This week I am traveling to the West Coast Workshop on International Finance & Open Economy Macroeconomics. It will be held on Friday, Oct. 2, at the campus of UC-Santa Cruz. There is a fabulous line-up of speakers and papers, which you can find here:
Studies of the impact of capital inflows have established that debt inflows can lead to bank crises (see here and here). Unlike equity, payments on debt are contractual and can not be cancelled if there is an economic downturn, which intensifies any shocks to the financial system. In the case of short-term debt, a foreign lender may decide not to roll over credit at the time when it is most needed. But recent papers have shown that foreign debt can also be a determinant of the credit booms that lead to the bank crises.
Philip Lane of Trinity College and Peter McQuade of the European Central Bank (working paper version here) looked at the relationship of domestic credit growth and capital flows in Europe during the period of 1993-2008. They suggest that financial flows can encourage more rapid credit growth by increasing the ability of domestic banks to extend loans, while also contributing to a rise in asset prices that encouraged financial activity. They found that debt flows contributed to domestic credit growth but equity flows did not. Moreover, the linkage of debt and domestic credit was strongest during the 2003-08 pre-crisis period.
Similarly, Julián Caballero of the Inter-American Development Bank (working paper here) investigated capital inflow booms, known as “bonanzas,” in emerging economies between 1973 and 2008. He reported that capital inflow bonanzas increased the incidence of bank crises. When he distinguished among foreign direct investment, portfolio equity and debt bonanzas, the results indicated that only the portfolio equity and debt bonanzas were associated with an increased likelihood of crises. More analysis revealed that the impact of increased debt was due in part to a lending boom. Caballero suggested that the capital inflows could also have increased asset prices, generating an asset bubble and an eventual collapse.
Deniz Iagan and Zhibo Tan of the IMF used both macroeconomic and micro-level firm data to examine the relationship of capital inflows and credit growth. They first examined the impact of capital inflows on aggregate credit to households and non-financial corporations in advanced and emerging market economies during the period of 1980-2011. They distinguished among FDI, portfolio and other inflows. They reported that portfolio and other inflows contributed to rises in household credit, and only the other inflows were significant for corporate credit.
Iagan and Tan also had data on firms in these countries, and sought to identify the determinants of leverage in these firms. They calculated an index, based on work done by Raghuram Rajan and Luigi Zingales (RZ), of a firm’s dependence on external financing. When they interacted the RZ indicator with the different types of capital inflows, the interactive term was always significant in the case of the other inflows, significant with portfolio flows in some specifications, and never significant in the case of FDI flows. The authors concluded that the results of the macro and firm level analyses were consistent: the composition of capital matters. In additional analysis, they found evidence consistent with the hypothesis that the capital inflows led to higher asset prices.
What can be done to insulate an economy from lending booms that may lead to bank crises? Nicolas E. Magud and Esteban R. Versperoni of the IMF and Carmen R. Reinhart of Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government (working paper here) examined whether the nature of the exchange rate regime was relevant. They found that less flexible exchange rate regimes are associated with increases in bank credit and a higher share of foreign currency in bank credit. On the other hand, the exchange rate regime had no impact of the size of the capital inflows. The authors of the Bank for International Settlements 85th Annual Report 2014/15, however, wrote that the insulation property of flexible exchange rates is “overstated.” An exchange rate appreciation can raise the value of firms with debt denominated in foreign currency, which increases the availability of credit.
How can regulators lower the danger of more bank crises due to debt inflows? Magud, Reinhart and Vesperoni suggest the use of macroprudential measures that affect the incentives to borrow in a foreign currency, such as currency-dependent liquidity requirements. But Caballero warns that capital controls on debt inflows may be insufficient if portfolio equity flows also contribute to lending booms that result in banking crises.
These research papers find that domestic asset prices respond to international financial flows. This makes it harder to insulate the domestic financial markets from foreign markets, and leaves these markets vulnerable to spillovers from changes in foreign conditions. The emerging markets already face downturns in their markets, and the combination of increased global volatility with a rise in the costs of servicing the dollar-denominated debt of corporations in emerging markets if the Federal Reserve raises interest rates will only add to their burdens.
