Why Does Anyone Think the Fed Will Taper?

Simon Kennedy of Bloomberg claims:

The world economy should brace itself for a slowing of stimulus by the Federal Reserve if history is any guide.

Personally, I think this is nutty stuff. In enacting QE3, Bernanke made pretty explicit he was targeting the unemployment rate; the “full-employment” side of the Fed’s dual mandate. And how’s that doing?

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It looks like its coming down — although, we are still a very long way from full employment. And a lot of that decrease, as the civilian employment-population ratio insinuates, is due to discouraged workers dropping out of the labour force:

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Moreover, of course, quantitative easing — substituting zero-yielding cash into the money supply for low-yielding assets — is about the Federal Reserve attempting to reinflate the shrunken money supply resulting from the collapse of shadow intermediation in 2008. And the broad money supply remains extremely shrunken, even after all the QE:

And the bigger story is that America is still stuck in a huge private deleveraging phase, burdened with a humungous debt load:

Japan, of course, tapered its stimuli multiple times at the faintest whiff of recovery. Bernanke and Yellen will be aware of this.

Much more likely than abandoning stimulus is the conclusion by the next Fed chair — probably Yellen — that the current transmission mechanisms are ineffective, and the adoption of more direct monetary policy, including helicopter money.

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Reinhart & Rogoff’s Scary Red Line

One frustrating fact regarding Reinhart & Rogoff’s controversial paper Growth in a Time of Debt — which incidentally was never peer reviewed, even in spite of its publication in the American Economic Review — is that the arbitrary threshold for diminished growth of “above 90%” seems to have no relation whatever with recent events in the United States.

When the financial crisis happened in 2008, and the United States was plunged into deep recession the public debt was actually moderate — higher than the level that Bush inherited in 2000, but less than the level Bill Clinton inherited in 1992. After the crisis, the deficit soared, but as soon as the deficit rose above Reinhart and Rogoff’s red line real growth actually picked up again.

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This very much suggests that in this case the soaring debt was a reaction to recession. Lowered growth preceded soaring public debt, not vice verse.

This is a result supported by econometric analysis. Arindrajit Dube finds a much stronger association in Reinhart and Rogoff’s data between a high debt-to-GDP ratio and weak growth in the past three years than between a high debt-to-GDP ratio and weak growth in the following three years, strongly implying that America’s experience of weak growth preceding soaring public debt is the norm not the exception:

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Reinhart and Rogoff claim that their empirical study never made any claims about causality, although their 2011 editorial for Bloomberg reads as an exposition for the virtues of austerity:

As public debt in advanced countries reaches levels not seen since the end of World War II, there is considerable debate about the urgency of taming deficits with the aim of stabilizing and ultimately reducing debt as a percentage of gross domestic product.

Our empirical research on the history of financial crises and the relationship between growth and public liabilities supports the view that current debt trajectories are a risk to long-term growth and stability, with many advanced economies already reaching or exceeding the important marker of 90 percent of GDP. Nevertheless, many prominent public intellectuals continue to argue that debt phobia is wildly overblown. Countries such as the U.S., Japan and the U.K. aren’t like Greece, nor does the market treat them as such.

Reinhart and Rogoff’s interpretation, then, is clearly that the debt trajectory itself – as opposed to underlying factors driving the debt trajectory — that is the risk, which is a claim unsupported by their own and other research. But the problem is larger than this.

Other empirical work on debt has focused on a broader range of debt while still following Reinhart and Rogoff in attempting to draw arbitrary danger lines on graphs. Cechetti (2011) attempts to factor in household debt (drawing a danger line at 85% of GDP) and corporate debt (90% of GDP) as well as government debt (85%), implying a cumulative danger line of 260% in total credit market debt:

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Total debt seems to have been a more appropriate metric than public debt, because it was in the danger zone when the crisis hit, and after the crisis hit total debt began gradually deleveraging after forty years of steady rises as a percentage of GDP, implying a deep and mechanistic connection. But there is still a lot of room between the crossing of the red line, and the beginning of the deleveraging phase. The red line itself doesn’t tell us anything about the phenomenon of 2008, or the period preceding 1929, where a similar phenomenon occurred, other than implying in a nonspecific way that the rising debt load was becoming unsustainable.

Drawing an arbitrary line on a graph implies that negative effects associated with excessive debt are a linear phenomenon; cross the line, and bad things are more likely to occur. This is an unsophisticated approach. The bursting of debt bubbles is a nonlinear and dynamic process that occurs when credit dries up, and leverage collapses. This specific effect is not tied to any specific nominal debt level, but instead to an unpredictable mixture of market participants’ expectations about the economy, profit taking, default rates, the actions of the central bank, input costs (e.g. energy), geopolitics, etc.

