There Is No Surer Way To Destroy A Banking System Than Giving Depositors A Haircut

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No, not that kind of haircut.

I’m talking about the kind of haircut where depositors lose a portion of their money. This can destroy confidence in a fractional reserve banking system, as depositors in other banks and other countries fear that they too might be forced to take a haircut, leading to mass withdrawals, leading to illiquidity. And — as part of an E.U. bailout of the Cypriot financial system this just happened in Cyprus:

Eurozone finance ministers have agreed a 10bn-euro (£8.7bn) bailout package for Cyprus to save the country from bankruptcy.

The deal was reached after talks in Brussels between the ministers and the International Monetary Fund (IMF).

In return, Cyprus is being asked to trim its deficit, shrink its banking sector and increase taxes.

For the first time in a eurozone bailout, bank depositors are facing a levy on their savings.

This attack on depositors will have clear implications for depositors and banks in other bailout-prone areas of the Eurozone — Spain, Italy, Greece, Portugal. If the EU is prepared to impose haircuts of up to 10% on depositors in Cyprus as part of a bailout package, which countries’ depositors will be forced to take a haircut next? Mattress-stuffing Cypriots will be 10% better-off than their compatriots with confidence in the banking system. Even if only 10% or 20% of bank customers in Spain choose to withdraw their funds, that has the potential to cause serious liquidity problems.

Whether or not this actually happens is another question — although with unemployment running high throughout the Eurozone, those with savings may be particularly wary of losing them. This decision — no matter how many times Draghi and Merkel and Barroso reassure the crowds — makes bank runs throughout the Eurozone much more likely as savers seek to avoid the possibility of a haircut by moving to cash or tangible assets.

And this madness was totally avoidable.

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Cameron’s EU Policy Uncertainty

So, David Cameron wants a referendum?

I believe that small is beautiful, and that the European Union system is big and fragile. I am all for free trade, freedom of movement and immigration. But as for regulatory, monetary and fiscal integration — which is the direction that Europe has taken, especially since the self-inflicted Euro crisis that grew out the fundamentally flawed Euro system — how can Europe be responsive to its citizens when they are so numerous, so diverse and so geographically and linguistically dispersed? How can it be viable to have the same regulatory and political framework for Poland, Spain, Austria, Britain, Denmark and Greece? Political and monetary frameworks that are local and decentralised are usually responsive and representative. Big bureaucratic juggernauts are very often clunky and unresponsive.

That means that I am quite open to the idea of Britain leaving the political union, so long as we retain the economic framework that Britain voted for in a referendum on joining the European Economic Community — the predecessor to the European Union — in the 1970s. Britain never voted for political union, and the British public has been shown again and again in polls to be broadly against such a thing.

But David Cameron’s plan for an In-Out referendum in 2017 — but only if the Conservatives win the 2015 election — is misguided. It will just create five years of totally unnecessary policy and regulatory uncertainty.

There is empirical evidence to suggest that policy uncertainty can be very damaging to the economy. A 2013 paper Scott Baker, Nicholas Bloom, and Steven Davis used automated text analysis techniques to count key words relevant to uncertainty in the media. They combined the news analysis with data from tax code changes, disagreement among economic forecasters, and information from equity option markets to create an “uncertainty index”:

UncertaintyIndex

They looked at changes to gross domestic product, private investment, industrial production and unemployment, and found that spikes in uncertainty foreshadow large and persistent declines in all four. First, GDP and private investment:

GDPInvestment

Next, industrial production and unemployment:

Policshocks

The last thing that Britain needs is five years of policy uncertainty. If Cameron wants to have a referendum on E.U. membership, why not do it now? 82% of the public favour such a referendum — presumably not only UKIP and Conservative voters, but also Liberal Democrats and Labour voters. If we vote to leave, then we leave, if we vote to stay, we stay. We — and the markets — will know exactly where we stand.

Frankly this strikes me as more of a political ploy. The Conservatives are haemorrhaging support to UKIP. They are roughly ten points behind Labour in the polls. This strange announcement just seems like an attempt by Cameron to claw back support and distract from the disastrous state of the economy which just entered a triple-dip recession and which has been depressed since 2008. Ironically, this announcement may actually worsen the economic woe.

