Friday, 17 October 2014

European banks and the global banking glut

My latest post at Pieria considers the sizeable role of the Eurodollar market in the unsustainable growth of credit that led to the 2007-8 financial crisis. 
In a lecture presented at the 2011 IMF Annual Research Conference, Hyun Song Shin of Princeton University argued that the driver of the 2007-8 financial crisis was not a global saving glut so much as a global banking glut. He highlighted the role of the European banks in inflating the credit bubble that abruptly burst at the height of the crisis, causing a string of failures of banks and other financial institutions, and economic distress around the globe. European banks borrowed large amounts of US dollars through the money markets and invested them in US asset-backed securities via the US's shadow banking system. In effect, they acted as if they were US banks, but in Europe and therefore beyond the reach of US bank regulation......
What was it that drove the expansion of the Eurodollar market and encouraged European banks to leverage up with US mortgage-backed securities?

Read the post here.

Sunday, 12 October 2014

Rochester & Strood: it's not about UKIP

 Rochester High Street. The shop that has become UKIP's campaign HQ is (appropriately) on the far right-hand side. Photo: Mabbs

This is not my usual sort of post. It is overtly political, completely biased and very angry. I can no longer simply comment dispassionately upon dysfunctional UK political parties and rapacious sensation-seeking media. They have come to my home town and are intent on destroying it. 

The decision by UKIP to set up their campaign in a quaint building on Rochester High Street was calculated to attract the maximum media attention. Surrounded by Dickensian shops and olde-worlde buildings, and within walking distance of a picturesque ruined castle and a lovely Norman cathedral, it was photographers' heaven. And the BBC fell for it. Every report so far on the Rochester & Strood by-election campaign has used either Rochester High Street or Rochester Castle as a backdrop. Well, the Castle is beautiful:

Rochester Castle. Photo: Survation

The result is that the media are giving the impression that Rochester & Strood is a an affluent upper-middle-class area similar to Windsor. And indeed, central Rochester, with its big houses, its expensive restaurants and its private schools, is exactly that. But the rest of the Rochester & Strood constituency is very different. Strood, on the other side of the Medway, is far poorer, as is evident from these pictures of Strood that I took today.

This picture is looking towards Rochester Bridge from Angel Corner. If you are wondering why "Angel", it is because there used to be a pub on the corner called the Angel. It is now an estate agent.

This picture is looking from Angel Corner east towards Frindsbury. On the right is the entrance to the new Aldi superstore. On the left is the entrance to Asda's car park. A quarter of a mile away is the largest Morrison's superstore in the South East, plus a sizeable Tesco. On the high street is an Iceland and a Wilkinson. Strood is, to be frank, Supermarket City.  Or Closed Pub City. Yes, that is a closed pub - one of many in this area. Supermarkets selling cheap booze have crowded out pubs. 

You can't see them in these photographs, but Strood also has a very good Asian supermarket, several Asian restaurants of various kinds and a lovely sari shop. It is, you see, ethnically diverse. I wonder if Mr Farage knows this?

But Strood itself is no more typical of the Rochester & Strood constituency than Rochester. By far the largest part of the Rochester & Strood constituency looks like this:

This is farmland on the Hoo Peninsula. The Rochester & Strood constituency is really very rural. Admittedly, the rural areas of this constituency have far fewer voters than the towns. But they extend a very long way. Rochester & Strood constituency covers a large area.

The villages are very different from the towns. Here's the centre of Hoo St. Werbergh, one of the larger villages:

And this is the little village of All Hallows, that would have disappeared under one of the runways of either the Cliffe or the Grain airport proposals:

You can just about see the weather vane on top of the little church. Some of these village churches have been converted into dwellings, like this one at St. Mary Hoo, just visible in the distance across the farmland in this picture:

Village churches aren't all Church of England, either. This, in Lower Stoke, is a Methodist chapel:

Nonconformist chapels can also be found in Strood and Frindsbury.

