A long-awaited reform of the International Monetary Fund has now been carelessly blocked by the US Congress. This decision is just the latest in a series of self-inflicted blows since the turn of the century that have needlessly undermined the claim of the United States to global leadership.
The IMF reform would have been an important step in updating the allocations of quotas among member countries. From the negative congressional reaction, one might infer that the US was being asked either to contribute more money or to give up some voting power. (Quotas allocations in the IMF determine both monetary contributions of the member states and their voting power.) But one would then be wrong. The agreement among the IMF members had been to allocate greater shares to China, India, Brazil and other Emerging Market countries, coming largely at the expense of European countries. The United States was neither to pay a higher budget share nor to lose its voting weight, which has always given it a unique veto power in the institution.
There is a danger that some investors will lose sight of the purpose of a benchmark index. The benchmark exists to represent the views of the median investor dollar. For many investors, going with the benchmark is a good guideline – especially those who recognize themselves to be relatively unsophisticated and also those who think they are sophisticated but really aren’t. This is the implication of the Efficient Markets Hypothesis (EMH), for example.
A survey of economists is published in the November 2012 issue of Foreign Policy. One question was whether we thought that the US unemployment rate would dip below 8.0% before the election. When the FP conducted the poll at the end of the summer, unemployment was 8.1-8.2%. Now it’s 7.8%. Only 8% of the respondents said “yes.” (I was one. I basically just extrapolated the trend of the last two years.)
My fellow economists choose defense spending and agricultural subsidies as the two categories of US federal budget that they think the best to cut. They rate the euro crisis as the greatest threat to the world economy now and are particularly worried about Spain.
Throughout history, big economic and political shocks have often occurred in August, when leaders had gone on vacation in the belief that world affairs were quiet. Examples of geopolitical jolts that came in August include the outbreak of World War I, the Nazi-Soviet pact of 1939 and the Berlin Wall in 1961. Subsequent examples of economic and other surprises in August have included the Nixon shock of 1971 (when the American president enacted wage-price controls, took the dollar off gold, and imposed trade controls), 1982 eruption in Mexico of the international debt crisis, Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990, the 1991 Soviet coup, 1992 crisis in the European Exchange Rate Mechanism, Hurricane Katrina in 2005, and US subprime mortgage crisis of 2007. Many of these shocks constituted events that had previously not even appeared on most radar screens. They were considered unthinkable.
My preceding post bemoaned the tendency for many US politicians to exhibit a procyclicalist pattern: supporting tax cuts and spending increases when the economy is booming, which should be the time to save money for a rainy day, and then re-discovering the evils of budget deficits only in times of recession, thus supporting fiscal contraction at precisely the wrong time. Procyclicalists exacerbate the magnitude of the swings in the business cycle.
This is not just an American problem. A similar unfortunate cycle — large fiscal deficits when the economy is already expanding anyway, followed by fiscal contraction in response to a recession — has also been visible in the United Kingdom and euroland in recent years. Greece and Portugal are the two most infamous examples. But the larger European countries, as well, failed to take advantage of the expansionary period 2003-07 to strengthen their public finances, and instead ran budget deficits in excess of the limits (3% of GDP) that they were supposed to obey under the Stability and Growth Pact. Then, over the last few years, politicians in both the UK and the continent have made their recessions worse by imposing aggressive fiscal austerity at precisely the wrong time.
The Obama Recovery. The U.S. economy was in free fall in late 2008, whether measured by GDP statistics, the monthly jobs numbers, or inter-bank spreads. Was the end of the recession in mid-2009 attributable to policies adopted by President Obama? A full evaluation of that question to economists’ standards would require delving into the complexity of mathematical models. The public generally has a simpler standard: was the impact big enough to be visible to the naked eye? Amazingly, the answer is “yes.” Whichever of those statistics one looks at, and whether it is coincidence or not: the economic free-fall ended almost precisely the month that Obama took office, January 2009.
Emerging markets have generally had much better economic fundamentals over the last decade than advanced economies. For example, one third of developing countries have succeeded in breaking the historical syndrome of procyclical (destabilizing) fiscal policy. For the first time, they took advantage of the boom of 2003-08 to strengthen their budget balances, which allowed a fiscal easing when the global recession hit in 2008-09.
The 15-year cycle in EMs. Market swings that start out based firmly on fundamentals can eventually go too far. Some emerging markets like Turkey look vulnerable this year. A crash would fit the biblical pattern: seven fat years, followed by seven lean years. Here are the last three cycles of capital flows to developing countries:
1975-81: 7 fat years (“recycling petrodollars”)
1982: crash (the international debt crisis)
1983-1989: 7 lean years (the “Lost Decade” in Latin America)
1990-1996: 7 fat years (Emerging Market boom)
1997: crash (the East Asia crisis)
1997-2003: 7 lean years (currency crises spread globally)
Emerging markets have performed amazingly well over the last seven years. They have outperformed the advanced industrialized countries in terms of economic growth, debt-to-GDP ratios, and countercyclical fiscal policy. Many now receive better assessments by rating agencies and financial markets than some of the advanced economies.
As 2012 begins, however, emerging markets may be due for a correction, triggered by a new wave of “risk off” behavior among investors. Will China experience a hard landing? Will a decline in commodity prices hit Latin America? Will the sovereign-debt woes of the European periphery spread to neighbors such as Turkey in a new “Aegean crisis”?
The prices of minerals, hydrocarbons, and agricultural commodities have been on a veritable roller coaster. Although commodity prices are always more variable than those for manufactured goods and services, commodity markets over the last five years have seen extraordinary volatility.
Countries that specialize in the export of oil, copper, iron ore, wheat, coffee, or other commodities have boomed. But they are highly vulnerable. Dollar commodity prices could plunge at any time, as a result of a new global recession, a hard landing in China, an increase in real interest rates in the United States, fluctuations in climate, or random sector-specific factors.
After the currency crises of 1994-2001, and especially the East Asia crises of 1997-98, a lot of research investigated what countries could do to protect themselves against a future repeat. More importantly, policy makers in emerging markets took some serious measures. Some countries abandoned exchange rate targets and began to float. Many accumulated high levels of foreign exchange reserves. Many moved away from dollar-denominated debt, toward other kinds of capital inflow that would be less vulnerable to currency mismatch, such as domestic currency debt or Foreign Direct Investment. Some instituted Collective Action Clauses in their debt contracts to facilitate otherwise-messy restructuring of debt in the event of a severe negative shock. A few raised reserve requirements or otherwise tightened prudential banking regulations (clearly not enough, in retrospect). And so on.
Everywhere one looks, problems of fiscal policy are now center stage. Among advanced countries, the news is bad: Europe’s periphery teeters, the U.K. slashes, the U.S. deadlocks, Japan muddles. But in the rest of the world there is better news: In an historic reversal, many emerging market and developing countries have over the last decade achieved a countercyclical fiscal policy.
In the past, developing countries tended to follow procyclical fiscal policy: they increased spending (or cut taxes) during periods of expansion and cut spending (or raised taxes) during periods of recession. Many authors have documented that fiscal policy has tended to be procyclical in developing countries, in comparison with a pattern among industrialized countries that has been by and large countercyclical. (References for this proposition and others are available.) Most studies look at the procyclicality of government spending, because tax receipts are particularly endogenous with respect to the business cycle. Indeed, an important reason for procyclical spending is precisely that government receipts from taxes or mineral royalties rise in booms, and the government cannot resist the temptation or political pressure to increase spending proportionately, or even more than proportionately. One can find a similar pattern on the tax side by focusing on tax rates rather than revenues, though cross-country evidence is harder to come by.