A dead hamster, some dead dictators, my birthday…and an iron curtain

March 5th is my birthday (yes, I am turning 43 today)

In 1953 Stalin died on this date. Last year on this day Hugo Chavez died. This year my nephew’s hamster died.

And in 1946 on this date Churchill made this important speech, which unfortunately these days seems more important than at anytime since 1989.

Update: Also on this date – today – Liz Wahl did this. Bravo Liz.

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My interview on Radio Free Europe about Ukraine/Russia

As geo-political tensions continue to increase and all eyes are on Ukraine I have been very busy analysing and talking about the impact on the markets and the global economy.

This is from an interview I did with Radio Free Europe today:

Lars Christensen, head of emerging markets analysis at Danske Bank in Copenhagen, says a big reason for the fall is foreign investors’ perceptions of Russia are changing as the Ukrainian crisis deepens.

“There is a fear among investors that Russia is moving away from the West. Whether or not that should be called a new Cold war is controversial but, at least, investor sentiment is influenced by the fact that we are seeing a cooling down of relations between East and West. And obviously in such an environment you would see less foreign direct investment into Russia,” Christensen says.

…But the pressure of the Ukraine crisis could make it even harder now for Russia to decide where to stop the ruble’s slide.

Christensen notes that the farther the ruble falls, the more expensive it becomes for the central bank to protect it.

“We saw in 2008, in connection with the Georgian conflict and the financial crisis, that the ruble came under significant pressure and that when the Russian central bank at that time intervened heavily and spent $200 billion to defend the ruble and failed that it had very significant costs for the Russian economy in terms of high interest rates and significantly lower growth,” Christensen said.

“So, I think the Russian central bank is aware of those risks and is therefore likely to allow the ruble to continue to depreciate but will from time to time step in and try to curb that sell-off.”

…But if the Ukraine crisis is not solved, much greater economic troubles for Russia — and for the West — could lie ahead.

As Moscow maintains a threatening posture toward Ukraine and the West responds with warnings of possible sanctions, the exchanges sound increasingly like echoes of the Cold War.

And any real slide back toward Cold War risks weakening the infrastructure of trade agreements that today underpins much of the global economy.

“If we were to move to a new Cold War-style scenario, then we would see more fundamental negative impacts that would mean higher defense spending, a less open, global economy, and trade barriers coming up between East and West,” Christensen says.

“I think we often forget how beneficial the end of the Cold War has been for the global economy and it would be terrible from a global economic perspective to see us moving in the other direction.”

I wish I had a more positive message to talk about, but unfortunately geo-political risks in Europe overshadows everything else at the moment.

Who is regulating the regulators?

I just found a reference to this sensational new Working Paper – “Stock Picking Skills of SEC Employees” – by Shivaram Rajgopal and Roger M. White. This is the abstract:

“We use a new data set obtained via a Freedom of Information Act request to investigate the trading strategies of the employees of the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC). We find that a hedge portfolio that goes long on SEC employees’ buys and short on SEC employees’ sells earns positive and economically significant abnormal returns of (i) about 4% per year for all securities in general; and (ii) about 8.5% in U.S. common stocks in particular. The abnormal returns stem not from the buys but from the sale of stock ahead of a decline in stock prices. We find that at least some of these SEC employee trading profits are information based, as they tend to divest (i) in the run-up to SEC enforcement actions; and (ii) in the interim period between a corporate insider’s paper-based filing of the sale of restricted stock with the SEC and the appearance of the electronic record of such sale online on EDGAR. These results raise questions about potential rent seeking activities of the regulator’s employees.”

What can I say – or rather what should I say other than WAUW!

PS You might want to listen to Elvis Costello’s “Watching The Detectives” (HT Dave O)

Book of the day – “Fragile by Design”

I have waited for this book for a while, but yesterday it finally arrived in the mail. It is Fragile by Design by Charles Calomiris and Stephen Haber.

