Relevant and even prescient commentary on news, politics and the economy.

The IMF’s Flexible Credit Line

by  Joseph Joyce

The IMF’s Flexible Credit Line

The policy conditions attached to the disbursement of an IMF loan have long been the subject of controversy. In the wake of the global financial crisis, the IMF introduced a new lending program—the Flexible Credit Line—that allowed its members to apply for a loan before a crisis took place. If approved, the member can elect to draw upon the arrangement in the event of a crisis without conditionality, and there is no cap to the amount of credit. However, only three countries—Colombia, Mexico and Poland—have signed up for the FCL, and the lack of response to an IMF program without conditions has been a bit of a mystery. A new paper, “The IMF and Precautionary Lending: An Empirical Evaluation of the Selectivity and Effectiveness of the Flexible Credit Line“ by Dennis Essers and Stefaan Ide of the National Bank of Belgium, provides evidence that helps to explain the muted response.

Essers and Ide deal with two aspects of the FCL: first, the factors that explain the decision to participate in the program, and second, the effectiveness of the program in boosting market confidence in its users. This paper is very well-done, both from the perspective of dealing with an important issue as well using appropriate econometric tools for the analysis, and it received a prize for best paper at the INFINITI conference in Valencia. The authors point out that the views expressed in the paper are theirs, and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Bank of Belgium or any other institution to which they are affiliated.

The results in the first half of the paper can explain why so few countries have adopted the FCL. On the “demand side,” Colombia, Mexico, and Poland applied for the FCL because they were vulnerable to currency volatility as manifested by exchange market pressure. On the “supply side,” the IMF was willing to accept them into the program because 1—the economies were not showing signs of financial or economic instability, as manifested by lower bond interest rate spreads and inflation rates, and 2—they met the “political” criteria of high shares in U.S. exports and acceptable United Nations voting patterns.

Tags: Comments (0) | |

The People’s Verdict on Globalization

by Joseph Joyce

The People’s Verdict on Globalization

The similarities in the electoral appeals of businessman Donald Trump and Senator Bernie Sanders have been widely noted (see, for example, here, here and here). Both men attract voters who feel trapped in their economic status, unable to make progress either for themselves or their children. Moreover, both men have assigned the blame for the loss of manufacturing jobs in the U.S. on international trade agreements. Regardless of who wins the election, globalization, which was seen as a irresistible force in the 1990s after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the entry of China into the world economy, is now being reexamined and found to be detrimental in the eyes of many.

Trump and Sanders have been particularly vociferous about the North American Trade Agreement, which they hold responsible for the migration of U.S. jobs to Mexico. But those who blame the foreign sector for a loss of jobs should also finger capital flows. The investment of U.S. firms in overseas facilities that then ship their products back to the U.S. represents outward foreign direct investment (FDI), and thus in this story is also responsible for the disappearance of manufacturing jobs. Moreover, Lawrence Summers of Harvard has pointed out that firms that have the option to relocate will be less inclined to invest in new capital in their home country, which leads to lower productivity and wages for their workers.

Whether technology or trade is more responsible for the shrinkage in manufacturing jobs has been the subject of much study (see, for example, here). In the past, most studies assigned the primary role for labor force disruption to technology. David Autor of MIT, Lawrence F. Katz of Harvard and Melissa S. Kearney of the University of Maryland, for example, drew attention to technology that accomplishes routine tasks without human intervention and leads to a polarization of the labor force, as middle-skill level jobs are eliminated, leaving only low-skill and high-skill jobs. In addition, information technology that allows firms to coordinate their facilities in different countries allows more outsourcing and reallocation of plants.

Those who seek to defend global trade flows cite rises in employment due to exports and alsogains due to increases in efficiency and economics of scale that accompany specialization. In addition, lower prices due to imports raise real incomes. No one denies that increased imports can disrupt labor markets, but this has viewed as a transitional cost that could be absorbed.

Tags: Comments (5) | |

The Repercussions of Financial Booms and Crises

 by Joseph Joyce

The Repercussions of Financial Booms and Crises

Financial booms have become a chronic feature of the global financial system. When these booms end in crises, the impact on economic conditions can be severe. Carmen M. Reinhart and Kenneth S. Rogoff of Harvard pointed out that banking crises have been associated with deep downturns in output and employment, which is certainly consistent with the experience of the advanced economies in the aftermath of the global crisis. But the after effects of the booms may be even deeper and more long-lasting than thought.

