF from imposing constitutionality on loans to having countries reach certain thresholds for eligibility, but after that providing assistance without conditions that can sometimes undermine development (see “Washington Consensus”). Countries gain access to funding by the IMF at an agreed upon rate (which is fairly low). By having this IMF insurance policies, countries are able to pursue policies in their best long-term interests (for example capital controls, or fiscal investments in public goods), as opposed to the short-term interests of speculative investors.

The existence of a FCL eases concerns of financial actors. The overall experience with FCL countries (to date Mexico, Columbia, and Poland, evidence suggests that Ireland will be next) has been overwhelmingly positive. These countries have been able to borrow at a lower risk premium without ever having to access FCL money–no FCL country has ever had to draw on FCL funds. The efficacy of FCLs is only amplified against the backdrop of the European Debt Crisis.

I am a strong advocate of both FCLs and capital controls for developing countries. Both policies are fully consistent with a human rights based approach to sustainable human development. Both policies can temper the destabilizing effects of capital inflows, giving governments the capital, policy, and fiscal space needed to respond to crisis situations. It is encouraging to see high level policy makers are of the same mind when it comes to monetary policy coordination, FCLs, and capital controls.

I invite my readers to view a PPT presentation (FCL Final) I did last year on FCLs. The study shows graphically the experiences of Mexico, Columbia and Poland before, during, and after the Great Recession (these three countries all performed very well compared to comparable countries). It concludes by arguing for “scaling-up” of FCLs by offering them to more countries as a potential development tool.

 


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Economic Outlook: Financial Flows,Taxation, and Accountability

The primary function of taxation is to collect revenue to pay for public goods and services. Public goods and services are non-rival and non-excludable, they therefore often suffer from a “free-rider problem” (people benefit from the positive externalities regardless of whether they pay into the cost of the good or not). It is because of this free-rider problem that the private sector cannot efficiently provide public goods, necessitating what is sometimes referred to as the “social contract” between people and their governments (I will give up something, in this case money via taxation, in order to have certain publicly provided provisions). Examples of public goods are basic infrastructure (such as roads), and public services (such as police officers, firefighters, and public school teachers). 

Individual countries decide for themselves at what level taxes should be set, and what should be provided for via taxation. Individual countries also decide to what extent taxes should be progressive or flat. But across the world, in societies as fundamentally different as you can imagine, this general “social contract” relationship exists. Taxes also provide resources for social safety-net programs, which are important for inter-generational income smoothing, social mobility, and reducing inequalities (despite the “47% argument”)

Taxes can also be used for legitimizing purposes. Every modern country has tax collection and income monitoring services (performing similar functions as the IRS in America). One of the major functions of these organizations is ensuring that everyone pays what they are supposed to. A secondary function is to provide legitimacy to ones income; if someone claims large amounts of money with a questionable source, it will raise a red flag, and an investigation will ensue (if the system is working properly).

Taxes can also be used to influence ones behavior. The tax on cigarettes in NY is a good example of this. While the government cannot stop people from smoking, they can make it prohibitively expensive to smoke in hopes that people pursue healthier activities.

These are just some of the general functions of taxation.

As we know here at NN, not everyone plays by the rules, particularly when it comes to taxation. Offshore banking is a huge problem, perpetuating income inequality,  human rights abuses, and robbing governments of resources to fulfill their obligations. Some countries systematically provide rock-bottom tax rates and legitimacy for depositors without properly vetting the source of their money, leading to destabilizing financial inflows that dwarf the countries annual output (Cyprus is the most recent example you may remember).

As governments face difficult choices in the wake of the Great Recession, it has become more and more obvious that greater coordination and accountability are needed between countries to ensure that the world’s wealthiest pay their fair share for the public goods and services that have helped them to amass their wealth (and are held accountable for their role in the Great Recession).

The silver-lining of the Great Recession is that much more focus has been put on destabilizing forces that have accompanied financial globalization (and more recently technological advances which have made high speed / arbitrage seeking investment all the more possible). One example of this is the breaking of secrecy by Swiss Banks. Swiss Accounts are arguably the most famous example of elite tax-evasion; their exposure serves as a symbolic as well as practical turning point in offshore banking history. Another example is the imposition of a financial transaction tax (FTT), even if it has been watered down for now.

Swiss Banking:

“The Swiss government said on Wednesday that it would allow its banks to disclose information on American clients with hidden accounts, a watershed move intended to help resolve a long-running dispute with the United States over tax evasion.

The decision, which comes amid widening scrutiny in Europe of tax havens, is a turning point in what has been an escalating conflict between Switzerland and the United States.

Eveline Widmer-Schlumpf, Switzerland’s finance minister, said the move would enable Swiss banks to accept an offer by the United States government to hand over broad client details and pay fines in exchange for a promise by United States authorities not to indict any banks.”

“Ms. Widmer-Schlumpf declined to say how much banks might have to pay. But she said the Swiss government would not make any payments as part of the agreement. Sources briefed on the matter say the total fines could eventually total $7 billion to $10 billion, and that to ease any financial pressure on the banks, the Swiss government might advance the sums and then seek reimbursement.