Steve Keen’s modification of Goodwin’s models may be an important step toward a clearer and more mechanistic understanding of the credit cycle and how an economy can be driven into a Minsky Moment.  One of the keys to modelling Minsky’s notion of a credit-driven euphoria giving way to credit contraction, asset price falls and despair is the notion of credit acceleration, the speed at which growth in credit grows. While total credit growth acceleration is clearly a signal of an impending Minsky Moment and debt deflation, drawing scary red thresholds is a fundamentally fruitless exercise, especially in sole regard to government debt levels which do not appear to drive an economy into a Minsky Moment followed by deleveraging and weakened growth and employment.

Negative Nominal Interest Rates?

A number of economists and economics writers have considered the possibility of allowing the Federal Reserve to drop interest rates below zero in order to make holding onto money costlier and encouraging individuals and firms to spend, spend, spend.

Miles Kimball details one such plan:

The US Federal Reserve’s new determination to keep buying mortgage-backed securities until the economy gets better, better known as quantitative easing, is controversial. Although a few commentators don’t think the economy needs any more stimulus, many others are unnerved because the Fed is using untested tools. (For example, see Michael Snyder’s collection of “10 Shocking Quotes About What QE3 Is Going To Do To America.”) Normally the Fed simply lowers short-term interest rates (and in particular the federal funds rate at which banks lend to each other overnight) by purchasing three-month Treasury bills. But it has basically hit the floor on the federal funds rate. If the Fed could lower the federal funds rate as far as chairman Ben Bernanke and his colleagues wanted, it would be much less controversial. The monetary policy cognoscenti would be comfortable with a tool they know well, and those who don’t understand monetary policy as well would be more likely to trust that the Fed knew what it was doing. By contrast, buying large quantities of long-term government bonds or mortgage-backed securities is seen as exotic and threatening by monetary policy outsiders; and it gives monetary policy insiders the uneasy feeling that they don’t know their footing and could fall into some unexpected crevasse at any time.

So why can’t the Fed just lower the federal funds rate further? The problem may surprise you: it is those green pieces of paper in your wallet. Because they earn an interest rate of zero, no one is willing to lend at an interest rate more than a hair below zero. In Denmark, the central bank actually set the interest rate to negative -.2 % per year toward the end of August this year, which people might be willing to accept for the convenience of a certificate of deposit instead of a pile of currency, but it would be hard to go much lower before people did prefer a pile of currency. Let me make this concrete. In an economic situation like the one we are now in, we would like to encourage a company thinking about building a factory in a couple of years to build that factory now instead. If someone would lend to them at an interest rate of -3.33% per year, the company could borrow $1 million to build the factory now, and pay back something like $900,000 on the loan three years later. (Despite the negative interest rate, compounding makes the amount to be paid back a bit bigger, but not by much.) That would be a good enough deal that the company might move up its schedule for building the factory.  But everything runs aground on the fact that any potential lender, just by putting $1 million worth of green pieces of paper in a vault could get back $1 million three years later, which is a lot better than getting back a little over $900,000 three years later.  The fact that people could store paper money and get an interest rate of zero, minus storage costs, has deterred the Fed from bothering to lower the interest rate a bit more and forcing them to store paper money to get the best rate (as Denmark’s central bank may cause people to do).

The bottom line is that all we have to do to give the Fed (and other central banks) unlimited power to lower short-term interest rates is to demote paper currency from its role as a yardstick for prices and other economic values—what economists call the “unit of account” function of money. Paper currency could still continue to exist, but prices would be set in terms of electronic dollars (or abroad, electronic euros or yen), with paper dollars potentially being exchanged at a discount compared to electronic dollars. More and more, people use some form of electronic payment already, with debit cards and credit cards, so this wouldn’t be such a big change. It would be a little less convenient for those who insisted on continuing to use currency, but even there, it would just be a matter of figuring out with a pocket calculator how many extra paper dollars it would take to make up for the fact that each one was worth less than an electronic dollar. That’s it, and we wouldn’t have to worry about the Fed or any other central bank ever again seeming relatively powerless in the face of a long slump.

First of all, I question the feasibility of even producing a negative rate of interest, even via electronic currency. Electronic currency has practically zero storage costs. What is to stop offshore or black market banking entities offering a non-negative interest rate? After all, it is not hard to offer a higher-than-negative rate of interest for the privilege of holding (and leveraging) currency. A true negative interest rate environment may prove as unattainable as division by zero.

But assuming that such a thing is achievable, I think that a negative rate of interest will completely undermine the entire economic system in clear and visible ways that I shall discuss below (“white swans”), and probably also — because such a system has never been tried, and it is a radical departure from the present norms — in unpredictable and emergent ways (“black swans”).

