World-Watching: The Problem with the Current Russia Sanctions Regime

[from Project Syndicate, by Mohamed A. El-Erian]

There is much debate about the effectiveness of Western sanctions, the Ukraine war’s implications for markets and the global economy, and what the West’s next steps should be. While there are few good options, some are clearly worse than others.

Cambridge — It has been five months since Europe and the United States imposed tough economic and financial sanctions on Russia, a G20 country that was the world’s eleventh-largest economy on the eve of its invasion of Ukraine. While the sanctions have been gradually strengthened in the intervening months, debate rages about their effectiveness, the war’s broader implications for markets and the global economy, and what the West’s next steps should be.

On the first question, although the sanctions have been less effective than Europe and the U.S. had hoped, they also are proving more onerous than the Kremlin claims. Russia’s central bank expects GDP to contract by 8-10% this year, while other forecasters expect a larger fall, together with longer-lasting damage to growth potential. Imports and exports have been severely disrupted, and inflows of foreign investment have essentially stopped. Shortages are multiplying, pushing inflation higher. At this point, the country no longer has a properly functioning foreign-exchange market.

The sanctions would have bitten much harder had the West not opted for a carve-out of Russia’s energy sector, and had many more countries joined the U.S. and Europe in the effort. Because that didn’t happen, Russia has not felt nearly as much pressure as it would have. Moreover, it has been able to continue trading through various side and back doors that will likely become increasingly important as long as the sanctions regime, as currently designed, continues.

Nonetheless, it is only a matter of time before the Russian economy experiences a harder hit. Inventories of imported goods – including many critical technological and industrial inputs – are dwindling fast, and many sectors are becoming less resilient. The cumulative damage to Russia’s economy over time will be significant and long-lasting – a fact that has not yet been fully captured by consensus medium-term forecasts.

The second question concerns global spillovers from the war and the sanctions regime. Most observers agree that Russia’s invasion has increased not just energy insecurity but also food insecurity, highlighting the fallout from the war’s disruption to Ukrainian agricultural exports. But there is still much debate about the West’s use of the economic nuclear sanctions option: the curbs placed on Russia’s central bank and on Russia’s use of the international payments system.

These curbs are far more intrusive than the usual mix of restrictions on sanctioned government and private sector trade and on individuals’ financial dealings. Yet, because they are not subject to any internationally agreed standards, guidelines, or checks and balances, they fall outside the purview of relevant global-governance bodies such as the Bank for International Settlements, the International Monetary Fund, and the World Trade Organization.

In a time of war, such oversight might seem like a nicety. But some worry that the sanctions could significantly reduce the dollar’s role as the world’s reserve currency and the U.S. financial system’s role as the primary global intermediary for other countries’ savings and investments. After all, a growing number of countries undoubtedly now feel more vulnerable to the reach of U.S. sanctions.

But it is impossible to replace something with nothing, which means that no significant loss of dollar or U.S. financial primacy will occur in the immediate future. Rather, the sanctions will lend further momentum to the gradual process of global economic fragmentation, which was also fueled a few years ago by the tariffs imposed by the Trump administration. More countries now have even more of a reason to pursue greater financial resilience and inherently inefficient forms of self-insurance.

That brings us to the third debate. With no end in sight for the war, what should the West do next? Fearing the implications for energy prices and the supply of gas to Europe, many in the West are tempted to call for a moratorium on any new sanctions – or even for additional carve-outs. Others, however, favor additional measures to hold Russia accountable for its indiscriminate attacks on Ukrainian civilians.

In any case, maintaining the current sanctions regime is not problem-free, owing to the twin objectives of pressuring Russia and limiting the economic disruption to Europe. Moreover, as European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen recently said, it feels as if Russia is “blackmailing” Europe by threatening to disrupt gas supplies at any moment. No wonder the Commission is urging member countries to cut consumption by 15%.

Under the current sanctions regime, the West risks falling between two horses. While easing sanctions could help alleviate concerns about Europe’s economic outlook, this option is a non-starter, given the atrocities that Russian forces are committing in Ukraine. But if the West is serious about pressuring Russia through truly crippling economic and financial sanctions, it needs to bite the bullet and eliminate the carve-outs for energy.

Doing so would undoubtedly have a severe short-term economic impact on European economies and the rest of the world, amplifying the “little fires everywhere” syndrome that I warned about in May. It is therefore critical that governments use their available fiscal space to provide targeted support to vulnerable segments of the population, as well as to fragile countries; and multilateral agencies must support developing countries through aid and a more operational debt relief framework. If done properly, this option would yield better outcomes in the medium and long term than the current strategy.

