Month: May 2018

Argentina: From the “confidence fairy” to the (still devilish) IMF

Guest post by Pablo Bortz and Nicolás Zeolla, Researchers at the Centre of Studies on Economics and Development, IDAES, National University of San Martín, and CONICET, Argentina.

In recent days, it has become customary to recall the issuance of a USD 2.75 billion 100-year bond in June 2017. This was the most colourful event of the short-lived integration of Argentina into international capital markets, beginning in December 2015. Last week, Argentina returned to the front pages of the financial press when the government requested financial assistance to the IMF amidst capital flight and a run against the peso that authorities were struggling to stop.

This is the most recent episode in the typical cycle of an emerging economy entering financial markets, suffering a balance of payments crisis and adopting an IMF-sponsored stabilization program. It starts with the claim that we are now a respected member of the international community, with presence in the Davos forum, and the promise that this time, finally, the international “confidence fairy” will awaken and investment will flood the country because of all the profit opportunities this forgotten economy has to offer. When the fairy proves to be an hallucination, we find ourselves at the steps of the IMF, facing demands, as always, for fiscal consolidation and structural reform.

When explaining this story, it is important to have some background on the Argentineans’ fascination with the dollar, and on some very recent political history. Because of its history of financial crises and its underdeveloped capital markets, there are very few savings instruments available to the non-sophisticated investor: real estate, term deposits, and dollars. Real estate prices are denominated in dollars, but you need a lot of dollars (relative to income) to buy a house. So buying dollars is pretty much a straightforward investment in uncertain times, i.e. most of the time.

Added to that, Argentina has a higher degree of exchange rate pass-through than other developing countries. The main exporters also dominate the domestic market for cooking oil and flour; oil and energy prices are dollarized; and exchange rate movements are very closely followed at times of wage bargaining. Unlike other emerging countries, and despite the sneering of some government officials, in a semi-dollarized (or bimonetary) economy such as Argentina exchange-rate pass-through is alive and kicking, which discourages large devaluations.

It is important to remember that the previous administration of Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner had implemented pervasive capital and exchange controls, which led to the development of a (relatively small) parallel market, with almost a 60% gap between the official and the parallel exchange rate. As soon as the Macri government took power in December 2015, it lifted all exchange rate controls. The official exchange rate (10 pesos per dollar) moved towards the parallel (16 pesos per dollar), and it is one of the reasons for the increase in the inflation rate, from 24% in 2015 to 41% by the end of 2016.

The new authorities also made two big moves. One was cancelling all the debt with vulture funds with new borrowing. This officially marked the return of Argentina to international capital markets. The second move, by the central bank (now lead by Federico Sturzenegger, an MIT graduate and disciple of Rudi Dornbusch), was the adoption of an inflation-targeting regime, with a mind-set that preferred freely floating exchange rates, and not much concern for current account deficits[1].

But looking at the external front, one may even be forgiven for asking: why did this crisis take so long to burst? Argentina was haemorrhaging dollars for many years, and with no sign of reversal: since 2016 the domestic non-financial sector acquired an accumulated amount of USD 41 billion in external assets. During the same period, the current account deficit totalled another USD 30 billion, in the form of trade deficit, tourism deficit, profit remittances by foreign companies and increasing interest payments.

The well-known factor that allowed all these trends to last until now is the foreign borrowing spree that involved the government, provinces, firms, and the central bank, including the inflow from short-term investors for carry trade operations. In the case of debt issuance, since 2016 the central government, provinces and private companies, have issued a whopping USD 88 billion of new foreign debt (13% of GDP).  In the case of carry trade operations, since 2016 the economy recorded USD 14 billon of short-term capital inflows (2% of GDP). The favourite peso-denominated asset for this operations were the debt liabilities of the central bank called LEBAC (Letters of the Central Bank).  Because of this, the outstanding stock of this instrument has now become the centre of all attention.

