In what could one day be seen by historians as a seminal speech presented before the Paul Volcker-chaired Group of Thirty's 63rd Plenary Session in Rabat, the ECB's Lorenzo Bini Smaghi had two messages: a prosaic, and very much expected one: of unity and cohesion, if at least in perception if not in deed, as well as an extremely unexpected one, in which the first notable discords at the very peak of the power echelons, are finally starting to leak into the public domain. It is in the latter part that Bini Smaghi takes on a very aggressive stance against not only the so-called "inflation tax", or the purported ability of central bankers to inflate their way out of any problem, but also slams the recently prevalent phenomenon of fear-mongering by the banking and political elite, which has become the goto strategy over the past two years whenever the banking class has needed to pass a policy over popular discontent. The ECB member takes a direct stab at the Fed's perceived monetary policy inflexibility and US fiscal imprudence, and implicitly observes that while the market is focusing on Europe due to its monetary policy quandary, it should be far more obsessed with the US. Bini Smaghi also fires a warning shot that ongoing divergence between the ECB and Germany will not be tolerated. Most notably, a member of a central bank makes it very clear that he is no longer a devout believer in that fundamental, and false, central banking religion - Keynesianism.
First, a quick read through the "prosaic" sections of Bini Smaghi's letter.
Bini Smaghi, who is a member of the executive board of the ECB, has a primary obligation to defend the ECB's public image in this time of weakness and complete lack of credibility. And so he does. When discussing the ECB's response to the Greek fiasco and contagion, he is steadfast that the response, although delayed and volatile, was the right one. Furthermore, he claims that the hard path Europe has set on is the right one, as it will ultimately right all the fiscal wrongs, even without the benefit of individual monetary intervention. Ultimately, the ECB is convinced that not letting Greece fail, either in the form of union expulsion or partial default, was the right decision, as "this sill force euro area countries to address their fiscal positions earlier. It’s not easy. But it will be done, because it can be done and it has to be done in any case. And, last but not least, because there are no alternatives." Alas, while we agree that admission is the first step on the road to recovery, the subsequent steps will prove to be insufficient. The imbalances in Europe are of such great magnitude that hoping that countries eventually grow into their balance sheets by way of austerity is simply a ridiculous assumption, and as such does not merit extended overviews. We note this with irony, because apparently the ECB, contrary to elementary school rule #1, favors quantity over quality. As the ECB board member says:
Let me consider the arguments put forward by those who regard a Greek default as unavoidable.
Their first argument is economic. The adjustment programme is too harsh, given the level of the debt-to-GDP ratio reached in Greece. It will produce a debt spiral which will lead the country into a recession and deflation. The problem is made worse by the loss of competitiveness suffered by Greece over the last decade and the impossibility of devaluing the currency. Their reasoning is generally no more sophisticated than that. Some analysts have put together a few numbers to show that they are aware of the problem. But I have not seen a serious analysis of the 120-page report produced by the IMF which looks at the various aspects of the programme, including the impact of the structural measures on growth, the sustainability analysis or other features of the programme. Not one review of the realism of the assessments made by the staff of the IMF and the Commission. In fact, I suspect most market analysts have not even looked at the adjustment path for the primary surplus which is embedded in the programme, which aims to reach 6% of GDP in 2015, a level no different from the ones that other countries in the past have implemented to consolidate their public finances. It’s a level that a number of other countries – including some outside the euro area – will have to achieve if they want to stabilise their debt. Most market analysts and other observers have probably not even looked at the structural measures that are embedded in the programme, affecting for instance the labour market, or at several liberalisations, and their impact on economic growth. The inefficiencies in the tax collection system, which have been aggravated before the elections, have also been overlooked. The perception that the Greek programme will not work looks more like an assumption than the result of a serious assessment.
To summarise, I wonder which analysis is more serious and credible: the many one-pagers, very well publicised – I must admit – which probably aim to influence the rest of the market; or the IMF’s 120 pages of rather tedious analysis describing the contents of the programme, together with its risks.
