The two sensible choices

There are two sensible and realistic choices for solving the Euro crisis. The sensible and realistic choices are:

  • Surplus areas like Germany give deficit areas like Greece free money, indefinitely, or,
  • Weak economies like Greece and Spain leave the Eurozone.

These really are the sensible and realistic choices. You need one of these if you want roughly equal purchasing power across the Eurozone. Otherwise, money will flow from unproductive deficit areas to productive surplus areas, people in surplus countries will get steadily richer, people in deficit countries will get continually poorer, and eventually this will come to a head by revolt or other radical means.

Free money recycles this flow, exchange rates stop it. Economically the first is better because more flow of goods and services and money turns the economy forward and makes everyone consume more in aggregate. The latter choice aims for fairness, sacrificing total volume of trade and industry in the process.

Right now we’re still discussing the free money idea. Free money could be given as tax-and-transfer grants like most states do internally, as endless monetary expansion like the US, or by recurrent debt default and restructuring. The only advantage of the third option is it makes a policy look like an accident.

If free money won’t fly, leaving the Eurozone is the choice. Greece should have left the Eurozone… any time from 2001 till tonight would be good. Cynics would say stay until 2011 while the free money vision of Europe looked ascendant, but certainly Greece should have dropped after that. Greece should leave now.

Dropping out of the currency union has only advantages for the weaker economy. The disadvantages for the stronger economy are that it stops the flow of funds from the poor to the rich and removes demand for their exports. Germany selfishly wants the Euro. Greeks are stupidly attached to it because they equate the Euro with the EU and three decades of progress.

There are also a couple of totally fantastical choices that people might believe would fix the Eurozone, but they won’t work.

  • Economies like Germany and Greece become similarly productive any time soon.
  • Regions fix trade imbalances through fiscal discipline and austerity.

These are myths. It would be great if Greece was a bit more prosperous like Germany and that would take a venture investment ethos, congenial labour relations, an orientation to global markets, nourishing a boutique economy, branding, IP rights, stability and democracy. Well, at least Greece has democracy.

Different economies may become more alike, but they won’t become the same. The Mississippi delta is less productive than Silicon Valley and that’s why the meagre social policies of the US transfer funds indefinitely from rich Californians to poor Louisianan’s. Convergence doesn’t remove the need for transfers, it makes them smaller.

As for austerity, austerity is the null policy. Austerity means to just accept the dynamic of unproductive regions being steadily poorer and productive regions being steadily richer without asking for free money to mitigate it. And fiscal discipline means don’t try the free money by monetary expansion or default routes.

Until 2011 it looked like Europe was going to work like a superstate using free money transfers. This would have been better for all, including Germans. This idea now looks dead. Weak economies should ditch the Eurozone, now.

What Grexit looks like

Now that Greece voted No in the referendum it’s likely the institutions will seek a quick compromise to avoid serious damage to themselves and the Euro. In that case we’re looking at a more reasonable bankruptcy negotiation between Greece and the creditors, within the Euro. There will be capital controls for a while, like Cyprus, but eventually they’d be lifted.

The alternative is the Grexit scenario. However Grexit doesn’t mean that Euro deposits get redenominated to drachmas overnight. There’s no legal basis to do that. Euro deposits are obligations of Greek banks to individual depositors. They’re supposed to be guaranteed by the ECB, except last week the ECB decided to stop honoring that obligation. That decision will bite them, but it’s another matter.

Anyway Euro deposits are not the business of the Greek state or the bank of Greece. They could not redenominate Euros to drachmas, except by seizure. Also, there’s no incentive to do so. When the ECB withdraws its guarantee, Euros in Greece are precious hard currency like gold coins. Whatever Euros Greeks have, they’ll want to keep. Why would you convert perfectly good Euros to less valuable drachmas?

So on Monday, after a no vote, we have a scenario where Greek banks have Euro liabilities (deposits) and outstanding Euro loans, and they’re not guaranteed. There’s no lender of last resort for Euros in Greece. Banks would have to be super-prudential about handling Euros in this scenario, with deposits equal to reserves or close. Any MFI creation of Euros through loans would be extremely risky.

Of course banks are much more exposed than this. Soon, because of bad loans or the ongoing bank run, Greek banks go insolvent in Euros. At that point, the Bank of Greece steps in and guarantees deposits, but in Drachmas. And that’s how the conversion happens.

There’s a haircut on deposits until the Euro accounts of banks drop to the super-prudential level they’d need to be to operate safely. That means deposits equal reserves plus really safe loans. Greek banks continue to operate Euro accounts in this way thereafter, to facilitate transactions in tourism, import/export, etc. Euro loans will be hard to make and they’d only be made to businesses with good short-term collateral such as outstanding invoices. Not mortgages. Euro will effectively stay in Greece as a business currency.