It is important to understand the LEBACs. They were originally conceived as an inter-bank and central bank liquidity management instrument. Since the lifting of foreign exchange and capital controls and the adoption of inflation targeting, the stock of LEBACs grew by USD 18 billion. Moreover, the composition of holders has changed significantly since 2015: At that time, domestic banks held 71% of the stock, and other investors held 29%. In 2018 that proportion has reverted to 38% banks/62% to other non-financial institution holders, which includes other non-financial public institutions (such as the social security administration) (17%), domestic mutual investment funds (16%), firms (14%), individuals (9%), and foreign investors (5%). This is shown in Graph 1 and Table 1. That means that a large part of all the new issuance of LEBAC is held by investors outside the regulatory scope of the central bank, especially individuals and foreign investors. This represents a potential source of currency market turbulence because these holdings could easily be converted into foreign currency, causing a large FX depreciation.


Holders of LEBACs, May 2018 %
Financial institutions 39%
Non-financial public sector 17%
Mutual Investment Funds 16%
Firms 14%
Individuals 9%
Foreign investors 5%

Source: Authors’ calculation based on Central Bank of Argentina

What was the trigger of the recent sudden stop and reversal of capital flows? Supporters of the central bank authorities point towards the change in the inflation target last December, when the Chief of Staff Marcos Peña (the most powerful person in cabinet) and the Economy Minister Nicolas Dujovne moved the target from 10% to 15%. In light of the change in the target, the central bank started to gradually lower interest rates from as high as 28,75% to 26.5%, while inflation remained unabated, giving rise to rumours about the government’s internal political disputes. However, inflation remained stubbornly high even before the change in the target; and there were also some minor foreign exchange runs both before and after that announcement. In the meantime, the government did reduce the budget deficit. The problem is not of fiscal origin: one has to look to the external front.

Other analysts point towards the reversal of the global financial cycle of cheap credit, which has led to devaluation of emerging markets’ currencies across the board. The turning point, in this interpretation, was when the 10-year rate on US Treasury bonds reached the 3% threshold. In a similar vein, others highlight a tax on non-residents’ financial profits that was going to come into place on May 1st, that triggered the sell-off by foreign investors. Indeed, the run was primarily driven by foreign hedge funds and big banks (notably, JP Morgan) closing their positions in pesos and acquiring dollars. However, the impact on Argentina dwarfed the devaluations, reserve losses and interest rate increments in other developing countries.

Finally, some blame the patently disastrous response of the central bank to the first indicators of a capital flight. The run accelerated in the last three weeks. The CB initially sold all the dollars that foreign banks demanded, in an attempt to control the exchange rate, without increasing interest rates. Then the devaluation accelerated, and the central bank started to increase the interest rate, to 30, to 33, and finally to 42%. Its intervention in the exchange market was equally erratic.[2]

These points have some validity, but are insufficient to explain the full extent of the run.  The reason is that investors could enter the country and could leave it without no restriction whatsoever. The main problem is the total deregulation of the financial account and the foreign exchange market, for domestic and foreign investors. The government borrowed heavily in international markets and the central bank offered large financial gains, while the external front deteriorated and domestic non-sophisticated investors were demanding dollars at increasing speed. The most infamous and egregious measure of all is the abolition of the requirement that exporters sell their foreign currency in the foreign exchange market. Instead of having an assured supply of dollars, the central bank is now forced to lure them with a high interest rate. In such a context, where capital can move freely, anything and everything is an excuse to cash in and get out. It is therefore a mistake to focus only on individual issues. The problem is the setting – the whole policy framework.  Now, the central bank is caught between only two alternatives when choosing interest rates: either to encourage carry-trade operations, or to suffer steep devaluations.

