Krugman on Why the Eurozone is in Big Trouble

I’ve been quite explicit about my disagreement with Paul Krugman. His view is that the main problem in America’s economy is a lack of demand that could easily be reversed by a big enough fiscal stimulus. My view is that lowered demand merely reflects underlying structural problems, very often at a global or systemic level. Big stimuli would make the problems go away for a few months or years, only to re-emerge at a later date if the underlying causes aren’t addressed (as I discussed in more depth here).

But he’s definitely onto something (as opposed to on something) today. Here’s a Venn diagram of the road ahead for Europe:


The real question is whether or not Professor Krugman would include a fake alien invasion (to create spending and raise demand) in the “things that might actually work” category.

The Emperor is Wearing No Clothes

As I’ve covered in pretty excruciating depth these past few weeks, the Euro in its current form is sliding unrelentingly into the grave.

Some traders seem pretty excited about that eventuality.

Why? There’s plenty of money to be made killing the Euro, (just like there was plenty of money to be made in naked-shorting Lehman brothers to death):

Markets are ruled right now by fear. Investors: the big money, the smart money, the big funds, the hedge funds, the institutions, they don’t buy this rescue plan. They know the market is toast. They know the stock market is finished, the euro, as far as the Euro is concerned they don’t really care. They’re moving their money away to safer assets like Treasury bonds, 30-year bonds and the US dollar.

I would say this to everybody who’s watching this. This economic crisis is like a cancer. If you just wait and wait thinking this is going to go away, just like a cancer it’s going to grow and it’s going to be too late.

This is not a time to wishfully think the governments are going to sort this out. The governments don’t rule the world. Goldman Sachs rules the world. Goldman Sachs does not care about this rescue package, neither do the big funds.

A few points:

“They’re moving their money to safer assets like Treasury bonds, 30-year bonds and the US dollar.”

Safer assets like the US dollar? Sure, that’s what the textbooks tell you has been the safest asset in the post-war era. But are they really safe assets? On dollars, interest rates are next to zero. This means that any inflation results in negative real rates, killing purchasing power. Let’s have a look at the yields on those “super-safe” 30-year bonds:

At 2.87%, and with inflation sitting above 3.5% these are experiencing a net loss in purchasing power, too. Yes, it’s better than losing (at least) half your purchasing power on Greek sovereign debt, or watching as equities tank. But with the virtual guarantee that stagnant stock markets will usher in a new tsunami of QE cash (or better still, excess reserves) expect inflation, further crushing purchasing power.” 

“The governments don’t rule the world. Goldman Sachs rules the world. Goldman Sachs does not care about this rescue package, neither do the big funds.” 

Well Goldman Sachs are the ones who convinced half the market to price in QE3. And they’re also making big noise demanding action in the Eurozone. I’m not denying Goldman don’t have massive power — or that they are ready and willing to book massive profits on Eurozone collapse. But — like everything in this crooked and corrupt system — they are vulnerable to liquidity crises triggered by the cascade of defaults that both myself and Tim Geithner (of all people) have talked about over the past week.

Of course, we all know that as soon as that tidal wave of defaults start, global “financial stabilisation” packages will flood the market to save Goldman and J.P. Morgan, and anything else deemed to be “infrastructurally important”, and survivors will take their pick of M&A from the collateral damage.

And kicking the can down the road using the same policy tools that Bernanke has been using for the past three years (i.e., forcing rates lower and-or forcing inflation higher) will result in harsher negative real rates — making treasuries into an even worse investment. Eventually (i.e., soon) the institutional investors — and more importantly (because their holdings are larger) the sovereign investors — will realise that their capital is rotting and panic. In fact, there is a great deal of evidence that China in particular is quietly panicking now. The only weapon Bernanke has is devaluation (in its many forms) — which is why he has been so vocal in asking for stimulus from the fiscal side.  

And — in spite of the last week’s gold liquidation, as China realised long ago — the last haven standing will be gold. Why? Because unlike treasuries and cash it maintains its purchasing power in the long run.

The Emperor is wearing no clothes.

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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Hemingway on Krugman

Paul Krugman — surely the most (deliberately) provocative economist in the world — thinks we need more inflation.

Why?

From Paul Krugman:

Inflation hawks, including Paul Volcker in today’s NYT, often invoke the supposed lessons of history, to the effect that inflation is always harmful and always gets out of control.

But that’s a selective reading of history, and it skips the most relevant examples.

Early on in this crisis, I began wondering why the US didn’t relapse into the Great Depression after World War II. And there’s a good case that this had something to do with it:

The big rise in prices during and after WWII arguably did a lot to eliminate the debt overhang, making it possible for the economy to enter a sustained, non-inflationary boom.

So his reasoning is that inflation is necessary for debt elimination. And when it comes to debt elimination, (for once) I agree with him. But should that be done through inflation?

Absolutely not. If a debtor cannot afford its debts, there are two paths to debt-elimination:

  1. Admitting that the mountain of debt is immovable, and giving negotiated haircuts to creditors
  2. Inflating away the debt with money printing

The second option — which is effectively what Krugman is advocating — is incredibly risky. From the perspective of the consumer, inflation coupled with stagnant wages would be painful — and the potential for a hyper-inflationary spiral is downright dangerous. A far better option is giving consumers more options to default on or renegotiate their debts, including mortgages.

