Thursday, April 25, 2013

25/4/2013: IMF's 'End of Austerity' Napkin Sketch Is Soggy Wet

IMF catches up with 'End Austerity' bandwagon and overtakes the EU 'policymakers' in providing a general blueprint. From today's comments by IMF First Deputy Managing Director David Lipton (emphasis is mine):

"...Europe needs to act on several fronts. Countries will need to have clear and specific commitments to medium-term fiscal consolidation, with the appropriate pace to be evaluated on a case-by-case basis. Careful consideration should also be given to the composition of fiscal measures. The European Central Bank (ECB) should maintain its very accommodative stance, he said, but noted that eliminating financial fragmentation – whereby households and companies in some countries face clogged credit channels and lending rates well above those in the core – will probably require the ECB to implement some “additional unconventional measures.”

So the Fiscal Compact of 'One Policy Target & Timeframe Fit All' is out of the window then? If timeframe (pace) were to be set on a case-by-case basis, there is hardly any real discipline left. Here's why. Suppose Italy takes slower path to deflating debt levels to the target of 60% than that mandated by the Fiscal Compact (FC) (5% adjustment per annum). France, then, can demand either a slower pace for its drawdown of debt or it can opt to demand slower reductions in deficits. Which means Spain will also have its list of requests ready, all in breach of the FC.

"As we see it, countries that can afford to support the economy need to do so—but in ways that encourage the private sector to invest and boost demand..."

Ok, but what does it mean? AAA countries borrowing to stimulate? Suppose they succeed. What happens to growth rates and income levels in Euro area? Right - divergence will be amplified and with it, mismatch of monetary and FX policies too. 

Per paying attention to the composition of fiscal measures: it is a fine objective. Except in the case of European leaders, this means, usually, hiking taxes even more instead of cutting spending. IMF knows that this is counterproductive, but whilst correctly arguing that policies should be reflective of heterogeneity between member states' economies, IMF is incorrectly ignoring the political reality of Europe, where more spending = good, lower taxes = bad.

More: "Another country responsibility is better structural policies. Countries should press on to tackle long-standing rigidities in order to raise medium-term growth prospects. Southern Europe, and even some of the core, needs to increase its competitiveness in the tradeable goods sector, especially through labor and product market reforms. So far, much of the reduction in current account deficits has come because demand is sluggish.  For a stronger, sustained improvement -- enough to boost exports that will create jobs for the unemployed -- countries need a broader and more durable improvement in competitiveness, based on structural reform. In Northern Europe, even where national competitiveness is not the issue, reforms could help generate a more vibrant services sector."

Again, usual tool kit deployed by the IMF: structural reforms are needed (no real innovation as to what these might be) and exports must be increased (who will be buying these exports in the world where every country is being told by the IMF to increase its exports?).

I wonder why would Mr Lipton label ECB current stance as being accommodative. ECB interest rate is above G7 average and ECB's 'panacea' of OMT is yet to make any real purchases. ECB has attempted to sterilise all past 'accommodative' interventions and is now pleased with winding up LTROs. In brief, setting aside war-time rhetoric from the ECB, Frankfurt is accommodating very little.

One has to agree with the need to eliminate financial fragmentation, but IMF is fully aware that European system will have to continue deleveraging. There is too much debt in the pipeline to de-clog it by simply pushing through more credit at lower cost.

"...the Single Supervisory Mechanism [is] “a key step” and ...the IMF supports a market-based bail-in approach as being considered in the European Union Directive on Bank Recovery and Resolution, which would require banks to hold a minimum amount of securities with features that permit them to be written-off or converted to equity if capital buffers fall too low..."

So getting Cyprused is  the future for Europe, then.

Mr Lipton is dead on right, saying that "In our preoccupation with sovereign debt, we tend to overlook the huge overhang of private debt in some countries that could be a deadweight on demand and bank balance sheets for a long time. We’ve already seen the hit that households have taken in the periphery economies because of the sharp correction in home prices (e.g. Ireland). This could only worsen without renewed growth (e.g. Spain, Belgium and the Netherlands)." And more: "On the corporate side, we know how much the level of debt has increased over the past decade, particularly in the periphery. We elaborated on this development in our recent Global Financial Stability Report.  ...Measured on a debt-to-equity basis, a portion of Italy's corporate sector is rising into stressed levels. In the event of a prolonged stagnation, corporate profits would slacken further, putting pressure on companies to deleverage and increasing the risk of debt distress. Corporates are not being helped by bank retrenchment back into home markets. This is most pronounced from the periphery; French and German banks reduced their exposures to these markets by some 30-40 percent between mid 2011 and the third quarter of last year."

Conclusion (relevant to 'being Cyprused' above): "None of this bodes well for banks in a stagnation scenario. They are already weak. But higher levels of corporate and household defaults and credit losses would threaten a second round of bank balance sheet deterioration."

Net result: IMF has no new ideas on what to do if 'austerity' path were to be altered. There's a good reason as to why they don't - borrowing cash to burn it on Government spending (traditional European way) is out of question, given the risk of raising costs of borrowing, slow growth and higher interest bills that await. And using monetary policy to full extent is infeasible because IMF has no hope for ECB in its current state.

'Austerity' might be overdone, but 'Not Austerity' is unlikely to be any different...
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