European Policy Makers Don't Understand, But Markets Do

|
Includes: DIA, EWG, EWI, EWP, FXE, IGOV, IRL, QQQ, SPY
by: The Wilder View

So here we are: the Italian yield curve is flat at above 7%; the government institution is in question; and the ECB is using its SMP purchase program as a carrot to drive austerity implementation in and Berlusconi out. Some would argue that the ‘market is irrational’ – Italy faces a liquidity not solvency crisis. That’s the IMF’s line, and I don’t buy it.

See Italy’s situation is simple: given the Italian debt profile and initial conditions, the Italian sovereign should be able to stabilize its debt levels - even at 8% interest rate (borrowing costs) – PROVIDED (1) it grows, and (2) the sovereign increases its primary surplus (Italy is 1 of just 2 G7 countries expected to run a primary surplus in 2011, according to the IMF). The problem is, that (1) Italy’s contracting, and (2) a higher primary surplus is more likely than not going to aggravate the recession. Something has to change to break the link – this is where I encourage you to read Nouriel Roubini’s latest.

In my view, the market is behaving very rationally. The Troika (ECB+EU+IMF) adapted the standard IMF model to the European sovereign debt crisis as a means to regain market confidence amid a sovereign liquidity crisis. The plan is to enhance fiscal discipline and become more ‘competitive’ (usually that means coincident with currency devaluation).

So fiscal discipline + new competitiveness = market confidence. Right? Wrong.

Italy’s solvency is now under question amid current IMF-style bureaucratic policy in Europe. Why they haven’t figured out the following is beyond me: austerity and competitiveness gains only works if monetary policy is easy and/or the global economy is expanding, and that’s with nominal devaluation.

Either the IMF model will fail or the Euro area will

Here’s the problem with the IMF model:

1. None of the program countries are unequivocally more competitive. Devaluation would help here, but no Euro area (EA) economy can devalue unless they exit the EA.

The table below illustrates the gains in competitiveness by key EA markets since the beginning of the peak of the last cycle, Q1 2008. Competitiveness here is broadly measured by shifts in the real exchange rate, as calculated by relative prices, relative unit labor costs, and relative GDP deflators. The red cells highlight country real exchange rate gains/losses that undercut Germany.

Broadly speaking, no country except Ireland trumps Germany in two out of three measures of real depreciation. At best, the results on which country has indeed gained competitiveness against the 6th most competitive country in the world, Germany, is mixed. Furthermore, Europe as a whole is cutting labor costs, not just the program countries, and dragging domestic demand of the EA as a whole.

Ireland is the only country to have experienced broad depreciation across all three measures and against Germany. But I would argue this: they had further to go. The chart below (click to enlarge) illustrates the CPI-based real effective exchange rate. Spanning the period January 2007 to April 2008 (the peak), the Irish real exchange rate appreciated 10% against its major trading partners. As such, the 13.6% real depreciation since April 2008 is more reflective of mean reversion rather than competitiveness gains.

Click to enlarge

2. The second part of any IMF program (first, really) is controlling fiscal balances through ‘austerity’; but this is not possible if the private sector is simultaneously deleveraging and external demand is not sufficient. Spain and Ireland seem to be on track at this point – but they won’t be for long. The inevitable EA recession will increase the required ‘cuts’ to facilitate the reduced revenues; this is both logistically and nationalistically difficult. Global monetary easing is likely to help, but it’s too late for Europe.

Eventually the population will appeal to the economic malaise that is the disintegrating labor markets in program countries and fight against reform. Click to enlarge:

Click to enlarge

The divergence in economic performance is quickly turning into convergence, as the sovereign debt crisis inflicts the core economic performance. Shoot, even the ECB has acquiesced and is now calling for a ‘mild recession’.

Markets understand what policy makers in Europe do not: the European IMF-style model is not and cannot work under these conditions. Monetary policy is too tight, the global rebound has dissipated, and fiscal austerity is killing aggregate demand.

And here I get to my favorite quote of the day, yesterday. From Bank of America’s Athanasios Vamvakidis (no link), a former IMF economist:

In our view, there are two ways for a country to bolster market confidence in its economic policy: either through the intervention and support of an international institution, or through effective commitment to reform.

Italy doesn’t need foreign capital, nor does it need effective commitment to reform. It needs a credible path of adjustment. And this involves all EA members, not just Italy. See Martin Wolf’s FT article from October 5, and Nouriel Roubini’s article today on EconoMonitor.