“Get Your Money Out While You Can”

One can only wonder how long it will take before Europeans particularly in Spain, Greece and Italy, begin to take that advice.

The Euro system amplifies shocks. Monetary union without fiscal union, economic integration without high levels of interstate mobility, enforced austerity in the weakest economies. And now the precedent of deposit confiscation. The only indicator that seems to be rising throughout the Eurozone is the number of protest signs comparing Angela Merkel to Hitler.

Romano Prodi famously noted that the Euro system was weak, and that necessary reforms would be made when the time came in order to make it sustainable. Well, the Cyprus bailout and deposit levy, the national and international outcries and the subsequent “no” vote in the Cypriot parliament are all signs that in the wake of all the bailouts of the periphery that Europe is far from fixed. The necessary measures have not been taken. While the ECB may have taken measures to lower government borrowing costs in the periphery, the situation is in many ways — especially unemployment — still deteriorating. In fact, it seems like Eurocrats are trying to enforce the opposite of what might be necessary for sustainability — rather than installing a mechanism to transfer money to weakened economies suffering from high employment, Eurocrats seem to be trying to do everything to drive unemployment higher in the periphery, spark bank runs, as well as aggravate tensions with Russia.

This is a crisis of institutions and a crisis of leadership as well as a crisis of economics. Merkel cannot lead Europe and Germany at the same time, because taking steps to revive the ailing Southern economies hurts her standing with the German and Northern public.

The Eurocrats have asked for a bank run by demanding depositor haircuts in Cyprus. The public would not be at fault for giving them one. Farage’s advice is wise.

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Why Europe Is Still In Peril, In Two Charts

A lot of analysts, including myself, have given the European situation a rest since last year. There were certainly some signs that the ECB and IMF had slowed (if not stopped) the deterioration by providing liquidity backstops to the addled banking system. But perhaps that was just the calm before the storm.

In truth, things were still was probably just as perilous as ever up until yesterday when the ECB and IMF decided to start a banking panic by enforcing a haircut of up to 10% on bank depositors. That was literally the stupidest thing that anyone has done since the Euro crisis began, and while it may not lead to utter disaster, there is a significant chance that it will. Not only is it excruciatingly unjust (it’s theft!), it is also incredibly suicidal. Many, many Spaniards, Italians, Greeks and Portuguese will have looked at the Cyprus haircut in horror, and wondered “Am I next?” Some of those will withdraw their money from the bank and stuff it in a mattress or into tangible assets, furthering stressing the already-fragile and highly-leveraged European banking system. Even a 1% drop in European deposits would lead to over €100 billion of withdrawals.

The background to this is soaring European unemployment:

EuroUnemployment

The people running the European financial system and engineering the bailouts and austerity (ECB, EU, IMF, Germany) have ploughed on through with more and deeper austerity even as European countries (other, of course, than Germany) have run up to higher and higher unemployment levels. Spain and Greece are above 25%. Italy is above 10%, and Portugal above 15%. Hiking taxes and cutting spending is leading to more and more people in unemployment oblivion. That isn’t healthy. Let’s not forget what happened to Germany the last time when over 25% of its people found themselves unemployed:

Chart-German-Unemployment-and-Nazi-Links

If bank runs materialise across Europe next week, the unemployment situation is most likely to worsen even further. If that happens, expect more and more unemployed, underemployed and angry Europeans to start voting for increasingly radical political parties. This is suicidal. Europe needs to not only reverse the awful, stupid Cypriot haircut, but also to put fiscal consolidation on hold (it has, lest we forget, so far been counterproductive) and start worrying about unemployment levels.

Sparkassen — A De Facto Glass-Steagall?

Ed Miliband has a very good idea to break the British lending freeze:

Ed Miliband is to make his firmest commitment to a regional-based economic policy when he proposes a network of banks around the country responsible for providing capital to businesses in their locality.

The proposals, due to be unveiled in a speech to the British chambers of commerce, mark a further attempt to map out a different industrial policy, some of which has echoes of plans for a revival of city regions set out by the coalition adviser Lord Heseltine.

Miliband will say it is time to stop tinkering with the banks and recognise a wholly new system is needed.

