European horror graph of the day – the Greek price level collapse

It has been said that the recent decline in European inflation to a large extent is due to a positive supply shock. This is to some extent correct and it is something I have acknowledged on a number of occassions. However, the main deflationary problem comes from the demand side of the European economy and the fact that monetary policy remains extremely tight in the euro zone is the main cause of the deflationary pressures in the European economy. A simple (but incomplete) way to strip out supply side effects from the price level is to look at the GDP deflator. This is what I here have done for Greece. This is the horror graph of the day – it is the level of the Greek GDP deflator relative to the pre-crisis trend (2000-7).

greek-price-level

I challenge my readers to find ANY example from history where such a collapse in the price level has ended in anything else than tears. PS note that there are no signs of inflationary pressures in the Greek economy escalating prior to the crisis. This is not about imbalances, but about a negative monetary policy shock.

About these ads

Greece in the news – 81 years ago…

This is from the “The Brisbane Courier” April 18 1932

Suspension by Greece

GENEVA, April 15

M. Venizelos, the Prime Minister of Greece, told the League of Nations today that Greece would be unable to balance her budget without suspending her debt payments abroad. He hoped the necessity for such suspension would be only temporary.

LONDON, April 16

The Greek Legation announces that in accordance with M Venizelos’s explanation the bond holders are to be requested to consent to the suspension of payments on account of loans and sinking fund for five years and to the non-transfer of the payment coupons of these loans, which are due on May 1 until the Powers have granted Greece assistance in accordance with the recommendations of the League of Nations’ Finance Committee

Two weeks later Greece defaulted and gave up the gold standard…

 

Papers about money, regime uncertainty and efficient religions

I have the best wife in the world and she has been extremely understanding about my odd idea to start blogging, but there is one thing she is not too happy about and that is that I tend to leave printed copies of working papers scatted around our house. I must admit that I hate reading working papers on our iPad. I want the paper version, but I also read quite a few working papers and print out even more papers. So that creates quite a paper trail in our house…

But some of the working papers also end up in my bag. The content of my bag today might inspire some of my readers:

“Monetary Policy and Japan’s Liquidity Trap” by Lars E. O. Svensson and “Theoretical Analysis Regarding a Zero Lower Bound on Nominal Interest Rate” by Bennett T. McCallum.

These two papers I printed out when I was writting my recent post on Czech monetary policy. It is obvious that the Czech central bank is struggling with how to ease monetary policy when interest rates are close to zero. We can only hope that the Czech central bankers read papers like this – then they would be in no doubt how to get out of the deflationary trap. Frankly speaking I didn’t read the papers this week as I have read both papers a number of times before, but I still think that both papers are extremely important and I would hope central bankers around the world would study Svensson’s and McCallum’s work.

“Regime Uncertainty – Why the Great Depression Lasted So Long and Why Prosperity Resumed after the War” – by Robert Higgs.

My regular readers will know that I believe that the key problem in both the US and the European economies is overly tight monetary policy. However, that does not change the fact that I am extremely fascinated by Robert Higgs’ concept “Regime Uncertainty”. Higgs’ idea is that uncertainty about the regulatory framework in the economy will impact investment activity and therefore reduce growth. While I think that we primarily have a demand problem in the US and Europe I also think that regime uncertainty is a highly relevant concept. Unlike for example Steve Horwitz I don’t think that regime uncertainty can explain the slow recovery in the US economy. As I see it regime uncertainty as defined by Higgs is a supply side phenomena. Therefore, we should expect a high level of regime uncertainty to lower real GDP growth AND increase inflation. That is certainly not what we have in the US or in the euro zone today. However, there are certainly countries in the world where I would say regime uncertainty play a dominant role in the present economic situation and where tight monetary policy is not the key story. My two favourite examples of this are South Africa and Hungary. I would also point to regime uncertainty as being extremely important in countries like Venezuela and Argentina – and obviously in Iran. The last three countries are also very clear examples of a supply side collapse combined with extremely easy monetary policy.

