Monthly Archives: March 2014

The IMF and Ukraine

The International Monetary Fund last week announced an agreement with Ukraine on a two year Stand-By Arrangement. The amount of money to be disbursed depends on how much other financial support the country will receive, but will be total at least $14 billion. Whether or not this IMF program will be fully implemented (unlike the last two) depends on the government’s response to both the economic crisis and the external threat that Russia poses. There is also the interesting display of the use of the IMF by the U.S., the largest shareholder, to pursue its international strategic goals even though the U.S. Congress will not approve reforms in the IMF’s quota system.

Ukraine’s track record with the IMF is not a good one. In November 2008 as the global financial crisis intensified, the IMF offered Ukraine an arrangement worth $16.4 billion. But only about a third of that amount was disbursed because of disagreements over fiscal policy.  Another program for $15.3 billion was approved in 2010, but less than a quarter of those funds were given to the country.

The recidivist behavior is the product of a lack of political commitment to the measures contained in the Letters of Intent signed by the government of Ukraine. Ukraine, like other former Soviet republics, was slow to move to a market system, and therefore lagged behind East European countries such as Poland and Romania in adopting new technology. Andrew Tiffin of the IMF attributed the country’s economic underachievement to a “market-unfriendly institutional base” that has allowed continued rent-seeking. Promises to enact reform measures have been made but not fulfilled.

Are the chances of success any better now? Peter Boone of the Centre for Economic Performance at the London School of Economics and Simon Johnson of MIT are not convinced that there has been a change in attitude within the Ukrainian government, despite the overthrow of President Viktor Yanukovych (see also here). Consequently, they write: “There is no point to bailing out Ukraine’s creditors and backstopping Ukrainian banks when the core problems persist: pervasive corruption, exacerbated by the ability to play Russia and the West against each other.”

Leszek Balcerowicz, a former deputy prime minister of Poland and former head of its central bank, is more optimistic about the country’s chances. The political movement that drove out Yankovich, he claims, is capable of promoting reform. Further aggression by Russia, however, will threaten whatever changes the Ukrainian people seek to undertake.

The “back story” to the IMF’s program for Ukraine has its own intramural squabbling. The U.S. Congress has not passed the legislation needed to change the IMF’s quotas so that voting power would shift from the Europeans to the emerging market nations. The changes would also put the the Fund’s ability to finance its lending programs on a more regular basis. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid sought to insert approval of the IMF-related measures within the bill to extend assistance to the Ukraine, but Republicans lawmakers refused to allow its inclusion. While U.S. politicians expect the organization to serve their political ends, they reject changes that would grant the IMF credibility with its members from the developing world.

The Economist has called the failure of Congress to support the IMF “shameful and self-defeating.” Similarly, Ted Truman of the Peterson Institute for International Economics warns that the U.S. is endangering its chances of obtaining support for Ukraine. The Europeans, of course, are delighted, as they will keep their place in the Fund’s power structure while the blame is shifted elsewhere. And the response of the emerging markets to another program for Ukraine, despite its dismal record, while they are refused a larger voice within the IMF? That will no doubt make for some interesting discussions at the Annual Spring Meetings of the IMF and the World Bank that begin on April 11.

Tapering and the Emerging Markets

The response of the exchange rates of emerging markets and their equity markets to the Federal Reserve’s “taper,” i.e., reduction in asset purchases, continues to draw comment (see, for example, here). Most analysts agree that these economies are in better shape to deal with capital outflows than they were in the past, and that the risk of another Asian-type crisis is relatively low. But that does not mean that their economies will react the way we expect.

Gavyn Davies of Fulcrum Asset Management, who has a blog at the Financial Times, has posted the transcript of a “debate” he organized with Maurice Obstfeld of UC-Berkeley, Alan M. Taylor of UC-Davis and Dominic Wilson, chief economist and co-head of Global Economics Research at Goldman Sachs, on the financial turbulence in the emerging markets. “Debate” is not the best word to describe the discussion, as there are many areas of agreement among the participants. Obstfeld points out that there are far fewer fixed exchange rate regimes in today’s emerging markets, and many of their monetary policymakers have adopted policy regimes of inflation targeting. Moreover, the accumulation of foreign exchange by the central banks leaves them in a much stronger position than they were in the 1990s. Taylor adds fiscal prudence and less public debt to the factors that make emerging markets much less risky.

