Social Distancing

Research lead by Neil Ferguson and his colleagues at Imperial College London suggests that a staggering 2.2 million would die in the United States and 510,000 in Britain if nothing is done by governments and individuals to stop the pandemic (no social distancing or hand washing, etc.).  Imperial College London study  The U.S. was late and bumbling in addressing the Novel Coronavirus coming from China in December. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) refused to authorize the use of tests approved by the EU and the test developed by Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) was flawed and had to be withdrawn. The United States remains embarrassing and dangerously behind other countries in testing and other preparations for dealing with the disease.  “Coronavirus-testing-delays-caused-red-tape-bureaucracy-scorn-private-companies”

Unable now to contain the virus in a targeted way, the U.S. has largely shut down its schools, theaters, restaurants and other places of public gatherings as well as flights from abroad. The Ferguson “report concludes that the British government might be able to keep the number of dead below 20,000 by enforcing social distancing for the entire population, isolating all cases, demanding quarantines of entire households where anyone is sick and closing all schools and universities — for 12 to 18 months, until a vaccine is available”. A comparable figure for the U.S. implies a reduction in the death rate to 86,000.

For perspective, traffic accidents in the U.S. in 2017 killed 40,100.  More than forty-seven thousand committed suicide that year and 55,672 died from influenza and pneumonia. When compared with ordinary flu, covid-19 spreads more rapidly and is ten times as deadly, but we still do not know very much else about its properties.  But, we can expect a relatively large number of deaths from this new virus no matter what we do.  But doing nothing will increase deaths considerably.

What steps should the U.S. take?  We don’t ban cars because people die in them. We choose to take calculated risks if they are not “excessive”.  https://wcoats.blog/2016/12/27/our-risks-from-terrorists/

The extreme measures being taken in the U.S. proceeded without serious estimates of the economic costs to the economy and the spill over health risks of children kept home with vulnerable grandparents, etc.  “The CDC guidelines advised that short- and medium-term school closures do not affect the spread of the virus and that evidence from other countries shows places that closed schools, such as Hong Kong, ‘have not had more success in reducing spread than those that did not,’ such as Singapore.  But this guidance was not released until Friday [March 13], after the cascade of school closings had begun.”  “States-are-rushing-to-close-schools-but-what-does-the-science-on-closures-say”

Our extreme reaction will generate huge costs that cannot be fully known reverberating for years to come. We can be pretty certain that there will be unintended, undesirable consequences quite beyond the disruption of our pleasurable, cultural activities (bankruptcies of otherwise viable firms and the resulting loss of jobs, etc.). The government (congress and the administration working together for a change) is attempting to anticipate and ameliorate as many of those consequences as possible. One example of the search for cost effective balance of cost and mitigation involves the stopping of flights from Europe.  The cost of monitoring arriving airline passengers before boarding abroad is very likely cheaper than the economic disruption and damage of forbidding foreign visitors at all.  Following Trump’s announcement of the travel ban (once his team sorted out and clarified what he was actually imposing) the American Civil Liberties Union announced, “These measures are extraordinary incursions on liberty and fly in the face of considerable evidence that travel bans and quarantines can do more harm than good.”

Unlike the U.S., Britain has not closed its schools and restaurants. But as I am writing this, the UK just announced that its schools will close Friday March 20.  The Patriot Act passed quickly after the 9/11 terrorist attacks in the U.S. on September 11, 2001 (for those of you too young to remember) reminds us how quickly and easily we surrender our revered liberties when we are scared.  Almost 19 years after 9/11 we still have the dangerously intrusive provisions of the Patriot Act.  Once freedoms are surrendered and the government steps in it seems to be hard to regain them.  The extreme measures being taken in the U.S. and elsewhere to slow the spread of covid-19 provide us with the latest example.

On March 16, Deborah Birx, White House coronavirus response coordinator, reported that models based on data available so far indicated that the biggest reduction in deaths came from “social distancing, small groups, not going in public in large groups. But the most important thing was if one person in the household became infected, the whole household self-quarantined for 14 days. Because that stops 100 percent of the transmission outside of the household,”

The biggest bang for the buck comes from individuals protecting themselves by social distancing, hand washing, and normal (and perhaps enhanced) care to avoid the sick and avoid exposing others when we are sick as we generally do now. Clear public health guidance from the government could go (would have gone) a long way to encourage the enhancement of such diligence.  The Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts never closed down during the flu season.

Covid-19 calls for vigorous government action, even now when it is too late to stop it any time soon. We will need extra hospital beds, medicine, respirators, protective gear, replacements for infected health workers, vaccine research, development, manufacture and administration and more.  Soon we will require replacements for the many brave health care workers such as nurses and doctors as they also become infected with the virus. But as with all decisions, private and public, a careful assessment of costs and benefits of different courses of action will produce the best result.  Knowledgeable public information to guide the natural protective self-interests of each of us and our usual concern and respect for the well-being of our families, friends and neighbors can carry us a long way toward minimizing the further spread of this disease at minimal cost to lives and property.

P.S.  In my previous blog of March 15 (Covid-19, why aren’t we prepared) I reported Beth Cameron’s claim that the National Security Council Directorate for Global Health Security and Biodefense was disbanded in May 2018.  Ms. Cameron was its director at the time.  Yesterday Tim Morrison, director of the successor unit for a year in 2018-19, “No-white-house-didn’t-dissolve-its-pandemic-response-office”, explained that its staff and function were merged with two other units performing overlapping functions in order to improve efficiency without a loss of its capacity “to do everything possible within the vast powers and resources of the U.S. government to prepare for the next disease outbreak and prevent it from becoming an epidemic or pandemic.”  I apologize for misrepresenting what happened and expect Mr. Morrison to apologize for the disastrous failure of his unit to fulfill its mandate.