The decision to ask for an IMF loan was in the offing for some time but was rushed during the run against the peso. The government’s first intention was to obtain a Flexible Credit Line, the best (or the least evil) of all the IMF facilities, because it provides a decent amount of money with few conditionalities, or at least its minor cousin, the Precautionary and Liquidity Line (PLL), with less money but still not many conditionalities. The IMF, instead, told Argentine negotiators that there was no room for the PLL, and they would have to apply instead for the dreaded Stand-By Arrangements. All the international support and “credibility” that the Argentine government claimed to have was of no use when it came to the moment for banking on it.

But resorting to an IMF loan was not an unavoidable decision.[3] There were other ways to obtain dollars and to cap the foreign exchange run. The government could have forced exporters to sell their foreign currencies; they could have negotiated a swap agreement with some major central bank; or they could have erected barriers to capital outflows.

The report also shows what is to be expected from now on. The IMF will ask for tough measures on labour market flexibility (which was already on the government table), further cuts to public employment, wages, transfers and pensions, and lifting of the greatly reduced trade barriers. The devaluation has already happened, but it should be mentioned that previous devaluations failed to encourage exports, while they only fostered inflation.

It is impossible to forecast what will happen in 2019. On the economic front, there are at least four big risks. The first is a recession, because of the negative impact of devaluation on private consumption. The second refers to an acceleration in the inflation rate and its distributive effects. Nobody expects now that the 2018 inflation rate will be below the 2017 number (25%), and with further devaluations, inflation could spiral to new highs. A third risk, which will be persistent throughout the year, is the eventual demand for dollars by the non-bank LEBAC holders. The fourth one is a possible (though not likely) bank run. Banks have USD 22 billion of deposits denominated in dollars. Any bank-run will directly hit reserves.

This very short experience is another example of the typical boom-and-bust cycle of emerging economies borrowing heavily in foreign currency with totally deregulated financial flows and foreign exchange markets, while experiencing growing current account imbalances. If one were to obtain some “new” corollaries, we would have to point to the failure of the inflation-targeting policy framework in a semi-dollarized economy with no capital controls. The IT regime did not reduce contract indexation; exchange rate flexibility did not reduce the pass-through. And relying on the “confidence fairy” is no path to development; it is rather a highway to hellish institutions. We Argentineans thought we had rid ourselves of that devil.


[1] The inflation target, however, was set at very optimistic levels, was never achieved in the two years since the adoption of the IT regime, and was changed last December, something that many say had an influence in recent events.

[2] Some say that this behaviour was not a bug but a feature, since it allowed foreign banks to profit in their investments and leave the country at favourable interest rates. Others, in a less conspirative but equally perverse logic of action, say that the erratic initial response was an attempt by the central bank to prove the wrongfulness of the Ministry of Economy’s approach and regain full control of monetary policy. The unfolding of events is consistent with this argument, with the caveat that even after regaining political power, the central bank proved to be still unable of stopping the run for three weeks.

[3] In fact, when the news of the SBA came, the run actually accelerated, because one of the expected IMF conditions was a devaluation of between 10 to 25%, according to the last Article 4 Consultation Report. That might help to explain why the government wasted a loan from the BIS in less than 2 weeks.



The global dollar footprint – larger than you think?

Following a long and brain-fog inducing Twitter conversation (as one participant put it)  triggered by this excellent post by Brad Setser on the role of institutional investors in Taiwan’s indirect fx management regime, I remembered I had a pretty wonkish draft blog critiquing a BIS paper on fx swaps and missing dollar debt. In our twitter conversation, we were trying to work through the steps taken by Taiwanese insurance companies to hold USD assets while hedging fx risks, and the implications for BoP positions. The examples in the BIS paper are, I think, useful to order that sequence.

The BIS paper, by Claudio Borio and co-authors, argues that currency derivatives have allowed large volumes of Eurodollars to go missing from the balance sheets of financial institutions outside the US. If we were to properly account for this missing debt, then non-banks’ global dollar debt would double to USD 21 trillion. This is roughly equal to the value of global trade in 2017.  How do USD 10 trillion go missing?