“It is important for us to be able to let the past be the past,” Ms. Widmer-Schlumpf said at a news briefing in Bern, Switzerland. She declined to give any details about the program, but said banks would have one year to decide whether to accept the American offer.

American clients whose names are handed over by Swiss banks but who have not voluntarily disclosed hidden accounts to the Internal Revenue Service would probably face criminal tax-evasion charges, lawyers said. Dozens of Americans have been indicted or charged in recent years for failing to disclose their accounts.”

Calling the decision ‘a good, a pragmatic solution for the banks to emerge from their past,’ Ms. Widmer-Schlumpf said, ‘We expect this to create the base for banks to again gain some room for maneuver so that calm can return to the sector.’”

“‘This is an important step for the banks; it will apparently allow them to disclose statistical information, such as the number of accounts with U.S. beneficial owners, the number of accounts with foreign corporations or foundations, and the amount of assets under management,’ said Scott Michel, a tax lawyer in Washington, D.C. ‘The I.R.S. and D.O.J. can use this information as the basis for financial penalties under settlement agreements, which might be deferred-prosecution agreements or non-prosecution agreements.’”

It seems Switzerland wants to shed it’s stigma of an off-shore tax haven, and move forward with a more sustainable and transparent financial sector.

“‘Resolution of the conflict ‘has taken longer than it should have, with a lot of otherwise avoidable damage suffered on the Swiss side,’ said Robert Katzberg, a white-collar criminal defense lawyer in New York with Swiss and American bank clients. ‘But it now appears the end is in sight.’”

Financial Transaction Tax: It is no secret that irresponsible lending practices perpetuated financial bubbles around the world which eventually led to the Great Recession. One way of holding financial institutions responsible for their role in the Great Recession, while also raising revenue governments desperately need, is a financial transaction tax (FTT). CESR is a great resource for background info on the financial sectors role and human rights implication of The Great Recession, as well as the FTT.

A recent NYT article is critical of a watered down FTT in the works in Europe. While I agree it is disappointing the tax has been significantly reduced, the introduction of any FTT is a movement in the right direction. An incremental approach may be the best way to introduce this important new policy, and give it a real chance to work (instead of leading to large-scale capital flight to non-FTT countries):

“European countries planning a tax on financial transactions are set to drastically scale back the levy, cutting the charge by as much as 90 percent and delaying its full roll-out for years, in what would be a major victory for banks.

“Under the latest model, the standard rate for trading bonds and shares could drop to just 0.01 percent of the value of a deal, from 0.1 percent in an original blueprint drafted by Brussels. That would raise only about 3.5 billion euros, rather than the 35 billion initially forecast, a senior official said.”

“The tax may now also be introduced more gradually: rather than applying to trades in stocks, bonds and some derivatives from 2014, it may apply next year only to shares. Bond trades would not be taxed for two years and derivatives even later.

The roll-out could be scrapped altogether if, for example, the tax pushed traders to move deals abroad to avoid paying it.”

“The Financial Transaction Tax (FTT) resurrects an idea first conceived by U.S. economist James Tobin more than 40 years ago and has been symbolically important for politicians to show they are tackling the banks blamed for causing the financial crisis.”

‘You can introduce it on a staggered basis,’ said a second official. ‘We start with the lowest rate of tax (0.01 percent) and increase it bit by bit.'”

“‘The risk is that if you have some countries not participating, you have some shift of business from the countries in the tax to the countries without the tax,’ said one official, familiar with French government thinking. ‘This step by step approach can make sense.’

There is also the issue of which financial assets should be included in the proposed FTT:

“Within the group of 11 countries, Italy and France have expressed concerns about widening the tax beyond shares to government debt as both believe it could discourage investors from buying their bonds.”

I agree with Italy and France on this issue. The main reason many Euro countries are facing such crippling austerity is due to a “sovereign debt crisis“. These countries cannot afford to borrow sustainably, forcing them to make painful cuts which have led to a double-dip recession and high unemployment throughout Europe.

The FTT could potentially add to the borrow costs governments face if it included bonds as well. If however, a tax included everything except bonds, it would have the effect of lowering government borrowing costs. Making other financial transactions more expensive would make bond purchases more profitable by comparison (assuming financial institutions will pass on some portion of the tax to the customer, which is a pretty safe assumption). While the difference would be marginal, even a marginal decrease in borrowing costs can unlock millions if not billions in government resources.

What we see is the international community slowly working to make financial globalization more accountable and sustainable. While we may be frustrated with the slow rate of progress (as the author of the NYT article clearly is), it is important to realize that we are making meaningful progress.

Despite the political and economic cynics out there, who in their great “wisdom” will tell you nothing is happening to hold powerful interests accountable for their role in the financial crisis, we have as a global community learned lessons (albeit incredibly hard learned lessons) and are taking steps to ensure we do not repeat our past mistakes.

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