Just gimme some choice

The Irish Times this morning describes the increased vote for independents as an expression of anti-politics sentiment.

Anti-establishment-politician sentiment, certainly, but anti-politics? That depends on how you define politics.

My definition of “politics” is all about choice over policies: citizens in a democracy can choose to fundamentally change their country’s economic and social policies, if that is what they want to do. In 2011 Irish voters voted for change, and got none: the new government faithfully implemented the Troika programme, just as the previous government had done, and presumably would have continued to do had they been re-elected. (And now that they have been let off the leash they are coming up with bubble-era proposals to increase mortgage lending. Not much change there either. And consequently not much real choice.)

Democracy without choice is not democracy. Politics without choice is not politics.

A lot of people in this country, and right across Europe, want real change. Some in Ireland voted for Sinn Féin, the big winner in the election. Some voted Independent. This isn’t anti-politics. It’s anti-anti-politics.

The FT is on a roll

In an otherwise unremarkable editorial about the upshot of the elections, the FT comes up with this quite remarkable statement:

The only viable path for France is to press ahead with tax cuts and spending reductions that can sustain growth.

Is the FT really saying that in a Keynesian short run, such as we find ourselves in just now, the balanced budget multiplier is negative? Really? Or that the spending multiplier is negative? Or is it perhaps denying that the Eurozone currently finds itself in such a Keynesian short run, in which a lack of demand is the key constraint on growth? (Let’s not even get into the debate about the long run relationship between growth and the size of the state in Europe, although I can’t help writing down one word: Scandinavia.)

And is the FT really claiming that continuing with this programme would make all those FN voters switch to the socialists and UMP?


Canaries in the coal mine

The European election results are coming in, and in France they are catastrophic.

There are two obvious points to be made which work in opposite directions.

First, the vote for the FN and similar parties is an under-estimate of eurosceptic opinion, since these parties come with so much baggage that many voters who hate what Europe has become would never, ever dream of voting for them. And quite right too.

Second, it may well be that these parties would have done less well if there had been national elections last weekend: voting for the EP is one thing, voting for national governments another. (But who really knows.)

Expect many mainstream commentators to point out that the centre has held, that the EPP have won, that Juncker is the people’s choice for EC President, and all the rest of it. This strikes me as exactly the wrong response.

My big worry this Monday morning is that Hollande and others (but I am mainly thinking of Hollande) will continue with their current economic strategy, which as far as I can see consists of crossing their fingers and hoping that something will turn up. Yes, some day this recession will end, since all recessions do, but the timing of this will depend (probabilistically, since life is uncertain) on policies: monetary and fiscal policies, obviously, but also policies to fix the European banking sector. Right now, given Europe’s policy choices, there is no good reason for the French government, or any other government, to expect that the real Eurozone economic crisis (which has to do with growth and unemployment, not yields on government paper) is going to end any time soon. And certainly not by 2017.

M. Hollande and his like may believe that sticking to the programme is their only option, and that any other course of action would be far too risky. They should ask themselves what the political landscape will look like if the Eurozone crisis continues for another 3, 5 or 10 years. It’s not impossible. Perhaps something will turn up, and perhaps the status quo merchants will get away with it. But perhaps it won’t, and perhaps they won’t.

People who argue that there is no alternative presumably see themselves as prudent and responsible. But you could just as easily regard them as drunken gamblers on a losing streak, forever doubling up.

The eurozone recovery: still just around the corner

Paul Krugman is quite right: the most recent Eurozone GDP numbers are really disappointing. But hardly surprising, given current policies, unless you’re the sort of person who thinks that peripheral yields are the only thing that matters. (Not a great metric of success you would think, if they have been falling in Greece, but there you go.)

I recently read someone (can’t remember where, perhaps you can) saying — based on the yields —  that the eurozone crisis was now over economically speaking, and that the only thing that might derail things now was the politics. Which made me think two things:

1. It is surely unacceptable intellectually to regard the predictable political consequences of lousy economic policy as being somehow ‘exogenous’ and none of our business as economists.

2 If the politics of the eurozone crisis eventually turns sour, won’t this show up in various financial spreads , and wasn’t this the whole point of the ‘second generation’ crisis models we all starting teaching our students in the early 1990s?

Even if it’s cancer that kills you, death coincides with cardiac arrest.

Problematic Calibration of the EU Banking Sector Stress Test for Ireland

The details for the calibration of the EU-wide bank stress test are now available. Looking only at Ireland, and only at one of the key variables in the stress test, the calibration looks problematic. It may be coincidental that the Irish adverse scenario has been badly chosen; it might be that all the other member countries have reasonable calibrations.  If the others are as problematic as in the Irish case, this is not a reliable EU banking sector stress test.