The remainder (the amount that was haircut) gets converted to drachmas. So if you had €1000 in the bank and after haircut you’re left with €600, you also get the equivalent of €400 in drachmas, courtesy of the Bank of Greece. People can’t really complain about this change, because it’s the big bad ECB that haircut your Euros and the Greek state (Bank of Greece) saved you by giving you drachmas in compensation.

Thereafter the two currencies exist in parallel. Banks operate both types of accounts. Euros are not guaranteed, hence super-prudential: hard to get Euro loans, no Euro credit cards. The Banks of Greece acts as lender of last resort for drachmas, like a normal central bank. Drachmas operate with all banking services immediately and eventually notes and coins are introduced. Businesses that deal with tourism or import/export will surely maintain both Euro and drachma accounts. Everyone will have to declare their Euro and their drachma income separately and pay taxes in each.

Ordinary people like pensioners and dentists will either run out of Euros eventually, or they’ll use them for savings (bad idea, not guaranteed), or they’ll accept some offer to close their Euro account and convert to drachma. Pensions, salaries, house purchases, utility bills, and other big domestic prices will be negotiated in drachmas. Shops will post two prices, at least for a few months.

Eventually anything that’s related to tourism or imports, like electronics, will post both prices. Everyday domestic trade like street markets for food, plumbers, English lessons, hairdressers etc. will transact pretty much only in Drachmas. The Drachma has to be the official currency and there’s enough need for money for it to be accepted. The Euro just has to be legal to circulate, it doesn’t need any encouragement.

And then life will be good!

Having your own currency does three things: It makes imports expensive relative to domestic goods; it lets you pursue monetary policy; and it lets you devalue to make your exports price-competitive. The first two are crucial for Greece. The third is moot.

Greece is in a mess with external Euro debt because individuals prefer to buy imports than to pay taxes and so Euros leave the country. After the switch, businesses that earn Euros will have Euros to spend and they’ll have to be responsible because Euro loans will be super hard to get. Everyone else will face a Euro/Drachma exchange rate when buying imported goods. It’ll make iPhones expensive if you’re not directly earning Euros, and that’s really the worst part of the whole transition to drachmas thing.

The macro effect is Greeks will be buying more basics such as food, housing, and services which are predominantly domestic. They’ll be buying fewer discretionaries such as cars or electronics which are imports. Some essentials such as oil, clothing, and medicines require imports but currently those imports are cheap and there’s some production capacity in Greece for these sectors. That’s a very fortunate configuration for Greece’s balance of trade.

More importantly, the Bank of Greece will finally be able to run monetary policy in a way that fits Greece and not the gold standard delusions of Germany. Obviously it’ll be an expansionary Keynesian policy and the drachma will drop, but not alarmingly. Greece’s economy isn’t a basket case because of inflationary tendencies, By now it’s in a hard currency straitjacket.

Greece has massive unemployment, it’s demand-side limited, and there’s a huge amount of informal debt because of lack of liquidity. The plumber owes the teacher, the teacher owes the dentist, etc. and no-one has any money. As soon as money of any kind flows into the economy people will start paying their bills and the economy will pick up be amenable to taxation. Even if the Greek state makes up a few percent of fiscal spending with monetary easing that’s unlikely to yield so much drachma inflation to be a problem.

The third aspect of having a weak floating currency is that Greece could devalue it, deliberately or by letting it slide, to make its exports more attractive. If only Greece had exports, that would be a great idea. Greece makes its Euros from tourism and in the Grexit scenario that income would be the same or slightly less. Tourism is price sensitive but it’s not that scalable. If you have capacity for a million visitors you can’t bring in two million by being slightly cheaper the way you can scale up industrial production.

Greece’s other exports are oil product (basically running a refinery, it has no wells) and things like ore and agricultural goods. Again, what is Greece going to do? Grow twice as many tomatoes? Greece’s competitiveness problem is not having industrial, not that they’re expensive. The idea of being more competitive by devaluing the currency is beside the point for Greece. Greece’s long term competitiveness needs to come from things like boutique exports and tech startups, and there’s nothing about Grexit that works against these. Sweden is not in the Euro and full of tech startups.

Overall the supposedly disastrous scenario of Greece leaving the Euro won’t be disastrous. For Greece. It may be disastrous for the Euro, or for the careers of some politicians and mainstream economists because Greece will be doing spectacularly better almost immediately and various parties will begin to question what benefits the Euro really delivers.