But from the perspective of the US Treasury, inflation would be far worse still. Why? Money printing is increasingly seen as a sign that foreign creditors need to get out of the dollar, and into harder assets. This would result in many foreign-held dollars flooding back to America, worsening the inflationary spiral.

From alt-market:

The private Federal Reserve has been quite careful in maintaining a veil of secrecy over the full extent of dollar saturation in foreign markets in order to hide the sheer volume of greenback devaluation and inflation they have created. If for some reason the reserves of dollars held overseas by investors and creditors were to come flooding back into the U.S., we would see a hyperinflationary spiral more destructive than any in recorded history.

Conversely, a straight-forward haircut would be painful in the short term, but would do far less than money printing to undermine the dollar in the medium term — and cause far less of a flood of dollars back into America. Creditors, particularly China, would be happier to see a short-term default stopping the printing presses and safeguarding the long-term purchasing power of the dollar than they would see the dollar constantly undermined.

So, in conclusion, default achieves debt elimination in a clean and relatively one-dimensional manner, while safeguarding the value of the currency. Inflating away the debt achieves the same thing in a more dangerous fashion, because it endangers the quality of the currency. The international ramifications of such a policy are unpredictable, especially given the fact that so much of America’s economic might is built on its ability to acquire resources and energy with dollars.

As Ernest Hemingway put it:

The first panacea for a mismanaged nation is inflation of the currency; the second is war. Both bring a temporary prosperity; both bring a permanent ruin. But both are the refuge of political and economic opportunists.

No — we don’t need more inflation. We need to pay down our debts in a timely and honest fashion, and if we can’t do that we need to default.

Of course, there is another aspect to this:

Krugman thinks weak demand is eating the American economy, and that money printing and a little inflation will provide enough of a boost to juice the economy into a stronger position. But weak demand is not the problem. The biggest problem is imperial overstretch.

The Cost of Obama’s Stimulus

The cost of Obama’s latest jobs program is in — and it’s costly.


From the Daily Bail Zero Hedge:

The report was written by the White House’s Council of Economic Advisors, a group of three economists who were all handpicked by Obama, and it chronicles the alleged success of the “stimulus” in adding or saving jobs. The council reports that, using “mainstream estimates of economic multipliers for the effects of fiscal stimulus” (which it describes as a “natural way to estimate the effects of” the legislation), the “stimulus” has added or saved just under 2.4 million jobs — whether private or public — at a cost (to date) of $666 billion. That’s a cost to taxpayers of $278,000 per job.

So that’s $250,000 per job, before interest expense.  Wouldn’t it be better just to have a free national lottery and mail $200,000 checks to a lucky 1.9 million people?  

Those workers aren’t going to be getting $250,000 in wages. So where’s the money going? My estimate is bureaucracy, overheads, “administration”, and Obama’s cadillac.

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The Great Hunger

What is the real problem with the global economy? The traditional academic position, espoused by Paul Krugman, Christina Romer and most the White House and Federal Reserve is that this ever since 2007 we have experienced a series of severe negative demand shocks — starting with the bursting of the housing bubble, the sub-prime bubble, the implosion of AIG, Lehman Brothers, and Bear Stearns, and continuing through the European debt crisis, various natural disasters and geopolitical upheavals — which first brought us into crisis, and have since imperilled any nascent recovery. The staunchest view – pushed especially by Krugman — is that the only way to reverse the effects of these demand shocks is through massive stimulus, to create a multiplier effect and raise aggregate demand.

But I believe that simply juicing the wheels of the economy with more money is simplistic, frivolous and mechanistic. We have to understand that the negative demand shocks are not simply bad luck or statistical noise, but instead reflect the reality of severe underlying structural problems. And without solving the underlying problems, a stimulus will keep things ticking over for months or years, until the same problems rear their head again down the road.

So the dissenting view, as posited by myself among others, is as follows:

Those troubles are non-monetary — they are systemic and infrastructural: military overspending, political corruption, public indebtedness, withering infrastructure, oil dependence, deindustrialisation, the withered remains of multiple bubbles, bailout culture, the derivatives-industrial complex, food and fuel inflation and so forth.

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Keynes, Bernanke, Krugman

There’s no doubt that the big question for markets this week and next is whether Bernanke will crank up the printing-press and purchase more US debt, in a so-called QE3. And from my point of view the answer is very easy: yes, he will. Bernanke’s academic career is characterised by him publishing papers on novel ways for government to stimulate the economy. And while he didn’t directly announce a program of easing, he did extend the next Fed policy meeting to two days, possibly to build consensus on the tools and the exact methodology that will be deployed. And with “highly-influential” investment bank Goldman Sachs foreseeing a program of great easing going into 2012  who am I to disagree?


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The Problem With Military Keynesianism

Did World War 2 really “get us out of the Depression?” According to Paul Krugman it sure did:

Think about World War 2, right, that was actually negative social product spending, and it brought us out.

