Baron Münchhausen and spreads in Europe

Hieronymus Carl Friedrich von Münchhausen is known for telling the story that he pulled himself (and the horse he was sitting on) out of the swamp by his own hair.

This reference was the first thing that came to my mind after seeing this and this post on Paul Krugman’s blog. After the whole bunch of swearwords, that is.

In the first one he argues that France has finally joined the club of ultra-sovereign countries, i.e. countries who can do whatever they please and yet get away with it because bond yields remain remarkably low. The second one uses “research” material from VoxEU entitled Panic-driven austerity in the Eurozone and its implications. There are five charts in it which I would like to discuss before circling back to Krugman’s thesis about French bonds.

Chart 1. Austerity measures and spreads in 2011.

 

degrauwe_fig1

 

In this chart the author argues that the higher the spread, the bigger the austerity that was subsequently applied. Well if it isn’t remarkable – so they’re telling us the higher the increase in credit spread in 2011, the bigger the adjustment had to be? Brilliant. But let’s say it’s an introductory statement just to warm us up.

Chart 2. Change in spreads vs. initial spreads

degrauwe_fig2

Now this is epic. The Baron Münchhausen argument. It basically says that the the higher the initial spread, the bigger the subsequent decline. A few things about that. Firstly, absent of a total collapse of the eurozone, how else should this chart look like? Secondly, using the same weight for the spread on tiny Portugal and Greece as Spain or Italy is just skewing the results. Thirdly, I don’t think that using the decline in percentage points as dependent variable is kosher because spreads can’t go negative and so 50bp for France is something completely different to 50bp for Portugal. Finally, I seriously wonder if the fit would be so bombastic if they removed Portugal and Greece – those dots at the beginning seem close to the best-fit line but I have a sneaky feeling that this is mostly because of the scale.

Chart 3. Change in debt-to-GDP ratio vs. spreads since 2012Q2

degrauwe_fig3

 

First of all, this is just plain wrong from the econometric point of view. What is this -0.6747 factor in the equation? It means that if there is no change in debt/GDP then spread will fall on average by 67bp. So 10 years of unchanged debt and spread falls by almost 700bp? No, friends, such results should be deemed “inconclusive” and there shouldn’t be any downward sloping line here. But if you want the line then have a look what it would imply if debt levels fell. Spreads would increase… Brilliant. Finally, assuming no lags or anything is just ridiculous.

Figure 4. Austerity and GDP growth 2011-2012  <– this one I actually have no problems with. Stating the obvious, but so be it.

Figure 5. Austerity and increases in debt-to-GDP ratios

degrauwe_fig5

 

This one says that austerity increases debt to GDP. A lot has been said on the subject and in the short run it is very difficult to argue with that. One could make an argument that without austerity debt/GDP would’ve increased even more because of super-high borrowing costs but let’s not go there here.

Wait a second though. So if austerity increases debt to GDP and we “know” from (ridiculous) Chart 3 that higher debt to GDP is associated with a decline in credit spread then isn’t austerity leading to lower spreads? Alternatively, if we interpret Chart 3 as the lack of relationship then shouldn’t we also conclude that austerity has no impact on credit spreads?

If the author’s only intention was to show that the ECB was instrumental in narrowing the spreads then fair enough. But the analysis provided is weak to say the least.

And this brings us back to Paul Krugman. Because if he believes in what De Grauwe wrote, i.e. that the reduction in spreads was the function of how high the spreads went in the first place then why has France rallied so much? Similarly, why would it rally if austerity worsens things so much?

Oh, I know why. Blame the markets (both ways).

First De Grauwe:

Since the start of the debt crisis financial markets have provided wrong signals; led by fear and panic, they pushed the spreads to artificially high levels and forced cash-strapped nations into intense austerity that produced great suffering.

Then Krugman:

Markets have concluded that the ECB will not, cannot, let France run out of money; without France there is no euro left. So for France the ECB is unambiguously willing to play a proper lender of last resort function, providing

If one wants to make an argument that OMT has led to significant tightening of credit spreads in the eurozone, we really don’t need working papers – a tweet will do. But for crying out loud do not mix austerity with that. Especially as austerity and OMT were completely coincidental. And if you do have to mix austerity into all this then make a little bit of effort to make a consistent and mathematically correct set of arguments. And make up your mind, Mr. Krugman. Either austerity is bad and ultimately keeps debt to GDP high and thus credit risk elevated in which case you need to rethink France. Or austerity sometimes makes sense in which case… well… you need to rethink a hell of a lot of things.

