Saturday, June 9, 2012

9/6/2012: Why IMF 'vision' on EA crisis is missing major points

An interesting speech given by the IMF Managing Director, Ms Christine Lagarde to the Annual Leaders’ Dialogue Hosted by Süddeutsche Zeitung last night. Here are some extensive exerts from it and my thoughts - sketched out, rather than focused - about her ideas.

Part 2 of the speech focused on the need for breaking the cycles of the crisis(that amplify risks to the economy, including global economy). Do note - coincidentally, the theme is exactly identical to my forthcoming Sunday Times article and to the research note currently awaiting legal clearance (both will be posted here early next week).

Per Ms Lagarde:
"One is an economic cycle. The feedback loop between weak sovereigns, weak banks and weak growth that continually undermine each other.

"...Another cycle on my mind: the political economy. It is a cycle that has become too familiar since the start of the crisis, like a movie we have watched one too many times. It looks something like this. Tensions escalate and, out of necessity, policymakers take action. But, just enough for the danger to subside. Then the urgency is lost, momentum wanes, and the policy discourse begins to fracture, too focused on their own backyards and not enough on the big picture. And so tensions start to rise again.
But, with the passing of each cycle, we reach a higher and higher level of uncertainty, and the stakes rise.

"In the case of Europe, the cycles are now threatening the very existence of the European project. We must break both of these cycles if we are to break the back of this crisis. And one cannot happen without the other."

So far, on the money, although Ms Lagarde seems to be unwilling to recognize that we also have a structural growth problem in Europe, a problem linked with the above cycles, but also independently grave enough to warrant concern.

To break these cycles, "...the policy debate needs to move beyond the false dichotomies of growth versus austerity, stability versus opportunity, national versus international interests. We need to agree on a comprehensive strategy that is good for stability and good for growth."

So, per Ms Lagarde, the core pillars of such a strategy are: "First, macroeconomic policies should help support the recovery and also tackle the underlying causes of the crisis.

  • Monetary policy should continue to be very supportive. Central banks, in particular the ECB, should further loosen monetary conditions, and remain ready to use unconventional tools to ease tensions and provide funding to address liquidity constraints. [In other words, Ms Lagarde is wisely going well beyond the rates policy alone. Good news, but no specifics.]
  • Public debt remains too high and countries need credible and ambitious roadmaps to bring it down over the medium term. For the most part, that adjustment should be gradual and steady, unless countries are forced by markets to move more aggressively—which is, of course, the case for several countries in the Eurozone. If growth becomes weaker than expected, countries should stick to announced fiscal measures, rather than announced fiscal targets—as economists say, they should let the automatic stabilizers to operate. [Basically: do austerity policies, but don't chase targets too much. Unless you have to. In which case... well, nothing really new. Just do something?]

"Second, more effective crisis management. This is very urgent and mainly an issue for the euro area. But, a broader element is the collective effort to reinforce the global financial safety net. In this context, I welcome the increase in the IMF’s resources by $430 billion." [A complete 'Fail' for Ms Lagarde here. Increasing 'global safety net' is hardly the only factor in carrying out effective crisis management. How about recognizing that all problems are inter-linked with each other, and thus effective crisis management should be not about creating another pot from which lending can occur to the sovereigns, but actually creating a system that can permanently and swiftly resolve the singular core pressure cause that might be specific for each country? E.g. for Ireland - a system that can address the banking sector debts loaded into the real economy, for Greece - a system that can write off a large portion of the country sovereign debt without restructuring it into new debt, and so on]

"Third, we need more determined progress on structural reforms. For example, labor market and product market reforms that can carry the torch of growth beyond the immediate support from macroeconomic policies.' [Again, Ms Lagarde is exceptionally weak on specifics, in part because structural reforms are country-specific, but in part despite the fact that structural reforms for the euro area must include some - e.g. markets structure changes, moving economy away from state-dominated management and investment etc.]

In part 3 of her speech, Ms Lagarde focused on financial sector reforms.

"Let me be clear: the heart of European bank repair lies in Europe. That means more Europe, not less. ... To break the vicious cycle of financial-sovereign risks, there simply must be more risk-sharing across borders in the banking system. ...In the near term, this should include a pan-euro area facility that has the capacity to take direct stakes in banks. Looking a little further ahead, monetary union needs to be supported by building a true financial union that includes unified supervision; a single bank resolution authority with a common backstop; and a single deposit insurance fund."

[Aside from the 'true financial union', the common deposits insurance system is exactly what I suggest as well, although my proposals go further to include a common resolution mechanism for banks insolvencies that is systemic, not debt-based, unlike Ms Lagarde's approach that will simply pool bad debts into a larger warehousing facility, other than national one. Sadly, the logic of failed banking resolution policies to-date escapes Ms Lagarde. Pooling bad debts into a pan-European system instead of current national systems is equivalent to suggesting that putting all sick and healthy patients in one ward will somehow prevent contagion.]

"Moves toward deeper fiscal integration should go hand-in-hand with these efforts. In particular, the area needs to take the further step of some form of fiscal risk-sharing. Options here include some form of common bonds or a debt redemption fund. This would allow for common support before economic dislocation in one country develops into a costly crisis for the entire euro area." [This is an extraordinary statement for IMF MD - as I show in my forthcoming Sunday Times article, pooling sovereign debt risks will mean euro area sovereign debt/GDP ratio in excess of 110% by 2014-2015. Where is Europe's capacity to raise such debts and where its economic capacity to finance such debts?]

"And, on the upside, breaking the shackles of the sovereign-financial nexus will allow financial institutions to deliver credit and, in turn, create growth and jobs." [This is a rather silly conclusion/ promise that resembles the Irish Government's promises that first a global systemic guarantee, then Nama, subsequently extensive recaps - all policies advocated in this speech by Ms Lagarde, albeit at EA-wide level, instead of national levels - will create a healthy banking system with ample funding and risk-taking capacity to lend into the economy. In Irish case - this clearly did not happen. Neither has it happened in Japan. Why increasing the scale and spread of the diseases - the insolvent banking system - to supernational level should do the opposite?]

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