Gary Gorton of Yale and Guillermo Ordoñez of the University of Pennsylvania have released a study of “good booms” and “bad booms,” where the latter end in a crisis and the former do not. In their model, all credit booms start with an increase in productivity that allows firms to finance projects using collateralized debt. During this initial period, lenders can assess the quality of the collateral, but are not likely to do so as the projects are productive. Over time, however, as more and more projects are financed, productivity falls as does the quality of the investment projects. Once the incentive to acquire information about the projects rises, lenders begin to examine the collateral that has been posted. Firms with inadequate collateral can no longer obtain financing, and the result is a crisis. But if new technology continues to improve, then there need not be a cutoff of credit, and the boom will end without a crisis. Their empirical analysis shows that credit booms are not uncommon, last ten years on average, and are less likely to end in a crisis when there is larger productivity growth during the boom.

Claudio Borio, Enisse Kharroubi, Christian Upper and Fabrizio Zampolli of the Bank for International Settlements also look at the dynamics of credit booms and productivity, with data from advanced economies over the period of 1979-2009. They find that credit booms induce a reallocation of labor towards sectors with lower productivity growth, particularly the construction sector. A financial crisis amplifies the negative impact of the previous misallocation on productivity. They conclude that the slow recovery from the global crisis may be due to the misallocation of resources that occurred before the crisis.

Tags: Comments (7) | |

China’s Vulnerable External Balance Sheet

by Joseph Joyce

China’s Vulnerable External Balance Sheet

China’s capital outflow last year is estimated to have totaled $1 trillion. Money has been channeled out of China in various ways, including individuals carrying cash, the purchase of foreign assets, the alteration of trade invoices and other more indirect ways. The monetary exodus has pushed the exchange rate down despite a trade surplus, and raised questions about public confidence in the government’s ability to manage the economy. Moreover, the changes in the composition of China’s external assets and liabilities in recent years will further weaken its economy.

Before the global financial crisis, China had an external balance sheet that, like many other emerging market economies, consisted largely of assets held in the form of foreign debt—including U.S. Treasury bonds—and liabilities issued in the form of equity, primarily foreign direct investment, and denominated in the domestic currency. This composition, known as “long debt, short equity,” was costly, as the payout on the equity liabilities exceeded the return on the foreign debt. But there was an offsetting factor: in the event of an external crisis, the decline in the market value of the equity liabilities strengthened the balance sheet. Moreover, if there were an accompanying depreciation of the domestic currency, then the rise in the value of the foreign assets would further increase the value of the external balance sheet. and help stabilize the economy.

After the crisis, however, there was a change in the nature of China’s assets and liabilities.Chinese firms acquired stakes in foreign firms, while also investing in natural resources. The former were often in upper-income countries, and were undertaken to establish a position in those markets as much as earn profits. Many of these acquisitions now look much less attractive as the world economy shows little sign of a robust recovery, particularly in Europe.

Tags: Comments (0) | |

Monetary Policy in an Open Economy

by Joseph Joyce

Monetary Policy in an Open Economy

The recent research related to the trilemma (see here) confirms that policymakers who are willing to sacrifice control of the exchange rate or capital flows can implement monetary policy. For most central banks, this means using a short-term interest rate, such as the Federal Funds rate in the case of the Federal Reserve in the U.S. or the Bank of England’s Bank Rate. But the record raises doubts about whether this is sufficient to achieve the policymakers’ ultimate economic goals.

The short-term interest rate does not directly affect investment and other expenditures. But it can lead to a rise in long-term rates, which will have an effect on spending by firms and households. The relationship of short-term and long-term rates appears in the yield curve. This usually has a positive slope to reflect expectations of future short-term real rates, future inflation and a term premium. Changes in short-term rates can lead to movements in long-term rates, but in recent years the long-term rates have not always responded as central bankers have wished. Former Federal Reserve Chair Alan Greenspan referred to the decline in U.S. long-term rates in 2005 as a “conundrum.” This problem is exacerbated in other countries’ financial markets, where long-term interest rates are affected by U.S. rates (see, for example, here andhere) and global factors.