Muddling through risks bringing about the worst of all possible worlds. It is insufficient to dissuade Russia from continuing its illegal war; it is fueling deeper fragmentation of the international monetary system; and it is not even protecting Europe from a winter gas disruption.

Mohamed A. El-Erian, President of Queens’ College at the University of Cambridge, is a professor at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania and the author of The Only Game in Town: Central Banks, Instability, and Avoiding the Next Collapse (Random House, 2016).

OFR Working Paper Finds Cash Biases Measurement of the Stock Return Correlations

[from the U.S. Office of Financial Research]

Today, the U.S. Office of Financial Research published a working paper, “Cash-Hedged Stock Returns” [archived PDF], and an accompanying blog (below), regarding firms’ cash holdings and the implications for asset prices and financial stability.

Cash holdings are important for financial stability because of their value in crises.  Corporate cash piles vary across companies and over time. Firms’ cash holdings typically earn low returns, and their cash returns are correlated across firms.  Thus, the asset pricing results are important for investors managing a portfolio’s risk and policymakers concerned about sources of vulnerability.

The working paper [archived PDF] shows how investors can hedge cash on firms’ balance sheets when making portfolio choices.  Cash generates variation in beta estimates, and the working paper decomposes stock betas into components that depend on the firm’s cash holding, return on cash, and cash-hedged return. Common asset pricing premia have large implicit cash positions, and portfolios of cash-hedged premia often have higher Sharpe ratios, used by investors to understand a return on investment, because of the correlation between firms’ cash returns. The paper shows the value of a dollar increased in 2020, and firms hold cash because they are riskier.

Read the working paper [archived PDF].

OFR Finds Large Cash Holdings Can Lead to Mismeasuring Risk

[from the OFR blog, by Sharon Ross]

Cash is necessary for companies’ operations. Firms use cash to make payments, finance investments, and manage risk. But holding cash comes at a cost: its low pecuniary return. Published today by the OFR, the working paper, “Cash-Hedged Stock Returns” [archived PDF], shows that the cash returns of publicly traded, non-financial firms are correlated. Since cash returns are a part of equity returns, investors that are using equity return correlations to measure risk can mismeasure risk.

We show the importance of cash for systemic risk by documenting the value of cash in crises, showing that firms hold cash in part due to risk management and studying how cash biases the measurement of the interconnectedness of stock returns. The consequences of cash are important for policymakers monitoring aggregate risks, and sources of market vulnerability and for investors making portfolio choices.

Cash holdings are important for financial stability because of their value in crises. Several papers document a “dash for cash” during the initial panicked stages of the coronavirus 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic when firms rushed to hold cash in their coffers. The dash for cash was driven by firms drawing down on lines of credit from banks, which in turn affected bank lending. The dash for cash highlighted the critical role of firms’ cash holdings and returns in understanding risk in the financial system.

We show the value of a dollar increased in 2020. Moreover, our results show that firms may hold cash because they are riskier, as opposed to firms with high cash shares being less risky due to their cash holdings. Our results are consistent with a precautionary savings motive for holding cash. In other words, firms hold cash for risk management, in part to weather bad times.

Cash is a growing share of public firmsassets. The value-weighted U.S. stock market held 22% of its assets in cash in December 2020 compared to 8% in the 1980s. An investor buying the market in 2020 ends up with an implicit cash position three times larger than in 1980. Individual firms vary in how much cash they hold. As cash holdings increase, it is important to understand how cash holdings affect returns, which in turn impacts who chooses to invest in the firms.

Cash returns are correlated across firms, and cash biases measurement of the interconnectedness of stock returns, making it a risk for financial stability. As a result, the asset pricing results are important both for investors managing portfolio risk and for policymakers concerned about interconnected returns.

We argue that the value of corporate cash is distinct, and we can separate the value of cash and the value of the firm’s primary business. We show how investors can explicitly account for the effect of corporate cash holdings when forming a portfolio. When an investor owns stock in a company with substantial cash, the investor has an implicit cash position managed by the company—something the investor might not intend. We argue that investors should account for the effect of corporate cash holdings in the portfolio decision to measure a portfolio’s risk. Firms’ cash management is not consistent across firms, and investors may want to manage their cash positions themselves. Policymakers should be aware of investors’ choices in cash because of investorsportfolio risk and the implications for aggregate risk.

We separate a company’s stock return into its cash and non-cash components, and we show that using the non-cash return gives a more informative correlation structure across stocks. In other words, if investors take out the correlated cash returns, the remaining return is less correlated, yielding portfolios that provide better diversification. We show how cash holdings and returns affect the returns of standard asset pricing strategies and asset pricing models like the capital asset pricing model (CAPM).

As cash holdings of public firms increase, it is important that policymakers understand how these increases impact stock returns for both individual firms and the aggregate market. Cash returns are correlated across firms, and cash biases the measurement of the interconnectedness of stock returns. This correlation is important both for investors who are managing a portfolio’s risk and policymakers concerned about sources of vulnerability stemming from interconnected returns.

Asia-Watching: New Studies on Tariffs; FDIs and Global Value Chains

[from Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation, May 15, 2022]

Study on Tariffs: Analysis of the
Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership
Tariff Liberalization Schedules

prepared by Carlos Kuriyama, Sylwyn C. Calizo Jr. & Jason Carlo O. Carranceja

RCEP is the largest regional free trade agreement (FTA) in the world. Its potential is huge, as its 15 members account for about 2.2 billion people (30% of the global population), a regional gross domestic product (GDP) of about USD38,813 billion (30% of global GDP), and 28.8% of global trade. This study examines market access commitments and comparing the extent of tariff liberalization within RCEP as well as the other major regional FTA in the Asia-Pacific, the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP).

Read the full article [archived PDF].

The FDI Network, Global Value Chain Participation and Economic Upgrading

by Luna Ge Lai, Nguyen Thu Quynh & Akhmad Bayhaqi

Foreign direct investment (FDI) represents an important internationalization pathway to global value chain (GVC) participation. APEC economies as a group have dominated as FDI recipients, accounting for nearly 52% of the global inward FDI stock. This study analyses the role of FDI in economiesGVC participation.

Read the full article [archived PDF].

Essay 79: Past and Present Thinking

History is “forever new” and we keep asking “what’s new?” but the past is “forever suggestive” and so we inquire here as to whether the past gives us interesting echoes of the more recent.

Specifically, we juxtapose the “closing of the gold window” in August 1971 (Nixon) and the British gold standard gyrations between 1925 and 1931, when England left gold (i.e., September 1931).

At the time, under Nixon, the U.S. also had an unemployment rate of 6.1% (August 1971) and an inflation rate of 5.84% (1971).

To combat these problems, President Nixon consulted Federal Reserve chairman Arthur Burns, incoming Treasury Secretary John Connally, and then Undersecretary for International Monetary Affairs and future Fed Chairman Paul Volcker.

On the afternoon of Friday, August 13, 1971, these officials along with twelve other high-ranking White House and Treasury advisors met secretly with Nixon at Camp David. There was great debate about what Nixon should do, but ultimately Nixon, relying heavily on the advice of the self-confident Connally, decided to break up Bretton Woods by announcing the following actions on August 15:

Speaking on television on Sunday, August 15, when American financial markets were closed, Nixon said the following:

“The third indispensable element in building the new prosperity is closely related to creating new jobs and halting inflation. We must protect the position of the American dollar as a pillar of monetary stability around the world.

“In the past 7 years, there has been an average of one international monetary crisis every year …

“I have directed Secretary Connally to suspend temporarily the convertibility of the dollar into gold or other reserve assets, except in amounts and conditions determined to be in the interest of monetary stability and in the best interests of the United States.

“Now, what is this action—which is very technical—what does it mean for you?

“Let me lay to rest the bugaboo of what is called devaluation.

“If you want to buy a foreign car or take a trip abroad, market conditions may cause your dollar to buy slightly less. But if you are among the overwhelming majority of Americans who buy American-made products in America, your dollar will be worth just as much tomorrow as it is today.

“The effect of this action, in other words, will be to stabilize the dollar.”

Britain’s own experience in the twenties is explained like this:

“In 1925, Britain had returned to the gold standard.

(editor: This Churchill decision was deeply critiqued by Keynes.)

“When Labour came to power in May 1929 this was in good time for Black Friday on Wall Street in the following October.

“After the Austrian and German crashes in May and July 1931, Britain’s financial position became critical, and on 21st September she abandoned the gold standard.

London was still the world’s financial capital in 1931, and the British abandonment of the gold standard set off a chain of reactions throughout the world.

“Strangely enough Germany and Austria maintained the gold standard…”

(Europe of the Dictators, Elizabeth Wiskemann, Fontana/Collins, 1977, page 92-93)

Nixon’s policies gave us the demise of Bretton Woods, while the economic gyrations of 1925-1931 were part of the lead-up to World War II.