Money has historically had multiple functions; a medium of exchange, a unit of account, a store of purchasing power. To institute a zero interest rate policy is to disable money’s role as a store of purchasing power. But to institute a negative interest rate policy is to reverse money’s role as a store of purchasing power, and turn money into a drain on purchasing power.

Money evolved organically to possess all three of these characteristics, because all three characteristics have been economically important and useful. To try to strip currency of one of its essential functions is to risk the rejection of that currency.

How would I react in the case of negative nominal interest rates? I’d convert into a liquid medium that was not subject to a negative rate of interest. That could be a nonmonetary asset, a foreign currency, a digital currency or a precious metal. I would actively seek ways to opt out of using the negative-yielding currency at all — if I could get by using alternative currencies, digital currencies, barter, then I would.  I would only ever possess a negative-yielding currency for transactions (e.g. taxes) in which the other party insisted upon the negative-yielding currency, and would then only hold it for a minimal period of time. It seems only reasonable that other individuals — seeking to avoid a draining asset — would maximise their utility by rejecting the draining currency whenever and wherever possible.

In Kimball’s theory, this unwillingness to hold currency is supposed to stimulate the economy by encouraging productive economic activity and investment. But is that necessarily true? I don’t think so. So long as there are alternative stores of purchasing power, there is no guarantee that this policy would result in a higher rate of  economic activity.

And it will drive economic activity underground. While governments may relish the prospect of higher tax revenues (due to more economic activity becoming electronic, and therefore trackable and traceable), in the present depressionary environment recorded and taxable economic activity could even fall as more economic activity goes underground to avoid negative rates. Increasingly authoritarian measures might be taken — probably at great cost — to encourage citizens into using the negative-yielding legal tender.

Banking would be turned upside down. Lending at a negative rate of interest — and suffering from the likely reality that negative rates discourages deposits — banks would be forced to look to riskier or offshore or black market activities to achieve profits. Even if banks continued to lend at low positive rates, the negative rates of interest offered to depositors would surely lead to a mass depositor exodus (perhaps to offshore or black market banks offering higher rates), probably leading to liquidity crises and banking panics.

As Izabella Kaminska wrote in July:

The simple fact of the matter is that in a negative carry world – or a flat yield environment for that matter  there is no role or purpose for banks because banks are forced into economically destructive practices in order to stay profitable.

Additionally, a negative-yielding environment will result in reduced income for those on a fixed income. One interesting effect of the present zero-interest rate environment is that more elderly people — presumably starved of sufficient retirement income — are returning to the labour force, which is in turn crowding out younger inexperienced workers, who are suffering from very high rates of unemployment and underemployment. A negative-yielding environment would probably exacerbate this effect.

So on the surface, the possibility of negative nominal rates seems deeply problematic.

Japan has spent almost twenty years at the zero bound, in spite of multiple rounds of quantitative easing and stimulus. Yet Japan remains mired in depression. The fact remains that both conventional and unconventional monetary policy has proven ineffective in resuscitating Japanese growth. My hypothesis remains that the real issue is the weight of excessive total debt (Japan’s total debt load remains as precipitously high as ever) and that no amount of rate cuts, quantitative easing or unconventional monetary intervention will prove effective. I hypothesise that a return to growth for a depressionary post-bubble economy requires a substantial chunk of the debt load (and thus future debt service costs) being either liquidated, forgiven or (often very difficult and slow) paid down.

The Eminent Domain Mortgage Heist?

Matt Taibbi:

Something very interesting is happening.

There’s been so much corruption on Wall Street in recent years, and the federal government has appeared to be so deeply complicit in many of the problems, that many people have experienced something very like despair over the question of what to do about it all.

But there’s something brewing that looks like it might be a blueprint to effectively take on the financial services industry: a plan to allow local governments to take on the problem of neighborhoods blighted by toxic home loans and foreclosures through the use of eminent domain. I can’t speak for how well the program will work, but it’s certaily been effective in scaring the hell out of Wall Street.

Under the proposal, towns would essentially be seizing and condemning the man-made mess resulting from the housing bubble.

I approach the issue and constitutionality of eminent domain — government seizing of property in exchange for whatever the government defines as just compensation — very suspiciously. While I am altogether hostile to the idea of government being able to declare that what is yours is not yours, it has recently become a device for government to transfer private property from one private owner to another.

In Kelo v. City of New London (2005), the use of eminent domain to transfer land from one private owner to another private owner to further economic development was deemed to be constitutional. In a 5–4 decision, the Court held that the general benefits a community enjoyed from economic growth qualified private redevelopment plans as a permissible public use under the Takings Clause of the Fifth Amendment.

While seizing land with compensation to build a highway for public use is one thing, seizing property for the private profit of others is quite another. Yet many like Taibbi are heralding the potential of seizing underwater mortgages. I will consider any initiative to reduce total debt and deleveraging costs, as I believe that excessive total debt is the largest cause of today’s depression. But given the history, I have every right to be cautious and even suspicious.