Have we been taken advantage of?

For as long as I can remember I have purchased food and household items from Safeway, Giant, and Whole Foods without any of them buying anything from me. Was I taken advantage of? Of course not. I voluntarily gave up part of my hard earned income in exchange for something I wanted more. I gained and was made better off by being able to make these trades just as they profited from providing them. In fact, I don’t know and I don’t care what those stores did with the money I paid them. Much of it, of course, was used to buy the goods they put on their shelves for me to buy.

These trades (my income for their goods) would only become a problem if I spent more at Safeway, Giant, and Whole Foods than I earned selling my labor. To do so I would need to borrow money from someone and go into debt. That might be OK temporarily, but obviously not on a permanent basis. In the long run, my purchases (imports) can’t exceed my income (export of my labor).

If you change my name to the United States and the names of Safeway, Giant, and Whole Foods to China, Japan and Germany (not necessarily in that order) nothing in this story changes fundamentally. Americans benefit from our purchases of Chinese goods and it doesn’t matter what they do with the money we paid to them (net of what they purchased from us—i.e., their trade surplus and our trade deficit). As I have explained in the following article, what they (all of them collectively) are largely doing with our money (our net global trade deficit) is finance our profligate government. https://nationalinterest.org/feature/who-pays-uncle-sams-deficits-26417

For some reason President Trump has trouble understanding these simple facts. He is upset by our trade deficit with China and Germany and others that his profligate, indebted government has caused. If the federal government balanced its budget (actually being at the top of the current business cycle it should be running a surplus in order to balance over the cycle), what would China and Germany do with their surplus of dollars? Rather than buying U.S. treasury securities, they might invest in the U.S. economy contributing to faster economic growth in the U.S. They might also choose to buy more goods and services from the U.S. thus reducing their dollar surpluses. In all likelihood they would do some of each. Given the resulting adjustments in their demand for dollars, the exchange rates of the dollar for Euros and RMB would adjust to produce the desired reduction in their surpluses.

Attacking China with tariffs and demanding a reduction in their trade surplus with the U.S. is counterproductive and wrong headed. But it does not follow that China is playing by the rules (WTO rules that we should be trying to strengthen rather than weaken). The EU, Japan, Canada, Mexico and others share this assessment and Trump would be much smarter to seek their cooperation in pressuring China to behave better rather than attacking them with tariffs and tariff threats as well. With the recent agreement with Jean-Claude Juncker, head of the European Commission, to deescalate the trade war with the EU and resume the negotiations over further trade liberalization started a few years ago (TTIP), perhaps Trump is changing tactics in a more promising direction. This should include concluding the updating of NAFTA and rejoining the TPP now the CPATPP.  We should all hope so.

Richard Rahn makes similar arguments in his Washington Times article today: https://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2018/jul/30/the-united-states-is-doing-better-than-it-did-duri/

Econ 101—Trade in very simple terms

Trade allows people and firms to specialize in what they produce. This enables them to be more productive. This raises the income (standard of living) of both the seller and the buyer (who must also sell something in order to buy something)—i.e. both the exporter and importer. https://wcoats.blog/2017/09/15/a-basic-human-right/  https://wcoats.blog/2016/12/22/save-trade/

So what does Trump’s steel and aluminum tariff do?

The American economy is now fully employed (ok, maybe some of those who left the labor market in recent years, not all of whom are old, can be coaxed to return). Thus if high tariffs on steel and aluminum make previously non competitive and inefficient American steel and aluminum producers competitive again, where will the workers come from to do that work? They must be attracted away from what ever they are producing now—lets call it good A. So we will produce less of good A, which was competitive without taxpayer subsidies or regulatory favoritism, in order to produce more steel and aluminum, which was not competitive before given tariff protection. Add it up and our overall income goes down. The economy over all will be less efficient, less productive, and our overall incomes and standard of living will be reduced.

This reallocation of our resources from more productive to less productive products will make owners of steel and aluminum companies and property owners around closed foundries happy. Trump-may-prosper-from-tariffs-even-if-this-faded-port-town-doesnt/2018/03/02/. But what about those who buy steel and aluminum made more expensive by the tariffs? What about Boeing and other aircraft manufacturers who are the fourth largest American exporters, whose products will now be more expensive and less competitive with Airbus, etc.? When steel tariffs were imposed in the year 2002, 200,000 Americans in steel using industries lost their jobs. That is more than the total of around 150,000 workers in the steel industry! “If-the-US-steel-industry-employs-150000-people-then-how-can-imports-threaten-500,000-jobs?”

Subsidizing inefficient industries with tariffs hurts consumers, who will have to pay the higher prices of aluminum beer cans, etc., as well as exporters like Boeing. We will all (except steel and aluminum producers) pay the cost of this increased inefficiency. Commerce secretary Wilbur Ross thinks we should just get over these modest increases in the costs of our purchase of goods that include steel and aluminum for the greater good of American steel and aluminum producers and the 150,000 people who work for them. In case there are children listening I am withholding what I would like to say to Mr. Ross.

Only 2.2% of our steel and aluminum imports come from China while Canada (hardly a security threat to the U.S.) provides 16.1% of our imports of these products: https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/the_americas/canada-top-exporter-of-steel-and-aluminum-to-us-flabbergasted-by-trumps-tariff-proposals/2018/03/02/7c906c2a-1e22-11e8-98f5-ceecfa8741b6_story.html?undefined=&utm_term=.294884487749&wpisrc=nl_headlines&wpmm=1. The rest of the world will not roll over and play dead. The EU is already preparing counter measures to punish American exporters to Europe. “EU-vows-to-hit-back-against-trump-in-trade-war”

Following the end of WWII the world, lead by the U.S., has built up mechanisms for promoting fair trade (first the General Agreement on Trade and Tariffs—GATT—now called the World Trade Organization—WTO). Where countries violate these rules, and China frequently does, they should be addressed via the WTO. American interests, and the world’s interests more generally, are served by strengthening the WTO not weakening it. Trump’s unilateral tariffs do not serve our interests. Not only has he persistently undermined free markets with his misplaced attack on bilateral trade deficits https://wcoats.blog/2017/07/23/the-balance-of-trade/ but he has systematically undermined the WTO and the international rule of law. Please, Mr. President, stop this nonsense before it gets even worse.

