Philip Pilkington is a journalist currently sinking, together with the rest of his fellow countrymen, down into the hole in the Irish banking system
Will all your money
Keep you from madness
Keep you from sadness
When you’re down in the hole
Cause you’ll be down in the gutter
You’ll be bumming for cigarettes
Bumming for nylons
In the American Zone
–‘Down in the Hole’, The Rolling Stones
Everyone who is anyone is saying it: the US looks set to become the next Japan. Yet the particulars of the argument are never really trashed out. Certainly both countries suffer from the same malady – namely, a bursting asset bubble punching gigantic holes in private sector balance sheets. This leads to similar policy approaches – not to mention similar policy failures. But beyond this overarching comparison people tend not to tread.
Let’s start from the beginning; the asset bubbles that set off the crises.
Bob Kuttner has an elegant and important article at American Prospect, “Debtors’ Prison“. It’s an evocative, historical form of the argument made here and elsewhere: that advanced economies have gone down a disastrously bad path in not writing down debt that can’t realistically be paid.
The usual poster child for “why not writing down debts is a bad idea” is Japan, but that isn’t gripping enough to evoke the right responses. Even though its post-bubble growth has been dreadful, Japan is still a well-run, tidy country with a low crime rate, universal health care, long life expectancy, and tolerable unemployment. That in turn is due to factors that do not obtain much of anywhere else: Japan was very cohesive to begin with, and its elites chose to have their incomes fall relative to everyone else to save jobs. Wage compression at large companies has increased dramatically. This is the polar opposite of what has happened in the rest of the world, where the gap between the haves and the have-nots has widened.
Kuttner provides another set of examples as to why we need to get the creditor boot off all our necks:
There’s a fight afoot over who will be the next head of the IMF. Yours truly is not making odds on this one, save that Christine Lagarde is getting far and away the most attention in the media and more generally, a big push is on to have a European take the reins. The logic is that with the eurozone mess far and away the biggest priority, the new IMF chief needs to have credibility with the major actors, and that argues for a European choice.
The contrary camp is the “the countries formerly known as emerging” who point out that it is their turn to have an IMF head from one of their countries. The IMF has been led by a European since its inception. Even though votes have been rejiggered to give younger economies more weight, the mature ones still are in control of the outcome.
But what is intriguing are the arguments that follow, which reveal what the real stakes are.
By Michael Pettis, a Senior Associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and a finance professor at Peking University’s Guanghua School of Management. Cross posted from China Financial Markets
The week before last on Thursday the Financial Times published an OpEd piece I wrote arguing that Washington should take the lead in getting the world to abandon the dollar as the dominant reserve currency. My basic argument is that every twenty to thirty years – whenever, it seems, that American current account deficits surge – we hear dire warnings in the US and abroad about the end of the dollar’s dominance as the world’s reserve currency. Needless to say in the last few years these warnings have intensified to an almost feverish pitch. In fact I discuss one such warning, by Barry Eichengreen, in an entry two months ago.
But these predictions are likely to be as wrong now as they have been in the past. Reserve currency status is a global public good that comes with a cost, and people often forget that cost.
By Satyajit Das, author of Extreme Money: The Masters of the Universe and the Cult of Risk (Forthcoming in Q3 2011) and Traders, Guns & Money: Knowns and Unknowns in the Dazzling World of Derivatives – Revised Edition (2006 and 2010)
Quantitative easing (“QE”), the currently fashionable form of voodoo economics favoured by policymakers in the US, is primarily directed at boosting asset values and creating inflation. By essentially creating money artificially, central bankers are seeking to return the world to stability, growth and prosperity.
The underlying driver is to generate growth and inflation to enable the problems of excessive debt in the economy to be dealt with painlessly. It is far from clear whether it will work
n the film Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, an economics teacher, played by Ben Stein, launches into an improvised soliloquy: “… Anyone know what this is? Class? Anyone? Anyone? Anyone seen this before? The Laffer Curve. Anyone know what this says? It says that at this point on the revenue curve, you will get exactly the same amount of revenue as at this point. This is very controversial. Does anyone know what Vice President Bush called this in 1980? Anyone? Something-d-o-o economics. “Voodoo” economics.”
In the late twentieth century, US President Ronald Reagan discovered voodoo economics. In framing policy responses to the global financial crisis, central bankers and governments have increasingly embraced more exotic forms of voodoo.
