counter

Search This Blog

Pages

Saturday, 29 August 2009

RECESSION ON/OFF - media spin or delusion?

The media is reporting central bankers and top regulators telling us, as in the words of the FT, "economic doctors have given their prognosis: the worst of the Great Recession has passed, but a full recovery will take a while." When the FT (LEX 'owner') refers to "economic doctors" leaving out the word "spin" for drip-dry humour effect - what do they really know? As we know, or should know, government officials avoid predicting recessions for fear that whatever they say becomes self-fulfilling; they believe in confidence factors.
When bankers do so it implies finance has an inside track, a superior map, for knowing where we are in macro-economics. There is no recent evidence to assume that, quite the contrary. Finance is, as we know, short termist, happiest when trading short-run volatilities. Easy for them to jump on latest quarterly figures to claim longer-run turning points. But, the truth is rather otherwise:
1) quarterly figures are not reliable - we have to wait for annual figures
2) there are several world region economic cycles, not one global cycle, however connected, the various main cycles do not move in synch, especially not C.Europe, Japan, and USA/UK.
3) official growth figures (GDP)are provisional and take several quarters to firm up during which they are subject to major revisions.
That said, the global economy did go into negative growth when all was added up together for 2008, but beneath the aggregate total were many disconnections. And there is little doubt that all OECD (developed) economies experienced quarters of negative growth together in the last year. That is unusual; it last happened in the oil shock of the early '70s (oil price hikes in response to Arab/Israeli war). After the shock, countries and regions rebounded to where they had been in their respective cycles before being so rudely interrupted.
This time we also had sharply rising oil prices, but just as potently, or more so, we had the Credit Crunch when much (not all) of global finance panicked, had an anxiety attack, dose of the vapours, seized up, became disorderly, stopped working as hitherto predicted. This was a downward spike in all major economies and many minor ones. The extremely one-sided pattern of world trade died and is being reformed. The USA as the world's major deficit country to which nearly everyone else became a creditor couldn't go on as before and is now acting as a slower steam engine, putting less coal and water into the boiler, when pulling the train of global activity behind it. It is also like a motorway pile-up; USA vehicles at the front stop suddenly but it takes a while before all other vehicles behind slow-up, and similarly as the USA gets going again it will take time before those behind get going.
This analogy is however too much one or two dimensional. The world system functions by having major regions acting in countervailing ways to each other. When USA peaks, Europe tends to be down and vice versa, just as the oil price was driven at times 90%by the $/€ exchange rate, and as much more by depressed demand.
What I expect to see when with better hindsight we can look back over the 2005-2012 period is that many economies experienced a temporary shock into recession before recovering back onto the poath they were following before the Credit Crunch shock. Hence I do not expect UK recession to end before 2Q '10 and C.Europe and the Euro Area that have receovered recently into possible positive growth have another recession coming in '11 and '12.
In the week when central bankers met in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, to express optimism, however circumspect (basically to validate each other's responses to the crisis when few others will), curiously the main media comment concerns the future of base rates? There is a theory that still prevails, however discredited by events, that central bank rates drive the credit & economic cycles by acting upon domestic inflation. Many have blamed an over-long period after 2001 of low base-rates for the Asset Bubbles that burst to create the Credit Crunch and that central banks in their monetary price settings focused only on consumer prices and failed to address asset prices (real estate & financial equity). The balance of media opinion seems to be that central banks are likely to err on the side of keeping interest rates lower for longer, necessitated by a longer recovery period, consumer price and continuing asset deflation, and to maintain a wider margin in which traditional banking can internally generate new capital reserves.
A question is how far and how quickly should policy seek to restore asset values to pre-Credit crunch levels? More on this question anon.

Thursday, 27 August 2009

JACKSON HOLE IN ONE?