The BIS paper builds on the following example the following. An investor wishes to buy foreign currency securities with domestic cash (the Taiwanese insurance companies in Brad’s post) but does not wish to run fx risk. That say Japanese (substitute Taiwanese if you wish)  investor  has three options:

  1. Spot + forward: buy USD spot with yen, use USD to purchase the US corporate bonds, and sell the same amount of USD forward.
  2. FX swap: swap yen for USD with a promise to reverse the transaction at a later point, purchase the US corporate bonds.
  3. USD Repo: keep the yen, finance USD corporate bonds by borrowing in the USD repo market, incurring outright debt.

The BIS paper warns that the first two strategies generate ‘missing debt’. Accounting rules demand repos to be recorded on the balance sheet do not impose the same recording requirements on fx swaps/forwards, except for mark-to-market values that capture the move in exchange rates[1]. This obscures the picture of global (dollar) liquidity, with serious implications for a future where central banks increase interest rates and unwind unconventional monetary policy measures.

The BIS paper provides a clear analytical framework for tracing how global dollar liquidity is created through cross-border interactions between banks and shadow banks, often in the underbelly of Eurodollar markets.

Yet I believe it is wrong in arguing that the global dollar footprint is larger than you think. Accounting conventions rightly treat repos as new debt because repos are special monetary instruments, shadow money created in the process of lending via securities markets. FX swaps are not. Treating fx swaps as hidden debt, as BIS does, leads to double-counting, while simultaneously it obscures the central role that private banks play in creating global dollar liquidity, wielding their power to create bank money via fx swaps and shadow money via repos.

Fx swaps are not new funding, repo is

The BIS paper illustrates the argument with balance sheets, where gross and net are carefully distinguished (figure 1). The gross shows rights and obligations to pay explicitly. In cases 1 and 2, the Japanese investor swaps Yen cash (C) for USD, with a promise to reverse the transaction later, that is, to pay back USD (Fx) and receive yen (F). Accounting rules render that promise invisible in net terms, simply showing on the balance sheet that the Japanese investor funds USD corporate bonds with net worth (E). In contrast, the repo promise to pay back USD (by repurchasing the corporate bonds) remains on the balance sheet.

These are three repo-like transactions with different collateral – yen cash (1&2), and USD corporate bonds (3) – raising USD funding for USD securities. The problem, BIS argues, is that only the USD repo is recognized on the balance sheet.

Figure 1 BIS illustration of fx swaps and repos, gross and net

Screen Shot 2018-05-03 at 14.38.08At first sight, this is a compelling argument, in Mehrling’s money view tradition that ‘an obligation to repay is a form of debt’. But not all obligations to pay are created equal or have the same monetary role.

Surprisingly, in the example above, there is no repo on the balance sheet. Instead of representing the repo as new IOU, the example shows the corporate bond (Ax) as a liability against yen cash (C). Yet repos are not strictly reducible to the collateral security because the corporate bond is an (encumbered) asset for the investor, financed via a new IOU repo liability (figure 2). If bank deposits are the money of financial systems organised around relationship banking, repo deposits are the money of global financial systems organised around securities markets.

Screen Shot 2018-05-03 at 14.39.15

The repo is a securities financing transaction structured legally as a sale and promise to repurchase corporate bonds, and in accounting terms as a new IOU issued to borrow cash against corporate bond collateral. Critically, the collateral securities do not leave the investor’s balance sheet. She marks these encumbered and books the transaction as financing. It is this separation between the legal and economic treatment of collateral that allows the Japanese investor to remain the economic owner of the corporate bond (Ax), entitled to (any) coupon payments and bearing the risks associated with it. The buyer of collateral treats the repo IOU as a cash-equivalent (a safe asset), whose par value is preserved by mark-to-market of collateral and margin calls. Accounting for repos on the balance sheet allows regulators and market participants to get a clear idea of the Japanese investor’s leverage (see the notorious Lehman’s Repo 105).

