Statistical Codology

Tim Harford, in his column last Saturday in the Financial Times, laments the innumeracy which pervades the popular press and much of the political debate. There are people unable to remember the difference between a million and a billion constantly pontificating on weighty economic issues of all descriptions in both print and broadcast media. My favourite category of statistical codology is the university ranking tables now produced in profusion by various self-appointed scorekeepers, notably the Times Higher Education Supplement which ought to know better. The Irish newspapers reported last week the sad news that Trinity College Dublin had fallen from 117th best university in the whole wide world to a mere 120th according to this venerable source. It has fallen behind the University of York, the shame of it, and has managed to stay just an inch ahead of the University of Oslo (phew!).
Unreported was the even sadder news that the Cork City football team, last season’s Irish champions, are now ranked a humble 160th in the world, down from the heady heights of 157th this time last year and just a corner-kick ahead of Croatia’s Rijeka FC. This vital info can be gleaned from, who must be wondering why their number-crunching attracts so little coverage.
There is a simple reason. Football fans know that these rankings mean nothing whatsoever. If anyone really needed to know whether Cork or Rijeka boasts the better team, say if they were drawn against one another in some competition, the matter takes ninety minutes to resolve. How though do you check if Trinity or Oslo has the better university? A ninety-minute showdown between the staff of the two institutions would be quite a spectacle but could turn ugly.
The attraction of the university rankings for journalists is precisely that they are meaningless and accordingly incontrovertible. The winner in the latest league table for world’s best university was none other than the University of Oxford, whose distinguished alumni include Boris Johnson, Theresa May, David Cameron and just about all the other folks who have been doing such a spiffing job on Brexit. Which does not mean that Oxford is a poor university. It just means that the concept of university league tables is for the birds. Football league tables (based on the results of actual matches between the teams in each league) are at the upper end of respectable scientific practice by comparison. It looks like Dundalk will relieve Cork of their title as the season draws to a close. But since each team will have played 36 games against the rest this really does suggest that Dundalk have the best team.
However daft the concept and dodgy the statistical methodology, the university tables have their uses. The recent declines in the rankings for the Irish colleges have fuelled demands from their presidents for extra taxpayer cash. A few years back the same tables were showing an advance up the rankings, proof positive, according to the same people, that public spending on universities was delivering the goods and should be increased.
Brexit provides another example of the innumeracy which annoys Tim Harford. The UK’s annual and recurring net contribution to the EU budget has recently been running at about £9 billion per annum, a large number with lots of zeroes. This number, not to be confused with the once-off exit bill, has been ventilated by Brexiteers as, quite properly, a potential ongoing benefit to the Treasury of a full exit. Another figure in circulation is the population of the EU-27 which comes in around 450 million, not quite so large a number but lots of zeroes too. There have been regular assertions that the loss of the UK’s money will cause great damage to the finances of the EU-27: the political editor of the Sunday Express Camilla Tominey ventured that it would ‘bankrupt the European Union’ on a BBC programme, without challenge, a few months back. Nobody at the BBC, it would appear, has thus far bothered to divide the larger of these two big numbers by the smaller. The answer turns out to be £20 per head per annum. Total government revenue in the EU-27 is close to £4,000 billion. The UK’s £9 billion will be missed, but not noticed.
Some people are good at figures but most are not and are lost with very large numbers. Tim Harford’s solution is a call for better statistical training in schools and universities. Even at Oxford this looks a wee bit optimistic. There is however no excuse for the sloppiness about statistical matters in well-resourced media organisations. Here’s another very large number: the BBC gets about £3.5 billion per annum from the license fee, surely enough to engage the services of a statistician, or to buy everyone a pocket calculator. (courtesy the Farmers Journal).

Boris Builds a Bridge

In a competitive field yesterday’s bridge across the English Channel, proposed in a solo run by foreign secretary Boris Johnson, must rank as the zaniest piece of headline-hunting since the Brexit referendum. The occasion was the visit to Britain of French president Emmanuel Macron, to meet Theresa May rather than Boris. May and Macron agreed an Anglo-French committee to consider future, but unspecified, collaborative projects, just the ticket to fill out an otherwise thin official communique from the two leaders. How to upstage?

The Boris Bridge worked a treat, reported deadpan as a news story by the BBC, prominent in the Daily Mail and the front-page lead in the Telegraph. The Express was able to offer a real scoop:

‘Emmanuel Macron has jumped at the chance of building a giant bridge linking the UK and the EU after Boris Johnson floated the idea during meetings yesterday, it has been revealed.’

Revealed to the Express only. Denials that the bridge is on any official agenda were duly issued on both sides of the channel and the wretched FT, read mainly by foreigners, did not mention the story at all.

A day later the BBC and the newspaper websites finally got round to phoning a few engineers, some of whom were unsporting enough to mention the last two great Anglo-French collaborations, Concorde, cost over-run 450%, and the channel tunnel, a snip at just 80% over budget.

The British media, including the BBC, have done an appalling job in covering the continuing Brexit circus.

On Dividing Large Numbers by Other Large Numbers

Conservative backbench MP Jacob Rees-Mogg, welcoming today’s Economists for Free Trade report predicting a bright post-Brexit future for the UK economy, remarked that the loss of the UK’s £9 billion per annum net contribution to the budget would render the EU ‘effectively insolvent’, according to the Guardian.

They should therefore be threatened with immediate suspension of the UK’s payments, forcing the EU to do a deal. Nine billion divided by the EU-27 population of 450 million works out at £20 per capita per annum.