FT's Krishna Guha writes on the meeting of central bankers (except Mervyn King) at their regular Jackson Hole, Wyoming, gettogether, "As central bankers from around the world queued on the terrace of Jackson Lake Lodge at the weekend to gaze at the stars above the Teton mountains through almost Nasa-sized telescopes, they must have wished they had as much clarity on the economic horizons they usually scan as they did on the constellations above... though they are now confident that the world has avoided an economic black hole." - a very non-Roubiniesque comment? I offer a vision photographed when the crisis was in meltdown in August 2007by Tyler Nordgren who captured this lunar eclipse sequence from his campsite in Grand Teton National Park on August 29. He took an exposure of the moon every 10 minutes until it disappeared and the sun lit up the mountains with alpenglow. I can do no better than to begin with krishna's text, "That is not an easy idea to sell to politicians, voters – or even regulators. After all, as Turner points out, world without a reliable compass is frightening, exhausting and time-consuming to navigate. “For the regulators of the world, once you have accepted that you don’t have an intellectual framework of “more market is always better” you’re in a much more worrying space, because you don’t have an intellectual system to refer each of your decisions.” And it remains crucially clear whether Turner will ever be able to actually turn any of his rhetoric into policies, given the scale of backlash that his comments will undoubtedly spark from the banking world. But I, for one, reckon he is to be applauded, for at least trying to think the unthinkable again - and move away from a crude reliance on creeds. The only question now whether other regulators will follow, not just in Europe, but, above all, in the US, where so many of the free-market dogmas first sprung to life?"
Free market may or may not be fairly described as "dogma" even if for many it is undoubtedly no better than this. The British alone running a trade deficit for free trade reasons for most of the 19th century that made the country rapaciously interested in finding gold to pay its creditors, is probably the better starting place for earmarking the origin of this 'dogma'. The USA was doing similar for most of the 20th century and there can be little doubt that while extreme imbalances in world trade led to the Credit Crunch (and other negative blips and major downturns from time to time) this also generated much that has been positive, if as in everything neither all negatives nor all positives. What now seems indubitable is the new central role for central banks who must now address problems with more empicism less dogmatic theory, more Keynesianism less Monetarism, more prudential macro- finance & macro-economics less micro-finance & supply-side theory; is Quantitative Easing supply-side finance or merely clearing the decks (debt restructuring) preparatory to massive issues of government bonds and ultimately replacing private indebtedness poorly collateralized (that grew to 3 times GDP in many countries when public sector debt stuck at half of GDP) with public debt (fully collateralized) that can profit for the taxpayer from interbank wholesale funding when private finance dried up (Credit Crunch)? Global finance appears to most peoplemore avant-garde puzzling abstractions than Cubist paintings seemed a century ago. Krishna reports, "Instead, much of the talk in the formal seminars and during the hikes in the lower slopes of the Tetons – although, ahead of his renomination on Tuesday as Fed chairman, Ben Bernanke opted to go (horse) riding instead – revolved around the lessons of the crisis for the future of central banking. Unease was widespread that even when the last asset they have had to purchase has been refinanced or sold off and the last unorthodox bank loan cleared, it would not be possible to go back to the pre-crisis status quo."
Well, indeed not for 5-6 years, by which time we might only be a year or two before the next set of global cyclical downturns? Macro-economics should now dominate in central bank analysis and prognosis, as it should do so too in banks' governing bankers thinking much thoroughly and ethically about their role in the global economy? "Central banking is going to change – in all cases, though more for some central banks than others – as policymakers seek to live up to elevated, and in some cases newly formalised, responsibilities for financial stability. It will become a broader, messier and more complex business, with objectives that may appear at times to be in conflict, new tools that are as yet largely untested and – at least at the margin – possible changes to the operation of monetary policy as well." As, central banks, especially the ECB, now realise it is not their remit and ideas only that have to change, but also undo how now discredited ideas are hard-wired into their constitutions; they need constitutional change?
