Inside Renzi’s Referendum: What’s at Stake In Italy?

Matteo Renzi press conference, Rome
Matteo Renzi (pictured), the current centre-left Prime Minister of Italy, has gambled his political viability on a landmark referendum designed to reform and streamline the country’s political process.

On 4 December 2016, Italian voters will be asked the following question:

Do you approve a constitutional law that concerns abolishing the bicameral system (of parliament), reducing the number of MPs, containing the operating costs of public institutions, abolishing the National Council on Economy and Labor (CNEL), and amending Title V of the Constitution, Part II?

While this question seems rather technical and perhaps a bit insignificant, the political ramifications are drastic. Matteo Renzi, the centre-left Prime Minister of Italy, has stated that the referendum is so important that he would resign if the voters did not answer “yes”. That pledge has led many to in the country to view the question as a referendum on Renzi’s governance. At this moment, the polls signify a toss-up, with both “Yes” and “No” garnering 50% of the projected vote.

The referendum aims to bring stability to a rather tumultuous democracy that has had 63 premierships in the last seven decades. Both the Chamber of Deputies and the Senate, the two houses in Italy’s bicameral legislature, have an equal amount of power in government. This often to leads to a deleterious amount of gridlock, as both chambers must approve each bill in an identical form.

The proposed referendum would reduce the number of Senate members from 315 to 100 and give the institution far less power than the Chamber of Deputies. It also seeks to eliminate Italy’s 110 provinces—regions that typically have overlapping duties and whose governments serve as yet another layer of bureaucracy. The National Council for Economics and Labour, a group of 64 councillors who advise the government, would also be abolished under the proposal.

These reforms would greatly streamline the Italian political process and most citizens would be foolish to oppose them ceteris paribus. They are slated to save the Italian government €500 million. With Renzi’s injudicious decision to personalise the referendum, however, many view it as a conduit to oppose the current government that has failed to deliver economic growth. The country’s national debt has reached 132.7% of GDP and the entire banking sector is facing heightened risk due to debt accumulated during anaemic economic growth.

Renzi is now even facing dissent within his own party; Ignazio Marino, the former mayor of Rome, and Gianni Cupelo, the President of the Democratic Party, are now campaigning against the referendum. In another section of the political spectrum, Beppe Grillo’s syncretic populist Five Star Movement seeks to mount a significant political victory if the referendum fails, and is has now reached parity with the Democrats in the polls.

If “the referendum is about the future of the country, not about mine,” as Renzi told Radiotelevisione italiana last Friday, then he should seek to make the referendum focus on ameliorating the pressing issues in the Italian political system, not his electoral viability.

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Kuroda’s Monetary Policy Bazookas and the Failure of Abenomics

ADB's Kuroda Says Additional BOJ Easing Can Be Justified for '13
Haruhiko Kuroda, Governor of the Bank of Japan, speaks during an interview in Tokyo, Japan, on 11 February 2016. His stimulus programmes as BoJ head have sparked international controversy and discourse but have unfortunately ended in a resounding failure.

Since Haruhiko Kuroda became Governor of the Bank of Japan in 2013, he has implemented a labyrinth of monetary expansion initiatives, including the famous quantitative easing programme of ¥‎80 trillion per year and the negative interest rate policy. As a major tenet of the Abenomics reform package, this was intended to stimulate Japan’s ailing economy.

The most pressing issue for both Kuroda and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is that these reforms did not—even remotely—achieve their desired goals. Inflation is nowhere near the 2% annual target and GDP growth is lacklustre. Since the dawn of the 2008 financial crisis, the Japanese economy has endured five recessions and GDP growth that is stagnant at best.

Abe’s reform package relies heavily on a weaker Yen to increase exports, raise corporate profits, and fight deflation, but this is not materialising either. Since January 2016, the Bank of Japan has improvised a -0.1% interest rate on many reserves and yet the currency has still increased 18% vis-á-vis the US dollar since the new target rate. The asset purchasing programme, which has now been implemented at the ECB as well, has resulted in the Bank of Japan holding 38% of Japanese government bonds. This astonishing figure is more than double the 14% of US government bonds held by the Federal Reserve after its quantitative easing scheme under Bernanke and Yellen.

In a desperate attempt to finally revitalise Japan’s economy, many observers are pointing to helicopter money as a means to increase aggregate demand and hopefully economic output. While this has not been implemented at the central bank level, Abe’s cabinet did approve a 13.5 trillion stimulus programme in August that focuses on public works spending. The recent appointment of Toshihiro Nikai, a long advocate of this variety of spending, as Secretary-General of the Liberal Democratic Party signifies Abe’s commitment to this new plan.

There is one significant problem with this new plan—it isn’t new at all. Following the burst of the Japanese property bubble in the early 1990s, several administrations, notably that of SPJ PM Tomiichi Murayama, initiated massive stimulus programmes in civil projects to jumpstart the economy. In fact, the massive demise of this policy was even used in the United States to argue against the Obama administration’s American Reinvestment and Recovery Act. Like many Western nations, the plight of the Japanese economy is the result of structural forces that are regulatory, tax-related, and demographic.