But although the area is very rural, it has an industrial dimension. This is the Isle of Grain:

More oil and gas than grain production these days. And the surrounding area is marshland. The northern tips of the Isle of Grain and the Hoo peninsula border the Thames estuary and are home  to thousands of wading birds. There are several nature reserves and bird sanctuaries in this area. How anyone ever thought building a major airport here was a good idea is beyond me. Birds are fatal to jet engines.

There is still a working power station at Grain - it's the building with the high chimney in the picture above. But until recently there was also a working power station at Kingsnorth, near Hoo St. Werburgh. You can see it at the right hand side of this photograph, taken from Grain:

Kingsnorth was a dirty coal-fired power station which was closed down in 2012 and is now being demolished. Nigel Farage complained today that it was closed down "by EU edict". Indeed it was. But he only tells part of the story. Plans by Kingsnorth's owners E.ON to extend it met with opposition from environmental campaigners, wildlife campaigners and even from Christian Aid and the World Development Movement. It was environmentally unsound. The Hoo peninsula may need jobs, but not that badly. Anyway, where were Mr. Farage's objections when first the Cliffe then the Grain airport proposals were ruled out, at least partly on environmental grounds? They would have brought far more jobs to the area - but the EU was not involved in the decision. Hmm. Special pleading by Mr. Farage, it seems.

If he really wants to complain about something, he could do worse than complain about the behaviour of the Army. This is the former Army village of Chattenden:

And this is what the Army left behind:

They also left this - the Lodge Hill Camp. It is part of a large area of former Defence estates enveloping Chattenden. The whole area is earmarked for 5000 dwellings, which will engulf and swamp Chattenden - a massive distortion to a tiny village in a very rural area. It amounts to a new town on the Hoo Peninsula. This is possible because 1) the area is not greenbelt 2) as these are ex-Defence lands they are brownfield, not greenfield.

I suspect the reason why this area is scheduled for so many dwellings is the fact that it is within easy commuting reach of London (since HS1 now goes through Strood station, cutting the journey time to London to 35 minutes from over an hour) AND is not greenbelt. Just about everywhere else that is both undeveloped and less than an hour from London is greenbelt. It's obvious, really. Just cover the entire Strood area and most of the Hoo Peninsula with houses. Instantly relieve London housing pressure without encroaching on greenbelt. Now the airport proposal has been dropped (again), there is no further obstacle to this - is there?

Well, there is. The same people who opposed the Grain and Cliffe airports and the extension of Kingsnorth also oppose carpet housebuilding. The Lodge Hill development, in particular, encompasses several environmentally sensitive areas. I would argue that its rural nature is also socially important, at least to the people who live there. Do they really want this turned into another commuter suburb of London?

I don't know what UKIP think they can offer the people of Strood and the Hoo peninsula. Most of the issues that affect us have more to do with London than the EU. When the Conservatives rang me the other day, they asked me what I thought were the three biggest local issues. My answers were:
  • The NHS. Medway Hospital is in special measures, and well deserved. It's a disaster. Among other things, it nearly killed my mother with a morphine overdose last year.
  • Overdevelopment. I have no objection to a reasonable number of houses being built locally. But it is not ok to relieve London housing pressure by dumping people here in their thousands, placing strain on local services and destroying the character of the area, simply to preserve those areas that have been designated as greenbelt. Apart from anything else, such a strategy will push up house prices here (historically they have been well below the South East average) pricing our young people out.
  • Local jobs. This area has a tradition of agriculture and small business. If it is to avoid becoming simply a large commuter ghost town, we need local jobs. We need to encourage businesses to take root and grow here.
So I challenge ALL the parties in this by-election. What can you offer the people of Strood and the Hoo Peninsula? How will you address our concerns?

And I challenge the media, too. This by-election is not about UKIP versus the Conservatives. It is about the people of Rochester & Strood. It is about our lives and our future. Do some proper journalism, for goodness sake, rather than feeding UKIP the publicity they crave. Find out what this place is really like. Talk to real people, not just the well-heeled folk of Rochester but the Asian community of Strood, the small businesspeople, the farmers out in the rural areas. Find out what people are really concerned about - and talk about that, not about Nigel Farage's hopes of world domination or David Cameron's worries about re-election. They don't matter. We do.

