Economic perspectives.

 
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Introduction

Henrik Wergeland was born 200 years ago. He worked in the vicinity of the central bank in periods. His plays were performed at the Christiania Theatre, which was located at Bankplassen, and as national archivist his office was located at Akershus fortress, a stone's throw from the central bank.

Wergeland lived near Gronlia below Ekeberg. He travelled to town by rowing across Bjorvika. He moored his boat near Bekkevold's pub on Skippergata, which is today known as "Grei Kafe". That is also where he met the proprietor's daughter, Amalie Sofie, who became his wife. (1)

Wergeland wrote a poem "Follow the Call", which includes a well known verse:

"But our world must still be young, Saga of each race must be still merely its cradlesong and its' childhood fairy tale. Creatures from the age of chaos [...]" (2)

Chaos and fear exploded with full force in the financial markets last autumn. We are again witnessing that market participants suffer from a short memory span.

Crises, imbalances and bubbles

House prices in the US started to fall in 2006 (Chart 1). There were reports of defaults on mortgage loans, but it was generally believed that the loans at risk were confined to a small segment of the market.

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The first warning of more severe problems came in winter last year. In the course of summer, it became clear that the losses had spread, and in the first instance to state-owned German banks. Other banks, funds and financial establishments in Europe, Asia and the US also felt the turbulence and gradually losses emerged where we perhaps least expected them.

A European colleague compared the financial turbulence to a film production: It was shot in the US, premiered in Germany and is now playing all over the world. As you know, it also came to small-town cinemas in Norway last autumn.

In addition to German banks, a small Danish bank and a fairly large British mortgage bank were faced with serious problems. At St James' Park in Newcastle, advertisements for the crisis-hit British bank Northern Rock shine towards us (Chart 2). We are indeed witnessing crises at banks in neighbouring countries.

The turmoil spread to money and credit markets in August. Few knew who was exposed to losses, and banks, funds and financial establishments started to question counterparties' financial situation, and held on to their money. This resulted in a surge in banks' premia on short-term interbank rates.

Moreover, banks had to bring back on their books loans from companies they had established, which further reduced their capacity and willingness to provide new loans. Several large foreign banks have received capital infusions from sovereign-wealth funds in the Middle East and Asia to bolster their financial strength.

What began as isolated losses in a small segment of the US home mortgage market led to a confidence crisis, which spread to money and credit markets in many countries in autumn 2007. In the US, there is a risk that the losses will increase in other segments of the property market and on ordinary consumer and business credit. Many of the new financial instruments which were forged to diversify risk have proved to be non-viable. It is now difficult for many companies to raise new capital or procure long-term funding. There are also signs that prices and activity in property markets have reversed and are falling in many European countries.

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Around the turn of the year, doubts were raised as to the financial strength of some US banks. The new year was ushered in amid fears of a setback in the US and a sharp decline in global equity prices (Chart 3). So far this year, the market capitalisation of the Oslo Stock Exchange has declined by more than 15 per cent, or more than NOK 300 billion.

When the interbank market seized up, many central banks injected extra liquidity. In periods, Norges Bank has also provided additional loans to banks. This has reduced swings in interbank rates.

Norwegian banks borrow dollars short in the European market for their interbank trading. Banks also borrow in foreign markets to finance lending in NOK. The banks raise foreign currency loans, which are exchanged into NOK. The premia on such loans (Chart 4) are passed on to customers that borrow in NOK. This is why the increase in US and European premia has quickly fed through to Norwegian interest rates even though Norwegian banks are profitable, retain confidence and have limited loss exposures.

In recent years, debt accumulation among Norwegian businesses and households has increased markedly. At the same time, Norwegian banks' foreign short-term liabilities have tended upwards. The banks hedge against the exchange and interest rate risk associated with these loans. But the turbulence in the latter half of last year showed that banks cannot as readily hedge against liquidity risk.

Norges Bank supplies NOK to the Norwegian banking system. In that respect, we can be generous when the markets are seized by fear and uncertainty. But when banks borrow in foreign currency, they are more on their own.

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Crises and turbulence are built into the workings of the market. The search for yield and market shares may at times become too intense. A common feature of financial crises is that they are accompanied by considerable changes in the pricing of risk in many markets. Prices for equities and other securities are determined by economic agents' income expectations. On occasion, these expectations turn out to be unrealistic. Unexpected events can change the economic outlook. When confidence and optimism shift to fear and uncertainty--and this can happen overnight--prices can rapidly plummet.

The current turbulence has deep roots. US household saving fell markedly in the 1990s. When the dotcom bubble burst after the turn of the millennium, the Federal Reserve cut its key rate to low levels. Interest rates in Europe also showed a considerable decline. House prices and investment in real property then rose sharply through most of the Western world, and saving in the US and other Western countries showed a renewed fall.

Low government and personal saving in the US has given rise to large trade deficits (Charts 5 and 6). The saving of the rest of the world is financing the US deficit. In isolation, such a large supply of capital would have required higher interest rates. But even though the US increasingly had to rely on foreign financing, long-term interest rates fell. At the same time inflation remained low, partly thanks to cheap Asian imported goods.

The low level of long-term interest rates can be attributed to the high level of saving in Asia and oil-exporting nations. Surpluses, particularly on China's foreign trade balance, have soared (Chart 7)

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