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Savers in dilemma over channelling excessive capital

Last updated on: September 20, 2011 12:49 IST

Savers in dilemma over channelling excessive capital

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Daniel Gros

Channelling excess savings to economies that are creditworthy and willing to borrow is crucial to global economic recovery.

Interest rates are now close to zero throughout the developed world (the United States, Europe and Japan).

But the global economy is slowing down, and financial markets went into a tailspin during the summer.

This suggests that the problem is more profound than one of insufficient monetary stimulus.

The heart of any economy is the mechanism by which funds are channelled from savers to investors.

In normal times, capital markets perform this function smoothly; but these markets break down from time to time, owing to sudden large changes in perceptions about the riskiness of important asset classes.

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Image: Savers are confused where to invest their capital.

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Savers in dilemma over channelling excessive capital

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In the US, this happened when investors discovered that even AAA-rated asset-backed securities were in reality risky.

China experienced a similar surprise when the US government lost its AAA rating.

But nowhere is the problem as acute as it is in Europe, or, rather, the euro zone, where German savers are suddenly discovering risk across the European periphery.

What is true of Germany is also true of most of the countries of Northern Europe, many of which now run current-account surpluses that are even larger as a proportion of gross domestic product.

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Image: German savers are suddenly discovering risk across the European periphery.

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Savers in dilemma over channelling excessive capital

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These countries households continue to save, accumulating deposits at their local banks and buying bonds from their local wealth managers.

But they feel that the euro zone has become such a dangerous place that they no longer dare to invest abroad.

Greece, Ireland and Portugal are off-limits because their bonds no longer rate as investment-grade, which means that banks are not allowed to sell them to individual savers.

But even investment-grade Spain and Italy have now suddenly been classified as precarious, implying that risk managers everywhere tell investors to cut their exposure.

The fundamental problem is simple: the market cannot be brought back into equilibrium when savers do not want to lend to those who would be willing to take these savings.

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Image: Investment-grade Spain and Italy have been classified precarious.

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Savers in dilemma over channelling excessive capital

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Lower interest rates are not a solution to this dilemma. In the US, demand has not recovered, despite almost three years of near-zero interest rates.

In Europe, lower rates risk aggravating the problem by lowering the returns for savers.

When the yield on German government bonds falls to two per cent, which is negative in real terms, German savers must redouble their efforts to achieve a certain target for retirement income.

This is why the current spiral of ever-lower interest rates in Germany (and northern Europe) and higher risk premia for most of the rest of the euro zone is so destructive.

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Image: Lower interest rates are not a solution to this dilemma.

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Savers in dilemma over channelling excessive capital

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Lower interest rates can, thus, lead to lower consumption in surplus countries, thereby increasing the supply of loanable funds.

But higher risk premia elsewhere force the rest of the euro zone to cut spending, thus reducing their demand for these funds.

Indeed, stock markets are tanking precisely because investors fear that ever-increasing risk premia in the euro zone s peripheral countries will force them to stop consuming and investing, leading to lower German rates and thus inducing German households to reduce their consumption as well.

But a weaker German economy makes adjustment in the periphery even more difficult.

The most radical way to break this vicious circle would be to introduce euro bonds.

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Image: Introducing euro bonds will be the most radical step.

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Savers in dilemma over channelling excessive capital

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National risk premia would then disappear, and German savers would have no problem investing their savings in the euro zone s periphery, knowing that the German government would ultimately underwrite these countries government bonds.

The euro zone economy could then recover quickly.

This is why market participants like to repeat that only euro bonds will end the crisis.

But euro bonds would also create huge incentive problems, because debtors in the euro zone periphery would no longer have to fear any punishment by markets and might thus be induced to consume and invest too much.

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Image: Euro bonds will create huge incentive problems.

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Savers in dilemma over channelling excessive capital

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What Europe needs is a mechanism that lets the capital market work most of the time, but that enables intervention when it ceases to function.

In other words, the euro zone needs a European Monetary Fund that prevents this vicious circle from tightening by providing bridging finance when capital markets break down.

Europe now has such an institution in the form of the European Financial Stability Facility - but the EFSF needs to be much better financed to allow it to fulfill this function.

But even the creation of a European Monetary Fund cannot save the world economy if confidence between China and the US breaks down.

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Image: Euro zone needs a European Monetary Fund.

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The US government s loss of its AAA rating is a first sign that the most important outlet for excess Chinese savings might be losing its lustre.

The general lesson from the euro crisis and the US rating downgrade is simple: given that so many countries have chronic excess savings (Germany, Japan, China, oil exporters), the world economy cannot recover without finding ways to channel these excess savings to economies that are both creditworthy and willing to borrow.

Both sides will have to make an effort: creditors must accept some risk, and debtors must enhance their creditworthiness through structural fiscal adjustment and reforms that improve their growth prospects.

The author is director of the Centre for European Policy Studies

Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2011


Image: Economy cannot recover without finding ways to channel these excess savings.

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