The fx swap does not have a similar monetary role. Compare the gross positions in the fx swap and repo in Figure 2. Both record promises to pay back USD. But there is no yen (F) asset at the investor’s disposal for the life of the fx swap – F simply records the yen that will return to the Japanese investor when the swap matures. In contrast, with the repo, the investor still has yen cash (C) at her disposal to invest in other assets. Only the repo gives investors access to new funding via money creation. In contrast, the fx swap involves (twice) exchanging IOUs already created by institutions other than the Japanese investor.

Is the difference here just (subtle) semantics? Through the swap, the investor gets the dollar corporate bonds that can be repo-ed. Is yen cash (C) in Case 3 different from the repo-able corporate bonds in Cases 1&2? Both can be used for further investment. Yet the investor can only use Ax it obtained via the fx swap if it repos it out. The now encumbered A*x remains on the balance sheet, and the investor has new cash against a repo liability (see Figure 3). It is the repo that generates additional balance sheet capacity from the unencumbered Ax. No repo, no leverage.

Screen Shot 2018-05-03 at 14.40.43

This matters more broadly for our understanding of money in modern financial systems. Monetary thinking going back to Keynes and Hayek via Minsky stresses that capitalism is a system characterized by continuous efforts to invent new liabilities that credibly promise par convertibility into money without state support. State support for par convertibility between private promises to pay (think bank deposits) and higher forms of money (banknotes, gold) is costly. It comes with constraints (bank regulation) and shifting price incentives (interest rate policies). It is against these constraints that capitalist finance constantly seeks to economize on money proper. In that sense, repos are the innovation of a financial system increasingly organised around securities markets and business models reliant on daily variation in the price of securities. Repos are shadow money that allows the Japanese investor to economise on her yen cash, to fund securities by issuing a new liability, shadow dollars. The moneyness of repo IOUs rests on an intricate process of collateral mark-to-market valuation that preserves par convertibility between repo deposit and bank deposits. While the fx swap may rely on similar margining practices to preserve the agreed exchange rate between the two currencies, at its core it is swap of assets, of IOUs created by someone else (yen for dollar cash).

The BIS paper recognizes this: ‘in case 3, the agent has the freedom to use the domestic currency cash to buy another domestic currency asset rather than having it tied up in a forward claim’. Precisely. With the fx swap, the investor has given up yen for USD, and will get it back at par when the swap matures. While the repo allows the investor to take position in dollar securities without prior funding, the fx swap does not generate additional balance sheet capacity, but rather, a series of transformations of the yen cash. If the investor had to borrow that yen cash via say commercial paper – it already had to leverage to get the yen it would swap for dollars. Counting the fx swap as leverage would be double counting.

What if the Japanese investor is a bank?

The BIS paper identifies three types of institutions in the fx swap/fwd markets: non-financial customers, financial customers and dealer banks. Dealer banks trading with financial customers generate the largest volumes (around USD 25.5 trillion), followed by interdealer (USD 25 trillion) and dealers trading with non-financial customers (USD 7.5 trillion). What changes if the investor above is a Japanese bank (see Pozsar for a money view discussion of the hierarchy of market-making in the fx swap market)?

Japanese bank swapping with a non-bank customer

Assume that a Japanese bank agrees an fx swap with a dollar-rich Japanese corporation (Figure 4). Its starting position, is yen cash – since this is the bank, cash means Bank of Japan reserves. The Japanese bank wields its power to create yen money in the fx swap market: in exchange for dollars, it creates a yen bank deposit for the Japanese corporation. It holds the dollars with its New York bank until it purchases the corporate bonds. The fx swap means a deposit swap a la Pozsar**.