In their reckless aim to artificially boost the economy, Abe and Kuroda both fail to realise this. While the BoJ Governor said in late 2015 that negative rates were not an option, he proceeded to implement them in January the following year. Any denial of prospective helicopter money directly from the BoJ should likewise be viewed as a tentative hope for the future, not as an actual policy position. After the pledge of a “comprehensive review”, the BoJ has now decided to begin a new yield-curve monitoring programme during the late September meeting.

A glimmer of hope once existed for the Japanese economy: the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Unfortunately, due to populist forces fuelled by demagogues such as Bernie Sanders in the Western world and the Renho-led Democratic Party’s opposition to the deal, this lifeline is unlikely to come to fruition.

As Japan’s international competitiveness continues to decline, leaders in both the BoJ and National Diet will attempt to employ any method possible to save future generations from malaise…

…except the ones that actually work.

Outlook Worsened: Negative Rates from the Federal Reserve? Really?

Federal Reserve Janet Yellen
On 4 November 2015, Janet Yellen purported that the Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) would be willing to lower the federal funds rate into negative territory if US economic conditions deteriorated further.

The United States faces many problems — a massive welfare state, complicated tax code, oversized government, over-regulated economy, and bloated education system. After a flurry of astigmatic regulation designed to promote home affordability created a $4 trillion housing bubble and ensuing financial crisis, most would hope that a nation as powerful as the US would finally get its act together. That pretence was simply false.

Since 16 December 2008, the FOMC has maintained a policy of 0% interest rates on federal funds, overnight funds traded between banks to maintain their deposits at the Fed. This was aimed to push interest rates far below Wicksellian (equilibrium) level and create another asset bubble. While this would result in another recession after a burst, the Fed has not been an organisation known to be concerned with long-term stability since the passage of the mandates set forth in the Federal Reserve Reform Act of 1977.

In addition, the FOMC maintained a policy of quantitative easing from 2008 to 2014. The policy  administered $3.5 trillion in asset purchases in the secondary market, with a goal of suppressing yields on government bonds to shift the allocations in investors’ portfolios to riskier assets such as stocks. Considering that the DJIA has more than doubled since the end of the financial crisis, QE clearly served its purpose in securities markets. In another respect, however, the program failed tremendously.

This current expansion is the slowest in the entire economic history of the United States. GDP growth has averaged 2.2% since the end of the financial crisis, far below the 1949-2007 long-term average of 3.25%. Wage growth is completely anaemic, with virtually no inflation-adjusted growth in the past six years. Government spending is approximately 40% of GDP and the country faces a regulatory burden of 12% of GDP. Despite all of these negative factors, both the Obama administration and Federal Reserve have attempted to convince the populace that the US economy is performing at an “optimal” level.

In recent months, however, many investors and consumers alike have started to discern the blatant attempts at misinformation. Equities markets are completely flat in 2015 so far and reports in consumer confidence are consistently falling. After the announcement that the US economy grew just 1.3% in the third quarter of 2015, the Federal Reserve itself began to shed its attitude of confidence and false optimism.

In the last FOMC meeting on 28 October, Narayana Kocherlakota, the President of the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis, projected negative rates in the future. Many disregarded this as a deranged prediction from Kocherlakota, who is known for making erroneous statements on future monetary policy. On 4 November 2015, Janet Yellen, Chair of the Federal Reserve, claimed that the federal funds rates could be lowered to negative territory “if outlook worsened”. The radical fringe has suddenly become the voice of prophecy.

That same day, William C. Dudley, the President of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, stated in an interview that “some of the experiences [in Europe] suggest maybe can we use negative interest rates and the costs aren’t as great as you anticipate,” referring to the disastrous negative interest rate policy set forth by the European Central Bank. Mario Draghi, the President of the European Central Bank, hinted that rates could be lowered further if the condition of Europe’s economic condition somehow gets even worse.

The harsh truth that has emerged since the end of the financial crisis is that expansionary monetary policy does not lead to higher economic growth in the sustainable sense. Expansion of the money supply and artificially lowering interest rates only serve to create an asset bubble, which is present in the US, Canada, and Europe. Negative interest rates will only make this conundrum even more difficult to rectify after the respective bubble bursts. Instead of focusing on short-term shortcuts that lead to economic malaise in the future, the West should begin fixing its long-term problems.

Tsipras, Varoufakis, and the Schäublegang: Pension Crisis Edition

Varoufakis and Schäuble met on 27 February to negotiate a bailout extension for Greece, a nation that already has 360 billion Euros in debt.
Yanis Varoufakis and Wolfgang Schäuble, the finance ministers of Greece and Germany, respectively, met on 27 February to negotiate a bailout extension for Greece, which already has 240 billion euros in debt.

Another day, another chapter in the ongoing Greek debt crisis. While Greece’s T-bill action earlier today was a success, the yield on Greek treasury securities reached an 11-month high of 2.97%, compared to 2.75% on the last auction in February. Another issue of contention is that 262.5 million euros were non-competitive bids, mostly comprised of funds from Greek Social Security accounts.

