Artificially Low Interest Rates in Europe

My chart of the day, illustrating a pretty brutal reversion to the mean:

Of course, all interest rates in a fiat system are artificial. Interest rates are the price of money, and if a central bank is determining the level of money, then they are in effect determining the level of interest, which is one reason why sovereigns who borrow in their own currency do not tend to face a danger of rising interest rates even at high levels of borrowing.

The post-Euro low-rates euphoria was a cunning trick: the single monetary policy disguised each state’s true fiscal picture. Fiscal union might have prevented this blowup, but introducing it now seems unlikely given Germany’s severe aversion to such a thing.

If AIG is considered ‘too big to fail’ what does that make the Eurozone given the very high levels of integration across the global economy today? (I don’t have the answer, but I think we can all guess).

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Junkiefication

What does the market slump of the past couple of days show?

When the market prices in favourable government intervention (endless free cash), and the government doesn’t meet expectations the easy-credit junkies slouch into a stupor, suffering harsh withdrawal symptoms.

From BusinessWeek:

Goldman Sachs Asset Management Chairman Jim O’Neill said the global financial system risks repeating the crisis of 2008 if Europe’s debt crisis escalates and spreads to the U.S. banking industry.

“This is where the parallels with 2008 are relevant, even though I think they are being over exaggerated,” O’Neill said in an interview on CNBC today. “It was when the financial system really imploded that financial firms stopped extending credit to anybody that the corporate world had to destock and we know what happened after that. We are not far off the same sort of thing.”

More than $3.4 trillion has been erased from equity values this week, driving global stocks into a bear market, as the Federal Reserve’s new stimulus and a pledge by Group of 20 nations fails to ease concern the global economy is on the brink of another recession. O’Neill said the Fed’s plan to shift $400 billion of short-term debt into longer term Treasuries hasn’t convinced investors it will strengthen growth.

“The fear that it’s all dependent on the Fed, together with this mess in Europe, is really getting people more and more worried as this week comes to an end,” O’Neill said. “The markets have taken the latest FOMC move rather badly, which adds a whole new angle to it. It’s the first time since the global rally started in early 2009 that the markets have rejected a Fed easing.”

“As the problem in Europe spreads from Greece to more and more other countries and in particular Italy, the exposure that so many people bank-wise have to Italian debt means the systems can’t cope easily with that and it would spread way beyond Europe’s borders,” O’Neill said. “This is why the policy makers need to stop being so sleepy and get on and lead.”

Yes — of course — what the market junkies need is another hit, another tsunami of easy liquidity, money printing and endless “bold action”. Otherwise, the junkies would be left shivering in a corner, cold turkey.

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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?

Christine Lagarde: “There is Still too much Debt in the System”.

From the IMF:

There is still too much debt in the system. Uncertainty hovers over sovereigns across the advanced economies, banks in Europe, and households in the United States. Weak growth and weak balance sheets — of governments, financial institutions, and households — are feeding negatively on each other, fueling a crisis of confidence and holding back demand, investment, and job creation. This vicious cycle is gaining momentum and, frankly, it has been exacerbated by policy indecision and political dysfunction.

And she’s right — but with debt-issuers not interested in taking haircuts how can we reduce total global debt? How about growth?

From Zero Hedge:

A brand new study released by the World Economic Forum (WEF) in collaboration with McKinsey (which is a must read if only for its plethora of charts which we are certain will be used and reused in thousands of posts and articles over the next year), finds that while global credit stock doubled from $57 trillion to $109 trillion in just 10 years (from 2000 to 2010), it will need to double again to an incredible $210 trillion by 2020 in order to provide the necessary credit-driven growth (in a recursive way, whereby credit feeds growth, and growth requires additional credit issuance) for world GDP to retain its current growth rate.

So the plan is additional debt, to fund growth, to pay down debt? How is that working out?

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On Solyndra

A few days ago Solyndra, a Bay Area maker of industrial solar panels, announced plans to file for bankruptcy.

From the L.A. Times:

It wasn’t just a blow for the company’s 1,100 laid-off employees or the investors who have pumped millions into the venture. It called into question the Obama administration’s entire clean-energy stimulus program.

Two important questions are raised by Solyndra’s failure: Should the government be in the business of picking winners and losers by providing loan guarantees to risky energy ventures? And is Obama using stimulus funds to reward his political contributors?

Now — to be clear — this isn’t solely Obama’s problem. George W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and many other administrations both in America and overseas have had lots of troubles with crony capitalism. Obama is by no means the worst next to twenty years of subsidised Japanese zombification.