Furthermore, we should remember that tight monetary policy in itself can lead to regime uncertainty. Just think about Greece. Extremely tight monetary conditions have lead to a economic collapse that have given rise to populist and extremist political forces and the outlook for economic policy in Greece is extremely uncertain. Or remember the 1930s where tight monetary conditions led to increased protectionism and generally interventionist policies around the world – for example the horrible National Industrial Recovery Act (NIRA) in the US.

I have read Higg’s paper before, but hope to re-read it in the coming week (when I will be traveling a lot) as I plan to write something about the economic situation in Hungary from the perspective of regime uncertain. I have written a bit about that topic before.

“World Hyperinflations” by Steve Hanke and Nicholas Krus.

I have written about this paper before and I have now come around to read the paper. It is excellent and gives a very good overview of historical hyperinflations. There is a strong connection to Higgs’ concept of regime uncertainty. It is probably not a coincidence that the countries in the world where inflation is getting out of control are also countries with extreme regime uncertainty – again just think about Argentina, Venezuela and Iran.

“Morality and Monopoly: The Constitutional political economy of religious rules” by Gary Anderson and Robert Tollison.

This blog is about monetary policy issues and that is what I spend my time writing about, but I do certainly have other interests. There is no doubt that I am an economic imperialist and I do think that economics can explain most social phenomena – including religion. My recent trip to Provo, Utah inspired me to think about religion again or more specifically I got intrigued how the Church of Jesus Chris Latter day Saints (LDS) – the Mormons – has become so extremely successful. When I say successful I mean how the LDS have grown from being a couple of hundreds members back in the 1840s to having millions of practicing members today – including potentially the next US president. My hypothesis is that religion can be an extremely efficient mechanism by which to solve collective goods problems. In Anderson’s and Tollison’s paper they have a similar discussion.

If religion is an mechanism to solve collective goods problems then the most successful religions – at least those which compete in an unregulated and competitive market for religions – will be those religions that solve these collective goods problems in the most efficient way. My rather uneducated view is that the LDS has been so successful because it has been able to solve collective goods problems in a relatively efficient way. Just think about when the Mormons came to Utah in the late 1840s. At that time there was effectively no government in Utah – it was essentially an anarchic society. Government is an mechanism to solve collective goods problems, but with no government you have to solve these problems in another way. Religion provides such mechanism and I believe that this is what the LDS did when the pioneers arrived in Utah.

So if I was going to write a book about LDS from an economic perspective I think I would have to call it “LDS – the efficient religion”. But hey I am not going to do that because I don’t really know much about religion and especially not about Mormonism. Maybe it is good that we are in the midst of the Great Recession – otherwise I might write about the economics and religion or why I prefer to drive with taxi drivers who don’t wear seat belts.

—-

Update: David Friedman has kindly reminded me of Larry Iannaccone’s work on economics of religion. I am well aware of Larry’s work and he is undoubtedly the greatest authority on the economics of religion and he is president of the Association for the Study of Religion, Economics and Culture. Larry’s paper “Introduction to the Economics of Religion” is an excellent introduction to the topic.

Greece is not really worse than Germany (if you adjust for lack of growth)

Market Monetarists have stressed it again and again – the European crisis is primarily a monetary crisis rather than a financial crisis and a debt crisis. Tight monetary conditions is reason for the so-called debt crisis. Said in another way it is the collapse in nominal GDP relative to the pre-crisis trend that have caused European debt ratios to skyrocket in the last four years.

That is easily illustrated – just see the graph below:

I have simply plotted the change in public debt to GDP from 2007 to 2012 (2012 are European Commission forecasts) against the percentage change in nominal GDP since 2007.

The conclusion is very clear. The change in public debt ratios across the euro zone is nearly entirely a result of the development in nominal GDP.

The “bad boys” the so-called PIIGS – Portugal, Ireland, Italy, Greece and Spain (and Slovenia) are those five (six) countries that have seen the most lackluster growth (in fact decline) in NGDP in the euro zone. These countries are obviously also the countries where debt has increased the most and government bond yields have skyrocketed.

This should really not be a surprise to anybody who have taken Macro 101 – public expenditures tend to increase and tax revenues drop in cyclical downturns. So higher budget deficits normally go hand in hand with weaker growth.

