Category Archives: Economic History

World Economic Centre of Gravity – 2018

Danny Quah of the London School of Economics (LSE) wrote a paper in 2011 describing the dynamics of the global economy’s centre of gravity. By economic centre of gravity he refers to the average location of the planet’s economic activity measured by GDP generated across nearly 700 identifiable locations on the Earth’s surface.

The graphic below from The Economist shows an updated WECG. In 1AD China and India were the world’s largest economies. European industrialisation and America’s rise drew the economic centre of gravity into the Atlantic. However Japan’s economic boom made it the second largest economy in teh world pulling the centre north. As China has regained economic leadership, the centre is now retracing its footsteps towards the east. Extrapolating growth in the 700 locations is projected by 2025 to locate between India and China.

It is interesting to note how the WECG seems to move horizontally so does this suggest that the north-south divide will remain invariant? In looking at the actual data in Quah’s research, it shows that latitude declines from 66 degrees North to 44 degrees North by 2049. This might seem to imply that the south, like the east, is actually gaining considerable relative economic strength. Policy formulation for the entire global economy, and global governance more generally, will no longer be the domain of the last century’s rich countries but instead will require more inclusive engagement of the east. Many global policy questions will remain the same, e.g. promoting growth in the world economy, but others might change in character, e.g. appropriate political and military intervention. If you are interested in Quah’s paper you can download it by clicking here.

Sources:

The Global Economy’s Shifting Centre of Gravity by Danny Quah. 2011

The Economist – The Chinese Century – October 27th 2018

10 years after GFC – what we’ve learnt

Thanks to colleague Paul Chapman for this article from Mercer ‘Health Wealth Career’. Its looks at the 10 lessons learnt from the GFC and 3 thoughts from what we might expect in the future.

Lesson 1 – Credit cycles are inevitable. As long banks are driven by growth and profit margins their decision-making inevitably leads to greater risk and poorer quality. The growth from 2005-2008 was generated by leverage.

Lesson 2 – The financial system is based on confidence, not numbers. Once confidence in the banking system takes a hit investors start to pull their money out – Northern Rock in the UK.

Lesson 3 – Managing and controlling risk is a nearly impossible task. Managing risk was very difficult with the complexity of the financial instruments – alphabet soup of CDO, CDS, MBS etc. A lot of decisions here were driven by algorithms which even banks couldn’t control at the time. Models include ‘unkown unkowns’

Lesson 4 – Don’t Panic. Politicians learnt from previous crashes not to panic and provided emergency funding for banks, extraordinary cuts in interest rates and the injection of massive amounts of liquidity into the system. The “person on the street” may well not have been aware how close the financial system came to widespread collapse

Lesson 5 – Some banks are too big to be allowed to fail. This principle was established explicitly as a reaction to the crisis. The pure capitalist system rewards risk but failure can lead to bankruptcy and liquidation. The banks had the best of both worlds – reward was privatised with profits but failure was socialised with bailouts from the government. Therefore risk was encouraged.

Lesson 6 – Emergency and extraordinary policies work! The rapid move to record low policy interest rates, the injection into the banking system of huge amounts of liquidity and the start of the massive program of asset purchases (quantitative easing or “QE”) were effective at avoiding a deep recession — so, on that basis, the policymakers got it right.

Lesson 7: If massive amounts of liquidity are pumped into the financial system, asset prices will surely rise (even when the action is in the essentially good cause of staving off systemic collapse). They must rise, because the liquidity has to go somewhere, and that somewhere inevitably means some sort of asset.

Lesson 8: If short-term rates are kept at extraordinarily low levels for a long period of time, yields on other assets will eventually fall in sympathy — Yields across asset classes have fallen generally, particularly bond yields. Negative real rates (that is, short-term rates below the rate of inflation) are one of the mechanisms by which the mountain of debt resulting from the GFC is eroded, as the interest accumulated is more than offset by inflation reducing the real value of the debt.

Lesson 9: Extraordinary and untried policies have unexpected outcomes. Against almost all expectations, these extraordinary monetary policies have not proved to be inflationary, or at least not inflationary in terms of consumer prices. But they have been inflationary in terms of asset prices.