The ECB broke the Euro, already

Can we get something straight? Euro deposits in Eurozone banks are liabilities of Eurosystem to individual EU citizens. Euro deposits in Greek banks are liabilities of those banks, and indirectly of the ECB, to individual depositors who live in Greece. Not to the Greek state. The Greek state is not part of this contract. If Greek banks were drachma banks they’d be the responsibility of the Bank of Greece. Now that they’re Euro banks they’re the responsibility of the ECB.

This is a contract of trust between the ECB and individual residents of EU states, including the Greeks. The Greek state is another actor, in essence a very large bankrupt business. The ECB is justified to be angry that the Greek state is threatening non-payment of its debt to the ECB, but that’s a dispute between a bankrupt business called the Greek state and the ECB. Because the ECB is unhappy with the Greek state, it decided to breach its contract with individual Greek citizens and refuse to honor their deposits. Sure enough, Greek citizens have a say in what the Greek state does but in the supposedly professional world of banking and contracts the individuals and the state are not the same thing.

To put this in perspective it’s like JP Morgan, the US bank, seizing the deposits of its customers in Detroit because it is owed money by Ford, Chrysler, etc. where these same people work. JP Morgan would then say “Ford employees refused to waive their pension claims in order to give Ford money to pay us, so we’re grabbing the deposits of these same employees directly”. Americans, how does that sound? I thought so. You cannot seize one person’s private property to recover the debt of another entity, however related. Well, you can if you are a political sovereign, but not with any pretence of legality.

Spaniards, how would you like it if the ECB decided not to honour your deposits after September because you voted Podemos?

Scots, what if your country voted Yes on independence and a few months down the line the Sottish state had a falling out with England? Inconceivable, I know. What if then the Bank of England refused to honour the deposits of individual RBS customers?

Germans, your banks now have tens of billions of liabilities to Greeks, Cypriots, Spaniards, etc. who decided as individuals to transfer their deposits to Germany. In the world of banking every liability requires a corresponding asset and in the Euro system the asset is something called TARGET2 balance from Greek to German banks. The asset behind that is Euro loans of Greek citizens to Greek banks. If you let the ECB seize deposits in Greece, Euro loans in Greece will go bad, Greek banks will fail, and said TARGET2 balances would be worth nothing.

German banks will then have tens of billions of Euros of liability to individual people, many of whom happen to be Greeks and Cypriots, with no corresponding asset. What solution will you legislate for that? Will you let your banks honour individual deposits or not based on the passport of the account holder? Will you haircut all deposits in Germany? Will you bail the banks out?

The rules of the game are that he ECB is responsible for all Euro accounts. It has accounts more or less directly with states – states are treated like very large businesses. The faith of the ECB also stands behind private banks, so that the private banks can honour Euro accounts of individuals. With Cyprus, and now with Greece, the ECB has decided to price in default risk, country by country, by refusing to honour the full value of the accounts of individuals.

If that is so the Euro has already failed. It is not one currency, it is already three: Cypriot Euro, Greek Euro, and the rest. If this policy line continues soon there will be a fourth, fifth, and more currencies all called Euro but having different net present value depending on in which country they exist as bank deposits. This is not a single currency system, it is a failure.

How QE works

Various commentators are saying that Europe’s QE won’t work, or QE in general doesn’t work because it just boosts the value of assets. Increasing the reserves of banks, critics say, doesn’t cause banks to lend money to the real economy.

That’s irrelevant. QE is not supposed to make banks lend more money. Banks don’t need reserves to lend money, or rather it works the other way. Banks lend money if there’s demand for loans, and then ask for reserves which are always given.

What QE does is indeed to boost asset prices. Central banks buy bonds, people who sold the bonds buy stocks, stocks go up in value. Or people who sold the bonds spend money, money ends up in company profits, stocks go up in value.

And this how QE works. What happens when stocks go up in value? Companies expand and hire more people. What happens when stocks fall in value? They cut costs and lay off people. When stocks rise in value pension funds are wealthy. When they fall, poor.

In our imperfect system QE is a blunt instrument that makes rich people richer while boosting the economy. The problem, though, is with concentration of financial wealth, not with QE.

How to understand Greece’s negotiations with its creditors, part 1

Greece: We can’t pay the interest on our debt because the principal is high, the rate of interest is high, and our income is much too low thanks to the income-reducing austerity measures imposed by our creditors.

Creditors line so far: Prioritize paying creditors above anything else. We don’t care about the cumulative damage it does to your economy.