I have only read a couple of pages, but so far it is very good. Extremely well-written. I look forward to reading the rest of the book soon. Fragile by Design

This is the book description:

Why are banking systems unstable in so many countries–but not in others? The United States has had twelve systemic banking crises since 1840, while Canada has had none. The banking systems of Mexico and Brazil have not only been crisis prone but have provided miniscule amounts of credit to business enterprises and households. Analyzing the political and banking history of the United Kingdom, the United States, Canada, Mexico, and Brazil through several centuries, Fragile by Design demonstrates that chronic banking crises and scarce credit are not accidents due to unforeseen circumstances. Rather, these fluctuations result from the complex bargains made between politicians, bankers, bank shareholders, depositors, debtors, and taxpayers. The well-being of banking systems depends on the abilities of political institutions to balance and limit how coalitions of these various groups influence government regulations.

Fragile by Design is a revealing exploration of the ways that politics inevitably intrudes into bank regulation. Charles Calomiris and Stephen Haber combine political history and economics to examine how coalitions of politicians, bankers, and other interest groups form, why some endure while others are undermined, and how they generate policies that determine who gets to be a banker, who has access to credit, and who pays for bank bailouts and rescues.

Recenly Charles and Stephen talked to the legendary EconTalk host Russ Roberts about their new book. Listen to the interview here.

I do not agree with everything Charles and Stephen are saying, but I fully agree with the general idea that we cannot understand banking crisis without understanding the politics of banking – or what they call The Game of Bank Bargains.

Anyway, since I have only read a small part of the book this is not a review and I am sure I will return to comment more on the ideas in the book.

I have written about the book before – see here and here.

PS Of course I would stress the role of monetary policy in banking crisis. That is another issue…

A Crimean style aggregate supply shock

It has been a busy couple of weeks for me. It is events in particularly Ukraine, Turkey and partly Venezuela that have kept me very busy so there has not been much time or energy for blogging.

My blog is mostly about monetary issues, but the most important thing going on in the global economy and markets right now in my view is not monetary affairs, but rather the escalation of geo-political risks or what Robert Higgs in the most general sense have called “regime uncertainty”.

So let me quote myself. This is from EMEA Weekly – a Weekly produced by my hard working colleagues in Danske Bank’s research department and myself. This is on the recent developments in Ukraine:

Centre of attention moves to Crimea

This week there has been a sharp increase in geopolitical tension on the back of the violent in recent weeks and particularly since the Ukrainian parliament voted to oust President Viktor Yanukovych at the weekend and appointed a new caretaker president and a new government ahead of presidential elections, which are now scheduled to be held in May.

As we pointed out in Flash Comment Ukraine – geopolitical risks increase, the events over the weekend sharply increased geopolitical risk and we expected the focus of the markets to turn to eastern Ukraine and the peninsula of Crimea. The events this week have confirmed this.

We also note that most of the population in Crimea is ethnic Russian and many hold a Russian passport. During the Russian-Georgian conflict in 2008, fears about increased separatist sentiment in Crimea increased tensions between the then Ukrainian government and Russia. These concerns have now returned. This morning a group of apparently pro- Russian armed men seized Crimea’s regional parliament and the government headquarters of the Russian-majority region.

Yesterday, Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered tests of the combat readiness of Russian armed forces in western and central Russia and today the Russian Ministry of Defence said it had put its fighter jets on ‘combat alert’ on its western border.

The new Ukrainian government has reacted angrily to recent geopolitical events. Hence, Ukraine’s interim President Olexander Turchynov has warned Russia against any ‘military aggression’ in Crimea.

The clear escalation of the geopolitical situation is now having a very clear impact on not only the Russian and Ukrainian markets. Hence, over the past couple of weeks there has been some contagion – so far fairly moderate – to other central and eastern European markets but, as of today, it seems that we are seeing an even broader spillover as fears of an armed conflict have increased.

The Ukrainian hryvnia has fallen sharply this week and today alone it is down around 10% against the US dollar. The Ukrainian central bank has effectively stopped defending the hryvnia as it has more or less run out of foreign currency reserves. Furthermore, it is very clear to us that the banking sector has effectively stopped working in Ukraine and the country is close to default. Indeed, we think it is impossible to avoid a sovereign default unless the Ukrainian government receives foreign financial assistance. This is also reflected in the pricing of Ukraine’s credit default swap.

The Russian rouble has also come under additional pressure. The rouble, which has been under pressure for some time and has lost some 20% in value over the past year. yesterday hit the weak end of the official fluctuation band against the basket of the euro and the US dollar.

This morning USD/RUB reached 36.11 – a five-year high. The dual currency basket hit a record high of 42.11. The Russian central bank Bank Rossii has refrained from significant support of the rouble, intervening by around USD300m per day and shifting repeatedly up the rouble’s trading band. We do not expect any significant turnaround in the rouble’s rate this year or any significant support from Bank Rossii as the authorities believe the rouble’s weakness helps the domestic economy.

As a direct consequence of recent events, we have changed our already very bearish forecast on the Ukrainian hryvnia to 15 against the dollar. This implies an almost 70% devaluation of the hryvnia compared with pre-crisis levels. We are also considering whether to revise our rouble forecast and it is obvious to us that there is considerable downside risk for the rouble if the geopolitical situation worsens further.

It is also obvious to us that these events have significant negative ramifications for both the Russian and Ukrainian economies.

I normally like to tell my stories within a simple AS/AD framework. If you want to understand the economics of what is going on right now in both Russia and Ukraine think of recent events as a negative aggregate supply shock to both economies. So we will have lower growth and higher inflation – as well as weaker currencies in both Ukraine and Russia as a result of these events.

This is how it looks – the geo-political shocks pushes the short-run aggregate supply curve (SRAS) to the left – from SRAS to SRAS’. This causes inflation to increase from p to p’ and real GDP growth drops to y’ from y.

AS AD SRAS shock

From a monetary policy perspective the worst thing to do would of course be to tighten monetary policy in response to such a shock. Interestingly enough it seems like both countries despite initially tighthening monetary conditions to “defend” their currencies now have accepted that this is a foolish policy and both countries’ central banks are now moving in the direction of freely floating exchange rates. So at least here there is some common ground.

Lets hope and pray that peace prevalence.

Wolfgang is right – bold action needed in the euro zone to avoid deflation

Wolfgang Münchau has a good up-ed on the risk of deflation in the euro zone, while I do not agree with everything Wolfgang says I think he is 100% right about the significant risk of deflation in the euro zone and that bold policy action is urgently needed to curb deflationary pressures in the euro zone.

I particularly find this paragraph interesting:

Remember what happened in Japan? Once its economy settled to a new steady state with negative inflation and zero growth rates during the 1990s, it got stuck in a hole. There is still a dispute over whether fiscal or monetary policy is the more suitable instrument in such a situation. But there is no dispute that a policy mixture that consists of fiscal rigour, excessive monetary tightness and a refusal to deal with the zombie banks is not going to work. The ECB always says Europe is not Japan. Indeed, it is not. Europe’s position is potentially worse.
Wolfgang is right – we are in Europe now copying the policies of Bank of Japan, which led to more than a decade of deflation and consistently rising debt problems. See here about what I have earlier said about Europe copying Japan.
 
Wolfgang calls for the ECB the to ease monetary policy:
 
The only tools strong enough to stem deflation are unconventional. These could include purchases of sovereign and corporate bonds, bank bonds or even company shares. They could also include funding-for-lending schemes, support for small company loan securitisations or, in extremis, direct lending to companies. But the longer one waits and the longer deflation festers – the more it affects wage settlements and prices for goods and services – the harder and more costly it will be to get rid of.
What we need is large scale quantitative easing in the EU. Wolfgang – like most other commentators – calls this unconventional monetary policy. However, there is no unconversional about the central bank controling the money base (see here for more on that topic). That is what central banks do. Furthermore, we don’t need more odd credit policies such as funding-for-lending schemes. What we need is a firm commitment from the ECB to ensure nominal stability by increasing the money base so much as to curb deflationary pressures.
 
I would obviously prefer an NGDP level target for the euro zone, but alternatively I have earlier suggested that the ECB brings back the old second pillar – the monetary pillar – and announce a explicit 10% M3 growth target until the euro zone output gap is closed. That would ensure that we will not fall into a Japanese style debt-deflation trap in Europe.

