Anyone else noticing how bad news is always flagged up as being “unexpected” these days?
Archive for the ‘European economy’ Category
A lot of material was published today by the DG FIN in the European Commission including the 2014 Annual Growth Survey and the 2014 Alert Mechanism Report. These and other documents can be accessed here.
All the documents can be accessed from here.
The main figures for Ireland (“rebalancing on track”) are:
Among Euroarea countries six are expected to face a BoP current account deficit in 2014: Estonia, Greece, France, Cyprus, Latvia and Finland. The largest deficit is expected to be in Estonia at 2.2% of GDP. On the other side Germany, Luxembourg, the Netherlands and Slovenia will have a current account surplus of more than 6% of GDP. The first three will have three-year averages greater than the 6% of GDP threshold set out in the Macroeconomic Imbalance Procedure. In aggregate the euroarea is projected to have a current acount surplus of around 3% of GDP for the next two years.
The Spanish public deficit is forecast to increase to 6.5% of GDP in 2015 with France, Cyprus, Malta, Slovenia and Slovakia also projected to have deficits in 2015 over the 3% of GDP threshold for the Excessive Deficit Procedure. In aggregate the Euroarea is expected to run a public deficit of around 2.5% of GDP for the next two years with public debt steady at around 95% of GDP.
Eurointelligence’s news briefing this morning (the professional edition) had a really excellent comment regarding the news that Jeroen Dijsselbloem is proposing that the stability pact be reformed, so as to link flexibility on deficit correction to “economic reform”. The question is, of course, what constitutes “economic reform.” Says Eurointelligence:
We recall that the expression „economic reforms“ had the exact opposite meaning in the 1970s – a reduction in market liberalism, more regulation, more workers rights. Economic reforms is always a political process. Is Dijsselbloem saying that decision on labour market organisations, for example, should be done at central level, and if not, who decides what reforms are desirable, and what constitutes reform? Say, the Commission enters into a “contract” with a country on certain types of reforms, what would stop a newly elected parliament in that country from breaking such a contract? In German constitutional law, for example, the parliament’s sovereignty would always rank above such contracts. One of the lessons of the eurozone’s short history is that one should not put currently fashionable ideological positions into a treaty or a law.
It is one thing to say that monetary policy should be the preserve of technocrats. You can also make a case that the same should be true of governments’ overall fiscal stances (although as soon as you get into questions of taxation and expenditure, you are beginning to trespass on matters that should properly be dealt with by democratically elected parliaments; and there are also the questions of whether the beurocrats in charge know what they are doing, and whom they are listening to). But the balance between expenditure cuts and tax increases in a deficit reduction programme? The composition of taxes or expenditures in normal times? Microeconomic regulations influencing the balance of power between employers and workers? These are political matters, on which the right and the left have legitimate disagreements (and, besides, economists know a lot less about a lot of this stuff than they sometimes pretend). Sorting out these disagreements is a core function of any modern democracy.
If, as a technical matter, the Eurozone requires at least some degree of fiscal union, and if, as a political matter, a big obstacle to this is citizens’ distrust of “Europe”, then measures which can be seen as attempted power-grabs by the centre at the expense of voters would seem to be directly counter-productive. Not everything in the economic life of a nation is a purely technical matter; we should be trying to convince voters that the Euro, and the EU itself, are compatible with the principle that our votes count for something, and that we can change policies that we don’t like, no matter how “technically desirable” they are thought to be in 2013 by the OECD or IMF or EC or whoever it is. Make the electorate feel disenfranchised, and you play into the hands of the populists.
The Dutch Sandwich and Double Irish figure prominently in this FT article about Google’s tax returns for 2012.
It seems that Google Netherlands Holdings, which represents the Dutch part of the sandwich, received €8.6bn in royalties from Google Ireland Ltd last year.
This year’s European Aviation Conference takes place at the University of St Gallen, Switzerland on 14 and 15 November. Programme, speakers, booking details and venue are at www.eac-conference.com.
Feedback after last year’s event indicated a greater preference for active debate, so almost the entire first day this year is devoted to a moderated discussion between ten invited advocates and critics of airport price regulation. And the 2013 Martin Kunz Memorial Lecture is to be given by the person credited with devising modern price cap regulation, Professor Stephen Littlechild.
HAC 2013 is preceded on Wednesday 13 November by a workshop of the German aviation research society (GARS); the call for papers is here: www.garsonline.de.
