Thursday, October 13, 2011


After a sojourn to reflect and refocus on developments, what are the questions that dominate the political ether? The question I hear most often socially: "is the government (US or UK) doing the right thing?" My answer is a confident YES. Then I say "but both US and UK governments are failing to paint a clear picture of what they are doing and precisely why!"
see also:
Republicans in the USA and Conservatives in the UK are successfully twisting the issues to make recession and banking crisis appear domestic political failures. This is most telling for the UK's Labour government with a general election due in less than a year from now. But it has to be clear to intelligent observers that the UK's position is only to be expected and remains prudentially sensible as a proportionate set of responses to the crisis. PM Gordon Brown has maintained a stance that in effect says "trust me (us) to do the right thing to get us out of this crisis." The general public, at least the political chattering class, wants detailed explanations, not abstract assurances. The Conservative Opposition, echoed by the Liberals, have in the media created the axiomatic assumption that "public finances are in a mess." There is tremendous anger about banks and bankers, but the effect of ya-boo politics has been to divert anxious blame onto the government. Reading UK media the impression is gained that the UK's public finances and national debt must be the world's worst, if even no-one is quite sure what precisely defines concepts like 'finances in a mess'. Note the example of the following table. This reviews the financial debt of countries relative to GDP. There is a misnomer in the 3rd column (private sector debt) which is really household debt only as may be surmised in any case from column 7 of total bank assets (total loan gross exposures, not domestic only) given that public sector element is typically about half ratio to GDP with a few exceptions. There is a concerted forgetting that UK private sector gross debt over the past decade grew from 3 times public sector debt to 6 times public sector debt (3 times GDP) while, until the crisis broke, public sector debt held steady and fell slightly. Now the general public are being daily made anxious about the government fiscal deficit and medium term prospect of tax rate rises, most recently by the NIESR report on the economy, which fails to take account of the feedback effects of saving the financial sector. see the following:
The NIESR has adapted the average recovery for previous recessions to state that incomes will not recover to the pre-crisis level (in real terms before unemployment rose and GDP experienced negative quarterly growth) until after 6 years. This is merely the average peak-to-peak period but has been exaggerated in the media as if a damning indictment of someone or something, similarly that GDP rates forecast are worse than the last published government figures (March Budget)? Yet, in fact there is nothing shocking or surprising about this. What is surprising is the NIESR's assumption that with a lower pound growth recovery will be export-led i.e. a total reversal of the credit boom growth previously! This assumption is conditional on whether government efforts to persuade or force banks to maintain or even increase lending will be effective, especially via the public sector owned banks. A very similar view would apply in the USA. What seems remarkably gauche about this outlook is that both UK and USA remain magnets for other countries foreign exchange surpluses. There is an improvement in growth expected for both insofar as the external account trade deficits will narrow as export-surpluses countries trade surpluses shrink, but this is not a recipe for halting unemployment rises. That depends on fiscal boosts and the banks cushioning the shrinkage of credit (deleveraging by banks to thereby most easily restore their capital ratios and by borrowers, especially households, cutting back their spending). Only restoring some credit boom effect and regaining confidence will slow and halt the domino, knock-on, rippling, or however anyone wants to describe it, negative vortex of beggar-my-neighbour impacts through the economy and all economies.
The banks have not woken up and smelled the coffee of their collective responsibility for economic recovery alongside government; they continue to live with pre-crisis mindsets, witness their inability and extreme unwillingness anyway, to tackle the bonus-culture. Government (UK and USA) have also not spelled out clearly enough what the banks are obliged by government to do to help both themselves and the economy. Lloyds Banking Group, for example, has improved its capital ratio to over 14% but mainly by reducing its risk weighted assets (loans) by nearly 40%, of which half was gained by an asset for BoE cheque swap with the Bank of England! The remaining half of the deleveraging is largely by retiring loans and not rolling them over. The effect of this alone in the case of but one bank has a 1% negative ratio to GDP and a GDP impact of possible minus 0.5%. Compounded by deleveraging by other major banks and we have a negative pro-cyclicality effect, precisely what banking regulation Basel II is most concerned to identify and avoid! Is the government forecasting or that of NIESR or any other model supposed to have predicted this? Governments created something of a cleft stick here, on the one hand wanting to see their financial interventions repaid soonest and on the other seeking assurances that the banks would maintain substantially more than minimum regulatory capital reserves and also maintain lending at pre-crisis levels. These objectives if not sensibly timed become mutually exclusive!