Screen Shot 2018-05-03 at 14.56.18

On a net basis, the fx swap has expanded the balance sheet of the Japanese bank, and the yen money supply, solely because the bank uses its money creating power to execute the swap. When the swap matures, the yen money supply contracts. It is the money creation power of the Japanese bank that makes the fx swap and the repo equivalent in their impact on the balance sheet. In one case, Ax is funded with shadow dollars, in the other with new yen bank money.

Japanese bank with a US office swapping with US bank (interdealer)

 In this case, the Japanese bank’s office in the US swaps its yen cash (held in Bank of Japan reserves) for dollar cash (US Fed reserves), thus acquiring means of payment for the dollar corporate bonds (Ax). Note here that the fx swap involves swapping IOUs issued by central banks. FX swaps in this case means a reserve swap a la Pozsar.

Screen Shot 2018-05-03 at 14.59.10 

An example

Compare the behaviour of Japanese and Australian banks in dollar swap markets, pictured in the BIS paper and the graph below (which infers swap positions as residual once dollar net positions are extracted from banks’ balance sheet statements). Japanese banks are the largest borrowers of dollars via fx swaps, whereas Australian banks are among the largest lenders of dollars via fx swaps.

Screen Shot 2018-05-03 at 15.00.42

Japanese banks’ search for yield has increasingly targeted dollar assets. Rich with yen liquidity from Bank of Japan’s QE, they swapped yen into dollars to lend directly, through capital markets, and until recently, through (repo) interbank markets. With the reform of US money market funds in October 2016, Japanese banks have started to use repos for net funding of their dollar assets. In contrast, Australian banks’ dollar footprint, driven by carry trades, manifests as a form of match-book dealing in the repo-swap space. Australian banks first borrow dollars through (repo) interbank markets to lend these via swap markets in exchange for Australian dollars (AUD). This carry allows them to fund high-yielding AUD assets with cheap USD and hedge fx risk via the swap. Here the problems with the ‘fx swaps are functionally equivalent to repos’ argument become immediately apparent. Australian banks need to borrow USD first to swap into AUD.

Japanese banks’ growing swap positions raises another important, if mostly neglected question. How do their swap counterparts use their increasingly sizable yen holdings? BoJ paper identified several USD suppliers in the yen/usd swap market: sovereign wealth funds, reserve managers of emerging countries, asset managers. For these, there is a simple safe-asset arithmetic: yen obtained via swaps, even if placed in negative yielding Japanese government bonds, can provide similar or higher returns than US government securities. Yet BoJ worries that this is not a crisis-proof arithmetic. Dollar swap lenders are not a stable source of dollar funding. Taper-tantrum like tensions prompt reserve managers to shift their dollars from swaps to US Treasury bills or the Fed’s Reverse Repo Facility, whose immediate liquidity they require to defend their own currencies. Japan has already experienced sharp declines in inward bond investments when dollar swap lenders withdraw from the swap market. In a future where Bank of Japan reduces its footprint in the JGB market, the pro-cyclicality of fx swap-related demand will pose significant challenges.

In sum, fx swaps and repos are not equivalent transactions. At first sight, they seem to be the same animal: promises to pay at par supported by a similar process of preserving par via collateral management that creates mark-to-market funding pressures, firesales and liquidity spirals. The FX swap exposes investors to liquidity and rollover risk where the maturity of the asset purchased and the swap differ. The BIS is right to worry about such systemic issues, and what these imply for the Federal Reserve’s role in global dollar markets. But the similarities end there. Repos generate new funding for securities, whereas fx swaps do not, except when banks use their power to create settlement-money in the fx swap market.

* Henceforth, the text uses fx swaps as shorthand for both fx swaps and forwards.

**It is worth noting that although Pozsar shows fx swaps on the balance sheets of the various actors involved in the fx swap market, this is poetic licence. His discussion demonstrates clearly that fx swaps involve swaps of money proper rather than the creation of new liabilities.

[1] These are typically small, increasing to 15 % of notional amounts in moments of crisis.