But all the participants are concerned about the winding down of the credit booms that capital inflows fueled. Wilson worries about economies with current account deterioration, easy monetary policy, above-target inflation, weak linkages to the recovery in the developed markets and institutions of questionablestrength. He cites Turkey, India and Brazil as countries that meet these criteria. Similarly, Taylor lists countries with relatively rapid expansion in domestic credit over the 2002-2012 period, and Brazil and India appear vulnerable on these dimensions as well.

Another analysis of the determinants of international capital flows comes from Marcel Förster, Markus Jorra and Peter Tillmann of the University of Giessen. They estimate a dynamic hierarchical factor model of capital flows that distinguishes among a common global factor, a factor dependent on the type of capital inflow, a regional factor and a country-specific component. They report that the country component explains from 60 – 80% of the volatility in capital flows, and conclude that domestic policymakers have a large degree of influence over their economy’s response to capita flows.

But are “virtuous” policies always rewarded? Joshua Aizenman of the University of Southern California, Michael Hutchison of UC-Santa Cruz and Mahir Binici of the Central Bank of Turkey have a NBER paper that investigates the response in exchange rates, stock markets and credit default swap (CDS) spreads to announcements from Federal Reserve officials on tapering. They utilize daily data for 26 emerging markets during the period of November 27, 2012 to October 3, 2013. They looked at the response to statements from Federal Reserve Chair Ben Bernanke regarding tapering, as well as his comments about the continuation of quantitative easing. They also looked at the impact of statements from Federal Reserve Governors and Federal Reserve Bank Presidents on these topics, as well as official Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) statements.

Their results show that Bernanke’s comments on winding down asset purchases led to significant drops in stock markets and exchange rate depreciations, but had no significant impact on CDS spreads. There were no significant responses to statements from the other Fed officials. On the other hand, there were significant responses in exchange rates when Bernanke spoke about continuing quantitative easing, as well as to FOMC statements and announcements by the other policymakers.

The countries in the sample were then divided between those viewed as possessing “robust” fundamentals, with current account surpluses, large holdings of foreign exchange reserves and low debt, and those judged to be “fragile” due to their current account deficits, small reserve holdings and high debt. Bernanke’s tapering comments resulted in larger immediate depreciations in the countries with current account surpluses as oppose to those with deficits, more reserves and less debt.  Similarly, Bernanke’s statements led to increased CDS spreads in the countries with current account surpluses and large reserve holdings, while lowering equity prices in countries with low debt positions. The immediate impact of the news regarding tapering, therefore, seemed to be tilted against those with strong fundamentals.

The authors provide an explanation for their results: the robust countries had received larger financial flows previous to the perceived turnaround in Fed policy, and therefore were more vulnerable to the impact of tapering. Moreover, as the change in the Federal Reserve’s policy stance was assimilated over time, the exchange rates of the fragile nations responded, and by the end of the year had depreciated more than those of the more robust economies. Similarly, their CDS spreads rose more. By the end of 2013, Brazil, India, Indonesia, South Africa and Turkey had been identified as the “Fragile Five.”

What do these results tell us about the impact on emerging markets from future developments in the U.S. or other advanced economies? There may be a graduated response, as the relative standings of those nations that have attracted the most capital are reassessed. However, if capital outflows continue and are seen as including more than “hot money,” then the economic fundamentals of the emerging markets come to the fore. But financial markets follow their own logic and timing, and can defy attempts to foretell their next twists and turns.

Too Much of a Good Thing?

Global banks do not have much to cheer about these days. Earnings are falling, and the banks are responding by cutting jobs. The Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation has charged 16 banks of colluding to rig the London Interbank Offer rate (LIBOR). And the Federal Reserve has approved a rule that requires foreign banks with $50 billion of assets in the U.S. to establish holding companies for their American units that meet the same capital adequacy standards as do their U.S. peers. The latter move has been interpreted as a sign of the fragmentation of global finance that will hinder the global allocation of credit.

The Federal Reserve supported the foreign banks in the fall of 2008 when the it lent to distressed institutions. The U.S. units of European banks accounted for $538 billion of the Federal Reserve’s emergency loans, over half of the total. Federal Reserve Chair Ben Bernanke had to answer criticism from U.S. lawmakers that the loans did not benefit U.S. taxpayers. At the same time, the Federal Reserve was establishing swap lines with central banks in 14 countries. The dollars those monetary authorities acquired were used to prop up their banks that needed to finance their holding of U.S. debt.