Really? Spending vast swathes of capital, labour, life, sweat, tears, infrastructure, time and effort to fight a war “brought us out.” Well, that’s news to me. World War 2 was one huge festering conflagration, diverting productive resources to global destruction. Now that was the fault of Hitler, not Chamberlain, or Churchill, or Roosevelt, or indeed Krugman. But the point stands — the opportunity cost of World War 2 was all of the productivity, all of the infrastructure, all of the life, all of the goods and services, everything that could have been created in lieu of fighting the war. Sure, the years following World War 2 were boom years — but that’s precisely because societies mobilised to compensate for the years lost to destruction, infernos, genocide and bomb building. In reality, the 1950s were a lost decade — lost in making up for the destructive excesses of the 1940s.

The Parable of the Broken Window

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The Great Gold Squeeze

So what’s next for gold? The weekend is over, and the week is about to begin — and that means gold, equities and debt trading in Asia will shortly be under way. Gold has been in a meteoric move upwards, spurred to even greater heights by Hugo Chavez’s announcement that Venezuela would repatriate its gold holdings from foreign banks — specifically those in London and New York.

From Things That Make You Go Hmmm (an absolute must-read):

Chavez’s move this week could set in motion a chain of events whereby Central banks who store the bulk of their gold overseas in ‘safe’ locations scramble to repossess their country’s true ‘wealth’. If that happens,the most high-stakes game of musical chairs the world hasever seen will have begun.One would imagine that a country’s gold would be storedonshore in their own vaults rather than be entrusted to a foreign power – after all, if tensions were to rise between the two sovereigns, amongst the first casualties would be said gold.

In trading since Chavez’s announcement, gold has shot up further. Of course there are other reasons for gold to rise — fiat debasement, sovereign debt concerns, equity weakness, concerns with overall trading conditions. But — ever since Gordon Brown offloaded Britain’s gold reserves for less than $300 an ounce at the millennium — coinciding with the peak of the fiat bubble — gold has shot up in value over 500%, and finally central banks are shifting holdings back into gold — especially the central banks of developing nations like China, Brazil and Russia, whose gold holdings have shot up 900%:

But the real problem may be that the vast growth in paper gold trading has been built on the backs of a very, very small physical base. Will the paper house of cards come tumbling down if part of the physical base is removed and sent to Venezuela? From Zero Hedge:

What could well be a gamechanger is that according to an update from Bloomberg, Venezuela has gold with, you guessed it, JP Morgan, Barclays, and Bank Of Nova Scotia. As most know, JPM is one of the 5 vault banks. The fun begins if Chavez demands physical delivery of more than 10.6 tons of physical because as today’s CME update of metal depository statistics, JPM only has 338,303 ounces of registered gold in storage. Or roughly 10.6 tons. A modest deposit of this size would cause some serious white hair at JPM as the bank scrambles to find the replacement gold, which has already been pledged about 100 times across the various paper markets.Keep an eye on gold in the illiquid after hour market. The overdue scramble for delivery may be about to begin.

The real question is whether any such scramble would cause more panics, more scrambles — to get out of cash, treasuries and equities and into gold and silver bullion — causing a deeper and harsher crash. Current data suggests that this is unlikely — but the deep worries over sovereign liquidity, fiat debasement, and food and fuel scarcity suggest that a panicked scramble out of cash is not entirely out of the question. Here’s a fantasy re-enactment of one not-entirely-improbable scenario:

$2000 gold ain’t far away:

Chavez: “We Want Our Gold”

According to Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke:

Gold is not money. It’s a precious metal. We keep it in our vaults because of tradition.

So, if a nation — say, Venezuela — were to demand the full and final return of its (multi-leveraged) gold reserves from vaults across the West, would it be safe to assume that the “ barbarous relic“, and”anachronism” would be delivered quickly and in full? Further, would it be safe to assume that the price of gold would not shoot through the roof? Well, it seems like we are going to get to find out just how “barbarous” this “relic” really is. From Zero Hedge:

In addition to the nationalization of his gold industry, Chavez earlier also announced that he would recover virtually all gold that Venezuela holds abroad, starting with 99 tons of gold at the Bank of England. As the WSJ reported earlier, “The Bank of England recently received a request from the Venezuelan government about transferring the 99 tons of gold Venezuela holds in the bank back to Venezuela, said a person familiar with the matter. A spokesman from the Bank of England declined to comment whether Venezuela had any gold on deposit at the bank.” That’s great, but not really a gamechanger. After all the BOE should have said gold. What could well be a gamechanger is that according to an update from Bloomberg, Venezuela has gold with, you guessed it, JP Morgan, Barclays, and Bank Of Nova Scotia. As most know, JPM is one of the 5 vault banks. The fun begins if Chavez demands physical delivery of more than 10.6 tons of physical because as today’s CME update of metal depository statistics, JPM only has 338,303 ounces of registered gold in storage. Or roughly 10.6 tons. A modest deposit of this size would cause some serious white hair at JPM as the bank scrambles to find the replacement gold, which has already been pledged about 100 times across the various paper markets. Keep an eye on gold in the illiquid after hour market. The overdue scramble for delivery may be about to begin.