Krishna says, "Although no one at Jackson Hole put it in such terms, there was a time when the life of a central banker was relatively straightforward, if not exactly easy. The job was to ensure economic stability by managing inflation, the monster that had ravaged the world economy in the 1970s. Most central bankers and academic economists were confident they knew how to do this: through some variant of inflation targeting, pioneered 20 years ago by the Reserve Bank of New Zealand and adopted by many others including the Bank of England. The Fed operates a de facto inflation targeting regime, which Mr Bernanke pushed to make more explicit, and academics claimed that even authorities such as the European Central Bank that deny being inflation targeters were so in practice. Implement such a regime successfully, the thinking went, and a central bank would not only achieve low and stable inflation but in doing so would ensure economic stability and the optimal platform for growth and prosperity. For a while it seemed to work. The 'great moderation' ensued – an era of low and stable inflation accompanied by long expansions and short and shallow recessions. But the credit crisis put paid to the idea that inflation targeting – at least as often practised, with a focus on consumer prices and a short policy horizon – was enough to ensure stability and growth." This was rather like finding a way through the thicket without worrying overmuch about what was living and what was dead wood, so long as general confidence was maintained about getting through. Now, the onus on central banks is to be far more comprehensive about the totality of economics + finance and to take fuller responsibility for systemic problems, which means being able to issue instructions that banks have to formally take full notice of and be made responsible for taking necessary actions - and that in turn means central banks no longer issuing complex double-sided advice like brokers, but actually issuing firm orders to banks to stop doing X and do more of Y etc.
Krishna reflects the Jackson Hole discussion, by reporting ""It is a good time to review the prevailing philosophy in the light of the current crisis," Masaaki Shirakawa, governor of the Bank of Japan, told his peers at the Jackson Hole conference. He said central banking before the crisis rested on three assumptions of "pre-established harmony", all of which now appear flawed. The first of these was that "macroeconomic stability can be achieved by monetary policy which pursues low and stable inflation" and that "price stability and financial stability are complementary". The other assumptions were that the authorities needed simply to keep an eye on individual financial groups rather than consider risks in a system-wide context, and that liquidity would be continuous in wholesale funding markets.
Inflation targeting did not fail, at least in the eyes of most central bankers, and it will continue to be the cornerstone for most. But policymakers now know that managing the outlook for consumer prices over horizons of a few years is insufficient to ensure financial and economic stability. "There is an emerging consensus that price stability does not guarantee financial stability and is in fact often associated with excess credit growth and emerging asset bubbles," said Mark Carney, governor of the Bank of Canada, which operates an inflation targeting regime.
Low inflation and moderate interest rates feed investor confidence and over time reduce conventional measures of financial risk, spurring financial groups to take on more leverage and fund longer-term investments with short-term funds. The crisis shows how disastrously that can end.
"
What is being rethought is the idea that the macro-economy can be tracked and deemed ok by merely tracking some very broad indicators such as prices, stability and consumer confidence. Indeed, this was not unlike risk management by score-card; if the lid continues to fit the refuse bin we need not worry about the mess of waste inside it. Confidence was always a lunatic indicator centrally revered by banks. Commercial and consumer confidence was really a reflection of how easy they perceived it is to get bank credit i.e. banks lent more the more borrowers perceived it was easy to get loans - totally circular perception. Central bankers agree on a first line of defence against instability is tougher regulation of financial institutions, to make it harder to load up on debt funding mismatches in good times – caps on leverage plus new "macroprudential" powers to limit risk-taking system-wide. Jaime Caruana, head of BIS, said at Jackson Hole that these powers could come in two forms: tools to curtail concentrations of risk in the financial system, and policies that tighten requirements during an economic upswing, mitigating the extent to which risk-taking builds during booms. This all presumes a cyclical awareness and predictive modeling that central banks do not have, neither do governments. Central banks and government are not allowed to forecast downturns publicly. In economies with global banks, the regulators are also limited in the orders they can issue based on national economic concerns - and who other than the UN has global economic models, not the IMF or World Bank or BIS?
