Posts Tagged ‘spain’

May 28th, 2012


Drowning in Debt? QE making you Queasy? Try Monetary Dialysis

As Spain heads to debtors prison, questions are being asked about the viability of the whole Euro project. It’s become clear that a large scale monetary union without fiscal integration, is not a viable long-term structure. Distortions in interest rates and currency levels are good for some but not for others. Add in the corruption of the entire financial system and you have a recipe for disaster that impacts everyone.

Quantitative easing is also not working. Why not?

Quantitative Easing first entered popular language during the 2008 Global Financial Crisis. Central banks, specifically the US Federal Reserve (FED) and the Bank of England (BoE), tried to provide stimulus to their economies by buying securities from banks, with a goal to reduce monetary conditions and, thereby, hoping to induce an increase in lending and hopefully, as a result, new economic activity.

As interest rates fell to zero, the Fed began QE1 in November 2008 with a $600 billion purchase of Mortgage-backed securities (MBS). It did this by creating new credit in its own account and then exchanging this for the MBS held by the banks. The purpose of this was threefold: to improve bank balance sheets, raise the price of securities (and therefore reduce interest rates along the yield curve) and stimulate new borrowing. This was not an entirely new policy, as Japan had been engaged in the same process for over 10 years, though with limited success. The Bank of England followed suit in March 2009 and started buying UK Government bonds and a limited amount of other high-grade assets.

The initial impact was felt in the asset markets with the price of stocks, bonds and commodities all rising. In fact, rising commodity prices were seen as an unwelcome side effect of QE, given that QE was supposed to boost lending and, therefore, economic activity, specifically new jobs. Banks were supposed to be lending these excess reserves, not speculating in financial markets. The reality was that banks had no interest in lending and businesses and consumers had little interest in borrowing. The central bankers had failed to note that they were in the middle of a huge debt bubble and that `trying to offer new debt into a market saturated with the stuff was hardly going to be a winner.

There is no doubt QE helped restore confidence to the financial markets and, as a side effect, helped steady the general economy. Whether it actually worked in the manner it was supposed to, is highly debatable. As Bank of England governor, Mervyn King, stated when giving evidence to the UK Treasury Committee on QE,

“I can’t guarantee that it (QE) means that bank lending will rise, but what I do believe is that it won’t fall as far as it might otherwise have done”.

In terms of impact, the US bailout of the auto industry had more success with over 1m jobs saved. Whilst the financing aspects were contentious, the outcome has been positive. As Obama aides noted, direct government funding enabled the auto industry to survive and this would not have happened if it had been left to the market. Setting aside the merits of saving the US auto industry, what was crucial and different about this policy was that it involved direct stimulus into the real economy, where people are employed to make products.

As Nouriel Roubini noted, the US Government would have been better off just spending the new credit used for QE directly into the economy. He suggested, in a co-authored 2011 paper, that there should be a massive infrastructure rebuild ($1.2 trillion) in the US, which would create jobs and lay the foundation for “a more efficient and cost-effective economy”. He further noted that the crisis had been exacerbated by “inadequate action” by policymakers who had an “inadequate understanding of what ails us”.

It’s clear that policymakers have not stepped back and tried to understand both the causes and outcomes of the crisis. In a debt deflating environment, no amount of new debt is going to help the problem. Until the bad debt has been cleared, new investment is unlikely to happen and the economy dies a slow death. One option that hasn’t been considered, as Roubini alludes to, is to actually stimulate the real economy directly i.e. the economy that produces real goods and services. Governments can actually print new money and spend it directly into the economy through infrastructure projects. That way the money directly enters the economy and supports real economic activity, in a way that QE was supposed to do but never did.

We actually proposed this type of policy in 2011, immediately after the devastating February 22nd Christchurch Earthquake. A direct injection of $5 billion of new money was suggested, as a way of financing new and necessary infrastructure for the rebuild of the city. At that time, this was calculated to save around $200 million a year in financing costs and avoid further increases in government debt.

Ironically, the Minister of Finance rejected this, on the grounds that it may cause “an adverse combination of high inflation, arbitrary wealth transfers and a loss of confidence in the creditworthiness of New Zealand”. This response supports Roubini’s position that policymakers simply do not understand the problem. In the case of New Zealand, the Minister of Finance seems to be quite happy to keep borrowing money and worsening the financial position of the country.

As has been seen, inflation is non-existent in a debt deflating economy. Of course, any new injections of new money must be carefully monitored and be at a level which is not likely to cause over stimulation of the economy. As Willem Buiter, a former external member of the Bank of England’s Monetary Policy Committee notes, an injection of base money “even in huge amounts, need not become inflationary ever”. Buiter goes on to state that “any inflationary increase impact of the enlarged stock of base money on the stock of bank credit or broad money can be neutralized by either raising bank reserve requirements, or by raising the remuneration rate on excess reserves held by banks”.

Thus, inflationary concerns can be set aside when this double-sided process is undertaken. This type of intervention has been called “Monetary Dialysis”, where clean money comes into the system (newly minted e-notes) and replaces or causes a reduction in debt money (bank credit) in order to keep the money supply at a prescribed level. The key is that the process is managed within the same framework that current monetary conditions are dealt with. No new legislation is required and the process can begin immediately. The RBNZ is already developing a new suite of macro-prudential tools and will be well placed to manage this policy shift.

In this process, all the objections raised by the Minister of Finance are dealt with. Infrastructure is rebuilt, people are employed, goods and services are provided, inflation is stable and money is saved, as there are no financing costs incurred. This really is the ultimate point: its is not about not having enough money, it is whether you have surplus labour (unemployment) and resources (capacity in the economy). This was the stark lesson of the Great Depression and it’s incredible that it still hasn’t been properly understood.

As to the creditworthiness of New Zealand, it is more likely that this will improve, as the overall level of debt falls and the productive economy recovers. What’s not to like about that?


April 18th, 2012


Selling your Soul: The Unintended Consequences of Asset Sales

Submissions on the new Mixed Ownership Model Bill (who dreamt that nonsense up?) closed last Friday. Although I was away on holiday, I did get mine in, though it wasn’t quite as detailed as planned. I have posted the full submission below but, in light of news out overnight, I wanted to add a few points.

My opposition to the proposal to partially sell 4 of our energy companies (and who knows what else down the line) is based not on an ideological opposition to privatisation (government should only own assets that have a public good purpose or have key national strategic value) but on the issues of finance, risk and law.

The finance argument is simple. There really is no case for selling these assets based on their poor performance, funding costs or return. Government debt may be high and set to rise but flogging the family silver provides short term gain with long term pain. The debt position in NZ (both public and private) is a structural problems and will not be solved by a $5-7b sell down of core assets.

The question of the risk of these proposed sales is perhaps more subtle. It simply comes down to how one views the provision of energy on a national scale. It is a clear public good, even if it can be provided privately (e.g solar or micro-wind) and therefore should be provided at least cost (taking into account externalities) to the public. Floating energy providers onto the stock market changes the goal of the company. It is now a profit maximizer with long term shareholder value as its primary concern. Some might argue that SOEs are already operating in that model but that’s not relevant to this argument. The key is that in order to provide a public good, ownership must be in public hands. Added to that, the changes in technology and energy availability will require national level changes, planning and investment. Diluting ownership will make this problematic. At some point, the national interest may come back into focus and then what? What of the shareholders? They may not be interested in the national interest, especially if it impacts on the share price or their dividends.

This leads nicely into last night’s news. Argentina has sensationally nationalised YPF, a unit of the Spanish energy giant, Repsol, quoting “Hydrocarbon Sovereignty” (in Spanish) and basically arguing a lack of investment by YPF in Argentina. This is out and out expropriation and Repsol has hit back with a claim for $10.5b as compensation. This has been completely rejected by Argentina, as expected. This is likely to play out very badly in the international trade and investment arena and will probably end up in the international courts, if it is not resolved diplomatically.

Now this is exactly what I alluded to in my submission around the issue of international law and any future re-nationalisation or expropriation of assets, no matter what the situation is locally. Added to that we have the TPPA lurking in the background, which may further complicate matters, especially for a National government desperate to turn everything in NZ into an investment. One may argue that there is absolutely nothing to worry about in terms of possible future legal claims or problems but history shows us that this is a serious and unconsidered risk. Certainly I have not seen it in mentioned in any commentary. The government tries to duck and weave around the wording and structure of the sales model but it really needs to rethink the whole process from start to finish.


