Brad Setser

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Showing posts for "Fiscal Policy"

Germany is Running a Fiscal Surplus in 2016 After All

by Brad Setser

It turns out Germany has fiscal space even by German standards!

Germany’s federal government posted a 1.2 percent of GDP fiscal surplus in the first half of 2016. The IMF was forecasting a federal surplus of 0.3 percent (and a general government deficit of 0.1 percent of GDP—see table 2, p. 41); the Germans over-performed.*

Germany’s ongoing fiscal surplus contributes to Germany’s massive current account surplus, and the large and growing external surplus of the eurozone (the eurozone’s surplus reached €350 billion in the last four quarters of data, which now includes q2). The external surplus effectively exports Europe’s demand shortfall to the rest of the world, and puts downward pressure on global interest rates. Cue my usual links to papers warning about the risk of exporting secular stagnation.

Eurozone-current-account-balance

Martin Sandbu of the Financial Times puts it well.

“The government’s surplus adds to the larger private sector surplus which means the nation as a whole consumes much less than it produces, sending the excess abroad in return for increasing financial claims on the rest of the world. German policymakers like to say that the country’s enormous trade surplus is a result of economic fundamentals, not policy—but as far as the budget goes, that claim is untenable. Even if much of the external surplus were beyond the ability of policy to influence, that would be a case to use the government budget to counteract it, not reinforce it.”

The Germans tend to see it differently. Rather than viewing budget surpluses as a beggar-thy-neighbor restraint on demand, they believe their fiscal prudence sets a good example for their neighbors.

But its neighbors need German demand for their goods and services far more than they need Germany to set an example of fiscal prudence. It is clear—given the risk of a debt-deflation trap in Germany’s eurozone partners—that successful adjustment in the eurozone can only come if German prices and wages rise faster than prices and wages in the rest of the eurozone. The alternative mechanism of adjustment—falling wages and prices in the rest of the eurozone—won’t work.

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IMF Cannot Quit Fiscal Consolidation (in Asian Surplus Countries)

by Brad Setser

In theory, the IMF now wants current account surplus countries to rely more heavily on fiscal stimulus and less on monetary stimulus.

This shift makes sense in a world marked by low interest rates, the risk that surplus countries will export liquidity traps to deficit economies, and concerns about contagious secular stagnation. Fiscal expansion tends to lower the surplus of surplus countries and regions, while monetary expansion tends to increase external surpluses.

And large external surpluses should be a concern in a world where imbalances in goods trade are once again quite large—though the goods surpluses now being chalked up in many Asian countries are partially offset by hard-to-track deficits in “intangibles” (to use an old term), notably China’s ongoing deficit in investment income and its ever-rising and ever-harder-to-track deficit in tourism.

In practice, though, the Fund seems to be having trouble actually advocating fiscal expansion in any major economy with a current account surplus.

Best I can tell, the Fund is encouraging fiscal consolidation in China, Japan, and the eurozone. These economies have a combined GDP of close to $30 trillion. The Fund, by contrast, is, perhaps, willing to encourage a tiny bit of fiscal expansion in Sweden (though that isn’t obvious from the 2015 staff report) and in Korea—countries with a combined GDP of $2 trillion.*

I previously have noted that the Fund is advocating a 2017 fiscal consolidation for the eurozone, as the consolidation the Fund advocates in France, Italy, and Spain would overwhelm the modest fiscal expansion the Fund proposed in the Netherlands (The IMF is recommending that Germany stay on the fiscal sidelines in 2017).

The same seems to be true in East Asia’s main surplus economies.

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Why Is The IMF Pushing Fiscal Consolidation in the Eurozone in 2017?

by Brad Setser

The eurozone collectively has a substantial external surplus, and its economy is operating below potential. In the framework set out in the IMF’s external balance assessment, that pretty clearly calls for fiscal expansion:

“Surplus countries that have domestic slack need to rely more on fiscal policy easing, which would address both their output gaps and their external gaps… Meanwhile, deficit countries should actively use monetary policy, where available, to close both internal and external gaps.”

But is the IMF following its own advice (for a currency union that has an external surplus and domestic slack, I am well aware of the fact that the eurozone is not a single country with a single fiscal policy) and actually recommending a fiscal expansion in the eurozone?

Best I can tell, no. Not for 2017.

The IMF of course is for more fiscal stimulus at the European level. But that is a hope, not a reality. The capacity for a common eurozone fiscal policy conducted through borrowing by the center doesn’t currently exist, and it realistically isn’t going to materialize next year.

That means the eurozone’s aggregate fiscal impulse is the sum of the fiscal impulses of each of its main economies. What does the IMF recommend there?

In Italy the IMF seems to want about a half a point of structural fiscal consolidation (see paragraph 35 of the staff report).

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Fiscal Stimulus, Korean Style

by Brad Setser

Korea is one country that unambiguously has fiscal space right now. Low government debt. The on-budget deficit was, until recently, more than offset by the off-budget surplus in Korea’s social security fund. With a slowing economy and a massive (almost 8 percent of GDP in 2015) current account surplus, Korea unambiguously should be running an expansionary fiscal policy. Read Summers and Eggertsson.

