Thursday, October 9, 2014

9/10/2014: IMF Lagarde: We Are Out of Ideas, You Are Out of Convictions

In several recent posts, I have highlighted the fact that the IMF - that stalwart of global 'structural' reforms - has now effectively exhausted its toolkit of ideas as to how we can get global growth back on track. And the governments around the advanced economies world are now equally out of conviction to deploy the IMF's old toolkit.

This is evident across the board: from the Fund latest World Economic Outlook update which keeps endlessly banging on about the need for

  • Accommodative monetary policies and, simultaneously, de-risking of the financial economy (the two tasks that actually contradict each other, as IMF own GFSR report admits);
  • Structural markets reforms (which in the IMFspeak means preciously little more than more reforms of the labour markets, or in distilled terms: more 'activation' efforts to bring the unemployed to still inexistent jobs and push welfare recipients off the dole into still inexistent jobs);
  • Credit supply restoration in the economy amidst continued banks deleveraging (which basically means that the banks need to get rid of old - presumably bad risk - loans while increasing their stock of new - presumably better risk - loans);
  • Creation of better, more robust risk management frameworks in banking while increasing banking sector concentration (the outcome of the deleveraging process) and increasing risks concentrations by creating more centralised controls and supervision (e.g. the European Banking Union); and so on.

All of the above 'reforms' are clearly self-contradictory in so far as achieving one side of the objective implies undermining the other side.

And with today's release, we have a veritable Map to the Middle-Earth from the Fund's own Christine Lagarde. In today's "The Managing Director's Global Policy Agenda" Ms. Lagarde is navel gazing over 14 pages of text, charts and slides under the sub-heading of "Aiming Higher, Trying Harder". You get the sense of frustration of the Fund stuff with the intransigent Governments unwilling to deploy all of the medicines prescribed to them by the Fund, but you also get a feeling for the out-of-touch banality of the IMF's approach to the crisis.

Take the preamble. "Bold and resolutely executed policies are needed to prevent growth from settling into a “new mediocre,” with unacceptably low job creation and inclusion. Measures should emphasize":

  • "Lifting growth. Decisive structural reforms are needed to bolster confidence and lift today’s actual and tomorrow’s potential growth and break the pattern of persistent underperformance and insufficient job-creation. Accommodative monetary policies should continue to support demand and provide breathing space as these reforms are implemented. But it is essential that they are accompanied by macro-critical reforms that remove deep-seated distortions in labor and product markets; improve credit flows to productive sectors; strengthen growth-friendly fiscal frameworks; and eliminate infrastructure gaps." You get a sense that this has been said before, argued many times over and offers nothing new. In effect, the IMF is saying: spend more, cut spending more, re-spend more; and fund it all by printing presses, while making sure the rag-tag of the real economy (SMEs and households) don't get their hands on the printed cash.
  • "Building resilience. Easy money continues to increase market and liquidity risks, especially in the shadow banking sector, potentially compromising financial stability. Appropriate regulation and vigilant financial sector supervision, including developing and deploying macro-prudential tools, can help limit excessive financial risk-taking. Preparations for less benign financial conditions also need to be stepped-up. As monetary policy normalization approaches in some major economies, stronger policy frameworks, institutions, and economic fundamentals can mitigate potentially adverse spillovers." But, dear IMF, who creates this 'easy money'? And for who the money is 'easy'? The answer is in the first point above: printing presses do create 'easy money' and Governments and larger banks get 'easy money'. So de facto, IMF advice 1 and 2, taken together mean that creating growth + building resilience to risk = growing the share of Government and big banks in the economy. That should really keep troubles at bay, especially since the current crisis is caused by… yep, you've guessed it, rising role of Governments and big banks in the economy. Apparently, what can't kill you makes you stronger.
  • And then there is IMF advice that IMF should learn to follow itself: "Achieving coherence. International cooperation is needed to amplify the benefits from these bold policies and to avoid exacerbating existing distortions, particularly regarding financial stability and global imbalances. Dialogue and policy cooperation can help smoothly rebalance global demand; minimize adverse spillovers and spillbacks from asynchronous monetary unwinding; ensure consistent financial regulation; and maintain an adequate global financial safety net. Fresh momentum must be injected into the global trade dialogue." Where did we hear that? Ah, yes, right - we've heard in Greece (when the IMF quietly stood by as the EU rained chaos onto Greek and Cypriot financial systems and Exchequers by refusing to get Public Sector Participation - or restructuring - going); and we heard it in Ireland (where the IMF stood idly by as the Irish Governments and European partners loaded some EUR70 billion-plus worth of banks debts onto the real economy and then destroyed entire sectors of the economy in the name of Nama-lution); and in Italy (where IMF is still refusing to acknowledge the need for sovereign debt restructuring).

Do not forget that the IMF team has run out of Athens this week in a hissy - the most heavily 'repaired' economy in the world seems to be going off-the-rails again.

Here is the road map for advanced economies as traced by the IMF:

As we have it: in Euro Area the achievements were: 1) 'good progress' on monetary easing (the printing press) but more to be done; 2) 'some progress' on consolidating the banking system eggs in one regulatory basket (and more to be done); 3) basically no fiscal reforms; and 4) no reforms on taxation, no improvement in competition across both labour and product markets (not to mention decline in competition in financial economy).

Are we still talking, Ms Lagarde? Oh yes…

Let's take a look at the first pillar of IMF 'wisdom': the printing press. Here's Fund own assessments of the outcomes: "Despite massive and welcome monetary support in major advanced economies and slowing fiscal consolidation, the recovery remains uneven and sluggish. Growth, and hence policy advice, are increasingly divergent across countries. Inflation is still below target in many advanced economies and is a growing concern in the euro area, while unemployment has stayed high. … The envisaged acceleration in economic activity has again failed to materialize."

So just as with Krugmanomics, the IMFology calls for more printing, cause previous rounds weren't enough: "Growth prospects in advanced economies are expected to remain uneven across regions. The strongest growth rebound is expected in the United States, while growth in Japan will remain modest. The crisis legacy brakes (including high private and public debt) are expected to only gradually ease in the euro area, while inflation expectations continue to drift down and deflationary risks are rising. Growth elsewhere, including other Asian advanced economies, Canada, and the United Kingdom, is projected to be solid."

And with all of those 'structural reforms' - do we have an uplift in at least potential (if not actual) output? Nope: "Growth potential may be lower than earlier assumed… Increasing evidence suggests that potential growth started to decline in advanced economies even before the onset of the crisis—which may be affecting the current pace of recovery. The recent slowdown in EMEs also has a large structural component, raising questions about the sustainability of growth rates achieved prior to the crisis and during the 2010–11 rebound."

So here are two road maps side by side: one for Spring 2014 and another for Fall 2014… and, save for gentle re-phrasing of the same, the two are largely identical when it comes to the advanced economies.

So spend more on infrastructure as opposed to reduce debt overhang... and that will be funded by what? Pears and apples?

Out of new ideas. QED.

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