LIMITS TO THE SCOPE FOR POLICY MANOUEVRE
Following the Fed and the Bank of England, the ECB has become the latest central bank to adopt QT (quantitative tightening) and to raise interest rates, though the ECB’s 0.5% hike still leaves its deposit rate at zero. The ECB has also unveiled a mechanism – the Transmission Protection Instrument, or TPI – designed to ward off sovereign debt crises in some of the bloc’s weaker economies.
The details of these developments are set out very well in this Wolf Street article. The aim here is to discuss what policy actions – if any – make sense for the central banks.
Raising rates – and, by extension, putting prior QE into reverse – are straight out of the standard play-book for combatting inflation. It’s noticeable that central bankers are moving pretty slowly along this orthodox path, with each much-delayed rate rise far more than negated by the next surge in inflation.
But should they be tightening monetary policy at all?
The wrong response?
Some observers contend that raising rates isn’t the appropriate response under current conditions.
The argument runs that inflation isn’t being driven by internal demand excess, but by external factors over which the monetary authorities have no control. Rate rises in America won’t increase the supply of food to world markets, this argument runs, and QT in the Euro Area won’t ease shortages of oil and natural gas.
The argument against tightening monetary policy can be made either optimistically or pessimistically.
The optimistic line is that action isn’t needed, because the inflationary spike isn’t fundamental, but the product of happenstance. Given sufficient patience – and sufficiently accommodative monetary and fiscal policies – supply-lines ruptured by the pandemic will return to normality, as will the flow of energy, once the war in Ukraine reaches some kind of conclusion.
To the pessimist, the whole situation is hopeless anyway, so there’s no point in pulling forward the unavoidable crisis, or piling on the economic pain, when orthodox tightening policies cannot work.
Getting it half-right?
The view taken here is that central banks are right to pursue monetary tightening, though they might also be right in doing this fairly slowly.
Three lines of argument support this view.
First, inflation may have started with external factors, but could all too easily turn into an internal wage-and-price spiral. This kind of spiral is exactly what happened in the 1970s, even though the initial inflationary impetus came from events – the oil crises – outside the control of domestic monetary authorities.
To be sure, organised labour doesn’t have the clout that it had back then, and labour shortages aren’t likely to prove lasting. But the upwards pressure on wages remains, propelled by the need to ensure that employees can at least ‘make ends meet’.
Second, this is a matter of degree.
Ever since ZIRP, NIRP and QE were adopted – as avowedly “temporary” and “emergency” expedients – in response to the GFC, nominal rates have been, almost always, below the rate of inflation.
But real rates, though negative, haven’t been deeply so. There’s a world of difference between rates that are negative to the tune of -2% or -3% and allowing them to fall to -8% or -10%, which could all too easily happen if central bankers don’t respond.
Negative real rates are anomalous, and harmful, and the damage is proportionate to the extent of negativity. Setting the cost of money below the rate of inflation invites debt escalation, which in turn leads to instability, such that deeply negative rates can be expected to lead to a full-blown crisis.
The market economy requires that investors earn positive returns on their capital, so an absence of these returns translates an ostensibly capitalist system into a dysfunctional hybrid. Letting real rates fall to extreme lows can only make this worse.
No good choices
Underpinning the view set out here, of course, is the understanding that prior growth in prosperity has gone into reverse because the energy equation that determines prosperity has turned against us.
This equation involves the supply of energy, its value and its cost, the latter measured, not financially, but as the proportionate Energy Cost of Energy.
Mainly because of the depletion of low-cost resources, the ECoEs of oil, gas and coal have risen relentlessly, pushing the overall ECoE of the system to levels far beyond those at which stability, let alone further economic expansion, remain possible.
You might believe that the ‘fix’ for the ECoE problem lies in transition to renewable energy sources. Even if you do believe that this is possible, though, it’s clear that it can’t happen now. The contrary point of view is that renewables can’t provide a like-for-like replacement for the energy value hitherto provided by fossil fuels.