Krishna comments, "Like most of his peers, Mr Bernanke sees these macroprudential powers as providing the most promising way to ensure stability, in large part because they can be targeted at specific financial excesses. Awarding such powers to central banks is proving controversial, though, with Congress balking at proposals to make the Fed America's systemic risk regulator. While politicians mostly worry about the concentration of power in the central bank, some experts also worry that deploying macroprudential tools – for instance in a way that slowed the flow of funds to subprime borrowers – could drag the (central) bank into political controversy. Mervyn King, governor of the Bank of England... warned in June against placing the Bank in a situation where it had a formal mandate for financial stability but not the tools with which to achieve it. That would leave it "in a position rather like that of a church whose congregation attends weddings and burials but ignores the sermons in between"."The lack of models for analysis and lack of integrated finance sector data into macroeconomic models problem is alluded to by krishna, "But even if they win these powers, central banks know little about how to calibrate these tools or how they will interact with interest rates. On how to manage matters monetary, the core issue remains whether central banks should "lean against the wind" by running a tighter policy during asset and credit booms even if this means undershooting an inflation target for a couple of years – a debate that the crisis has revived with a vengeance." This raises a phenomenally big question, that of attempted or desirability of trying to banish by pre-empting cyclical events, and whether the emphasis has to be on equipping banks with sufficient capital reserve to ride out downturns - thereby acting anti-cyclically alongside fiscally-keynesian governments? Recessions easily wipe out 90% of bank reserves (at Basel Accord levels) and the current crisis is doubling this normal expectation. The implication could be that banks have to double their capital reserves, which of course would be an enormous motivation to push a great deal more of assets growth off balance sheet? Central banks have a lot of partial theories, but have failed to try to integrate them into a total system view - globally it is a bit like having to figure out how sunspots impact all of the earth's and humankind's infrastructure - less about pre-emption and prescription and more about understanding the interdependancies of our economic systems. I offer this interesting graphic, which I hasten to say is not a macro-economic or macro-financial model, but interesting none the less. Jean-Claude Trichet, president of the ECB, told the Jackson Hole symposium that the traditional objections to leaning against the wind are harder to sustain. As Krishna reports, "He said the ECB in effect leans against rising asset prices already – through its two-pillar approach that takes into account monetary and credit aggregates. "I trust that our own monetary policy concept is approximately this idea – that we should incorporate in a rules-based framework this leaning against the wind," Mr Trichet added. Some other central banks – including the Bank of Canada – put some direct weight on asset values by targeting a consumer price index that includes house prices. The Fed focuses on an index that includes a proxy for rent but not prices and has always rejected leaning against the wind on asset price. Although Mr Bernanke (who did not address the issue at Jackson Hole) has said he is open to reviewing the arguments, particularly if credit bubbles are involved, his instinct is that it is almost always better to use more targeted instruments to deal with credit excesses. Yet there may be common ground over the need to take a longer-term perspective on inflation. The ECB has always emphasised its focus on the medium term and Mr Bernanke has long argued in favour of a "flexible" form of inflation targeting that seeks to hit the spot over the medium term – as opposed to the formal two-year horizon at the Bank of England. In principle, this allows a central bank to set interest rates at a level that it thinks will result in inflation undershooting in two years' time, in order to reduce the likelihood of a bigger miss further down the line when a bubble may burst. That is hard to pull off in practice, because it is very difficult to forecast inflation many years out and virtually impossible to predict whether a bubble will burst soon on its own (in which case the central bank should be lowering rates, not raising them). Still, in at least one respect it may be easier than before for central bankers to exploit whatever flexibility there is in their legal inflation targeting regimes." There will always be at least two very different ways of seeing the same shapes. Krishna expresses this with, "...But in the aftermath of the crisis, the cost of not curtailing financial imbalances – even in a world of moderate inflation – is plain for all to see, even if how best to curb them remains rather more blurry a reality than the view of the stars through a high-powered telescope against the dark Wyoming sky."

TT (TOBIN TAX)?