So just what is the problem with crony capitalism, and with Solyndra in particular? Personally, I am the biggest supporter of solar technology out there. In my view, transitioning to solar energy is potentially the best thing that could happen to the US economy for reasons of energy independence, minimising carbon emissions, long-term sustainability, decentralisation and so forth. So I have no problem with solar energy, and I have no problem with the government supporting research into solar energy. But I still think this was a bad investment. It wasn’t supporting basic research, only a manufacturing process that was unviable in the market.

When it comes to marketable products, only the people out in the economy know what they want, and what they want to spend their money on. That’s why when government tries to pick winners and losers, it very often gets it totally and stupendously wrong.

From NBC:

Solyndra was touted by the Obama administration as a prime example of how green technology could deliver jobs. The President visited the facility in May of last year and said  “it is just a testament to American ingenuity and dynamism and the fact that we continue to have the best universities in the world, the best technology in the world, and most importantly the best workers in the world. And you guys all represent that.”

And why wasn’t Solyndra a winner.

From BusinessWeek:

All told, Solyndra raised $1.1 billion from private sources. The extra federal support ended up having the well-intended but unfortunate effect of letting Solyndra ramp up manufacturing in a hurry, even as evidence was emerging that the company had badly misread the changing economics of the solar panel market. A few years ago, prices for the silicon wafers used in most flat solar panels were soaring. Solyndra proposed building an entirely different panel, using cylindrical tubes coated with thin films of copper-indium-gallium-selenide that would pick up light from any direction.

In funding documents, Solyndra insisted that its tubes would be far cheaper than the silicon alternative. No such luck. Silicon prices have plunged nearly 90 percent from their peak in 2008, making conventional panels the better bargains.

So the government backed the wrong player, whose business model wasn’t economically viable. For the system to work, economically viable ideas have to succeed, and unviable ones have to be allowed to fail, and with government favouritism in the market, that just doesn’t work. Now that doesn’t mean to say that I don’t believe in some government role. In my view, the role of government is to create a level playing field for a free market to exist. Supporting basic research is the right role for the government in solar, so that solar efficiencies can be increased to a level where solar can compete on a level playing field with coal and oil.

Let’s move away from Solyndra (which is really a very small example), and onto the main target: the global financial system.

From Bloomberg:

Would you give money to a compulsive gambler who refused to kick the habit? In essence, that’s what the world’s biggest banks are asking taxpayers to do.

Ahead of a meeting of the Group of Seven industrialized nations’ finance ministers in Marseilles this week, bankers have been pushing for a giant bailout to put an end to Europe’s sovereign-debt troubles. To quote Deutsche Bank Chief Executive Officer Josef Ackermann: “Investors are not only asking themselves whether those responsible can summon the necessary willpower … but increasingly also whether enough time remains and whether they have the necessary resources available.”

Unfortunately, he’s right. As Bloomberg View has written, Europe’s leaders — particularly Germany’s Angela Merkel and France’s Nicolas Sarkozy — are running out of time to avert disaster. Their least bad option is to exchange the debts of struggling governments for jointly backed euro bonds and recapitalize banks. European banks have invested so heavily in the debt of Greece and other strapped governments, and have borrowed so much from U.S. institutions to do so, that the alternative would probably be the kind of systemic financial failure that could send the global economy back into a deep recession.

But the problem is the destructive and failed nature of the financial system itself. If government doesn’t allow banks that made bad decisions to be punished by the market, then the bailed-out zombie banks can rumble on for years, parasitising the taxpayer in the name of ever-greater bonuses for management, while failing to lend money, create new employment, or help the economy grow.

The global financial system isn’t working because there are fundamental structural problems with the global economy. These include over-leverage, the agency problem, trade deficits, failed economic planning, massive debt acquisition, Western over-reliance on foreign oil and goods, military overspending, systemic corruption, fragility and so forth. Stabilising the global financial system merely perpetuates these problems. The market shows that it needs to fail — preferably in a controlled way so that real people don’t get hurt — so that we can return to experimental capitalism, where sustainable ideas prosper, and unsustainable ideas don’t.

German Constitutional Court Approves Greek Bailouts

…or does it? From The Wall Street Journal:

KARLSRUHE, Germany (Dow Jones)–Germany’s Federal Constitutional Court Wednesday ruled that the euro-zone’s 2010 bailout for Greece and subsequent aid granted through the currency bloc’s rescue fund is legal, eliminating a major hurdle to the sovereign debt crisis response that’s been closely watched by financial markets.

The constitutional court in Karlsruhe also ruled that Germany’s Parliament should have more say in major future euro-zone bailouts, but these would only need approval from the parliament’s budget committee. This requirement is less strict than some proposals circulated by key government lawmakers that call for the plenary’s approval, a move that could stall the pace of future bailout efforts by giving more lawmakers influence to sway the decision process.

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