Central banks that sought to increase spending during the global financial crisis by lowering interest rates faced a new obstacle: the zero lower bound on interest rates. Policymakers who could not lower their nominal policy rates any further have sought to increase inflation in order to bring down real rates. To accomplish, they devised a new policy tool, quantitative easing. Under these programs, central bankers purchased large amounts of bonds with longer maturities than they use for open market transactions and from a variety of issuers in order to bring down long-term rates. The U.S. engaged in such purchases between 2008 and 2014, while the European Central Bank and the Bank of Japan are still engaged in similar transactions. As a consequence of these purchases, the balance sheets of central banks swelled enormously.

Tags: Comments (1) | |

The Enduring Relevance of “Manias, Panics, and Crashes”

by Joseph Joyce

The Enduring Relevance of “Manias, Panics, and Crashes”

The seventh edition of Manias, Panics, and Crashes has recently been published by Palgrave Macmillan. Charles Kindleberger of MIT wrote the first edition, which appeared in 1978, and followed it with three more editions. Robert Aliber of the Booth School of Business at the University of Chicago took over the editing and rewriting of the fifth edition, which came out in 2005. (Aliber is also the author of another well-known book on international finance, The New International Money Game.) The continuing popularity of Manias, Panics and Crashes shows that financial crises continue to be a matter of widespread concern.

Kindleberger built upon the work of Hyman Minsky, a faculty member at Washington University in St. Louis. Minsky was a proponent of what he called the “financial instability hypothesis,” which posited that financial markets are inherently unstable. Periods of financial booms are followed by busts, and governmental intervention can delay but not eliminate crises. Minsky’s work received a great deal of attention during the global financial crisis (see here and here; for a summary of Minksy’s work, see Why Minsky Matters by L. Randall Wray of the University of Missouri-Kansas City and the Levy Economics Institute).

Kindleberger provided a more detailed description of the stages of a financial crisis. The period preceding a crisis begins with a “displacement,” a shock to the system. When a displacement improves the profitability of at least one sector of an economy, firms and individuals will seek to take advantage of this opportunity. The resulting demand for financial assets leads to an increase in their prices. Positive feedback in asset markets lead to more investments and financial speculation, and a period of “euphoria,” or mania develops.

Tags: Comments (7) | |

Dilemmas, Trilemmas and Difficult Choices

by Joseph Joyce

 

Dilemmas, Trilemmas and Difficult Choices

In 2013 Hélène Rey of the London Business School presented a paper at the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City’s annual policy symposium. Her address dealt with the policy choices available to a central bank in an open economy, which she claimed are more limited than most economists believe. The subsequent debate reveals the shifting landscape of national policymaking when global capital markets become more synchronized.

The classic monetary trilemma (or “impossible trinity”) is based on the work of Robert Mundell and Marcus Fleming. The model demonstrates that in an open economy, central bankers can have two and only two of the following: a fixed foreign exchange rate, an independent monetary policy, and unregulated capital flows. A central bank that tries to achieve all three will be frustrated by the capital flows that respond to interest rate differentials, which in turn trigger a response in the foreign exchange markets.  Different countries make different choices. The U.S. allows capital to cross its borders and uses the Federal Funds Rate as its monetary policy target, but refrains from intervening in the currency markets. Hong Kong, on the other hand, permits capital flows while pegging the value of its currency (the Hong Kong dollar) to the U.S. dollar, but forgoes implementing its own monetary policy. Finally, China until recently maintained control of both its exchange rate and monetary conditions by regulating capital flows.

Tags: Comments (1) | |

The Continuing Dominance of the Dollar: A Review of Cohen’s “Currency Power”

by Joseph Joyce

The Continuing Dominance of the Dollar: A Review of Cohen’s “Currency Power”

Every year I choose a book that deals with an important aspect of globalization, and award it the Globalization Book of the Year, also known as the “Globie.” Unfortunately, there is no cash prize to go along with it, so recognition is the sole award. Previous winners can be found hereand here.

The winner of this year’s award is Currency Power: Understanding Monetary Rivalry by Benjamin J. Cohen of the University of California: Santa Barbara. The book deals with an issue that is widely-discussed but poorly-understood: the status of the dollar as what Cohen calls the “top currency.” The book’s appearance is quite timely, in view of the many warnings that China’s currency, the renminbi (RMB), is about to replace the dollar (see, for example, here).