Taibbi:

The plan is being put forward by a company called Mortgage Resolution Partners, run by a venture capitalist named Steven Gluckstern.

Here’s how it works: Mortgage Resolution Partners helps raise the capital a town or a county would need to essentially “buy” seized home loans from the banks and the bondholders (remember, to use eminent domain to seize property, governments must give the owners “reasonable compensation,” often interpreted as fair current market value).

Once the town or county seizes the loan, it would then be owned by a legal entity set up by the local government – San Bernardino, for instance, has set up a JPA, or Joint Powers Authority, to manage the loans.

At that point, the JPA [i.e. the taxpayer!] is simply the new owner of the loan. It would then approach the homeowner with a choice. If, for some crazy reason, the homeowner likes the current situation, he can simply keep making his same inflated payments to the JPA. Not that this is likely, but the idea here is that nobody would force homeowners to do anything.

On the other hand, the town can also offer to help the homeowner find new financing. In conjunction with companies like MRP (and the copycat firms like it that would inevitably spring up), the counties and towns would arrange for private lenders to enter the picture, and help homeowners essentially buy back his own house, only at a current market price. Just like that, the homeowner is no longer underwater and threatened with foreclosure.

First — why municipalities? Why not states? The answer is that while all states other than Vermont have some form of balanced budget amendment, and cannot so easily take on debt, municipalities can freely take on debt. How much? Well, it’s almost certain to be open to legal challenges by current mortgage-holders, and courts may end up forcing municipalities to pay far more than municipalities initially stipulate. But at whatever values the mortgages are seized at, there is no doubt that the taxpayer will end up holding a lot of new debt.

The biggest problem though, is surely the danger of corruption. How many municipalities will end up using these opaque procedures to enrich well-connected insiders? How many will buy junk at inflated prices, or seize and sell to a well-connected insider at far below value? Who polices such transactions? Where is the transparency? How do we make sure that this is not just an excuse for bad lenders to offload junk to the taxpayer at inflated prices and cream a profit when they were set to reap a loss?

Matt Taibbi admits:

MRP absolutely has a profit motive in the plan, and much is likely to be made of that in the press as this story develops. But I doubt this ends up being entirely about money.

“What happened is, a bunch of us got together and asked ourselves what a fix of the housing/foreclosure problem would look like,” Gluckstern. “Then we asked, is there a way to fix it and make money, too. I mean, we’re businessmen. Obviously, if there wasn’t a financial motive for anybody, it wouldn’t happen.”

And you can restructure all you like, but many underwater homeowners with a serious income shortfall will still not be able to pay their mortgages. Who carries the can? If the mortgage has been  sold on then the loss will be on the new owner. In reality this is far more likely to be the taxpayer. Simply, the taxpayer may well end up carrying the can for a whole lot of bust mortgages.

What Taibbi — who usually has a very good sense of moral hazard — and MRP effectively seem to be considering is not only the continuation and expansion of Kelo, but also potentially the transfer of liability from bust irresponsible lenders to the taxpayer. While this is sure to enrich the bureaucracy and well-connected insiders — and admittedly, while it may help some underwater homeowners — it seems incredibly risky for the taxpayer.

While debt-forgiveness is one way out of the debt trap, we should be careful and recognise that many so-called debt-forgiveness schemes may instead be dressed-up scams and frauds that end up enriching special interests while putting the taxpayer deeper into a hole. 

H/T to @MoiraCathleen

Christine Lagarde: “There is Still too much Debt in the System”.

From the IMF:

There is still too much debt in the system. Uncertainty hovers over sovereigns across the advanced economies, banks in Europe, and households in the United States. Weak growth and weak balance sheets — of governments, financial institutions, and households — are feeding negatively on each other, fueling a crisis of confidence and holding back demand, investment, and job creation. This vicious cycle is gaining momentum and, frankly, it has been exacerbated by policy indecision and political dysfunction.

And she’s right — but with debt-issuers not interested in taking haircuts how can we reduce total global debt? How about growth?

From Zero Hedge:

A brand new study released by the World Economic Forum (WEF) in collaboration with McKinsey (which is a must read if only for its plethora of charts which we are certain will be used and reused in thousands of posts and articles over the next year), finds that while global credit stock doubled from $57 trillion to $109 trillion in just 10 years (from 2000 to 2010), it will need to double again to an incredible $210 trillion by 2020 in order to provide the necessary credit-driven growth (in a recursive way, whereby credit feeds growth, and growth requires additional credit issuance) for world GDP to retain its current growth rate.

So the plan is additional debt, to fund growth, to pay down debt? How is that working out?

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