Wednesday, February 10, 2016

9/2/16: Currency Devaluation and Small Countries: Some Warning Shots for Ireland

In recent years, and especially since the start of the ECB QE programmes, euro depreciation vis-a-vis other key currencies, namely the USD, has been a major boost to Ireland, supporting (allegedly) exports growth and improving valuations of our exports. However, exports-led recovery has been rather problematic from the point of view of what has been happening on the ground, in the real economy. In part, this effect is down to the source of exports growth - the MNCs. But in part, it seems, the effect is also down to the very nature of our economy ex-MNCs.

Recent research from the IMF (see: Acevedo Mejia, Sebastian and Cebotari, Aliona and Greenidge, Kevin and Keim, Geoffrey N., External Devaluations: Are Small States Different? (November 2015). IMF Working Paper No. 15/240: investigated “whether the macroeconomic effects of external devaluations have systematically different effects in small states, which are typically more open and less diversified than larger peers.”

Notice that this is about ‘external’ devaluations (via the exchange rate channel) as opposed to ‘internal’ devaluations (via real wages and costs channel). Also note, the data set for the study does not cover euro area or Ireland.

The study found “that the effects of devaluation on growth and external balances are not significantly different between small and large states, with both groups equally likely to experience expansionary [in case of devaluation] or contractionary [in case of appreciation] outcomes.” So far, so good.

But there is a kicker: “However, the transmission channels are different: devaluations in small states are more likely to affect demand through expenditure compression, rather than expenditure-switching channels. In particular, consumption tends to fall more sharply in small states due to adverse income effects, thereby reducing import demand.”

Which, per IMF team means that the governments of small open economies experiencing devaluation of their exchange rate (Ireland today) should do several things to minimise the adverse costs spillover from devaluation to households/consumers. These are:

  1. “Tight incomes policies after the devaluation ― such as tight monetary and government wage policies―are crucial for containing inflation and preventing the cost-push inflation from taking hold more permanently. …While tight wage policies are certainly important in the public sector as the largest employer in many small states, economy-wide consensus on the need for wage restraint is also desirable.” Let’s see: tight wages policies, including in public sector. Not in GE16 you won’t! So one responsive policy is out.
  2. “To avoid expenditure compression exacerbating poverty in the most vulnerable households, small countries should be particularly alert to these adverse effects and be ready to address them through appropriately targeted and efficient social safety nets.” Which means that you don’t quite slash and burn welfare system in times of devaluations. What’s the call on that for Ireland over the last few years? Not that great, in fairness.
  3. “With the pick-up in investment providing the strongest boost to growth in expansionary devaluations, structural reforms to remove bottlenecks and stimulate post-devaluation investment are important.” Investment? Why, sure we’d like to have some, but instead we are having continued boom in assets flipping by vultures and tax-shenanigans by MNCs paraded in our national accounts as ‘investment’. 
  4. “A favorable external environment is important in supporting growth following devaluations.” Good news, everyone - we’ve found one (so far) thing that Ireland does enjoy, courtesy of our links to the U.S. economy and courtesy of us having a huge base of MNCs ‘exporting’ to the U.S. and elsewhere around the world. Never mind this is all about tax optimisation. Exports are booming. 
  5. “The devaluation and supporting policies should be credible enough to stem market perceptions of any further devaluation or policy adjustments.” Why is it important to create strong market perception that further devaluations won’t take place? Because “…expectations of further devaluations or an increase in the sovereign risk premium would push domestic interest rates higher, imposing large costs in terms of investment, output contraction and financial instability.” Of course, we - as in Ireland - have zero control over both quantum of devaluation and its credibility, because devaluation is being driven by the ECB. But do note that, barring ‘sufficient’ devaluation, there will be costs in the form of higher cost of capital and government and real economic debt.It is worth noting that these costs will be spread not only onto Ireland, but across the entire euro area. Should we get ready for that eventuality? Or should we just continue to ignore the expected path of future interest rates, as we have been doing so far? 

I would ask your friendly GE16 candidates for their thoughts on the above… for the laughs…

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