Banks have various ways to meet the new capital adequacy standards. They can hold back on dividend payouts from their earnings, although that may not be popular with their stockholders. They can raise funds in the capital markets. And some banks, such as Deutsche Bank, will shrink their balance sheets in order to comply with the regulations. This has led to fears of cutbacks in lending.

The announcement of the new standard came as the Bank of International Settlements (BIS) was publishing its quarterly report on the international banking markets. The BIS data showed that the cross-border claims of BIS reporting banks fell by $500 billion in the their quarter of 2013, the biggest contraction since the second quarter of 2012. Most of this decline occurred in Europe, as lending between parents banks and their subsidiaries in the Eurozone and the United Kingdom declined.

Would a contraction in bank credit have negative consequences? It certainly will for those firms in Europe that are unable to obtain credit. But there are also grounds for believing that a reduction in banking activity may under some circumstances be advantageous for an economy. The same issue of the BIS Quarterly Review that reported the international banking data also carried an article by BIS economists Leonardo Gambacorta, Jung Yang and Kostas Tsataronis. They compared the impact of bank and capital market activity on economic growth, and found that increases in both contributed to higher growth, but only up to threshold levels of GDP. After those thresholds are reached, further expansion in banking or capital markets had negative impacts on growth. Similar results have been reported by Jean-Louis Arcand, Enrico Berkes and Ugo Panizza of the IMF, Stephen G. Cecchetti and Enisse Kharroubi also at the BIS, and Sioong Hook Law of Universiti Putra Malaysia and Nirvikar Sinth of UC-Santa Cruz in the Journal of Banking & Finance (working paper version here).

These studies deal with the domestic impacts of financial activity. How about bank lending across borders? The record there also demonstrates that bank lending can have adverse consequences. Martin Feldkircher of Oesterreichische Nationalbank (the National Bank of Austria) has a paper in the Journal of International Money and Finance (working paper version here) that examines the determinants of the severity of the global financial crisis in 63 countries, using 97 candidate variables. He reports that the change in domestic credit provided by the banking sector is a robust determinant of crisis severity. When he further investigated by interacting the bank credit variable with measures of risk, including macro, external, fiscal, financial and contagion and spillover risk, he found that the interaction of bank credit with foreign claims from banks in advanced countries robustly explained crisis severity. He concludes: “Countries with high credit growth and considerable exposure to external funding saw their economies more severely affected during times of financial distress.”

There is a line between financing new economic activities and bankrolling speculation. The former promotes welfare, the latter ends in volatility and distress. Unfortunately, that line shifts as new opportunities appear. Trying to find it is a constant challenge for regulators.

Riding the Waves

The volatility in emerging markets has abated a bit, but may resume in the fallout of the Russian takeover of the Crimea. The capital outflows and currency depreciations experienced in some emerging market nations have been attributed to their choice of policies. But their economic situations reflect the domestic impact of capital inflows as well as their macroeconomic policies.

 Fernanda Nechio of the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco, for example, shows that exchange rate depreciations of emerging markets are linked to their fiscal and current account balances, with larger depreciations occurring in those countries such as Brazil and India with deficits in both balances. Kristin Forbes of MIT’s Sloan School also draws attention to the connection between the extent of the currency depreciations and the corresponding current account deficits. Nechio and Forbes both advise policymakers in emerging markets to make sound policy choices to avoid further volatility.

Good advice! But Stijn Claessens of the IMF and Swati Ghosh of the World Bank have pointed out in the World Bank’s Dealing with the Challenges of Macro Financial Linkages in Emerging Markets that capital flows can exacerbate prevailing economic trends. Relatively large capital inflows to emerging markets (“surges”) tend to take the form of bank and portfolio debt, which contribute to increased domestic bank lending and domestic credit. Claessens and Ghosh write (p.108) that “…large inflows in net terms are the financial counterpart to the savings and investment decisions in the country and affect the exchange rate, inflation, and current account positions.” They also endanger the stability of the financial system as bank balance sheets expand and lending standards deteriorate. These financial flows contribute to increases in asset prices and further credit extension until some domestic or foreign shock leads to an economic and financial downturn.

