Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Silly Reporting, Sillier Analysis

From Bloomberg a couple of days ago (excerpt, bold emphasis mine):

Inflation Fears May Slow Malaysia Subsidy Cuts, Economists Say

By Barry Porter

May 10 (Bloomberg) -- Malaysia may cut subsidies slowly to prevent triggering record inflation as it prepares to revamp a system that’s hampered efforts to reduce the budget deficit, Standard Chartered Plc and Citigroup Inc. said.

A taskforce is exploring ways to revamp the government’s entire portfolio of subsidies that keep the cost of essential items from flour to highway tolls low for consumers. An attempt to reduce the amount the state pays to cap fuel prices caused inflation to surge to a 26-year high in 2008 as gasoline became more expensive.

The government will learn from past experience and ensure its subsidy cuts will be a “very tempered, gradual process,” Alvin Liew, an economist at Standard Chartered in Singapore, said May 7. “They still have time on their hands. It’s not a Greek situation where they need a bailout, not yet anyway.”

Malaysia spends about 73 billion ringgit ($22 billion) a year on subsidies, Prime Minister Najib Razak said on April 6, calling the amount “not sustainable.” The government, which has said it is considering a global bond sale, aims to narrow its budget deficit to 5.6 percent of gross domestic product this year from a 22-year high of 7 percent in 2009.

What’s wrong with this picture?

First, take note that in July 2008 crude oil reached over USD140 per barrel on the world markets. That’s about double the level it’s at now. The level of price increase necessary to equilibrate domestic gasoline prices with world prices are far lower right now than it was in 2008. Since the outlook for crude oil prices are still up, that means the time to cut subsidies is now, not later.

Second, Alvin Liew’s comments are so off base that I’m wondering if we’re looking at the same country. Greece has a public debt to GDP ratio of 125%, an external debt to GDP ratio of 170% (public and private debt), a budget deficit of 13.6% (all 2009 numbers) and external reserves of just USD3.5 billion (2008). Malaysia’s corresponding numbers are 53.7%, 36.1% and 7.0% (2009 numbers) and USD96 billion (as of end-April 2010). Huge, huge difference in terms of national and external liabilities, and the financial resources to meet them.

Greece also has the problem of having its entire national debt denominated in Euros or other currencies, whereas Malaysia’s is mainly in MYR. That means that in extremis Malaysia can print Ringgit to meet its national obligations, while Greece has to beg the European Central Bank to pick up its debt (which after much arm twisting and teeth gnashing, the ECB has finally committed to do) and rely on the EU and the IMF to provide short and medium term financing. While printing money is not an ideal solution as it risks a run on the currency and rising inflationary pressure, it does mean that near term debt obligations can always be met by a country issuing its own currency.

In addition, membership of the Eurozone means that a de facto devaluation of the currency cannot in fact happen (relative to other Euro members), which means that Greece has no chance to improve its external competitive position, unlike what occurred in East Asia during the 1997-98 crisis.

In short, Malaysia doesn’t – and won’t – need a bailout.

Third, I think our Prime Minister is guilty of hyperbole when quoting that figure of RM73 billion in subsidies. I can’t actually reconcile this statement with the actual published figures, and the only way I can get near that number is to add development expenditure to operating expenditure that’s classified as subsidies. Otherwise, spending on subsidies in 2009 was only RM18.6 billion.

Also on Bloomberg (not on Malaysia, but just as silly):

Fed Restarts Currency-Swap Tool With ECB Amid Crisis (excerpt)

The Fed’s swaps come at a time of increasing political scrutiny. Congress could ask why the U.S. central bank is expanding the supply of dollars to help smooth disruptions caused by fiscal imbalances in Europe.

Senator Bernard Sanders, a Vermont independent, wants the Government Accountability Office to look into Fed lending facilities during the crisis, including swap lines with foreign central banks, such as the $20 billion facility the Fed opened with the ECB in December 2007.

A vote on the Sanders amendment could come as soon as May 11 as Congress proceeds on the most sweeping overhaul of financial regulations since the Great Depression.

“Many members of Congress are deeply suspicious of the Fed’s interventionist instincts,” said Lou Crandall, chief economist at Wrightson ICAP LLC in Jersey City, New Jersey. “Bailing out Wall Street caused enough resentment; appearing to bail out Greece would be even more problematic.”

“The Fed cannot afford to rile up its congressional critics while the financial reform bill is still in play,” Crandall said before tonight’s announcement.

I’ve commented on this before (read this post for details) – a swap line is not a loan in the conventional sense. And the Fed supplying USD to the ECB under the current circumstances simply means those Dollars go straight back to the US. Factual note: the Fed’s swap line with the ECB in 2007 was US$300 billion, not the paltry US$20 billion quoted in the article.

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