Mr. Rees-Mogg has been described as a possible future leader of the Conservative party and has performed strongly in straw polls of party activists.

Is it OK if I lie down for a while?

The UK’s Brexit Bill and the European Investment Bank

The annex to the EU-27 negotiating position released yesterday in Brussels states clearly that the UK will be departing the European Investment Bank, in which it is a 16.1% shareholder.

The UK will expect to be credited with the value of these shares when the exit bill comes to be totted up. How much are they worth?

According to the latest accounts the EIB had net worth of €66.2 billion at end 2016, and has been posting annual profits around €2.7 billion. By Brexit Day (March 29th 2019) the UK share of net worth should be at least €11 billion, not a small amount in the context of the row about money which has already commenced.

There are complications: the EIB retains all earnings and does not pay dividends, so owning shares has not been much fun. But as a result it has a CET1 ratio of 26.4 and leverage under 9, as well as a AAA credit rating, high liquidity and ECB access. This will be the last European bank to go bust.

There is very substantial uncalled capital, in the UK’s case €35.7 billion. This is in effect an option against the shareholders and hence a contingent liability. However there seems to be very low likelihood that this capital will ever be called. If it were called from all shareholders leverage would drop towards 2!

When the UK is ejected, who buys the shares? It could most conveniently be the EIB itself, from reserves. The bank looks to be over-capitalised. Numerous other angles will arise – the EIB shares are a substantial item and have been overlooked.

GDP Carry-over Carry-on

If the economy expands through a new year by, say, 1% each quarter from the previous Q4 number, the growth rate on an annual basis will be about 4%, right?
Wrong. It depends on the intra-year pattern the year before. If the previous year saw quarterly improvements, with the Q4 figure ahead of the year’s average, a flat performance in the new year will yield apparent year-on-year growth, even though the economy is not expanding.
The seasonally adjusted GDP numbers for 2016 were released on March 9th, also and not coincidentally the data cut-off for the ESRI forecast of year-on-year growth in 2017 of 3.8%. Subsequent forecasts from the Central Bank and the Department of Finance came in at 3.5% and 4.3% respectively.
The sum of seasonally adjusted GDP for the four quarters of 2016, according to the CSO, came to €256.3 billion. But the Q4 number was 26% of the annual total at €66.6 bn. A flat performance from Q4 through each quarter of 2017 would yield an annual growth rate of 4%. So the ESRI projection is consistent with no improvement, indeed a slight decline, from Q4 last year. The CB projection implies a bigger decline, the DoF a tiny increase. All three sets of projections were heralded in the press coverage as signalling continued economic expansion through 2017.
The problem is the so-called ‘carry-over’ effect – Joe Durkan has been on about this for aeons. The CSO has been publishing quarterly macro data for over twenty years. Perhaps it is time for forecasts to be done on the same basis.
For the record, if you expect GDP to grow 1% per quarter from the Q4 2016 base through 2017, the year-on-year growth rate will be 6.6%. If the forecasters feel the Q4 figure was odd, and that there will be a dip for Q1 2017, better to say so.

Supply Curves Explained

Numberless ‘experts’ have misunderstood the government’s mortgage deposit subsidy. It’s all about the supply elasticity, as Michael Noonan helpfully explained to the Irish Examiner on Tuesday.

“The economists are saying we should have concentrated on the supply side. When there’s a demand for something, it leads to increased supply. If we can give deposits to people there will be an increased supply. The [building] industry will move to supply the extra demand.

To give you an example: When it was done previously, the first [car] scrappage scheme was introduced by Ruairi Quinn back in the 1990s. The theory then was the motor-car business was on the flat of its back — no cars being sold. So, with the scrappage scheme, people were given money and that money expressed itself in demand for new cars and a lot of new cars were sold. So, when there is demand backed by cash, supply responds and that’s the theory of it.”

So you whistle up some guy in Germany and he ships over 100,000 houses, at yesterday’s price.

Why didn’t I think of this ? Does Philip Lane read the Examiner?

The Dog Ate My Wind-Farm

The Irish Times relates this morning an Oxford Mail report of a lucky escape for a corporate financier formerly employed with Barclays and Lehman Brothers. Michael Chase-Sarver copped a four-month prison sentence from Judge Eccles at Oxford Crown Court. He had been prosecuted for perverting the course of justice in attempting to avoid a speeding conviction.
He called a witness from Derry who testified that Mr. Chase-Sarver was the promoter of a wind-farm project in Donegal which would cost €1 billion, occupy 35,000 acres and employ 300 people. The judge suspended the sentence, citing the risk to the 300 jobs.
Neither Donegal County Council nor An Bord Pleanala are aware of this project according to local media.
This is surprising. The average cost of 1 MW of wind capacity is about €2m, so the billion Euro tab would equate to around 500MW, the largest generation facility to be built in Ireland since Moneypoint in the mid-1980s. At 35,000 acres the site (70 acres per MW sounds about right) would occupy 3% of the land area of Donegal, a large county. The witness from Derry, a co-investor in the mystery project, claims that agreement has been reached with 100 very discreet farmers.
Ireland already has about 2,500 MW of intermittent wind capacity. Peak demand is about 5,000 and total capacity about 10,000, of which 7000 is dispatchable. Wind gets priority when available and a price guarantee, or compensation if ‘constrained off’. Further additions of intermittent generation, from wind or solar, will add to the subsidy costs and strand more gas-fired assets, many of which belong to the government.

The EBA Stress Tests: What’s the News Value?