Concerns over a Greek exit from the Eurozone (so-called “Grexit”) peaked in late February during the Troika-Greek debt negotiation showdown. Yanis Varoufakis, the finance minister of Greece, eventually struck a deal with the Eurogroup. Many in the Bundestag were hesitant to pass the bailout extension, while many in Greece were angry at the SYRIZA Party for reneging on pre-election promises. Despite the opposition in Germany to the extension, German finance minister Wolfgang Schäuble pleaded that “we Germans should do everything possible to keep Europe together as much as we can.” Greece’s exit for the euro could cause major problems for other Eurozone members by undermining the credibility of the euro.

In the past month, many issues have rose from changes in bailout programs between the Troika and Greek government. Since 2010, the European Central Bank has accepted Greek junk bonds and related securities as collateral from banks to assist refinancing operations as long as the Greek government continues fiscal reform and austerity measures. This program ended on 4 February 2015, causing disarray and worry within the Greek banking system. To quell concerns, the ECB extended to scope of its Emergency Liquidity Assistance program to Greek banks to 65 billion euros. The last tranche of bailout from the ECB of 7.2 billion euros requires that Greece meet new budgetary requirements before the assistance is paid out.

The current crisis in Greece originates from poor government policy over the past several decades. A stringent regulatory structure discourages business formation and investment. While this is a major problem across the Western world, it contributes massive weight to Greek economic malaise. Inefficient state-owned enterprises produce poor services whilst adding to budgetary deficits. Conflicting laws in the country’s legal system discourages business production through ill-conceived prosecutions. High taxes on the wealthy have encouraged capital flight and tax evasion, reducing Greek tax receipts.

In order to expiate the debt crisis situation, Greece needs to adopt a hands-off approach to economic management through privatization, deregulation, and a streamlined tax and legal system. Tsipras and Parliament cannot pay off the 240 billion euros in government debt through tax hikes or penalties. The Greek economy needs a period of economic prosperity in order to extend Treasury reserves. While this goal seems impossible at the moment, many nations, such as Vietnam and India, have utilized successful economic reform to their advantage.

Restructuring the Fed

Jerome Powell speaking at an FOMC meeting
Jerome Powell, the only Republican governor on the Federal Reserve Board, has rightly claimed that a Fed audit would be “in violent conflict with the facts”.

Spearheaded by financial reformers such as Rand Paul, the movement to audit the Federal Reserve’s conduct has grown in recent years. One current proposal would subject the Fed’s monetary policy to Government Accountability Office audits. While this is aimed to prevent the creation of asset bubbles that we’ve seen from late-Greenspan, Bernanke, and Yellen, it poses additional problems for the US’s financial system.

Jerome Powell, the only Republican currently serving as a Federal Reserve Board governor, gave a speech on 9 February, expressing worry that an audit would produce “substantial risk of political interference”. Considering the atrocious left-wing, expansionary movement the Fed has made since Greenspan’s exit (QE and ZIRP), further politicization of central bank policy should be avoided at all costs. Powell added that Fed policy is most effective when “rendered independent of influence by elected officials”.

This false panacea does nothing to solve the structural problems that the Fed faces. Dallas Fed Chairman Richard Fisher argued that the Fed was “audited out the Wazoo”. While his statement isn’t entirely accurate as outside institutions have no direct control over the Fed’s open market operations, some truth lies in the claim. The Federal Reserve Reform Act of 1977 forced the central bank to “promote maximum employment, production, and price stability”, establishing direct policy objectives  for the first time. Since then, interest rate policy has become unstable in order to achieve these goals, often causing financial crises.

Aside from the poor policy decisions, which can only be repaired through the appointment of rational governors to the FRB, many structural problems exist within the Federal Reserve System. Many market analysts believe that too much power rests with the New York Fed. Assets and transfer volume are fragmented throughout each of the system’s 12 regional banks. Decreasing the number of banks to six (New York, Dallas, San Francisco, Saint Louis, Atlanta, and Chicago) would concentrate these indicators and decrease the relative power of the New York Fed. After the unsightly burden that Dodd-Frank placed on smaller financial institutions, a reduced number of regional banks could redirect their conduct to verifying the transactions of the largest holding companies, which are typically based in the six aforementioned cities.

To further inhibit the political implications placed on the Fed, the Presidents of the six regional banks should be given permanent Federal Open Market Committee voting power. Consolidation of the regional banks and new power in the FOMC will dramatically increase efficiency of the Federal Reserve System’s objectives. The new voting seats also bring a variety of views, notably that of Saint Louis Fed President James Bullard, who warned that failure to increase the federal funds rate would create “some risk” and other options would be “resolved in a violent way”.

Those that advocate abolition of the Federal Reserve fail to realize two key points. When a country has a nationalized currency, like the United States, a central bank is needed to ensure the limited stability of the currency. Combined with a fractional reserve banking system, a central bank provides liquidity to financial institutions.  Privatization of the world’s currencies is the best option of reform, however this is politically impossible for at least the next two decades. In the meantime, the Federal Reserve needs to be operating in the most efficient manner in order to ensure proper function of financial markets.