But I do not quite see how “paying down debt” can be part of a true fiscal stimulus package.

Nor do I see how a fiscal stimulus can do much to spur the economy if it doesn’t create a new borrowing need. The Wall Street Journal:

“Unlike the heavily debt-funded supplementary budget last year, this year’s supplement will narrow the estimated deficit marginally, thanks to a partial debt repayment by the government. The finance ministry expects the country’s sovereign debt to stand at 39.3% of gross domestic product in 2016, lower than its initial estimate of 40.1%”

Emphasis added.

It seems like Korea’s stimulus will be financed by “surplus” tax revenues, not new debt.

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Can Europe Declare Fiscal Victory and Go Home?

by Brad Setser

Rules are rules and all.

But the application of poorly conceived rules is still a problem. Especially in the face of a negative external shock.

The eurozone’s fiscal policy is, more or less, the fiscal policy adopted by its constituent member states.

Wolfgang Schauble (do follow the link) should be happy: Europe’s fiscal policy is almost entirely inter-governmental.

The eurozone’s big five—Germany, France, Italy, Spain, and the Netherlands—account for over 80 percent of the eurozone GDP. Summing up their national fiscal impulses is a decent approximation of the eurozone’s aggregate fiscal policy.

And, building on the point I outlined two weeks ago (and that my colleague Rob Kahn echoed on his Macro and the Markets blog), 2017 could prove to be a real problem. Bank lending now looks poised to contract, and eurozone banks face (yet again) doubts about their capital. And the sum of national fiscal policies—best I can tell—is pointing to a fiscal consolidation.

In the face of the Brexit shock, standard (MIT?) macroeconomics says that a region that runs a current account surplus, that has a high unemployment rate, that has no inflation to speak of, that cannot easily respond to a short-fall in growth by lowering policy interest rates (policy rates are, umm, already negative, and negative rates are already, cough, adding to problems in some banks), and that can borrow for ten years at a nominal interest rate of less than one should run a modestly expansionary fiscal policy.

The eurozone as a whole clearly has fiscal space. The eurozone’s aggregate fiscal deficit is lower than that of the United States, Japan, the United Kingdom, and China. Adjusted for the cycle, the IMF puts the eurozone’s overall fiscal deficit at about 1 percent of GDP (without adjusting for the cycle, the eurozone’s overall deficit is around 2 percent of GDP). Even without any cyclical adjustments, the eurozone now runs a modest primary surplus, and simply refinancing maturing debt at current interest rates should lead to a lower headline deficit.

But the eurozone isn’t a unified fiscal actor. Right now the countries that could run a bigger fiscal deficit without violating the eurozone’s rules have said they won’t, and the countries that are already running deficits that violate the rules are facing new pressure to comply with the rules. The aggregate fiscal stance of the eurozone thus is likely to be contractionary.

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Meanwhile, in Japan, Household Consumption Continues to Fall

by Brad Setser

In news that you may have missed while strategizing about Article 50, thinking about ways to recapitalize Italian banks or pondering the future course of the renminbi …

Japan’s May household consumption data, based on the demand side household data, surprised to the down side.* And the trend here is, alas, clear. Real household consumption has fallen ever since Japan started its fiscal consolidation in 2014. 2016 does not look to be any different: 2016 consumption is running about 6 percentage points lower than in 2013.

household-consumption

I consequently do not think there is any real mystery as to why Abenomincs is floundering a bit.

It is not primarily a result of the difficulties the Bank of Japan (BoJ) faces keeping the yen weak without breaking the G-7 currency peace through direct intervention. A weak yen on its own did not prove to be a boon to internal demand in 2015.

Nor is it in any simple way a function of a failure to deliver on structural reforms: I agree with Larry Summers’ recent comment that many “OECD standard” reforms have an ambiguous impact when deflation is more of a concern than inflation.

Rather, Japan’s troubles stem from a series of policy choices that had a fairly predictable negative impact on household demand.

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Japan’s First Consumption Tax Hike Was a Demand Disaster

by Brad Setser

Abe’s rhetoric has not been German. Especially not recently.

But his policies over the last two years have been. At least until recently.

The International Monetary Fund’s fiscal department estimates that Japan did a consolidation of over 2 percentage points in 2014 and another half point or so of fiscal consolidation in 2015, net of any gains from lower interest payments.*

Japan has a history of passing lots of highly hyped stimulus packages. But in many cases those stimulus packages just offset the roll-off of past stimulus packages, without generating much net fiscal impulse to the economy.

Postponing the consumption tax hike consequently makes a great deal of sense. Japan’s economy—the domestic side at least—never recovered from the last hike.

Japan GDP

Private consumption demand fell around 1.5 percentage points of GDP immediately after the consumption tax hike, and hasn’t recovered. Annualizing quarter-over-quarter changes in the level of consumption produces noisy headlines every quarter—but the basic trend is clear by now. Even in Japan with its demographics there should be an upward slope to consumption over time in a normally performing economy.

