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Thursday, April 29, 2010



For nations living the good life, the party's over, IMF says

In the lingo of the International Monetary Fund, the future of the world hinges on "rebalancing and consolidation," antiseptic words that would not seem to raise a fuss.
Who doesn't want more balance in their life?
But the translation is a bit ruder, something on the order of: "Suck it up. The party's over."
To keep the global economy on track, people in the United States and the rest of the developed world need to work longer before retiring, pay higher taxes and expect less from government. And the cheap imports lining the shelves of mega-chains such as Wal-Mart and Target? They need to be more expensive.

That's the practical meaning of a series of policy papers and statements issued in recent days by IMF officials, who have a long history of stabilizing economies and solving global financial problems, as they plot a course to keep the world economy growing and reduce the risk of another "great recession."

That message has been delivered subtly, woven into documents with titles such as "Resolving the Crisis Legacy and Meeting New Challenges to Financial Stability," and justified by concepts such as "raising retirement age in line with life expectancy," as IMF economic counselor Olivier Blanchard put it this week.

But fully deciphered, it means a pretty serious reworking of expectations in the developed world: changes in labor rules, product prices, currency values and even the social contract between governments and an aging citizenry.
"It is not that living standards will lower, but they will not increase as fast as they have been," said Domenico Lombardi, a former IMF executive director. The ideas being discussed by world leaders "are coded words," he said. "They don't like words like 'imposing higher taxes' and 'cutting spending.' "


The IMF has long had a reputation as a bearer of bad news -- it dispatches well-educated and diplomatically deft teams to tell economically troubled countries how many people they have to fire and which programs they have to cut to get financial assistance. But the IMF now finds itself in the odd position of having that conversation not with a single ailing sovereign but with the developed countries at the core of the world system, including the United States.
Its prescription is centered on two concepts.

"Rebalancing" is an idea that most everyone endorses -- including the technicians at the fund and President Obama and the leaders of the G-20 group of economically powerful nations. In broad strokes, it means curbing what has been a massive transfer of capital from nations that consume more than they produce, such as the United States, to nations that produce more than they consume, such as China.
The imbalance has been key to China's modernization: The country buys U.S. government bonds by the tens of billions to keep the dollar stronger than it would be and to keep its domestic currency -- and its exports -- cheaper. Looked at one way, the flow of U.S. debt to the People's Bank of China has acted like a giant, collective credit card, underwriting consumers across the United States and driving the business models of major retailers such as Wal-Mart.
The message from the IMF is that the card is about maxed out and that the imbalance in trade flows needs to be corrected.
How to do it? One way is for China -- or Asian exporters, more generally -- to let their currencies rise on world markets. The other way, which IMF economist Blanchard raised this week, would be to devalue the dollar, the euro and other developed-world currencies.

"The advanced economies as a whole may need to depreciate their currencies so as to increase their net exports," Blanchard said.

The less well-advertised side of the equation: If the dollar is worth less, then imports, regardless of their source, will cost more. U.S. exports will be proportionately cheaper -- a good thing for American businesses trying to become more competitive in overseas markets -- but everything from iPods to jeans to the latest Barbie doll would jump in price.

The ideas offered by the IMF "could certainly reorder the balance of the international economy, but not in a way that benefits the average person in the U.S.," said J. Craig Shearman, vice president of government affairs for the National Retail Federation.

He continued: "If a few factories have an increase in exports, that is good for them, but it leaves the vast majority of people paying more for consumer goods. Talking about consuming less and saving more is a nice, ivory tower approach. But it is not real world economics. People have to put clothes on their children's backs and food on the table."

Wal-Mart declined to comment.


"Fiscal consolidation" is another idea promoted by IMF leaders. Again, the aim seems unobjectionable: The United States and other developed-world governments ran record deficits during the crisis, both to pay for stimulus programs and because tax and other receipts cratered. Across the developed world, the IMF says, government debt will rise from about 80 percent of economic output before the crisis to roughly 115 percent of output in 2014.

That's considered a dangerous trajectory, and IMF officials say that by next year, governments need to announce "credible" plans to cut their annual deficits, turn them into surpluses and start paying off what is owed.
The level of the correction needed is large, perhaps 10 percent of gross domestic product. In the United States, that would amount to roughly $1.4 trillion annually, to be cut from government programs or raised through new taxes.

Better-than-expected growth would help, or increases in productivity, or even surprises in the form of new technologies. But what's on the horizon is, more likely, a difficult reckoning -- one that Greece is facing and that other developed nations know is in the offing, French Finance Minister Christine Lagarde said in an interview Thursday.
"We're all in the same boat," Lagarde said as she looked ahead to a tough debate in France over changes in pension rules that will make not just government workers but also many in the private sector add years before their expected retirements.

The IMF is studying issues such as which taxes should be raised and which programs should be cut to make "consolidation" as painless as possible. But it views a longer working life as an important tool -- one that would save large amounts of money in the future without cutting spending and decreasing economic activity today.

In the United States, a new fiscal commission is beginning to study how to bring U.S. government debt into line.
"You will see many headlines complaining and moaning and stirring the pot," Lagarde said, as issues such as pension reform are debated. But ultimately, she said, "there is no way out."
By Howard Schneider

Washington Post Staff Writer
Moody’s chief admits failure over crisis

The chief executive of Moody’s admitted to a Senate panel on Friday that the US credit rating agency failed to anticipate the severe deterioration in the US housing market that led to the financial crisis and was “not satisfied” with its performance.
However, Raymond McDaniel defended the the credit agencies’ dependence on fees paid by Wall Street firms, claiming that “potential conflicts exist regardless of who pays”.
But evidence presented at a hearing before the Senate detailed how some senior managers at Moody’s and Standard & Poor’s suppressed internal concerns about the securities they rated due to pressure from the banks that paid their fees.

Eric Kolchinsky, a former managing director of a Moody’s unit, believed that he had saved the agency from committing fraud in 2007 when he insisted that it change the way it rated the instruments because of deterioration in the housing market.

When it emerged that Moody’s had seen a slight drop in market share, Mr Kolchinsky was berated by a manager.

Friday’s hearing before the Senate subcommittee on investigations, as well as a hearing on Tuesday that will centre on Goldman Sachs, are being held as senators negotiate a bill to reform financial regulation. Senators are expected to vote on Monday to begin formal debate on the controversial measure.

On Moody’s ratings of Goldman’s Abacus product, at the centre of allegations against the bank, Mr Kolchinsky said that he would have wanted to know that hedge fund manager Paulson & Co was making bets against the security.

He said neither he nor his staff had been aware of Paulson’s involvement in their rating of the transaction. “It just changes the whole dynamic – if the person choosing it, wants it to blow up,” he said.

Staff at Moody’s and S&P described a fraught relationship with investment banks, which put pressure on the agencies to deliver triple A ratings.

“There has always been pressure from banks, and it is quite common for banks to ask for analysts to be removed,” said Yuri Yoshizawa, a senior managing director at Moody’s.
However, she denied that pressure from banks influenced ratings in the run-up to the financial crisis. Carl Levin, the Democratic senator who chairs the panel said: “In the end, the banks got their way.”

By Stephanie Kirchgaessner in New York and Kevin Sieff in Washington

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2010




At 10:42 AM, Blogger Seenath Kumar said...

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At 10:20 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

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