The graph interestingly enough also shows that the debt development in Greece really is no different from the debt development in Germany if we take the difference in NGDP growth into account. Greek nominal GDP has dropped by around 10% since 2007 and that pretty much explains the 50%-point increase in public debt since 2007. Greece is smack on the regression line in the graph – and so is Germany. The better debt performance in Germany does not reflect that the German government is more fiscally conservative than the Greek government. Rather it reflects a much better NGDP growth performance. So maybe we should ask the Bundesbank what would have happened to German public debt had NGDP dropped by 10% as in Greece. My guess is that the markets would not be too impressed with German fiscal policy in that scenario. It should of course also be noted that you can argue that the Greek government really has not anything to reduce the level of public debt – if it had than the Greece would be below to the regression line in the graph and it is not.

There are two outliers in the graph – Ireland and Estonia. The increase in Irish debt is much larger than one should have expected judging from the size of the change in NGDP in Ireland. This can easily be explained – it is simply the cost of the Irish banking rescues. The other outlier is Estonia where the increase in public debt has been much smaller than one should have expected given the development in nominal GDP. In that sense Estonia is really the only country in the euro zone, which have improved its public finances in any substantial fashion compared to what would have been the case if fiscal austerity had not been undertaken. The tightening of fiscal policy measured in this way is 20-25% of GDP. This is a truly remarkable tightening of fiscal policy.

Imagine, however, for one minute that Greece had undertaken a fiscal tightening of a similar magnitude as Estonia and assume at the same time that it would have had no impact on NGDP (the keynesians are now screaming) then the Greek budget situation would still have been horrendous – public debt would have not increase by 50% %-point of GDP but “only” by 30%-point. Greece would still be in deep trouble. This I think demonstrates that it is near impossible to undertake any meaningful fiscal consolidation when you see the kind of collapse in NGDP that you have seen in Greece.

Concluding, the European debt crisis is not really a debt crisis. It is a monetary crisis. The ECB has allowed euro zone nominal GDP to drop well-below its pre-crisis trend and that is the key reason for the sharp rise in public debt ratios. I am not saying that Europe do not have other problems. In fact I think Europe has serious structural problems – too much regulation, too high taxes, rigid labour markets, underfunded pension systems etc. However, these problems did not cause the present crisis and even though I think these issues need to be addressed I doubt that reforms in these areas will be enough to drag us out of the crisis. We need higher nominal GDP growth. That will be the best cure. Now we are only waiting on Draghi to deliver.

PS The graph above also illustrate how badly wrong Arthur Laffer got it on fiscal policy in his recent Wall Street Journal article – particular in his claim that Estonia had been got conducting keynesian fiscal stimulus. See here, here and here.

Remember the last time Greece was kicked out of a monetary union?

Speculation about a Greek exit for the euro zone continues ahead of the weekend’s Greek parliament elections. If Greece leaves the euro (or is kicked out) then it will not be the first time Greece has been forced out of a currency union.

This is from a 2003 working paper from the Greek central bank(!):

“The Latin Monetary Union (LMU) is thought by many to be the 19th predecessor of the recent venture of the European Monetary Union. It was designed for the same reasons that led to the adoption of the euro in the dawn of the new millennium, i.e. “the creation of a lake of monetary stability in the very perturbed ocean of the international monetary system”… The LMU was in essence a metallic monetary system in which the two precious metals, gold and silver, were used as a numeraire, i.e. as a unit for determining the value of all the other currencies. The benefit from the creation of the LMU was the moderation of fluctuations observed in the market prices of gold and silver, caused by the discovery of new supplies of precious metals.

…Although participation in the LMU demanded strict monetary discipline, this was not secured via an institutional framework that would impose firm criteria for fiscal management.

…The need to reform the Greek monetary system became urgent in the mid-1860s when Spain abandoned the monetary system that was based on the distilo. At that time, international trade transactions were made in currency directly convertible into precious metals at a fixed rate, and, therefore, Greece had to adopt a monetary system that would be acceptable by other countries. The Greek governments expected that by joining the LMU the country could enjoy monetary stability. First, Greece would no longer face money scarcity since domestic transactions would also be carried out in French francs; second, tying the drachma to the French franc at a fixed rate would reduce exchange rate fluctuations; and, third, Greece would improve her solvency in the international capital market of Paris.

…Beginning in the mid-1870s, political instability in Greece led to an increase of fiscal deficits. The segmentation of the Parliament into many small political parties and the short-lived governments caused a loss of revenues due to the laxity in tax collection and an increase in expenditure due to the numerous dismissals and transfers of civil servants that accompanied each change of government. None of the 19th century governments dared to undertake a budget reform, namely to improve the tax collection system and raise revenues from income taxes.Public expenditures – overwhelming government consumption – were financed by domestic borrowing contracted on unfavourable terms to the government, resulting in an excessive burdening of the budget during the second half of the 1870s.

In an effort to ensure banknote convertibility, the Greek government tried to avoid inflation as a tax instrument but rather incurred welfare losses in return for income tax revenues. However, the Russo-Turkish War of 1877-78 caused new wartime emergencies and aggravated the position of the budget even further. Considering the rise of its defence expenses as temporary and with the intention to maintain the specie convertibility rule during the war, the government tried – unsuccessfully – to finance them by domestic debt issuance. The loans, however, were only partly covered and, ultimately, the government relied on inflation finance to meet its borrowing requirements.

…However, the new system only lasted nine months, as the government failed to control the fiscal deficits and thus to support the credibility of the system. The high interest payments as well as the economic crisis, which had started out as a commercial crisis near the end of 1884, caused large gold outflows. In addition, the long-lived fiat standard that the country experienced prior to 1885 caused a lack of confidence in the domestic currency, which resulted in a massive de-hoarding of banknotes immediately after the restoration of specie standards.”

And it goes on and on…

“Foreign creditors demanded the presence of foreign experts for the monitoring of the economic policy pursued and, especially, of the tax collection and management systems. This demand was seen as a pre-condition for the government to pursue a monetary and fiscal policy, which would ensure both the regular repayment of the foreign debt, as well as its repayment in drachmas convertible to gold at par value. After her humiliating defeat in the Greco-Turkish war of 1897 and the resulting huge war indemnity she had to pay to Turkey, Greece was forced to accept the presence of the International Committee for Greek debt management. 1898 was the beginning of a period of intensive disinflation. Successive Finance Ministers curtailed expenditures and increased indirect taxes in an effort to balance the budget.

But prudence apparently never lasts for long in Greece and in 1908 the other countries in the currency union had it enough and effectively expelled Greece. However, Greece was allowed back in in 1910, but when first World War broke out in 1914 the Latin Currency Union effectively collapsed.

This is what University of Chicago economist Henry Parker Willis had to say about the whole thing in his 1901 report ‘History of the Latin Monetary Union’ (I got this from Oliver Marc Hartwich):

“It is hard to see why the admission of Greece to the Latin Union should have been desired or allowed by that body. In no sense was she a desirable member of the league. Economically unsound, convulsed by political struggles, and financially rotten, her condition was pitiable. Struggling with a burden of debt, Greece was also endeavouring to maintain in circulation a large amount of inconvertible paper. She was not territorially a desirable adjunct to the Latin Union, and her commercial and financial importance was small. Nevertheless her nominal admission was secured, and we may credit the obscure political influences … with being able to effect what economic and financial considerations could not. Certainly it would be hard to understand on what other grounds her membership was attained.”

Surreal isn’t it?


Hjalmar Schacht’s echo – it all feels a lot more like 1932 than 1923

The weekend’s Greek elections brought a neo-nazi party (“Golden Dawn”) into the Greek parliament. The outcome of the Greek elections made me think about the German parliament elections in July 1932 which gave a stunning victory to Hitler’s nazi party. The Communist Party and other extreme leftist also did well in the Greek elections as they did in Germany in 1932. I am tempted to say that fascism is always and everywhere a monetary phenomenon. At least that was the case in Germany in 1932 as it is today in Greece. And as in 1932 central bankers does not seem to realise the connection between monetary strangulation and the rise of extremist political forces.

