Posts Tagged ‘monetization’

Does “Helicopter Ben’s” Napalm Drop Smell Like Victory?

Thursday, August 22nd, 2013

Those who’ve seen Francis Ford Coppola’s “Apocalypse Now” will recall Robert Duvall’s air-cavalry colonel (and surfing enthusiast) by his declaration of love for “the smell of napalm in the morning….smelled like…victory.” Since then, few people have been similarly associated with the power of things dropped from the sky (metaphoric or not) so much as Fed Chairman Bernanke, whose famous remark referencing Milton Freidman’s concept of countering deflation via a “helicopter drop” of money earned him the nickname “Helicopter Ben.” That moniker has only been reinforced by the money creation and Fed balance sheet expansions of the central bank’s Quantitative Easing programs.

However, back on May 22, when Bernanke didn’t rule out some so-called “tapering” (he didn’t actually use that term) of the Fed’s asset purchases as early as this coming September, the fixed-income market has behaved as if he’d called in an airstrike. Indeed, the sell-off seemed to motivate some of Bernanke’s colleagues on the FOMC (as well as the big man himself) to at least project the appearance of walking back the incendiary comments, emphasizing that the decision process on tapering would be data driven and even implying that weak numbers might move the central bank to increase purchases. Case in point: the equivocation evinced in the July Fed minutes released yesterday.

This uncertainty is understandable in the face of less than robust indications of economic expansion, e.g., second-quarter GDP growth of 1.7%. Moreover, inflation continues to be subdued, begging the question of why Bernanke & Co. would choose to discuss reining in bond buying now.

Perhaps one hint is to be found in the yield spread between Treasuries and the inflation-indexed variety known as TIPs. An indicator of market expectations of future inflation, the ten-year TIP spread has widened from near zero in late November 2009 to around 2.15% as of this writing. While in excess of the 2% rate the FOMC has generally acknowledged to be their current target (though some have indicated a willingness to consider a range about this figure), the problem is that as the taper rhetoric has increased, the TIP spread has been contracting. As can be seen from the accompanying graph (with Fed assets expressed as a fraction of their 1/2/2008 value), even as Fed asset growth accelerated in 2013, the central bank has struggled to increase inflation expectations, with the TIP spread maxing out at 2.59 this past February before beginning its fall to current levels. To be sure, by many measures actual inflation has increased since its post-crisis lows, but with the Core Personal Consumption Expenditure price index (the Fed’s preferred measure of inflation) still running at only 1.22%, neither current inflation nor expectations give the Fed vast breathing room.



Meanwhile, recent job creation figures have been only modestly solicitous, with a stubbornly low participation rate even as employers confront incentives to move full-time workers to part-time status under health care reform. The prospect of coming quarters is also haunted by the specters of fiscal drags from the delayed effects of sequestration and increased taxes.

Of course, regardless of the economic statistics, the Chairman could be forgiven for wanting to put in train at least a reduction in the rate of Fed asset purchases so as to indicate the will to deal with the central bank’s massive and growing balance sheet before leaving office, let alone prior to a more meaningful increase in inflation or fall in the value of the dollar. After all, the Fed’s assets now stand at over 20% of the national debt, and the central bank current bond purchase rate has it pretty much buying up the entire Federal deficit this year, raising fears of monetization (see “Uncle Ben’s Reverted Price”). Yet with unemployment still high, corporate profits decelerating and even the hint of tapering having caused mortgage rates to spike, there is a serious potential for taper-induced economic deceleration. Given that inflation is at best just nudging up into its perceived target range, if any Fed taper is followed by a fall in growth it may be difficult for Bernanke or his successor to justify meaningfully dialing back quantitative easing. Even as far from the ocean as Jackson Hole, FOMC members gathered without their leader must feel the alternatives are a bit like the choice Duvall’s colonel gave his men: engage in a firefight or attempt to surf under an artillery barrage.

Europe Learns To Default The American Way, Restoring Transatlantic Balance Of Irresponsibility

Thursday, May 13th, 2010

The game-changing aspect of the eurozone member states’ plan to stabilize the euro is not the $139 billion Greek bailout or the trillion-dollar currency stabilization fund per se, but rather the about-face of the European Central Bank, which will now reverse a longstanding policy and purchase the debt of euro states. In doing so, the ECB and its president Jean-Claude Trichet, have opened the door the the monetization of euro sovereign debt, which is to say the effective real default implied by inflation and currency debasement.

