Monday, March 29, 2010

Gross Debt, Net Debt (and future debt)

Many governments of advanced economies are struggling with large deficits and increasing debt. When the crisis is over some of these countries will find themselves with levels of government debt that we have not seen since the end of World War II and, in many cases, close to double the amount before the crisis started. Some European countries, Greece in particular, but also Portugal, Spain or Ireland are under enormous pressure to control their deficits as they see their interest rate spreads grow.

Who is in more trouble? Why is it that some of the countries that were used as models of fiscal discipline (Ireland or Spain) are now under attack? A quick look at government debt (as a % of GDP) reveals very high levels for may advanced economies. The first question is which measure of debt to use: gross or net. Gross debt is simply the stock of outstanding government debt. Net debt is the difference between gross debt and the financial assets that government holds (Note: the definition of net debt is not identical for all countries. Not all governments include the same type of financial assets).

The table below shows gross and debt levels for a group of advanced economies (this is a forecast for 2011 done by the OECD).

Government Debt as % of GDO in 2011
(source: OECD Economic Outlook)

It is clear that the difference between gross and net debt is very large for some countries. While Japan looks like an outlier in terms of gross debt, it is close to Italy and Greece when it comes to net debt. In principle, net debt is a more appropriate measure of government indebtedness. If governments have a significant amount of assets, they need to be considered when thinking about the solvency of their accounts. In some cases the government (at large) holds some of its own debt in pension funds for public employees or the social security fund (this is why in the US the most common measure of government debt is "debt held by the public" which is a measure very similar to the concept of net debt), this debt is not a liability for the government.

There are, however, some concerns with the concept of net debt. In addition to some measurement question (which assets to include, at which value), the government needs to refinance all its gross debt and not only the net part, so in terms of flows, it is the gross debt that matters. Also, while it makes sense to exclude government debt held by the government, some of this debt is part of a fund that covers future pension liabilities that are unaccounted for in the budget. And here is where the assessment of government solvency gets more difficult: what you really want to do is not just to look at government debt but also at future revenues and liabilities.

Doing these calculations requires many assumption about the future so there is always uncertainty about these assessments. Below is a chart from an article by C.Hagist, Stefan Moog, Bernd Raffelhuschen and Johannes Vatter that calculates what they call "implicit government debt" as the net present value of future liabilities minus future revenues.

The numbers are dramatic for some countries and there are are large difference between some of them. While Spain or Switzerland have levels of implicit debt that are "low", the US or the UK have levels of implicit debt that make the total debt four or five times higher than the current level of debt (total indebtedness of the UK government is 547% of GDP). This does not mean that the US and UK government are broke (or more likely to default than Switzerland). What it says is that relative to current policies, the US and the UK require larger increases in taxes or decreases in spending to stabilize their debt.

A similar analysis of the fiscal gap for the US has been done by Auerbach and Gale and they reach similar conclusions. The fiscal gap for the US government today is between 5% and 7% of GDP. Meaning that if the government wants to stabilize the debt at current levels over the next 8 decades, they need to increase taxes or cut spending by five percentage points of GDP (every year for the next eight decades). This is a very large number given that total federal tax revenues stand today at 15% of GDP (so 5 extra points amounts to a 1/3 increase in taxes!).

Given these numbers, why is it that Southern European countries are under more pressure than the US or the UK? It is all a matter of credibility and the trust in the ability of these governments to get their budget under control. It might be that the UK needs a larger effort than Ireland but the question is which one is more likely to deliver on this effort. And the moment credibility is low, interest rate spreads increase and the fiscal gap increases as well as you need to generate more revenues to simply cover the interest payment on the debt.

Credibility will always be a subjective assessment and it is always easy to argue that markets are getting it wrong (or right) for a given country. What is important is to understand the numbers, not just the current ones but the future ones as well, before making that assessment, otherwise we are only seeing the tip of the iceberg and ignoring the true size of the problem.

Antonio Fatás

Monday, March 8, 2010

The apparent weakness of the Euro (please define "weak")

In today's Financial Times, Wolfgang Munchau writes about "Why the Euro will continue to weaken". He makes an argument that we have heard before: the political tensions, the economic tensions created by the Greek debt problem make it clear that a monetary union without a political union cannot be successful.