Unsated wonks can devote the entire week to aviation policy; IATA holds a two-day discussion on evaluating the economic effects of air transport on Monday and Tuesday 11-12 November in Geneva. Details on the GARS website given above.
The CEPR has a new website accessible here.
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.
The Eurozone banking system is not working properly due to fragmentation between core and peripheral banking systems. In a recent speech, the president of the ECB, Mario Draghi, has acknowledged this, but argues that fixing this problem is someone else’s responsibility. The ECB has the tools to address this crucial flaw in the Eurozone system, and over the medium term horizon there is no other Eurozone institution that can. The ECB should use the tools available to fix this market fragmentation, in particular, the ECB should engage in aggressive, long-term asset refinancing on sufficiently generous terms to encourage bank participation. (more…)
Eurostat have published a news release with some summary tables of taxation trends in the EU. The data are taken from the 2013 Statistical Book on the same topic. The section on Ireland in the book opens with the following summary.
At 28.9 % in 2011, the total tax-to-GDP ratio in Ireland is the sixth lowest in the Union and the second lowest in the euro area. In recent years this ratio gradually decreased from a 2006 high of 32.1 %, but has increased again in 2011, apparently on foot of budgetary measures aimed at raising tax receipts.
The taxation structure is characterised by a strong reliance on taxes rather than social contributions. Direct and indirect taxation make up 43.4 % and 39.4 % of the total revenue in 2011 respectively, whereas the social contributions raise only 17.2 % of total tax revenue. The share of social contributions is the second lowest in the EU. The structure of taxation differs considerably from the typical structure of the EU-27, where each item contributes roughly a third of the total. As in the majority of Member States, the largest share of indirect taxes is constituted by VAT receipts, which provide 54.1 % of total indirect taxes (53.3 % for the EU-27). The structure of direct taxation is similar to that found in the EU-27. The shares of personal income taxes and corporate income taxes are in line with the EU-27 average and represent 9.2 % and 2.4 % of GDP. Social contributions represent a meagre 5 % of GDP (second lowest in the Union after Denmark), compared to an EU-27 average of 12.7 %. Employers’ and employees’ contributions are at 3.5 % and 1.3 % of GDP, respectively.
Ireland is one of the most fiscally centralised countries in Europe; local government has only low revenues (3.5 % of tax revenues). The social security fund receives just 16.4 % of tax revenues (EU-27 37.3%), while the vast majority (79.2 %) of tax revenue accrues to central government. This ratio is exceeded only by Malta and the UK.
Paul de Grauwe and Yuemei Ji have an interesting commentary on the causes and effects of austerity here.
Reaping the Benefits of Globalisation: What are the Opportunities and Challenges for Europe and Ireland?
This Conference, jointly organised with the European Commission, is an associated event of the Irish Presidency of the Council of the EU. It will present and discuss the main findings of the 2012 edition of the European Competitiveness Report as well as recent related empirical evidence and their implications for industrial and innovation policies in Europe and Ireland. The Conference Programme and more information are available here.
On behalf of the EUROFRAME group of research institutes, the ESRI today published a report entitled “Economic Assessment of the Euro Area”.
Among the findings contained in the report are the following:
· As a result of relatively weak external demand, continuing financial uncertainty and the contractionary stance of fiscal policy, output fell in the Euro Area in 2012 (-0.5 per cent). Over the course of 2012 there was a slowdown in some key economies, which were previously contributing much of the growth. This slowdown has carryover effects into 2013.
· Even though we anticipate a recovery in confidence in some major economies over the course of this year, the outcome for the Euro Area as a whole is still likely to be a further limited fall in GDP in 2013 of 0.3 per cent. Weak external demand will not be enough to compensate for the fall in domestic demand.
· For 2014, a recovery in domestic demand should see a return to significant growth in GDP of around 1.3 per cent. However, this forecast must be considered in the light of the continuing vulnerability to financial shocks of a number of the Euro Area member states.
· This vulnerability of countries in financial distress is being addressed through a continuing major fiscal adjustment. However, the fiscal adjustment under way across other members of the Area is also having a substantial negative effect on growth, particularly in the crisis countries. Without this fiscal adjustment the Euro Area would be looking to growth this year at around 1½ per cent and next year at approximately 2 per cent.
In an earlier post I drew attention to the extent to which Ireland’s recent apparent competitive gains reflected the weakness of the euro relative to the dollar and sterling.