In essence, the ECB can now create euros to buy Greek or other European debt, including cross-eurozone bonds issued to finance the euro stabilization war-chest. Since that fund could borrow to support the euro and the ECB can purchase that debt as well as the bonds of individual euro nations, the net effect is to allow the assumption of a distressed member state’s debt by the entire euro membership and the inflating away of that debt through euro creation on the part of the ECB.

If all this sounds familiar to American ears, it should, since the power to monetize dollar-denominated debt has long been possessed by the central bank of the “dollar zone,” that being of course the Federal Reserve. Indeed, most central banks around the world have the ability to inflate away debt denominated in the currencies they create. A crucial difference between the ECB and its brethren has been that sovereign borrowing in the currency over which it presides has been done by sixteen individual states, and that debt has until now been off limits for purchase and thus monetization. The analogous situation in the U.S. would be if all government borrowing were done by the individual states through municipal bonds.

Now, monetization with its attendant inflation and devaluation is indeed a form of default, since in real terms debt holders are paid back in money which will now buy less goods, services and foreign currency than it did when it was lent. Yet even if bondholders are burnt in terms of purchasing power , there are certain systemic advantages of real default over the nominal variety, in which lenders are paid only a fraction of the currency (euros, for example) which they are owed.

Consider banks borrowing from depositors in euros and lending to eurozone governments by buying their bonds. In a nominal sovereign default, the bank might not have enough euros to pay back its depositors, which is the kind of thing that tends to lead to bank runs. But in a monetization-driven real default, the bank gets paid in full and so do the depositors, albeit in a debased currency. Banks’ and depositors’ euros might not be worth much but they get each and every one they are owed. Financial institutions’ balance sheets may shrivel in real value but they continue to balance, avoiding runs and some types of systemic shocks.

Similarly, and rather paradoxically, the certainty of nominal payment under real default has at least one “operational” advantage in the creation of the reserve currency the eurozone members would like their currency to become: knowing the ECB can print euros to pay off euro debt, the world’s central banks can invest the currency in assets whose nominal return can be calculated with more certainty, as can future holdings of the currency itself. Again, the future value of that currency may be in question but not the amount of it to be received.

The balance sheet stabilizing aspects of real default can come at a high price, including the destruction of savings’ buying power, growth-killing price uncertainty and, as demonstrated in the Europe of the 1930’s, social unrest and war (this has something to do with the reticence of Germany in regard to the euro rescue, as evinced recently in the Westphalia vote). Inflating away debt is a treatment best administered sparingly, if at all. How much tolerance electorates of more solvent euro nations have for being taxed to pay the bills of their less productive, more profligate neighbors may well end up the determining factor for the euro’s survival, at least in its current form.

One silver lining for the Europeans (at current prices a golden one would be too much to ask for): with both the U.S. and Japan up to their eyeballs in government borrowing, the real default risks of dollar, euro and yen sovereign debt could at least partially negate each other in a rough balance of fiscal and monetary irresponsibility. And if these currencies’ mutual risk of debasement puts more pressure on China to revalue the yuan, I can almost hear a chorus of finance minsters singing hallelujah.

It’s worth mentioning that, in the wake of the Fed’s recent broad-spectrum asset purchase programs, we may yet see the day munis are added to that central bank’s balance sheet. After all, even a casual observer of the disconnect between California’s entitlement-driven spending and any realistic projection of its tax revenues could be forgiven for viewing Athens as simply Sacramento on the Aegean.

Addendum: Those of you who enjoyed my rather skeptical remarks on the role of swaps in the Greek crisis (“Greece And The Zen Of Credit Default Swaps”) may also enjoy a similarly-minded piece by Stefan Schultz in Der Spiegel, in which I’m quoted extensively. One caveat: it’s much more enjoyable if you happen to read German; if not, should you paste it into a translator program, note the amusing fact that Trester is the German word for wines otherwise known as marc or grappa, which is how my surname may be automatically translated.