Topic: Finance, Banking & Monetary Policy

Osborne Risks a Triple-Dip for the UK

U.K. Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne has resumed his saber-rattling over raising capital requirements for British banks. Most recently, Osborne has fixated on alleged problems with banks’ risk-weighting metrics that, according to him, have left banks undercapitalized. Regardless of Osborne’s rationale, this is just the latest wave in a five-year assault on the U.K. banking system – one which has had disastrous effects on the country’s money supply. The initial rounds of capital hikes took their toll on the British economy – in the form of a double-dip recession. Now, Osborne appears poised to light the fuse on a triple-dip recession.

Even before the Conservative, Osborne, took the reins of Her Majesty’s Treasury, hiking capital requirements on banks was in vogue among British regulators. Indeed, it was under Gordon Brown’s Labour government, in late 2007, that this wrong-headed idea took off.

In the aftermath of his government’s bungling of the Northern Rock crisis, Gordon Brown – along with his fellow members of the political chattering classes in the U.K. – turned his crosshairs on the banks, touting “recapitalization” as the only way to make banks “safer” and prevent future bailouts.

It turns out that Mr. Brown attracted many like-minded souls, including the central bankers who endorsed Basel III, which mandates higher capital-asset ratios for banks. In response to Basel III, banks have shrunk their loan books and dramatically increased their cash and government securities positions, which are viewed under Basel as “risk-free,” requiring no capital backing. By contrast, loans, mortgages, etc. are “risk-weighted” – meaning banks are required by law to back them with capital. This makes risk-weighted assets more “expensive” for a bank to hold on its balance sheet, giving banks an incentive to lend less as capital requirements are increased. 

Five years later, Osborne is attempting to ratchet up the weights on these assets. Indeed, he is taking another whack at banks’ balance sheets – and the result will be the same as when the U.K. Financial Services Authority first took aim at the banking system (under Gordon Brown). As the accompanying chart shows, the first round of capital requirement hikes (in 2008) dealt a devastating blow to the U.K. money supply. Indeed, it tightened the noose on the supply of bank money – the portion of the total money supply produced by the banking system, through deposit creation.

Not surprisingly, this sent the British economy spiraling into its first recessionary dip. The second hit to the money supply came shortly after the Bank for International Settlements announced the imposition of capital hikes under the Basel III accords, in October 2010. Despite numerous infusions of state money (reserve money) via the Bank of England’s quantitative easing schemes, these first two squeezes on bank money have put the squeeze on the U.K.’s total money supply.

This is the case because state money makes up only 16.3% of the U.K.’s total money supply. The remaining 83.7% of the money supply is made up of bank money. In consequence, the Bank of England would have to undertake a massive expansion of state money, via quantitative easing, to offset the U.K.’s bank money squeeze.

It is doubtful, however, that the British pound sterling would be able to withstand such a move. Indeed, there are more storm clouds brewing over Threadneedle Street. The sterling recently touched a 15-month low against the euro, and it has fallen 8% against the euro since late July. For the time being, at least, the pound’s tenuous position will likely put a constraint on any further significant expansion of state money, through quantitative easing. It appears markets simply wouldn’t tolerate it.

Accordingly, the only viable option to jumpstart the faltering U.K. economy is to release the banking system from the grips of the government-imposed bank-money squeeze. Alas, Osborne’s most recent initiative on bank recapitalization goes in exactly the wrong direction.

Live Blog of the 2013 State of the Union Address and the GOP Response

Please join us at 9:00PM ET on Tuesday, February 12, for live commentary during President Obama’s State of the Union address, the GOP response by Sen. Marco Rubio, and the Tea Party response by Sen. Rand Paul. Here is our panel of policy experts by research area:

General Comment and the Presidency:

Banking and Financial Regulation:

  • Mark Calabria, Director of Financial Regulation Studies (@MarkCalabria)

Infrastructure and Fiscal Policy:

Law and Civil Liberties:

Telecom and Information Policy:

  • Jim Harper, Director of Information Policy Studies (@Jim_Harper)

Health Care:

Immigration:

Education:

  • Andrew Coulson, Director - Center for Educational Freedom (@Andrew_Coulson)
  • Neal McCluskey, Associate Director - Center for Educational Freedom (@NealMcCluskey)

Energy and Environment:

  • Patrick J. Michaels, Director - Center for the Study of Science (@CatoMichaels)
  • Chip Knappenberger, Assistant Director - Center for the Study of Science (@PCKnappenberger)

Foreign Policy and National Security:

Follow their comments directly on Twitter, or come back to this page at 9:00 PM ET on Tuesday, February 12, to join us. We look forward to having you, and sharing our insights with you.