To this we ask: if a collective brain trust is charged with the goal seeked, and well compensated by taxpayers, duty to put together a 1,200 page report that confirm the primary tenets of the trust itself, will Mr. Smaghi give it 10 times the credibility of the ECB's report? Or how about one million typewriter-armed monkeys putting together 1,200,000 page "analyses" claiming that the Greek default is inevitable? We hope someone has the facilities to conduct just such an experiment. Perhaps the futility of such a simplistic act is the very reason why not more than a one-pagers is required to refute the central bank dogma.
Thus the key axis of contradiction emerges: the ECB is willing to set off on the "demonstratedly" arduous journey of forcing its member states to right their fiscal (income statement) evils, yet while not acknowledging that the key missing link, balance sheet restructuring, is not necessary but critical. There is a reason why plain vanilla restructurings focus on the balance sheet, and not on the income statement: a company with a fresh start balance sheet can grow its income statement without its debts being a hindrance, on the other hand, rarely if ever, do income statements allow companies to grow into untenable balance sheets. This is the main flaw in the ECB's plan. And it is these very contradictions that force the European populace to lose its credibility in the ECB, a concern which even the central bank is all too aware of.
The balance of the "prosaic" part of the speech is along the same lines: merely a defense of the ECB's line of actions, driven primarily by a direct response to the market, and thus a very short-sighted and reactive, instead of proactive, policy response, which merely invites the market to test out the ECB's lack of resolve. And once again, the ECB is not naive and is fully aware of this, yet it redirects attention to other source of "market-test" weakness: "Financial markets are testing each country, one by one, to see whether they are willing to adopt the necessary budgetary measures, starting with those which seem to be facing the greatest hurdles to consolidation." Bini Smaghi is right and wrong here: the market will continue testing country by country, but not to determine fiscal resolve, only to take advantage of the lack a monetary one. And so from crisis to crisis, the market will continue reaching deeper until it finally tests the very core of the eurozone: Germany.
And speaking of Germany, this brings us to the other part of Bini Smaghi's letter. In one of the first open shots of public confrontation, we see that the ECB has been very much displeased not only by rampant fear-mongering, but by the words of Germany's Angela Merkel, whose recent repeat declarations that Greece could be allowed to leave the union, have undermined the bedrock of the ECB. Furthermore, as the WSJ reports, "in a rare show of defiance for the consensus-driven ECB, Germany's central bank head Axel Weber told the German newspaper Börsen-Zeitung that he viewed the bond-buying decision "critically" and that it carried "substantial stability risks." Is this the type of rancorous infighting between Europe's two main powers, that will seal the fate of the Eurozone experiment far more certainly than parliamentary stormings in Athens?
We read in Bini Smaghi's letter the first fingerpointing of displeasure by an ECB official aimed squarely at Germany:
A further dimension, in the European context, is the difference in cultures and sensitivities. They affect how issues are communicated within countries, in particular between politicians and their electorates. These are differences which totally disconcert financial markets. For instance, in one large euro area country it was thought that public support for swift action could be achieved only by dramatising the situation, for instance, by telling the public that “the euro is in danger” or by considering the possibility of expelling a country from the euro area. But it was not realised that, in the midst of a financial upheaval, such words are like fanning the flames and that the cost of the support package could only increase following such dramatic declarations. By contrast, in other countries, leaders want to be seen as being in control of the situation and taking all sorts of initiatives to reassure their electorates. The media, of course, have a field day reporting on such apparently inconsistent activities.
We hope that the ECB's displeasure by the kind of racketeering that Americans have grown to know and loathe, as it is performed either openly by politicians who directly threaten with end of the world scenarios every time they wish to get their way, or indirectly, such as when the market crashes a 1,000 points when it appears that the Fed is on the verge of losing its secrecy, is espoused by more individuals and organizations. On the other hand, we will closely follow the now open feud between German and Europe's Central Bank - if past experience is any indication, infighting between these two will only lead to mutual weakening, and result in an even faster forced reorganization of peripheral European countries, and, eventually the euro.
In this regard, perhaps Bini Smaghi's speech created far more damage than damage control: now that the public's, and more importantly, the market's, attention is be drawn to the duel between Germany and the ECB, this will merely destabilize the monetary union even more, now that monetary and political unions, and conflicts, are synonymous, a point not lost on the ECB executive himself: "As I said earlier, monetary union is de facto a political union."