The Nobel WTF Prize

So the European Union won the Nobel Peace prize for “having over six decades contributed to the advancement of peace and reconciliation, democracy and human rights in Europe.”

Is this a joke? Nigel Farage thinks so, exclaiming that “this goes to show that the Norwegians really do have a sense of humour.”

The Telegraph reports:

The award of the prestigious prize sparked a mixed response in Greece, where living standards have crashed as the economy has contracted 20 per cent in the last three years, despite bailouts totalling 240 billion euros (£200 billion).

With social tensions still high, more than 7,000 police had to be deployed to protect Mrs Merkel on a visit to Athens this week, when she was derided by some as a reincarnation of the Third Reich.

Rena Dourou, an MP for the Left-wing Syriza opposition, said of the award: “At first, many people thought this was some kind of joke. It is a very big surprise.”

The European economic system really isn’t working. Many predicted at the inception of the Euro that a single monetary policy could not work for such a wide and diverse collection of countries and economies with many language barriers, many nationalisms, and very low inter-state labour mobility. Indeed the architects of the Euro admitted that they did not have the policy tools at the inception of the Euro to make the system work.

Instead of fostering “peace, reconciliation, democracy and human rights” as the Nobel Committee contends, as the ideological integrationists have pushed for more and more integration  the European system has in recent years led to more friction between the nations. In the early years of the Euro, Eurozone nations could access to credit at a single rate:

Cheap capital flowed into nations like Greece, Spain, Italy and Portugal, leading to property bubbles and the acquisition of unsustainably high levels of government and household debt. Once the global economy weakened, the Emperor was left wearing no clothes as the property bubbles burst. Such an unsustainable debt spree would have typically led to large-scale money printing operations in the periphery to keep the debt serviceable, but under the new European regime, nations can no longer do this. This has been a shock for the periphery, which is struggling to come to terms with the new reality of spending cuts, tax hikes and elevated unemployment. Here’s industrial production in Spain, Greece and Italy compared to the United States during the Depression era:

Unsurprisingly, trust in European institutions is collapsing:

And as a result, support for extreme political parties is rising. Opinion polls suggest that an election in Greece today would put the Neo-Nazi Golden Dawn party in third place. Simply, the European system that was supposed to bring Europe together could well be on the verge of tearing Europe apart.

Awarding the Peace Prize to the war-mongering, extrajudicial-assassination-approving, NDAA-signing, promise-breaking imperialist Barack Obama was not enough for these clowns. They seem fully determined to obliterate any last semblance of respectability the Nobel Peace Prize once had.

Greeks Want to Stay in the Euro? Why Don’t They Move to Germany?

Above 80% of Greeks want to stay in the Euro:

About 80.9 percent of Greeks believe Greece should struggle to stay within the eurozone “at any cost,” fresh opinion polls showed on Wednesday.

Some 45.4 percent of respondents in a survey conducted by GPO firm for local private television Mega channel said that they regarded as most probable a Greek exit from the European common currency. And 48.4 percent of the respondents said that such a prospect was less likely.

But they don’t like the austerity measures that staying in the Euro entails:

About 77.8 percent expect the next government to emerge from the June 17 general elections to renegotiate the harsh austerity terms of the two bailout deals reached since May 2010 with international lenders to avoid a disorderly default

So the question is why don’t they leave Greece and move to the core where companies are hiring and public services aren’t being slashed, and where there is no overhanging threat of being thrown out of the euro?

Greeks claim that that’s exactly what they want to do:

Conducted in January by the Focus Bari company using a sample of 444 people aged between 18 and 24, the study shows 76% of interviewees believing that leaving Greece would be the best response to the effects of the economic crisis.

But they’re not doing it:

However, for most of them, the idea of leaving appears a dream that cannot come true. Half of those interviewed (53%) spoke of having thought about emigrating, while just 17% said that they had resolved to leave the country and that they had already undertaken preparatory actions.