Either way, inflation is one symptom of a divergence between the ‘real’ or material economy of goods, services and energy and the ‘financial’ or proxy economy of monetary claims on the real economy.
The further these two economies diverge, the greater the pressures become for the restoration of equilibrium between them.
The following charts summarize this dynamic. As ECoEs have risen, surplus (ex-cost) energy has contracted, and this effect is now carrying over into a decreasing total supply of energy as well.
The mistaken idea that we can boost material prosperity by stimulating financial demand has driven an ever more dangerous wedge between the financial or claims economy of money and credit and the underlying real economy of energy value.
The Fed – a shift in priorities
The third factor which helps justify conventional monetary responses to inflation is that each monetary area has its own idiosyncrasies and, where the Fed, the Bank of England and the ECB are concerned, these idiosyncrasies support the case for orthodoxy.
The Fed has, in some ways, the easier task of the three. Hitherto, rates have been kept ultra-low in the US in order to prop up and boost capital markets. Former president Donald Trump was wont to say that a high stock market was, ipso facto, indicative of a strong America. Mr Biden hasn’t repeated this nonsense – he can’t, whilst markets are correcting – but what’s really changed isn’t politics, but the context of intentions.
At times of low inflation, what monied elites fear most is a slump in asset prices. Once inflation takes off, however, this ‘elite priority’ shifts. A billionaire has a billion reasons for not wanting the purchasing power of the currency to be trashed.
This is why rate rises and QT aren’t taking America back to the “taper tantrums” of the past. The Fed might also hope that a commitment – albeit a much-delayed one – to the inflationary part of its mandate might help restore some public trust in the institution.
Britain – staving off the day
BoE priorities are different. For a start, the British fixation is with property prices rather than the stock market. Whilst the stock market “wealth effect” is an adjunct to the American economy, inflated property prices play a central role in supporting the illusion of prosperity in the United Kingdom.
The harsh reality is that the British economy is a basket-case. America might want stock market appreciation, but can get by without it. Britain needs property price inflation to keep the ship afloat.
The British economy depends on continuous credit expansion to produce the transactional activity, measured as GDP, which supports a simulacrum of ‘business as usual’. Inflated property prices play a critical role, providing both the collateral support and the consumer confidence required if credit expansion is to continue.
Fundamentally, Britain lives beyond its means, resulting in an intractable trade deficit. For a long time, this was bridged, at least in part, by income from exports of North Sea oil and gas. Once Britain became a net energy importer again, the emphasis switched with renewed force to asset sales.
Ultimately, though, this makes a bad situation worse, because each asset sale sets up a new outward flow of returns on overseas’ investors capital. These outflows are part of the broader current account deficit, which is dangerously high, and has become structural.
Former Bank chief Mark Carney warned about dependency on “the kindness of strangers”, but no realistic alternatives exist. Asset divestment – muddling through by “selling off the family silver” – is, by definition, a time-limited process.
The nightmare that must haunt the slumbers of British officials is a “Sterling crisis”. If the value of GBP were to slump, inflation would soar, vital imports could become unaffordable, and the local cost, not just of foreign currency debt but of servicing that debt as well, could soon become unsustainable.
Put simply, the BoE needs to show FX markets some resolve, even if that comes at the cost of some domestic economic pain. The Bank undoubtedly knows about – as some politicians seemingly do not – the price that could become payable for fiscal and monetary recklessness, if that recklessness were to trigger a currency crisis.
It’s a point seldom mentioned that, if a future leadership were to enact irresponsible tax cuts, the Bank might, as a compensatory measure, have no choice but to raise rates more briskly than would otherwise have been the case.
Some in Britain have dreamed, unrealistically, of turning the country into ‘Singapore on Thames’. The real and present danger is of turning into ‘Sri Lanka on Thames’, where a weak currency makes vital imports prohibitively expensive.
The prevention of a currency crisis has to be the overriding priority of responsible decision-makers. The balance of risk – no less than the balance of pain – has to be tied to the demonstration of sufficient resolve to stave off any such crisis.
