Sunday, April 02, 2023

Whom does the current bout of inflation the West hurt?

The rise in inflation in Western economies has caused a massive transfer of wealth from savers to investors, contends Adam Tooze in an article in the FT. 

Higher inflation means the nominal debt to nominal gdp ratio goes down as the denominator rises on account of inflation. The denominator has risen also because of the rebound in real output post Covid.

Borrowers, namely government and corporates gain, but savers lose. The poor face higher inflation and a loss of jobs. Tooze thinks this can lead to explosive discontent. 

I am not so sure. The only net debt in an economy is government debt (corporate and household borrowings are from other household savers, so the net borrowing on these two counts is zero). So whoever has invested in government debt is a loser. The rich are losers and also the middle class. But the poor are not investors in government debt. They are net borrowers, hence stand to gain from the real value of their debt getting eroded. If inflation can be quickly reined in, they could emerge as beneficiaries from the current bout of inflation. 

The notion that inflation hurts the poor is common. Higher prices mean a higher cost of living. True. But this effect could be overwhelmed by the erosion the value of debt that the poor carry. 


Crisis? What crisis?

 Last November, there was talk of a serious external accounts crisis staring in India in the face. Maybe, not as bad as the one in 2013 but still pretty bad.

The current account deficit, analysts said, could exceed 3.5 per cent of gdp for FY 23. The rupee would be above Rs 85 to the dollar, could even touch Rs 90. It was futile for the RBI to expend dollars to support the rupee- better to simply let the rupee fall and exports do the trick.

Well, less than six months on, little of that has come true. The current account deficit has narrowed and may end up at under 2.5 per cent of gdp, a comfortable position for us. The rupee is trading in the range of Rs 82-82.7. Foreign exchange reserves are at an eight month high of $579 bn.

Lower commodity prices are a factor. Another is that world economic growth has turned out to be better than forecast, with the US escaping a recession in 2023, again contrary to many forecasts. India's gdp growth for FY 2023 is projected to be slightly below 7 per cent

No sign of any crisis, eh?

Recent bank failures

 The question pops up again: what was the board of directors doing at the spectacular bank failures we have seen recently?

An article in FT is informative. Only one of SVB's directors had banking expertise and he didn't sit it on the Risk Management Committee (RMC). The bank's RMC included a director with considerable experience in the premium wine industry. SVB did not have a Chief Risk Officer (CRO) for months and when the CEO appointed one, it was considered a big enough achievement to be a factor in his outsized bonus. At Silvergate Bank, the CRO happened to be the son-in-law of the CEO.

Questions need to be asked also about governance at Credit Suisse as it hurtled from one scandal to another over several years. Even if they are, we are unlikely to get lasting answers. It does seem that the board of directors of a company is amongst the most unreformable institutions in the world.