Trade wars are never good, and no one wins in the end. Instead we should be enforcing and improving the rules of trade via the WTO, which has helped left millions of people out of poverty and raised the standard of living of the average person.

 

Brexit

The reality of Brexit unleashes a flood of questions, most of which cannot be answer for quite a while. The near term consequences of the UK’s exit from the European Union will depend on the details of the divorce, which will take several years to unfold. Divorces can take place smoothly and amicably or not. The result—the new reality—can be seen as fair (but invariably diminished on both sides, at least economically) or not.

My concern in this note is whether the underlying public sentiments that pushed Brexit over the finish line—the fear of job losses and cultural dilution as a result of excessive immigration—herald a retreat from the globalization that has dramatically raised standards of living and reduced poverty around the world in the last several decades.

As we know from Adam Smith, our ability to increase our output and thus income rests heavily on the productivity gains made possible by specialization. But we can only specialize in our work and output if we are able to trade what we produce for the other things we need and want to consume. The freer and more extensively we can trade, the more we can specialize and prosper. As I never tire of pointing out, the boundaries of trading within the family, the village, the province and the country and beyond are largely arbitrary. However, trade requires shared rules and standards. Within the family these can be more informally developed and understood. Even within villages customary understandings of weights and measures and value may suffice among people who know each other. But as the domain of trade expands and buyers and sellers no longer know each other, such standards and rules need to be formalized into laws and their enforcement supported by courts and impartial judges. Parties to agreements need to be confident that their contract will be enforced as agreed.

The U.S. Constitution gives our federal government the power and responsibility to establish standards of weights and measures and the monetary unit without which trade within the United States would be greatly encumbered. Agreeing on the voltage standard for electrical devises is one of thousands of examples. Businesses themselves recognize the benefits to themselves and their customers of harmonizing many elements of the products they produce and trade. Thus bottom up negotiations over many years have produced the Uniform Commercial Code, which removes many unnecessary costs of trading across different legal jurisdictions through standardization.

Trade across national borders could not exist without international laws and understandings about the nature of contracts and their enforcement, the description and measure of content and statements of value (unit of account), etc. Leaving the EU does not free the UK from the need to conform to such standards if they wish to continue trading with the rest of the world.

In their efforts to facilitate free trade within Europe by harmonizing product standards, the European Commission bureaucrats in Brussels got off to a bad start by failing to distinguish between those standards that facilitated trade from those that unnecessarily limited product diversity and competition. Their definition of the acceptable features of bananas has become the poster child of their misguided and laughable efforts. This does not mean, however, that the facilitation of international (or intra EU) trade does not need harmonized standards (weights and measures of food content, length, volume, etc.) in order to remove unproductive and unnecessary costs of trade.

The huge benefits of trade—global trade—also require that each of us can produce (work at) whatever we do best. The fullest measure of such freedom—free labor mobility—would require the free movement of labor to the best jobs they can find and this is what the EU required of its members within Europe. It is also what has raised fears and reactions within the UK of having, for example, too many Polish plumbers. As the vote for Brexit dramatically demonstrates, we dare not ignore these fears and they are not easily dealt with. See my earlier discussion of this challenge: https://wcoats.wordpress.com/2016/06/11/the-challenges-of-change-globalization-immigration-and-technology/

The growing anti-immigrant sentiments in continental Europe have little to do with free labor mobility within the EU and are more directed to the refugee problem created by the wars in the Middle East. The British vote to leave the EU seems to reflect some mix of a reaction to ill informed harmonization measures taken by the EU (largely some time ago) and a lack of appreciation of the benefits of properly directed harmonization of codes and standards as well as of fears of losing jobs to immigrants (and on the part of some, a natural fear of strangers). The key question for the future of free trade and globalization and the enormous benefits they bring is whether Brexit is the beginning of a closing of that door. We need to make every effort to address and mitigate these fears so that that does not happen.

The establishment of an efficient international trading order (the international establishment of rules and laws and their enforcement) can come about in a variety of ways. The international agreements and organizations established after World War II to perform this role (e.g., UN, WTO, IMF, World Bank) have generally served this international order well though they are not perfect. The statement by Boris Johnson, former mayor of London and possible successor to British Prime Minister David Cameron, that: “I believe we now have a glorious opportunity: We can pass our laws and set our taxes entirely according to the needs of the U.K. economy,” either reflects stunning ignorance of the role of international law in underpinning globalization or blatant dishonesty. The international institutions that oversee our liberal international order need to be preserved and where appropriate strengthened, not destroyed.

The European Union itself was always much more than an economic (free trade) project. Following WWII after centuries of devastating wars, the European project was always more about establishing the mechanisms of political cooperation that would avoid another European war. It has been stunningly successful in this endeavor, but still struggles to find the right balance in the devolution of authority and the best formulation of European wide governments for preserving peace and promoting economic well-being. An excellent discussion of these issues can be found in Dalibor Rohac’s Toward an Imperfect Union: A Conservatives Case for the EU.

The consequences of Brexit for Britain (what ever might be left of it) and for the EU (what ever might be left of it) will not be known for many years. But the risks of an inward looking nationalism and a retreat from a liberal international order that it seems to reflect should be taken seriously and resisted vigorously.