Lesson 10: The behavior of securities markets does not conform to expectations. Excess liquidity and persistent low rates have boosted market levels but have also generally suppressed market volatility in a way that was not widely expected.

The Future

Are we entering a period similar to the pre-crash period of 2007/2008? There are undoubtedly some likenesses. Debt levels in the private sector are increasing, and the quality of debt is falling; public-sector debt levels remain very high. Thus, there is arguably a material risk in terms of debt levels.

Thought 1: The next crisis will undoubtedly be different from the last – they always are. The world is changing rapidly in many ways (look at climate change, technology and the “#MeToo” movement as just three examples). You only have to read “This Time is Different” by Ken Rogoff and Carmen Rheinhart to appreciate this.

Thought 2: Don’t depend on regulators preventing future crises. Regulators and other decision makers are like generals, very good at fighting the last war (or crisis) — in this case, forcing bank balance sheets to be materially strengthened or building more-diverse credit portfolios — but they are usually much less effective at anticipating and mitigating the efforts of the next.

Thought 3: The outlook for monetary policy is unknown. The monetary policy tools used during the financial crisis worked to stave off a deep recession. But we don’t really know how they might work in the future. Record low interest rates with little or no inflation has rendered monetary policy ineffective – a classic liquidity trap.

Source: Mercer – September 2018 – 10 Years after the GFC – 10 lessons

Questions about the next recession.

Ryan Avent of ‘The Economist’ considers how the next recession might happen — he asks the following questions:

  1. When will the next recession be?
  2. Where will it begin?
  3. Is the world prepared for a recession?
  4. What are the obstacles?
  5. What should governments do?

Very good viewing for macro policies – Unit 4 and 5 of the CIE A2 Economics course.

With the downturn in an economy, cutting interest rates has been the favoured policy of central banks. But the use of quantitative easing (QE) might mean the end of conventional monetary policy with rates already at record low levels – by pushing rates into negative territory they are actually encouraging a deflationary environment, stronger currencies and slower growth. The graph below shows a liquidity trap. Increases or decreases in the supply of money at an interest rate of X do not affect interest rates, as all wealth-holders believe interest rates have reached the floor. All increases in money supply are simply taken up in idle balances. Since interest rates do not alter, the level of expenditure in the economy is not affected. Hence, monetary policy in this situation is ineffective.

Liquidity Trap

Economic Consequences of Trump

Very good video from Project Syndicate looking at the recovery of the US economy and if it is sustainable. Also was Trump responsible for the growth or Obama? Maybe Janet Yellen and central bankers with such low interest rates for a long period of time. However if there is another downturn do governments have the tools to grow the economy again? It seems that central banks have run out of ammunition i.e. no room to cut interest rates further. There is agreement that the levels of employment are not sustainable in the future and the focus should be on assisting low wage work and help people prepare for and keep work- ‘reward work’.

  • Features Nobel laureates Angus Deaton and Edmund Phelps, along with Barry Eichengreen,
  • Rana Foroohar author of ‘Makers and Takers’
  • Glenn Hubbard Dean of Columbia Business School

Clean energy – winners and losers

The impact of energy flows on the power and influence of nations has mostly been about the need for oil. Securing oil supply by ensuring its shipment, protecting the countries that produce it to the extent of going to war in an oil producing country has been prevalent in the 20th century. Oil being inelastic in demand has meant that as it becomes more scarce the price increases will result in higher revenue for the oil producing oligopoly. Countries dependent on the importing of oil have been at the wrath of higher oil prices caused by embargoes, wars, a financial crisis to name but a few – see graph below.

In fact the USA has been the most aggressive in protecting its oil supply to the extent that it saw it as their right to use military force in the Middle East – 2003 – second Iraq War. The reason given was to remove Saddam Hussein but this just disguised their real motive was to protect the oil fields. If they were so concerned about Saddam Hussein’s regime why didn’t they do anything about Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe? The answer is Zimbabwe doesn’t have oil. Remember the Gulf War in 1990 was a UN sanctioned operation involving many countries not just the USA and UK.

However the idea of scarcity is coming to an end thanks to 3 big developments.