And now that European monetary "politics" are the center stage, we find two other pearls in Bini Smaghi's speech.
Not too surprisingly, the ECB is now directly pointing a finger at the Fed, where conventional wisdom has long held the belief that due to its ability to determine independent monetary policy, backed by the world's reserve currency, the Fed can and always will easily inflate its way out of any complication.
To believe that an inflation tax can solve the problem posed by the mounting public debt is an illusion that some people like to cultivate. For several reasons. First, people are less naïve than some might think – they dislike an inflation tax as much as other forms of fiscal adjustment. Second, it’s not so easy to generate inflation, in particular ‘surprise’ inflation, without provoking a more-than-proportional increase in interest rates, also in light of the short average maturity of public debt in most countries. Third, a rise in inflation, and inflation expectations, would produce a major upward shift in the yield curve, inflicting major losses on the banks and financial institutions which have been heavily investing in these markets, potentially undermining the recovery.
This is probably the best encapsulation of the threats, or rather threat, that another QE episode by the Fed will bring with it. In essence the ECB is saying that should the Fed pursue another QE episode, the imminent explosion in short-end interest rates will lead to a solvency crisis within the US itself, monetary policy or not. Bini Smaghi points out one very critical truth: in not having a reserve currency, and thus protected by the belief that the ECB can inflate its way out of complication, it is forced to pursue fiscal reform, much sooner than the US will, which will only result in a much greater crisis in the US, once it becomes clear that the marginal influence of monetary policy will be drowned out by a sea of fiscal imprudence. And for the one true shining example of the latter, look no further than the CBO's 10 year budget deficit estimates.
In short, the impossibility of resorting to an inflation tax is forcing euro area countries to tackle the burden of public debt sooner rather than later. In other countries the illusion of being able to resort to the inflation tax might delay the adjustment, but the longer the treatment is postponed the harsher it’s likely to be. End of digression.
Was this the first shot across the bow in the the transatlantic central bank wars? Too bad the ECB will be insolvent overnight if the Fed decides to truly escalate and pull all its swap lines tomorrow. Why risk retaliation? This is easily the most important question needing answering over the next several weeks.
Last, but not least, are the following zingers that have no other intent than to poke at the ever larger holes appearing in the fabric of that one modern false economic religion known as Keynesianism.
In the aftermath of the Lehman failure, governments around the world seemed to rediscover Keynes. They injected huge amounts of borrowed money – public funds – to stabilise the economy after the shock of the Lehman failure. These policies worked, and averted a global depression. The success of those policies has led governments – encouraged by international organisations – to continue using expansionary fiscal policies to try pulling the economy out of the recession and getting it back to the pre-crisis level.
The strategy is based on a model which may turn out to be inappropriate in the current conjuncture. Let me discuss some of the underlying assumptions of the model. First, the initial fiscal impulse was successful in avoiding a depression because it helped to coordinate agents’ expectations, in the Keynesian or Knightian way of reducing uncertainty, thereby avoiding a vicious circle of recession and deflation. The direct impact on domestic demand may have been more modest, as shown in countries where the size of the fiscal stimulus was more contained but nevertheless fared equally well. Second, potential growth might have been severely affected by the crisis. As a result, the pre-crisis level of output, achieved in a bubble economy, would not represent a sustainable objective over the policy-relevant horizon. Third, the level achieved by the public debt in many countries may have impaired the effectiveness of further expansionary fiscal policy.
To sum up, while the fiscal expansion was successful immediately after the Lehman crisis, it may not be sustainable over time and may have to be corrected rapidly. Financial markets seem to be giving increasing attention to this hypothesis. And they have started to test it.
Is this the last degree of "religious" doubt before outright revulsion set in and the oligarchic heretics emerge? More so than the question of whether or not the euro is viable, is whether the beginning of the end for Keynesianism is approaching? If so, the imminent revolution in Western world economic thought will be unprecedented, and the resulting global reset will lead to a world where daily news will no longer be dominated by headlines about more record banker theft going unpunished, co-opted and facilitated by a cheaply purchased legislative, executive and judicial system.