He will say: “We do not just need a single investment serving the country. We need a regional banking system serving each and every region of the country. Regional banks with a mission to serve that region and that region alone, not banks that are likely to say no but banks that know your region and your business; not banks that you mistrust, but banks you can come to trust.”

I would not support politicians interfering with the financial sector if the British financial sector was a successful model. But the country is still hurting from its utter failure in 2008. Back then, Ed Miliband’s predecessor Gordon chose to bail out the banking system. Had the financial sector been allowed to fail, then a new model would have been forced to emerge. But that wasn’t the case. Now, politicians must take responsibility for putting the banking system on a life support system. The current government’s attempts at reform have not succeeded in revitalising the economy.

Miliband’s idea approximates the German model of Sparkassen — publicly owned regional banks:

Supporters of the local banks claim that in 2011 total loans by the Sparkassen stood at €322bn (£280bn), whereas the total loan stock of Germany’s large commercial banks was only €177bn (£153.5bn). Like Britain’s large banks, Germany’s large commercial banks cut credit during the financial crisis; lending fell by 10% between 2006 and the middle of 2011. In contrast, the Sparkassen increased lending by 17%.

On the surface, regionalisation may be helpful in that British banks have become over-centralised and disconnected from the interests of their local customers. This may be one factor that can explain why local, small and new businesses are struggling to get credit.

But this is an even better idea than Miliband may realise. Why? Because so long as the regional banks behave solely as depository and business investment institutions, and not as investment banks, insurance brokers, hedge funds, shadow banks, or proprietary traders, or any of the other highly interconnective and risky activities favoured by today’s supermarket banks — then such a system acts as de facto Glass-Steagall-style separation between the riskier privately-owned national and international-level commercial banks, and the regional level business investment and savings banks.

Such a system also echoes the recommendation made by Nassim Taleb, to nationalise the parts of the banking system that act as a public utility, and deregulate the rest so it is free to gamble, speculate, succeed and fail without significantly destabilising business lending, public savings, and the wider economy.

Do Creditors Exploit Debtors, or Vice Versa?

I’m asking this question because I think a proper understanding of the answer is a giant leap toward grasping the geopolitical realities of the relationship between America and China.

This discussion was triggered by Noah Smith’s discussion of David Graeber’s ideas on debt, and particularly his idea that debt is a means to “extract wealth” out of others.

Noah Smith on David Graeber:

“Debt,” says Graeber, “is how the rich extract wealth from the rest of us.” But sometimes he seems to claim that creditors are extracting wealth from debtors, and sometimes he seems to claim that debtors extract wealth from creditors.

For example, in the Nation article, Graeber tells that The 1% are creditors. We, the people, have had our wealth extracted from us by the lenders. But in his book, Graeber writes that empires extract tribute from less powerful nations by forcing them to lend the empires money. In the last chapter of Debt, Graeber gives the example of the U.S. and China, and claims that the vast sums owed to China by America are, in fact, China’s wealth being extracted as tribute. And in this Businessweek article, Graeber explains that “throughout history, debt has served as a way for states to control their subjects and extract resources from them (usually to finance wars).”

But in both of these latter cases, the “extractor” is the debtor, not the creditor. Governments do not lend to finance wars; they borrow. And the U.S. does not lend to China; we borrow.

So is debt a means by which creditors extract wealth from debtors? Or a means by which debtors extract wealth from creditors? (Can it be both? Does it depend? If so, what does it depend on? How do we look at a debtor-creditor-relationship and decide who extracted wealth from whom?) Graeber seems to view the debtor/creditor relationship as clearly, obviously skewed toward the lender in some sentences, and then clearly, obviously skewed toward the borrower in other sentences.

But these can’t both be clear and obvious.

What Graeber means by “extracting wealth” in the context of a relationship between, say a mortgager and a mortgagee seems to mean the net transfer of interest. It is certainly true on the surface that there is a transfer of wealth from the debtor to the creditor (or from the creditor to the debtor if the debtor defaults).

However, between nations Graeber sees the relationship reversed — that China is being heavily and forcefully encouraged to reinvest its newly-amassed wealth in American debt (something that some Chinese government sources have suggested to be true). But if the flow of interest payments — i.e. from America to China — is the same debtor-to-creditor direction as between any creditor and debtor, then is the relationship really reversed? If China is being forced to amass American debt by the American government, is America effectively forcing China into “extracting its wealth”?

The thing Graeber seems to miss is that the transfer of interest is the payment for a service. That is, the money upfront, with the risk of non-repayment, the risk that the borrower will run off with the money. That risk has existed for eternity. In this context, the debtor-creditor relationship is a double-edged sword. Potentially, a debtor-creditor relationship could be a vehicle for both parties to get something that benefits them — in the case of the debtor, access to capital, and in the case of the creditor, a return on capital.

In the case of China and America, America may choose to pay off the debt in massively devalued currency, or repudiate the debt outright. That’s the risk China takes for the interest payments. (And the counter-risk of course being that if America chooses to repudiate its debt, it risks a war, which could be called the interstate equivalent of debtors’ prison).

Of course, the early signs are that China’s lending will be worth it. Why? Because sustained American demand provided by Chinese liquidity has allowed China to grow into the world’s greatest industrial base, and the world’s biggest trading nation. And it can’t be said that these benefits are not trickling down to the Chinese working class — China’s industrial strength has fuelled serious wage growth in the last few years. Yes — the Chinese central bank is worried about their American dollar holdings being devalued. But I think an inevitable devaluation of their dollar-denominated assets is a small price for the Chinese to pay for becoming a global trading hub, and the world’s greatest industrial base. Similarly, if American firms and governments use cheap Chinese liquidity to strengthen America, for example funding a transition to energy independence, then the cost of interest payments to China are probably worth it. And that is a principle that extends to other debtors — if the credit funds something productive that otherwise could not have been funded, then that is hardly “wealth extraction”. There is the potential for both parties to benefit from the relationship, and the opportunity costs of a world without debt-based funding would seem to be massive.

But what if tensions over debt lead to conflict? It would be foolish to rule out those kinds of possibilities, given the superficial similarities in the relationship between China-America and that of Britain-Germany prior to World War I. It is more than possible for an international creditor-debtor relationship to lead to conflict, perhaps beginning with a trade war, and escalating —  in fact, it has happened multiple times in history.

It is certainly true that devious creditors and debtors can extract wealth from each other, but so can any devious economic agent — used car salesmen, stockbrokers, etc. The actual danger of creditor-debtor relationships, is not so much wealth extraction as it is conflict arising from the competition inherent to a creditor-debtor relationship. Creditors want their pound of flesh plus interest. Debtors often prefer to be able to shirk their debts, and monetary sovereign debtors have the ability to subtly shirk their debts via the printing press. That is potentially a recipe for instability and conflict.

There is also the problem of counter-party risk. The more interconnected different parties become financially, the greater the systemic risks from a default. As we saw in 2008 following the breakdown of Lehman Brothers, systemic interconnectivity can potentially lead to default cascades. In that case, debt can be seen as a mutual incendiary device. 

So the debtor-creditor relationship is very much a double-edged sword. On the one hand, if all parties act honestly and responsibly debt can be beneficial, allowing debtors access to capital, and allowing creditors a return on capital — a mutual benefit. In the real world things are often a lot messier than that.

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 Welfare Kings of Europe

In spite of the fact that 85% of Greeks want to stay in the Eurozone, I was reasonably confident that Greeks would support Syriza to a first-place finish, and elect a new government willing to play chicken with the Germans. However Greeks — predominantly the elderly — rejected change (and possible imminent Drachmatization) in favour of the fundamentally broken status quo.

But although Syriza finished second, the anti-bailout parties still commanded a majority of the votes.

And New Democracy may still face a lot of trouble building a coalition to try to keep Greece in the bailout, and in the Euro . There has long been a rumour that Tsipras wanted to lose, so as to (rightly) blame the coming crush on the status quo parties. What fewer of us counted on was that the status quo parties wouldn’t want to win the election either. The pro-bailout socialists Pasok have thrown a monkey wrench into coalition-building by claiming they won’t take part in any coalition that doesn’t also include Syriza. This seems rational; when the tsunami hits, all parties in government will surely take a lot of long-term political damage. Pasok have already been marginalised by the younger and fierier Syriza, and Pasok presiding over an economic collapse (for that is undoubtedly what Greece now faces) would surely have driven Pasok into an abyss. The economy is such a poisoned chalice that parties seem willing to fight to keep themselves out of power.

And with more austerity, it’s only going to get worse. Once a society is hooked on large-scale debt-fuelled state spending, austerity in the name of government deleveraging is tough enough when the economy is booming, but during a depression as spending falls, tax revenues fall, very often producing (as has been the case in Greece, Spain, Portugal and the UK) even bigger deficits.

So let us not forget who the most welfare-dependent nations (i.e. the ones who would be hurt the most by attempting an austerity program during an economic depression) are in Europe (clue — it’s not Greece):

International economics is a fast game. It’s only sixty years since America was exporter and creditor to the world. It’s only fifteen years since the now-booming German economy was described as the “sick man of Europe”.

The same Euro system that is slamming Greece, Portugal, Spain and Italy today — in the aftermath of bubbles caused by easy money flowing into these countries as a result of the introduction of the Euro — could (if it were to somehow survive)  do the same thing to Germany in ten or twenty or thirty years.

A monetary union without a fiscal union is a fundamentally unworkable system and Westerwelle, Schauble and Merkel insisting that Greece play by the rules of their game is just asking for trouble. And trying to introduce a fiscal union over a heterogeneous, tense and disagreeable land as Europe is just asking for political trouble.

No matter how many nations are browbeaten by fear into committing to the status quo, it still won’t be sustainable. Greeks (and the other peripheral populations) can commit to austerity from here to eternity, but it won’t stop those policies resulting in deeper contraction, and more economic catastrophe.

But the collapse of the Euro would at most-recent estimates cost the core and particularly Germany a lot more than handing over the money to the PIGS. Eventually they will hand over the money to shield themselves from falling masonry. The real question is whether or not the entire system will spiral into pandemonium before Germany blinks.

Germany Pours Cold Water Over Europe

Just as I predicted Germany is getting restless at the idea of bailing out the bulk of Europe.

From the Telegraph:

Andreas Vosskuhle, head of the German constitutional court, said politicians do not have the legal authority to sign away the birthright of the German people without their explicit consent.”The sovereignty of the German state is inviolate and anchored in perpetuity by basic law. It may not be abandoned by the legislature (even with its powers to amend the constitution),” he said.”There is little leeway left for giving up core powers to the EU. If one wants to go beyond this limit – which might be politically legitimate and desirable – then Germany must give itself a new constitution. A referendum would be necessary. This cannot be done without the people,” he told newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine.

Turns out that listening to Germans in the German government, and on the German street might have more bearing on reality than listening to globe-trotting, world-saving, hopium-pedling, six-pac-abs, tax-evading Timothy Geithner. For example, German finance minister Wolfgang Schauble. He might be in a position to comment (or a better one than Geithner, in any case).

From Zero Hedge:

*SCHAEUBLE SAYS `WILL NOT SPEND OUR WAY’ OUT OF CRISIS

*SCHAEUBLE SAYS `SOLIDARITY HAS LIMITS,’ REQUIRES RETURN EFFORTS

*SCHAEUBLE SAYS `IMMEDIATE FISCAL REFORMS ARE OF THE ESSENCE’

So if Germany won’t bail out Europe (until things get much worse) and China and the BRICS won’t (until things get much, much worse) then who will?

America, apparently.

From Bloomberg:

China and the U.S. finally found something to agree on: Europe is doomed and might take the world’s two biggest economies down with it.

Neither officials in Beijing nor Washington are actually using the “D word.” They don’t need to, not with Zhou Xiaochuan, China’s central bank governor, talking matter-of- factly about emerging nations bailing out the euro region and U.S. Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner warning of “cascading default, bank runs and catastrophic risk” there.

The price tag for keeping the Greek-led turmoil from killing the euro is rising fast. Asians are so anxious about it that they’re querying Americans — like me. In my travels around the region this month, I’ve faced a harrowing question: Would U.S. President Barack Obama chip in for a giant European bailout?

It’s hard to decide what’s more disturbing: the obvious answer — over Republicans’ dead bodies — or the fact it’s being asked at all, and by whom. Among those posing it were the finance minister of one Asia’s biggest economies, the central bank governor of another and a number of major executives.

After all, the closest thing to concerted action on Europe so far has come from Bernanke.

It’s the same absurd predicament — Americans pay for global stability, everyone else benefits.