Are the authorities helpless to do anything? Claessens and Ghosh list policies that may reduce macro vulnerability, which include exchange rate appreciation, monetary and fiscal policy tightening, and the use of capital controls. They also mention, as do the authors of the other chapters of the World Bank volume, the use of macro prudential policies (MaPPs) aimed at financial institutions and borrowers. But they admit that the evidence on the effectiveness of the MaPPs is limited.

Moreover, the macroeconomic policies they enumerate may not be sufficient to deal with the impact of capital inflows. Tightening monetary policy can draw more foreign capital. Fiscal policy is not a nimble policy lever, and usually operates with a lag

What about the use of flexible exchange rates as a buffer against foreign shocks? Emerging market policymakers have been reluctant to fully embrace flexible rates. More importantly, as pointed out here, it is not clear that flexible rates provide the protection that the theory of the “trilemma” suggests it does. Hélène Rey of the London Business School claimed last summer that there fluctuating exchange rates cannot insulate economics from global financial cycles in capital flows and credit growth. Macroprudential measures such as higher leverage ratios are needed, and the use of capital controls should be considered.

Last week we learned that capital flows to developing countries fell in February, with syndicated bank lending falling to its lowest level since 2005. This was followed by the news that domestic credit growth is falling in many emerging markets, including Brazil and Indonesia. The ensuing changes in fundamentals in these countries may or may not alleviate further depreciation pressures. But they will reflect the procyclical linkage of capital flows and domestic credit growth as much as wise policy choices. And there is no guarantee that the reversals will not overshoot and bring about a new set of troubles. The waves of capital can be as tricky to ride as are ocean waves.

High Road, Low Road

Among the many thorny issues that would arise if Scotland were be become an independent nation is the question of its choice of a currency. The first minister of Scotland claims that an independent Scotland would continue to use the pound. But Mark Carney, the governor of the Bank of England, has raised several caveats and stipulations—including limitations on fiscal autonomy—that would be required if a currency union were to be formed. Moreover, British elected officials have thrown cold water on the idea. And that could be a problem for an independent Scotland, as there is no obvious good alternative.

Scotland could unilaterally decide to continue using the pound, just as Panama and Ecuador use the U.S. dollar. But dependence on the United Kingdom for its money is not fully compatible with political independence. Nor is it congruent with the international status that the new country would undoubtedly seek.

How about adopting the euro? Scotland would join the current 18 members of the Eurozone, and would have to hope that it did not suffer from any Scotland-specific shocks. Optimal currency theory spells out the alternative mechanisms a country needs to address an asymmetric shock: mobile labor, flexible prices and wages, and/or a fiscal authority that can direct funds to the area facing the shock. The sight of Irish, Spanish, etc., workers leaving their respective homelands in search of work outside of Europe has hardly been reassuring to prospective members. The Baltic states have shown that prices and wages will fall in response to a policy of austerity, but the economic cost is severe. And no Scottish government would survive the harsh policy conditions attached to the financial assistance extended to Greece, Ireland and Portugal by their European partners and the IMF. Joining the Eurozone at this stage of its existence would not be consistent with Scottish canniness.

If Scotland can not—or will not—join an existing monetary union on terms it deems acceptable, should its create its own currency? The prospect of a Scottish currency has drawn a fair amount of comment: see, for example, here and here and hereA study by Angus Armstrong and Monique Ebell of the National Institute of Economics and Social Research makes the point that the viability of an independent currency for the country would depend on the amount of sovereign debt the new government would have to take on after a breakup witht the United Kingdom versus its anticipated oil revenues. Standard & Poor’s issued a nuanced assessment of how it would rate Scotland’s debt that noted the country’s economic wealth, which is largely based on oil and gas. But the report also raised concerns about the viability of Scotland’s financial sector in the absence of a reputable lender of last resort.

If an independent Scotland issued its own currency, it would be joining other north European countries that either do not belong to the European Union (Iceland, Norway) or have not adopted the euro (Denmark, Sweden). These countries have certainly suffered bouts of volatility and instability (particularly Iceland), but have not fared any worse than many members of the Eurozone. Their decision not to enter the Eurozone itself is interesting and worth further analysis.

But none of them is as deeply tied to another single country as Scotland is to the United Kingdom. Disentangling those ties for the purpose of establishing national autonomy would be difficult and most likely costly. Proclaiming monetary independence, therefore, would be a policy action that makes limited sense in economic terms but carries a great deal of nationalistic baggage. And those types of ventures do not usually end well.