You can also follow the conversation on Twitter by following @CatoInstitute and the hashtag #SOTU.

Also watch Cato’s Libertarian State of the Union.

A Threadneedle Street Kerfuffle

On January 10, 2013, I penned a letter to the Financial Times, pointing out an error in its characterization of lending-of-last-resort operations. As the letter below describes, these central bank operations often do not go according to plan:

Sir, Your leader “Basel bends on liquidity rules” (January 8) asserts that: “Central banks can always provide liquidity, and while their facilities should not be a first resort for banks, the Basel Committee is right to signal it will incorporate access to them in its rules.”

You might have added: “But, central banks have a propensity to make a muddle out of what should be routine operations – like those associated with the provision of lender-of-last-resort liquidity.” The Bank of England provides the most recent evidence of this in what turned out to be a catastrophic government failure and arguably the start of the current financial crisis.

On August 9 2007 European money markets dried up after BNP Paribas announced that it was suspending withdrawals from two of its money market funds. This put Northern Rock – a profitable, solvent bank – in a liquidity squeeze. Northern Rock turned to the BoE for a relatively small infusion of liquidity.

This routine lender-of-last resort operation would have worked, according to the textbooks, but for a BoE leak to Robert Peston at the BBC. The BBC story broke on September 13 2007 and the next morning a devastating bank run ensued.

In a flash, Northern Rock went from being solvent (if temporarily illiquid) to bust. Indeed, it was government failure – the BoE’s bungled attempt to provide emergency liquidity – that transformed the Northern Rock affair from a minor, temporary liquidity problem to a major solvency crisis.

So, when it comes to central banks, there is often a wide gulf between the textbooks and reality. It’s time to close the book on Basel III and its liquidity coverage ratio, and to focus on fixing central banks, so that they can properly deliver liquidity, when needed, at a price.

Steve H. Hanke, The Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, MD, US

To my surprise, what I thought was a simple factual clarification of a Financial Times editorial quickly drew the ire of none other than The Old Lady of Threadneedle Street. Indeed, Nils Blythe, the Bank of England’s communication director was quick to reply in the next morning’s FT:

Sir, In a recent letter (January 11) Professor Steve Hanke made the unsubstantiated claim that the Bank of England leaked information about a lender-of-last-resort operation at Northern Rock to the BBC. This claim is wholly untrue. As the governor made clear in evidence to the Treasury Committee of the House of Commons, the Bank wanted to provide support to Northern Rock covertly, precisely because of the risk of a run by retail depositors.

Prof Hanke also argues that Northern Rock was suffering “a minor, temporary liquidity crisis”. It is worth noting that even when it was supplied with abundant liquidity Northern Rock could not find a buyer and had to be nationalised. With hindsight it is clear that Northern Rock was an early example of the solvency crisis which gripped much of the banking sector in the following years.

Nils Blythe, Communications Director, Bank of England

To put it plainly, I am quite underwhelmed by Mr. Blythe’s argument and evidence. Although it would appear that his response is in line with standard central banking protocol, I found his letter quite concerning for two reasons.

The Long Run Decline in Actual Homeownership

It would be far more accurate to label U.S. federal homeownership policy, U.S. mortgage policy.  For the primary means of “extending” homeownership, via federal policy, has been the massive increase in mortgage debt.  Sadly the actual trend increase in homeownership has been close to nothing since 1960. 

If the ultimate intent of housing policy is to help build wealth and enable families to have something to pass along to future generations, then the right measure should be home equity.  Even better measure would be the percent of homeowners who own their homes free and clear, that is without any mortgage.  As long as there is any mortgage, even a small one, the bank has some ability to foreclose if you are in default.  Setting aside the fact that the government can come take your home, with or without a mortgage, it’s hard to say you really “own” it unless it’s all yours.

