Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Ireland-ECB's sacrifical lamb to assuage German inflation fears..

I know, I know.....the Torygraph is just flexing its eurosceptic muscles with this piece, apparently bemoaning Irelands lot, but this does not mean that the argument being advanced does not have any intrinsic merit. Far from it, put bluntly, Ireland is being forced to roll back the welfare state and tighten fiscal policy in the midst of a savage economic contraction in order to uphold the deflation orthodoxies of Europe's monetary union.

(SUNDAY TELEGRAPH 12.4.09)

If Ireland still controlled the levers of economic policy, it would have slashed interest rates to near zero to prevent a property collapse from destroying the banking system.

The Irish Central Bank would be a founder member of the "money printing" club, leading the way towards quantitative easing a l'outrance.

Irish bond yields would not be soaring into the stratosphere. The central bank would be crushing the yields with a sledge-hammer, just as the Fed and the Bank of England are crushing yields on US Treasuries and gilts.

Dublin would be smiling quietly as the Irish exchange rate fell a third to reflect the reality of trade ties to Sterling and the dollar zone.

It would not be tossing away its low-tax Celtic model to scrape together a few tax farthings - supposedly to stop the budget deficit exploding to 13pc of GDP this year, or 18pc says Barclays Capital. If the tax raises were designed to placate rating agencies, they made no difference. Fitch promptly booted Ireland from the AAA club anyway.

Above all, Ireland would not be the lone member of the OECD club to compound its disaster by slashing child benefit and youth unemployment along with everything else in last week's "budget from Hell".

Depression buffs will note the parallel with Britain's infamous budget in September 1931, when Phillip Snowden cut the dole and child allowance to uphold the deflation orthodoxies of the Gold Standard - though in that case the flinty Pennine rather liked hair-shirts for their own sake.

Though few had any inkling at the time, Snowden's austerity drive would soon push British society over the edge. It set off a mutiny - a Royal Navy mutiny at Invergordon over pay cuts, in turn triggering a run on sterling. The pound was forced off Gold within days. Irish deliverance from EMU will not be so easy.

Brian Lenihan, Ireland's finance minister, said the economy would contract 8pc this year on top of the terrifying 7.1pc drop in the final quarter of last year.

But what caught my ear was his throw-away comment that prices would fall 4pc, which is to admit that Ireland is spiralling into the most extreme deflation in any country since the early 1930s. Or put another way, "real" interest rates are rocketing.

This is torture for a debtors' economy. You can survive deflation; you can survive debt; but Irving Fisher taught us in his 1933 treatise "Debt Deflation causes of Great Depressions" that the two together will eat you alive.

Don't blame the victim. Ireland has been betrayed twice in this saga. Once by New Labour, which led Dublin to believe that Britain would join EMU at the same time - covering Ireland's dangerously exposed flank of Sterling trade.

It was betrayed again by the European Central Bank, which opened the monetary floodgates early this decade to nurse Germany through a slump, holding rates at 2pc until late 2005, despite flagrant breach of the ECB's own M3 money targets. Fast-growing Ireland and the Club Med over-heaters were sacrificed to help Germany. They were left to cope with credit bubbles as best they could.

Ireland struggled. Construction reached 21pc of GDP - a world record? - compared with 11pc in the US at the peak. Mr Lenihan hopes to shield banks from the calamitous consequences by creating a buffer agency. It will soak up ¤80bn to ¤90bn in toxic debt - or 50pc of GDP.

He borrowed the plan from Sweden's bank rescues in the early 1990s, but overlooks the key point - it was not the bail-out that saved Sweden's financial system, the country recovered only by ditching its exchange peg and regaining its freedom of action.

Without that sort of liberation, Ireland's property slump will grind on for years and more multinationals will join Dell in decamping to cheaper plants in Poland. Ireland risks a deflationary slide into bankruptcy.

Of course, it is not the job of the ECB to set policy for Dublin's needs. But it would at least help if Frankfurt began to set policy for Europe's needs. Has the ECB noticed the collapse of industrial output in Spain (-24pc), Germany (-23pc), Italy (-21pc), France (-14pc)?

Simon Johnson, the IMF's former chief economist, said the ECB is pursuing a "ruinous policy" by disregarding the clear and present danger of deflation. "If they wait until deflation is 'fully in the data', it will be too late," he said.

Spain is already tipping into deflation. Unemployment has reached 3.5m or 15.5pc, and is rising very fast. Finance minister Pedro Solbes - ex-Mr Euro and lately the Torquemada of Madrid life - was toppled last week in a bitter dispute over spending plans. He said the kitty is empty. Quite. But is his fall a sign that Spain is no longer willing to follow the Frankfurt deflation script?

France too is fraying. The over-valued euro - fruit of ECB doctrine - is hollowing-out core industry. This week ArcelorMittal mothballed its historic foundries in Lorraine in what looks like the final demise of French steel. Workers are taking matters into their own hands everywhere, holding managers hostage in what amounts to low-level terror tactics.

No doubt, Germany will recover. Its export machine is heavily geared to the global cycle. Southern Europe will not recover. The cost gap between North and South has grown too wide. Which is why the ECB's deflation policies must prove so destructive.

If the ECB continues to serve as the instrument of German tastes, keeping German inflation near zero, then Club Med and Ireland must necessarily deflate into Hell with all their debts. Unless Germany accepts inflation of 4pc, 5pc or 6pc for a while, the only way the South can claw back lost competitiveness is through outright wage cuts, and that is not a macro-economic option for debtors. Is anybody facing up to this core reality in euroland?

Ireland prides itself on a nimble workforce and flexible practices that make it different from Club Med. It can adjust faster to ups and downs, goes the story. For those of us who feel a duty to Ireland, let us hope this, at least, is true

11 comments:

Anonymous said...

The saddest fact about this is that the entire opposition are simply urging more of the same but with bells on. They all signed up to the bailout package - albeit through gritted teeth - and talk about a stimulus package to be paid back through taxation in the future - but that is simply transfering the burden of debt from the capitalists to the working class.

The sad fact is that virtually no one is capable of making the hard calls. No bail out to the bankers. Economic Investment only to public sector or through cooperatives. No pay cuts for the workers only higher taxes for the rich.

More at:
http://revolutionaryireland.blogspot.com

Wm. Wilberforce said...

Check out my evaluation of socialism and the natural law at http://www.squarewon.org/2009/04/20/wwilberforces-article-part-ii-socialism/

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