The despondency that has attached itself to the financial crisis is ‘taking shadows from the reality of things’. Dante would not approve. Europe is drifting into a prolonged recession as policy-makers worry about inflationary expectations and competitive devaluations. Households hope to be delivered from this agonizing crisis. Are there solutions? The following is a grand narrative of policy options, contingent on a managed exchange rate regime, an idea first aired in the Letters to Editor page of the Financial Times in 2009. G20 has not acted. They meet in Mexico – maybe recent Yen, RMB, Euro, Sterling, Swiss Franc and US Dollar movements may persuade them to look at the role of exchange rate fluctuations ‘midst this financial crisis as Europe drifts into a debt-recession trap.
Drifting into a recession
There is a palpable sense of despair and hopelessness, a lack of demand yet inflationary expectations have become embedded in the policy-maker’s crystal ball. The real economy of households and companies is shrinking in a vacuous cycle of intermittent growth as rising bond prices and lower yields improve the real economy of the investor. Banks, the exogenous factor in the policy-makers’ macro-economic models, still fail to understand that job creation, time-to-build technologies and innovations require a flow of credit. Personal balance sheets are moving into safe harbours, given the wealth destruction that has occurred in the property and equity markets and will continue for the foreseeable future. Anybody who can is saving, more are spending less. Welcome to the debt-recession trap.
Household balance sheets
Recovery must be centred on the household balance sheet; however, household budget patterns are unpredictable. Current decisions depend on expectations of what future policies will be. This is a conditioned response for households in a debt-recession trap. The mismatch between policy-maker and reality creates a short period – a phenomenon that households imagine if they change demand and spend more the other households will neither keep demand unchanged (so all increase demand and prices go up) nor continue to keep their behaviour unchanged (so bargains become available to the first mover) if they alter their behaviour. How each household responds depends on how each believes the other will respond. The result is demand is less, output is less and the recession is prolonged.
In the interim, households have adjustment costs – no interest income from government bonds, no dividend income from company-issued equities and minimal after-tax spend so unlike in the macro-economic models of our Central Banks, households are not seeking to maximise the concave single-period utility function subject to a budget constraint wherein the present value of consumption equals the present value of disposable income. Savings, for example, in a debt-recession trap signal to policy-makers that rational householders are experiencing low levels of expenditure in the present period due to the short-period phenomenon thus reducing the marginal utility of expenditure in future periods. So there should be a greater willingness to spend when the personal balance sheet are restructured.
Policy prescription: reduce income taxation to increase after-tax spend
QE and the US Dollar
During the Great Depression banks restructured their balance sheets; reduced loans in absolute and relative terms and invested (mainly) in government bonds. Isn’t this happening today? The ECB/Bundesbank believes that purchasing government bonds is tantamount to monetising government debt, thus leading to high inflation or a loss to the ECB on a government default. Paradoxically pre-crisis banks were turning government bonds from across the Euro zone into cash at the ECB, as governments borrowed and the banks relied on short-term funding. So really, all Central Banks – the Fed, BoE, BoJ and even ‘the outright monetary transactions’ policy at the ECB/Bundesbank facilitate the buying of government bonds – so why the mystery?
The Fed signals less worry about inflation through QE and the printing of money. Lowering interest rates may be devaluing the dollar but it is facilitating increased US export competitiveness. Central Banks that want to support their currencies are willing to increase interest rates. The Fed does not. The US dollar has been captured by Fed announcements. It is widely accepted that QE has contributed to a weak US dollar.
When Timothy Geithner described China as ‘a currency manipulator’ in 2009 the exchange rate became politicised. More recently, Jens Weidmann, President of the Bundesbank, expressed concern about Central Banks’ efforts to revive exports by facilitating competitive devaluations. Did he have the Fed in mind? Music to the ears of Brazilian Finance Minister Guido Mantega, who first signalled the ‘currency wars’ in 2010 as Brazil worried about an overvalued real. Its current account deficit is now contributing to a reduction in its economic growth. And the new PM of Japan, Mr Abe has had an impact on the Yen’s exchange rate pushing it from 78 per US dollar to 89 as he asked the Bank of Japan to double its inflation target to 2% – and to buy government bonds until that target is met.
Policy prescription: looser monetary policy and higher inflation targets
China and the Yuan/RMB
Elsewhere www.patrickmcnutt.com/wp-content/uploads/ChinaRMB.doc we had argued that Yuan appreciation will not and cannot solve the Sino-US trade imbalance. China in time, will, we had argued then, move to a more flexible exchange rate regime but at its own pace. It could occur during the 12th Five-Year-Plan 2011-2015 as economic growth in China becomes less reliant on export-led growth. By 2015 China trade and FDI flows will have moved away from US and Europe and more towards what we had described as the ASLEEP economies www.patrickmcnutt.com/video/cnbc-financial-crisis-interview/. We agree with Professor Subramanian at the Peterson Institute for International Economics that the RMB could displace the US dollar as the leading reserve currency in the next decade. Trading nations and TNCs are already diversifying into RMB – being able to trade in RMB reduces transaction costs and mitigates currency risks for exporters. Liquidity from China could relieve any inflationary pressures in trading economies.
Many trading nations are considering a looser monetary policy combined with a higher inflation target – it presents an optimal policy and an escape hatch in a debt-recession trap. An inflationary bias in the conduct of monetary policy might be optimal if inflation shocks can lead to (welfare enhancing) increases in output. Albeit, any comparative statics exercise emanating from policy-makers’ models should be interpreted with great caution. A looser monetary policy could drive their respective currencies lower but any hope of sustained growth will be frustrated by a beggar-my-neighbour policy of competitive devaluations in the race to win the greater share of increased exports.
As previously outlined, http://www.ft.com/intl/cms/s/0/bb726952-6b57-11de-861d-00144feabdc0.html#axzz2KtE2NBLz a period of managed exchange rates may be required under the auspices of G7, and ultimately G20. Europe, specifically, and the G20 trading nations more generally, need to manage their monetary and fiscal policies within a managed exchange rate regime in order to escape the debt-recession trap.
Policy prescription: managed exchange rate regime to align world currency fluctuations.
Rational households and companies may have ‘parked’ demand and production, delayed in the anticipation of an inflationary period with looser monetary policy and competitive devaluations. If their expectations were managed within a managed exchange rate regime then there could be some hope that the real economy may improve as the worlds’ trading nations together plan an exit from the financial crisis. ENDS/PatrickMcNutt