Under the adverse scenario, Irish property prices are assumed to suffer a cumulative three-year drop of 3.03%; equivalent to a decline of 1.02% each year for three years in a row. Over the period covered by CSO data, 2005-2013, Irish residential property prices had an annual sample volatility of 11.7%. This in turn implies (under reasonable assumptions) a three-year volatility of 20.27%. In risk analysis it is conventional analytical shorthand to measure adverse outcomes in “x-sigma” units defined as the outcome as a multiple of the standard deviation. For an adverse scenario calibration, the assumed outcome is usually roughly a two-sigma or three-sigma event. Using a four-sigma shock would not be unusual (due to fat tails in some probability distributions). The EBA has calibrated the adverse price shock as a 0.1492-sigma event. That is not credible as an adverse scenario in a stress test.

Keep in mind that the stress test is meant to reassure market participants that even in an adverse scenario the Irish banks are sound. This test reassures us that if property prices fall by as much as one percent a year over the next three years, the banks have enough capital. In the case of a two-percent fall, there are no promises.

As a caveat, this does not mean that the Irish banks need equity capital. They have already had a credible stress test (in 2011) and a big capital injection. Also, the Irish property market although very volatile has a maximum likelihood price change which is positive over the next three years. However the asset class also has considerable “downside” potential and continued high volatility. Conventionally, at least in the case of portfolio risk analysis, the unconditional mean of a stressed variable is set equal to zero for risk analysis purposes. The EBA has chosen to build in a big positive benchmark price rise for Irish property assets, and this is part of the reason that the adverse scenario is unacceptably mild. In any case, this calibration is extremely mild as an adverse scenario and not reassuring for the EU-wide test.

Gosh, isn’t that exciting!

In a recent post, we read that

With the Social Democrats (S&D) and the conservatives (EPP) neck-and-neck in ever more refined EU wide opinion pools, the lead up to the European elections has never been more exciting. It’s down to one seat whether the next Commission president is Social Democrat or Conservative.

I am sure that there are some in Brussels who think that giving voters an indirect say in who becomes Commission President is exactly what we need to boost interest in the forthcoming European elections, and give the European project some democratic legitimacy.

By the way, does anyone know what the EPP or Social Democratic position on the Eurozone crisis is? (I think I know what Marine Le Pen wants.)

I have another proposal to enhance the democratic legitimacy of the project: allow voters to fundamentally change the direction of policy, should they so choose. Reverse the “treaty-isation” of particular economic policies. Stop trying to make the commitment to austerity democracy-proof.

Any takers?

The future of the euro

I have a piece on the subject in the most recent issue of Finance and Development, available here.

Production lags being what they are, I wrote the article in mid-December. Since then, Wolfgang Münchau has declared the Eurozone policy debate over (and not in a  good way); the German Constitutional Court has issued a ruling on OMT that is potentially much less benign than is commonly assumed; and Italy has installed its third non-elected Prime Minister in a row, with a notorious multiplier denier as Finance Minister thrown in for good measure. None of this has cheered me up.

Class divides and European integration, yet again

This morning’s Eurointelligence briefing put me on to this article in Les Echos, which in turn led me to this Ipsos opinion poll. It contains several sobering findings, notably with respect to foreigners. But the finding that struck me most — since this is something I have been writing about for years now — is that a majority of French working class voters now want to leave the Euro. Indeed, only 34% of French workers think that EU membership is a good thing.

Isn’t it amazing how short run blips in various economic indicators can lead powerful people to assume that all is well with the EMU project? It is slow moving variables — long term unemployment, gradual shifts in public opinion, and so on — that pose the greatest threat to the Euro’s survival. If the far right does as well as people now seem to think it will in the European elections, this will presumably be presented in the media as a “shock” to the system, but has it not been obvious since 2010 at the latest that something like this was likely, given Eurozone macroeconomic policies? And has it not been obvious for years that actually existing EMU is harming the broader European project?

Europe’s political leaders should remember what Ernest Hemingway said about bankruptcy.

The Eiffel group: for a Euro community


I dare say it will strike most people as pie in the sky, but it makes sense that people who want to preserve the Euro start formulating proposals such as this. Two reasonable conditions attaching to any such proposal seem to me to be that: (a) entry to any such community be decided by popular referenda in each country; and (b) that there be some sort of Connecticut compromise in place so that the rights of small states are protected.

‘Hardball’ v ‘Equity Sale’

The Irish Times today features two contrasting strategies for dealing with the debt legacy created by the Irish bank bailout.

An interview RTE’s Sean Whelan did with Willem Buiter is available here.

L’offre crée même la demande.

I can’t quite believe that he said it, but he apparently did. Go tell it to the small businesses in my favourite French village who have had to close since 2008.

Arguing against Say at a time like this is like shooting fish in a barrel, so let’s not even bother. The more alarming point is what this tells us about the European left: to all intents and purposes, in many countries there is none. Ambrose Evans-Pritchard puts it well, I think:

Trade unions in the West are strangely silent, pushed to the margins by the atomised structure of modern work. Europe’s political Left is so compromised by ideological defence of monetary union – a Right-wing project, or “bankers’ ramp” as the Old Left used to say – that it cannot muster any articulate policy.