I will ignore the general question on whether a monetary union can succeed without a political union so that I keep this entry short, but I want to challenge his reading of exchange rates.

Let me start with the areas where I agree with the FT article: Is the Euro getting weaker? Yes, relative to the US dollar. Is this caused by the perception that some of the economic troubles in Greece and other European countries could cause instability in the Euro area? Yes.

Here is where I disagree: Is the Euro a weak currency? To be honest, I cannot answer this question unless we agree on a definition of "weak". If by "weak" we mean that its current value is low relative to some benchmark (and we also need to agree to a benchmark), the answer is NO. The Euro remains overvalued according to purchasing power parity (PPP), which is the most fundamental theory we have about exchange rates (I am aware that there are more sophisticated models to think about over/undervaluation of currencies but at some point they need to rely on some notion of purchasing power parity as a long-term anchor).

The current value of the Euro (about 1.36 USD/EUR) is higher than what most PPP estimates indicate. Those tend to be in the range 1-1.2, depending on the basket of goods that you use. If any, the Euro remains overvalued. We reach a similar conclusion is we look at the historical evolution of the USD/EUR exchange rate (see chart below) where the German Mark is being used as the Euro in the pre-1999 period.

My second disagreement with the article is about the connection between political and economic turmoil and exchange rates. Why should the current European environment lead to a depreciation of the currency? The informal argument is that the currency reflects the "strength" of an economy. This sounds ok but it is not right - you first need to define "strength" and then be clear about the exact economic mechanisms through which the exchange rate is affected. Wolfgang Munchau argues that Europe needs to go through a major fiscal adjustment and this implies an increase in public saving. Given that the sum of public and private (net) saving have to be equal to the current account, and assuming that we do not want private saving to fall, we need to see the current account going up (exports growing faster than imports). For this to happen, you need to see a depreciating Euro. This logic is not right either. If we apply the same logic to the US or the UK we will reach the same conclusion: we need a depreciating US dollar and a depreciating UK Pound. But this is impossible! We cannot have the three currencies depreciating at the same time (at least relative to each other).

The argument that the political tensions in the Euro area will lead to a weaker Euro are not new. They were in fashion during the early years of the Euro when the Euro was getting weaker (as low as 0.85 USD/EUR). Funny enough, those theories became irrelevant in the period 2003-2007 when the Euro appreciated by close to 100% relative to the dollar. And this was at the time when the political and institutional weaknesses of the Euro area became really apparent. It was during the 2003-07 period when the stability and growth pact collapsed, it was during that period when several countries did not live by the deficit and debt limits that they had agreed to and the confidence in the Euro-institutions was seriously damaged. But during those years the Euro got stronger, not weaker.

Theories about why exchange rates move need to be tested over several episodes. Otherwise we are simply looking for an ex-post rationalization of the changes we see.

Antonio Fatás

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Maybe the Euro was not such a bad idea.

The current budgetary crisis in Greece has led to concerns about the stability of the Euro zone as a single currency area. There have been talks about the possibility of some countries leaving the Euro area and some see this as a clear signal that having a single currency among such a diverse group of countries was a bad idea. A few academics in the US have reopened the debate on whether the Euro zone is indeed “an optimal currency area” and their conclusion tends to be that it is not and the crisis with Greece is a proof of that analysis.

Their logic of those who believe that the Euro was a bad idea is the following: if today countries such as Spain, Greece or Portugal (or Italy) had their currency, they could have devalued it (or depreciated it) and this would have helped them to get out of the crisis because of the positive effect on exports. They point out to the fact that in recent years some of these countries have lost competitiveness through high inflation and this could be easily corrected with a devaluation while the alternative of deflation (or lower inflation) is more painful.

Their argument is a standard textbook analysis of the costs and benefits of keeping your own currency (where we are looking at just the benefits). This is an argument that I bring up regularly in class when I teach macroeconomics and it is easy to explain to my students. However, one needs to go beyond the theory and what is difficult is to assess whether the logic applies to this case and indeed these benefits outweigh the costs of having your own currency and exchange rate.