Leaked water sampled from one unit Sunday was 100,000 times more radioactive than normal background levels — though the Tokyo Electric Power Co., which operates the plant, first calculated an even higher, erroneous, figure that it didn’t correct for several hours.
Some bloggers as well as readers in comments have been very surprised at and unhappy with the spectacle of American officials taking issue with the Japanese response to the crisis at the Fukushima reactor. For instance, the US recommended evacuation for a 50 mile radius from the facility, as opposed to the 20 kilometers, or 12 miles, established by the Japanese.
The disparity in reporting appears to continue today.
By Satyajit Das, the author of “Traders, Guns & Money: Knowns and Unknowns in the Dazzling World of Derivatives”
The behaviour of financial markets over recent days confirms British Prime Minister Lloyd George’s observation that “financiers in a panic do not make a pretty sight”. While workers in the Fukushima nuclear plant risked death trying to bring damaged reactors under control, financiers cowered in fear. Oscillating between boom and doom, they sought opportunities to benefit from death and destruction.
Instant experts on the nuances of nuclear power generation and the Japanese economy have crowded the airwaves providing ‘analysis’.
Gillan Tett’s latest offering in the Financial Times discusses the woes that have befallen various major companies that find themselves exposed as a result of having extended supply chains that have Japan-based manufacturing as an important part. She correctly depicts this as a symptom of a much larger problem, of having pushed the idea of wringing out production costs too far. But perhaps due to space constraints, she fails to draw out the most important conclusion: just as with financial engineering, management incentives favored ignoring risk, and the resulting blow ups were predictable.
Markets like Intrade are only as good as the intelligence (as in G2, not IQ) of the people making the bets. Given the dearth of real information coming from Tokyo Power, it’s hard to reach informed conclusions about whether the powers that be are making progress in getting the damaged reactors in the Fukushima power complex under control. Japanese are just not big on Western-style disaster presentations: “Here is what happened,” (with a few schematics) “here is what we’ve done and this is what we are going to do next” with backup plans sketched out if the first line of attack fails. Their reflex is instead a combination of apologies and sincere vows to do better, plus and inward hiss if they are asked a really uncomfortable question. So the collective nervousness is based on the legitimate concern that Something Really Awful still could happen, and the incomplete and often inconsistent tidbits don’t provide much reassurance.
The stock market decline in Japan thus far today is second worst to the 1987 crash. As a mere mortal with delayed Bloomberg readings, Topix is now down “only” 12.64 versus a recent 13.18% and the Nikkei is off 12.74%, having recovered a smidge from down 14.1%. Good thing I didn’t listen to some recent stock market recommendations that the Japanese stock market would be up 20% in the first six months of this year.
The yen has firmed only modestly, to 81.55, due to Bank of Japan emergency liquidity operations only partially offsetting a rally. Note the BoJ’s operations are being criticized for being inadequate (ahem, do you think even a central bank can stand in front of a freight train of a major reset in economic fundamentals, unless it chooses to intervene in the stock market directly? Given the current and potential economic damage, the Japanese bond and money markets don’t sound too terrible with call money rates in a much wider trading range than normal. 008% to 0.13% versus the BofJ’s target of 0.1%, so the BoJ appears to be addressing what it considers to be its main priority). From Bloomberg:
Details from the Washington Post on the partial meltdown at the Fukushima Daichi complex number 1 reactor:
Tokyo Electric Power Co., owner of two heavily damaged nuclear power complexes near the center of Friday’s earthquake, told Japanese regulators Sunday that it faced a new emergency at one of its 10 reactors, even as it struggled to bring several others under control.
Earlier, the big electric utility took the unprecedented step of pumping seawater mixed with boric acid into the core of Fukushima Daiichi’s unit 1 reactor to tame ultra-high temperatures from fuel rods that had been partially exposed….
When a smaller earthquake struck near Tokyo a couple of days ago, I wondered if worse was on the way soon.
Japan has been overdue for a major earthquake, given their historical frequency. Perversely, there was much more worry about the impact of a major quake on Japan when it was an economic force to be reckoned with (perhaps a subconscious wish to cut the seemingly unbeatable Japanese down to size?). While the horrific death count that resulted from the last great quake in 1923, led the Japanese to impose vastly tougher building codes and continue to improve upon earthquake-related technology, events like this too often have a nasty way of defeating careful planning. But this tremblor, which registered a formidable magnitude 8.8, was off the northern coast, but still has produced serious disruptions in Tokyo. There are no good reports of the damage yet. From the New York Times: