Posts Tagged ‘joseph stiglitz’

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It happened in 1997, and some think it is happening again. Back in 1994 the US Federal Reserve upped interest rates, and so begun a cycle of tightening monetary policy. Money flowed from East to West, and in 1997 crisis was the watch word. The so called tiger economies of South East Asia in particular saw their economies look distinctly like a certain fruit – a pear. It was an important episode. Some say that the Asian crisis of 1997 sparked off a chain of events that led to the 2008 finance crisis. And now it seems to be happening all over again. Or is it?

Many economists say that the tragedy of the Asian crisis was that it was not the fault of the countries that were the victims. Cheap interest rates in the US meant money flowed from the US and Europe into South East Asia. Not all governments in the region wanted it. But – or so Nobel Laureate Joseph Stiglitz, who was chief economist at the World Bank at the time alleges – the IMF urged governments to welcome the influx of money. It is just that when money flows fast, not all of it is used wisely. Bubbles are born. Then in 1994 things began to change. Slowly the Fed increased rates. By 1997, the interest rates in the US were attractive to investors, and money flowed back. Bad Asian businesses were exposed. Good businesses were caught out too. The IMF came riding in to the rescue, but not all agreed with how it reacted. Critics say the IMF was more concerned about finding ways to ensure the West got its money back than helping the countries of South East Asia cope with the crisis.

And in so doing seeds were sown. Many countries in South East said never again, and vowed to ensure they were never again reliant on overseas capital. China watched events with alarm, and its policy of keeping a cheap yuan, and pushing for growth off a trade surplus was born. Many economists say this policy helped to contribute to global imbalances, which may have been an underlying cause of the 2008 crisis.

But by trying so hard to save the West, the IMF and –what Stligtz calls the Washington Consensus – western banks got off lightly, It happened again in 1998 with the Russian crisis and the collapse of LTCM, for which Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan managed to orchestrate a rescue which avoided a western banking crisis. But the rescue meant moral hazard because western banks did not learn their lesson. They repeated their errors until they became too big for even the Fed to sort them out in 2008.

Now let’s come up to date. We appear to be entering a new period of rising interest rates. The Fed and Bank of England have tried to persuade us that rates will not rise for some time, but the markets are not buying it. Every piece of good news, every

piece of okay news on jobs in the UK and the US, makes the markets more certain that rates will be rising sooner rather than later. On the back of this, yields on US government bonds have hit two year highs. It is not so much that money is flowing from Asia back into the US, but that the markets fear this will happen. And the fear is having an effect. The Indian Rupee fell to all-time low against the dollar yesterday (19 August). But emerging market currencies saw sharp falls across the board.

So far this year has been disastrous for the South African Rand, the Brazilian Real, and now the Indian Rupee. Last week data revealed that Russia is in recession. Yesterday data emerged indicating that Thailand is in recession. The Indonesian stock market saw sharp falls as markets took fright over the size of its current account deficit. Indonesian government debt is rising too. Yet there are reasons to think that some of these countries are being wrongly punished by the markets, and the ultimate loser will be the markets themselves.

This time around many of the larger countries of South East Asia are far less reliant on overseas money. Savings ratios are high.

In Indonesia the ratio of credit to GDP is 30 per cent, against an average of nearer 100 per cent for the region. More interestingly, in Indonesia a smaller proportion of credit has funded projects in the property sector, relative to Hong Kong and Vietnam, for example. As a result there is little hint of a property bubble in the making. Instead, much of the credit has funded infrastructure and manufacturing. In 1997 around 50 per cent of Indonesia’s credit was funded by foreign currencies. Today that level is nearer 15 per cent.

Indonesian domestic credit to the private sector is just 33 per cent, compared to 203 per cent in the US. The ratio is just 33 per cent in the Philippines too. It is even lower in Mexico, which may, by the way, benefit from re-shoring as manufacturers move closer to the US market.

As far as emerging markets are concerned, the markets are in panic mode. In such times they are lousy at picking the wheat from the chaff. When they become more rational, certain emerging market countries will see equities boom.

© Investment & Business News 2013

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The Indian government has just made a rather interesting new appointment. It concerns the man who is to head the country’s central bank. The man is… well, he is rather clever and well regarded across the world. But what makes this one so very interesting, is that talk is that Barack Obama’s choice for the next boss of the Fed is rather controversial. And what is really really interesting is that amongst the critics of Obama’s choice is the man who is set to take over at India’s central bank.

Okay let’s name some names. The man who is to take over at India’s central banks is Raghuram Rajan – former chief economist of the IMF and the author of ‘Fault Lines’. In his book, Mr Rajan postulated the theory that surging house prices were used by western governments as a way to kind of compensate for the fact that real wages were rising only very slowly. So, during the boom years, the gap between the super-rich and everyone else grew, profits to GDP rose while wages to GDP fell, and median workers in many countries found that over a period of many years – years of boom that is – their real disposable income didn’t grow at all. These were not good developments. We should have had recession when demand was suffocated from the economy. Instead, the money that companies were not spending sloshed around the system, eventually leading to lower interest rates, more credit, more mortgages, higher house prices, more household debt, and a consumer boom based on leverage.

Mr Rajan was one of the most prescient of the world’s economists and his theories to explain what was charging the boom and then the crash are probably spot on.

Now to change the mood a little: consider the Fed. The Fed’s deputy chair is Janet Yellen, and she is the person many want to see take over from Ben Bernanke next year. Talk is that Barack Obama wants Larry Summers to have the job. Now Summers was US treasury secretary under Bill Clinton – a massive critic of QE – and was the man whom many hold responsible for loosening the stranglehold of the Glass–Steagall Act, which separated investment and retail banking. Summers is not liked by Republicans and quite a lot of Democrats have their doubts about him, but he is a heavy weight in the world of international finance and politics – there is no doubt about that.

Many of the world’s top economists are critics of Summers, including the likes of Paul Krugman and Joseph Stiglitz, and Raghuram Rajan of course. Let’s say it happens and next year Summers and Rajan are both central bankers. For once when India’s central bank meets up with the Fed, many will see it as a meeting of equals – that will come as quite a shock for a US that is used to having things its way.

As for India, the appointment of Rajan may yet prove to be a key moment as the country attempts to re-establish itself as one of the world fastest growing economies.

© Investment & Business News 2013

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The US economy has not been good at exporting for some time. Recent data shows that its imports of goods and services still lag way behind exports. Yet there is one thing the US is good at exporting and that is economic news. And of late it has been exporting good economic news. So what is it; why; is it for real, and does that give us reason for hope?

Sometimes recoveries seem to be built on hot air. Sometimes they are down to confidence, and confidence creates growth, and growth creates confidence. During the boom years of the noughties, economic boom was built on debt. Households borrowed because house prices were up, and they rose partly because interest rates were so low, and partly because credit was so easy to come by, but there was something wrong.

The boom was built on foundations as shaky as a shaky house built of shaky match sticks, sitting on top of shaky hill made from quick sand. This time the recovery seem to sit on foundations that are a lot more robust. Yet still the doubters say it is all a lie.

So why the reason for cheer?

First and foremost, US households have cut debt. US household debt has fallen from $12.7 trillion in 2008, to $11.2 trillion at the end of last year. In fact, according to IMF data, US household debt to income has fallen from a ratio of 1.3 in the mid-noughties to around 1.05. In fact, the ratio is now higher in the Eurozone. At the same time, the value of US household assets have risen. According to Capital Economics: “Every $1.00 of debt is now backed by $6.30 of assets, whereas before the recession it was backed by $4.80 of assets.” Capital Economics, for so long a bear on the US economy, recently said that the US consumer is now well placed to drive “a faster period of economic growth.”

Secondly, US banks are in better shape. Q1 saw record profits for US banks, while their deposit-to-liabilities ratio recently hit a 20-year high of 84.6 per cent. See: US banks see biggest profits ever: is the US back? 

Thirdly, the US fiscal deficit this year is expected to be $642 billion, or so estimates the Congressional Budget Office. To put that in context, last year the deficit was $1.1 trillion. It will, in fact, be the first time since 2008 that the US deficit is less than $1 trillion. And, by the way, not so long ago the Congressional Budget Office was projecting a deficit of almost $200 billion more than that.

As for those who say the US sits on a financial and demographic time bomb, and that surging health care costs alone are sure to bankrupt the world’s largest economy there are some reasons to be cynical about such cynicism. See: The scaremongers are wrong: the US is not even vaguely close to going bust  and US medicare time bomb begins to look more like a pretty time piece 

US consumer confidence recently hit a five and half year high. US house prices are rising, and, unlike in the UK, they are rising from a point where the average price to income is below the historical average of 1.2 million, with June seeing a rise of 195,000.

Given all this evidence, why are many so cynical?

Some cynicism seems to be built on genuine concerns, while others seem to be cynical for its own sake.

One challenge is that this year US government spending will be falling while taxes are rising. This may be good for cutting government debt, but it may yet prove disastrous for the economy, and indeed the IMF has slated the US government for relaxing its fiscal stimulus too soon. But then that is what you get when you have a political system made up of two parties that seem to be hell bent on putting self-interest over national interests.

Partly as a result of the US fiscal stimulus’ going into reverse, recent  Purchasing Managers’ Indices (PMIs) have been disappointing, with the latest PMI tracking US non-manufacturing falling to a three year low. The latest PMIs suggest the US will grow at around 1 per cent in Q2 on an annualised basis. By recent standards, that is poor. But then these are problems with the short term.

Another challenge relates to the very difficult balancing act that the Fed has to manage. It is now talking about cutting back on its quantitative easing or QE programme quite soon – September being the date expected by the markets. The Fed has been buying $85 billion worth of bonds every month. To begin with the Fed will not stop QE, but merely slow down. The feeling is that it won’t stop altogether until next year, and rates won’t rise until 2015.

Not all see why. For one thing US inflation is modest, and appears to pose no threat at all. Fears that were commonplace a year or so ago, that QE would lead to runaway inflation currently look somewhat silly. So they ask: why cut rates so soon?

A more serious concern relates to ways in which the actual data may be misleading. So sure, US employment may be up, US unemployment may be falling, but US employment to the US population is not much less today than during the height of the recession. In part this is down to more people retiring, but it appears this is also partly down to some people pretty much giving up, and falling off the unemployment stats.

Then there are some who voice concern over student loans in the US. The big critic here is Nobel Laureate Joseph Stiglitz. See: Student Debt and the Crushing of the American Dream

This all leaves two big pluses.

The first plus is shale gas. This has led to falling energy costs, handing US households more disposable income after paying for energy. The second is signs of a kind of renaissance in manufacturing. This shows up in many ways. Both Apple and Google, for example, have recently announced that certain products will be made in the USA.

As US productivity rises, unit labour costs fall, and unit labour costs in China rise, the gap with China improves in favour of the US. More exciting is the potential of 3D printing, which may yet create a new kind of local craftsman, as is suddenly becomes viable for consumers to have bespoke products designed especially for them, or for just a small number of people.

A sustained US recovery is not guaranteed, but the odds are about as favourable as they have been for a very long time.

© Investment & Business News 2013

It has been rush of good news on the US economy, but last week nearly saw it all spoilt. Thank goodness for Friday, because news out then just about saved the day, and stopped the good turning to bad.

Just to remind you: US consumer confidence has hit a five year high, US house prices are up, the US fiscal deficit is falling fast, and US banks suddenly seem to be well capitalised. For more, see: US debt is falling: does this prove austerity does not work?   US consumers create recovery, or does recovery create US consumers?  US banks see biggest profits ever: is the US back  and US economy close to shaking off last vestiges of the finance crisis 

But last week saw the latest Purchasing Managers’ Indices (PMIs) on the US economy, and they were not so good. The PMI tracking US manufacturing, and produced by ISM, fell to 49, a four year low. More to the point, since any reading under 50 points to contraction, the index suggests that the US manufacturing industry may be in recession. The PMI tracking US non-manufacturing improved in April, but with a reading of 53.7, it was nonetheless the second lowest score in nine months. Together the two indices suggest the US is growing at an annualised rate of around 1.5 per cent in Q2, from 2.4 per cent in Q1.

All eyes turned to the jobs report, which was out last Friday. This is one of the closest watched of all US indicators. In the end the report was a relief. No less than 175,000 workers joined the US non-farm payroll in May. According to the latest data, US non-farm payroll has increased by just 50,000 short of one million so far this year.

Okay, there is a chance that the latest data maybe revised downwards, but so far it looks good.

Right now, with a few exceptions in South East Asia and Latin America, the US economy seems to putting on just about the best set of data anywhere. There is even talk of manufacturers returning to the US. Yesterday Apple announced plans to manufacture one of its latest products in the US, and the latest Google/Motorola phone is being made in the US.

The US still has problems, perhaps the main ones being growing inequality, and falling median incomes. See: Will USA living standards ever again be as high as they were in the last century? 

And US student loans has the feel of a potential bubble in the making. See: Student Debt and the Crushing of the American Dream, by Joseph E Stiglitz 

But at least talk that the US is on a one way ticket to bankruptcy seems to be considerably wide of the mark. See: The scaremongers are wrong: the US is not even vaguely close to going bust 

© Investment & Business News 2013

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Nobel Laureate Joseph Stiglitz reckons that US student loans are the next big western economic crisis in the making – the next sub-prime. In the UK, the numbers are not quite so scary, but we do seem to be adopting many of the worst elements of the US economy.

Meanwhile, we keep hearing about kids going to university, and coming back with degrees that are not much use to man nor beast – but they do have lots of debt.

In his book ‘Anti Fragile’, Nassim Taleb (author of ‘The Black Swan’) questioned the link between education and economic success. Taiwan had lower literacy rates than the Philippines before it embarked on its period of growth. South Korea had lower literacy levels than Argentina before its growth era, and before Argentina’s collapse.
When we look at a country’s wealth and compare it with education, we see a connection. Richer countries tend to spend more on education. But which way is the causation? Does education lead to wealth or wealth lead to education?

Taleb reckons that apprentice-type education models are more closely correlated with economic success.

Here is the snag. Higher and further education may not cause GDP to rise, but for individuals there is a link between education and wealth. Countries that offer free advanced education to all tend to see a more evenly spread distribution of income.

Besides, in the era we are set to enter, in which we will see 3D printing, and nanotechnology, many people may have to re-train several times throughout their career. Maybe a good education provides an essential foundation in a world of very rapid change.

© Investment & Business News 2013

Whether you believe the UK downturn is slowly ending does to an extent depend on what you believe caused its problems in the first place.

Let’s look at the data, the theories, and the policies and ask: do they stack up?

First there’s data on employment. It has improved and that’s good, of course it is. But the quarter also saw a 24,000 rise in the number of part time workers. There are now 1.42 million people working part-time in the UK, which is the highest number ever recorded – and records go back to 1992. So maybe the improvement in employment is not quite as impressive as it seems.

The jump in industrial production in July, the highest in 25 years, is to be celebrated, but to an extent this occurred as producers made up for lost production in the previous month due to the Jubilee celebrations.

What about forecasts that real wages are set to rise in the UK? Here the news is more encouraging but it hinges on an ‘if’.

The CEBR reckons average real disposable income for households will rise by 0.5 per cent in 2013. If it is right, then it will be the first such rise since 2009. Incidentally, average wages in the year to June increased by 1.5 per cent, according to stats out last week. In the year to June, inflation – as measured by the retail price index – was 3.2 per cent. So during the 12 months to the end of June the average worker became a lot worse off.

The CEBR also forecast that the households who will benefit the most from rises in real disposable income will be those on lower incomes. It reckons households whose disposable income is less than £26,000 will see their income rise by 1.5 per cent next year, after inflation. Middle income earning households will see real disposable income rise by 1 per cent. And those receiving more than £50,000 are expected to see a rise of 0.7 per cent.

So what assumption did the CEBR make to draw these predictions? Firstly, the improvement for lower incomes is down to falls in bonuses. (In the year to June bonus pay fell by 4.7 per cent.) Secondly, the CEBR assumed that inflation is set to fall. It may be right about that, but the question mark here relates to the price of food. Droughts in Russia and the US are hitting crop yields. At the same time, too much arable land is being used to grow bio-fuels, a policy that seems pretty mad. As for the euro area, ECB President Mario Draghi said he will do whatever it takes to save the euro, and now he has delivered – or tried to anyway. The ECB is engaging in its own form of quantitative easing. It is not outright QE, it is not creating new money; rather it is taking deposits from commercial banks to match its bond buying. See: It’s QE Jim, but not as we know it.

But Mario’s scheme is complicated. It is really aimed at Italy and Spain, but for either of these countries to take part, they must first ask the European Stability Mechanism for help. And they must sign a memorandum of understanding, relating to the austerity cuts they must make. In other words, in order to avail themselves of ECB money, Italy and Spain must agree to cuts.

“Don’t do it,” says Nobel Laureate Joseph Stiglitz. In an interview with a Spanish paper he said that for Spain to sign on the dotted line, to ask the ESM for help and agree to Germany’s insistence on austerity, would be tantamount to economic suicide.

As for the US, something pretty interesting is happening across the pond. While some of the Christian fundamentalists that seem to be gaining more sway over the US political scene seem hell bent on enacting policies designed to pretty much terrify the rest of the world, amongst economists the QE debate has reached a new level. Professor Michael Woodford is a big cheese at Columbia University. He also happens to be the most respected academic on monetary economics in the world.

He reckons that when the Fed sets its monetary policy, it should take into account what’s called nominal US GDP – that is to say GDP measured in dollars, not adjusted for inflation. He is also a big fan of the Bank of England’s big idea: funding for lending, in which the central bank lends to banks if they agree to lend this money on to businesses and for mortgages.

But what all this really means is that the thinking at the Fed and among its advisors is slowly coming round to the view that that a little bit of inflation may be a good thing. Let’s face it, when you are in debt and inflation is quite high, and your income is rising with inflation, then the value of your debt relative to income is falling.

So that’s just a hint that the Fed is relaxing its inflation intentions. Bear in mind that the CEBR’s forecast for the UK economy is based on the assumption that inflation will fall, you can see how the whole thing is based on contradictory ideas.

But this still leaves the questions: is the UK on the mend?

Markets have overreacted to the latest news on QE. The UK has plenty of problems and challenges ahead, but yes, the outlook right now is more positive than a week ago.

The real snag is that neither central bankers nor indeed many governments are fixing the underlying problem. And to find out about that, read on.