My reading of the current situation is that it does not reflect at all on the weaknesses of the Euro zone as a currency area and that if any of those countries had kept their currencies they would be in much more trouble today.

Here is a long list of arguments of why the textbook argument does not apply to this case:

1. This is a global crisis. The current recession is global in nature. While some countries are hurting more than others, this is not an asymmetric shock that is affecting just one country. While the exports of Greece could benefit from devaluation, this would hurt the exports of other countries. While it is true that some countries like Germany have kept a surplus in their current account, it is also true that their exports have collapsed and their GDP has been affected as much or even more than some of those other countries. Why shouldn’t be Germany the one who devalues?

2. Is competitiveness a problem? A potential answer to the question in point #1 above is that Germany does not have the same problems of competitiveness than the Southern European countries. It is Spain, Portugal, Greece the countries that have seen their real exchange rate appreciating because of higher inflation than in Germany. They are the ones that need the correction. This is true but we have to be careful not to use Germany as an example of all other countries. The chart below (from a presentation by Jose Manuel Campa, from the Ministry of Economy and Finance in Spain), Spain has not seen a deterioration of competitiveness relative to France, the second largest economy in the Euro area. It is Germany the one that looks like an outlier.

In addition, inflation was higher in Spain mainly because of the evolution of prices in the non-tradable sector (the one where competitiveness is not an issue). Below is another picture from the same presentation by Jose Manuel Campa where we see that the evolution of unit labor cost in manufacturing in Spain (relative to Germany) are much more moderate.

If this is not reassuring enough we can look at the evolution of Spanish exports (as a share of world exports) during these years, Spain has done better than countries like France or the US and its performance is similar to that of Germany.

Yes, Spain had a large current account deficit during these years but it was mainly the result of increasing imports due to the strong expansion in the economy. A phenomenon that we observed in other countries (such as the US) that have a flexible exchange rate.

3. Exchange rates are not a magical tool. If having your own currency is such a powerful tool to deal with crisis like the current one, why is it that countries such as the UK, Sweden or the US are suffering through very deep recessions? Both the UK and Sweden, despite having witnessed a depreciation of their currencies, are also struggling with a deep recession that seems to be lasting as long as in some of the Euro countries. In the case of the US, the currency has moved in the “opposite” direction and appreciated since the beginning of the crisis. The current account has been reduced but mainly because of the collapse in demand that comes from the recession.

4. We cannot forget the costs of having your own currency. While the idea of manipulating the exchange rate to increase exports might seem at times attractive, there is no doubt that if any of the Southern European countries had their own currency today, they would be in a much deeper recession (we can go back to the early 80s in Spain when there was also a banking crisis to see how much the Spanish peseta helped). It would be very likely that these countries had accumulated during the boom years liabilities in foreign currency that now, with a devaluation, they would not be able to pay back. The government of Greece would be facing a much higher interest rate because of exchange rate risk, which would make the probability of default even higher.

Finally, a reminder that one needs a longer perspective to assess the benefits and costs of a monetary union. Yes, countries like Spain are going through a deep recession with very high unemployment rate but partly this is the result of the “excesses” of the previous years. Below is a picture of real GDP that shows the very-high growth rates that Spain enjoyed during the previous years. While it might be the case that there was some loss of competitiveness relative to Germany, the growth rate of Spain remained very high, higher than that of Germany or the UK who had the flexible exchange rate to adjust (if needed). Yes, the current recession will erase some of these gains, but not all of them.

So maybe the Euro was not such a bad idea after all and it deserved a less dramatic 10th anniversary.

Antonio Fatás

Monday, March 1, 2010

An insider's view on the financial crisis (Interview with Sir Win Bischoff)

Here is a video of an interview I conducted recently at INSEAD with Sir Win Bischoff. He is the current chairman of Lloyds Banking Group and was the chairman of Citigroup in the Fall of 2008, during the worst of the financial crisis. We talked about the days around the fall of Lehman Brothers and his views on the current debate on financial regulation.

Click on this link to access the video (which is hosted at the INSEAD YouTube channel).

Antonio Fatás