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Guest post: Europe’s problem is not a Greek drama but a medieval Calvinist morality play (by Mikio Kumada)

I have asked my friend Mikio Kumada to write a guest post on blog on a topic he knows very well – the Greek crisis. While I do not agree with everything Mikio writes (I do agree with most of it) I think it is extremely important to get a broader and more insightful perspective on the Greek crisis (and the euro crisis) than the standard “Calvinist” version.

Good luck.

Lars Christensen

Guest post: Europe’s problem is not a Greek drama but a medieval Calvinist morality play

by Mikio Kumada

The crisis that Greece has found itself in over the past five years has been invariably labelled as a “Greek tragedy” by the media around the world – which is both wrong and misleading. More importantly, it is very unhelpful when it comes to finding a way out for Greece and for Europe as a whole.

The reality is that, if one wishes to use catchy cultural labels, it would be more appropriate to call it a medieval European morality play of the Calvinist sort – and a rather bad one at that, too. Bad, because it harks back to notions of good and evil that perpetuate mistakes and delay a solution to the actual problem.

In this “Calvinist” play, the Europeans are telling Greece:

“We understand that your house is on fire, but you cannot use our stand-by fire extinguishers and fire engines, because you’ve been a bad boy/bad girl, and you have to repent for your sins first. You can use the extinguishers in the rooms in which our property is stored, but for the rest, use this bucket of water instead, which we so generously provide to you.”

What you say if your house was on fire, and your “friends” gave the above “advice” and “help”?

Do not get me wrong: Greece was predominantly responsible for the fact that its house was so easily inflammable, and that that it was ill-prepared to cope with the disaster. But it is only to a smaller part responsible that the fire is still raging.

Furthermore, over the past five years, Greece has done its best to put out the fire with the water bucket, and to “repent”, as recommended – i.e. it has implemented a wide range of difficult reforms and cuts (Prof. Karl Whelan of University College Dublin provides a good account here). Even Greece’s new government is willing to compromise to a considerable degree.

That said, let me move straight on to what I believe is the most likely scenario of how things will play out in the coming days or weeks – depending on the level of European intransigence ability to admit mistakes and lose a little bit of face, for the sake of avoiding an even greater calamity.

In spite of what I may have appeared to suggest above, I believe Europeans in general and Northern Europeans in particular are emotionally capable of soul-searching and intellectually perfectly endowed for reflection and pragmatism, to use a very Greek term. Thus, realistic, practical solutions will ultimately prevail in this whole affair.

Consequently, I still think there will not be a “Grexit” – not this week, not this quarter, not next year, or in any other year. What is most likely (though of course not certain) to happen, is the following:

  • There will be an extension of the current (revised and softened) program for something like 3 to 6 months.
  • In order to achieve this, the Europe will find a way to move Greece’s current liabilities versus the IMF and the ECB to the ESM, without actually having to spend a single “new” penny. The funds required for this purpose are available – in the form of the unused 10 billion euros from the Greek bank recapitalization fund, the roughly 2 billion euros in ECB profits from its older purchases of the Greek bonds, and by allowing Athens to borrow a couple of billion more from its own banks (the issuance limit of T-bills is subject to approval by the ECB). This will also allow the Europeans to get the IMF off their backs for now.
  • This, in turn, should eventually allow Greece to participate in what is the most important determinant factor for Europe’s economic recovery in the near future – the ECB’s first proper quantitative easing program that began in March – before it’s too late.
  • There will be a third financing program for Greece sometime early next year, which will be much smaller in size and more realistic by design than the previous ones. It will probably include a specific European commitment to provide debt relief – in order to get the IMF back on board. Or it will completely “Europeanize” the problem.
  • Under these conditions, it will be possible for Greece to produce nominal GDP growth – which is the mother of all debt sustainability miracles, as it is the basis of all household income, corporate profit, and tax revenue.

I should add that international political considerations regarding the IMF form an important part and driver of the above scenario. Point 2) would calm the US-led IMF, for now, as it would avoid a global loss of face for Europe, if an EU member is allowed to default vs. the fund.

Needless to say, such an event would weaken Europe’s global standing in the organization, and beyond. No matter how much Northern Europe would like to detach itself from it, Greece is a European affair.

Here, it is useful to remember that we live in an era in which the Bretton Woods organizations will soon be competing, to say the least, with similar international institutions-in-the-making, led by China and the BRICs. This is no small matter.

Europe’s huge combined share aside, the IMF’s two largest shareholders are the US and Japan, which, by the way, stands behind the Eurozone bailout loans with some 90 billion US dollars.