Friday, 10 October 2014


The resounding victory of Douglas Carswell in the Clacton by-election has caused something of a stir. Carswell, formerly a Conservative MP, resigned his seat after defecting to the UK Independence Party (UKIP), then stood as UKIP's candidate in the ensuing by-election. His success at the polls gained UKIP their first Westminster seat. 

It is far from clear how much of Carswell's victory was due to his personal popularity - by all accounts he had 15,000 personal pledges of support - and how much was due to support for UKIP. But another by-election on the same day, in the Heywood & Middleton constituency in Rochdale, suggests that rising support for UKIP, or perhaps more accurately falling support for the main parties, might have been a considerable factor. In Heywood & Middleton, Labour barely scraped back in. They won with a margin of only 617 votes - with UKIP in second place. Both the Conservatives and Lib Dems were trounced.

Meanwhile, across the Thames from Clacton, the constituency of Rochester & Strood - where I live - is preparing for its own by-election after the defection of Mark Reckless to UKIP. Like Carswell, Reckless has resigned his Westminster seat and is standing for UKIP in the by-election: the candidate selected by UKIP to stand in the 2015 general election, Dr. Mark Hanson, generously stood aside to make way for Reckless. Reckless does not have the personal popularity of Carswell, but North Kent is among the most Eurosceptic places in Britain:

(heat map h/t @MineForNothing)
It is therefore quite possible that Reckless will win. A recent Survation poll showed UKIP support up by 40% at the expense of the other main parties;
The local Conservatives in Rochester & Strood are worried. They are already on the campaign trail. Yesterday, they rang me. Ostensibly this was to find out about the local and national issues that most concerned me, but really it was to find out my voting intentions both for this by-election and for the general election.  I refused to be drawn on my voting intentions for the main parties. But I did say I would not be voting for UKIP. And in this post, I want to explain why.

Firstly, let me make it clear that my refusal to vote for UKIP does not indicate support for the main parties. I am unimpressed with all of them, and utterly sick of the deficit mania that is gripping politicians and media. The Conservatives need to realise that their figures don't add up: the Liberal Democrats need to be reminded that the deficit is not the economy: and Ed Balls needs to remember that he once knew some economics.  The tax and spending proposals of all three parties demonstrate either total ignorance of the reasons why the UK's fiscal deficit is not reducing as planned, or - more likely - wilful ignoring of the truth for political reasons.

Gavin Kelly of the Resolution Foundation, a rare voice of sanity, reminds us that what politicians say before an election and what they do afterwards are often - thankfully - very different things:
 And let’s not forget that fiscal timetables tend to be malleable. Regardless of anything that gets pledged pre-election, don’t be surprised if greater pragmatism emerges afterwards.
And he suggests that the bleak picture painted by all three parties in response to the deficit panic may, after the election, give way to something rather rosier:
It’s possible to sketch out a picture of the next Parliament that is less gruesome than we might think. Steady, job-rich GDP growth. The eventual resumption of pay rises as unemployment continues to fall. A very slow and gradual path of interest rate increases following rises in living standards, assisted by stable inflation and a housing market tamed by tougher regulation rather than the need for higher mortgage rates. And a timetable for chipping away at the deficit that extends over the parliament.
I'd buy that. But sadly no party is offering it. Until one of them does, I am firmly on the fence. For the first time in my adult life, I am faced with the prospect of being disenfranchised at the forthcoming election because I cannot agree with the policies of any of the main political parties.

And this brings me to UKIP. Many people are fleeing to UKIP (and to a lesser extent the Greens) because they reject the policies of the main political parties. But this is like a rebound relationship: it is founded on disappointment in old love rather than discovery of new love. Many of them would return to the main parties if the policies were changed. The problem is HOW they would need to be changed in order to attract them back.

One of the less welcome effects of prolonged economic difficulties is the rise of nationalism. We are seeing it all across Europe at the moment. You would think it would be most prevalent in the most deeply depressed countries. But that's not the case. The most vociferous nationalist movements are actually in countries that are not (yet) depressed. And this is because people resort to nationalism as a way of hanging on to what they have when they feel it is under threat.

UKIP is a nationalist party. It appeals to people who want "Britain for the British". People who, like my partner, resent the fact that national utilities and large businesses are owned by "foreigners". People who, like the friend who came to see me yesterday, believe that people are coming into this country to freeload on the NHS (but forget about the Club Med Britons, many of them elderly, who "freeload" on the health services of Southern European countries). People who believe that immigrants are costing the country money in benefits, when in fact immigrants are net contributors to the fiscal purse. People who believe that we should "shut the doors" to prevent "foreigners" coming in, taking our jobs and our houses, sponging off our benefits and our health service, breeding like rabbits and crowding out the "indigenous British". Where I live, a lot of people think like this. And since the financial crisis, more people have turned to this sort of nationalistic thinking. UKIP's message is reassuring for people who feel threatened: "This country is ours and we aren't going to share it with anyone".  I sympathise, but I believe they are wrong.
Balkanisation doesn't create prosperity (if you don't believe this, just look at the Balkan economies). Sharing is what makes the world prosperous. Immigration benefits both the immigrants and the country that receives them: it may also benefit the sending country, if migrants remit funds to their families left behind. It is an effective way of improving the prosperity of everyone. The UK's high immigration level has, on balance, benefited it. Yes, there are always people who lose out: it is no accident that the most anti-immigration parts of the UK are areas with high unemployment and areas where local services have been put under strain by high levels of immigration. But this is a matter for fiscal policy to resolve. It is not a reason to close the doors.

UKIP is not only anti-immigration, it is also anti-EU. But membership of the EU has, on balance, benefited the UK. Just as I felt the Scots were wrong to seek to leave a successful union, I feel equally strongly that Britain would be wrong to leave the EU, even though by many measures it is less successful a union than the UK and is seriously threatened by the sheer idiocy of European politicians. The EU needs reform, not rejection. The UK has been instrumental in reforming the EU before and it can, and in my view should, do it again. Counting ourselves out, when we have such extensive trade and business links with the rest of the EU, would be madness.

In any sharing arrangement, however mutually beneficial, people tend to notice what they have to give up more than what they gain. When times are good, they tolerate this, though they may grumble. But when times are hard, people become resentful of giving up to others what they consider to be rightfully theirs. And they start to blame those others for their current difficulties. This is what drives nationalism. At its extreme, it destroys families, friendships and communities. It sets neighbour against neighbour, community against community, country against country. It is fundamentally destructive and it should be resisted, not welcomed.

This is why I will not vote for UKIP.

Wednesday, 8 October 2014

QE has (nearly) ended, but how will the Fed unwind it?

This post is about the US, obviously - though the same considerations apply in the UK as well.
The Fed’s large-scale asset purchases (LSAPs, popularly known as QE) have been tapering off for some time now and are expected to end this month. But even though the Fed won’t be making any new purchases, it will still have the largest balance sheet in history. All the securities it has purchased in three rounds of QE and Operation Twist are sitting on its balance sheet. And the banking system is awash with the excess reserves created as a consequence of those purchases.

It is clear now that monetary base creation on this scale does not cause runaway inflation, as was feared by many. And it does appear to have prevented the US from experiencing severe deflation in the aftermath of the financial crisis. But as the US economy recovers, the question arises whether the Fed should start shrinking its balance sheet – unwinding QE.
So should it unwind QE, and if so - how?

Read on here.

Tuesday, 7 October 2014

When the Nile floods fail

I recently watched a BBC documentary on the fall of the Egyptian Old Kingdom. A thousand years of stability and prosperity came to an abrupt and chaotic end, apparently out of the blue. Most Egyptologists blamed dynastic change and political unrest. But something didn't quite add up. The end of the Old Kingdom coincided with terrible famines. To be sure, conflict can cause famines. But these were exceptional: thousands of deaths for years on end, people resorting to cannibalism, whole cities being abandoned.