Next week I will be attending the 5th IWH/INFER Workshop on Applied Economics and Economic Policy: Trade and Capital Liberalization-Boost for Growth or Bane of Spillover? The workshop takes place in Halle, which is near Leipzig, Germany.
You can see the program and more information about the conference here:
Unlike the global financial crisis of 2008-09, the current disruption in the financial markets of emerging market nations was anticipated. The “taper tantrum” of 2013 revealed the precarious position of many of these nations, particularly those dependent on commodity exports. The combination of a slowdown in Chinese growth, collapsing stock prices and a change in the Chinese central bank’s exchange rate policy indicated that the world’s second-largest economy has its own set of problems. But global volatility itself can roil financial markets, and good fundamentals may be of little help for a government trying to shelter its economy from the instability in world markets.
The importance of global (or “push”) factors for capital flows to emerging markets was studied by Eugenio Cerutti, Stijn Claessens and Damien Puy of the IMF. They looked at capital flows to 34 emerging markets during the period of 2001-2013, and found that global factors such as the VIX, a measure of anticipated volatility in the U.S. stock market, accounted for much of the variation in flows. Not all forms of capital were equally affected: bank-related and portfolio flows (bonds and equity) were strongly influenced by the global factors, but foreign direct investment was not.
Cerutti, Claessens and Puy also investigated whether the emerging markets could insulate themselves from the global environment with good domestic macro fundamentals. They reported that the sensitivity of emerging markets to the external factors depended in large part upon the identity of a country’s investors. The presence of global investors, such as international mutual funds in the case of portfolio flows and global banks in the case of bank finance, drove up the response to the global environment. The authors concluded: “…there is no robust evidence that “good” macroeconomic (e.g., public debt, growth) or institutional fundamentals (e.g., Investment Climate and Rule of Law) have a role in explaining EM different sensitivities to global push factors.”
A similar finding was reported in a study of corporate bond markets in emerging markets, which have grown considerably since the 2007-09 crisis. Diana Ayala, Milan Nedeljkovic and Christian Saborowski, also of the IMF, studied the share of bond finance in total corporate debt in 47 emerging market economies over the period of 2000-13. Domestic factors contributed to the development of bond markets. But the growth in these markets in the post-crisis period was driven by global factors, such as the spread in U.S. high yield bonds, a proxy for global risk aversion, and U.S. broker-dealer leverage. The authors conjecture that the growth in bond finance in the emerging markets was due to a search for higher yields than those available in advanced economies during this period. If this interpretation is correct, then these countries will see capital outflows once interest rates in the U.S. and elsewhere rise.
A third paper from the IMF, written by Christian Ebeke and Annette Kyobe, looked at the markets for emerging market sovereign bonds. Their results are based on data from 17 emerging markets over the 2004-13 period. They found that foreign participation in the market for domestic-currency denominated sovereign bonds increased the impact of U.S. interest rates on the yield of these bonds once a threshold of 30 percent had been reached. Similarly, an increase in the concentration of the investor base made the bond yields more sensitive to global financial shocks.
Are domestic “pull” factors always irrelevant for capital flows? Ahmed Shaghil, Brahima Coulibaly and Andrei Zlate of the Federal Reserve Board constructed a “vulnerability index” of macroeconomic fundamentals for a sample of 20 emerging market economies during 13 periods of financial stress, beginning with the Mexican crisis of 1994 and ending with the 2013 taper tantrum. They looked at the impact of their index upon a measure of depreciation pressure, based on changes in exchange rates and losses in foreign exchange reserves. They found that there was evidence of a linkage between the macro fundamentals and depreciation pressure during the global financial crisis and then again during the European sovereign debt crisis and the taper tantrum, but not before.
Why would the response of emerging market economies to domestic fundamentals become stronger during the most recent crises? Shaghil, Coulibaly and Zlate offer two reasons: first, it may be that foreign investors investors did not distinguish among the emerging market economies until the 2000s. But as the governments of these countries implemented different policy frameworks and the costs of gathering information about them fell due to technology, it became worthwhile to distinguish amongst them based on their individual characteristics. An alternative reason for the change over time could lie in a shift in the origin of the crises away from the emerging markets themselves. Therefore, investors have become more careful in examining the vulnerabilities of individual countries.
The analysis of the relative importance of domestic “pull” vs. global “push” factors should not be posed as a “one or the other” contest (see here). There is ample evidence to indicate that global factors have become increasingly important in driving capital flows across borders. If so, then the news that the VIX hit record levels last week is disturbing. Stock markets in the U.S. and other advanced economies have rebounded, but the emerging market nations face a period of sustained retrenchment as investors reallocate their funds in response to the surge in global volatility.
Analyses and discussions of Greece’s economic situation usually begin—and often end—with its fiscal policy. The policies mandated by the “troika” of the European Commission, the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund have undoubtedly resulted in a severe contraction that will continue for at least this year. But little has been said about the private sectors of the economy, and why they have not offset at least part of the fiscal “austerity.” Consumption spending is linked to income, so there is no relief there. But what about the other sources of spending, investment and net exports?
Investment expenditures provide no counterweight, as they have plunged in the years since the global financial crisis. The same phenomenon took place in other countries in the southern periphery of the European Union, but the change in Greece’s investment/GDP ratio between its pre-crisis 2007 level and that of 2014 was an extraordinary decline of 16 percentage points at a time when GDP itself was falling:
Source: IMF, World Economic Outlook
In view of the scale of the crisis, it is not surprising that investment fell as much as it did in these countries. The parlous state of the banks only reinforced the decline. The particularly severe decrease in Greece reflects the political uncertainty there as well as the calamitous economic conditions.
Net exports of goods and services have continued to record a deficit in Greece while the other periphery countries by 2013 showed small (or in the case of Ireland large) surpluses:
|Balance on goodsand services/GDP||2007||2013|
Source: World Bank, World Development Indicators
Although Greece’s balance continued to show a deficit, the turnaround between 2007 and 2013 of 9 percentage points of GDP was only exceeded by the increase in Ireland’s trade balance by 12 percentage points. But this change was due largely to the decline in imports that accompanied the contraction of the economy rather than a growth in exports, as happened in Ireland and Portugal. The lack of Greek export growth has been surprising in view of the decline in unit labor costs. These had soared in the period leading up to the crisis, as had those in the other periphery countries. Since these countries could not devalue their exchange rates, labor costs had to come down to make their exports competitive. But despite the declines in wages, there has been no corresponding expansion in Greek exports.
Explaining the lack of responsiveness of Greek exports to the decline in wages has been the subject of several analyses. A study on macroeconomic adjustment programs in the Eurozone undertaken for the Economic and Monetary Affairs Committee of the European Parliament by a team of authors that included Daniel Gros, Cinzia Alcidi and Alessandro Giovannini of the Centre for European Policy Studies, Ansgar Belke of the University of Duisberg-Essen, and Leonor Coutinho of the Europrism Research Centre claimed: “Greek exports price competitiveness has not improved nearly as much as its cost (and wage) competitiveness…” The report’s authors attribute the rigidity in prices to “structural deficiencies.”
A similar analysis was offered by Uwe Böwer, Vasiliki Michou and Christph Ungerer of the European Commission’s Directorate-General for Economic and Financial Affairs (see also here). They use a gravity model to predict export flows in 56 countries, and compare the predictions of the model with actual exports. Greek exports were 32.6% lower than those predicted by the model, which they label the “puzzle of the missing Greek trade.” They then add measures of institutional quality to their model, and find that these are quite significant. Since Greece’s institutional quality is seen as relatively poor, the authors claim this deficiency contributes to the lack of exports.
In view of all the institutional measures that have already been introduced into the Greek economy, it may seem surprising that more structural reform is seen as necessary. Alessio Terzi of Bruegel has argued that the initial reforms in Greece were slanted towards reform of the public sector rather than the private sector. Some of this shortfall was rectified in the 2012 program, but implementation was slowed by the political climate and economic collapse. A lack of coordination with changes in labor market practices has resulted in a decline in wages that has not been matched by corresponding adjustments in prices. Terzo claims that responsibility for these flaws in program design is a responsibility of the troika as well as of the Greek government.
Designing the optimal composition and pace of structural reforms is always difficult. Antionio Fatás of INSEAD writes about the record of reform in Europe since the 1970s (see also here). He shows that there has been a convergence of policies and institutions over time. He takes particular note of Greece and Portugal’s progress vis-à-vis the record of other OECD countries in business-related reforms, although he also notes that small differences are associated with noticeable differences in productivity and output. Christian Thimann of the Paris School of Economics and AXA Group believes that there is substantial scope for further change.
Can reforms be implemented when fiscal policy is contractionary? Tamim Bayoumi of the IMF admits that the short-run impact of regulatory changes is likely to be disruptive, which only reinforces the impact of the fiscal policy. Under these circumstances, the IMF can play a critical role in providing external financing while reforms are being implemented. But, he writes, “…structural policies need a strong leader and broad agreement across a wide swath of opinion makers about the need to re invigorate the economy.”
Such an agreement is difficult to achieve in the wake of a crisis. Atif Mian of Princeton, Amir Sufi of the Booth School of Business at the University of Chicago and Francesco Trebbi of the Vancouver School of Economics have shown that countries become more polarized after a financial crisis as voters become more ideologically extreme and ruling coalitions become weaker. This makes consensus much harder to achieve.
The latest bailout provides an opportunity to change the structure of Greece’s private sector. Consumer markets are to be liberalized, labor practices to be reviewed and an upgrade of its infrastructure to be taken. Can Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras maintain the popular support needed to implement the reforms? And can these lead to a turnaround in the Greek economy? The private sector must become viable if the country’s continuing economic degradation is to end. It would be ironic if such a turnaround occurred during the administration of a political leader who campaigned on a platform of defying the troika and its programs, including structural reform measures. But “a foolish consistency is the hobglobin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines…”
The Greek crisis has abated, but not ended. Representatives of the “troika” of the European Commission, the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund returned to Athens for talks with the Greek government about a new bailout. This pause allows an accounting of the many challenges that the events in Greece pose to the international community.
The main challenge, of course, is to the Greek government itself, which must implement the fiscal and other measures contained in the agreement with the European governments. These include steps to liberalize labor markets as well as open up protected sectors of the economy. While these structural reforms should promote growth over time, in the short-run they will lead to layoffs and reorganizations. At the same time, Prime Minister Alex Tsipras must oversee tax rises and cuts in spending. The combined impact of all these measures, which follow the virtual shutdown of the financial sector during the protracted negotiations with the European governments, will postpone any resumption in growth that past efforts may have generated.
It is not clear how long the Greek public will endure further misery. Any form of debt restructuring may give policymakers some justification to continue with the agreement. New elections will clarify the degree of political support for the pact. But the possibility of an exit from the Eurozone has not been removed, either in the eyes of Greek politicians or those of officials of other governments.
The Greek crisis, however, is not the only hazard that the Eurozone faces. The Eurozone’s governments have yet to come to terms with the effects of the global financial crisis on its members’ finances. A split prevails between those countries that ally themselves with the German position that debt must be repaid and those that seek with France to find some sort of middle ground. Other European countries with debt/GDP ratios of over 100% include Belgium, Portugal, and Italy. Weak economic growth could push any of them into a situation where the costs of refinancing become daunting. How would the Eurozone governments respond? Would they bail out another member? If so, would the terms differ from those imposed on Greece? Would European banks be able to pass the distressed debt on to their own governments?
In the long-term, the governments of the Eurozone face the dilemma of how to reconcile centralized rule-making with national sovereignty. The ECB, for example, has been granted supervisory oversight of the banks in the Eurozone. It will exercise direct oversight of over 100 banks deemed to be “significant,” while sharing responsibility with national supervisors for the remaining approximately 3,500 banks. The ECB has a Supervisory Board, supported by a Steering Committee, to plan and executes its supervisory tasks, which supposedly allows it to separate its bank supervisory function from its role in setting monetary policy. All these agencies and committees must work out their respective jurisdictions and responsibilities. Meanwhile, the European Commission, which oversees fiscal policies, faces requests for exemptions from its budget guidelines by governments with faltering growth. But if it shows flexibility in enforcing its own rules, it will be derided as weak and ineffective.
The IMF has its own set of challenges. The IMF was sharply criticized for its response to the wave of crises that struck emerging markets in the last 1990s and early 2000s, beginning with Mexico in 1994 and extending to Turkey and Argentina in 2001. Critics charged that the IMF was slow to respond to the rapid “sudden stops” of capital outflows that set off and exacerbated the crises. When the Fund did act, it attached too many conditions to its programs; moreover, these conditions were harsh and inappropriate for crises based on capital outflows.
The global financial crisis gave the IMF a second chance to demonstrate its crisis-management abilities (for a full account, see here). The Managing Director at the time, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, seized the opportunity to redeem the IMF ‘s reputation, as well as reestablish his own political career in France. The IMF lent quickly to its members, attached relatively few conditions to the loans, and allowed the use of fiscal measures to stabilize domestic economies. The result was less severe adjustment, the avoidance of excessive exchange rate movements and a resumption of economic growth. By the time the global economy recovered, the IMF had proven that it could respond in a flexible manner to a financial emergency.
The IMF’s response in 2010 to the Greek debt crisis was very different. The IMF’s loan to Greece was the first to a Eurozone member; moreover, the loan was much larger than any the IMF had extended before, whether measured by the total amount of credit or as a percentage of the borrowing country’s quota at the Fund. To make the loan, the IMF had to overlook one of it own guidelines for granting “exceptional access” by a member to Fund credit. Such loans were to be made only if the borrowing government’s debt would be sustainable in the medium-term. Greece’s debt burden did not pass this criterion, so the Fund justified its actions on the grounds that there was a risk of “international systemic spillovers.”
The IMF’s involvement in the Greek program was also unusual in another sense: the IMF’s contribution, as large as it was, was still smaller than that of the European governments. The IMF was, in effect, a “junior partner.” While it had worked with other governments before (such as the U.S. when it lent to Mexico in 1994-95), this was the first time that the IMF was not in a lead position. This may have initially made it reluctant to disagree with the other members of the troika.
The subsequent contraction in the Greek economy far exceeded the IMF’s forecasts. The IMF later admitted that it underestimated the size of the multipliers for the fiscal policies contained in the program in a paper co-authored by the head of the IMF’s Research Department, Olivier Blanchard (see also here). The failure to properly estimate the impact of these conditions calls into doubt the basic premises of the 2010 and 2012 programs.
More recently, the IMF has challenged its European partners over their projections for the Greek debt, as well as the budget and fiscal targets contained in the latest agreement. The Fund claims that the debt projections are much too optimistic. Greece’s debt will only be sustainable if there is debt relief on a much larger scale than the European governments have been willing to undertake. Moreover, the IMF states that it will not be part of any new programs for Greece if debt relief is not a component.
The public admission of error and the rebukes of the European governments will only partially restore the IMF’s reputation. The generous treatment of Greece as well as Ireland and Portugal reinforces the belief that the European countries and the U.S. control the IMF. The members of the European Union have a total quota share of almost one-third, much larger than their share of world GDP. This voting share combined with the U.S. quota gives these countries almost half of all the voting shares at the IMF. The need for a realignment of the quotas to give the emerging market nations a larger share has long been acknowledged, but approval of the reform measures is mired in the U.S. Congress.
Another aspect of European and U.S. control of the “Bretton Woods twins”—the IMF and the World Bank—has been their selection of the heads of these organizations. All the Managing Directors of the IMF have been Europeans, and until the appointment of Ms. Lagarde, European males. All the heads of the World Bank have been U.S. citizens. Ms. Lagarde’s term expires next July, and the pressure to name a non-European will be tremendous. How the Europeans and U.S. respond to this challenge will go a long way in determining whether these institutions will be shunted aside by the emerging market nations in favor of institutions that they can control.
The last challenge of the Greek crisis comes for the Federal Reserve. Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen has been explaining that a rise in the Fed’s policy rate, the Federal Funds rate, is likely to occur later this year. This forecast, however, is contingent on continued economic growth and favorable labor market conditions. These plans could be threatened by any financial volatility that followed a disruption in the latest Greece bailout.
The Federal Reserve is also aware that a rise in interest rates would affect the dollar/euro exchange rate. The euro, which has been depreciating, could fall lower when the Fed raises rates while the ECB keeps its refinancing rate at 0.05%. A further appreciation of the dollar would threaten U.S. exports, thus endangering a recovery.
The Fed also faces concerns about the broader impact of its policy initiatives on the world economy. The IMF is worried about how a rate rise would affect the global economy, and has urged the Fed to hold off on interest rate increases until 20016. Companies that borrowed in dollars through bonds and bank loans will be adversely affected by the combined effects of an interest rate rise and a dollar appreciation.
Greece’s GDP accounts for only 0.4% of world GDP and about 1.3% of the European Union’s total output. But the global financial crisis demonstrated how financial linkages across sectors and countries can disrupt economic activity no matter what their source. The response to these incidents by national and international authorities can risk global stability if they are based on self-interest and organizational agendas. Commitments to cooperation disappear quickly when national concerns are threatened.
(A Powerpoint version of this post is available here.)
This post is different from my usual writings. It is intended for those who write and present research papers in international finance.
This past year I have kept a list of all the conferences that are held on an annual basis and emphasize research in international macroeconomics. There are, of course, many conferences where a wide range of papers are presented, but I focused on those with an explicit focus on topics in open-economy macroeconomics. There are also conferences that are organized to present work on a specific international macro topic, but are not held on an annual basis, and I did not include these.
I list the ones I found below with links to this year’s version of the conference, organized by month, followed by the location. As you will see, many of them take place in Europe at the end of May and in June.
I am happy to consider suggestions for other conferences that should be listed. Please make your recommendation as a comment below or write me directly. If the conference meets the criteria I list above, I will be happy to include it in future editions of this list.
International Trade and Finance Association Conference (various locations)
Barcelona GSE Summer Forum: International Capital Flows (Barcelona, Spain)
NBER Summer Institute: International Finance (Cambridge, Massachusetts, US)
IMF Annual Research Conference (Washington, DC, U.S.)
The events in Greece and the Ukraine have only partially drawn attention away from the financial markets’ focus on changes in U.S. monetary policy. Federal Reserve officials seem to be split over when they will raise their Federal Funds rate target, and by how much. But while U.S. policymakers are closely monitoring domestic labor developments, the impact of their actions will have repercussions for foreign markets.
The growth of cross-border financial flows has led to research on global liquidity. Jean-Pierre Landau of SciencesPo (Paris) defines global private liquidity as the international components of liquidity, i.e., “cross-border credit and portfolio flows or lending in foreign currencies to domestic residents,” while official global liquidity is the funding available to settle claims on monetary authorities. Before the global financial crisis, global banking flows were instrumental in extending private credit across borders, while more recently portfolio flows have been important.
Eugenio Cerutti, Stijn Claessens, and Lev Ratnovski of the IMF examined the determinants of global liquidity using data on cross-border bank flows for 77 countries over the period of 1990-2012. They identified four financial centers: the U.S., the Eurozone, the U.K. and Japan. The drivers of global liquidity included factors such as the TED spread (3 month LIBOR minus 3 month government bond yield), an indicator of uncertainty that affects bank behavior. They also included measures related to monetary policy, including the real interest rate and term premium, i.e., the slope of the yield curve, defined as the difference between 10 year and 3 month government securities.
The authors first used U.S. global liquidity factors in their empirical analysis. When the U.S. term premium fell, there was a rise in international lending as banks sought higher returns. The U.S. real interest rate had a positive coefficient, which the authors saw as a sign that global banks lent less when there were favorable domestic conditions. The authors then introduced the same variables for the three other financial centers, and found that term premiums from the U.K. and the Eurozone have the same effect on cross border bank lending as did the U.S. measure. The Japanese term premium, on the other hand, had a positive coefficient, which may reflect the record of Japan’s interest rate.
When cross-border claims were broken out by lending to Asian and the Western Hemisphere countries, the TED spreads for British and European banks were significant determinants for lending to both areas. The U.S. term premium was the only term premium variable with explanatory power in lending to bank and non-banks in the two regions. The authors interpret these results as an indication that the global financial cycle is driven in part by U.S. monetary policy and British and European bank conditions. The authors also find that a borrower country can reduce its exposure to global liquidity drivers through flexible exchange rates, capital controls and stringent bank supervision.
The latest Annual Report of the Bank for International Settlements (BIS) also looks at financial flows across borders in its chapter on the international monetary and financial system. The authors of the chapter detail the growth in dollar- and euro-denominated credit through bank loans and debt securities, which can go to domestic residents in the U.S. or Eurozone, or non-residents. They point out that while U.S. households, corporations and its government account for 80% of global non-financial dollar debt at the end of 2014, the remaining one-fifth—about $9.5 trillion—of dollar credit was held outside the U.S.
These loans and securities have been growing rapidly since the global financial crisis. In particular, non-U.S. borrowers issued $1.8 trillion in bonds between 2009 and 2014. The authors of this chapter of the BIS Report attribute this growth to low lending rates and the reduction of the term premium for U.S. Treasury securities, which reflects the large scale purchase of these securities by the Federal Reserve in its Quantitative Easing (QE) programs. The European Central Bank’s bond purchases and the resulting compression of term premiums on euro-denominated bonds may lead to a similar phenomenon.
Changes in U.S. monetary policy, therefore, will influence global financial flows in both bank lending and bond issuance. If the end of QE results in higher term premiums in the U.S. as the rates on long-term securities rise, then cross-border flows could be negatively impacted. A rise in the Federal Fund Rate, on the other hand, could initially decrease the term premia, although other interest rates would likely follow. These changes take place, moreover, while the Eurozone and Japan are moving in opposite directions, which may intensify their effect. Mark Carney, Governor of the Bank of England, warned last January that the resiliency of the financial system will be tested by Federal Reserve tightening. Once again, policymakers may be forced to respond to fast-breaking developments as they occur. But this time they may not have as much flexibility to maneuver as they need. We may not know the consequences for financial stability until it is too late to avoid them.
No matter what new twist the Greek debt crisis takes, there can be no question that it has been a catastrophe for that country and for the entire Eurozone. The Greek economy contracted by over a quarter during the period of 2007 to 2013, the largest decline of any advanced economy since 1950. The Greek unemployment rate last year was 26.5%, and its youth unemployment rate of 52.4% was matched only by Spain’s. But who is responsible for these conditions depends very much on which perspective you take.
From a macroeconomic viewpoint, the Greek saga is one of austere budget polices imposed on the Greek government by the “troika” of the International Monetary Fund, the European Commission and the European Central Bank in an attempt to collect payment on the government’s debt. The first program, enacted in 2010 in response to Greece’s escalating budget deficits, called for fiscal consolidation to be achieved through cuts in government spending and higher taxes. The improvement in the primary budget position (which excludes interest payments) between 2010-11 was 8% of GDP, above its target. But real GDP, which was expected to drop between 2009 and 2012 by 5.5%, actually declined by 17%. The debt/GDP level, which was supposed to fall to about 155% by 2013, actually rose to 170% because of the severity of the contraction in output. The IMF subsequently published a report criticizing its participation in the 2010 program, including overly optimistic macroeconomic assumptions.
To address the continuing rise in the debt ratio, a new adjustment program was inaugurated in 2012, which included a writedown of Greek debt by 75%. Further cuts in public spending were to be made, as well as improvements in tax collection. But economic conditions continued to deteriorate, which hindered the country’s ability to meet the fiscal goals. The Greek economy began to expand in 2014, and registered growth for the year of 0.8%. The public’s disenchantment with the country’s economic and political status, however, turned it against the usual ruling parties. The left-wing Syriza party took the lead position in the parliamentary elections held this past January, and the new Prime Minister, Alexis Tsipras, pledged to undo the policies of the troika. He and Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis have been negotiating with the IMF, the ECB and the other member governments of the Eurozone in an attempt to obtain more debt reduction in return for implementing new adjustment measures.
The macroeconomic record, therefore, seems to support the position of those who view the Greek situation as one of imposed austerity to force payment of debt incurred in the past. Because of the continuing declines in GDP, the improvement in the debt/GDP ratio has remained an elusive (if not unattainable) goal. (For detailed comments on the impact of the macroeconomic policies undertaken in the 2010 and 2012 programs see Krugman here and Wren-Lewis here.)
Another perspective, however, brings an additional dimension to the analysis. From a public finance point of view, the successive Greek governments have been unable and/or unwilling to deal with budget positions—and in particular expenditures through the pension system—that are unsustainable. Pension expenditures as a proportion of GDP have been relatively high when compared to other European countries, and under the pre-2010 system were projected to reach almost 25% of GDP by 2050. Workers were able to receive full benefits after 35 years of contributions, rather than 40 as in most other countries. Those in “strenuous occupations,” which were broadly defined, could retire after 25 years with full benefits. The amount that a retiree received was based on the last year of salary rather than career earnings, and there were extra monthly payments at Christmas and Easter. The administration of the system, split among over 100 agencies, was a bureaucratic nightmare.
Much of this has been changed. The minimum retirement age has been raised, the number of years needed for full benefits is now 40, and the calculation of benefits changed so as to be less generous. But some fear that the changes have not been sufficient, particularly if older workers are “sheltered” from the changes.
Moreover, government pensions are important to a wide number of people. The old-age dependency ratio is around 30%, one of the highest in Europe. The contraction in the Greek economy means that the pension is sometimes the sole income payment received by a family. It is hardly surprising, therefore, that the pension system is seen as a “red line” which can not be crossed any further in Greece.
The challenge, therefore, is for the government to establish its finances on a sound footing without further damaging the fragile economy. This will call for some compromises on both sides. The IMF’s Olivier Blanchard has called for the Greek government “to offer truly credible measures“ to attain the targets for the budget, while showing its commitment to a limited set of reforms, particularly with pensions. But he also asks the European creditors to offer debt relief, either through rescheduling or a further “haircut.” Other proposals have been made (see here) that also attempt to satisfy the need to restructure the government’s finances while offering the Greek people a way to escape their suffering. There may be a strategy that allows Greece to reestablish itself on a new financial footing. But if the European governments insist that Greece must also pay back all its outstanding debt, then there is only one possible ending for this saga, and it will not be a happy one.
I will be traveling this week to the European Economics and Finance Society Annual Conference, which takes place on Friday, June 12 and Saturday, June 13 at the Center for European Policy Studies in Brussels. There will be many interesting papers, and you can find the program here:
I would be happy to meet any readers of “Capital Ebbs and Flows.” However, you should check the schedule at the conference if you come, as there have been a few changes. The original schedule lists me as speaking during the 10:30 – 12:15 time slot in Room D at the session on “Monetary Unions.” I actually will be presenting a paper at that same time at the session in Room B on “Net Foreign Asset Positions and Portfolio Flows.”