The Irish banks, AIB and Bank of Ireland, show up poorly on the stress test of 51 European banks (33 in the Eurozone) released Friday night. The methodology is explained on the EBA website. Briefly, there has not been a review of each bank by a team of EBA inspectors as is implied by some of the media coverage – RTE’s bulletin referred to an ‘examination’. It is a mechanical exercise based on the ‘static’ 2015 balance sheet, as published, with no adjustment for the plausibility of provisions but also with no credit for retained earnings post 2015. The ‘stress’ is essentially a GDP downturn from 2016 through 2018 resulting in a depletion of capital adequacy as against the end-2015 balance sheet number.

The scale of the depletion reflects the extent of the assumed downturn. The essential reason for the sharper loss of capital adequacy for the Irish banks is that the downturn assumed for Ireland is greater. Against a baseline, the cumulative adverse GDP shock for the main Eurozone countries included is as follows:

Belgium -7.6
Germany -6.6
Ireland -10.4
Spain -6.7
France -5.6
Italy -5.9
Lux -8.2
Neth -8.4
Austria -7.6
Finland -8.3

The adverse shock assumed for Ireland is the largest and 3.2% above the average for the others shown. There are some other factors but the EBA release makes it clear that these numbers are the main driver of the projected capital depletion. The basis for the large Irish shock is a calibration against the experience over 2008 to 2011 when the downturn in Ireland was more severe than elsewhere.

The EBA may have sacrificed plausibility to uniformity of treatment – the exercise is in any event an input into a further phase called SREP, the supervisory review and evaluation process, rather than a definitive assessment of bank capital adequacy. The Irish banks, and numerous others, may of course need to generate or raise more capital but the relative worsening in their position flows from the assumptions employed and not from any ‘news’ uncovered by the EBA sleuths.

Managing the Budget with High Debt and No Currency

A sovereign state with low debt can access liquidity through the markets. There are limits and they will be reached when the debt ratio begins to send out distress calls. Until that (unknown) point, there are, in effect, un-borrowed foreign exchange reserves. With an independent currency liquidity can be created for government or banks without external conditionality. There are limits here too and creating excess liquidity brings inflation risk and exchange rate pressure.
With high debt and hence uncertain access to bond markets a short-term expansion cannot safely be financed through debt sales without constraining capacity to repeat the procedure. Without a currency either, the creation of liquidity is conditional on the cooperation of the foreign central bank. If its conditions include constraints on fiscal action there can be no stabilisation policy – no exchange rate, no monetary or fiscal discretion.
Most Eurozone governments can borrow in the markets at low rates, courtesy of QE, despite historically high debt ratios. In the absence of QE the perception of capacity to borrow could diminish rapidly. Availability of QE is in any event not automatic – there is none for Greece, for example. There are also unclear conditions on ELA creation by national CBs. Consent from the ECB can be withdrawn arbitrarily or may be permitted only on penal conditions, such as pay-offs to unguaranteed creditors of bust banks.
The Eurozone governments with high debt face an illusion of policy space in current circumstances, with apparently easy access to debt markets. The constraint appears to be the EU rules about budgetary limits, as long as QE lasts.
But QE will end at some stage and the constraint becomes the market demand for sovereign debt. The design problem for fiscal policy (the only stabilisation tool available) is to manage the trade-off between using it now and having less to use later. Since the election Irish politicians have found agreement on two policies: (i) that the European Commission should be lobbied to relax the budget rules and (ii) that government should borrow ‘off balance sheet’.
Policy (i), lobbying the Commission, sacrifices future budget flexibility explicitly. The inverse demand curve for sovereign debt is r = f(D) where D is the debt ratio. Unless f(D) is flat the sacrifice is real. Moreover f(D) is unknown, although known not to be flat. Unless sovereign bond buyers are unable to count (ii), hiding sovereign liabilities, is just gaming the Eurostat debt definition. This definition (gross general government debt to gross output) is not a serious measure of debt servicing capability and, after QE, a sovereign could easily be inside some EU limit and unable to borrow. Eurostat does not lend money.
There are arguments for battling to borrow: interest costs are low and it is an article of faith that high-value public investment projects are plentiful. The trade-off (looser policy now versus the risk of ill-timed tightening later) would look better if the economy was becalmed, multipliers high, debt ratios modest, macro-volatility historically low and the foreign central bank known to be benign. None of these conditions applies currently in Ireland.
There is a case for using the QE respite to borrow reserves, accepting the negative carry, as NTMA appears to be doing. The case for deferring the attainment of budget balance is harder to see.

The ECB’s Inflation Target

The Eurozone HICP inflation index for February was at roughly the same level it had reached in the early months of 2012. That is to say the inflation rate has been essentially zero for four years.
The cumulative impact of this undershoot on the real burden of debt is getting to be very serious. The ECB’s own forecasts are for just 0.1% in 2016, 1.3% in 2017 and 1.6% in 2018, so they expect the undershooting to continue. By this time next year the price level will have been flat for five years. If GDP deflators had risen at 2% per annum for those five years various indebted countries would have knocked ten points off debt/GDP ratios, other things equal. So the ECB policy failure has consequences and has penalised the countries most heavily indebted.
Unlike the situation in the UK, the USA and other inflation-targeting countries there is not even a clear figure. The phrase (intoned at every Draghi press conference) is ‘below, but close to, 2%’. Why so coy? What does ‘close to’ actually mean? Will the 1.6% predicted for 2018 be deemed to have done the job?
The treaty talks only about price stability so the choice of target is entirely a matter for the ECB Governing Council. The tortured phraseology looks like a compromise – the sound money people getting the ‘below’ part and the rest getting the ‘but close to’. The 2% number had to get a mention, since various central banks had settled on an explicit 2% figure. It would hardly have been feasible to publicly declare a lower target number like 1% and would have had market repercussions. Whichever scribe came up with the form of words has hopefully been promoted.
Suppose the measures announced last week have their desired impact and Eurozone inflation reaches somewhere deemed ‘close to’ 2% in 2018. By that stage the heavily-indebted countries will have been short-changed substantially on real debt burdens. The remedy would be to raise the target, say to 4%, for five or six years in order to compensate, as Olivier Blanchard proposed when he was at the IMF. The indebted countries would be remiss not to push for this when the time comes, assuming the show is still on the road.