Submission on the Mixed Ownership Model Bill

The main purpose of the bill is to raise funds to reduce government debt and provide funds for new spending on public services. Reducing government debt is a laudable proposition and one can do that by increasing taxes, cutting expenditure or selling assets.


The government has chosen to sell publicly owned assets, specifically energy companies, in order to raise somewhere between $5 and $7b. These numbers are purely guesswork and will depend on a number of factors, including current market conditions, offering price and the structure of the companies post-sale.


This proposed bill is of concern for a number of reasons, which are listed below. I have categorized them into three areas: finance, risk and legal.


1)   Finance: The prime reason given for selling energy companies is that they provide a poor return to the government and that private owners may extract more “efficiencies” from the businesses. There has been no clear-cut evidence provided to support the former assertion, namely that the return from the energy companies is lower than the cost of government debt. Furthermore, there is scant evidence to support the proposition that privately run energy companies are any more efficient than publicly run ones. As we have seen from the Pike River disaster, private companies tend to be poor managers of risk and cut costs wherever possible, in order to increase profits. As many costs are externalized as possible to achieve this goal. In the energy business, this is a very dangerous approach. It seems that the financial argument is weak at best.

2)   Risk: As alluded to above, risk management is of serious concern when privatizing companies in the energy space. Energy provision is a prime public good and should therefore be provided by the public. Like water, energy is a pre-requisite for basic survival and should, therefore, not be seen as a profit maximizing good. By giving up pubic ownership of these basic assets, we open ourselves up to a poorer service, which may be based on ability to pay rather than a right to have the basic provision of energy. We may also lose the ability to make changes to and investment in the development of new energy production and networks. Investors, even with a 10% cap and other restrictions, will still have rights and views (see legal for further argument on this point), which may not be aligned with the public good. As well as safety and control risks, there is the risk of prices being raised over and above what might be appropriate. The example of the Bolivian water privatization and the Bechtel corporation (see Cochabamba riots of 2000) is a good example of what can go wrong when private interests are allowed to control basic pubic goods. Theses risks should not be taken lightly.

3)   Legal: Global investment rules have been expanded significantly over the last 20 years. NAFTA, the WTO and numerous bilateral trade agreements, have made the investment law field extremely complicated. What is clear, though, is that foreign investors have clear rights and these rights may, in some cases, trump domestic law and the expectations of the domestic citizenry. Examples of this are the Santa Elena case in Costa Rica, the Metalclad Corporation vs. The United Mexican States and the Ethyl Corporation vs. Canada. These are a small example of cases taken by foreign investors against states, where they feel their rights have been infringed. This could be for a number of reasons: environmental laws, human rights laws or expropriation (e.g. arising from renationalization or similar action).  We have transnational agreements being negotiated in secrecy (the Trans Pacific Partnership Agreement (TPPA)), which may contain further restrictions on the ability to make decisions based on domestic considerations but perceived as harmful to foreign investors. The making of new international investment rules has seen many unintended consequences. The same outcomes may apply to this bill.


In summary, it is clear that the proposed bill has some serious problems. There are many consequences, known and unknown, which give cause for deep reflection and concern. The financial argument is weak and there are other ways to raise funds for public expenditure. Of more concern is the risk and legal framework that may end up being applied. The examples are too numerous to fully list but they are clear and unambiguous as to the impact on the local population and its finances.


This bill seems predicated on an ideological desire to privatize state assets and not on any serious and well thought out argument for doing so. I would therefore argue strongly against its implementation.



Raf Manji,


Sustento Institute,




I’m a Londoner who moved to Christchurch, New Zealand in 2002. After studying economics and finance at Manchester University and a couple of years of backpacking, I ended up working in the financial markets in London. I traded the global financial markets on behalf of investment banks for 11 years. I write about the intersection of economic, social and environmental issues . My prime interest is in designing better systems to create a better world. I welcome comments and input.

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