The rise of Hitler in 1932 was to a large extent a result of the deflationary policies of the German Reichbank under the leadership of the notorious Hjalmar Schacht who later served in Hitler’s government as Economics Ministers.

Schacht was both a hero and a villain. He successfully ended the 1923 German hyperinflation, but he also was a staunch supporter of the gold standard which lead to massive German deflation that laid the foundation for Hitler’s rise to power. After Hitler’s rise to power Schacht helped implement draconian policies, which effectively turned Germany into a planned economy that lead to the suffering of millions of Germans and he was instrumental in bringing in policies to support Hitler’s rearmament policies. However, he also played a (minor) role in the German resistance movement to Hitler.

The good and bad legacy of Hjalmar Schacht is a reminder that central bankers can do good and bad, but also that central bankers very seldom will admit when they make mistakes. This is what Matthew Yglesias in a blog post from last year called the Perverse Reputational Incentives In Central Banking.

Here is Matt:

I was reading recently in Hjalmar Schacht’s biography Confessions of the Old Wizard … and part of what’s so incredible about it are that Schacht’s two great achievements—the Weimar-era whipping of hyperinflation and the Nazi-era whipping of deflation—were both so easy. The both involved, in essence, simply deciding that the central bank actually wanted to solve the problem.

To step back to the hyperinflation. You might ask yourself how things could possibly have gotten that bad. And the answer really just comes down to refusal to admit that a mistake had been made. To halt the inflation, the Reichsbank would have to stop printing money. But once the inflation had gotten too high for Reichsbank President Rudolf Havenstein to stop printing money and stop the inflation would be an implicit admission that the whole thing had been his fault in the first place and he should have done it earlier…

…So things continued for several years until a new government brought Schacht on as a sort of currency czar. Schacht stopped the private issuance of money, launched a new land-backed currency and simply . . . refused to print too much of it. The problem was solved both very quickly and very easily…

…The institutional and psychological problem here turns out to be really severe. If the Federal Reserve Open Market Committee were to take strong action at its next meeting and put the United States on a path to rapid catch-up growth, all that would do is serve to vindicate the position of the Fed’s critics that it’s been screwing up for years now. Rather than looking like geniuses for solving the problem, they would look like idiots for having let it fester so long. By contrast, if you were to appoint an entirely new team then their reputational incentives would point in the direction of fixing the problem as soon as possible.

Matt is of course very right. Central banks and central banks alone determines inflation, deflation, the price level and nominal GDP. Therefore central banks are responsible if we get hyperinflation, debt-deflation or a massive drop in nominal GDP. However, central bankers seem to think that they are only in control of these factors when they are “on track”, but once the nominal variables move “off track” then it is the mistake of speculators, labour unions or irresponsible politicians. Just think of how Fed chief Arthur Burns kept demanding wage and price controls in the early 1970s to curb inflationary pressures he created himself by excessive money issuance.  The credo seems to be that central bankers are never to blame.

Here is today’s German central bank governor Jens Weidmann in comment in today’s edition of the Financial Times:

Contrary to widespread belief, monetary policy is not a panacea and central banks’ firepower is not unlimited, especially not in the monetary union. First, to protect their independence central banks in the eurozone face clear constraints to the risks they are allowed to take.

…Second, unconditional further easing would ignore the lessons learned from the financial crisis.

This crisis is exceptional in scale and scope and extraordinary times do call for extraordinary measures. But we have to make sure that by putting out the fire now, we are not unwittingly preparing the ground for the next one. The medicine of a near-zero interest rate policy combined with large-scale intervention in financial markets does not come without side effects – which are all the more severe, the longer the drug is administered.

I don’t feel like commenting more on Weidmann’s comments (you can pretty well guess what I think…), but I do note that German long-term bond yields today have inch down further and is now at record low levels. Normally long-term bond yields and NGDP growth tend to move more or less in sync – so with German government 10-year bond yields at 1.5% we can safely say that the markets are not exactly afraid of inflation. Or said in another way, if ECB deliver 2% inflation in line with its inflation target over the coming decade then you will be loosing 1/2% every year by holding German government bonds. This is not exactly an indication that we are about to repeat the mistakes of the Reichbank in 1923, but rather an indication that we are in the process of repeating the mistakes of 1932. The Greek election is sad testimony to that.