  1. The shale revolution in the US has lead to them being the biggest combined producer of oil and gas – the US now pumps 10m barrels a day and it is making the country less reliant on imported oil. Also increases in US supply has added to the global market reducing the price.
  2. China is now moving to a more service based economy and in the process is moderating its demand for coal and oil, slowing the consumption of electricity. More importantly though it is deploying gas and renewable energies and stopping the growth of carbon-dioxide emissions. It’s dependence on imported fossils fuels has been the catalyst to develop more of its own wind and sunlight for energy sources as well as it planner more electric vehicles.
  3. Climate change requires low-carbon energy and the Paris accord of 2015 is a start to fight climate change. To achieve this goal trillions of dollars will have to be invested in wind and solar energy, batteries, electricity grids and a range of more experimental clean-energy sources. Ultimately this creates significant competition between countries in developing these technologies but also but at risk the access to rare earths and minerals to make the hardware. It seems that energy is now driven by the technology not the natural resource we are so used to.

Energy transitions since the Industrial Revolution has seen the following:

Coal ——> oil ——> technology and clean energy.

The obvious losers from this change will be those who have an endowment of fossil-fuel reserves and have relied for too long on oil without reforming their economies.

Traditional energy system (oil etc) is constrained by scarcity
The abundant renewable energy system is contained by variability

Ultimately the challenge for countries in future will be who can produce the most energy and who has the best technology. Those that don’t embrace clean-energy transition will be losers in the future.

Source: The Economist – Special Report ‘The Geopolitics of Energy’ 17th March 2018

Spy coin and a poppy

Many thanks for this piece from good friend Jim Frood regarding a Canadian spy coin.
As a limited edition coloured 50 cent coin will go into circulation in New Zealand later this year, to mark 100 years since the end of World War I, one hopes that it doesn’t go the way of a similar Canadian coin in 1974 – see right. The ARMISTICE DAY COIN will feature a red poppy surrounded by a green wreath and silver ferns representing the past, present and future and the three armed forces of New Zealand.

Nicholas J. Saunders in his book: The Poppy A History of Conflict, Loss, Remembrance and Redemption 2013 vividly describes what happened with the Canadian coin. In 2007 in the midst of the war on terror a branch of the US Defence Department issued an alert about ‘spy coins which had appeared in Canada. The Defence Department announced that mysterious coins with ‘radio frequency transmitters’ had been discovered on defence contractors traveling in Canada. Analysis of the coin led to the idea that a transmitter was buried in the poppy inside the coin. The US government then classified all the documents relating to the ‘discovery’! That only added to the affair which Nicholas notes degenerated into farce. The ‘mystery’ was cleared up eventually. If you want to read more about the ‘spy coin’ and the poppy in general, Nicholas’ book is well worth reading.

Ten years on and is the world economy still vulnerable to another crisis?

In 2007 the world economy was thrown into turmoil as the subprime housing crisis in the USA started a chain reaction around the world. Although developments dating back to the 1970s led to increased risk-taking as markets became less regulated. In total it is estimated that the loss to the global economy was US$15 trillion. But it could have been worse if it wasn’t for the lessons learned from the Great Depression of the 1930’s.

What did policymakers do better in 2008 compared to 1929?

Government’s in 2008 were a lot more active in pumping money into the circular flow and their budgets became a much bigger share of the economy, thanks partly to the rise of the modern social safety net. As a result government borrowing and spending on benefits did far more to stabilize the economy than they did during the Depression. Also policymakers stepped in to prevent the extraordinary collapse in prices and incomes experienced in the 1930’s. Although unpopular government’s bailed out banks and prevented panic like that in the Depression were there was a ‘run on the banks’ – about half the banks in the USA closed after 1929. This prevented an implosion of the global economy. But after the Depression government’s were forced into radical reforms to correct the economy which ultimately led to 50 years of economic stability. This wasn’t the case with the GFC in that the success of government policies meant that they avoided the radical reforms of the 1930’s – the disposing of the gold standard. So does this mean that the global economy is still vulnerable to the same variables that caused the problem in the first place?

Financial Reforms
To explain the root cause of the 2008 financial crisis George Soros uses an oil tanker as a metaphor. In the movie documentary “Inside Job” he basically said that markets are inherently unstable and there needs to be some sort of regulation along the way. The oil tanker has quite an vast frame and, in order to stop the movement of oil from making the tanker unstable, shipping manufacturers have designed them with approximately 8-12 compartments, depending on the size. This maintains the tanker’s stability in the water.