Another component of competitiveness is, of course, our rate of inflation relative to that of the Euro area as a whole.
It is therefore of interest to put on record the inflation rates in Ireland and in the Euro area since 1999.
This is facilitated by the European Central Bank’s website, from which monthly data on the rate of inflation as measured by the Harmonised Index of Consumer Prices (HICP) may be readily downloaded.
The following Chart tells the story.
It may be seen that for the first five years of the new monetary union Ireland’s inflation rate was - contrary to expectations - significantly higher than the Euro area average. This resulted in a significant loss of competitiveness relative to the rest of the Euro area.
For the years between 2004 and 2007 our inflation rate behaved as expected in a monetary union and differed little from that of the Euro area average.
During 2009 and 2010 we experienced more deflation than the rest of the Euro area. This helped restore some of the competitiveness we had lost in the early years of membership and the ‘internal devaluation’ was hailed at the time in the belief that it would play a big role in getting the economy moving again.
Since 2010, however, our inflation rate has been climbing back up towards the Euro area average.
It would seem that any further ‘restoration of competitiveness’ will require further weakness of the euro on the foreign exchange markets.
The orthodox view is that enhanced competitiveness should play a significant part in Ireland’s (and other euro area countries’) recovery from recession.
In the March 2012 “Review Under the Extended Arrangement” the IMF team states that:
“Ireland’s economy has shown a capacity for export-led growth, aided by significant progress in unwinding past competitiveness losses.” (my italics)
The evidence does indeed point to a significant improvement in Ireland’s competitiveness between 2008 and the present. The following two graphs show the ECB’s ‘Harmonized Competitiveness Indicator’ (HCI) based on (a) Consumer Prices and (b) Unit Labour Costs. (A rising index implies a loss of competitiveness.) Both graphs show a competitive gain since 2008, with second showing the more dramatic improvement. However, this measure is affected by the changing composition of the labour force, which became smaller but more high-tech as a result of the collapse of many low-productivity sectors during the recession.
Concentrating on the HCI based on the CPI, the Irish competitive gain has still been impressive – our HCI fell 17% between mid-2008 and mid-2012, giving us the largest competitive gain recorded in any of the 17 euro-area countries over these years. Greece, at the other extreme, recorded no change in its HCI, Portugal fell only 4.5%, Spain 6.6%, Italy 6.8%. So by this measure Ireland is some PIIG(S)!
However, we need to dig deeper and understand why Ireland’s HCI has fallen so steeply.
Part of the story - the part on which some commentators dwell - is that early in the recession the Irish price level and Irish nominal wages fell. From a peak of 108 in 2008 the Irish Consumer Price Index fell to 100 in January 2010. But it has started to rise again – by mid-2012 it was back up to 105. The fall in the Harmonized Index of Consumer Prices has been even less impressive – from a peak of 110 to a low of 105 and now rising back to its previous peak.
Wages are more important than prices as an index of competitiveness because price indices are influenced by indirect taxes and include many non-traded services and administered prices. But Irish nominal wages tell much the same story as the price indices. The index of hourly earnings in manufacturing peaked around 106 at the end of 2009 (2008 = 100) and then fell to a low of 102 in 2011, where it appears to have stabilized. Even in the construction sector, where employment collapsed in the wake of the building bust, wage rates declined only 6 per cent between 2008 and 2011.
Falling wages and prices are in line with what many commentators thought would happen after the surge in unemployment in 2008. Widely-publicized wage cuts in the private and public sectors were seen as part of the ‘internal devaluation’ needed to rescue the Irish economy from the recession. It was argued that this was the only way we could engineer a reduction in our real exchange rate given our commitment to the euro. (Paul Krugman likes to refer pejoratively to an ‘internal devaluation’ as simply ‘wage cuts’.)
However, the Irish wage and price deflation has not been very dramatic and seems to have stalled in 2011, even though the unemployment rate continues to climb.
So why has Ireland’s competitiveness improved so sharply since 2008 if the ‘internal devaluation’ has been so modest? The answer, of course, lies in the behaviour of the euro on world currency markets and the fact that non-euro area trade is much more important for Ireland than for any other member of the EMU.
This can be seen by looking at the HCI for the euro area as a whole. The euro area HCI fell from 100 in mid-2008 to 84.7 in mid-2012 – almost as big a fall as was recorded for Ireland and far higher than that recorded in any other euro area country.
