You have to thank Scandinavian Airlines for this post – kind of a tribute to Nouriel Roubini

Dear friends if you like to read my blog posts you will have to thank Scandinavian Airlines for this one. I am stuck in Heathrow Airport for now. Cancellations and delays of my flight from London to Copenhagen mean that this has been a rather unproductive day. However, that is part of the life as a traveling standup comedian/economist – we spend a lot of time in airports. Today, however, has been a bit too much – particularly taking into account that my next trip will be on Wednesday.

The purpose of my next trip is to go to Lithuania where I will be battling it out with Dr. Doom aka Nouriel Roubini. Nouriel and I have known each other for 6-7 years. We used to agree that we were heading for trouble and we also agree that the ECB failed on monetary policy. But fundamentally Nouriel is a Austro-Keynesian – a position that I strongly disagrees with. The Austro-keynesian perception of the world, however, is very common these days: During the later years of the Great Moderation we overspend and as a result we are now having a hangover in the form of repaying debt and therefore having lower private consumption growth and lower investment growth. It is not clear why we overspend – the Austro-keynesians tend to believe that it was a combination of overly easy monetary policy and “animal spirits” that did it. I think this story is utterly wrong, but nonetheless it seems to be the majority view these days.

For the last four years Nouriel has been negative about the world. That to some extent has been right, but for the wrong reasons. Nouriel never forecasted that the ECB would fail so utterly – even though he correctly has criticized the ECB for overly tight monetary policy he certainly did not forecast how events played out.

In general I am very skeptical about making heroes out of people who got it right in 2008 – whether it is Nouriel Roubini or Peter Schiff or for that matter myself and my ultra negative call on Iceland and Central and Eastern Europe in 2006/7. The fact is that most of the people who got it right in 2008 had been negative for years (including myself who turned bearish in 2006). Peter Schiff for example has been screaming hyperinflation for years. He has been utterly wrong about that. Roubini has been negative on the US stock market for years. He has been utterly wrong on that. I was right about being negative about Iceland, but the bullish call I made on Iceland a year ago or so actually has been much more correct than my negative call in 2006 (it took much longer for the crisis to materialize than I expected), but nobody cared about that because being bullish is never as “fun” as being negative.

If all economists in the world throw out random forecasts all time some of them will be right some of the time. The more crackpot forecast you make the more spectacularly correct they will seem to be when they happen. Nassim Taleb even got famous for saying that rare events (“black swans”) happen and then a black swan event happened. Taleb didn’t forecast anything. But he is a celebrity anyway. Paradoxically the logic of his argument is that you can’t forecast anything and despite of that he is telling people how to invest based on this.

I am proud of the few things I forecasted right in my life, but frankly speaking getting a forecast right doesn’t make you a good economist. The popular press was suggesting that Robert Shiller should get the Nobel Prize for forecasting both the bust of the IT bubble and the property market bubble. Please come on – that is not the work of an economist, but that of gambler. Robert Shiller is a clever guy, but I don’t think his biggest achievement is forecasting the bust of two bubbles – that is just pure luck (I had similar views to Shiller in both cases, but do not claim to be a great forecaster). Shiller’s biggest achievement is his work on what he calls “macro markets” and his book on that topic. That work has gotten absolutely no attention, but it is very clever and significantly more interesting than his work on “bubbles”.

My friend Nouriel Roubini is a great economist, but my respect for himhas nothing to do with his bearish calls on the global economy. I, however, was a huge fan of Nouriel well before he made those bearish forecasts and before I ever met him. Nouriel has done amazingly good work with among others Alberto Alesina on political business cycles and the use of game theory in understanding monetary and fiscal policy. That didn’t make Nouriel an economic superstar, but it inspired me to study these topics. So I am forever grateful to Nouriel for that.

So Nouriel see you in a few days. As always it will be great seeing you. We will argue and you will tell me – as usual – that I am overly optimistic despite my gloomy view of the world and my distrust of policy makers. But no matter what it will be great fun. See you in Vilnius! And if you haven’t been to that great city before I am sure I will have time to show you a bit of it.

No Nouriel, I am no longer optimistic – it feels like 1932

Niall Ferguson and Nouriel Roubini have a comment in the Financial Times. I have great respect for both gentlemen – even though I often disagree with both of them – and their latest comment raises some very key issues concerning the future of the euro zone and Europe in general. And it is very timely given that this weekend the Spanish government has asked the EU for a massive new bail out.

I will not address all of the topic’s in Ferguson’s and Roubini’s article, but let me just bring this telling quote:

We fear that the German government’s policy of doing “too little too late” risks a repeat of precisely the crisis of the mid-20th century that European integration was designed to avoid.

We find it extraordinary that it should be Germany, of all countries, that is failing to learn from history. Fixated on the non-threat of inflation, today’s Germans appear to attach more importance to 1923 (the year of hyperinflation) than to 1933 (the year democracy died). They would do well to remember how a European banking crisis two years before 1933 contributed directly to the breakdown of democracy not just in their own country but right across the European continent.

Hear! Hear! I have often been alarmed how European policy makers are bringing up the risk of higher inflation (1923) rather than the risk of deflation (1392-33) and I have earlier said that 2011 was shaping out to be like 1931. Unfortunately it more and more seems like 2012 is turning out to be like 1932 for Europe.

In the 1930s the crisis let to an attempt of a violent “unification” of Europe. This time around European policy makers are calling for more political integration to solve a monetary crisis despite the fact that European institutions like the ECB and the European Commission so far has failed utterly in solving the crisis. We all know that what is needed is not closer political integration in the EU, but monetary easing from the ECB. The ECB could end this crisis tomorrow, but the problem is that we apparently will only get monetary easing once further political integration is forced through. This is unfortunately what you get when political outcomes become part of the monetary policy reaction.

Last time I spoke face-to-face with Nouriel Roubini was in 2010 (I think just after Bernanke had announced QE2). Nouriel asked me “Lars, are you still so optimistic?” . I actually don’t remember my reply, but today my answer would certainly have been “NO! It all feels very much like 1932”


UPDATE – some earlier posts in 1931-33:

The Tragic year: 1931
Germany 1931, Argentina 2001 – Greece 2011?
Brüning (1931) and Papandreou (2011)
Lorenzo on Tooze – and a bit on 1931
“Meantime people wrangle about fiscal remedies”
“Incredible Europeans” have learned nothing from history
The Hoover (Merkel/Sarkozy) Moratorium
80 years on – here we go again…
“Our Monetary ills Laid to Puritanism”
Monetary policy and banking crisis – lessons from the Great Depression

“The gold standard remains the best available monetary mechanism”
Hjalmar Schacht’s echo – it all feels a lot more like 1932 than 1923
Greek and French political news slipped into the financial section
Political news kept slipping into the financial section – European style
November 1932: Hitler, FDR and European central bankers
Please listen to Nicholas Craft!
Needed: Rooseveltian Resolve
Gold, France and book recommendations
“…political news kept slipping into the financial section”
Gideon Gono, a time machine and the liquidity trap
France caused the Great Depression – who caused the Great Recession?

Who did most for the US stock market? FDR or Bernanke?
“The Bacon Standard” (the PIG PEG) would have saved Denmark from the Great Depression
Remember the mistakes of 1937? A lesson for today’s policy makers
I am blaming Murray Rothbard for my writer’s block
Irving Fisher and the New Normal

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