Stimulus: The Exit Strategy and the road ahead

4 Feb, 2010 | by


Although the economists still can’t agree on the real quantative impact of various stimulus packages that were adopted by economies from around the world but one cannot dispute the fact that the size of the stimulus did matter and did work in most cases.

To investigate this further let us look at the various stimulus packages that were adopted during the CRISIS.

Obviously by the sheer size and percentage of National GDP China’s US $ 586 billion stimulus Package which accounts for above 12.9% its GDP stands out from the REST. It is possibly followed by Saudi Arabia, Malaysia, and the mother of all STIMULUS thrown by United States under its American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 which is the largest by any measures (US$ 787 billion).

At the time there were market pundits who were debating the pros and cons and some even doubted if the stimulus packages will deliver and I am glad to admit that some of us including myself had a different view. Based on my judgement and commonsense I concluded in a piece that I wrote in March of 2009 titled “ Getting the Patient Out of Intensive – The Economy “ that it should deliver and put the US and the world economy back to growth. But having said we should have no illusion that the road ahead is still bumpy and uncertain.

In comparison to other economies most European countries with the exception of Germany and France have been reluctant to throw a bigger stimulus package (mostly because of their fiscal position ) with sizes between 0.3% of its GDP in case of Italy and 1.3% in the case of the United Kingdom. Germany clearly stands out with its two fiscal packages summing up to US $ 110 billion (approximately) which is 2.8 % of its national GDP hence it is no coincidence that Germany and France were the first EU nations among the EUROPEAN UNION countries to get out of RECESSION.

I think it is interesting and also probably important to point out that an unloaded stimulus with mostly tax breaks as the first wave of stimulus didn’t do much as evident from the one off tax rebate under the American Recovery Act of 08 of Bush Administration. It looks like the additional money was clearly used by majority of the Americans to pay off the existing debt. Also the experience of BUSH administration’s 2001 tax cut bill clearly shows that rebates generally wind up as savings or as debt repayment.

So taking the above into consideration economies like the US, Germany, Australia ,Spain and others who initially clearly favored tax cuts over spending in their respective first wave of stimulus packages in 08 decided in favour of an alternative measure that included more expenditure loaded plans in 2009 in combination with other incentives.

According to the IMF the total stimulus amounts to US $ 2 trillion ( approx) which is around 1.4% of the world’s GDP still below the IMF’s recommendation of 2 % of world GDP, however, only 15 per cent of the overall fiscal stimulus was really allocated for 2008 and the remaining 85% to be allocated over a two year period 2009 and 2010 with 48 per cent and 37 per cent, respectively. Also an important point to note is that while most of the Asian and other economies focused on their fiscal expansions in 2009, China’s and also the US the fiscal stimulus will only reach its PEAK in 2010. It is hard to accurately estimate to which extent the stimulus will be implemented in 2010 especially as the economies are stabilising and getting back to growth. And the recent downgrade of countries like Greece, Ireland, Spain and Portugal also means that going forward the economies will start focusing more on fiscal consolidation or else they run a huge risk of being punished for their inaction. The bond vigilantes are clearly BACK and they have all the reasons to be WORRIED.

Let us look at a list of top five debtor nations to get some perspective

1. Ireland – External debt (as % of GDP): 1,267%
External debt per capita: $567,805
Gross external debt: $2.386 trillion (2009 Q2)
2008 GDP (est): $188.4 billion

2. Switzerland – External debt (as % of GDP): 422.7%
External debt per capita: $176,045
Gross external debt: $1.338 trillion (2009 Q2)
2008 GDP (est): $316.7 billion

3. United Kingdom – External debt (as % of GDP): 408.3%
External debt per capita: $148,702
Gross external debt: $9.087 trillion (2009 Q2)
2008 GDP (est): $2.226 trillion

4. Netherlands – External debt (as % of GDP): 365%
External debt per capita: $146,703
Gross external debt: $2.452 trillion (2009 Q2)
2008 GDP (est): $672 billion

5. Belgium – External debt (as % of GDP): 320.2%
External debt per capita: $119,681
Gross external debt: $1.246 trillion (2009 Q1)
2008 GDP (est): $389 billion

I should point out that I’ve taken the above numbers from various sources including of IMF, World Bank and others.

It is a pretty Ugly reading isn’t it? The only good news is that it looks like the policy makers and the central bankers are beginning to take note of the worries and as a result have increasingly started to talk about creating a credible exit strategy as a priority.