A slightly lower percentage (14%) stated that they were forcing themselves quite consciously to stay in Greece, as it is their generation that has to bring about the changes that the country so desperately needs.

And it’s not even like they have to return home should recent immigrants become jobless — after twelve months working in another European state, Europeans are generally entitled to welfare:

Who can claim benefits in the European Economic Area (EEA)?

You may be able to get benefits and other financial support if any of the following apply:

  • you’ve lived, worked or studied (a recognised career qualification) in an EEA country
  • you’re a stateless person or refugee and you live in an EEA country
  • you’re a dependant or the widow or widower of anyone who was covered by the regulations (your nationality doesn’t matter)
  • you’re the widow, widower or child of someone who worked in an EEA country and was not an EEA national or a stateless person or refugee (but you must be a national of that country)
  • you’re not an EEA or Swiss national but legally resident in the UK
  • you’ve lived in the EEA country long enough to qualify

Just twelve months of work separates a jobless young Greek and austerity-free arbeitslosengeld

Yet this isn’t just a Greek issue. Labour mobility is much lower in Europe than the US:

The fact that labour mobility is low in Europe is indicative of a fundamental problem. In any currency union or integrated economy it is necessary that there is enough mobility that people can emigrate from places where there is excess labour (the periphery) to places where labour is in short supply.

Now, there is free movement in Europe, which is an essential prerequisite to a currency union. But the people themselves don’t seem to care for utilising it.

Why? I can theorise a few potential reasons people wouldn’t want to move — displacement from friends and family, moving costs, local attachment.  Yet none of those reasons are inapplicable to the United States. However there are two reasons which do not apply in the United States — language barriers and national loyalty. It is those reasons, I would suggest, that are preventing Europe from really functioning as a single economy with a higher rate of labour mobility.

The people who built the Euro realised that such problems existed, but decided to adopt a cross-that-bridge-when-we-come-to-it approach:

I am sure the Euro will oblige us to introduce a new set of economic policy instruments. It is politically impossible to propose that now. But some day there will be a crisis and new instruments will be created.

Romano Prodi, EU Commission President, December 2001

But long-term and deep-seated issues like language barriers and nationalistic sentiment cannot simply be eroded away in a day with an economic policy instrument. No bond-buying bazooka can smooth the underlying reality that Europe — unlike the United States — is not a single country.

Greeks who want to stay in the euro in the long run would do well to move to the core.

The New European Serfdom

So let’s assume Greece is going to leave the Eurozone and suffer the consequences of default, exit, capital controls, a deposit freeze, the drachmatization of euro claims, and depreciation.

It’s going to be a painful time for the Greek people. But what about for Greece’s highly-leveraged creditors, who must now bite the bullet of a disorderly default? Surely the ramifications of a Greek exit will be worse for the international financial system?

J.P. Morgan — fresh from putting an LTCM alumnus in charge of a $70 trillion derivatives book (good luck with that) — is upping the fear about Europe and its impact on global finance:

The main direct losses correspond to the €240bn of Greek debt in official hands (EU/IMF), to €130bn of Eurosystem’s exposure to Greece via TARGET2 and a potential loss of around €25bn for European banks. This is the cross-border claims (i.e. not matched by local liabilities) that European banks (mostly French) have on Greece’s public and non-bank private sector. These immediate losses add up to €400bn. This is a big amount but let’s assume that, as several people suggested this week, these immediate/direct losses are manageable. What are the indirect consequences of a Greek exit for the rest?

The wildcard is obviously contagion to Spain or Italy? Could a Greek exit create a capital and deposit flight from Spain and Italy which becomes difficult to contain? It is admittedly true that European policymakers have tried over the past year to convince markets that Greece is a special case and its problems are rather unique. We see little evidence that their efforts have paid off.