PS David Glasner comments also comments on Jens Weidmann. He is not holding back…

PPS Scott Sumner today compares the newly elected French president Francois Hollande with Léon Blum. I have been having been thinking the same thing. Léon Blum served as French Prime Minister from June 1936 to June 1937. Blum of course gave up the gold standard in 1936 and allowed a 25% devaluation of the French franc. While most of Blum’s economic policies were grossly misguided the devaluation of the franc nonetheless did the job – the French economy started a gradual recovery. Unfortunately at that time the gold standard had already destroyed Europe’s economy and the next thing that followed was World War II. I wonder if central bankers ever study history…They might want to start with Adam Tooze’s Wages of Destruction.

Update: See Matt O’Brien’s story on “Europe’s FDR? How France’s New President Could Save Europe”. Matt is making the same point as me – just a lot more forcefully.

The Tragic year: 1931

Benjamin Anderson termed 1931 the “the tragic year” – these are some of the events in that tragic year: 

  1. One of Europe’s largest banks with large exposure to Central and Eastern Europe gets into serious trouble (It is of course Austria’s largest bank Österiechishe Kredit Anstalt – and it of course collapsed)
  2. Europe’s Sovereign debt crisis is threatening financial stability and currency collapse (It’s the Germans that are to blame – they can’t pay their war debts)
  3. Major international banks push for a big country to save the sinners (The US banks ask US president Hoover to help ease the pain on Germany)
  4. Debt restructuring (The Hoover moratorium gives Germany a bit of relief – the US banks are happy to begin with)
  5. Monetary policy keeps deflationary pressures on (The French central bank keeps hoarding gold)
  6. An insane commitment to a failed monetary system (the gold standard mentality keeps the commitment to the gold standard despite the fact that it is killing Europe)
  7. Some countries have had enough and give up the monetary standard (The UK leaves the gold standard – the Scandinavian countries follows suit – and recover fast from the Great Depression)
  8. Technocracy is popular and it suggested that indebted nations should be run by technocrats (The so-called Technocracy Movement became increasingly popular in German)

And here we are 80 years on…do you see any similarities? I wonder what 2012 will bring – in 1932 10 countries (or so…) defaulted…

A history of bunganomics

Market attention has changed from Greece to Italy. As in Greece the centre of attention is the dual concerns of public finance trouble and political uncertainty.

A look at Italian economic and monetary history, however, reveals some interesting facts. While Greece is a serial defaulter Italy has in fact only defaulted on it’s public debt one time since Italy become an independent and unified nation in 1861. Contrary to this Greece has been in default in more than 50% of the time since it became an independent nation in 1822 (1830).

Minimal knowledge of Italian history will teach you that the country is notorious unstable politically and that public finance trouble historically as been as much a norm as in Greece so how come that the Italian government has not defaulted more than once?

Some Unpleasant Monetarist Arithmetic will help us explain that. Sargent and Wallace teach us that public deficits can be financed by either issuing public debt or by printing money. Historically Italian governments have had a clear affinity for printing money.

Rogoff’s and Reinhardt’s “This Time is Different” provides us with the statistics on this. Hence, among the present euro countries Italy has been the third most inflation-prone country historically – after Austria and Greece. Hence, since 1800 Italy has had inflation above 20% in more than 11% of the time. The similar numbers for Austria and Greece are 20% and 13% respectively.

Michele Fratianni, Franco Spinelli and Anna J. Schwartz have written the “Monetary History of Italy” and the authors reach the same conclusion – that the core of Italy’s inflationary problems is the Italian government’s lack of ability to balance the budget.

This time around the money printing option is not easily available – at least not if the Italian government wants to keep Italy in the euro zone. Sargent and Wallace would tell us to watch inflation expectations to see whether the Italian government is credible or not when it says it will not leave the euro.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 3,889 other followers

%d bloggers like this: