We’re All Doomers Now

How bad are things getting in the Eurozone?

Paul Krugman is getting apocalyptic:

The big story: German bonds are now being priced as a risky asset — what the FT calls the “apocalypse trade“. The interest rate on bunds, at 2.21% as I write this, is still very low by historical standards. But it’s above the rate on UK bonds (2.17%) and way above the rate on US bonds (1.88%).

The way to see this is that the market is in effect pricing in a real possibility of eurozone collapse.

In particular, market expectations seem to assume that the ECB will remain utterly indifferent to its responsibilities. The German breakeven rate, an implicit forecast of inflation over the next 5 years, is just 1 percent. That’s a disaster level, implying severe deflation in the debtor nations — or, more likely, a euro breakup.

There is a cruel and almost Shakespearean irony to all of this: the Teutonic monetarists at the ECB, with their sole mandate of price stability, and deep hostility to inflation have had the horrors of the hyperinflation of the 1920s imprinted on their memories. Really, they should have been worried about the credit contraction and austerity of the Brüning years in the early 1930s. Unemplyment shot up, industrial production slouched, hunger was rife, and Germans were willing to vote for a charismatic Austrian anti-semite bent on consolidating Europe into one.

While I do not agree with much from Keynes, he did understand that monetary contractions in a system of fractional banking can totally destroy the productive economy. His response to that was that the answer was government-driven stabilisation. My response to that is interventionism and preservation eventually turns to zombification, and that the true answer to the problem of credit contractions is noticing that fractional banking is a fundamentally unstable and dangerous system, and abolishing or significantly reforming it. But that’s an argument for another day.

From Zero Hedge:

The only quote worth noting from the just delivered speech by ECB executive board member José Manuel González-Páramo is the following: “We cannot completely delegate governance to financial markets. The euro area is the world’s second largest monetary area. It cannot depend solely on the opinions of ratings agencies and markets. It needs economic governance arrangements that are preventive and linear. This underscores my central point that a much more comprehensive approach to economic governance is now the priority for the euro area. And this means more economic and financial integration for the euro area, with a significant transfer of sovereignty to the EMU level over fiscal, structural and financial policies.”

So the ECB has lost faith in markets and now believes that a form of central planning is a better economic model.

It’s a shame they haven’t lost faith in austerity — because it is those disastrous, divisive, technocratic and wrong-headed policies that will drive Europe to the stage of bank runs and systemic collapse far quicker than anything else.

Anyway, despite the technocratic coups d’état in Italy and Greece, a federalised Europe still seems politically and socially impossible. Bureaucrats will be punished for this folly. History always sees to that.

What is Michael Heseltine Smoking?

In surely the nuttiest news of the day week month century, former British Deputy Prime Minister (an office of “great repute“) Lord Heseltine suggests that Britain will join the Euro.

From the Grauniad:

Britain will join the euro, Conservative peer Lord Heseltine has claimed. The former deputy prime minister, a long-time supporter of the single currency, said the public had “no idea” of the potential impact its collapse would have on the UK.

But he believes Franco-German “determination” will secure the euro’s future and pave the way for Britain to sign up. Lord Heseltine, who now heads up the government’s regional growth fund, told BBC1’s Politics Show on Sunday: “I think we will join the euro.

“I think the chances are the euro will survive because the determination, particularly of the French and the Germans, is to maintain the coherence that they have created in Europe.”

The problem is that there is no coherence. Nobody is really in charge — not van Rumpuy, nor Barroso, nor Draghi, nor Merkel, nor Sarkozy. The thing is a total hodgepodge, a hyper-bureaucratic, hyper-leveraged mess. Nations were free to borrow and spend as much as they liked — without the ability to monetise debt, and without any real lender of last resort or safety net. Europe has no coherent political or decision-making structure, no single culture of work, no single language and little workforce mobility.

The idea of Britain giving up its monetary independence (and thereby — as Greece is discovering — fiscal independence) to such an incoherent, bureaucratic and anti-democratic cabal is absurd and dangerous.

I suppose there is one kind of coherence in Europe, though.

Goldman Sachs has a finger in every pie and a minister or central banker in (almost) every government. And — as Papandreou discovered, when he suggested Greece hold a referendum on austerity — if you don’t play ball with Goldman Sachs and the cult of international finance, you are quickly disposed of and replaced by a Goldman-endorsed technocrat.

From the Independent:

Fortunately for Europe (and the world) Goldman’s 21st-Century-Schizoid loot-and-pillage hyper-fragile economic model doesn’t offer any kind of long-term prosperity, and is bound to fail. Japan — and more recently, America — is ample evidence for that. Bailing out zombie financial institutions, piling on more debt, and preventing liquidation just tends to lead to the stagnation and zombification of the wider economy.

Certainly, with European sovereign debt now in a Lehmanesque downward spiral (demand collapse) there is no chance of Britain joining the Euro. But the end of the Euro in its current form does not necessarily the end of this mess.

How much productivity, industry, opportunity and wealth will be destroyed by the cult of financialism, hyper-leverage, endless centralisation and no-haircut-bailouts? No-one knows.

The real question is what long-term damage has been done to liberal capitalism as a political and economic system?

The Wasteland

The BBC presents an interactive debt chart to demonstrate who owes what to whom:

This morass of interconnected debt rather reminds me of T.S. Eliot’s Wasteland:

That corpse you planted last year in your garden,
Has it begun to sprout? Will it bloom this year?
Or has the sudden frost disturbed its bed?

No flowers shall bloom from the stinking cadavre of interconnected debt . As I have explained, the lack of any real debt liquidation or deflation post-crisis has turned much of the global economy into a walking zombie, weighed down by an excessive debt load, and politically and socially incapable of addressing structural issues.

Dead bodies cannot return to the earth to grow anew unless they are allowed to decompose. But policymakers cannot countenance any kind of decomposition.

So the corpse sits in a tank of formaldehyde:

Israel, Iran & War

Forget the Eurozone — this is surely the scariest news of the year.

From the Daily Mail:

  • Fears mount that Iran could be ‘nuclear ready’ in a matter of months
  • UN intelligence suggests Iran was helped by foreign experts – including rogue Russian scientist
  • Russia foreign minister says any military action would be a ‘serious mistake’
  • Condoleezza Rice: ‘We must do everything we can to bring Iran down’
  • Mahmoud Ahmadinejad remains defiant
Russia and China have expressed growing concern about a mooted American military strike against Iran over its alleged nuclear programme.The UN last week warned it had ‘compelling evidence’ to suggest Iran is secretly building an arsenal of nuclear warheads.

The UN’s International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) is this week due to publish a damning report on the findings fuelling fears Iran could be ‘nuclear ready’ within months.


Sticking my neck out a little, if a rampant communist dictatorship like the Soviet Union can have nuclear weapons for over forty years without nuclear apocalypse (not to mention ethnocracies like Pakistan and Israel) then I can’t see what the problem is with Iran having them. Surely a last ditch strike on a pre-nuclear Iran would confirm the scary post-Qaddafi reality that dictatorships, autocracies and theocracies are not safe from Western liberal interventionism until they have gained a nuclear arsenal?

More concerningly, a Western attack on a nation at the heart of Eurasia — and a friend to the other Eurasian autocracies, particularly Russia and China — is surely a message that America and Israel will do everything in their power to maintain the petrodollar status quo, something that rising powers like Russia and China find distasteful and disrespectful.

But the emerging reality of a multi-polar world will do nothing to stop the hawks from clawing and shrieking against the reality of change.

From Haaretz:

Former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has said she is sure the Israelis will defend themselves against the Iranians if they were to reach nuclear capabilities.

“I don’t have any doubt that the Israelis will defend themselves if the Iranians look as if they really are about to cross that nuclear threshold,” Rice told Newsmax in a TV interview.

I — on the other hand — have no doubt that the era of American-Israeli-British primacy is drawing to an end. The global system of floating fiat currencies is being gutted by years of competitive debasement. The international financial system is a house of cards, swaying in the breeze. Western industry has been gutted, and shipped to the East. Western capital is exported away to the East via humungous Western trade deficits. Western labour markets rot, beleaguered by high unemployment, evaporating skills, and huge inequality between the rich and poor. Western discontent is rising. Most dangerously, the West remains highly dependent on foreign oil — a supply that a new war, or some other black swan might disrupt — wreaking havoc.

So, as I wrote last month:

Sadly, we know how that aphorism from Winston Churchill goes: that Americans will do the right thing — after they’ve tried everything else.

Which is why I’m coming to believe that the military-Keynesian establishment might try and kill every bird with one stone — a new regional war in Eurasia, probably involving Syria, Iran and Israel. Let’s look at what that might accomplish:

  1. Create a new post-9/11-style hard-to-question patriotism — “There’s a war on — we all need to rally together around the flag — the complainers and protestors must hate America”
  2. Put America back to work — in weapons factories, and on the front lines.
  3. Give the economy a large Keynesian injection — through war spending.
  4. Take out Iran, a powerful enemy of America — and send a threatening message to other uppity Eurasian autocracies like Russia and China.
  5. Curtail civil liberties & censor the internet — “There’s a war on — we all need to rally together around the flag — and those who don’t must be working to undermine America”
John Maynard Keynes noted that in the long run, we’re all dead. I hope that in the short run, we’ll all still be alive.

Motherfucking Global

How times have changed for Jon Corzine.

Just a couple of months ago he looked like the prime candidate to take over Tim “No Chance of a Downgrade” Geithner’s poisoned chalice at the US Treasury.

Now he looks like he’s heading to jail for stealing money from clients.

Probably the most sage coverage of this saga comes from Roger Lowenstein writing for Bloomberg:

Thirteen years ago, when the hedge fund Long-Term Capital Management was desperately negotiating with Wall Street banks for a bailout, Jon Corzine, the chief executive officer of Goldman Sachs Group Inc. (GS), called John Meriwether, LTCM’s founder, and read him the riot act. Wall Street would invest, Corzine said, but “JM” would have to accept more controls, including strict supervision over his firm’s trading limits.

Corzine, I wrote soon after, “understood the flaws” at LTCM better than anyone. The firm had no controls over risk limits, no accountability to anyone who wasn’t a trader.

Essentially, Corzine forgot the lessons of LTCM‘s failed arbitrageurs, and went the hyper-leveraged Martingale path. The trouble is that unless you predict accurately, this kind of activity is a quick and easy road to bankruptcy. Leveraged 50:1, a 2% drop in asset prices can be a wipeout, and end in insolvency.

There are two key points, and one key question to take away from this:

  1. The American banking system is susceptible to a Euro-collapse — MF Global went down betting on a Euro-stabilisation. The web of derivatives extends across the global financial system, creating ever-growing fragility.
  2. None of the lessons of AIG and Lehman have been learned — the bailouts and stimuli saved a broken system, and allowed it to continue to be broken.

And the question:

  1. What effects will MF Global’s removal from the web of debt have on the financial system as a whole?

The first point is obvious (although Morgan Stanley will keep denying it, and focus instead on how Groupon is worth at least $100 a share). The second point has been obvious for a long time.

The question is much murkier. Is MF Global too big to fail without sending financial systems into freefall (a la Lehman)?

The answer seems to be “probably not”.

From TIME:

So far, the problems at MF Global appear to not be spreading to other banks. While MF Global has $40 billion in assets, it only owed about $2 billion outright to other banks. What’s more, more than half of that debt is owed to J.P. Morgan, which is one of the strongest banks around. There are other banks that are owed $6.3 billion from loans MF Global took out to make its Euro debt bets. But those debts are backed by the bonds that MF bought, and if they end up being good as Corzine claimed, then those banks should get their money back, as well as the profits Corzine hoped to pocket for his firm. MF Global does not appear to have the same type of derivatives exposure to other banks that led to the demise of Bear Stearns and Lehman Brothers.

Nonetheless, we will see what we will see when we see it.

Old Hatreds Flare Up…

It looks like I’m not the only political commentator to evoke the spirits of the past on Europe’s current breakdown (or breakdowns).

From the Daily Mail:

Greeks angry at the fate of the euro are comparing the German government with the Nazis who occupied the country in the Second World War.

Newspaper cartoons have presented modern-day German officials dressed in Nazi uniform, and a street poster depicts Chancellor Angela Merkel dressed as an officer in Hitler’s regime accompanied with the words: ‘Public nuisance.’

She wears a swastika armband bearing the EU stars logo on the outside.

Attack: A street poster in Greece has depicted Angela Merkel in a Nazi uniform with a swastika surrounded by the EU stars. The accompanying words describe her as a 'public nuisance'
The backlash has been provoked by Germany’s role in driving through painful measures to stop Greece’s debt crisis from spiralling out of control.

From a Greek perspective, it seems shatteringly obvious. For them, the Euro has become a battering ram for a kind of fiscal austerity that is set to benefit Germans (price stability) and penalise Greeks (austerity).

As advantageous as the Euro once seemed, it is becoming ever clearer that the union is suffering from deep political fracture. It is a union built without a common language (other than perhaps the belief in bureaucracy — and an unwillingness to give bankers haircuts), without a political head (or even a coherent political structure) without a common culture of work, and without an integrated economy.

That’s why decisive action is proving impossible, in spite of all the rhetoric.

Worse (because it shows contagion at work), it looks like Portugal is about to sink into the mud.

From Ambrose Evans-Pritchard at the Telegraph:

Cashflow problems (making it much, much harder to pay down debt) — that’s what you get when spend-as-much-as-we-want-and-then-print-money mediterranean nations entrust their nation’s monetary to stern-looking austerity-minded German central bankers.

Most startlingly, it looks like Paul Krugman finally got something right:

European leaders reach an agreement; markets are enthusiastic. Then reality sets in. The agreement is at best inadequate, and possibly makes no sense at allSpreads stay high, and maybe even start widening again.

Another day in the life.

Of course, his solution — much, much deeper integration, with a good dose of money printing — is politically impossible, so whether or not it would work (clue: it won’t) is irrelevant.

Meanwhile Americans smoke their hopium (“GDP is up! Stocks are up! The recovery is here!“) hoping that the whirling Euro conflagration will just go away.

It won’t just go away. The global financial systems is an interconnected house of cards — a full Euro breakdown will bring down American banks with European exposure, like Morgan StanleyHank Paulson was telling the truth — either the thing is bailed out (again and again and again) or it will collapse under its own weight.

Creditors — starting with China (who are acquiring gold and Western industrials at a rapid rate) — will be hoping that the system can hold on for a few more years while they try to cash out with their pound of flesh.

Debt-ridden Americans and European would be forgiven for accelerating its collapse…

How to Avoid the Inevitable (Clue: You Can’t)

Have Angela Markel and Nicholas Sarkozy saved the world from contagion? (Clue: they haven’t)

From the NYT:

PARIS — European leaders struggled Wednesday to reassure the world they were making progress in overcoming the two-year-old euro-zone debt crisis, with German lawmakers approving a proposal to strengthen an emergency bailout fund ahead of an emergency summit meeting later in the day promoted as the moment for a comprehensive solution.

The vote to expand the bailout fund, which passed by a strong margin in Germany’s lower house, came after Chancellor Angela Merkel, in a plea for domestic support, implored lawmakers to overcome their aversion to risk and put the might of Germany, Europe’s strongest economy, firmly behind efforts to get control of the crisis, which has caused economic anxiety and unnerved financial markets far beyond Europe’s borders.

Wow! German lawmakers decided to do the “right thing” and sacrifice a huge chunk of their GDP to appease institutional investors who hate the idea of losing their money due to their poor and failing business practices.

From Zero Hedge:

The only real question remains, is whether Merkel and Sarkozy will hold hands to add emphasis to their “we saved the world” announcement.

Key problem: creating a (sorely under-capitalised) bailout fund does not solve the problem of fiscal mismatch. The mediterraneans will keep spending money they don’t have (and never had), bankers will get their payoffs, and the German taxpayer will pick up the cost.

Great system, right?

Yes — if you love the idea of offering your hard earned capital as a sacrificial lamb to appease the bloodthirsty animal spirits of Wall Street and the bond vigilantes.

Fortunately (or unfortunately) the mediterranean predicament is so insolvent that the EFSF just won’t be able to give creditors a haircut-free future. And the ravenous CDS-hounds smell blood (CDS, by the way, is a completely preposterous innovation, effectively allowing investors to take out insurance against other people’s property — as the insurance industry knows all too well this leads to a lot of fires).

Just as with Wall Street in 2008, when investment banks and hedge funds naked-shorted each other to hell, a significant segment stands to gain a lot from a huge crash and depression.

In 2008 (before I started writing this blog) I called it cannibal capitalism. I still can’t think of a better term.