The steady selling of Spanish and Italian government bonds by non-domestic investors over the past nine months (€200bn for Italy and €80bn for Spain) suggests that markets see Greece more as a precedent for other peripherals rather than a special case. And it is not only the €800bn of Italian and Spanish government bonds still held by non-domestic investors that are likely at risk. It is also the €500bn of Italian and Spanish bank and corporate bonds and the €300bn of quoted Italian and Spanish shares held by nonresidents. And the numbers balloon if one starts looking beyond portfolio/quoted assets. Of course, the €1.4tr of Italian and €1.6tr of Spanish bank domestic deposits is the elephant in the room which a Greek exit and the introduction of capital controls by Greece has the potential to destabilize.

A multi-trillion € shock — far bigger than the fallout from Lehman — has the potential to trigger a default cascade wherein busted leveraged Greek creditors themselves end up in a fire sale to raise collateral as they struggle to maintain cash flow, and face the prospect of downgrades and margin calls and may themselves default on their obligations, setting off a cascade of illiquidity and default. Very simply, such an event has the potential to dwarf 2008 and 1929, and possibly even bring the entire global financial system to a juddering halt (just as Paulson fear-mongered in 2008).

Which is why I am certain that it will not be allowed to happen, and that J.P. Morgan’s histrionics are just a ponying up toward the next round of crony-“capitalist” bailouts. Here’s the status quo today:

Greece no longer wants to play along with the game?

Okay, fine — cut them out of the equation. In the interests of “long-term financial stability”, let’s stop pretending that we are bailing out Greece and just hand the cash over to the banks.

Schäuble and Merkel might have demanded tough fiscal action from European governments, but they have never questioned the precept that creditors must get their pound of flesh. Merkel has insisted that authorities show that Europe is a “safe place to invest” by avoiding haircuts.

Here’s my expected new normal in Europe:

After all — if the establishment is to be believed — it’s in the interests of “long-term financial stability” that creditors who stupidly bought unrepayable debt don’t get a big haircut like they would in a free market.  And it’s in the interests of “long-term financial stability” that bad companies who made bad decisions don’t go out of business like they would in a free market, but instead become suckling zombies attached to the taxpayer teat. And apparently it is also in the interests of “long-term financial stability” that a broken market and broken system doesn’t liquidate, so that people learn their lesson. Apparently our “long-term financial stability” depends on producing even greater moral hazard by handing more money out to the negligent.

The only real question (beyond whether or not the European public’s patience with shooting off money to banks will snap, as has happened in Greece) is whether or not it will just be the IMF and the EU institutions, or whether Bernanke at the Fed will get involved beyond the inevitable QE3 (please do it Bernanke! I have some crummy equities I want to offload to a greater fool!).

As I asked last month:

Have the 2008 bailouts cemented a new feudal aristocracy of bankers, financiers and too-big-to-fail zombies, alongside a serf class that exists to fund the excesses of the financial and corporate elite?

And will the inevitable 2012-13 bailouts of European finance cement this aristocracy even deeper and wider?

Another Sign of Coming Blowup?

Last week I asked:

Look at the following graph from the St. Louis Fed. It is the amount of deposits at the US Fed from foreign official and international accounts, at rates that are next to nothing. It is higher now than in 2008. What do they know that you don’t?

Here’s another sign that powerful insiders are increasingly running scared.

From Zero Hedge:

Back in the summer of 2007 two important things happened: the market hit an all time high, and the smart money realized what was about to happen (following the subprime and the Bear hedge fund blow up, it was pretty clear to all but Jim Cramer) and bailed out of stocks and into bonds, with Treasury holdings of Primary Dealers soaring at the fastest pace in history.

Finally, disgraced ex-President of the IMF Dominique Strauss-Kahn has weighed in, to confirm what everyone already knew.

From the Wall Street Journal:

The former International Monetary Fund’s Managing Director, Dominique Strauss Kahn, Sunday said Greece is unable to pay its debt and its creditors will have to take losses on the debt they hold.

“Greece got poorer, we can say Greeks will pay on their own, but they can’t,” Strauss Kahn said in an interview on French TV channel TF1. “There is a loss and it must be taken by governments and banks,” he said.

Yes — and so the real question, which nobody in a position of global or national authority has addressed — is just how will the global financial system be made to cope with the another Lehman-style cascade of defaults?