Gillian Tett, who recently presented and debated her new book at the Edinburgh Book Festival this week and who then participated at the Prospero conference where Lord Turner raised the prospect of TT. Gillian weighs in to the question too of “Does the world need a global Tobin tax? (see previous blog) that she finds is buzzing around London’s financial circles this week. She says, “the really interesting thing about Turner’s suggestion is the wider intellectual impetus behind it. For as the FSA chairman surveys the financial crisis, he is increasingly convinced that Western policymakers are at a crucial intellectual water-shed”… (saying) “the whole efficient market theory, Washington consensus, free market deregulation system…” (that it) was so dominant that it was somewhat like a “religion”. This gave rise to “regulatory capture through the intellectual zeitgeist”, enabling the banking lobby to swell in size and power. But now, he says, there has been “a very fundamental shock to the ‘efficient market hypothesis’ which has been in the DNA of the FSA and securities and banking regulators through-out the world.” Hence “the idea of that more complete markets were good and more liquid markets are definitionally good” is no longer trusted. “[This crisis] requires a very major reconstruct of the global financial regulatory system, [not] a minor adjustment.” John McFall MP, Chairman of the House of Common finance committee says TT is "impractrical" and possibly there speaks the voice of Gordon Brown too on this question? But the moral imperative behind this issue is not so easily gainsaid. Gillian rightly sees the possibility here of “…mere political posturing. The FSA, after all, has faced criticism for failing to get tougher in curbing banking bonuses, and if also fending off proposals to put it under the Bank of England.” To this I can add that the FSA was (with the SEC) entirely duplicitous over short-selling curbs, stock-lending, and calls for enquiries into misleading statements to shareholders attendant on capital-raisings in 2008, and to which longer term could be added indifference to quality of markets, markets per se, systemic risks, and failed to make the case for more resources to do the job they are statutorily obliged and expected to do. Both FSA and SEC, if not many other national regulators, are severely under-resourced, but also have been suspected of conflicts of interest in being as ruthless and authoritative as circumstances demand (see blogs passim).
Gillian says, “Turner’s comments are a striking sign of the times. And they raise a crucial question: namely what type of intellectual framework should Western regulators now use, if their prior bible – or compass – has now turned out to be so flawed? Sadly, Turner does not offer any pat answers. He has a long list of ideas he thinks that politicians and regulators should debate. Aside from the Tobin tax, he would like to consider more curbs on financial innovation, and a review of market dominance and pricing activity in the wholesale finance sector. But those ideas are not really a manifesto; instead, he stresses that regulators are “still trying to work out” what to do “after a fairly complete train wreck of a predominant theory of economics and finance.”” Gillian sees here a moral compass question on a global scale, which is of course fascinating since, as we all sort of know, even if money is morally-neutral, global finance surely is not even if global financiers are like arms-traders infamous for taking the moral low-ground of saying if I don’t do the deal all that happens is someone else does; “I was only following (buy/sell) orders”. This is reminiscent to me of Jonathan Swift’s Tale of a Tub written in the wake of South Sea Bubble, where he makes a na├»ve but morally-driven fool of himself in seeking to promote global solutions to the book of common prayer etc. (for which read the FSA’s Prudential Sourcebook), doomed to failure for the infinity of distractions into dead-ends amid acres of turpitudinous apologia. Gillian echoes that reminiscence, “No doubt, that agnostic stance will infuriate some (or confirm the impression that regulators are toothless). But that may be the wrong response. After all, the real problem with finance in the past few decades is not simply that policymakers and investors were using flawed economic and financial theories, but using them in such a blind way that they often disengaged their brains.”
To repeat my own refrain – the problem is that while we may have theories, but we lack comprehensive macro-economic-financial models in which to validate and test the theories, and by we I mean everyone including governments and central banks. At the book festival Prof. James Lovelock (90, and booked on Virgin Voyager) yesterday was making a similar point about “Global Heating”. He said Gaia (the term he invented for a self-adjusting global system) does not move in linear ways, and yet governments will sponsor computer models but not fund people to go out in ships and gather the data we need to validate the model-theories. Hence, our long-term forecasts are no better than short-term weather-forecasting. We will spend billions at CERN to find elusive bosons in neutron collisions to try and prove the standard theory of cosmology, but all oceanic research ships have been retired! Similarly, in credit crunch, we entertain policy-theories, but are not undertaking fundamental research to gather the data we need to answer the questions raised by what some describe as financial weapons of mass destruction.