The setting is both “infinitely different” across the decades but the feeling of “flying blind” applies to both cases: U.S.A. “closing the gold window,” August 1971 and Britain’s overturning Churchill’s 1925 return to the gold standard, by 1931. One gets the sense of “concealed turmoil” and a lot of “winging it” in both cases. Policy-makers disagreed and they all saw the world of their moments “through a glass, darkly.”

Essay 47: Novels as a Kind of University Demonstrating Storms of Global Finance and Technification

Edith Wharton began writing The Age of Innocence in 1917 as a way of recalling and criticizing the world of her youth, which had not yet experienced the devastation of World War I (1914–18).  Beginning in July 1920, the novel was published in serial form in New York’s monthly Pictorial Review.

The centrality of finance and technical change can be seen. We are reminded of the very first line in The Magnifcent Ambersons of Booth Tarkington, which tells the reader that the basis of the magnificence of the Ambersons was established when they somehow benefited from the 1873 financial crisis which destroyed many others. (Whether the Ambersons were shrewd or lucky or wily is not clarified.)

The Age of Innocence is set in New York in the 1870s and the financial storm and “techno-storm” become vital:

The Panic of 1873:

In The Age of Innocence, the investment bank run by Julius Beaufort collapses, bringing shame upon him and his wife and throwing New York into a tizzy. Beaufort’s business failure is a fictionalized version of the Panic of 1873, industrial capitalism’s first worldwide depression. Then, the United States backed its currency with both silver and gold, but when Germany and several other countries stopped using silver to back their currency, the price of silver fell precipitously, devaluing U.S. currency. The U.S. Treasury made matters worse by releasing large amounts of paper money into the economy. Speculators and bankers now had to immediately pay off their debts with gold.

In 1873, a prominent investment banker by the name of Jay Cooke went bankrupt, the effects rippled throughout the entire U.S. economy, and panic ensued. Trading was suspended for two weeks on the New York Stock Exchange as company after company failed, wages dropped precipitously, and unemployment spiked. The rise of the labor movement can be traced to the widespread unrest and economic instability set off by the panic. Additionally, the panic allowed a few of the wealthiest businessmen—such as Andrew Carnegie, John Rockefeller, and Cyrus McCormick, who retained access to valuable capital—to vastly increase their wealth and snuff out competitors.

Technological Advancements

Characters in The Age of Innocence are aware their world is about to be forever changed by the culture of outsiders, brought to them in part by advancements in technology. Although inventions like the telephone were on the horizon, they seemed improbably fantastic to people living in the early 1870s world of telegrams and horse-drawn carriages. However, in the final chapter, Wharton depicts Newland Archer living in a world that has been significantly altered by these technologies, a mere quarter century later.

In 1876, for example, American inventor Alexander Graham Bell (1847-1922) patented an early telephone and wowed audiences by demonstrating the world’s first telephone call by placing a call from one telegraph station to another five miles away.  The Western Union company refused to buy Bell’s telephone patent, claiming his invention would amount to no more than a novelty. However, the first telephone line was built in 1877-78, and after that, telephone usage skyrocketed.  At the start of the 1880s, there were almost 50,000 telephones in use, a number that swelled to over half a million by the turn of the century.

A similar large-scale change was the invention and development of electricity. Although the first electric light was developed in 1835, it was not until 1879 that American inventor Thomas Edison (1847-1931) developed and patented a light bulb with a life span of 15 hours. Edison’s work also focused on the problems of electrical generation and conductivity.

At the same time that communication was becoming easier and the day was lengthened artificially through electric lighting, the distance between continents was shortened by advances in turbine steam engines

In the 1860s, it took between eight and nine days to cross the Atlantic Ocean; by 1907, the Mauretania (the ship that Dallas and Newland Archer take to Europe in the last chapter) makes the voyage in half that time.  This was a contributing factor to the great influx of European immigrants who arrived in the United States during the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

In Chapter 29, Newland contemplates the “brotherhood of visionaries,” who predict a train tunnel under the Hudson River as well as “ships that would cross the Atlantic in five days … and other Arabian Night marvels.” In 1904, excavation for train tunnels under the Hudson began, directed by Alexander Cassatt, president of the Pennsylvania Railroad. In 1910, New York’s Penn Station opened and began receiving traffic from electric trains that traveled through the tunnels.

Notice that the novel The Magnificent Ambersons is from 1918, Edith Wharton’s Age of Innocence from 1920. In each, the personal storms of private emotion are somewhat carried along and swept up into the storms coming from national and even global finance (1873 caused a tremendous crash in Germany and Austria called the “Grunderkrach” [founder’s crash]) as well as techno-waves that are very baffling to the people of the time.