Save the Eurozone – Scrap the €500 Note

The Eurozone, Japan, Switzerland and some Scandinavian countries now have negative official interest rates, so they charge commercial banks for holding excess funds at the central bank. The idea is to incentivise them to lend more money instead into the real economy. This has not really been happening: business firms are too nervous to borrow and do not feel the need for extra productive capacity. The European Central Bank is considering whether its charge on bank credit balances should be increased to power up the incentive, that is, whether the negative rate should be even more negative. There are numerous snags attaching to this latest venture into unorthodox policy.
The first is that commercial banks, whose balance sheets remain fragile, find it very hard to make money when interest rates get this low. Healthy bank profits are hardly a priority for most people but loss-making banks are not a very attractive prospect either. The other problem is that negative official interest rates mean that monetary policy is already reaching its limits. Economists have long written about the ‘zero lower bound’ for interest rates: nobody will hold deposits at a cost and will resort instead to cash. Interest rates on demandable deposits are already zero in Ireland (or 0.01% to be more accurate) and some Swiss banks are now levying a charge. If you deposit €1000 they will pay you back only €999, or €995, a year from now. This is not an attractive deal and people will prefer to keep their money in banknotes.
The trouble is that most bank deposits by value are in amounts much larger than €1000. Many business corporations, nonbank financial companies and pension funds keep deposits in the multiple millions. They cannot stuff the filing cabinets with physical banknotes. But they are not captive customers of the commercial banks either. If they can find somebody trustworthy to hold banknotes on their behalf it might be a better deal even if there is a storage cost. It appears that storage costs could be cheaper than the negative interest rates now threatened, particularly given the availability of large denomination notes such as the $100 bill or, even more attractive, the €500 note in the Eurozone. You could fit a million easily into a briefcase in the form of €500 notes. The ECB’s negative rate is currently 0.3% and it may penalise depositors even further at its next monetary policy meeting on March 10th next. Wholesale interest rates on large deposits will inevitably follow the ECB rate. There have been calculations that storing millions in the form of €500 notes would cost less than the likely wholesale penalty if the ECB goes even more negative.
So somebody needs to come up with a cunning wheeze to escape this latest policy cul-de-sac and there are active proposals to, you guessed it, abolish the €500 note. It would not be acceptable to explain that this was necessary because of another policy misadventure, so the spin coming out of both Brussels and Frankfurt is that the €500 note is mainly used by criminals, and since nobody likes criminals, it has got to go. The coincidence of this discovery with the dilemma over negative interest rates is just that, a coincidence.
The logic is impeccable at first glance. Criminals use €500 notes, ban them and this will inconvenience the criminals. Like it did with machine guns. Ban them and, oops, the only ones with machine guns are criminals. Various international law enforcement agencies, including Interpol and Europol, have confirmed that the €500 note is popular with money launderers and drug dealers and there is no reason to doubt them. But there are many billions in €500 notes out there already and the ECB can hardly cancel them. They will continue to circulate in the shadows. There are lots of non-criminal users of large notes, not just horse dealers and bookmakers in Ireland but also wholesale traders in countries outside the Eurozone with dodgy currencies and unreliable money transmission systems. As much as half of all €500 notes is believed to circulate outside the Eurozone, especially in the Balkans, Turkey and Russia. Its predecessor was the German 1000 Deutschmark note which circulated widely in these places and the ECB version was consciously introduced so as to facilitate existing users.
As for the mafia, there have been prosecutions of numerous banks for facilitating their illicit transfers and it is hard to believe that the withdrawal of the largest ECB note will inspire their professional retirement. Readers will recall the spin justifying depositor haircuts in Cyprus including the assertion that the money belonged to the mafia, Russian chapter. They survived.
The proposal to scrap the €500 note is further evidence of the absence of a serious Eurozone macroeconomic policy.

The Euro Debate and the Abuse of Language

Defenders of the Eurozone’s initial design, subsequent management and purported reform invariably refer to the system as a ‘monetary union’. So do academic commentators including the authors of the recent Vox piece on the origins of the crisis. Whether intended or unconscious, this is an abuse of language.

Monetary unions do not experience selective bank closures, the re-introduction of exchange controls or the numerous other manifestations of financial fragmentation that have occurred before and after the Eurozone ‘reforms’. Germany is a monetary union. In 1974 the Herstatt Bank collapsed in Cologne and several banks based in Dusseldorf went down in the recent crisis. Both cities are in Nordrhein Westfalen, but there was no closure of bank branches in the state nor were exchange controls introduced by the state authorities on either occasion. Interest rates in Nordrhein Westfalen did not detach from rates elsewhere in Germany nor did bank deposits flee the state.

When the Continental Illinois Bank went under in 1984, at the time the largest-ever US bank failure, the state of Illinois was not expected to handle the fall-out. In the recent crisis the state of Delaware, home to lehmans, and the state of North Carolina, home to Wachovia, were similarly spared. The USA is also a monetary union and there is federal responsibility for bank supervision, bank resolution and the protection of bank creditors.

