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?

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Britain Separates Retail and Investment Banking — But Will it Work?

A government-commissioned report led by John Vickers into Britain’s financial system has been published — and its chief recommendation is a separating wall between retail and investment banking. This is a very similar system to what prevailed in America until 1996 under the Glass-Steagall Act of 1933. The chief intent is to prevent the endangerment of customers’ savings, mortgages and pensions through banks’ much riskier and more free-wheeling investment arms. This means that the risky but profitable investment banking sector would no longer be considered infrastructural, and — in theory — would be no longer be eligible for bailouts.

From the BBC:

There has been widespread support for a government-backed commission that has recommended UK banks ring-fence retail from investment banking.

The Independent Commission on Banking, led by Sir John Vickers, said it would “make it easier and less costly to resolve banks that get into trouble”.

The ICB called for the changes to be implemented by the start of 2019.

Chancellor George Osborne said the report would mean UK banks could remain competitive.

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Big Change For Europe?

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

So the intent for Europe was always that a future crisis would bring about the justification for a resolution to European financial disharmony — namely, that while countries in the Euro control their own budgets, they don’t control their own currency. This mismatch means that with countries pulling in different directions, the European Central Bank is posed with an unmanageable task — create one policy to fit a group of very different economies. At the time of the Euro’s creation, Europe adopted a cross-that-bridge-when-we-come-to-it approach: a crisis would produce the circumstances required to justify unifying fiscal policy, a policy that at the time of the Euro’s introduction seemed unnecessary (and now is deeply unpopular).

But what if disharmony — both in terms of the forces producing the crisis, and disagreement over how to handle the problems — has created such a huge turmoil that instead of crossing the bridge, Europe falls into the water beneath?

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Is Greece About to Default?

Answer: Most Probably

From Bloomberg:

“Chancellor Angela Merkel’s government is preparing plans to shore up German banks in the event that Greece fails to meet the terms of its aid package and defaults, three coalition officials said.

The emergency plan involves measures to help banks and insurers that face a possible 50 percent loss on their Greek bonds if the next tranche of Greece’s bailout is withheld, said the people, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the deliberations are being held in private. The successor to the German government’s bank-rescue fund introduced in 2008 might be enrolled to help recapitalize the banks, one of the people said.

The existence of a “Plan B” underscores German concerns that Greece’s failure to stick to budget-cutting targets threatens European efforts to tame the debt crisis rattling the euro. German lawmakers stepped up their criticism of Greece this week, threatening to withhold aid unless it meets the terms of its austerity package, after an international mission to Athens suspended its report on the country’s progress.”

Meanwhile, global monetary players step up their calls for more global monetary easing. First, the Federal Reserve’s John Williams:

The global financial system is experiencing great stress as it adapts to the new, post-crisis rules of the game.  Those new rules are both explicit and implicit.  They call for more capital, reduced leverage, lower risk appetites, more thorough supervision, and stronger regulation, at both the systemic and individual institution levels.  In this environment, open dialog is all the more important as we collectively reach a common understanding of how the new rules should work in practice.

Post-crisis? Really? With Europe on the edge, America slipping back into recession, this is what the “post-crisis” is supposed to look like?

Next up, Josef Ackermann of Deutsche Bank:

Investors are not only asking themselves whether those responsible can summon the necessary willpower to overcome this crisis, but increasingly also whether enough time remains and whether they have the needed resources available.

And finally the Federal Reserve’s Charlie Evans:

Imagine that inflation was running at 5 percent against our inflation objective of 2 percent. Is there a doubt that any central banker worth their salt would be reacting strongly to fight this high inflation rate? No, there isn’t any doubt. They would be acting as if their hair was on fire. We should be similarly energized about improving conditions in the labor market.

And as we speak, the DJIA has slumped 2.5% on fears of Greek contagion. Undoubtedly, policy makers will be looking to stabilise the market. This is absolutely the most anti-capitalist thing imaginable: for capitalism to work, good ideas must be rewarded, and bad ideas, risky and fragile systems must break. For far too long bad decisions, bad management and dangerous corporate behaviour has been rewarded with taxpayer bailouts, crony capitalism, and subsidies. And quite simply, until those practices are rewarded with utter abject failure we are totally fucked. Which brings us to one of the very few sane things I have read today, from Nassim Taleb:

The triplet. Three bankruptcies that would save the world from fragility: 1) Goldman Sachs, 2) Harvard University, 3) the New York Times.

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.