And while Germany, and others, could try to squarely place the blame on Athens, but hardly anyone would really buy that. The rest of the world would see this as a European failure, especially since the IMF was (reportedly) pressured by the Europeans to bend its rules to lend to Greece. Allies and friends such as the US/UK and Japan will have a harder time siding with Europe, and the emerging economies will see as proof that Europe’s role in the IMF is not just oversized, but also very costly, to say the least.

The problem of the “Calvinist” approach to the Greek crisis also plays a role on this level.

After all, practically all major countries outside Northern Europe are less moralistic and more pragmatic when it comes to debt problems. One example can be found in the fact that the US, UK and Japan were quicker in intellectually accepting QE, without concerning themselves too much about whether this represented inappropriate / immoral “stealth government financing” (I believe QE is simply a perfectly legitimate, useful and important tool of monetary policy). Another example can be found in a side-quip by a Chinese economist I overheard in Hong Kong, who described Beijing’s ongoing (vaguely veiled) bailout of its highly indebted provinces as being akin to Europe’s bailout of Greece – “just without the austerity”.

To make a long story short, I do believe that Europe will overcome the limitations imposed by the simplistic application of culture-specific morality in internationally relevant policy affairs – especially when the tools and means to overcome its problem are clearly available.

And if there is any “Greek drama” involved in this, it could very well prove useful for Europe as a whole, by confronting it with important policy questions – and thus ultimately help it move on to a more workable, and pragmatic, solutions to its problems.

© Copyright (2015) Mikio Kumada

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Mikio Kumada tells the right story about the Japanese GDP numbers

Earlier today we got numbers for Japanese GDP numbers for Q4 2014. Watch my friend Mikio Kumada comment on the numbers here.

I fully share Mikio’s optimistic reading of the numbers. Bank of Japan’s quantitative easing is working and is lifting nominal spending growth.

Does that solve all Japan’s problems? No certainly not. It cannot do anything about Japan’s structural problems – particularly the negative demographics – but it is pulling Japan out of the deflationary-trap. And that is exactly what BoJ governor Kuroda set out to do. Now Prime Minister Abe has to deliver on structural reform, but that can be said about every industrialized country in the world.

PS Yes, I am positive about the Bank of Japan’s policy actions, but I still think it would have been much better with a NGDP level target for Japan rather than a 2% inflation target.

‘Bullish Mikio’ makes me optimistic on BoJ (and the world)

As my loyal readers would know I have been somewhat critical about the Bank of Japan’s handling of the recent rise in bond yields in Japan. See for example here and here.

However, there is no reason to give up on the Bank of Japan. At least that is what the always clever Mikio Kumada is telling us. This Mikio’s excellent comment on my latest comment on the BoJ.

“Just wanted to say that in substance, I share your concerns. And I think it’s important that you raise these questions/criticisms.

I am, however, perhaps, less ideological, and try to look at things in the context of the real world.
Policy makers act in a political/institutional framework, with constraints. And in that context, the BoJ under Kuroda is dong a good job – as good as it gets, so to speak, from a market monetarist perspective.

By the way, yesterday, Kuroda met Abe and both made statements afterwards. Neither of them mentioned the need to keep interest rates low. They said all the other things – Kuroda reaffirmed he will beat deflation and Abe said he will do his part via reforms, but they didn’t make statements about interest rates.

That is another indication that Kuroda believes that higher nominal rates are desirable, and logical. And he may have convinced Abe not to talk about “lowering interest rates” (if Abe needed any convincing). But at the same time, Kuroda can’t yet openly that say he wants rising nominal rates.

My sense is that Kuroda, and also Prof. Koichi Hamada, a trusted advisor to Abe, are open to market monetarist ideas. But they would probably face a hailstorm if they openly say things that are too “revolutionary”. They first have to convince enough people that rising nominal yields are good, as long as real yields (and real wages) remain low, or keep falling during the “reflation” phase. But I would not recommend Abe to talk too much about “falling real wages” publicly ahead of an election, of course. He should just stick to demanding rising (nominal) wages.

I also sense that yesterday’s decline in stocks may have been due to (an erroneous) “disappointment” of investors that Abe/Kuroda didn’t say they want low/lower long term rates.

So, overall, I remain quite optimistic that, over time, the market will come around to accept the view that higher nominal rates are a good thing.”

I find it hard to disagree with Mikio’s comments. So I am starting the weekend being quite optimistic that the BoJ eventually will get it right and if Mikio indeed is right then the market turmoil we have seen over the last couple of weeks will soon come to an end. Fingers crossed.