New research cast doubt on the "political change" theory for the collapse of the Old Kingdom. Sudden catastrophic climate change occurred at that time, causing a mini Ice Age in Europe and widespread famine around the world. In Egypt it resulted in the total failure of the annual Nile floods, upon which the Egyptian economy critically depended. No wonder it collapsed. But it took archeological research over 4000 years later to identify the massive exogenous shock that caused the sudden collapse of a great civilisation. People at the time would not have known the cause. And they certainly would not have expected the Nile floods to fail. They had not done so for a thousand years.

The financial crisis of 2008 was certainly not a disaster of that magnitude. But it displays some similarities. The US housing market had been stable for 70 years. And because of its stability, the US economy had become critically dependent on it. Indeed not only the US economy, but since the advent of securitization also the global economy, had become dependent on the US housing market. Like the Nile in Ancient Egypt, it was the safe, familiar, predictable source of prosperity. Via its derivatives, the world bought into its safety and stability.

Then it failed suddenly and catastrophically. We still don't know exactly why, but the work of Mian & Sufi on the huge increase in debt backed by housing is important, and Steven Gjerstad & Vernon Smith's analysis of the root causes of the failure of the US housing market is impressive. Interestingly, among other things, Gjerstad & Smith show that there has been a housing market collapse of that magnitude before. Just as failure of the Nile floods had no doubt happened occasionally before the fall of the Old Kingdom (it has happened once or twice since), but had disappeared from memory, so Gjerstad & Smith show that failure of the housing market was a primary cause of the 1930s Great Depression. But we have forgotten about this. Time and wishful thinking create amnesia.

The people of the Egyptian Old Kingdom and the people of the modern global economy made the same mistake. They believed that something was predictable when it was in fact unpredictable, safe when it was risky, certain when it was uncertain. Nile floods vary in magnitude from year to year, and from time to time there are transient agricultural failures when the volume is too low. Small shocks of this kind can be accommodated within a stochastic model: there is short-term disruption but the economy soon returns to "normal". But total failure of what has previously been considered "safe" is traumatic. The Egyptian economy did not return to "normal". It entered a dark age that lasted perhaps a hundred years. And we, too, are now in a dark age: we do not yet know how long it will last.

Despite the clever models of modern economists, we are no better at predicting extreme events than our ancestors. We make the same mistakes, and frankly with much less justification. It took a thousand years of prosperity to lull the Egyptians into a false sense of security. But less than a hundred years ago we were living through the greatest destruction of physical, financial and human capital in recorded history. You would think we would be alive to the possibility of extreme events. But instead, we convinced ourselves that we had had fixed all the problems and there would never be extreme events again. We thought we could control (human) nature. How wrong we were. As ever, Hubris invites Nemesis.

Here's Olivier Blanchard of the IMF describing the hubris of mainstream US economics:
Until the 2008 global financial crisis, mainstream US macroeconomics had taken an increasingly benign view of economic fluctuations in output and employment......The benign view reflected both factors internal to economics and an external economic environment that for years seemed indeed increasingly benign.
The priests believed their own oracles because the Nile floods didn't fail.

Blanchard goes on to describe the limitations of economic oracles models and the unrealistic beliefs of economists:
The techniques were best suited to a worldview in which economic fluctuations occurred but were regular, and essentially self-correcting. The problem is that we came to believe that this was indeed the way the world worked......We in the field did think of the economy as roughly linear, constantly subject to different shocks, constantly fluctuating, but naturally returning to its steady state over time. Instead of talking about fluctuations, we increasingly used the term ‘business cycle’. Even when we later developed techniques to deal with nonlinearities, this generally benign view of fluctuations remained dominant.
That small shocks could sometimes have large effects and, as a result, that things could turn really bad, was not completely ignored by economists. But such an outcome was thought to be a thing of the past that would not happen again, or at least not in advanced economies thanks to their sound economic policies.
The Nile floods can never fail because 1) our models haven't considered that they might (and we don't know how to model such an event) 2) sound economic policies will ensure that the Nile floods never fail.

You couldn't make it up.

The trouble is that economists are using essentially linear models to explain and predict a non-linear world. Hahn's description of Blanchard's models as "Mickey Mouse" is all too accurate. Economic models that only work as long as nothing goes seriously wrong are about as useful as a windsock in a typhoon. Something goes seriously wrong somewhere in the world quite a lot of the time. Nassim Taleb's criticism of statistical models used by economists is cutting:
The simple argument that Black Swans and tail events run the socioeconomic world - and those events cannot be predicted - is sufficient to invalidate their statistics.
 (Antifragile, p.305)
Blanchard admits that omitting the financial system from economic models was a major error. I totally agree. But incorporating it into existing models, or developing new systemic risk models to run alongside existing macroeconomic models as Blanchard suggests, won't solve the problem. As the story of the Egyptian Old Kingdom shows, tail events pose the biggest threat to our civilisation. But we can't model them. We can only model things we know about. Now we know about the systemic risks that the financial system poses, we can model them. And we can stay away from the dark corners where those systemic risks lurk. But those are not the only dark corners, and the problem is that we can be so focused on avoiding yesterday's dark corner that we fail to notice tomorrow's bigger and darker one.

We stumbled into the financial crisis because we were focusing on inflation control to the exclusion of all else. That was a reaction to the inflation of the 1970s, which we walked into because we were focusing on full employment to the exclusion of all else. That in turn was a response to the terrible unemployment of the 1930s, which we walked into because we were focusing on restoring historic value after a disastrous war. We walk blindly into crises because we are looking backwards, not forwards. Now we are focusing on systemic risks so much that we are in danger of wandering into another crisis. I have no idea what that crisis will be - maybe a war, maybe a global pandemic, maybe a catastrophic natural disaster. But of one thing I am certain: there will not be another major financial crisis until we have completely forgotten about this one.

And therein lies the problem with Blanchard's recommendation that we should "stay away from dark corners". The dark corners we really need to stay away from are those we don't know about. And modern economics has no credible way of modelling those, any more than the priests of Ancient Egypt did. Who in the Old Kingdom would have predicted the failure of the Nile floods? Would they have been believed? What changes could the Egyptians have made to their economy to enable them to survive such a disaster?

In fact Blanchard's argument is deeply flawed. He acknowledges that existing economic models are fundamentally inadequate, but then calls upon policy makers to set policy in such a way that existing economic models can still be used. This amounts to saying that policy makers can prevent tail events and Black Swans from happening. Sound economic policies will still prevent the Nile floods from failing......

It seems that Blanchard still believes that the economy can be made to work linearly if only policy makers get it right. I suppose it is hard for someone who has spent his life developing linear models of the economy to accept that the economy is fundamentally non-linear and the models are not fit for purpose. But economic models that are not fit for purpose should not be used. Because they lull people into a false sense of security, they are not only inadequate, they are dangerous. Better no model at all than one which steers you on to the rocks.

Our best guide to managing the disasters of the future is the experience of the past. Anthropology, archeology and ancient history, as well as the natural sciences, have much to teach us about how our world really works. It would help if mainstream economists were more aware of the limitations of their mathematical models and more willing to embrace heterodox thinking. But it would be better still if, as Piketty says, they gave up their "childish obsession with mathematics". The proper study of economists is not mathematics. It is natural and social history.

We need to learn from the past, but look to the future.

Sunday, 5 October 2014

Cameron's fiscal bribery

The Conservatives are promising to eliminate the entire deficit by 2018 and run an absolute surplus thereafter. And when the deficit is gone, they are promising widespread tax cuts. All of this if they are re-elected, of course.

But in this post at Pieria I look at what they would have to do to deliver these promises, and conclude that it's not at all clear how they can eliminate the deficit in that timeframe, let alone deliver tax cuts. There's a very large hole in their fiscal plans.


What's gone wrong at Wonga?

Oh dear, Wonga.....
The UK’s biggest payday lender, Wonga, is in trouble.  Its profits  have fallen by 53%. But that is the least of its worries.
 Actually its biggest headache is the FCA. And Wonga is not the only payday lender in trouble. The whole industry is disintegrating. Find out why here.