Hollande’s extraordinary statement that supply creates its own demand, at a time when the Eurozone economy is up against the zero lower bound, and unemployment is terrifyingly high in several EMU member states, is just an extreme, self-satirizing, example of the phenomenon. If what Europe needs is for France to make Germany an offer it can’t refuse — allow the ECB to seriously loosen monetary policy, or we may not be able to stick with EMU — then we’re not getting it any time soon.

Now, if you’re on the right I suppose you might welcome the fact that the left is committing hara kiri on the altar of European orthodoxy, but you shouldn’t. For the reality is that orthodoxy is letting the people badly down, as Martin Wolf pointed out today, and the people aren’t stupid. If the left is not going to offer them an alternative, then Eurosceptic parties will. And unfortunately most of those are on the extreme right.

(H/T Mark Thoma.)

J.P. Morgan’s Legal Troubles and Eurozone Banking Sector Consolidation

The financial architecture of the Eurozone is still a mess. One possible improvement might be a wave of cross-border bank takeovers and mergers. Such a change might make the Eurozone less fragile since country-specific economic shocks would not have a two-way negative-feedback through the balance sheet of country-specific banks. This change would also kill the potential for country-specific deposit runs. The bank regulatory authorities in the U.S.A. (FDIC and Federal Reserve) often arrange mergers and takeovers of troubled banks to snuff out liquidity/solvency crises at individual banks and/or dampen regional shocks. J.P. Morgan was encouraged to take over Bear Stearns and Washington Mutual by the regulators for exactly these reasons. Now, quite appropriately, J.P. Morgan is responsible for the “legacy liability” issues of these two absorbed banks, and it looks like the final bill for J.P. Morgan could be over $10 billion. J.P. Morgan is the legal successor and a change of ownership does not eliminate the liability, even if (as in this case) the regulator gave you a Best Boy in Class ribbon when you agreed to the takeovers. The J.P. Morgan case is in a foreign jurisdiction, but nonetheless this case will have knock-on effects for the Eurozone.  The J.P. Morgan case makes it less likely that there will be any takeovers of troubled or formerly-troubled Irish banks.

Grant me microeconomic efficiency, but not yet

It has always struck me that the first order consequence of making it easier for firms to fire people in the middle of a depression would be that…firms would fire more people. And it has never struck me that this would be desirable.

Now Gauti Eggertsson, Andrea Ferrero and Andrea Raffo have a new paper pointing out that at the zero lower bound, where monetary policy cannot offset the deflationary impact of structural reforms that would otherwise be desirable (lowering mark-ups in product and labour markets), such reforms can be contractionary (by generating expectations of deflation and raising real interest rates).

All of which seems obvious once you think about it, but it needed someone to point it out. And this is a problem for a continent whose leaders refuse to take the demand side of the economy seriously, and are hoping that “structural reforms” will obviate the need for them to rethink their macroeconomic strategy.

Another chance for Paul Krugman to cite St Agustin!

(H/T Eurointelligence, which also links to a report on how the Greek government is saying that there will be no more austerity next year, even under a third bailout. This crisis is not yet over.)

Thailand without the baht

“Thailand without the baht” is a useful way of thinking about the Irish economy’s boom, bust, and subsequent flat-lining, so it’s great to see that Paul Krugman is about to get his teeth stuck into the Asia-Euro comparison.

Some people argued in 1997/1998 that the crisis showed that the entire East Asian growth model was flawed. Whatever the benefits or costs of that model may have been, the subsequent rebound showed that these economies were still capable of delivering long run growth once their short run macro problems had been resolved. Seen from the inside the Irish growth model seems pretty rickety, but respectable if unexciting growth rates of the sort you see in countries close to the technological frontier should be attainable in the future once our own short run macro problems, and those of the Eurozone as a whole, have been resolved. Unfortunately this doesn’t seem to be on the horizon right now, which is why the “default and devalue” scenario has to be an option now in Greece, and may eventually come onto the policy agenda in other Eurozone periphery countries as well. The problem with the “short run” is that it can continue for an awfully long time unless corrective action is taken.

Ireland’s (and Britain’s, and Italy’s…) long recession

Jeff Frankel has a terrific piece here on the unsatisfactory way in which recessions and recoveries are called in Europe.

The current European definition of a recession (two successive quarters of declining GDP) is particularly unsuitable in Ireland, given its dodgy and volatile GDP statistics — looking at a broader range of indicators over a longer period of time would surely make more sense here.

There is an additional cost to the two-quarter rule of thumb in the Irish and Eurozone context: it implies that Ireland is periodically proclaimed to be out of recession. This then allows Eurozone politicians and central bankers to defend the status quo monetary and fiscal policies prolonging the economic crisis in Ireland and elsewhere. (And to express “surprise” when Ireland tips into recession “again”, despite its model pupil status.)

Update: the CEPR’s Euro area business cycle dating committee does not use the “two-quarter GDP decline” rule of thumb. Details of their methodology are available here.