Greece with Syriza: We refuse to do that any more. Besides, can’t you see it’s pointless? We have less and less income to possibly pay you with.

Creditors after election: Well we can’t remove the debt principal from the books because debt is money and European nations’ money would have to disappear.

OK, these are good opening positions for negotiation. Greece is asserting you can’t collect from a business you’re running into the ground. Central bankers are asserting that “Europe’s money is our balance sheet” and you can’t remove debt from the assets side of the balance sheet without something bad happening to the liabilities (money) side.

What next? Compromise I expect. Either central bankers accept that balance sheets with liabilities exceeding assets are OK for central banks, or they’ll figure out a way to make old debt a token asset that generates little or no current account obligations. The first would be easiest, but the economic Zeitgeist is against it so I expect the latter. Some sort of indefinite near-zero real interest rollover as is the case with US or Japanese debt.

To clarify for the concerns of northern European folk:
No-one really expects a nation to pay back its debt. It’s not a project to build a highway, or little of national debt is like that. Nations borrow more or less indefinitely and the amount of debt may rise and fall but that’s an investment concern like the stock market rising and falling in valuation. Generally debt is supposed to rise slowly, and to pay it all back is a bad thing because it removes bonds from the investment market. Neither is Greece expected to pay back northern Europe nor are northern European taxpayers on the hook to pay Greece’s bill to someone. Sovereign debts are not like auto loans.

Rather, sovereign debts are like stocks or mortgages. They’re assets in the banking system. Greece essentially borrowed into a bubble and in 2010 was revealed to be a bad asset. Greece’s economy is worth less than it’s mortgage, so to speak. Bad call, maybe reckless, but it’s the truth. Since then the bad asset that’s Greece’s debt has been passed around until it ended up in Europe’s central banks, the way bad assets in the US ended un in the Fed. That’s OK, it’s partly what central banks are for. No one is going to liquidate a central bank because its liabilities exceed its assets. Except the ECB, if they decide to. But that would be dumb.

So what the negotiation is about is seeking one of two outcomes: Either agree in banking circles that having big holes in the balance sheets of central banks is OK, in which case they can write off a big chunk of debt and put the remaining amount back on the investment market on a sound footing, or figure out a clever way to keep the debt on the books so the books look neat but the debt generates no real interest or pressure on the real economy. The first is emotionally cleaner and revives the economy, and it’s what Syriza wants. The latter buries the problem until it dies of old age and is the Japanese approach. I like Japan…

Why is there an oil price?

Why is the oil price well-behaved? I mean why is it settling in a range around $50 a barrel instead of being stuck at a few dollars per barrel, the marginal cost of the cheapest producers? Or for that matter why isn’t it much higher, at several hundred or thousands of dollars? These questions are not as trivial as they appear.

I know that different producers face different costs of extraction and shipment, with Saudi Arabia bing the cheapest and US fracking the most costly. If producers also face scaling limits on production, that would create a sloping supply curve. But do they? What’s stopping Saudi Arabia from pumping the oil out of the ground much faster and meeting the entire world demand until its oil fields run out? It could then charge a price just below the amortised extraction cost of the next cheapest producer.

Is there a technical or geological limit on how fast you can drain an oil field? Faster extraction of course requires more rigs, but the capital requirement is moot. If one rig is profitable at a given oil price so are 100 rigs, assuming the oil field and the market last longer than the capital amortization period.

A fully competitive market with zero foresight, in other words concerned only with present returns and assuming oil reserves and world demand lasting indefinitely, would suggest an oil price close to the lower bound. That we’re not seeing that suggests producers are factoring some aspect of future or total expected returns into their supply decisions. In other words they set the NPV of future returns above zero. Hold that thought.

What’s at the other extreme? What if some really far-sighted people, say Norwegians, value future returns on par with the present? Then they should say “Hang on, this oil belongs not just to us but to our children and our children’s children. All future generations need to be compensated for losing their finite resource, so we’re keeping it in the ground until it’s the last oil in the World and prices are many times higher than thy are now”.

If a producer can wait, assuming oil stock is finite but world demand persists indefinitely, you’d expect them to sit on the oil until production collapses, there are acute shortages, and they can extract punitive prices. That’s the way to maximize total returns if you set the NPV multiplier of future income at 1, that is you value the future as much as the present. Nobody does that, not even the Norwegians.

So what determines the price of oil? Is it the intersection of a textbook competitive supply and demand curve, where supply means marginal production cost and capital amortization? Is Saudi Arabia simply trying to drive US shale (fracking) out of the business? That’s the theory that prevails in the business press. Or is there something more subtle going on?