It is not hard therefore to conclude that what is less important right now is what caused the crisis and more important is what are the banks doing today? They are making the recession deeper. Bankers have an ready culprit they can blame for causing pro-cyclicality, the Basel II capital adequacy regulations, which ironically were designed with the objjective of addressing precisely this problem!
The banks still look at the underlying economy as exogenous to their business performance, not as something intrinsic that they can directly effect. They have as yet not embraced and understood Basel II Pillar II stress testing and economic scenario analysis and the central banks, government, and economic institutes like NIESR are not offering guidance and tools for how to analyse better the role of banks in the economy!
The banks are currently in a period of retrenchment, recoiling like scalded cats in the face of public sarcasm, and therefore unable to take responsibility alongside government in concerted efforts to redeem the economy. The public debate continues to confuse symptoms and underlying disease. The banking crisis may have had viral-like causes that transmitted throughout the whole financial system, but the public, led by politicians, media and pundits, continue to primarily blame all major banks as if they are individually guilty or heinous excessive risk-taking, even though the collective guilt is also obvious. Some pundits say we should have let individual banks fail absolutely as if diseased parts of the body-financial could be cut out to let the healthy parts prosper. This is myopic at best and ego-mania at worst, every cloud has silver linings for some whether short-sellers or doom-monger talking-heads.
Of course, what is it I'm saying here other than we need more comprehensive clarity delivered to the general public. How easy is that? Not easy at all. Opinions like politics are a market-place. After 2 years of the most intensive news coverage given to any crisis including war coverage, is the general public more attuned to detailed technicalities of what is happening and why, and what is being done, and what should be done, than before? Where can the public plant its feet and say this is real?
Timothy Geithner recently visited Alistair Darling but they failed to use the meeting adequately. They, both of their governments administration, need each other to validate each other's fiscal responses to the recession and financial interventions to salve the banking crisis. But, it is clear they don't quite get that. No one trusts bankers and only reluctantly trust economists. Politicians are generally mistrusted. Therefore this only leaves the inter-governmental sphere where mutual validation and confidence may be gained. My perception is that there is considerable confidence at this level, but it is not being communicated. In part this is because it lacks the tools for the job to analyse policy interventions sufficiently to know the timing of when to expect the positive benefits of policy measures to become apparent, by which I mean both finance sector interventions and budget fiscal deficits. The US and the UK are in recessions that are 6 and 4 quarters ahead of others, and consequently their fiscal deficits are higher and broadly in agreement. Politicians are sensibly wary of creating hostages to fortune, however, in making economic projections of qhen their actions should have positive results. This was a similar problem for central banks when trying to issue warnings ahead of the credit crunch, too wishy-washy elegantly shredded into lumpy bit kind of advice, with on the one hand and on the other etc. If there is one experience to be warned about I gained working in banks and as an economist is that too many people in key risk management positions are more risk adverse about their own careers than capable of setting this aside to state clearly what they believe. That said, it is doubtful that any major bank's board had it received cogent and accurate advice in say 2006 or early 2007 mapping out precisely what was about to hit them, would not have had 'shot' the bringer of bad tidings, at best had him or her dragged off to the funny farm. Economics is for various reasons, including bonus culture ones, something that most top bankers resist like the plague, whether qualified in banking or as is equally commonplace not educated about the totality of banking at all. Economics is sobering and not what inebriates can tolerate if given the choice? Perhaps polticians and central banks should take a leaf out of how wartime leaders such as Roosevelt and Churchill dealt with matters of public information and military command when they recognised that confidence mattered most combined with well-judged honesty in appealing to all to do their utmost in these difficult challenging times, etc? The recession and financial crisis is not a place for simply saying "I am your leader so trust me!" Time for more political courage, to step up and say that to the best of our judgment this is what we believe and deliver confidence-boosting expectations and take the political risk. The opposition political parties similarly need to be seen to stop playing party politics on the issue of getting out of recession and the credit crunch crisis. There are plenty of other matters they can be sarcastic about. Obama attempted in the US to gain a bi-partisan approach on the crises. he only half succeeded. In Europe, it seems to me that bi-partisanship has not even been proposed as a necessary or useful way forward! In the UK, Labour is pinning its hopes on being seen to have steered the economy through the recession. That has no precedents as a political strategy that I can recall. Better would be to simply go for honest statesmanship in the interests of what works best to restore public confidence in what it is that politicians are supposed to do best and most responsibly?