Japan’s 2014 consumption tax hike consequently should rank a bit higher in the various cases used to examine the impact of fiscal austerity.

There was a clear swing toward austerity, and thus a clear contrast. Fiscal policy was modestly expansionary by any measure in 2013.

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It Has Been a Long Time

by Brad Setser

I stopped blogging almost seven years ago.

My interests have not really changed too much since then. There was a time when I was far more focused on Europe than China. But right now, the uncertainty around China is more compelling to me than the questions that emerge from the euro area’s still-incomplete union.

Some of the crucial issues have not changed. The old imbalances are starting to reappear, at least on the manufacturing side. China’s trade surplus is big once again—even if the recent rise in the goods surplus (from less than $300 billion a couple years back to around $600 billion in 2015) has not been matched by a parallel rise in China’s current account surplus. The U.S. non-petrol deficit is also big, and rising quite fast.

But some big things have also changed.

The United States imports a lot less oil, and pays a lot less for the oil it does import. That has held down the overall U.S. trade deficit.

Oil exporters have been facing a gigantic shock over the last year and a half, one that is putting their (sometimes) considerable fiscal buffers to the test. Even if oil has rebounded a bit, at $50 a barrel the commodity exporting world is hurting.

Looking back to 2006, 2007, and 2008, one of the most surprising things is that Asia’s large surplus coincided with rising oil prices and a large surplus in the major oil exporters. High oil prices, all other things equal, should correlate with a small not a large surplus in Asia.

The global challenge now comes from the combination of large savings surpluses in both Asia and Europe rather than the combination of an Asian surplus and an oil surplus.

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Still growing …

by Brad Setser

The Fed’s custodial holdings of Treasuries just topped $2 trillion. Custodial holdings of Treasuries rose by $25 billion in July. The overall pace of growth in the Fed’s custodial holdings did slow a bit in July, as some of the rise in Treasuries was offset by a fall in Agency holdings. But in a world where the US trade deficit is running at about $30 billion a month, a $15 billion monthly increase in the Fed’s custodial holdings is significant.

I understand why the Treasury market is so focused on Chinese demand — China is a the largest player in the market, and a major shift in Chinese demand would almost certainly have an impact. Right now, the market is obsessing over the low level of indirect bids in last week’s 2 year auction. At the same time, concern that central banks are abandoning Treasuries should be muted so long as the rise in the Fed’s custodial holdings of Treasuries is running far above the US trade deficit. Barring a huge increase in the trade deficit after May, that is certainly will be case over the last three months of data.

frbny-custodial-data-july-09-1

It is also true on a 12m basis.

frbny-custodial-data-july-09-2

The Fed’s custodial holdings may exaggerate central bank purchases a bit, as central banks sought safety in the crisis and moved funds out of private accounts. But so long as the custodial holdings of Treasuries are rising so rapidly, it is a little hard to argue that central bank reserve managers aren’t willing to hold dollars.

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Near-record growth in the custodial holdings at the Fed; ongoing angst about the dollar’s role as a reserve currency …

by Brad Setser

Central banks haven’t lost their appetite for Treasuries. At least not shorter-dated notes. John Jansen noted before yesterday’s 2-year auction “the central banks love that sector [of the curve].” And the auction result certainly didn’t give him cause to backtrack. Indirect bids — a proxy for central banks — snapped up close to 70% of the auction. Jansen again:

The Treasury sold $ 40 billion 2 year notes today and the bidding interest from central banks was frantic. The indirect category of bidding ( which the street holds is a proxy for central bank interest) took 68 percent of the total. That leaves about $ 13 billion for the rest of us.

Central banks also seem increasingly interested in five year notes. Indirect bids at today’s five year auction were quite high as well.*

Strong central bank demand for Treasuries shouldn’t be a real surprise. Reserve growth picked up in May: look at Korea, Taiwan, Russia and Hong Kong. There are even rumblings – based on the data that the PBoC puts out — that Chinese reserve growth picked up as well. The rise in reserve growth fits a long-standing pattern: emerging markets tend to add more to their reserves — and specifically their dollar reserves — when the euro is rising against the dollar. A fall in the dollar against the euro often indicates general pressure for the dollar to depreciate — pressure that some central banks resist (Supporting charts can be found at the end of a memo on the dollar that I wrote for the Council’s Center for Preventative Action).

And the Fed’s custodial holdings (securities that the New York Fed holds on behalf of foreign central banks) have been growing at a smart clip. Recent talk about a shift away from a dollar reserves by a few key countries actually coincided with a surge in the Fed’s custodial holdings. Over the last 13 weeks of data, central banks added $160 billion to their custodial accounts, with Treasuries accounting for all the increase.

frbny-mid-june-09-2

$160 billion a quarter is $640 billion annualized — a pace that if sustained would be a record. Of course, $640 billion in central bank purchases of Treasuries would still fall well short of meeting the US Treasuries financing need. The math only works if Americans also buy a lot of Treasuries. That is a change.

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