PS Joseph Gagnon has an excellent comment on the BoJ and the need for not stepping back on monetary easing.

Join the Global Monetary Policy Network on Linkedin here (Mikio is a member).

Mr. Kuroda’s credibility breakdown

This morning the Nikkei index has dropped has much as 6%. By any measure this is an extreme drop in stock prices in one day. Furthermore, we are now officially in bear market territory as the Nikkei is down more than 20% in just three weeks. I can only see one reason for this and one reason only and that is the breakdown of the credibility of Bank of Japan governor Kuroda and his commitment to fulfill his official 2% inflation target.

I would particularly highlight three events for this breakdown of credibility.

First of all I would stress that it seems like the Japanese government has been taken by surprise by the natural increase in bond yields and that is causing officials to question the course of monetary policy. This is Economy Minister Akira Amari commenting on the increase in bond yields on May 19:

“We need to enhance the credibility of government bonds to prevent a rise in long-term yields.”

This at least indirectly indicates that some Japanese government officials are questioning what the BoJ has been doing and given the highly political nature of the Japanese monetary policy setting these comments effectively could make investors question the direction of monetary policy in Japan.

Second the Minutes from Bank of Japan’s Policy board meeting on April 27 released On May 26 and comments following this week’s monetary policy meeting.

This is from the May 26 Minutes (quoted from MarketWatch):

“Regarding the effects of JGB purchases on liquidity in the JGB and repo market, a few members … expressed the opinion that it should continue to deliberate on measures to prevent a decline in liquidity”

Said in another way some BoJ board members would like the BoJ to try to keep bond yields from rising – hence responding to Mr. Amari’s fears. There is fundamentally only one way of doing this – abandoning the commitment to hit 2% inflation in two years. You can simply not have both – higher inflation and at the same time no increase in bond yields. Bond yields in Japan have been rising exactly because Mr. Kuroda has been successful in initially pushing up inflation expectations. It is that simple.

And third, at the BoJ’s monetary policy announcement this week Bank of Japan governor Kuroda failed to clarify the position of the BoJ and that undoubtedly has unnerved investors further.

5-year-inflation-expectations-japan

Hence, it is important that market turmoil does not reflect a fear of higher nominal bond yields on its own, but rather whether higher bond yields will cause the BoJ to abandon the commitment to increase inflation to 2%.

Therefore what is happening is a completely rational reaction from investors that rightly or wrongly fear that the BoJ is changing course.

As I again and again has stressed Mr. Kuroda can end the market turmoil by first of all stating that the increase nominal bond yields is no worry at all (particularly as real bond yields actually have dropped sharply) and furthermore he should clearly state that the BoJ’s focus is on inflation expectations. Hence, he should state that the BoJ effectively is ‘pegging’ market (breakeven) inflation expectations to 2%. If he did that he would effectively have hindered inflation expectations dropping over the past three weeks. The drop in Japanese inflation expectations in my view is the main cause of the turmoil in global financial markets over the past three weeks.

Should we give Mr. Kuroda a break?

I might be too harsh to Mr. Kuroda here. After all should we really expect everything to be ‘perfect’ at this early stage in the change to the monetary policy regime Japan after 15 years of failure?

This is the alway insightful Mikio Kumada commenting on Linkedin on one of my earlier posts on Japan:

“Lars, give it some time. The regime change at the BOJ is still very new and the ideological shifts in old conservative institutions, with long traditions, such as the BOJ take some time. I think Kuroda made it implicitly clear enough that higher nominal rates are ok as long as real interest rates slump/stay low.”

I think Mikio (who like a lot of market participants, central bankers and monetary policy nerds have join the Global Monetary Policy Network on Linkedin) is on to something here.

We are seeing a revolution at the BoJ so one should not really be surprised that it is not all smoothing sailing. However, on the other hand I am personally very doubtful where we are going next. Will Kuroda effectively be forced by events to abondon his commitment to 2% inflation or will he reaffirm that by becoming much more clear in his communication (don’t worry about higher nominal bond yields and communicate clearly in terms of inflation expectations).

I have my hopes, but I don’t know the answer to this question, but one thing seems clear and that is that nearly everything in the global financial markets – from the value of the South Africa rand, commodity prices and the sentiment in the US stock markets – these days dependent on what Mr. Kuroda does next. Don’t tell me that monetary policy is not important…

PS David Glasner is puzzled by what is going on the US financial markets. I think I just gave the answer above. It is not really Bernanke, but rather Mr. Kuroda David should focus on. At least this time around.

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