Saving the euro zone

I don’t think it is an exaggeration to say the next few weeks will be make or break for the euro zone.   Four elements should be kept in mind:

1.  Lacking a reliable lender of last resort to (large) states, the creditworthiness of countries with large debts and uncertain growth prospects is extremely fragile.   Where any doubts exist about solvency, it is easy to shift to bad equilibrium, even where it is very likely that the state would not default if interest rates stay low.   Ryan Avent at the Economist provides a good analysis here. 

2.  Introducing a credible lender of last resort creates big transfer-risk externalities.   All euro zone countries should be wary of such a lender without some central controls on fiscal policies. 

3.  Even absent the need for central controls, euro zone countries would benefit from stronger national fiscal frameworks given the propensity to (structural) deficit bias.   And some degree of external surveillance and enforcement can help to make those frameworks more credible.   The cost of central controls should not be exaggerated. 

4.  It will be much harder to pull out of the crisis without the use of growth oriented macroeconomic policies where they are feasible.   This applies to fiscal policy in countries where some degree of fiscal space exists, monetary policy and macro prudential policy.

Variable-rate Mortgages, Liquidity Funding, and the Euro

The Financial Regulator, Matthew Elderfield, received a clamour of popular support recently when he publicly objected to the Irish domestic banks planned decision not to decrease variable mortgage rates in response to the ECB cut in interest rates. The political establishment was warmly enthusiastic for Elderfield’s intervention. The government used its shareholding and political muscle to ensure that the banks’ decisions were reversed. The government also offered to provide the financial regulator with legislative power to determine banks’ mortgage rates. Wiser heads within the Central Bank prevailed, and the government was told by the Central Bank “thanks, but no thanks” for the offer of new legal power to set retail mortgage rates. Continue reading “Variable-rate Mortgages, Liquidity Funding, and the Euro”

Reform of household energy policy

Minister Rabbitte for Energy sketches several reforms of household energy policy in today’s Irish Times. These are plans for the longer term.

There are a range of fuel allowances. Some are means-tested, some are not. None are needs-tested. Houses may be insulated at the exchequer’s expense, but the occupiers are still entitled to fuel allowances. Minister Rabbitte suggests that, in the future, fuel allowances will be directed towards colder homes. That is a welcome improvement.

There are grants for home energy efficiency improvement and micro-renewables. These grants are optimized for administrative convenience rather than emission or fuel poverty reduction. These grants also imperfectly address the core issue: The lack of access to capital to invest in home improvement. Minister Rabbitte suggests that, in the future, grants will be replaced with cheap loans. That is a welcome improvement.

Lack of information is another issue with household energy use. Minister Rabbitte suggest that, in the future, Building Energy Ratings will be mandatory. They are already, but this is not enforced and many prospective buyers/renters seem to be unaware of their legal right to a BER. Reinforcement of this regulation is a welcome improvement.

I had a close look at BERs in England. An English BER is about half the price of an Irish BER, and it contains much more information on heating costs and potential improvements.

Minister Rabbitte also suggests that houses with a poor BER will be taken off the market. I’m not sure that that is wise. It is rather tough on the current owners of such houses. It will also drive up rent particularly in the lower price segments.

UPDATE: 30.9% of houses have a BER of E, F or G.

Three good ideas, so, and one bad one. There is plenty of time to reconsider and refine.

COP17 in Durban

Today, the 17th Conference of the Parties (COP17) of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) starts in Durban, South Africa. Unlike the summit of 2009 in Copenhagen, expectations are low. The political attention is firmly fixed on the economy. The negotiators will thus make the same demands that were rejected by their counterparts at previous conferences.

Climategate 2.0 broke last week, too late to influence official positions. Besides, the new batch of emails show more of the same. The main new element is the role of the BBC.

Some 20,000 people are expected to travel to Durban. These events are expensive, definitely when compared to the expected result. Some Irish civil servants are rumored to travel in style. This is not at the expense of the Irish taxpayer. Travel to climate negotiations is covered by the development aid budget. As the aid budget is fixed, Irish travel to Durban comes at the expense of people in Ethiopia, Lesotho, Malawi, Mozambique, Tanzania, Timor-Leste, Uganda, Vietnam, and Zambia.

The low expectations for Durban are a blessing in disguise. I have argued that the current international climate regime is complete. The UNFCCC has standardized monitoring of emissions. The Kyoto Protocol / Marrakesh Accords has created international trading mechanisms for emission reduction credits. (Kyoto’s targets end in 2012 but the Protocol itself has no sunset clause.) The COPs have increasingly morphed into fora for pledge and review of domestic policies and targets. That is all that is needed, and all that is feasible (bar a transfer of sovereignty to the UN).

The negotiators in Durban should therefore focus on refining the existing mechanisms. That is quite boring stuff, so that hopefully the majority of the 20,000 in Durban will decide not to return to COP18 in Qatar or South Korea. UPDATE: It will be Qatar.

UPDATE: After pretending to be greener than Labour for a while, the Tories now argue that jobs are important too. This would put London on a collision course with Brussels. The UK will want to rid itself of the Large Combustion Plant Directive too.

UPDATE: Less than 72 hours after I predicted nothing much would happen in Durban, the EU changed its tune. Poland is not particularly keen on EU climate policy. They have the presidency. Talking tough, they at once please the greens and reduce the chance of success.