Gillian says, “Bodies such as the FSA, for example, were so wedded to ideas of market efficiency that they only intervened when there was a clear case of market failure. Similarly, investors were so obsessed with narrow, short-term definitions of shareholder value, that they – like regulators – often appeared to be acting on auto-pilot. However, the unpleasant truth is that there is never going to be any complete intellectual system to explain how financial systems ‘should’ work.” Gillian concludes, "That is not an easy idea to sell to politicians, voters – or even regulators. After all, as Turner points out, world without a reliable compass is frightening, exhausting and time-consuming to navigate. “For the regulators of the world, once you have accepted that you don’t have an intellectual framework of “more market is always better” you’re in a much more worrying space, because you don’t have an intellectual system to refer each of your decisions.” And it remains crucially clear whether Turner will ever be able to actually turn any of his rhetoric into policies, given the scale of backlash that his comments will undoubtedly spark from the banking world. But I, for one, reckon he is to be applauded, for at least trying to think the unthinkable again - and move away from a crude reliance on creeds. The only question now whether other regulators will follow, not just in Europe, but, above all, in the US, where so many of the free-market dogmas first sprung to life?" Unlike Gillian Tett, I am confident, or at least hopeful, that a fairly complete intellectual system cannot be constructed is not true - it's my job, and not above my pay-grade; even Prof. Lovelock remains hopeful about Global Warming despite his realistic expectation that because Global Heating has progressed so far we are in for an inevitably terrifying time that he compares to WWII? In my view we can empirically determine how financial systems work, and do so at least as well as IPCC predicts global warming, and how macro-finance relates to the so-called “real macro-economy” globally; the ideas and most of the data exists and merely need the sponsorship to be brought together into useful analysis. But, I do not believe in the desirability or our capability to banish asset bubbles as critics of Bernanke suggest when they blame him and Greenspan for loose monetary policy leading to bubbles. We are in the 33rd credit & economic set of cycles since the 1850s, and I confidently expect many more in this century alone. And here I agree also with Gillian when she writes, “…ideologies are always rooted in shifting power structures and struggles. And just as the old intellectual model proved imperfect, any new ‘theory’ that might yet replace it – with or without a Tobin tax – will have limitations too. What is needed now, in other words, is not so much a new ‘creed’ or magic-wand policies, but policy makers, politicians, investors and bankers who are willing to engage their brains, and keep remaking policy, as the world evolves.”This brings us on to what are central bankers thinking at Jackson Hole? (next blog)

BUBBLE & TAX (squeak!)

One of my Summer breakfast specials is bubble & squeak. Adair Turner (head of FSA) threw into the political frying pan (of our credit crunch dog’s breakfast) the idea of Tobin Tax, a sizzler conceived in 1972 by Prof. Jimmy Tobin at Princeton to reduce exchange rate volatility. 1972 was 17 years before the first BIS survey data of world FX markets collected triennially over 2-3 weeks that remains today only way we know roughly how much FX trading there is). In case you don’t know, there is roughly $3.5tn in daily FX transactions, $1tn a day in money markets, $0.5tn per day in bonds, and $0.25tn per day equities trading world-wide (total turnover divided by 2+ to get a single-counted value of transactions). These are my figures only, for the egregious fact is no-one knows exactly as none of the major wholesale markets are entirely “on exchange”; FX & MM not at all, bonds only slightly, equities mostly, but not entirely. They do not have to report. BIS surveys FX periodically (in Springtime every 3 years) but not MM or Bonds?
For a tax on wholesale financial market transactions to work at all, requires all the taxable transactions to be undertaken within regulated exchanges. Free market liberalism has resisted this for over a century and continues to do so. Now, in policy debates dragged up from muddy ocean depths by the Credit Crunch, it has been stated by many decision-takers that credit markets should be brought “on exchange”, but progress is stymied and slow. What underpins this is the question of quality of price discovery, quality of markets, long ago kicked into the long grass when stock exchanges became private corporations able to denationalize by merging across borders and pursue global relevance, and when any number of competitor systems were allowed, and when cost of transactions became more the competitive focus than quality. In arguable fact, ever since Tobin Tax, the world’s wholesale markets pursued a directly opposite goal of cheaper easier trading.
