For now I suspect everyone will want to discuss currencies. One of the more interesting pieces of news for me was yesterday’s Financial Times story on President Sarkozy’s finding “unacceptable” the disordered currency markets (“disorder” means a rising euro). According to the article:
Many people believe that the exchange rate regime (i.e. the monetary policy regime) of each country is its own sovereign choice.
In the Great Depression, we saw the harmful effects of the exchange rate mercantalism that is feasible with fiat money. This was a key motivation for Keynes and others in their design of the post-war order. The IMF was supposed to be a multilateral body that would help bring pressure on countries to move towards good sense through `ruthless truth-telling’. This didn’t work out too well. The IMF got itself into a box where it would not say anything about exchange rate regimes. To some extent, by standing ready to help countries that got into a currency crisis, it has helped perpetuate exchange rate pegging.
The US dollar ($US) is on a roller coaster. And since S&P downgraded Greece to BBB+, the dollar has been on the rise. One can attribute the recent shift in the $US to many things – improving US economic conditions, return to risk, or relative weakness in other G7 countries, whatever. But what is clear, is that the dollar’s gaining some strength, 4.7% since the beginning of December on a trade-weighted basis.
The ongoing dollar carry trade has recently come to the forefront of the international policy debate (Roubini, 2009). Capital inflows to emerging market countries have put pressures on some currencies, and authorities have responded by slowing the pace of appreciation, in some cases by capital controls. This short article uses a GARCH framework to examine […]
What a difference seven years makes. No one had a problem with Japan having super low interest rates and stoking a global carry trade, nor with the US running overly loose monetary policy that led to a real estate bubble that spread its impact beyond our borders via the creation of toxic mortgage product sold far and wide.
But one difference this time is now the dollar, rather than the yen, looks like the best funding currency, and the dollar is a deeper market, so the scale of potential damage is much greater. Second is that a lot of countries are running loose money policies, but they are at least making some credible noises re tightening (whether they follow through is another matter, of course). The US, by contrast, has made clear that it is keeping things easy-peasey for the foreseeable future. And the US (starting with the Greenspan era) has signaled any hawkish moves well in advance, so the odds that the Fed will have a sudden change of heart are just about zero.
Now, to play devil’s advocate, one could argue that the loose money policy is warranted. There is tons of slack in the economy, unemployment is high and rising, capacity utilization stinks. Surely raising rates now would be the worst move possible, right?
The authorities are completely responsible for the messes on two different fronts that intersect to create monetary policy dilemma. Going below 2% for Fed funds was a huge error (well maybe you could justify 1% as a very short term expedient), but the Fed is now painted in a corner. But second, and the much bigger issue, is that (as everyone can see) all this cheap money is not going into the real economy. A few very high quality borrowers are getting good rates; everyone else finds credit scarce and costly. So spreads are higher than before, and even absolute rates are often higher expect in markets like mortgages where the Fed has intervened.
Now some readers will correctly say that overly loose lending is what created the problem, and we need to undo that, but they are conflating two issues. Tightening up on WHO gets credit and HOW MUCH they get is separate from pricing. If this was mere improved standards, you’d expect to see more discrimination within various types of borrowers. But instead, across entire swathes of borrowers, particularly consumers and small businesses, banks have simply turned off the spigot. This has little to do with a return to prudent practices. In fact, it illustrates a real cancer: that across consumers and many small business owners, old-fashioned multi-variable decision-making (which included some verification of income) has been replaced by heavily or entirely FICO based systems. Those systems failed utterly. But they were cheap to operate, banks have no intention of reverting to earlier, more costly approaches. So we have a credit assessment process that is broken, but no one wants to admit it.
So if all this loose money isn’t getting to the real economy, there should be no reason not to raise rates, right? Wrong. This little procedure is again, entirely about the banks, screw the real economy and everyone in it. First, low rates (and now a steep yield curve) are an ideal setting for banks to make money. Greenspan pulled the same trick in the wake of the S&L crisis, and it enabled banks to rebuild their very wobbly balance sheets comparatively quickly (I’m amazed at the revisionist history about the early 1990s banking woes, which also involved pretty serious damage from dud LBO loans, and left the US banking system seriously undercapitalized). This plus high spreads makes ofr a very attractive environment for any new business.
But the second reason for keeping rates low is explicitly to keep asset prices aloft. The bubble is an explicit goal of policy. Remember, early in the crisis, they was talk of the markets being irrationally depressed. Funny how it is only prices that are seen as inconveniently low, and not ones that are insanely high, that are criticized.
But to cite Richard Nixon parodists: Let us make one thing perfectly clear. These monetary shenanigans are in no small measure the result of the utter failure of nerve late last year and early this year, to take sick institutions and resolve them. In many cases might not have entailed the bogeyman of nationalization (as in protracted government ownership), but throwing out the old top management and board, and forced debt to equity conversions. Cleaning up the banks was never treated seriously as an option, when the track record clearly shows that that is the fastest, least-cost way to deal with a financial crisis.
This guest post was submitted by Joe Gagnon, a senior fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics. Joe is an expert on international economics has spent a great deal of time studying the effects of exchange rate depreciation. Even if the dollar depreciates sharply in the near term, he argues that is unlikely to have […]
On the eve of U.S. President Barack Obama’s visit to China, a major Chinese official has criticized U.S. monetary policy in unusually harsh language. Liu Mingkang, China Banking Regulatory Commission chairman said the zero interest rate policy of the U.S. Federal Reserve posed a “new systemic risk.” Liu, using language reminiscent of warnings by NYU […]
Later today I am leaving to New York and DC for a week, so this may be my last post for several days since my schedule will be pretty hectic. Of course most of my trip will involve meetings with bankers, investors and some government officials, but the timing of my visit was based on […]
Nouriel Roubini has officially left the “hedging your bets on the economy” camp. He has declared the markets to be frothy because super low dollar borrowing rates have turned the greenback into the funding currency for the carry trade. Far more important than the peppy rally in the stock market is the resumption of early […]
If you have been wondering whether a statistical recovery is at hand, today’s ISM manufacturing report should be the clincher. The report was definitely bullish with the ISM index rising to 55.7 and sub-components supporting the understanding that the manufacturing sector is expanding. This is quite a contrast to last month’s weak data and demonstrates […]