Greece: What should its creditors do now?

Following Sunday’s NO vote in Greece, what ever that might have meant, it is tempting to tell Greece to get lost and be done with them. Aside from the unseemly lack of compassion for our suffering fellow man, the further collapse of the Greek economy and society that would likely follow Grexit (the Greek exit from the Euro and introduction of its own currency) would open unknown and potentially very dangerous risks to the rest of Europe from its southern periphery. However, any new deal between Greece and its creditors should be mutually beneficial for Greece and the EU in the long run and achievable and practical in the short run. What are the key elements needed for such an agreement?

Greece’s second bailout program with its creditors (the EU, ECB, and IMF) expired June 30 after a four-month extension without disbursing the final installment of around $8 billion dollars. It cannot be resurrected. Thus any further discussions between Greece and its creditors will concern a third bailout program.

Greece’s recently replaced and unmissed Finance Minister, Yanis Varoufakis’, stock speech said basically that Greece does not need or want more loans because it is bankrupt rather than illiquid. In short, it wants debt forgiveness. In fact, many European officials have acknowledged the possible need to write off (reduce the present value one way or another of) existing Greek debt but insisted that any such consideration be put off for a new program. Discussion of a new program has now arrived.

The foundation of any financial assistance program with the IMF is its assessment that the borrowing country can repay the loan. This assessment is contained in the IMF’s “Debt Sustainability Analysis.” This analysis imbeds the agreed (or assumed) level of government spending and estimated tax and other government revenue and of the level of economic activity (GDP growth) upon which it depends in a forecasting model of the deficit and debt/GDP ratios expected from implementation of the agreed policies. The IMF was badly embarrassed by its acceptance of overly optimistic assumptions about income growth government revenue in its first bailout program in 2010 with the EU and ECB. Under political pressure from the EU and ECB, these assumptions allowed the IMF to conclude that Greece’s debt would be sustainable thus avoiding the need for some debt write off favored by the IMF but opposed by Germany and France, whose banks held large amounts of that debt. The second bailout program included a write off of about 70% of the privately held Greek debt. However, this came too late and the adjustment in the Greek government’s annual deficits required by the first program proved too severe causing a much larger and longer lasting contraction in the Greek economy than expected and assumed in the IMF Debt Sustainability Analysis at that time.

On June 26, 2015 (i.e. prior to Greece’s default on its $1.7 billion payment to the IMF and to the July 5 referendum) the IMF released a draft Debt Sustainability Analysis based on the information available at that time. It concluded that “If the program had been implemented as assumed, no further debt relief would have been needed under the agreed November 2012 framework…. At the last review in May 2014, Greece’s public debt was assessed to be getting back on a path toward sustainability, though it remained highly vulnerable to shocks. By late summer 2014, with interest rates having declined further, it appeared that no further debt relief would have been needed under the November 2012 framework, if the program were to have been implemented as agreed. But significant changes in policies since then—not least, lower primary surpluses and a weak reform effort that will weigh on growth and privatization—are leading to substantial new financing needs. Coming on top of the very high existing debt, these new financing needs render the debt dynamics unsustainable…. But if the package of reforms under consideration is weakened further—in particular, through a further lowering of primary surplus targets and even weaker structural reforms—haircuts on debt will become necessary.”

In short, the Greek economy was finally beginning to recover by the end of 2014 but the reversals by the new Syriza government of some of the policies contributing to that gain and the loss of market confidence in the muddled and amateurish behavior of the new government reversed the recovery and further increased Greek deficits. In addition, increasing capital flight has been financed by short-term emergency liquidity loans from the ECB, thus adding to Greece’s over all indebtedness. Capital flight per se should not reduce banks’ capital, as they lose the same amount of assets and liabilities, as long as they are able to liquidate sufficient assets by selling them or by using them as collateral for loans from the ECB or other banks. These loans and the process of transferring Euros abroad are described in the paper I presented in Athens May 19 at the Emergency Economic Summit for Greece: http://works.bepress.com/warren_coats/32/.

Under these circumstances it would be desirable (i.e. consistent with and/or required by a European desire to keep Greece in the Euro Zone while returning it to fiscal balance and sustainability over a reasonable, if somewhat longer, period of time) for Greece’s creditors to forgive some of the debt held by the ECB and IMF and to lower the structural fiscal surpluses initially required in a follow on program for the next few years (this latter element had already been offered by the creditors before the referendum). In short, by reducing Greece’s debt service payments and lowering its primary fiscal surplus, it would endure less “austerity.” Former Finance Minister Varoufakis actually proposed a sensible risk sharing form of refinanced Greek debt indexed to the economy’s economic performance. Creditors would do better than expected on their concessional loans if the economy performed better than forecast and would suffer losses if it did worse. This would give both sides a financial incentive to get the pace and balance of fiscal adjustment right (growth maximizing). While Europe’s political leaders sort out the details, the ECB should continue to provide liquidity credit to the extent that, and as long as, Greek banks can provide realistically valued collateral.

The purpose of these adjustments by the creditors should not and must not be to throw more good money after bad allowing a continuation of decades of corruption, rent seeking and government inefficiency. Long before it joined the Euro Zone, Greece suffered poor government services by a bureaucracy overstaffed by friends and supporters of the government in power at the time. Not receiving expected government services, many Greeks have decided not to pay for what they are not getting. Hence tax evasion and a large underground economy added to Greece’s deficits. Quoting from Bret Stephens’ July 6 column: “Greeks retire earlier and live longer than most of their eurozone peers, which means they spend close to 18% of GDP on public pensions, compared with about 7% in Ireland and 5% in the U.S…. As of 2010, Greek labor costs were 25% higher than in Germany. [As a result of internal devaluation since then, this is no longer true.] A liter of milk in Greece costs 30% more than elsewhere in Europe, thanks to regulations that allow it to remain on the shelf for no more than a week. Pharmaceuticals are also more expensive, thanks to the cartelization of the economy…. Greece wanted to be prosperous without being competitive. It wanted to run a five-star welfare state with a two-star economy. It wanted modernity without efficiency or transparency, and wealth without work. It wanted control over its own destiny—while someone else picked up the check.”