Cohen proposes a pyramid taxonomy of currencies. On the top is the “top currency,” and in the modern era only the pound and dollar have achieved that status. The next level is occupied by “patrician currencies,” which are used for cross-border purposes but have not been universally adopted. This category includes the euro and yen, and most likely in the near future the RMB. Further down the pyramid are “elite currencies” with some international role such as the British pound and the Swiss franc, and then “plebeian currencies” that are used only for domestic purposes in their issuing countries. Below these are “permeated currencies” which face competition in their own country of issuance from foreign monies that are seen as more stable, “quasi-currencies” that have a legal status in their own country but little actual usage, and finally at the base of the pyramid are “pseudo-currencies” that exist in name only.

Tags: Comments (0) | |

Capital Flows, Credit Booms and Bank Crises

by Joseph Joyce

Capital Flows, Credit Booms and Bank Crises

Studies of the impact of capital inflows have established that debt inflows can lead to bank crises (see here and here). Unlike equity, payments on debt are contractual and can not be cancelled if there is an economic downturn, which intensifies any shocks to the financial system. In the case of short-term debt, a foreign lender may decide not to roll over credit at the time when it is most needed. But recent papers have shown that foreign debt can also be a determinant of the credit booms that lead to the bank crises.

Philip Lane of Trinity College and Peter McQuade of the European Central Bank (working paper version here) looked at the relationship of domestic credit growth and capital flows in Europe during the period of 1993-2008. They suggest that financial flows can encourage more rapid credit growth by increasing the ability of domestic banks to extend loans, while also contributing to a rise in asset prices that encouraged financial activity. They found that debt flows contributed to domestic credit growth but equity flows did not. Moreover, the linkage of debt and domestic credit was strongest during the 2003-08 pre-crisis period.

Tags: Comments (0) | |

The IMF and the Return of Structural Conditionality in Europe

The IMF has increased in importance over the last few years, especially in Europe.  Prof. Joyce writes on the background of its evolution.

by Joseph P. Joyce  is a Professor of Economics at Wellesley College and the Faculty Director of the Madeleine Korbel Albright Institute for Global Affairs.


The IMF and the Return of Structural Conditionality in Europe
(March 2012)

In 2002, the IMF promised to reduce the use of structural policies in the policy conditions attached to its lending programs. Recently, however, the IMF has incorporated structural measures into the programs for some of its European borrowers. The shift in emphasis is based on the IMF’s judgment of the need to promote growth in these economies. The IMF’s evaluation of the appropriate policies reveals a split with the other members of the governing “troika,” the European Commission (EC) and the European Central Bank (ECB), which have emphasized short-term fiscal austerity. The difference in views over what needs to be done to achieve sustainable debt positions may hinder the recovery of these countries.

Structural conditions were introduced in the 1980s to improve the allocation of resources through the use of market mechanisms in order to raise economic growth rates. Among the measures included in the IMF’s lending programs were the deregulation of private markets, the privatization of state-owned enterprises, and the reform of the civil service and labor markets. The IMF reported in 2001 that by the mid-1990s, nearly all of its lending arrangements contained some structural conditions, and that the number of such conditions per program had risen.

The use of structural conditionality, however, was sharply criticized, and was viewed as particularly inappropriate for countries that faced financial crises that reflected the “sudden stop” of short-term capital flows. The experiences of China and other Asian countries were cited as evidence that there were alternative paths to growth. After the pledged to rely on the principle of parsimony by focusing on the core areas of its expertise, i.e., monetary, fiscal and exchange rate policies and issues related to the financial sector, and reducing the number of conditions. 

The IMF conducted a review of its compliance with the new guidelines in 2005. Its report found that the scope of structural conditionality had been narrowed, but there had been no reduction in the number of conditions. Similarly, the IMF’s own Independent Evaluation Office (IEO) undertook a review of structural conditionality in 2007. This report also observed that the Fund had limited the focus of its conditionality, but that there had been little change in the number of conditions. In 2009 the IMF eliminated structural performance criteria as a tool of assessing compliance with a program’s conditions, although structural reforms can be included in an overall review of program performance.
The IMF recently concluded its latest evaluation of its conditionality (IMF 2012a, IMF 2012b). The Fund’s review claims that its use of conditionality became more parsimonious during the period under review, 2002 through September 2011. The number of conditions attached to the Fund’s program fell, while the focus was confined to the core areas of the IMF’s responsibility. But the report also acknowledged that the number of conditions rose in programs undertaken at the end of the period, including the programs in Europe.