After the Depression the Glass Stegal Act was passed in 1933. This act separated investment and commercial banking activities. At the time, “improper banking activity”, was deemed the main culprit of the financial crash. According to that reasoning, commercial banks took on too much risk with depositors’ money. Therefore to use Soros’ metaphor, a compartment was put into the tanker to make it more stable.

However, in 1999 Gramm–Leach–Bliley Act effectively removed the separation that previously existed between investment banking which issued securities and commercial banks which accepted deposits. The deregulation also removed conflict of interest prohibitions between investment bankers serving as officers of commercial banks. Therefore, the tanker had a compartment/s removed which made it very unstable and it eventually capsized. Consequently the deregulation of financial markets has led to the end of compartmentalisation.

Post Depression Roosevelt restored growth and made up for what was lost during the depression years but post GFC there have been no major reforms of capital flows and the concentration of the financial sector’s weight in the global economy hasn’t changed. Also central banks have not tried to make-up the lost output and as a result the recovery has been weak. Monetary policy has had to remain very much expansionary and will take time before it returns to a neutral rate. This means when the next recession comes around monetary policy will become ineffective with little ammunition left as rates are so low. However, the main issue is that the fundamental problems that caused the GFC are still there.

Source: A lost decade – The Economist December 16th 2017

Central Banks could cause next financial crisis

A Buttonwood piece in the Economist (30th September 2017) looked at how central banks can trigger the next financial crisis. Deutsche Bank have looked into long-term asset returns in developed markets and suggest that crises have become much more common. They define a crisis when a country suffered one of the following:

  • a 15% annual decline in equities;
  • a 10% fall in its currency or its government bonds;
  • a default on its national debt; or
  • a period of double-digit inflation.

Pre the Bretton Woods system of fixed exchange rates and a central bank’s limited ability to create credit, very few countries suffered a shock in a single year. But since 1980 there have been numerous financial crisis of some kind. Under the Bretton Woods system a country that expanded its money supply too quickly would encourage an increased demand for imports which would ultimately lead to a trade deficit and pressure on its exchange rate; the government would react by slamming on the monetary brakes. The result was that it was harder for financial bubbles to inflate.

But with a floating exchange rate a country has more flexibility to deal with economic crisis as they don not have to maintain a currency that is pegged to another. A weaker currency makes exports more competitive and imports more expensive. But it has also created a trend towards greater trade imbalances, which no longer constrain policymakers—the currency is often allowed to take the strain. See flow chart below.

As well as companies and consumers taking on debt, government debt has also been rising as a proportion of GDP since the mid-1970’s:

  • Japan – a deficit every year since 1966
  • France – a deficit every year since 1993
  • Italy – only one year of surplus since 1950

This has resulted in significant credit expansion and collapse – by allowing consumers to borrow more money the cost of assets (esp. houses) is pushed higher. However when lenders lose confidence in borrowers ability to repay they stop lending and mortgage sales follow. This is then reflected in the credit rating of borrowers. In order to try and rectify the problem the central banks intervene and reduce interest rates or buy assets directly. This may bring the crisis to a temporary halt but results in more debt and higher asset prices.

Deutsche Bank suggest that could mean another financial crisis especially if there is the withdrawal of support from central banks who saved the global economy when the GFC started. Indicators suggest that this may be the case:

  • US Fed – has pushed up interest rates and cut back on asset purchases
  • ECB – likely to cut asset purchases next year
  • Bank of England – has recently pushed up interest rates

However rates are still at a stimulatory level and developed economies have been growing for several years. According to Deutsche Bank any kind of return to “normal” asset prices from their high levels would constitute a crisis. This would then force central banks to once again lower interest rates again but they will not want to appear to be the ambulance at the bottom of the cliff every time this happens. Remember the bailouts of AIG and the investment banks. It seems that the investment banks are happy to privatize the reward but socialise the risk – when it all “turns to custard” they need to be bailed because they are too big to fail. The question that people are now asking is what is the vulnerable asset class? Mortgage-backed securities was the cause in 2008.