If producers are basing their supply decisions not just on spot supply and demand but on some sort of future returns calculation, they have three factors to balance:

An NPV curve (Net Present Value) or how they value money today vs. money in the future. This is subjective. War or fear of losing power may make the current leadership of an oil producer unusually short-termist. Oh look, ISIL, Yemen, the Saudi king just died…

Finite stock considerations, in other words recognizing that the stock of oil that each producer has is not infinite. Neither is the world total. Peak oil looked like an overriding concern a few years ago, but with the exploitation of shale and other expensive reservoirs the concern has abated. Oil is still not infinite though, and it’s finite within one or two human lifetimes meaning that producers should care.

The uncertainly of future demand. Sure, demand fluctuates but it’s rising indefinitely or at last not falling, is it? Well that assumption may be dramatically wrong. Oil demand may well drop abruptly because of climate limitations, or because of a technology shift to a superior form of energy such as solar. If you’re an oil producer with foresight you might want to get your money now before that happens.

I find these price-influencing factors at least as plausible as the naive assumption that there’s a price war going on against shale. If they apply, low prices may persist much longer than analysts are expecting, or may revert quickly. Prices may also move much lower or much higher than the cutoff point for shale which appears to be near current levels. We’ll see. But if a lot of volatility happens, and price turns out not to be driven by shale costs, don’t be surprised.

Marginal contribution nonsense

Jay-and-Ani

Consider two imaginary artists, Jay and Ani. Jay raps about problems not created by women and Ani sings ballads about problems created by men.

Unequivocally Jay is more popular. At almost any time and place more people want to listen to Jay than Ani. Of course popularity is not the only measure of worth. We could make qualitative arguments as to why Ani’s work should be more prominent, and these ultimately translate to predictions about hidden preferences: Maybe everyone will value her more in the future, or some people value her really strongly, or would value her if it weren’t for marketing. We’ll return to these concepts later.  But for now let us concede that the market has ranked Jay’s contribution higher than Ani’s.

How much higher is Jay’s contribution relative to Ani’s? Today, Jay is 50 times richer. Does this mean his contribution to the world through music is 50 times greater? Not so fast!

Suppose our wonderful artists stated their careers in the 1900’s. There’s no amplification and no recording, so all they can do is acoustic concerts in relatively small halls. Jay is still more popular and manages to book 3 times as many gigs. In these circumstances where the artist’s product scales with their labor we can say that yes, Jay’s contribution is 3 times Ani’s or close enough.

Then it’s 1950 and we have amplification. Now people can gather to really big concerts in stadiums. Jay can pull in the big crowd and earns 10 times as much as Ani who’s still doing small gigs. Did Jay just expand his contribution, or did the work of engineers and athletes and builders do that?

Fast forward to 1980 and someone invents CDs. Imagine at first there’s only two CDs on the market, Jay’s work and Ani’s work, and they’re very expensive. Let’s say they’re $100 so consumers can only afford one. Forced to choose, the vast majority of people go for Jay’s CD and he ends up selling 100 times as much as Ani. Is his contribution now 100 times greater? Why? What changed since the acoustic days?

A few years later in the 1990s publishers have figured out how to make CDs cheaply and price them properly, so now they’re $10. Suddenly consumers can afford to buy both Jay’s and Ani’s work, and Jay is now making 50 times Ani’s sales. Did their relative contribution actually change?

Now it’s 2010 and some geeks invented streaming music. They charge $10 a month and let you listen to whatever you like, distributing money to artists according to how often each song is played. Now people have access to both Jay’s and Ani’s work and it turns out that Jay’s work gets played 200 times more than Ani’s. Wait, what happened? Jay now earns 200 times as much as Ani. Does that reflect his contribution, or is his music more everyday entertainment compared to Ani’s deep stuff?

Now let’s revisit the qualitative questions about worth that we parked at the start. Is it correct to reward artists according to how many times their songs get played? What if people value listening to Ani’s songs occasionally, or just having the option to listen? Remember people don’t pay per listen, they pay a flat fee. What if artists were rewarded progressively, say by the log or square root of play counts? What if the money was apportioned by listener ratings, or an even more direct listener choice to support specific artists? Changing the model of what’s essentially interpretation of the subscriber’s preferences completely changes the valuation of each artist’s work.

The moral for economists is that marginal contribution is nonsense. A meritocratic market can rank contributions with plausible veracity but says nothing about the magnitude of contributions. Earnings are an emergent result of technology, ownership, legal structures, trust, marketing, and other factors. These factors determine the shape of the earnings curve – how much winners win and losers lose. A meritocracy, at best, defines who the winners are.