Crisis may make 1929 look a ‘walk in the park’

by Ambrose Evans-Pritchard

As central banks continue to splash their cash over the system, so far to little effect, Ambrose Evans-Pritchard argues that things risk spiralling out of their control

Twenty billion dollars here, $20bn there, and a lush half-trillion from the European Central Bank at give-away rates for Christmas.
Buckets of liquidity are being splashed over the North Atlantic banking system, so far with meagre or fleeting effects.

It’s about price, not quantity (net funds are not altered), and the CB actions have helped set ‘policy rates’ at desired levels.

That is all the CBs can do, apart from altering the absolute level of rates, which, by their own research, does little or nothing and with considerable lags.

Not to say changing rates isn’t disruptive as it shifts nominal income/wealth between borrowers and savers of all sorts.

As the credit paralysis stretches through its fifth month, a chorus of economists has begun to warn that the world’s central banks are fighting the wrong war, and perhaps risk a policy error of epochal proportions.

“Liquidity doesn’t do anything in this situation,” says Anna Schwartz, the doyenne of US monetarism and life-time student (with Milton Friedman) of the Great Depression.

The last major, international fixed exchange rate/gold standard implosion. Other since – ERM, Mexico, Russia, Argentina – have been ‘contained’ to the fixed fx regions.

“It cannot deal with the underlying fear that lots of firms are going bankrupt. The banks and the hedge funds have not fully acknowledged who is in trouble. That is the critical issue,” she adds.

The critical issue at the macro policy level is what it is all doing to the aggregate demand that sustains output, employment, and growth. So far so good on that front, but it remains vulnerable, especially given the state of knowledge of macro economics and fiscal/monetary policy around the globe.

Lenders are hoarding the cash, shunning peers as if all were sub-prime lepers. Spreads on three-month Euribor and Libor – the interbank rates used to price contracts and Club Med mortgages – are stuck at 80 basis points even after the latest blitz. The monetary screw has tightened by default.

The CB can readily peg Fed Funds vs. LIBOR at any spread they wish to target.

York professor Peter Spencer, chief economist for the ITEM Club, says the global authorities have just weeks to get this right, or trigger disaster.

Seems they pretty much did before year end. Spreads are narrower now and presumably at CB targets.

“The central banks are rapidly losing control. By not cutting interest rates nearly far enough or fast enough, they are
allowing the money markets to dictate policy. We are long past worrying about moral hazard,” he says.

They have allowed ‘markets’ to dictate as the entire FOMC and others have revealed a troubling lack of monetary operations and reserve accounting.

“They still have another couple of months before this starts imploding. Things are very unstable and can move incredibly fast. I don’t think the central banks are going to make a major policy error, but if they do, this could make 1929 look like a walk in the park,” he adds.

Hard to do with floating exchange rates, but not impossible if they try hard enough!

The Bank of England knows the risk. Markets director Paul Tucker says the crisis has moved beyond the collapse of mortgage securities, and is now eating into the bedrock of banking capital. “We must try to avoid the vicious circle in which tighter liquidity conditions, lower asset values, impaired capital resources, reduced credit supply, and slower aggregate demand feed back on each other,” he says.

Seems a lack of understanding of the ‘suppy side’ of money/credit is pervasive and gives rise to all kinds of ‘uncertainties’ (AKA – fears, as in being scared to an extreme).

New York’s Federal Reserve chief Tim Geithner echoed the words, warning of an “adverse self-reinforcing dynamic”, banker-speak for a downward spiral. The Fed has broken decades of practice by inviting all US depositary banks to its lending window, bringing dodgy mortgage securities as collateral.

Banks can only own what the government puts on their ‘legal list’, and banks can issue government insured deposits, which is government funding, in order to fund government approved assets.

Functionally, there is no difference between issuing government insured deposits to fund their legal assets and using the discount window to do the same. The only difference may be the price of the funds, and the fed controls that as a matter of policy.

Quietly, insiders are perusing an obscure paper by Fed staffers David Small and Jim Clouse. It explores what can be done under the Federal Reserve Act when all else fails.

Section 13 (3) allows the Fed to take emergency action when banks become “unwilling or very reluctant to provide credit”. A vote by five governors can – in “exigent circumstances” – authorise the bank to lend money to anybody, and take upon itself the credit risk. This clause has not been evoked since the Slump.

The government already does this. They already determine legal bank assets, capital requirements, and via various government agencies and association advance government guaranteed loans of all types.

This is business as usual – all presumably for public purpose.

Get over it!!!

Yet still the central banks shrink from seriously grasping the rate-cut nettle. Understandably so. They are caught between the Scylla of the debt crunch and the Charybdis of inflation. It is not yet certain which is the more powerful force.

Yes, as they cling to the belief that ‘inflation’ is a ‘strong’ function of interest rates, while it is an oil monopolist or two and a government induced and supported link from crude to food via biofuels that are driving up CPI and inflation in general.

America’s headline CPI screamed to 4.3 per cent in November. This may be a rogue figure, the tail effects of an oil, commodity, and food price spike. If so, the Fed missed its chance months ago to prepare the markets for such a case. It is now stymied.

CPI might also be headed higher if crude continues its advance.

This has eerie echoes of Japan in late-1990, when inflation rose to 4 per cent on a mini price-surge across Asia. As the Bank of Japan fretted about an inflation scare, the country’s financial system tipped into the abyss.

As I recall, it was a tax hike that hurt GDP.

Yes, the world economies are vulnerable to a drop in GDP growth, but the financial press seems to have the reasoning totally confused.


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