Changing this behavior by Greek governments and the Greek public will not be easy if it is possible at all. The still very strong support by the Greek public for keeping the Euro suggests a strong awareness of the need for some restraints and discipline of its government’s spending. But is the desire for a truly better deal (from their own government) strong enough to overcome the resistance of the entrenched and favored interests, who would lose from liberalizing the economy and cleaning up the patronage mess and tax non compliance, etc.? The best hope is the formation of a unity government that strongly endorses a well balance program of gradual further fiscal adjustment and the continuation of the structural reforms so badly needed. Close monitoring by the creditors of Greek compliance with its promises and the phasing of financial assistance tied to such performance benchmarks, is the IMF’s standard approach to enforcing compliance with the measures the government agrees to. There are risks in agreeing to a third program and risks in not doing so and thus Grexit.

Grexit, even with total default on all external debt, will surely force more austerity on Greece than would any program now contemplated, even before taking account of the almost certain collapse of all of Greece’s already “temporarily” closed banks. The Greek government will hardly be in a position to bailout its banks suffering a surge of non-performing loans. Depositor bail-ins will need to cut all the way into “insured” deposits. The pain will be largely felt only in Greece, and unfortunately mostly by the ordinary Greek citizen.

Emergency Economic Summit for Greece

I just returned from a conference in Athens on the Greek economy. Yanis Varoufakis, Greece’s controversial Finance Minister, gave the (almost) final presentation to the 500 attendees making his usual point that Greece is insolvent not illiquid, meaning that its unsustainable debt should be written off (partially at least). While he is surely correct in that assessment, as usual he failed to discuss or even mention the structural reforms Greece needs to make to improve its productivity and thus lift its standard of living, which are also part of the conditions of the existing assistance program with the IMF/EU/ECB. He wants Greece’s creditors to forgive its debts first with reforms (which the new government says it wants to revers to some extent anyway) to come after. As past Greek behavior has destroyed any trust by its creditors and potential investors, the Troika (IMF/EU/ECB) is unlikely to agree to the Minister’s demands. The highlight of the conference was the critic of the Minister’s remarks by Nobel Prize economist Tom Sargent given immediately after and providing the actual concluding remarks for the day.

Here is an article on the conference that includes a short TV interview that I gave on the side.  http://fnf-europe.org/2015/05/20/fnf-greece-emergency-economic-summit-for-greece-stirs-up-unprecedented-media-coverage/

A video of the full conference and my presentation with be on the Atlas Network website later. https://www.atlasnetwork.org/news/article/how-greece-can-escape-from-economic-crisis?utm_source=AtlasNetwork+World10%3A+Highlights+from+the+global+freedom+movement&utm_campaign=a14b0b99fb-World10_5_6_15&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_d4bce382cb-a14b0b99fb-26641201

The paper that I prepared for the conference can be found at: http://works.bepress.com/warren_coats/32/

All the best,

WarrenGreece EESG

Greece, Debt, and Parenting

If you are a parent, you may have experienced something like the following:

Son number 1 and his children live in a much nicer home than you did at his age. It is the biggest house he could qualify to buy and you put up the down payment to assist him in his purchase. He worked hard as an auto mechanic earning a decent income. His wage was increased modestly each year as his productivity gradually increased with experience, though barely keeping up with inflation. He and his wife were loving parents with three wonderful children and enjoyed their family time together spending what they earned on their children. However, they spent his income as he received it and borrowed the maximum possible to buy a nice second hand family van. When the car needed more than the normal repairs, he had no savings and borrowed the money from you. The occasional family illnesses were paid for by additional loans from you as well and rather than paying off their mortgage and other debts over time these debts grew larger. When his children reached college age they took jobs that did not require college educations as no money had been saved for college.

Son number 2 was also an auto mechanic but ran his own repair shop. His wife and two children lived in a more modest home with lower mortgage payments and they consumed his earnings carefully and modestly in order to save for emergencies, the children’s college fund, and his retirement, and to invest in equipment that would make his repair shop more productive. For a number of years they enjoyed a lower standard of living than did son number 1, but gradually paid down their mortgage without incurring additional debt. More importantly, his income rose more rapidly than did his brother’s because of his investments in tools and equipment. Within 24 years his income was twice his brothers as a result of its growing 3% per year faster.

With the bursting of the housing bubble in 2007 and having his hours of work reduced because of the slowing economy, son number 1 was forced to sell his house in a short sale arranged with the mortgage holder and you wrote off what he owned you. His family was forced to cut many of their expenditures because no one would lend them the money needed to continue living beyond their means. They were forced to cut their consumption even further in order to have some savings when the inevitable health and mechanical emergencies occurred because you decided that your earlier financial help had only perpetuated their shortsighted behavior and refused to lend him more. They complained about the fall in their standard of living as they were now forced to consume within their means. Your son number 1’s family was now poorer. Or more accurately, their standard of living matched reality and became sustainable. Their earlier, higher standard of living was an unsustainable illusion.

Needless to say, son number 2’s future was brighter. His family took advantage of the fall in housing prices by 2008 to buy a larger home, keeping their original one for its rental income. His two daughters went to and graduated from college. His higher standard of living was real and sustainable (i.e. he paid for his higher consumption fully out of his higher earnings).