Homes Owned Free and Clear

Currently the percentage of homeowners that own without any mortgage is just under 30 percent.  Prior to 1960, an actual majority of owners held their homes with no mortgage at all.  For most of American history, the typical homeowner did not have any mortgage, not having to answer to a bank and also having some wealth to pass along to future generations.  The primary impact of US homeownership policy has not been to increase homeownership, but to increase debt along with driving up house prices.  Not a bad outcome if you’re a mortgage banker or a real estate agent.  But not exactly a good deal for home buyers.  Yes this has also helped increase the average size of homes, but helping everyone live in a McMansion hardly seems like a compelling public policy goal.  And yes, reducing our reliance on debt for purchasing a home would result in lower prices, a huge win for renters.

Value of the Iranian Rial Hits an All Time Low

For months, I have kept careful tabs on the black-market exchange rate between the Iranian rial and the U.S. dollar. This is the metric I used to determine that Iran underwent a brief period of hyperinflation, in October 2012. And, using these data, I calculated that Iran ended 2012 with a year-end annual inflation rate of 110%.

Since the start of the new year (on the Gregorian calendar), the rial has displayed new-found weakness. Indeed, its value reached an all-time low of 38,450 rials to one dollar, on Saturday, February 2. As the accompanying chart shows, it is now trading at 38,250, moving the implied annual inflation rate to 121%, from its year-end value of 110%.

How can the IRR/USD rate be so volatile? After all, both the rial and the dollar represent nothing more than fiat currencies, without any defined value. At the end of the day, the value of a fiat currency is whatever value that fluctuations in the supply of and demand for cash balances accord to a scruffy piece of paper.

The markets for both the rial and dollar respond to conjectures about the ability of the respective governments to deliver on their stated “good” intentions. When it comes to Iran, these conjectures understandably generate sharp fluctuations in the value of the rial. Indeed, it is clear that Iranians do not trust their government to deliver economic stability. In consequence, the rial continues to tumble with increasing volatility, and inflationary pressures continue to mount.

The Tyranny of Confusion: A Response to Prof. Djavad Salehi-Isfahani on Iran

In October 2012, I first reported that Iran had experienced hyperinflation. My diagnosis of Iran’s inflation woes has since drawn the ire of Prof. Djavad Salehi-Isfahani, who has written a series of blogs and articles disputing my analysis. Prof. Salehi-Isfahani, an economist at Virginia Tech, has employed a confused (and confusing) mix of half-baked methodologies and selected data to yield unfounded, preposterous claims. Specifically, he claims that Iran never experienced a brief bout of hyperinflation and that Iran’s inflation rate is much lower than the estimates reported by virtually everyone except Iran’s Central Bank. To borrow Jeremy Bentham’s phrase, Prof. Salehi-Isfahani’s claims constitute a series of “vulgar errors.”

What has puzzled me for the past few months is why Prof. Salehi-Isfahani has been so hell-bent on denying Iran’s inflation problems. But finally, in his most recent article in Al Monitor, he showed his hand, revealing his underlying thesis – the same claim propagated by the Iranian regime – that the sanctions imposed by the West have not inflicted economic damage on Iran to the extent that has been reported.

In his most recent blog, Prof. Salehi-Isfahani finally abandons his own confused attempts to calculate Iran’s inflation rate. For his readers, this is a relief, as the variety of methods with which he attempted to calculate inflation in Iran amount to nonsense – and not even good nonsense.

China: Money Matters

Contrary to what the doomsters have been telling us, China’s economy is not on the verge of collapse. As the Wall Street Journal’s man in Beijing (and my former student), Aaron Back, reported: “China’s economic growth accelerated in the fourth quarter of 2012.” Indeed, China’s fourth quarter GDP growth rate came in at a strong 7.9%.

What the doomsters and many other Pekingolgists fail to grasp is that money matters. Indeed, it dominates fiscal policy, and nominal GDP growth is closely linked to growth in the money supply – broadly measured.

China’s most recent acceleration in GDP growth did not catch me flatfooted, because China’s money supply has been surging (see the accompanying chart).

In fact, China’s M2 money supply measure is 9.7% above the trend level. Money matters.