Therefore Tobin’s idea was only ever a theory proposition – it never had a snowball’s chance. His idea was also structural; to tax financial exuberance of the first world to fund a transfer of money to the third world. Well, the one benefit of Credit Crunch and asset bubbles was surely to deliver unexpectedly prolonged high growth for third world exporting countries, for which they may be ever grateful.
Tobin Tax (TT), as an idea was raised many times in the ‘80s and ‘90s when folks could not understand how it is that financial markets can apparently trade the equivalent of world GDP every 6-8 weeks, and that’s before we consider the same again in nominal value of derivatives trading, which is at least mostly on-exchange? In theory, TT might discourage speculation by making currency trading more costly, but that would only ever have been a first-order effect, most likely dissipated as the tax is passed on. FT reporting on this posited the theory that the volume of destabilizing short-term capital flows would decrease, leading to greater exchange rate stabili. But, of course, there is as yet no global tax authority to impose global taxes on global financial transactions, no monitoring, no formal reporting, global or otherwise, and no academic or other theory to explain how must is genuine need to trade and how much is speculation; old data suggests roughly a 20%/80% split before we consider market-makers who merely churn the market. TT is a speculation tax, but FX is a zero-sum game. Therefore, the global tax has to be on turnover, not profit.
And anyway, which currency should all be measured in, and at what moments in time. When FX margin spreads go to the 4th to 6th decimal places, how many decimal places further on should the tax be exerted, and could trading systems accounting be trusted to measure that? Even if a tax on FX turnover was say 0.05% or 5bp at both ends of the deal the result is $one trillion or more than the total GDP of the African continent. To be complete about this TT should apply to all derivatives and to MM, Bonds and equities, in which case the tax would equate to the total GDP of China plus India. Sounds great, but a global tax on this scale would undoubtedly reduce the volume traded enormously - and derivative or other measn found to emulate or track without actual cash-market trading i.e. the tax would be avoided and evaded!
So why is the clever Adair Turner suggesting this as an alternative to “swollen” financial sector paying excessive salaries grown too big for society. He says debate on bankers’ bonuses is a “populist diversion” and more drastic measures are needed to cut the financial sector down to size.
He adds that FSA should “be very, very wary of seeing the competitiveness of London as a major aim”, claiming the city’s financial sector has become a destabilising factor in the British economy. Mayor Boris Johnson discounts this as an aberration view that Lord Turner should rethink since the Mayor wants London’s wonderful competitiveness to emerge even stronger from the crisis!
Turner’s question is actually sensible and legalistic. It is against EU law for the UK to support its financial sector for competitiveness gains. It is not really, as FT surmises, that “Britain is becoming increasingly sceptical about the perceived advantages of being a leading financial centre”. Lord Turner’s suggestion that a “Tobin tax” is a reproach to the debate over bankers’ bonuses (BB) is something of a blind. BB we can all do something about, however problematic. TT is another matter entirely! The question of BB is linked to London as a financial centre insofar as BB is defended as being competitively necessary on the grounds that there would be a business flight to centres where BB would not suffer any capping. This is baloney in my view, for reasons I shall not enumerate here, not this time, save to say that bonus earners are 1. not nearly so valuable as is pretended and 2) they don’t all want to go live in tax-havens, or they’d all have done so long ago.
Lord Turner is sensibly worried too about a return to “business as usual” (mentality and/or actuality) in the banking sector, suggesting that new taxes may be necessary to curb excessive profits and pay in the financial sector. Indeed, correct, but this has a complex aspect, which is that bankers do not know their value or their riskiness other than what they can get away with. They are as star-gazing as those who cannot explain how it is that the world’s income appears to be traded ever couple of months, who cannot understand where all this niagra of finance money flow comes grom and goes to and how it is they have a pool ticket to swim in such deep fast flowing waters.
None of the academic instituites, governments or central banks have macro-economic macro-financial models to answer this question either. Despite our computer-data rich world the truth is that for almost everyone, including bankers, today’s science on the matter remains somewhere in the medieval world of astrology; it is definitely not astro-physics. Most bonus-bankers are clear about one thing, they prefer it that way, to be priests of voodoo-finance, not economists!