If you rename son number 1 “Greece”, and son number 2 “Germany” you can begin to understand the difference between the situation of each economy and the difference between competitiveness (exports that match and pay for imports) and productivity (the level of wages and income). For a while Greece enjoyed an artificial and unsustainable standard of living. It needed to “adjust” to reality, i.e. to bring its expenditure in line with its income both internally (the government and each household better matching their incomes and expenditures) and externally (imports matched by –i.e., paid for by—exports) and thus to recognize that it is really poorer than it had pretended. This is what is meant by being competitive. To raise its standard of living it must become more productive by creating a more business friendly environment, reducing its blotted government bureaucracy, and liberalizing labor and product markets. For more details see my earlier articles on Greece: https://wcoats.wordpress.com/2010/05/30/greeces-debt-crisis-simplified/ and https://wcoats.wordpress.com/2012/02/26/saving-greece-austerity-andor-growth/

My Key stories of the world in 2014

Twenty fourteen was a busy year for the planet and in general a rather unhappy time. But believing as I do that when the pendulum swings too far in one direction (big brother) it swings back (personal freedom), I am such an optimist that I see some hopeful signs for 2015. These are the developments that I think are important (and/or felt like writing about).

Torture: A big plus this year was the eye-opening report of the United States Senate Select Committee on Intelligence Report on CIA Torture. It found that the CIA used torture (violating the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the United Nations Declaration Against Torture, and the I, II, and IV Geneva Conventions of 1949 all of which were signed by the United States and are thus binding laws of the land) and that it was not effective in gathering actionable information that couldn’t have been obtained with traditional interrogation techniques. Admittedly Senator Diane Feinstein was angry about CIA illegal hacking of computers of the Committee staff who have the legal responsibility of CIA oversight and may have been settling some scores. But if you do not find these abuses of power frightening, you live in the wrong country. While the report might not have been fully balanced, its findings on the ineffectiveness of torture are consistent with the earlier findings. https://wcoats.wordpress.com/2010/02/26/torture-is-immoral-and-doesn’t-work/

Our common sense assumption that a prisoner being tortured will tell his captures whatever they want to hear in order to stop the pain was dramatically confirmed by the recent news that Nian Bin was released by the Chinese government after eight years in prison for murders he did not commit. He was originally tortured into admitting the alleged crimes. http://www.washingtonpost.com/world/asia_pacific/in-china-a-rare-criminal-case-in-which-evidence-made-a-difference/2014/12/29/23f86b80-796b-11e4-9721-80b3d95a28a9_story.html

Hopefully these disclosures will reign in these embarrassing and appalling abuses by the United States government.

Greece: Since joining the EU and adopting the Euro (still very popular in Greece as protection against the bad old inflation days), Greece has enjoyed and unfortunately recklessly indulged in a higher living standard (consumption) than it earned (produced) by borrowing from the rest of Europe at the low interest rates paid by Germany. This mispricing of the risk of lending to Greece by financial markets resulted in part from the failure of the European Central Bank (ECB) to rate Greece sovereign debt realistically (treating all sovereign debt of its members alike). It also reflected the moral hazard of the wide spread belief that the EU, ECB, and international financial institutions such as the IMF would bail out holders of such debt. But no one and no country can live beyond its means forever. What can’t go on forever, won’t. https://wcoats.wordpress.com/2010/05/30/greeces-debt-crisis-simplified/, https://wcoats.wordpress.com/2012/02/26/saving-greece-austerity-andor-growth/

The balance between what Greece (short hand for individuals, firms, and government domiciled in Greece) imports and (pays for with) exports can be restored by lowering the cost of Greek goods and services. This will increase its exports and decrease its imports. This can be achieved by lowering wages and other costs of production or increasing productivity. Lowering wages without an increase in productivity simply acknowledges the reality that Greeks are poorer than most other Europeans. Increasing productivity improves Greek competitiveness and thus exports while also increasing its real standard of living.

The loans provided to the Greek government by the troika (EU, ECB, and IMF) tied to (i.e. conditional on) reductions in the government’s borrowing needs (reducing government employees, increasing tax revenue, etc) and structural reforms to make the economy more productive, provided an alternative to its default and forced sudden cut in government spending that markets would have forced on it otherwise. There is debate about which approach would be best for Greece in the long term. Hopefully Greek voters will face and debate this choice honestly in the presidential elections in January: http://www.washingtonpost.com/world/europe/greek-impasse-forces-early-elections-and-fears-of-euro-crisis-return/2014/12/29/3be75924-8f4e-11e4-ba53-a477d66580ed_story.html The implications for the EU and the Euro are huge. https://wcoats.wordpress.com/2011/11/02/the-greek-referendum/

Cuba: President Obama has decided to diplomatically recognize Cuba after a half century long failed policy of sanctions. Not only have our economic sanctions failed to displace the Castro brothers and their pernicious regime (most other countries do not observe our sanctions and trade and invest with Cuba anyway), we have no business (or national self interest) in adopting and promoting a regime change as national policy, however much we might wish for it. Moreover it is very much in our national interest to have good information on and channels of communication with every country with a government no matter how chosen. The linked article by Marc Thiessen illustrates the arrogant and dangerous thinking of our neocons. If Thiessen supports something, I start out against it until convinced otherwise: http://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/marc-thiessen-cuban-dissidents-blast-obamas-betrayal/2014/12/29/cc68ffcc-8f5b-11e4-ba53-a477d66580ed_story.html

Crony capitalism: President Eisenhower famously worried about the dangers of the military industrial complex as he sought to conduct a cold war with the USSR: https://wcoats.wordpress.com/2011/01/17/eisenhowers-farewell-address-50-years-later/. It is difficult for the government to objectively serve the public interest while dealing with or regulating industry. https://wcoats.wordpress.com/2014/12/18/free-markets-uber-alles/ The relationship that develops in such a situation often serves the interests of the regulated industry more than the general public. The result is what we call crony capitalism and it is the enemy of true capitalism as much as its variants– socialism and fascism. One of the particularly alarming examples of truly disgusting and damaging crony capitalist deals is described in the following article. It involves JPMorgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon and Eric Holder’s Justice Department agreeing on what seems like a large fine, but is more accurately described as a bribe, to suppress evidence of criminal behavior on the part of Chase. http://www.rollingstone.com/politics/news/the-9-billion-witness-20141106.