A close examination of the IMF’s programs for Greece and Portugal demonstrates how structural measures have been incorporated into their programs. Greece received a three-year Stand-By Arrangement for SDR 26.4 billion (about €30 billion or $40 billion) in 2010, but that program was replaced in 2012 by a four-year Extended Fund Facility Arrangement for SDR 23.8 billion (€28 billion or $36.7 billion) after many of the original plan’s targets were missed. At the end of last year there was an IMF review of the progress to date under the new Greek program.

This review noted that Greece’s fiscal and external imbalances are improving, but its substantial economic contraction has continued. The IMF found that the structural transformation of economy is proceeding at a slow place outside of the labor market, “…and this is making Greece’s adjustment more costly.” There was agreement with the Greek authorities that “…structural reforms to date had been uneven at best, and that a reinvigoration of the reform agenda would be critical to boost potential growth.”

The review cited a lack of movement in deregulating product markets by removing barriers to entry. The privatization of state-owned assets was another area of major concern, since the targets that had been set “…have been missed by a wide margin”, in part because of political resistance. The IMF acknowledged that the reform of Greek labor markets had been initiated, but called for further measures, such as the implementation of a new minimum wage system. The liberalization of entry to regulated professions also needed to be advanced.

Structural policies are also a part of the lending program extended to Portugal, which borrowed SDR 23.74 (€26 billion or $39 billion) through a three-year Extended Fund Facility in May 2011. A recent IMF review of Portugal’s record in the program found that structural reforms have been advanced, and gave these efforts some of the credit for the decline in Portuguese government bond yields. The government has moved to tackle excessive regulatory procedures, and adapt wage bargaining to allow differences in wages across sectors. A number of judicial reforms are also underway. But the IMF’s staff worried that “…it remains unclear whether reforms to date are sufficient to address the large external competitiveness gap or will engender an adequately strong supply response to avoid a prolonged demand-driven slump.”

Greece and Portugal are not the only European countries to have borrowed from the IMF in recent years. In 2008-09, the IMF lent to Hungary, Latvia, Romania and Serbia. These loans were extended to mitigate the impact of the global financial shock that had begun in the U.S. The borrowers did not require extensive conditionality, although there were measures to strengthen their financial sectors, particularly in the case of Iceland. Ireland accepted SDR 19.5 billion (€22.5 billion or $30.1 billion) from the IMF in the form of a three-year Extended Fund Facility in 2010. Its need for assistance was attributed to the excessive bank lending that took place preceding the global crisis rather than any structural economic shortcomings. Cyprus will also require extensive financial restructuring.

The IMF’s programs to Greece and Portugal are part of larger programs that included loans from the other European governments, which are monitored by the EC. In the past, the IMF focused on macroeconomic policies while the EC dealt with structural reforms. But, the IMF admits in its overview of conditionality,

“Over time, both the Fund and the EC have increasingly ventured into areas of structural reforms initially devoted to the other institution. EC-supported measures have been more and more focused on fiscal issues, while the Fund introduced “competitiveness” conditionality in the Portugal and Greece programs.”

The IMF has taken a different perspective of what steps need to be taken in Europe than have the EC and the ECB, a divergence that began during the global financial crisis.  In the cases of Greece and Portugal, the IMF supports fiscal adjustment while seeking to reverse their economic contractions with structural measures. But the EC has insisted on short-term austerity that could actually worsen their debt positions. 

The different time frames and policy assessments of the IMF and the Europeans are exacerbating the situation of these countries. Political opposition to the fiscal cutbacks slows adoption of structural measures and hinders the growth that the IMF seeks to promote. Moreover, the split between the members of the “troika” does not bode well for future joint programs, even as the case of Cyprus demonstrates that there will be continued need for institutional collaboration.

Tags: , Comments (2) | |