The paradox that the euro area HCI has fallen much further than the average (however weighted) of the constituent EMU countries is explained by the fact that for each individual country the HCI is compiled using weights that reflect the structure of that country’s total international trade, but for the euro area as a whole the weights reflect the only the area’s trade with the non-euro world.
In its notes on the series the ECB draws attention to this:
“The purpose of harmonized competitiveness indicators (HCIs) is to provide consistent and comparable measures of euro area countries’ price and cost competitiveness that are also consistent with the real effective exchange rates (EERs) of the euro. The HCIs are constructed using the same methodology and data sources that are used for the euro EERs. While the HCI of a specific country takes into account both intra and extra-euro area trade, however, the euro EERs are based on extra-euro area trade only.” (my italics)
It is understandable that Ireland should show a large competitive gain by euro area standards as the euro declined on world markets after 2008 because non-euro area trade is far more important to Ireland than to any of the other 16 members of the EMU. A fall in the dollar value of the euro does nothing to make France more competitive relative to Germany, or Greece relative to either of them, but it does a lot for Ireland relative to its two most important trading partners - the UK and the US.
As a consequence, the decline in the value of the euro on world currency markets, and especially relative to sterling and the dollar, has had a much larger effect on our competitiveness than on that of any other euro area country.
The following graph shows the USD / EUR exchange rate and Ireland’s HCI since 2008. It does not take any econometrics to convince me that the main driving force behind Ireland’s competitive gain has been the weakness of the euro. Undoubtedly a more sophisticated treatment, including the euro-sterling and other exchange rates of importance to Ireland – duly weighted – would show an even closer co-movement.
This should alert us to the point that Ireland’s much-praised recent competitive gain has been due more to the weakening of the euro on the world currency markets than to domestic wage and price discipline.
No doubt it could also be shown that a significant amount of the loss of competitiveness in the years before 2008 was due to the strength of the euro.
The fault - and the blame - lay not with us but with the far-from-optimal currency arrangement under which we labour.
Continuing gains in competitiveness would therefore seem to depend more on further euro weakness than on the process of ‘internal devaluation’. Should this have been a condition of our Agreement with the Troika?
The WSJ has a really good piece by Gabriele Steinhauser and Matina Stevis on the core story of the Eurogroup meeting, which seems to have slipped past the domestic media somewhat. Yes, yes, they’ll get to Ireland’s debt in September/October. Grand. The key issue of just who pays for any losses within the ESM is not settled, nor is it likely to be any time soon. From the piece:
Germany’s finance minister said that even once the euro zone’s bailout fund has been authorized to directly recapitalize struggling banks, the lenders’ host government should retain final liability for any losses.
Wolfgang Schäuble’s statement early Tuesday indicated disagreements on how far the currency union needs to go to protect countries from expensive bank failures. His declaration, which followed more than nine hours of talks between euro-zone finance ministers here, clashed with those of other officials, who insisted that banks’ host states wouldn’t have to guarantee any support from the bailout fund.
The issue is hugely important for Spain, which risks being locked out of financial markets amid concerns over how a European bailout for its banks will affect Madrid’s ability to repay investors.
Fun times ahead.
..is discussed in the Irish Times today by my UL colleague Donal Donovan. From the piece:
The prospects for Ireland being able to access sufficient market funding by late 2013 do not appear favourable. The lending environment for sovereigns in much of the euro zone has worsened steadily and, barring miracles in Greece and Spain, is unlikely to improve sharply soon. Notwithstanding Ireland’s Yes vote and continued adherence to the troika programme, we can’t avoid being affected by the general market nervousness. Ireland’s budget deficit, at 8-9 per cent of gross domestic product, remains the highest among debt-distressed euro zone members.
Even under favourable assumptions, without specific debt-alleviation measures, the debt to GDP ratio will be over 100 per cent – second only to Greece – for some time.
Despite encouraging words from European Central Bank president Mario Draghi, it is hard to be confident that the estimated €40 billion needed to cover the budget deficit and repay maturing debt obligations in 2014-2015 can be obtained at affordable market terms.
By Ronan LyonsThursday, May 17th, 2012
Kevin and Philip have been keeping readers of this site up-to-date with economic analysis of Grexit, problems with EMU and other big picture items over the last few days.
If I may, I’d like to bring things back down to the level of Ireland and the upcoming referendum on the Fiscal Compact. To my mind, a few important concepts have gone out the window as the debate in Ireland about the referendum on the Fiscal Compact has descended into political games. Perhaps the first victim was cause-and-effect, with the mere correlation of banking debts and government deficits being translated by many into iron-cast causation.
A close second in the casualty list was the concept of opportunity cost: in other words, there’s not really much point focusing on how bad or economically illiterate the Fiscal Compact is in and of itself. We need to ask how attractive it is relative to the other options. As of now, the most important attribute of the Fiscal Compact is its ability to get Ireland the funding that it otherwise would not be able to get, to allow the country to gradually close the deficit. By 2020, that may be completely unimportant and we may want to ditch the Compact. But we are voting in 2012, not 2020.
With that in mind, I’ve developed “Austerity Games”, as a basic guide to voters on deficits, debt, fiscal policy and the EU’s Fiscal Compact (below, click to enlarge). Hopefully it’s useful to some readers.
For a fuller exposition on why the IMF will not be a panacea, Karl Whelan has an excellent blog post here.
In this interview, Mrs Merkel gives the forthcoming Irish referendum as a reason why the treaty should not be renegotiated.
Almost no-one in Ireland thinks this treaty is a good one, and that includes the people who believe that we have no realistic option but to ratify it. Indeed, almost no-one outside Germany seems to want it, including the governments who signed it. It follows that if M Hollande were to lead a push to have it renegotiated, we should support that effort. If our May referendum is an obstacle in the way of achieving that goal, we should postpone it.
The question of achieving an ‘internal devaluation’ has been raised in a late contribution to the previous thread. It deserves more attention than it tends to receive on this site.
The phrase refers to improving competitiveness in the absence of a national exchange rate by reducing costs and prices relative to those of competitor countries.
Labour costs are a major component of domestic costs and one over which we retain ‘sovereignty’.
In 2011 Irish hourly labour costs were €27.4, which was 99.3 per cent of the Eurozone (EZ) average of €27.6. In 2008 (the peak year) Irish labour costs were 105.7 of the EZ average, so there has been some improvement in this measure of our competitiveness.
However, Irish costs remain much higher than those in several EZ countries. Here are some relevant comparisons: Spain €20.6, Slovenia €14.4, Portugal €12.1 and Estonia €8.1. Outside the EZ the UK figure is €20.1, while the US Bureau of Labor Statistics gives a figure of $34.2 for hourly labour costs in US manufacturing in 2010 compared with $36.3 for Ireland.
Obviously all EZ countries cannot gain competitiveness relative to each other by reducing labour costs, although the EZ as a whole could become more cost-competitive relative to the rest of world by this strategy. However, I think it is clear that we would have to wait a long time to see any dramatic results from this source either in Ireland or in the EZ as a whole.
There is an absolutely terrific talk by Andres Velasco here. It would be great if European (and Irish) policy makers would take these kinds of arguments to heart, but at this stage in the Eurozone crisis I am not sure that they will before it is too late.
Today saw contributors to this blog John McHale (wearing his IFAC hat), Alan Ahearne, and Karl Whelan, as well as TASC’s Tom McDonnell appearing before the Joint Committee on European Affairs.
Colm Keena reports on the committee proceedings here. The transcript of the discussion will be up here fairly soon. Update: Karl’s remarks are here. Update 2: Tom’s remarks are here. The divergence in viewpoints is fairly obvious from the reporting, with Alan and John thinking the fiscal compact is the way forward, Karl thinking in practice it’s a done deal anyway and even though rule sets like this make little sense (which Colm McCarthy hacked away at in a previous post), we should sign it. Tom didn’t think it was a good idea at all.
Karl’s point on macroeconomic thinking is worth expanding upon. He is quoted as saying
“What is noteworthy about the new EU fiscal compact, however, is that it does not correspond to mainstream thinking among economists as to how an ideal fiscal policy framework should operate.”
“Structural deficits were a theoretical phenomenon and establishing legally binding rules about impossible to measure quantities was sure to create trouble sooner or later. He thought the rules would lead to more austerity across Europe than was required.”
By Karl WhelanThursday, February 2nd, 2012
A newly-modified ESM Treaty has been signed. Documents are available here. One key aspect:
It is acknowledged and agreed that the granting of financial assistance in the framework of new programmes under the ESM will be conditional, as of 1 March 2013, on the ratification of the TSCG by the ESM Member concerned.
Viewers of the Vincent Browne show take heed!
Today’s developments that Minister Noonan hopes to see parts of the Anglo debt reduced are most welcome. From an Irish Times report:
On the Anglo debts, Mr Noonan said troika officials were preparing a joint technical paper, drawing on Irish suggestions, to reduce the overall burden involved in repaying the principal of the €31 billion promissory note.
This loan arrangement predates the EU-IMF programme and was agreed to fund an effectively insolvent Anglo Irish Bank but is seen by the Government as too expensive.
“We think there’s a less expensive way of doing it by financial engineering, and we’re not talking about private-sector involvement or restructuring,” said Mr Noonan in Berlin.
Writing in the latest issue of Business and Finance, Karl makes a similar point. Read the entire piece, especially a precise description of what promissory notes are and how they work, but this quote struck me as important.
It is true that the Irish taxpayer has taken on far too big a burden in ensuring that bondholders at Anglo and INBS were repaid. But quibbling about bondholders misses the elephant in the room. It is the huge burden of repaying ELA, not bondholders, that is going to bleed the taxpayer dry for the next twenty years.
It is time for the Irish government to declare that it has no intention of putting €3.1 billion towards repaying ELA in March and that it has arranged an agreement in principle with the Central Bank of Ireland that the state will repay this debt when it has fully recovered from its current crisis.
If my understanding of the legal situation is correct, then Patrick Honohan would only require the support of seven other members of the ECB Governing Council to proceed with this plan. This could easily be achieved with the support of Mario Draghi. Ireland has borne a heavy burden in the name of European financial stability. It’s time for a quid pro quo from super Mario.
The most recent Final Conference to Save the Euro ended in disarray when the UK refused to sign up to a proposed set of EU treaty changes. The UK’s veto was due to the inclusion of an EU-wide Tobin Tax on security transactions in the set of proposals. The justification for an international Tobin Tax is quite strong. Hypercompetitive securities markets with excessively-large trading volumes and hyper-fast price changes are a serious danger to global financial stability. A Tobin Tax would eliminate these dangerous trading excesses without impinging much on underlying market efficiency. On other hand, the UK government’s refusal to sign up to an EU-only Tobin Tax, imposed on the City of London while the US and Asian global financial centres remain outside the tax net, was an obvious and sensible policy decision for the UK.
After the proposed EU treaty changes were restricted to a coalition of the willing, the Irish government fretted that a Tobin Tax might particularly disadvantage the Irish financial services industry, given that the UK will be outside the tax net.
What should be Ireland’s policy stance toward an international Tobin Tax? Should Ireland do the right thing as a global citizen by supporting such a tax within the Eurozone, or should it protect its international financial services industry from UK (and non-EU) predation and therefore veto any such tax proposal? It would be much better for all concerned if the Tobin Tax could be imposed at a global rather than EU level.
Sometime in the future, May 6th 2010 might rank with August 9th 2007 as a “warning date” for a subsequent financial market disaster. Recall that starting on August 9th 2007, quant-trading hedge funds experienced an extremely turbulent, credit-market-related meltdown. Although the quant-trading markets calmed down after about two weeks, many analysts now recognize this as an early warning signal of the subsequent global credit crisis. In an interesting parallel, on May 6th 2010, high-frequency trading systems generated a “flash crash” of US equity markets, causing a 9% fall and 9% rise of the US stock market within a 20 minute period. Some individual stock prices went bananas; completed trades at crazy prices during this short “flash crash” period were annulled that evening by the NYSE board. Since the markets righted themselves within a day or two, many analysts have forgotten about this incident. But could this “flash crash” be an early warning sign of a subsequent “permo-crash”? High frequency trading (HFT), using entirely computerized systems to trade at hyper-second frequency, now constitutes 70% of US equity and equity-related (equity baskets, futures, options) trading volume, and 30% in the UK. If HFT generates a flash-crash at the end of the trading day, rather than mid-day as on May 6th, and something else goes wrong at the same time, it could lead to an enormous disaster.