Twenty fifteen will be a better year than was 2014 if public outrage at the use of torture, the abuse of the privacy of American’s, the bailing out of and favoritism toward Wall Street and the costly and counter productive deployment of American military around the world, result in rolling back these dangerous excesses. My fear is that nothing will be done and that there will be more the same. I hope that I am wrong.

Ukraine- Monetary Regime Options

I visited Kyiv March 11 – 14 and participated in the Emergency Economic Summit for Ukraine at which I discussed the pros and cons of the central bank following currency board rules or inflation targeting. My paper on the subject will appear in a few weeks in the Cayman Financial Review, but the introductory paragraphs give a quick picture of the domestic (not external Russian issues) political situation. I reproduce those here:

The recent protests leading to the replacement of the government of Victor Yanukovych, reflect a widely held desire for the rule of law and normal individual freedoms and dignity. The few thousands who demonstrated in the Maidan (Independence Square) in Kyiv starting November 21, 2013 following the surprise refusal of then President Yanukovych to sign Association and Free Trade Agreements with the EU, swelled to almost one million by early December in response to deadly police attacks on the demonstrating students. The Ukrainian public, countrywide, is outraged at the corruption of its government and wants a new direction more reflective of western values.

President Yanukovych was removed from office on February 22 by a vote of 328 of 447 members of the Ukrainian parliament. Ukraine’s leadership has changed a number of times since the collapse of the Soviet Union without any significant or enduring change in governance and corruption. More than the head of state needs to change. Having been disappointed by the outcome of the Orange revolution, the demonstrators remain distrustful of any new government with old faces. The barricades and tents of the Euromaidan demonstrators remain in place, and their occupants vow to stay to monitor the new government at least until the Presidential elections scheduled for May 25.

Maidan tent city IMG_0162IMG_0160

The Future of Ukraine

Bordering Moldova, Romania, Hungary, Slovakia, and Poland to the west, and Russia and Belarus to the East, Ukraine should be well placed to benefit from the trade opportunities in both directions. Although the 47 million population of modern (post WWII) Ukraine is overwhelmingly ethnically Ukrainian (about 78%) followed by 17% Russian (concentrated in the industrial eastern and southern areas), Ukraine’s educated citizens are almost universally bilingual in Ukrainian and Russian. Ukraine’s western half naturally leans toward Europe while its eastern half leans toward Russia. The country’s presidency has shifted between favoring one then the other. The tensions between the two are real but can easily be exaggerated.

Many of us wonder why President Putin seems to want yet another unproductive, loss-making territory added to Russia’s care, something it increasingly cannot afford. As with Transnistria, the inefficient, loss-making, industrial, secessionist, eastern part of Moldova (now largely a gangster haven), the eastern part of Ukraine is saddled with former Soviet, industrial, white elephants, which sooner or later must be dismantled. Why is Putin flirting with isolation from the world community with ultimately devastating economic costs to Russia to take over more industrial dinosaurs? Why, in short, is Russia giving up joining the “civilized” world it seemed to once aspire to?  The only tangible benefit for Putin seems to be great popularity at home. Having almost totally snuffed out significant political opposition and a free press in Russia, and then convinced the vast majority of Russians that he is defending Russia from its many enemies, his moves against Ukraine have sent his popularity soaring at home.( “Putin wins in Russia only by escalating his war rhetoric” Washington Post /2014/03/14/ )

Just as President Victor Yanukovych’s brutal repression of the Ukrainian protesters following his switch from signing the Association and Free Trade Agreements with the EU to signing a trade and financing agreement with Russia backfired, resulting in his removal from office by an overwhelming vote of the Ukrainian Parliament, Putin’s thuggish maneuvers against Ukraine seem to have backfired as well. By all accounts (except those broadcast by Russian media) almost all Ukrainians, ethnically Russian as well as Ukrainian, are uniting in their opposition to a Russian take over. Just because many Ukrainians in the eastern parts of the country are native Russians doesn’t mean they want to be annexed by Russia. It reminds me of the large number of Mexicans now living in southern California. No one would imagine that they would vote in a referendum to become part of Mexico (again). “Putin’s interference is strengthening Ukraine” Washington Post /2014/03/13/, “Russia supporters in eastern Ukraine pose challenges to pro western government” Washington Post/2014/03/14/.

I found it interesting that the Ukrainian Minister of Economy, Pavlo Sheremeta, switched from English to Russian during the “Emergency Economic Summit For Ukraine” in which I participated in Kyiv on March 12, for the benefit of the two Russian panelists to whom he was speaking. The Russians, Andrei Illarionov, former Economic Advisor to President Putin, and Kakha Bendukidze, fomer Minister of Economy of Georgia, both speak English as flawlessly as does Minister Sheremeta. The real point was to show affinity with Russia and Russian Ukrainians, while criticizing President Putin’s bullying.

Ukraine has much to do to clean up its government and to liberate the entrepreneurial energies of its economy. But such reform efforts could be interrupted if Putin moves Russian troops into Ukraine beyond the Crimea. It is certainly desirable to dissuade them from doing so if possible. The question for the U.S. and Europe is what measures should they be willing to take against Russia for violating Ukraine’s sovereign territory. The West’s objective should be to deter further Russian aggression if possible or to diminish its ability to continue to misbehave in the future if it persists in violating or threatening to violate the sovereignty of its neighbors.

Putin’s justification for its invasion of the Crimea and potentially more of Ukraine, the need to protect ethnically Russian citizens of Ukraine, is reminiscent of Hitler’s take over of the Sudetenland (the largely German-speaking western areas of Czechoslovakia). “Putin-the mask comes off but will anybody care” American Interest 2014/03/15/3.  Particularly egregious is Russia’s disregard of its commitments made on December 5, 1994 in Budapest, Hungary Budapest Memorandum on Security Assurances (also signed by the U.K. and the U.S.). In exchange for Ukraine’s giving up its nuclear weapons stockpile (then the third largest in the world) Russia and the U.S. provided assurances against the use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of Ukraine.

Henry Kissinger has set out reasonable terms of an agreement with Russia (on the assumption that Putin is pursuing genuine Russian interests in the area) but offered no suggestions for how to encourage Russia to accept them. “To settle the Ukraine crisis start at the end” Washington Post /2014/03/05/.  The West’s strategy should be explicit and transparent and should escalate with continued Russian aggression. It should begin with measures that will command the most attention in Russia at the least cost and risk to the West. We should not make threats that we are not willing to carry out. No Obama red lines that are later ignored.

President Obama has already ordered the freezing of U.S. assets and a ban on travel into the United States of those involved in threatening the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine. No individuals have been named yet. It is a tool that can easily be expanded to a larger number of people if and when Russian intrusion expands. These measures are aimed at those in Russia with the greatest influence with Putin and would diminish the joys of their ill-gotten wealth (extravagant vacations in London, etc.). But unless the EU joins the U.S. in applying such sanctions, they will obviously be far less effective.

If Putin is unwilling to reverse course or at least stop advancing even in the face of targeted sanctions, the West’s strategy should be to reduce or limit Russia’s financial capacity to reestablish its former empire. Putin’s hold on power rests on the wealth he has directed to his friends, and wage and pension promises to the general public. About one half of Russia’s federal budget financing comes from its exports of oil and gas. The price of oil needed for Russian fiscal balance is in the neighborhood of $120 per barrel. This so-called breakeven price increases with expenditures by the Russian government and with the cost of producing its oil and gas. Brent crude is currently trading for around $108 per barrel. Russian exports and government revenue have become overly dependent on oil and gas and its supply of cheap oil is running out. It has not kept up with the investment in newer technologies and while its output can be sustained for some time its cost of production is rising.  Acquiring the Crimea or eastern Ukraine would add to Russia’s budgetary costs.  “Crimea as consolation prize-Russia faces some big costs over Ukrainian region” Washington Post /2014/03/15/

Europe is more cautious than the U.S. about trade sections in part because of its heavy reliance on Russian gas delivered though pipelines running through Ukraine and large investments by some of its companies in Russia. One of the interesting and beneficial things about increasing trade interdependence is that it cuts both ways and thus tempers the behavior of all sides. Russia is reluctant to shut off its gas sales to Europe as it did in 2006 and 2009 because it needs the money. Europe is less dependent on Russian gas than it was then and could replace it all together if it got over its aversion to the use of fracking technology. The U.S. should be doing everything possible to bring oil prices down in any event. Obama’s long delay in approving the Keystone Pipeline project to deliver Canadian oil to and through the U.S. is more than embarrassing. And all U.S. restrictions on shipping natural gas to Europe or elsewhere should be removed. In addition, oil supplies globally are expected to improve as the embargo on Iranian oil is lifted and production in Iraq, Libya, and South Sudan increases. Liberalization in Mexico promise increases in its oil production. Russia can’t afford to expand its empire of inefficient industries.

If we went all out, Russians and Russian companies could be locked out of the use of the U.S. dollar, a tool that has brought increasing pain to Iran. It is an effective tool because of the dominance of the dollar and dollar financial instruments in international commerce.  But like Russia’s shutting its gas pipelines to Europe, every use of such tools reduces its future effectiveness as those affected take measures to reduce their dependence on the products involved (Russian oil, or the U.S. dollar and financial system).

If in the hopes of preventing a Russian attack, the United States threatens to respond militarily in any way, it had better be prepared to do so. But should it? Clearly the American defense umbrella over our NATO allies should not be questioned and deploying additional aircraft and military capacity to Europe (especially the Baltic members) makes sense. Ukraine is not a member of NATO and I agree with Henry Kissinger that they should not be. If Russia grows up and behaves like a responsible adult we should not unnecessarily provoke insecurity on its part.

But if Russia, despite all, invades mainland Ukraine, should we militarily assist Ukraine and if so in what ways? Or should we prepare for a new cold war of containment, isolation and the eventual economic collapse of the new Russian empire? This, as they say, is above my pay grade. However, an invasion of Ukraine would be quite different from the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan because we wouldn’t be the invaders. It would be different from the situations in Syria, or Libya because we would not be joining one group or another in a civil war.

The new interim government in Ukraine is promising but unproven. The distraction from the reforms needed that would result from a Russian invasion of Ukraine would be a tragedy for Ukraine as well as Russia. Excessive external aid (financial and/or military) from the West would likely prolong Ukraine’s history of corruption and deepen ethnic tensions. The external financial assistance now planned would largely address external debt service and would allow a more gradual reduction in government spending than would be required by a debt default. This would allow Ukraine itself to strengthen its governance and economy, but would not guarantee such a result. The West can encourage the adoptions of helpful reforms but cannot impose them on an unwilling or unready Ukraine. Russia is in a position to destroy or undermine these efforts, if that is Russia’s role in history that Putin wants.