21 October 2009

Reform not Regulation

I begin to like our stodgy central bank chief, Mervyn King:
reform of banking is essential
Not just regulation mind, Mr King wants banking to be reformed.
Battle lines are being drawn up between those who want to reform financial regulation and those who want to reform finance. Mervyn has chosen to be on the right side.

The belief that appropriate regulation can ensure that speculative activities do not result in failures is a delusion.
As the press is reporting he supports splitting the utility side of banking from their speculative activities. He is right; anyone who wants to take deposits from the public shouldn't be allowed in the casino. Or as he puts it:

Anyone who proposed giving government guarantees to retail depositors and other creditors, and then suggested that such funding could be used to finance highly risky and speculative activities, would be thought rather unworldly. But that is where we now are.
Splitting utility from casino banks is not his only idea. He wants new tools to:

(a) moderate the growth of the financial sector and
(b) lean against the macroeconomic effects of the credit cycle

This is more than I could have hoped for. The finance sector is too big and finance should lend less in the boom and more in the bad times. Mervyn drops hints that he could be even more radical:

It is hard to see how the existence of institutions that are “too important to fail” is consistent with their being in the private sector.

But he doesn't say what sector they should be in.

It is important that banks in receipt of public support are not encouraged to try to earn their way out of that support by resuming the very activities that got them into trouble in the first place.

Ouch! Who could be encouraging such recklessness?
King for chancellor?

15 October 2009

BBC Churnalism

Churnalism (n) - the practice of turning a press release into published copy without ever going through the journalist's brain.

Here is another example from the BBC: Pound hit by falling UK inflation. The BBC tries to link the fall in inflation with the fall in sterling, as if the first has caused the second.

"This is bad news for the pound," Duncan Higgins, senior analyst at Caxton FX, is quoted as saying. "The CPI figures will weigh heavily on the UK currency and will continue to discourage investment."

Anyone who has ever opened an economics textbook knows that low inflation, relative to inflation elsewhere, tends to push up the currency.

It works like this. Imagine there are just two currencies, pounds used in Britain and FX used in RoW. If inflation is 1% in Britain and 3% in RoW then 100 pounds will be worth 99 pounds next year while 100FX will be worth 97FX (roughly). So 1 pound will be worth more FX next year than now. The pound should rise.

By the way, the falling pound is good news not bad in the current circumstances. It is adding to demand and will help to reduce the current account deficit.

09 October 2009

Is the UK the Free Rider?

Britain was the first European country to move on fiscal stimulus. As other countries fell into line there was a fear that Germany might take the benefit of the boost to demand in other European countries while spending little of its own money on boosting demand in Germany. In time Ms Merkel came through and Germany has been pulling its weight.

Now Britain is going to be the first to withdraw the stimulus. From January the VAT rate will return to its old level and government spending will come under pressure. Of course the "automatic" stimulus of more benefit payments and lower tax take will still be there, and the government deficit will be as huge as anywhere in Europe. Which is the reason why the chancellor is reluctant to let the stimulus continue.

When Britain moved aggressively with monetary and fiscal stimulus the pound fell against the euro, potentially boosting demand from net exports. At the time I thought that this was fair as it gave the British economy some compensation for the demand which would leak to countries not making the same efforts to counteract the recession.

Now however, Britain is beginning to look like the free rider, and the low pound could be seen as a beggar-my-neighbour policy. (I remember Paul Krugmann using that expression when he visited Britain earlier this year.) I doubt that the pound will rise much. Monetary easing is continuing and interest rates are lower in the UK than Euroland.

Are we now going to gamble on other countries' fiscal expansion to get us out of recession?