Tobin originally proposed his tax for the foreign exchange market, which was the first financial market to have hyper-competitive trading costs. He saw that most of the trading volume in forex markets provided very little economic value. A small tax would have a big influence on trading volume, rendering purely speculative and potentially destabilizing trading strategies unprofitable, while having little or no impact on the real economic value of these markets. Tobin called it “throwing sand in the wheels” of securities market trading. Nowadays, Tobin’s “sand in the wheels” metaphor is widely misunderstood. Tobin was a World War Two naval officer and throwing sand in the wheels was an accepted way to improve machine performance in his day. For mid-twentieth century machinery a little sand in the wheels would slow down the mechanism (think of something like a navy ship’s water pumps) and make for more reliable performance with less chance of overheating. With modern precision engineering the notion of “sand in the wheels” as a repair method seems ridiculous, so commentators assume Tobin is advocating sabotage of securities markets. That was not what he meant – “sand in the wheels” is an old-fashioned procedure to slow down machinery so that performance improves, not a means of sabotage. Oddly, the tax is designed to generate minimum revenue – it relies on the elasticity of trading volume to net costs, and tries to drive out destabilizing short-term trading strategies while collecting minimal tax revenue.
Now, after decades of hard-fought liberalization, US and UK equity markets have the same hyper-competitive trading costs as forex markets. HFT has hijacked this and feeds off this market cost improvement (and by earning net profits from “normal” market traders) with trading systems that add little real efficiency improvement for markets. Eliminating their net profits with a small tax would do little harm, and make markets safer. The very bright computer scientists who run these HFT firms could go back to socially useful activities like designing better software.
There is another interesting parallel to the global credit crisis. US housing regulators worked for thirty years to increase access to owner-occupied housing for lower and middle income households and this was a big success. Then, they took that policy too far, and the policy was hijacked by self-interested actors in the US property lending and securities trading sectors. There was too much of a good thing in terms of the too-low-credit-quality US residential property lending market. The same applies now with securities market trading costs and trading access. Regulators have succeeded in driving out bad securities trading practices and greatly lowering trading costs, but this process has gone too far. It has been hijacked by HFT. I call this the Too Much of a Good Thing (TMGT) theory of regulatory capture.
During the credit bubble, Ireland enthusiastically joined the dumb-down contest to impose the minimal possible regulation on the financial services sector. Perhaps now Irish policy leaders could make amends by joining the push for a Tobin Tax.
How would a Tobin tax impact the competitive draw of Dublin for its brand of “off shore” financial services? Perhaps it would be the death knell for the Irish stock exchange since all trading volume might migrate to London. Ireland policymakers should encourage a global solution, bringing the US and UK in particular into the plan. Asian markets (which are not yet competitive for HFT) might be willing to cooperate as well, since there is no great cost for them.
The latest attempt by the ECB to get a grip on the Eurozone crisis might work. It has the potential both to push sovereign market yields toward sustainable rates, and to block self-fulfilling institutional bank runs in which corporate deposits move to stronger Eurozone countries, draining weaker member banking systems of liquidity and credit.
Colm McCarthy was keen on a “reverse tap” in which the ECB enforces a maximum yield (minimum market price) on Italian/Spanish/etc sovereign bonds using its money-creation potential to back up this policy. The problem with his plan, in my view, was the lack of a surveillance mechanism to ensure the funded countries were continuing their needed restructuring. Germany would not accept that solution. My own preference was for the IMF to serve as conduit for sovereign funding via official IMF programs backed by ECB-funded bonds. Colm criticized this as an unnecessary intermediation by the IMF in a problem that needed to be solved by Europe.
The new ECB unlimited-three-year bank funding strategy uses the banks themselves as the monitor for sovereign discipline. It also provides direct bank liquidity so that the slow-motion institutional bank run phenomenon is less likely to lead to the negative feedback loop (corporate depositors distrust the PIIGS banks, PIIGS banks lose liquidity and restrict credit flow to their national economies, PIIGS national economies slow down due to shortage of credit, PIIGS banks suffer due to national economic slowdowns). Actually the “G” does not belong in this acronym anymore since it is a separate case. Perhaps PISI? Commercial banks in the PISI who lose corporate deposits to Germany or elsewhere can replace them with even cheaper funding from the ECB.
Might the new ECB strategy work?
By Karl WhelanThursday, December 15th, 2011
The latest collection of briefing papers for the European Parliament’s Monetary Dialogue with the ECB are available here (click on 19.12.2011). Five papers (including one by me) discusses issues related to ratings agencies, prompted by the recent package of regulations proposed by the European Commission. Three other papers discuss the ongoing Euro crisis.