I Am An Ukrainian

My readers have to excuse me, but these days I can’t think about monetary policy. What is on my mind is the terrible events in Ukraine. I have for the past 15 years spend a lot of time in Central and Eastern Europe. I have seen the miracle of a country like Poland. But I have also seen how the people of Ukraine have been cheated by their corrupted and criminal politicians from seeing the same kind of progress as their neighbours in Poland.

I could write a lot about how I feel about this, but you have to excuse me because today I am not able to express my sadness about the terrible events in Kiev. I fear things will get even worse in the coming days. I pray it won’t.

Today I am an Ukrainian. Please watch this.

The risk of Chinese monetary policy failure

Back in October 2012 I wrote a blog post on what I called “My favourite Chinese monetary graph. In this post I am returning to this topic as I think the monetary developments in China has become increasing worrying.

My focus was on the development in M1:

Imagine a 4% inflation target – this year’s Chinese inflation target – trend real GDP growth 10-11% and money-velocity growth between -1% and 0% then the money supply (M1) should grow by 15-16% to ensure the inflation target  in the medium term. This is more or less a description of Chinese monetary policy over the past decade.

Over the past decade People’s Bank of China has been targeting M1 (and M2) growth exactly around 15-16% (give and take a bit…). Overall the PBoC has managed to hit its money supply target(s) and that has more or less ensured nominal stability in in China over the past decade.

I find it useful to track the growth of M1 versus two idealized targets path of 15% and 16% going back to 2000. This is my favourite graph for the Chinese economy.

This is how the updated M1 graph looks today:

M1 China Feb 2014

Back in October 2012 the actual level of M1 had just broken below the 16% trend line and since then M1 has kept inching downward compared to both the 16% and 15% trend lines and recently we have broken 15% tend line. This is obviously a very crude measure of monetary conditions in China, but I nonetheless think that the indication is pretty clear – monetary conditions are clearly getting tighter in China and I think it is fair to say that monetary conditions are disinflationary rather than inflationary.

Since my October 2012-post distress has clearly increased in the Chinese money markets and growth worries have certainly increased. Furthermore, given it is hard to ignore the connection between the continued tightening of monetary conditions in China and the turmoil we have seen in Emerging Markets over the past 6-12 months – after all China is a global monetary superpower.

It is time to ease Chinese monetary conditions 

I think that is totally appropriate that the People’s Bank of China (PBoC) initiated monetary tightening in early 2010 and overall the tightening has been warranted – even though it has had negative market implications for particularly some Emerging Markets. However, it is obviously not the task of the PBoC to conduct monetary policy for Brazil or Turkey for that matter. However, I think it is now pretty clear that Chinese monetary conditions has become too tight for China.

However, the PBoC has been extremely reluctant to step up monetary easing. In my view there are overall two reasons for this. First, PBoC obviously is worried that it could “reflate the bubble”. Second, the Chinese policy makers clearly seem to think that Chinese trend real GDP growth has declined and I would certainly agree that Chinese trend growth likely is closer to 7-8% y/y than to 10%.

So there likely has been good reason for a more cautious monetary policy approach in China, but if we indeed assume that Chinese trend growth has declined to for example 7-8% and money velocity on average decline 0-1% per year and the PBoC wants to hit 2-4%  inflation over the medium-term then M1 needs to growth by at least 9-13% (7+0+2 and 8+1+4).

Since October 2012 – when I put out my original post – Chinese M1 has actually averaged 9%, which is in the lower end of the range I think is necessary to avoid monetary policy to becoming excessively tight. Furthermore, it should be noted that the increased financial distress in China over the past year likely is pushing down both money velocity and the Chinese money multiplier, which in itself is disinflationary.

Concluding, I think there is little doubt that Chinese monetary conditions are becoming excessively tight – so far it is probably not catastrophic, but I can’t help thinking that the risk of nasty credit events increase significantly when economies go from a boom to a disinflationary weak growth scenario – said in another way I really fear is a “secondary deflation”.

PS A look at M2 growth would likely paint a slightly less scary picture.

PPS The growth rate of M1 in January 2014 was extremely weak (1.2% y/y). I am not certain what to make of the numbers, but it was what really got me to write this blog post.

Kazakhstan’s wise devaluation

I am in Stockholm today, but it is not the Swedish economy which is on my mind – rather it is Kazakhstan. On Tuesday the Kazakhstani central bank devalued the Kazakh tenge by 19%. This is what I have said about the issue another place:

 The latest ‘news flash’ in the still-ongoing emerging market turmoil was the decision of the National Bank of Kazakhstan (NBK) to devalue the Kazakhstani tenge by around 19% on Tuesday. In line with other emerging market currencies, the tenge has been under pressure for some time. The central bank has been intervening and the foreign currency reserve has been in steady decline for some time. However, the pressure on the tenge has been fairly ‘light’ and therefore Tuesday’s large devaluation was a surprise. We believe the devaluation was a pre-emptive move rather than the NBK caving into pressures.

It should also be noted that since the NBK has been intervening to keep the tenge stable, it has only weakened moderately against the US dollar. Most other emerging markets’ more freely floating currencies have been weakening significantly over the past year.

If we compare the development in the tenge with the Russian rouble since early 2013, we see that the devaluation has just brought the tenge more or less in line with the sell-off in the rouble over the past year. Hence, over this period, the rouble has weakened by around 15% against the US dollar, while the tenge had only weakened a couple of percentage points prior to Tuesday’s devaluation. Therefore, the 19% devaluation could be said to have more or less aligned the tenge with its ‘peers’.

The decision to devalue the tenge does not come without some cost. First, it is likely to push inflation up – at least in the short term. Even though we do not expect a major spike in inflation, it is unlikely to make the decision to devalue more popular among Kazakhstanis. Second, the drop in the value of the tenge also means that we will see an increase in foreign-denominated debt – something which will be not welcomed by the Kazakhstani banking sector, which continues to struggle with large debt problems.

However, overall we believe that the NBK made the right decision. With risk remaining on the downside in oil and gas prices – Kazakhstan’s main exports – and emerging market outflows continuing, it is likely that the tenge could come under more pressure in the future, particularly taking into account that the currency had become significantly overvalued versus peers such as the rouble. Therefore, the NBK would have been forced to continue its policy of FX intervention to prop up the tenge. This does not come for free.

Hence, FX intervention is effectively monetary tightening. When the NBK sells foreign currency to prop up the tenge, it is effectively reducing the money base. The cost of this is a potentially sharp reduction in economic activity and a pronounced risk of financial sector distress, which could spark another banking crisis. Hence, the cost of having tried to maintain an artificially strong tenge would be significantly bigger than the short-term cost of the devaluation. In this light, we think the devaluation was a wise move. Furthermore, a devaluation seems preferable to the kind of draconian capital controls seen in Ghana and Ukraine (two other commodity exporters) recently, or the steep interest rate hike introduced in Turkey.

Going forward, we think it is fairly clear that Kazakhstani growth is likely to soften on the back on the capital outflows seen over the past year. However, the decision to pre-emptively and aggressively weaken the tenge is likely to soften that blow, which should help support growth towards the end of the year.

However, now the big question is what the NBK will do going forward. We believe that the right thing to do would be to move closer to a more freely floating tenge or at least a currency regime that is more flexible than has been the case in Kazakhstan. On the other hand, we are not sure that Kazakh policy makers are ready to take that step yet. A lot is dependent on overall EM sentiment and the development in commodity prices going forward. Events could force the NBK towards a truly freely floating tenge, but if capital outflows die down, we believe the NBK will try to keep the tenge fairly fixed around current levels against the dollar.

The Cedi Panic: When prayers don’t work you go for currency controls

The Ghanaian cedi has lost more than 30% against the US dollar over the past year and the sell-off in the currency has escalated since the beginning of the year as the Ghanaian markets have been hit by the same turmoil we have seen in other Emerging Markets.

The sharp cedi sell-off has sparked widespread concerns in Ghanaian society. One of the more bizarre examples of this came on Sunday when Archbishop Nicholas Duncan-Williams  actually prayed for the cedi to recover! Just listen here.

The prayers didn’t work – so now the Bank of Ghana has introduced draconian currency controls

However, Duncan-Williams prayers did not work and the sell-off in the cedi has continued this week and that has caused the Ghanaian authorities to introduces draconian measures to prop up the currency.

First we got the introduction of currency controls on Tuesday. This is the statement Bank of Ghana issued on Tuesday:

Further to Bank of Ghana Notices Nos. BG/GOV/SEC/2007/3 and BG/GOV/SEC/2007/4, it is announced for the information of all authorized dealer banks and the general public that with effect from February 5, 2014, the rules governing the operations of FEA and FCA have been revised.

These rules are intended to streamline the operations of these accounts and bring about clarity and transparency in their operations as well as ensure compliance with Bank of Ghana Notice No. BG/GOV/SEC/2012/12 dated October 10, 2012 on the pricing, advertising receipts and payments for goods and services in foreign currency in Ghana. The Notice states that all transactions in the country are required to be conducted in Ghana cedis, which is the sole legal tender.

MODE OF OPERATION

The Bank of Ghana has revised the mode of operation for the FEA and FCA as follows:

a. No cheques or cheque books shall be issued on the FEA and FCA.

b. Cash withdrawals over the counter from FEA and FCA shall only be permitted for travel purposes outside Ghana and shall not exceed US$10,000.00 or its equivalent in convertible foreign currency, per person, per travel.

c. Authorised dealers shall not sell foreign exchange for the credit of FEA or FCA of their customers.

d. Transfers from one foreign currency denominated account to another are not permitted.

e. All transfers outside Ghana from FEA and FCA shall be supported by relevant documentation.

Margin Account for Import Bills

f. Foreign exchange purchased for the settlement of import bills shall be credited to a margin account which shall be operated and managed by the bank on behalf of the importer for a period not exceeding 30 days.

Foreign Currency Denominated Loans

g. No bank shall grant a foreign currency denominated loan or foreign currency linked facility to a customer who is not a foreign exchange earner.

h. All undrawn foreign currency denominated facilities shall be converted into local currency with the coming into effect of this Notice. However, existing fully drawn foreign currency denominated facilities and loans to non-foreign exchange earners shall run until expiry.

Banks and the general public are hereby advised to note the above and be guided accordingly.

Frankly speaking I don’t know what is most stupid – praying for the currency to recover or introducing currency controls of this kind, but as if that was not enough the Bank of Ghana today announced that it had hiked its key policy rate by 200bp to 18% from 16%. So not only is this likely to lead to a completely stop to any foreign direct investments into the economy – the Bank of Ghana will also send domestic demand into a free fall.

The first of many? Lets pray it is not

Luckily not many countries have done what Ghana just did over the past five years. There is only two other countries – Iceland and Cyprus - which have introduced major capital controls since 2008. I have followed the Icelandic economy closely for years and in my mind there is no doubt that the capital controls are having a very negative effect. Most notable has been the extremely negative impact on foreign direct investment into Iceland. It has completely disappeared and I don’t that this is a result of the capital controls. Furthermore, even the Icelandic government said that the controls would only temporary there are no signs that we will see any major liberalization of the controls anytime soon.

One could certainly fear that the same thing will happen in Ghana. The currency controls will become permanent. As Milton Friedman  once said “There is nothing as permanent as a temporary government program”.

The question many investors now are asking is whether other Emerging Markets will copy Iceland and Ghana and introduce capital controls. I pray that that will not happen and investors are certainly nervous that it could happen. If that fear gets more widspread then we are likely to see a lot more Emerging Markets turmoil.

PS If you ask me what the Bank of Ghana should have done I would tell you that the Bank should have introduced an Export Price Norm and pegged the cedi to a basket of the USD dollar and the prices of the main commodities Ghana is exporting such as cocoa, petroleum and liquefied natural gas to ensure a stable development in nominal spending growth. And obvious all capital and currency controls should be abolished.

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