The Eurozone in contrast was established in 1999 as no more than a common currency area, with a ‘central bank’ responsible only for monetary policy in the aggregate, in pursuit of an inflation target. To describe it as a ‘monetary union’ is to deny that there is any distinction between a common currency area and a monetary union. If the Eurozone really was a monetary union in 2008 the history of the crisis would have been very different.

Language matters. In his 1946 essay (Politics and the English Language) George Orwell put it like this:

‘The great enemy of clear language is insincerity. When there is a gap between one’s real and one’s declared aims, one turns as it were instinctively to long words and exhausted idioms, like a cuttlefish spurting out ink. In our age there is no such thing as “keeping out of politics.” All issues are political issues, and politics itself is a mass of lies, evasions, folly, hatred, and schizophrenia. When the general atmosphere is bad, language must suffer.’

The danger is that relentless description of the Eurozone as a monetary union deflects attention from the awkward truth that it is not, and from the political unwillingness to make it so.

Dublin Economics Workshop Conference – Final Call

The Dublin Economics Workshop will hold its annual economic policy conference at the Hodson Bay Hotel in Athlone on October 16th and 17th next. Some slots are still available and proposals in any area of economic policy are welcome. They should be forwarded as soon as possible to

Programme and booking details will be circulated shortly.

The Dublin Economics Workshop is kindly sponsored by Dublin Chamber of Commerce.

Call for Proposals DEW Conference 2015

The Dublin Economics Workshop will hold its annual economic policy conference at the Hodson Bay Hotel in Athlone October 16th and 17th next. Proposals in any area of economic policy are invited and should be forwarded, ideally before September 4th, to both of the following: and

Programme and booking details will be circulated in due course. The Dublin Economics Workshop is kindly sponsored by Dublin Chamber of Commerce.

……the unpitied calamity of being repeatedly caught in the same snare….

If an extend-and-pretend deal is done it will be the third Greek ‘rescue’. Without debt relief it will also be the third to break the IMF rule, adopted after the Argentina failure in 2001, to avoid financing countries with unsustainable debts.

In early 2010 the debt/GDP ratio in Greece was predicted at 115% (it turned out to be 130%), the deficit in double digits and GDP sinking fast. The Fund rewrote its rule-book to get involved in the Troika despite the unwillingness of IMF staff to sign off on debt sustainability. See the account from the CIGI think-tank

The 2012 deal repeated the procedure, this time with haircuts of private creditors.

The Greek economy is again contracting, the budget headed back into serious deficit, the debt ratio headed for 180%. Even with low interest rates and long duration of official debts, no sustainability analysis is likely to look healthy. The bond market, to which Greece must return, agrees.

The IMF cannot credibly repeat the routine of 2010 and 2012 – it does have non-European members after all, and its exposure to Europe is already unacceptable to them. Lagarde, as French Finance minister, opposed Greek debt restructuring in 2010 but there is no guarantee that the IMF board will participate again without haircuts, this time for its European ex-partners. The week could see no deal with Grexit, or Trexit, the end of the Troika.

Giving the Game Away: The Economics of Corruption at FIFA

FIFA, the governing body of world football, has been a byword for corruption for decades, stretching back to the presidency of Sepp Blatter’s predecessor, the Brazilian Joao Havelange, when Blatter was number two in the organisation. Under the Havelange presidency millions of dollars went walkabout in murky transactions between FIFA and a company which marketed its TV rights. More recently the World Cup of 2022 was awarded to oil-rich Qatar, to be played in high Summer in temperatures of 40 degrees Centigrade. The Sunday Times has documented wholesale vote-buying on behalf of Qatar. US Attorney General Loretta Lynch has made it clear that the FBI investigations, which have yielded criminal indictments against FIFA officials, cover offences stretching back to 1991.

Sepp Blatter has been a senior FIFA official for forty years and president since 1998. How can his serial re-elections be explained, the most recent two weeks ago after the announcement of FBI action? FIFA is a most unusual organisation and its governance and economic structures make corruption almost inevitable.

Governance: Every national association, in even the tiniest country, has one vote in FIFA elections. Some tiny palm-fringed idyll in the South Pacific, where soccer was unheard of until recently, can form a football association and expect instant recognition from FIFA. It will then have one vote at FIFA congresses, same as Germany and Brazil, the regular world champions. FIFA has 209 members. There are not 209 countries in the world (the United Nations has just 193 members, for example). ‘Countries’ such as Andorra, San Marino, the Faroe Islands and numerous others are FIFA members. The smallest member in population terms is Montserrat, home to 5000 souls. These ‘countries’ are not regarded as eligible for membership in any serious international organisation, since they are not fully-fledged states but remnants of the Dutch, British and French empires. FIFA member Liechtenstein is a remnant of the Holy Roman Empire. It is not difficult, or costly in the overall scheme of things, to re-distribute rents to these minnows to ensure their loyalty. This is the first part of the explanation for Blatter’s repeated majorities.

Economics: The second part is the simple fact that FIFA has had, for the last four decades, quite a lot of rents to dish out. Without economic rent there is no pot of graft. The rent source is a monopoly, the World Cup: it has become, through TV rights and sponsorship, a huge money-spinner. The players, who tend to take the lion’s share of the earnings available in all other major sports, get paid very little for national team appearances. If they wish to play international football at all, they have little bargaining power. Once committed to a national team, usually the country of their birth, they cannot threaten to desert to someone who pays better. If they could, Saudi Arabia would win the World Cup. Most professional football clubs do not make profits: the players, and their industrious agents, make sure that most of the revenues flow through to the performers, which is what happens in every other branch of the entertainment business. In football the World Cup revenues flow to FIFA, an opaque and unaccountable organisation whose leadership is free to perpetuate itself through buying the small national associations around the world. These national bodies in turn have weak, or no, corporate governance. With one brave bound, the money is free.

It is the combination of equal votes for all with billions of unearned revenue dished out behind the curtain which has created the FIFA monster. This is corruption by design.

At Last, Eurozone Culprits Identified!

It is Dark Forces, after all.

Jean-Claude Juncker, the European Commission president, has finally terminated the endless speculation as to the source of the Eurozone’s travails. In a speech yesterday he has fingered the likely source of any threats to the survival of the common currency subsequent to a Greek exit.

Speaking to an audience at the Catholic University of Leuven in Belgium, Jean-Claude Juncker said a “Grexit” would leave the euro prey to forces who “would do everything to try to decompose” what remained of the monetary union.

“Grexit is not an option,” said Mr Juncker.

“If we were to accept, if Greece were to accept, if others were to accept that Greece could leave the area of solidarity and prosperity that is the Eurozone, we would put ourselves at risk because some, notably in the Anglo Saxon world, would try everything to deconstruct the euro area piece by piece, little by little.”

His spokeswoman clarified that the reference to the Anglo Saxon world was not aimed at Britain but was to be construed as a reference to ‘markets and speculators’.

It should be a great relief to all, especially Greeks, to learn that the Eurozone is an ‘area of solidarity and prosperity’. The news that the dystopia of ‘markets and speculators’ is confined to the Anglo Saxon world is a further comfort.

Most importantly if the Great Experiment ends in tears there will be no need for an inquest. It was the Anglo Saxons!

Anyone remember Harold Wilson and the Gnomes of Zurich?

Mody on Creditor Impunity

I am surprised this has not received more attention.

The original sin of Eurozone crisis mismanagement was the May 2010 ‘bail-out’ of Greece. As Karl Otto Pohl noted at the time, the beneficiaries were German banks, even more so French banks (as always, you gotta hand it to the French!), and rich Greeks. Yanis Varoufakis agreed at the time with Pohl, for which he will not be forgiven.

If you subscribe to the view that careless lenders should face haircuts, the official lenders to Greece should take a belated bath.

All of them, including the IMF, which means its shareholders, including us.

The alternative is an international financial order built on a doctrine of official creditor impunity.

Pawn to King Four

The ECB has tonight withdrawn the eligibility as collateral for ‘normal’ liquidity provision of self-issued Greek bank paper guaranteed by the Greek government, effective February 11th. The banks must henceforth rely on ELA from the Greek central bank, permission for which is reviewed fortnightly by the ECB, next meeting February 18th. The ECB statement contains this sentence:

‘The Governing Council decision is based on the fact that it is currently not possible to assume a successful conclusion of the programme review and is in line with existing Eurosystem rules.’

Note that the decision is based on a fact! The opinion formed, presumably today, that the programme review may not be successfully completed, was reasonable yesterday and the day before, but has miraculously assumed the status of a fact this evening.

Surely the ECB would not deliberately encourage a run on the banks (presumed solvent, rightly or wrongly, if they are to be ELA-eligible) in a member state? Whaddya mean they did it before?

The ECB’s Policy Target

The only centralised macroeconomic policy target in the Eurozone is the ECB’s 2% inflation number. Today’s flash estimate from Eurostat shows a price decline of 0.2% over twelve months. The index for the Eurozone has in fact been flat now for eighteen months – today’s number of 117.70 compares to 117.61 in June 2013.

The undershoot would be a concern in a proper monetary union operating at the ZLB: real rates are too high. In the Eurozone, which is not a proper monetary union, just a common currency area with heavily indebted states, it creates two additional problems.

The real burden of debt is not eroding at the advertised rate. If the ECB had delivered a 2% rate since December 2008, at which point debt build-up in the periphery was already manifest, the index today would be 121.6 rather than 117.7. If the ECB fails to get the rate of inflation up to 2% for another couple of years as QE-pessimists fear, the failure to hit the inflation target could add 5% or 6% to real debt burdens of sovereigns which have already had to resort to official lenders.

The second problem is the absence of any other centralised macro policy instrument, if you discount, as you should, Jean Claude Juncker’s leverage wheeze. The instrument that has fallen short is the only one available.

The inflation target should now be Olivier Blanchard’s 4% rather than the ECB’s 2%, if only to make up lost ground. If you believe that the ECB cannot or will not deliver on the inflation rate, the alternative is illegal: a fiscal expansion financed by the central bank, the kind of thing they do in real monetary unions.

McSharry on Trichet

Former finance minister and EU commissioner Ray McSharry has contributed a chapter to the book of tributes to the late Brian Lenihan (Brian Lenihan, In Calm and in Crisis, Murphy, O’Rourke and Whelan (eds), Merrion Press 2014).

The chapter contains the following complete paragraph at page 111:

‘Brian had been keen to burn the big bondholders and we discussed this on a number of occasions. One morning I got a call about a quarter past eight and it was Brian. He told me that he was able to burn the bondholders and he was very happy because the European Central Bank President, Jean-Claude Trichet, had told him he could do it. This would have improved Ireland’s position significantly and it was going to be a big story, but later that day a now despondent Brian rang me back. He said Trichet had changed his mind because he realised that the main casualty if the bondholders were burnt would be big German and French banks. This was a disgraceful decision because the ECB is supposed to represent the interests of Europe generally, but they were clearly under the sway of the German and French banks. Even today, I still would not have much confidence in the ECB and until Europe gets a totally independent entity to defend its currency, the euro will remain a fragile currency’.

The context in McSharry’s piece indicates that

(i) the conversation took place in the summer or autumn of 2010, as the bank guarantee was coming to an end or had already ended, but prior to the EU/IMF programme, and

(ii) the bondholders referred to were bank, not sovereign, bondholders.

The phrase ‘…the main casualty if the bondholders were burnt would be big German and French banks…’ refers, it is reasonable to assume, not (or not only) to the direct losses that these banks would suffer as holders of the bonds in question (it is doubtful that they were big holders) but to the impact of default or haircuts in Ireland on their continued access to new debt funding from the bank bond market.

This reported conversation goes to the heart of Ireland’s unfinished business with the ECB. It is reasonable for the ECB president to display concern about the continued access of major European banks to important funding sources. Whether it is within the ECB’s powers under the statute to impose on an individual member state the cost of shoring up debt market access for Eurozone banks generally is not clear and will not be clarified until the European Court of Justice rules on the matter. The statute does not contain any explicit provisions conferring such an important power.

McSharry’s report of his conversation with Lenihan is further support for the view, which I have expressed many times, that Ireland should take a case against the ECB as provided for in the ECB statute. This is important for the credibility of the ECB as an independent central bank. Win or lose, referral of the matter to the ECJ would clarify whether the ECB possesses the powers it appeared to believe it had back in 2010. If the ECB can impose costs of policies aimed at stabilising markets across the common currency area on an individual member state it is time the member states knew about it.

DEW Conference, Cork October 17/18

The Dublin Economics Workshop holds its annual Economic Policy conference at the River Lee hotel in Cork on October 17/18 next. Proposals for papers are still being accepted and should be submitted to

The full programme and booking details will be posted here in due course.


Deflation Once Again

The media faithfully reported Eurostat’s flash estimate of yoy inflation in the Eurozone at 0.3% for August on Friday last. The yoy rate says merely that prices were 0.3% higher in August than they had been twelve months previously. Just two pieces of information are employed – today’s number and the number twelve months earlier. The intervening eleven pieces of info are ignored.

What do these eleven observations have to say? Well it is not pretty. The index was unchanged over eight months, and actually fell over four months. The country-by-country numbers are only available for July. Here is what happened over the four months from March.

HICP July % Change over March

Belgium         -1.5                  Germany       +0.2

Greece           -0.8                  Estonia          +0.5

Spain             -1.0                  Ireland           +0.1

Italy               -1.6                 Cyprus           +2.2

Luxembourg    -0.5                  Latvia            +0.8

Austria           -0.5                  Netherlands   +0.1

Portugal         -0.1                  Slovenia        +0.2

Finland          -0.3                  Malta             +4.1

France            -0.4                  Slovakia        +0.2

Half of the 18 countries experienced price falls, half saw increases. The weighted average Eurozone inflation rate over these four most recent months was -0.5%. No large country saw a significant increase but two, Spain and Italy, saw prices fall 1% and 1.6%, hence the weighted average decline.

Using twelve-month rates is well-established but it is hardly best practice. Since the Spring it is clear that the Eurozone has been experiencing a widespread and in some cases rapid fall in prices. With nominal interest rates as low as they can go, and zero real growth, the feared deflation has already commenced. It could even be too late to do too little.




DEW Economic Policy Conference 2013: Call for Papers

The Dublin Economics Workshop will hold its annual economic policy conference in Limerick on October 18-20. Stephen Kinsella is helping with local arrangements. 

Proposals for papers in any area of economic policy are invited and a brief summary should be forwarded, before August 20, to

Booking details and programme will be posted on this site in due course.

The Dublin Economics Workshop is kindly sponsored this year by Dublin Chamber of Commerce.

Reminder: DEW Meeting, Land-Use Regulation in the United Kingdom

The Irish planning and land-use system is very similar to the set-up in the UK. There is a re-think under way across the water and one of the main contributors will be visiting;

Speaker: Christian Hilber (LSE)

Topic: The British System of Land-Use Regulation: Key Features and (unintended) Economic Consequences 

Date and Time: Friday June 28th at 5.30 pm

Venue: Davy Stockbrokers, 5th. floor, 49, Dawson St., Dublin 2.

Admission is free but you are requested to book – email

The Workshop is kindly sponsored this year by Dublin Chamber of Commerce.

DEW Meeting: Land-Use Regulation in Britain

The Irish planning and land-use system is very similar to the set-up in the UK. There is a re-think under way across the water and one of the main contributors will be visiting;

Speaker: Christian Hilber (LSE)

Topic: The British System of Land-Use Regulation: Key Features and (unintended) Economic Consequences 

Date and Time: June 30th at 5.30 pm

Venue: Davy Stockbrokers, 5th. floor, 49, Dawson St., Dublin 2.

Admission is free but you are requested to book – email

The Workshop is kindly sponsored this year by Dublin Chamber of Commerce.

Beware the Ides of March

The fateful Eurozone finance ministers meeting which signed off on the plan to haircut guaranteed depositors in Cyprus convened at 17.00 hours on Friday the 15th, the Ides of March, in Brussels. The meeting was attended by the seventeen finance ministers but also by Mario Draghi and Jorg Asmussen of the ECB and Christine Lagarde from the IMF with Reza Moghadam, the head of the European division at the Fund. Cypriot president Anastasiades left the meeting with, he clearly believed, the consent of those present for the since-abandoned scheme to haircut guaranteed depositors (accounts below €100,000) in all Cypriot banks, including some that were solvent.

