Topic: Finance, Banking & Monetary Policy

Iran’s Inflation Statistics: Lies, Lies and Mehr Lies

The Mehr News Agency is now reporting that Iran’s annual inflation rate has reached 31.5%. According to the Central Bank’s official line, Iran’s annual inflation rate has bumped up only 1.3 percentage points from February to March.

Never mind that this official inflation statistic is well below all serious estimates of Iran’s inflation. And yes, Iran’s official inflation statistics are also contradicted by the overwhelming body of anecdotal reports in the financial press.

Since September 2012, I have been estimating Iran’s inflation rate – which briefly reached hyperinflation levels in October 2012 – using a standard, widely-accepted methodology. By measuring changes in the rial’s black-market (read: free-market) U.S. dollar exchange rate, it is possible to calculate an implied inflation rate for Iran.

When we do so, a much different picture of Iran’s inflation emerges. Indeed, Iran’s annual inflation rate is actually 82.5% – a rate more than double the official rate of 31.5% (see the accompanying chart).

As I have documented, regimes in countries undergoing severe inflation have a long history of hiding the true extent of their inflationary woes. In many cases, the regimes resort to underreporting or simply fabricating statistics to hide their economic problems. And, in some cases, such as Zimbabwe and North Korea, the government simply stops reporting economic data altogether.

Iran has followed a familiar path, failing to report inflation data in a timely and replicable manner. Those data that are reported by Iran’s Central Bank tend to possess what I’ve described as an “Alice in Wonderland” quality and should be taken with a grain of salt.

Deficits and Inflation, from the Fed to the Cartoon Page

You know you’ve arrived when your name starts showing up in cartoons. Here’s the Wall Street Journal’s legendary “Pepper … and Salt” cartoon from last Thursday:

Of course, most inflation obsessives are deficit scolds, so it’s not clear that host is going to get much debate. 

One person who might be called both an inflation obsessive – that is, a person who objects to the robbery of savers through the erosion of the value of their money – and a deficit scold is David Stockman, former budget director for President Ronald Reagan. He has a new book out, The Great Deformation: The Corruption of Capitalism in Americawhich he summarized in the New York Times on Sunday. He’ll be speaking about his book at the Cato Institute on Wednesday. Don’t miss it.

Targeting Multinationals, the OECD Launches New Scheme to Boost the Tax Burden on Business

I’ve been very critical of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. Most recently, I criticized the Paris-based bureaucracy for making the rather remarkable assertion that a value-added tax would boost growth and employment.

But that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

Now the bureaucrats have concocted another scheme to increase the size and scape of government. The OECD just published a study on “Addressing Base Erosion and Profit Shifting” that seemingly is designed to lay the groundwork for a radical rewrite of business taxation.

In a new Tax & Budget Bulletin for Cato, I outline some of my concerns with this new “BEPS” initiative.

…the BEPS report…calls for dramatic changes in corporate tax policy based on the presumption that governments are not seizing enough revenue from multinational companies. The OECD essentially argues that it is illegitimate for businesses to shift economic activity to jurisdictions that have more favorable tax laws. …The core accusation in the OECD report is that firms systematically—but legally—reduce their tax burdens by taking advantage of differences in national tax policies.

Ironically, the OECD admits in the report that revenues have been trending upwards.

…the report acknowledges that “… revenues from corporate income taxes as a share of gross domestic product have increased over time. …Other than offering anecdotes, the OECD provides no evidence that a revenue problem exists. In this sense, the BEPS report is very similar to the OECD’s 1998 “Harmful Tax Competition” report, which asserted that so-called tax havens were causing damage but did not offer any hard evidence of any actual damage.

To elaborate, the BEPS scheme should be considered Part II of the OECD’s anti-tax competition project. Part I was the attack on so-called tax havens, which began back in the mid- to late-1990s.

Hayek v. Krugman – Cyprus’ Capital Controls

Nobelist Paul Krugman has a propensity to spin and conceal. This allows for deception – the type of thing that hoodwinks some readers of his New York Times column. While deception doesn’t qualify as lying, it also fails to qualify as truth-telling.

Prof. Krugman’s New York Times column, “Hot Money Blues” (25 March 2013) is a case in point. Prof. Krugman sprinkles holy water on the capital controls that will be imposed in Cyprus. He further praises to the sky the post-1980 capital controls that were introduced in a number of other countries.

Prof. Krugman then takes a characteristic whack at all those “ideologues” who might dare to question the desirability of capital controls:

But the truth, hard as it may be for ideologues to accept, is that unrestricted movement of capital is looking more and more like a failed experiment.

Fine. But, not once did Prof. Krugman mention that there just might be a significant cost associated with the imposition of capital controls – a cost with which Prof. Krugman is surely familiar.

Before more politicians fall under the spell of capital controls, they should take note of what another Nobelist, Friedrich Hayek, had to say in his 1944 classic, The Road to Serfdom:

The extent of the control over all life that economic control confers is nowhere better illustrated than in the field of foreign exchanges. Nothing would at first seem to affect private life less than a state control of the dealings in foreign exchange, and most people will regard its introduction with complete indifference. Yet the experience of most Continental countries has taught thoughtful people to regard this step as the decisive advance on the path to totalitarianism and the suppression of individual liberty. It is, in fact, the complete delivery of the individual to the tyranny of the state, the final suppression of all means of escape—not merely for the rich but for everybody.

When it comes to capital controls, I think the Cypriots – even the non-ideologues – might be inclined to agree with Hayek over Krugman.

