Spooked: The BIS Annual Report 2011-12

The Bank for International Settlements, or BIS, the central bank of all central banks, has come out with its annual report (read here) for 2011-12 (BIS follows a April-March year).
The report contains some general observations, many of which are applicable to India. Sample some of the paragraphs:
1. The extraordinary persistence of loose monetary policy is largely the result of insufficient action by governments in addressing structural problems. Simply put: central banks are being cornered into prolonging monetary stimulus as governments drag their feet and adjustment is delayed…any positive effects of such central bank efforts may be shrinking, whereas the negative side effects may be growing.
Although this is with reference to the western economies with nominal interest rates ruling near zero and central bank balance sheets expanding, this paragraph could even apply to India. And, even though RBI has reeled its loose monetary policy back, on getting early warning signals of inflation and inflationary expectations during October-December 2009 (though some economists did blame RBI for delayed action), we do see the government failing to make the difficults adjustments or take the tough calls. Instead, they are relying on RBI to provide all the stimulus to the system and deliver growth.
So, here is the prognosis from BIS: central banks face the risk that, once the time comes to tighten monetary policy, the sheer size and scale of their unconventional measures will prevent a timely exit from monetary stimulus, thereby jeopardising price stability. The result would be a decisive loss of central bank credibility and possibly even independence. The last part is the scary bit.
2. Here is another relevant, though somewhat chilling, paragraph: Measures of debt service cost also suggest that high debt levels could be a problem. The fraction of GDP that households and firms in Brazil, China, India and Turkey are allocating to debt service stands at its highest level since the late 1990s, or close to it. Debt tends to accumulate on private sector balance sheets when interest rates are low. When rates eventually rise, higher debt service costs can trigger a painful deleveraging.
With the economy and industrial growth slowing down, commercial banks have been hit on two fronts: a deceleration in the build-up of commercial assets as well as retail lending slowing down. This means ;lower earnings and reduced bottomlines. However, banks are increasingly staring down the barrel of another risk: defaults. If that comes to pass, since high debt servicing becomes untenable in a low growth environment, bank balance sheets will be drenched in red ink.
For an interesting and different view of private sector debt, read former journalist and banker Haseeb Drabu’s weekly column today (available here).
3. While the growth of banks from advanced economies has slowed, banks headquartered in emerging markets have been gaining in importance. Reporting steadily rising common equity, the average emerging market bank in a sample of large institutions worldwide is on a par with its US counterpart in terms of loan volumes; it has also substantially increased its securities investments. Chinese and Indian banks in particular expanded their balance sheets by roughly 75% between 2008 and 2011.
Only one point here: Remember this balance sheet growth took place during a period of economic stimulus which focused on consumption and not on capacity creation or expansion.With growth slowing down as expected, and rates continuing to remain high, this could force some banks to shrink their balance sheet sizes. We are seeing that happen already.
4. Countries such as Russia or India could experience considerable headwinds if growth slows as expected in their trading partners (Ukraine and Turkey for Russia, Middle East markets for India) during 2011–15. These headwinds could also be significant for most European countries, which trade heavily with each other and where growth forecasts have been sharply cut back.
So much bally-hoo was generated after June-July 2011 by the former Commerce Secretary about India diversifying its export markets, as well as its basket of export goods. Suddenly, we don’t hear so much noise about it at all.

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