The Cypriot parliament threw out the plan and guaranteed depositors were spared. The substitute Plan B sees very large write-downs for unguaranteed depositors in the bust banks as well as write-offs for shareholders and bondholders. But deposits in Cypriot banks were frozen and could not be used, beyond low thresholds, for withdrawals, or for external payments. Remarkably, internal payments within Cyprus were also restricted. The thresholds have since been increased but the suspension of internal convertibility for the Cypriot Euro was an astonishing event, going beyond the re-introduction of exchange controls and the inability to transfer funds abroad. The Nicosia business was effectively told ‘you may not use your money to purchase dollars, or Euro deposits outside Cyprus’ (exchange controls) but also told ‘you may not pay a bill over a specified amount owed to a business in Limassol either’ (suspension of internal convertibility).

On March 25th the ECB issued a statement which included the following (after Plan B had been cobbled together and insured depositors spared the threatened haircut):     

‘Today, the Governing Council decided not to object to the request for provision of Emergency Liquidity Assistance (ELA) by the Central Bank of Cyprus, in accordance with the prevailing rules. It will continue to monitor the situation closely.’

The Purpose of Plan B was to resolve the Cypriot banks, through creditor haircuts and other re-capitalisation measures. Banks which have been resolved are solvent – their liabilities have been reduced to the point where their (written down) assets exceed their liabilities. If they face a depositor run when they re-open, a proper central bank will provide them with liquidity without limit, since the run is unjustified. With the bank’s assets now written down to realistic values, there is no question mark over collateral quality.

 What appears to have happened in Cyprus is the following:

1. prior to the rescue deal, the ECB deemed the main Cypriot banks to be insolvent, and declined to approve ELA through the Bank of Cyprus.

2. The deal (Plan B) was done. The Cypriot authorities, fearing a run, froze deposits, creating internal as well as external, inconvertibility.

3. The ECB must have interpreted the ‘prevailing rules’ referred to in its March 25th statement as forbidding ELA for the (supposedly now solvent) Cypriot banks.

If this interpretation is correct, the Eurozone now has a de facto bank resolution scheme with the following feature: the day the resolved bank re-opens, with creditor haircuts to whatever degree is needed to make the bank solvent, the lender of last resort will go missing. Deposits will be frozen (up to some limit) and the domestic economy can get by on cash, trade credit and barter. At a recent press conference, Mario Draghi was asked about the ECB’s role in the Cyprus debacle and responded thus:

‘Cyprus is not a template; Cyprus is not a turning point in euro area policy. We have said many times that our resolution – and I said the very same thing when I was Chairman of the Financial Stability Board – is to resolve banks without using taxpayers’ money and without disrupting the payment system. That is why we have to have a resolution framework in place. So, it is not a turning point. That is exactly the resolution framework that all other countries have and the euro area will have.’

Sorry Mario – you did disrupt the payment system, you closed it down. Does the ECB president intend that ‘…the resolution framework that all other countries have and the euro area will have’ will include the refusal by the lender of last resort to stop deposit runs on solvent banks? On further questioning, he elaborated: ‘On Cyprus – I expect many more questions on Cyprus, so that I will only respond to your question narrowly, the fine question as to what the position of the ECB was. The ECB had presented a proposal that did not foresee any bail-in of insured depositors. And let me also tell you that this was exactly the same for all the other proposals – the proposals by the Commission and the IMF had exactly the same feature. Then there were prolonged negotiations with the Cypriot authorities, represented at that meeting, the outcome of which was what you know, namely a levy also on insured depositors. That was not smart, to say the least, and it was quickly corrected in a Eurogroup teleconference on the next day. But that is what is past.’

Everyone is entitled to their own version of history. Here’s mine: it was the Cypriot parliament on the following Tuesday evening, and not some teleconference on the Sunday, which scuppered the Anastasiades plan to haircut insured depositors. The ECB, the European Commission and the IMF allowed the Cypriots to leave a meeting at 3 am on Saturday morning with a plan to haircut insured deposits and to freeze accounts in banks supposedly resolved.

It would be nice to hear the IMF’s version of what they think happened at the meeting on the Ides of March.

Cyprus and Capital Controls

Having failed to agree a bank resolution regime more than four years into the Eurozone banking crisis, the EZ authorities have, at the second attempt, come up with a resolution of the Cypriot banks. The haircuts of uninsured bank creditors appear to be 60% and more.

After a bank resolution, the surviving banks are solvent. Naturally, depositors may feel sore, and there could be deposit flight as soon as they re-open, even where the haircuts have been severe enough to make them adequately capitalised again. But not to worry, the central bank is there to deal with irrational deposit flight. It is after all the lender of last resort.

But lo and behold, the Cypriot government has imposed capital controls – even insured deposits not facing a haircut are restricted. But since the written-down assets of the surviving banks are now in excess of their liabilities (they have been resolved) these assets will be money-good at the central bank.

Not so apparently. If the ECB believes that the surviving Cypriot banks are now solvent, why is there any need for restrictions on depositor withdrawals? Is the ECB prohibiting liquidity provision through ELA after a bank resolution to which it has been a party? 

Of course the haircuts may, in the eyes of the ECB, be inadequate to ensure solvency. In which case why is the deal not modified further? Capital controls effectively create an inconvertible currency trapped in Cypriot banks, a precedent likely to be remembered when trouble strikes elsewhere. Do re-opening US banks decline to release deposits after the Feds have done their work, for the want of a lender of last resort?