Geithner stated on 13th July that there is a good chance that the U.S. and other leading economies will start growing again over the next two quarters, but there are still significant risks to the outlook. This chimes with UK views (Government and NIESR) that there will be positive GDP growth in 4th quarter 2009. Essentially, this is based on narrowing of the external account and past recessions given that UK and US have both now reached the end of previous average recession periods, with one overlooked aspect that is that UK recovery tends to occur 2 quarters after the US, hence do not expect UK positive GDP before next year! Furthermore, both the official assurances of UK and US governments have been made without analysis of the cycle impacts of what the banks are doing. Their respective national economic models lack that depth; they cannot model for the details of the financial sector statistics within their GDP forecasting models!
Geithner said, "In my view there are still significant risks and challenges ahead," Geithner said when asked if he was concerned about the possibility of a double-dip recession. The issue is less double-dip in my view than simply 'double' given that the financial crisis is doubling the depth of what would have been a more normal to-be-expected recession. He said the world's major economies were largely in agreement on the steps that needed to be taken to boost economic activity. Yes indeed, but hard to guess that from statements by politicians except when speaking under the G8 and G20 umbrella. "I think we have remarkably strong consensus in place on core elements," Geithner said. This is not strictly true on the face of data, but is as good as it gets. He was speaking after talks with UK's Alistair Darling as part of a trip that will take in the Middle East and Paris. Geithner and Darling said leaders of industrialised nations would discuss the measures they are taking when the G20 meets in Pittsburgh in September. This is a critical month for the USA when its annual government budget ends and a new one has to be announced and voted through Congress. The number of state interventions in the banking crisis has slowed compared to last year. Everyone is treading water waiting to see what happens to banks balances by the end of the second quarter to then gauge what the US especially will decide it needs as a fiscal boost after September and in off-budget fiat (money market) interventions and command economy edicts to the banks. By then we should also have the measure of Quantitative Easing plus government bond auctions and we will probably be in the maelstrom of another nervous stcok market fall. Geithner will seek to reassure Gulf Arab states this week that U.S. dollar assets they hold in large quantities remain a strong investment. This is bolstered by scare stories about the Euro trillions of toxic debt in the Eurozone. On the one hand a strengthened dollar and weaker Euro should add to containment on oil prices on top of fall in demand, on the other hand there is a strong motive by foreign investors to anticipate another dip in US equity and asset values. A recent decline in Saudi foreign assets shows the purchase of U.S. Treasuries by Washington's Gulf allies, five having currencies pegged to the dollar, at levels seen in the past decades should no longer be taken for granted. This reflects narrowing of the US external account, hoiwever, and is not worrisome since the US, like the UK, now want their government bond new issues to be bought by domestic buyers, principally by the banks. The banks may foolishly insist on quid pro quo: "we'll buy your debt if you lessen the pressure on us to maintain lending levels and let us deleverage further!" Negative growth pro-cyclicality by banks has some way yet to run. If we take our best bets on this from past recessions, expect the banks to continue shrinking their household and corporate loan books at least up to the 3rd quarter of 2010!