The ECB’s camel
A camel was once described as “a horse designed by a committee”. A similar phrase could aptly describe the Euro system, created as a political ideal, and built on the most dubious of economic presumptions.
To work effectively, monetary policy needs to be aligned with fiscal policy. The Euro system doesn’t do this, but tries instead to combine a single monetary policy with 19 sovereign budget processes.
One of the consequences of fiscal balkanization is an absence of the ‘automatic stabilizers’ which operate in currency zones where the monetary and the fiscal are aligned.
If, for instance, Northern England was suffering a recession, whilst Southern England was prospering, less tax would be collected in the North, and more benefits would be paid there by central government, with the opposite happening in the South. Money would therefore flow, automatically, from South to North.
Critically, such regional transfers within the same currency zone are automatic, do not need to be enacted by government, and certainly do not depend on agreements between the differently-circumstanced regions.
By contrast, transferring money from, say, Germany to Greece isn’t automatic in this way, but depends on political negotiation, which is likely to be fractious, even at the best of times – which these times, of course, are not.
To be sure, Scotland and Wales have independent budgetary powers, as do American States. But there are, in both cases, over-arching sovereign budgets, set in London and Washington, which set the overall parameters. No such overarching budget exists in the Euro Area.
There are parallel problems in the Target2 clearing system. If a customer in Madrid buys a car made in Wolfsburg, Euros have to flow between countries, being debited in Spain and credited in Germany. But there are severe imbalances within the Euro clearing system.
As of May, Germany was a creditor of Target2 to the tune of €1.16 trillion, whilst Italy owed the system €597bn, and Spain €526bn. The official line is that this doesn’t really matter very much, but it’s hard to see how Germany can ever collect the sums owed to the country, via the system, by Italy and Spain.
One might argue that Target2 gives poorer EA nations rolling credit to fund imports from Germany.
The danger with a ‘one size fits all’ monetary policy, when applied in the context of a multiplicity of sovereign budgets, is that national bond yields can diverge, because each country, being responsible for its own budget, borrows individually on the markets.
Italy is a case in point. Prior to the formation of the Euro, Italy had a history of gradual devaluation of the Lira. Whilst this made Italians poorer in relative terms, it protected both employment and the competitiveness of Italian industry.
Once Italy joined the Euro at the end of 1998, this ceased to be possible.
This, in large part, is why Italian debt has increased, as the authorities have endeavoured to find other ways to deliver the support that would previously have been provided by gradual devaluation. This could, and does, make markets worry about Italian debt, putting upwards pressure on Italian bond yields.
If these yields were to blow out, Italy would encounter grave difficulties, not just in financing its fiscal deficits, but in maintaining the continuity of credit to the economy itself.
The ECB, in a rather belated effort to counter inflation, is committed to raising rates, and to letting its asset holdings unwind. This, though, could cause problems which culminate in drastically dangerous rises in bond yields in member countries such as Greece, Italy and Spain.
TPI – which the ECB must devoutly hope will never have to be put into effect – is designed to counter this process by varying the composition of QT. If rates spike in, say, Italy, the ECB could buy Italian bonds, simultaneously increasing its sales of German or Dutch bonds within the overall composition of QT.
This, though, presupposes that the Euro Area has “strong” as well as “weak” economies, a point that is now debateable.
The ultimate ‘strong economy’ in the EA has always been Germany, but the energy squeeze is putting that strength to the test. Moreover, much of Germany’s economic prowess is the trade advantage that the single currency confers on it. France has a moribund economy and elevated levels of debt, whilst Dutch financial exposure is uncomfortably high, with financial assets standing at 14.5X GDP as of the end of 2020, the most recent reporting date.
In the final analysis
Ultimately, the challenge facing the ECB – and other central banks too – is to prevent two things from happening.
The first and most obvious is to guard against inflation taking on its own momentum, which could easily happen in a climate of apparent official indifference or resignation.
But the second is to ensure that the damage – and the crisis-risk – caused by a negative real cost of capital does not escalate, as it could if central banks allow real rates to slump into lethally deep negative territory .