Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Learning from 2011, hoping for a better 2012.

Here is a summary of two very interesting articles that look back at the economic developments in 2011, what we have learned and what to look forward in 2012.

Charles Wyplosz looks at the Eurozone crisis and how it deepened during the second half of 2011. He asks the question of why governments, the European Commission and the ECB do not seem to learn from their mistakes. He suggests several hypothesis:

1. ignorance and lack of understanding
2. the obsession of the French President and the German Chancellor to find a political solution
3. the "quasi-religious" beliefs at the ECB on economic policy options
4. the crisis as a strategic option chosen by the ECB and some countries to teach a lesson to those who misbehave

Number 4 is what Charles Wyplosz calls the "kind interpretation" of the crisis. I am afraid that the other explanations matter as well. Lack of understanding of the economics behind the crisis. an obsession with certain standard recipes (austerity and confidence) as well as the belief that it is all about politics were behind the lack of a proper response to the events in the second half of the year.

Olivier Blanchard, Economic Counsellor at the IMF, summarizes four lessons ("hard truths") from 2011. The article not only provides some great insights about the year but it also offers a very honest and fresh view on some of the hard lessons that policy makers and academics have learned. He stresses something that rarely gets attention in academic research: the importance of multiple equilibria and self-fulfilling crises of confidence. Quoting from the article:

Multiple equilibria are not new. We have known for a long time about self-fulfilling bank runs; this is why deposit insurance was created... And we learned early on in the crisis that wholesale funding could have the same effects, and that runs could affect banks and non-banks alike. This is what led central banks to provide liquidity to a much larger set of financial institutions.
What has become clearer this year is that liquidity problems, and associated runs, can also affect governments. 
Right or wrong, conceptual frames change with events. And once they have changed, there is no going back. For example, nothing much happened in Italy over the summer. But, once Italy was perceived as at risk, this perception did not go away. And perceptions matter: once the “real money’’ investors have left a market, they do not come back overnight.
A further example: not much happened to change the economic situation in the Euro zone in the second half of the year. But once markets and commentators started to mention the possible breakup of Euro, the perception remained and it also will not easily go away.  Many financial investors are busy constructing strategies in case it happens.
Perceptions matter and, what it worse, once they are formed, it is hard to influenced them.

Olivier Blanchard also discusses what he calls the "schizophrenic" reaction of financial markets towards fiscal policy. In his words:
They (financial markets) react positively to news of fiscal consolidation, but then react negatively later, when consolidation leads to lower growth—which it often does. Some preliminary estimates that the IMF is working on suggest that it does not take large multipliers for the joint effects of fiscal consolidation and the implied lower growth to lead in the end to an increase, not a decrease, in risk spreads on government bonds.  To the extent that governments feel they have to respond to markets, they may be induced to consolidate too fast, even from the narrow point of view of debt sustainability.
This was one of the most interesting developments during the second half of 2011. The notion that austerity was going to help governments address their imbalances lost support during the sumer (because of the evidence) and led to a situation where governments had no good options. If they promised a quick adjustment they would be penalized for the negative growth consequences that they would cause; but if they did not adjust they would be penalized because of their lack of discipline.

So now it is time to digest all the 2011 lessons and have a better 2012. As Olivier Blanchard says in his last comment "The alternative is just too unattractive".

Antonio Fatás

on January 04, 2012 |   Edit