Thursday, 10 December 2015

Puffing the magic Draghi

Mario Draghi had a rough time last week.  The extension of QE he announced disappointed markets, who were apparently expecting him to exceed expectations.  (Sounds oxymoronic to me, but I'm just a political scientist, not clever like a bond trader.) The upshot was a sharp rise in the value of the euro, which is a problem for a Eurozone demand model heavily reliant on exports.

Maybe Mario will be cheered up after Politico published a puff piece about him today. I wasn't; the article veered from the uninformative to actively misleading, reporting inter alia:  
Draghi ... [took] bold steps that enabled him to save the euro. Now that the danger of a disintegration of the eurozone has abated, the ECB president is embarking on an even tougher political task: to convince Europe’s governments that they must do their part of the heavy lifting to take the continent out of the slump. ... 
He is prodding EU governments to boost spending to put the European recovery back on a path to growth. ... 
For the moment, Draghi is happy to let Coeuré [ECB board member] and Praet [ECB chief economist] push the message that Germany in particular needs to splash out more on public infrastructure, to address what one ECB executive board member called an “absurd situation” where spending is so subdued that the fiscal deficit of the eurozone is much lower than the 3 percent allowed by the Stability and Growth Pact.
This a reiteration the myth that Draghi is an active supporter of a demand-stimulus approach to resolving Europe's growth crisis. However, all of the arguments I made against this myth more than a year ago remain valid. Above all, Draghi's shown not the slightest inclination to use his ample sources of political leverage to push for increased spending stimulus.  Nor has he repudiated his key role (see pp.34-38) in pushing for an austerity-led reaction to the Eurozone bond crisis, continuing to imply that no other choice was possible. As he recently put it, "don’t blame the fire damage on the fire brigade."

Perhaps, though, Draghi is beating the drums for demand stimulus behind the scenes? He is, after all, somewhat constrained as the public face of the ECB leadership.  Consider this exchange from the latest ECB press conference
Question: Last year in Jackson Hole, you advocated for a policy mix with monetary policy reforms, investment and fiscal policy, and today you have emphasised the role of fiscal policy. Do you miss more fiscal stimulus in countries with margin, like Germany, for example, and do you consider that the neutral fiscal stance that the European Commission is advocating for the eurozone as a whole is adequate now, in a sort of liquidity trap?
Draghi: We had a brief exchange on this issue, and our conclusion now is that, first of all, the first answer should be given by the Commission. The second point is that we'll continue reflecting on this, and we will have a view on what is the degree of appropriateness of the fiscal stance; whether we have a view about the aggregate fiscal stance; what is the degree of compliance with existing rules; whether the flexibility which has been exercised before all the terrible happenings of this year – so before the recent terrorist attacks, but also before the refugees events – whether that flexibility would be justified. So there are lots of factors in play altogether. How do we assess the fiscal stance today given the presence of the previous flexibility, the refugees, the need for security of the euro area? It's a very complicated question, so we are going to reflect on that.
One might read this as a sign that political conflict at the top of the ECB is limiting what Draghi can do by way of advocating fiscal sanity.  However:

  • Draghi has more than once found ways to move beyond the consensus of the bank's leadership, and there's no evidence he's trying to do so on this issue.
  • There is likewise no evidence that he personally views austerity as a crucial component of the growth catastrophe.  Asked at a November Europarliament meeting about what was needed to promote growth, Draghi had literally not a single word to say about government spending (see p.11).

Monday, 9 February 2015

Can Greece escape the ultimatum game? (And no, Draghi's not trying to help them do it)

At the start of a crucial week for Syriza's effort to negotiate a revision to the disastrous current arrangements between Greece and the Troika, I thought it would be helpful to try to describe the bargaining situation in a systematic way using game theory a very simple diagram (yes, it is game theory, but it's very straightforward).  Here it is:

The European Commission (EC) needs to decide whether or not they will propose a compromise or insist on the Troika's current terms.  Greece then needs to accept or reject the offer.  The rectangles at the far right show possible outcomes--if Greece rejects whatever the EC proposes, it leaves the Euro (Grexit).  Let's make some assumptions about how the parties rate the outcomes: Greece prefers a compromise to the Troika's terms, and both to Grexit.  The EC prefers the Troika's terms to compromise, and both to Grexit.

If this is an accurate depiction of the situation, the EC gets what it wants--it can face the Greece with the choice between taking the Troika's terms and Grexit, and Greece will choose the Troika.  It's an "ultimatum game;" Greece has to take whatever the EC offers, because otherwise it's faced with the catastrophe of Grexit.

So how can the Greek government change the game?

  1. Announce that it prefers Grexit to Troika terms. Then (bottom right in the diagram) Greece would be expected to choose reject, giving the Grexit outcome. Since the EC prefers compromise to Grexit, it would offer a compromise. So why doesn't Greece just do this?  
    • To announce this might set off an even worse banking panic than Greece is currently experiencing.
    • It only works if the EC reliably prefers compromise to Grexit.
    • It might not be believed
  2. Disable its capacity to accept Troika terms, or at least create uncertainty about whether it would be able to accept Troika terms (meaning that Troika intransigence would lead to Grexit)
    • This is one way to interpret Tsipras' "defiant" speech yesterday, in which he promised very publicly and very vigorously that Greece will not accept a continuation of the present Troika. (Political scientists just love talking about how "domestic audience costs" -- the costs of going back on a promise to a domestic constituency -- allow politicians to make threats on the international stage that would otherwise not be credible. Compare this discussion by Jacques Sapir.)
    • Again, this only works if the EC fears Grexit; Varoufakis is trying to make sure that they do
  3. Convince the EC leaders that compromise should be be preferred to Troika terms. So far this doesn't seem to be going very well.
  4. Find a way to create another possible outcome, with no compromise but also no Grexit
    • It's sometimes suggested that because Greece is presently running an obscenely large primary surplus (i.e., it's budget is heavily in the black before debt repayment is taken into account), it could just stop repayments, and abandon new borrowing.  However, since the Greek government can't print Euros, the sustainability of this path would depend on the cooperation of the ECB to keep the prospect of bank panics at bay.
So this week's negotiations will turn on whether the Greek government has managed credibly to cut off the possibility of accepting the Troika's terms and how much the rest of the Eurozone fears Grexit.  

PS: Was the ECB trying to help Greece by refusing to accept its bonds as collateral?

Last week, the ECB stopped accepting Greek government bonds as collateral for ECB loans. The immediate and obvious interpretation of this decision was that it continued the pattern (long version) of using the withholding of ECB emergency lending as a form of policy leverage. Paul Krugman pleaded unconvincingly that Draghi was too subtle for such a brutal display of strength, arguing that really this measure was meant to wake up Germany--a position the Greek government had little choice but to echo.  

One version of the claim that the ECB was not trying to intimidate Greece into accepting the Troika terms, proposed by Frances Coppola, rests on the idea was that weakening Greece strengthened its bargaining hand in a strategic context (as under 2, above).  But the argument doesn't work: A bargaining analysis offers no support for the idea that the ECB was trying to help Greece.  The ECB decision did nothing to make accepting the Troika conditions more difficult, or make Grexit relatively more attractive. Indeed, given that the ECB explicitly mentioned that it was the prospect of a failure in negotiations with the Troika over continued support for Greece that prompted the decision, it raised the benefits to Greece of a successful agreement. Moreover, to the extent that the decision signalled the likely attitude of the ECB toward supporting Greek banks in the absence of a successful agreement, it worked against option 4, as well. So to the extent that the ECB decision did reflect a bargaining logic (other things may have been at stake), it would make sense only as an effort to coerce Greece, not to help it.