Although one understands that there is need to fix balance sheets (fiscal consolidation) and address the inflationary concerns by having a clearly formulated, defined and coordinated exit strategy in place. But that said Timing will be KEY here as exiting too soon or too late has its own risk. And also it is extremely important that the process should only begin when there is enough hard evidence to see that economy will keep growing on its own after the removal of the stimulus or in other words it is evident that the recovery is solid, financial markets are back to normalcy and credit risk spreads are at an acceptable level and there is a significant risk to inflation over the medium term. We have already seen some of the central banks tighten in the later part of 09 and it is becoming increasingly plausible that others especially in Asia including of countries like India will follow suit as the real inflation starts to pick up.

Going forward the Central banks will need to explain clearly how they intend to use all the tools both conventional and unconventional that are available to them. But having said that, there is also a genuine fear that any preannouncement could possibly push the interest rates up prematurely thus derailing any chance of a ROBUST recovery. The Q4 of 09 and Q1 of 10 numbers should give us a good estimate of the strength of recovery. The economic improvement has to be across the board and not just in one sector to justify any intervention. We have seen some encouraging numbers reported from parts of the US economy in later part of 09 including of jobless claims falling to 432,000 – the lowest since September of 09 ,ISM Manufacturing Index rise 55.9 in December which is the highest level since 06, and also an improvement in business and consumer confidence etc but on the other hand the construction spending fell by over 0.6% in November of 08, US business loan defaults rose again in November of 09 and so did the US credit card debts write off. So we are still seeing some very mixed numbers come out which is what I have been expecting and this is why I keep saying to my friends and colleagues always look Beyond the Numbers, and dig deep.

I think it is extremely important not to overlook the human cost of this recession. According to the New York Times article dated 28th December 09, New York’s state courts are closing the year with over 4.7 million cases- the highest ever. The courtrooms are clearly seeing the aftermath of economic collapse on average folks on the main street and on businesses. I think from a judge’s perspective and also from the folks who are in the midst of all this it will be extremely hard to see signs of an ECONOMIC RECOVERY. But for some of the Wall Street guys it’s back to PARTY again as expected. I did write a piece titled “Investing in 2009: Back to Basics “ in Feb/March of 09 and I thought I’ll just quote the last paragraph. “The markets will come back at some point and there will be parties again on the streets, but the question is, will this happen again? I am sure it will. After all, we are human beings! “

Well, moving on even though we are still seeing mixed numbers I think it is probably safe to assume that we could see the US economy grow between 2.5% to 3.5 % in the year 2010. And the reason for that is the economy has to grow from a very low bottom so even with a very basic and existing demand the economy will grow. And also it is also very plausible that the US may outperform other developed nations including the EU. But the party is going to continue in the Emerging Market. And among the Emerging markets you would see economies with deeper domestic base like Brazil, India, Indonesia and Turkey do better than export driven emerging economies.

While we are busy talking about growth prospect of the global economy and the road ahead one has to also admit that the policy makers have managed to avoid a Great Depression type event by not adopting an extremely tight fiscal and monetary policy. Also there is no doubt that the stimulus packages have delivered as it is becoming increasingly evident from the performance of the economies like China, India, Germany, France and the US among others. That said there is no doubt that the road ahead is still turbulent and bumpy and a policy mistake here could jeopardize the whole recovery process. Monetary and fiscal policy changes will have to be coordinated. The main aim of any intervention should be to support growth and maintain price stability.

However, one of the safest open market operations could be raising the interest rate on banks’ reserves at the central bank as it will allow the central banks to mop up the excessive liquidity in the banking system by making sure the money is deposited back at the central bank and in so doing prevent excess credit creation and also inflation eventually. This is exactly what the Fed is intending to do through their term deposit program announced on December 28th 2009. The clear intention behind the program is to help mop up some of the $1 trillion in excess reserves in the U.S. banking system. While this should be easily achieved the unwinding of the assets bought by the central banks during the CRISIS will keep them awake. But that said it will depend on the timing, if they were selling to an extremely confident market they could even make money from the asset sales but let’s see.

And with regards to the performance/returns of various investment classes I think it is probably safe to assume that in 2010 bonds or any other investment class for that matter will not provide or duplicate the excessive returns as seen in 2009. And going forward we may very well see people chasing the higher yields again and get into more risky asset class. But, however, we may also see people jump back into safer bets like US treasuries if we were to have another Dubai type event so I guess a lot will depend on the market sentiment and confidence. There is still a strong demand for US treasury as evident from the weekly auction in December of 09. If you look at the corporate world you would see that most of them are talking about issuing more public equity to help repay the debt and strengthen their balance sheet. And if the fundamentals keep improving then it will lower the default rate but one shouldn’t underestimate the risk especially if you consider that down the road a rate hike is on the cards so bond holder should position themselves for what is coming. That said I don’t buy the argument that a total meltdown is coming in the bond market and everybody should get out because I believe if the economy grows strongly then it should withstand a hike. But for now let us hope the policy makers and central bankers get it right ……Fingers Crossed.

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