Otherwise your story is not far from what Baron Münchhausen – amusing and entertaining but ultimately ridiculous.

 

Has Britain finally cornered itself?

After a week of travelling I came back to see that Moody’s has finally pulled the trigger on the country where I currently reside. This is such a non-story that it feels stupid to even mention but I suppose it will be making headlines for a little while longer. And this is a very good thing.

Before I start, however, I would like to thank the British government for conducting a massive social experiment, which will be used in decades to come as a proof that a tight fiscal/loose monetary policy mix does not work in an environment of a liquidity trap. We sort of knew that from the theory anyway but now we have plenty of data to base that on.

Secondly, I will be referring to my favourite IS/LM model. If you want to read more about it, a very good tutorial can be found here.

So… Let’s assume for a second that the Osborne/Cameron duo is capable of taking a stop-loss on their policy. I know it is a heroic assumption when discussing any politicians but why not…

When looking at record low cost of borrowing, a severely depressed economy and a central bank that does not even pretend anymore to be independent or targeting inflation the recipe should probably be to spend more. In the standard IS/LM model an increase in government spending over taxes (i.e. boosting the deficit) pushes the IS curve to the right. Thus, both the output level and the level of interest rate will increase. Consequently, the exchange rate should appreciate as capital flows to the country in question. This in turn leads to widening of the trade deficit. Ideally, the government would want the Bank of England to step in and limit the increase in interest rates (a.k.a. QE) so that the currency does not appreciate. And, as I mentioned before, the BoE is more than willing to do so.

Let’s now have a look at the situation from another angle. I have been going through he Bank of England’s quarterly reports in reference to trade (which can be found here) and I have found two interesting charts. The first one looks at episodes of rapid moves in the British pound and the impact on the trade balance:

gbp_trade

The relationship is pretty strong, which is why many people are calling for debasing of the sterling, particularly after G20 gave a pale-green light to such activities for countries, which are effectively in a liquidity trap.

The second chart shows why debasing of the sterling makes an awful lot of sense. It shows two measures of the International Investment Position – the standard one (i.e. with FDIs at book value) and what I would call a “market” one (i.e. with FDIs at market value).

uk_niip

You can see that the UK is looking quite a bit better if you take into account the actual values of FDIs. I would suggest that the recent rally in global equity prices has at least kept the blue line in the positive territory. This essentially means that GBP devaluation not only boosts the terms of trade but also makes the UK richer. Not very many countries are in such a pleasant situation (think of many emerging economies with significant external debt).

Again, weakening of the sterling does seem to be a very appealing strategy for the authorities. There is, however, one important problem – GBP devaluation is unlikely to bring extra revenues to the government and could actually make the fiscal position a bit worse. Here’s why – devaluing one’s currency and narrowing of a current account deficit means that the country’s savings are increasing in relative terms to investments. Granted, this may well have to happen considering a huge stock of private debt but this is not desirable from the growth point of view. On top of that, the J-curve effect dictates that the initial impact of currency devaluation will be actually adverse.

What I am trying to say is that while GBP devaluation has a lot of positive sides, it will probably not work on its own because it will further depress domestic demand thus putting a strain of public finances.

Therefore, I do believe that Britain has finally cornered itself into a situation where there is overwhelming evidence that Mr Osborne should really start spending. He should also assume that Mr Carney will not let that spending lead to appreciation of Real Effective Exchange Rate (a bit more on that mechanism in one of my previous posts entitled “Be careful what you target or am I in the right church?“). That is to say that the Bank of England will keep nominal and real rates very low. In my opinion this is the only rational way of the situation that we’re currently in. Then again, I am assuming the impossible here, i.e. that the politicians know what the stop-loss is.

How to trade this? I don’t normally trade anything related to the UK (except GBP/PLN) but I would assume that any sell-offs in Gilts should be used as an opportunity to buy. As far as the sterling is concerned, the fact that exports outside of the eurozone are now bigger than to the eurozone, EUR/GBP is a cross that doesn’t make that much sense. I would very much prefer the cable, or better yet selling the sterling against EM currencies as this is where the adjustment in trade balances will have to come from.