Saturday, February 16, 2013

16/2/2013: Minister Noonan Talks International Finance, briefly


This week, Calgary Herald reported some fascinating remarks made by Irish Minister for Finance, Michael Noonan at the EU Finance Ministers meeting. Quoting from the paper (full link here), with mine emphasis added:

"Arriving Tuesday for a meeting of the 27 EU finance ministers, Irish Finance Minister Michael Noonan said: "I think all this debate about the relative value of currencies is going to be an issue at the G-20 but we're coming through a period where the concern was the volatility of the euro". "It's a bit soon to argue that it's too strong." Noonan said he wouldn't support any proposals that the ECB should intervene in the markets to get the value of the euro down."

This statement bound to raise eyebrows of anyone even remotely familiar with economics and / or international finance.

Minister Noonan - in charge of the Finance portfolio in a Euro area country - seemingly has trouble formulating exactly what the Euro crisis is / was about. Volatility of the euro he cites was never a problem during the crisis. In fact, in major exchange pairs, Euro has not been the driver of the volatility, but the subject to periodically, short-term elevated volatility induced by the changes in policies and fundamentals in non-Euro area countries. And volatility of the EUR relative to any other major currency was actually lower than for exchange rates ex-EUR.

The confusion in his mind seems to arise from the lack of basic grasp of the currency markets.

  1. Minister Noonan seems to have no idea that "volatility of the Euro" as a phrase is fundamentally imprecise. Euro (and any other currency) can be volatile only in terms of a bilateral (or in more complicated setting - triangular) exchange rate. He mentions no such pairs. We can talk about EUR/USD exchange rate volatility, or EUR/JPY volatility, etc, but not about 'Euro volatility' in pure terms, unless we want to say that EUR is the driver of volatility in the bilateral exchange rates vis-a-vis all major currencies.
  2. Minister Noonan seems to be confusing 'volatility' (definable by a number of statistically objective metrics) and 'uncertainty' (definable only imperfectly by a risk transform approximation). This is more than an innocent failure to understand philosophical differences between risk and uncertainty. By confusing 'volatility' for 'uncertainty', Minister Noonan anchors his analysis of potential and preferred solutions to the crisis solely to policies that can reduce volatility of the exchange rate. By this metric, the crisis was not even worth a footnote in a newspaper.
But then comes a logical step that defies any comprehension. Having stated that the crisis was 'volatility of the Euro', Minister Noonan goes on to say that he opposes ECB intervention to alter the value of the euro. Surely, intervention would be consistent with policy management to reduce the exchange rate volatility that Minister Noonan is so concerned about?

Let's set aside the apparent lack of logic in the statements above. And let's focus on Minister Noonan's longer-term position vis-a-vis the Euro. 

Minister Noonan and his Government have actively pursued policies of extending Irish Government debt maturity. The latest instalment of this strategy was the 'deal' on the IBRC Promissory Notes. In other words, Irish Government entire economic policy (with exception of 'exports-led recovery') can be summed up as a hope for future inflation wiping out real value of Irish Government debt. Forget the fact that such an outcome will destroy the other side of our economy where debt overhang is also present: the households (higher inflation = higher interest rates = higher burden of debt). But what on earth is Minister Noonan doing talking against his own Government policy?

This bizarre combination of 'swinging' focus in policy goes deeper. Irish Government second (and last) pillar for economic policy - other than inflation - is 'exports-led recovery'. 2010-2012 data on Irish exports shows rapidly contracting rate of growth in exports. Monthly and quarterly data show even more reasons for concern. Foreign demand weaknesses and structural issues in the Irish exporting sectors are clearly major drivers. But higher valuation of the Euro are not helping. Yet, Minister Noonan is concerned with preventing devaluation!

Should Enda, perhaps have a chat with Minister Noonan, rather than send troops out after his party backbenchers whenever they are slightly critical about the Government position? Afterall, in the above few words, Minister Noonan has managed to mis-state the source of the Euro problem, derive an implicit but deeply flawed policy conclusion out of this mis-statement, and contradict his Government's two cornerstone policies. 

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