Cyprus: Follow the Money

While the Cypriot Parliament may be dragging its feet on a proposed rescue plan for Cyprus’ banks, the country ultimately faces a choice between Brussels’ bitter pill…and bankruptcy. Cyprus’ newly-elected President, Nicos Anastasiades, has quite accurately summed up the situation:

“A disorderly bankruptcy would have forced us to leave the euro and forced a devaluation.”

 Yes, Brussels and the IMF have finally decided to come to the aid of the tiny island, which accounts for just 0.2% of European output – to the tune of roughly $13 Billion. But, this bailout is different. Indeed, the term “bail-in” has emerged, a reference to the fact that EU-IMF aid is conditional upon Cyprus imposing a hefty tax on its depositors. Not surprisingly, the Cypriots, among others, are less than pleased about this so-called “haircut”.

Still, the question lingers: Why now? The sorry state of Cyprus’ banking system is certainly no secret. What’s more, the IMF has supported a “bail-in” solution for some time. So, why has the EU only recently decided to pull the trigger on a Cyprus rescue plan?

One reason can be found by taking a look at the composition of Cyprus’ bank deposits (see the accompanying chart).

 

There are two main take-aways from this chart:

  1. European depositors’ money began to flow out of Cyprus’ banks back in 2010. Indeed, most European depositors have already found the exit door.
  2. Over that same period, non-Europeans (read: Russians) have increased their Cypriot exposure. If the proposed haircut goes through, Russian depositors could lose up to $3 billion. No wonder Valdimir Putin is up in arms about the bail-in.

Perhaps a different “red telephone” from Moscow will be ringing in Brussels soon.

Lessons from Cyprus

It doesn’t create a lot of confidence in Europe that tiny little Cyprus, with a GDP less than Vermont, is now causing immense turmoil.

Though to be more accurate, events in Cyprus aren’t causing turmoil as much as they’re causing people to examine both government finances and bank soundness in other nations. And that’s causing anxiety because folks have taken their heads out of the sand and looked at the reality of poor balance sheets.

Looking closer at the specific mess in Cyprus, an insolvent financial sector is the cause of the current crisis, though the problem is exacerbated by the fact that the government has dramatically increased the burden of government spending in recent years and therefore isn’t in a position to finance a bailout.

But that then raises the question of why Cyprus is bailing out its banks? Why not just let the banks fail?

Well, here’s where things get messy, particularly since we don’t have a lot of details. There are basically three options for dealing with financial sector insolvency.

  1. In a free market, it’s easy to understand what happens when a financial institution becomes insolvent. It goes into bankruptcy, wiping out shareholders. The institution is then liquidated and the recovered money is used to partially pay of depositors, bondholders, and other creditors based on the underlying contracts and laws.
  2. In a system with government-imposed deposit insurance, taxpayers are on the hook to compensate depositors when the liquidation occurs. This is what is called the “FDIC resolution” approach in the United States.
  3. And in a system of cronyism, the government gives taxpayer money directly to the banks, which protects depositors but also bails out the shareholders and bondholders and allows the institutions to continue operating.

As far as I can determine, Cyprus wants to pick the third option, sort of akin to the corrupt TARP regime in the United States. But that approach can only work if the government has the ability to come up with the cash when banks go under.

I’m assuming, based on less-than-thorough news reports, that this is the real issue for Cyprus. It needs taxpayers elsewhere to pick up the tab so it can bail out not only depositors, but also to keep zombie banks operating and thus give some degree of aid to shareholders and bondholders as well.

But other taxpayers don’t want to give Cyprus a blank check, so they’re insisting that depositors have to take a haircut. In other words, the traditional government-imposed deposit insurance regime is being modified in an ad hoc fashion.Cyprus Bank Bailour

And this is why events in tiny Cyprus are echoing all over Europe. Folks in other nations with dodgy banks and unsound finances are realizing that their bank accounts might be vulnerable to haircuts as well.

So what should be done?

I definitely think the insolvent institution should be liquidated. The big-money people should suffer when they mismanage a bank. Shareholders should lose all their money. Then bondholders should lose their money.

Then, if a bailout is necessary, it should go only to depositors (though I’m not against the concept of giving them a “haircut” to save money for taxpayers).

But Cyprus apparently can’t afford even that option. And the same is probably true of other European nations. 

In other words, there isn’t a good solution. The only potential silver lining to this dark cloud is that people are sobering up and acknowledging that the problem is widespread.

Whether that recognition leads to good policies to address the long-run imbalances – such as reductions in the burden of government spending and the implementation of pro-market reforms – remains to be seen.

Chavez: The Death of A Populist … and His Currency?

Although Hugo Chávez, the socialist presidente of Venezuela, has finally met his maker, the grim reaper is still lingering in Caracas. As it turns out, Chávez was not the only important Venezuelan whose health began to fail in recent weeks: the country’s currency, the Venezuelan bolivar fuerte (VEF) may soon need to be put on life support.

In the past month the bolivar has lost 21.72% percent of its value against the greenback on the black market (read: free market). As the accompanying chart shows, the bolivar has entered what could be a death spiral, which has only accelerated with news of Chávez’s death.

 

Shortly before his death, Chávez’s administration acknowledged that the bolivar was in trouble and devalued the currency by 32%, bringing the official VEF/USD rate to 6.29 (up from 4.29). But, at the official exchange rate, the bolivar is still “overvalued” by 74% versus the free-market exchange rate.