Competing For State Contracts is Not Competition

Here in Britain, we hear the word competition a lot. Since Margaret Thatcher, there has been a general trend — in the name of competition — toward the selling-off of utilities such as water, railway, electricity and telecoms providers. More recently, there has been a trend toward government services being provided by private companies, such as the bungled Olympic security arrangements contracted out to multinational security giant G4S, as well as work capability assessments contracted out to French IT consultancy ATOS, and the contracting-out of some medical services.

The way this works is that the government provides the funding for services, which private sector companies then bid to undertake. This is also the way in which defence contractors have historically competed for defence contracts, a sector which is renowned worldwide for its profligacy, waste and inefficiency.

This is a bizarre arrangement. Competing for government contracts is nothing like the free market. In a true market environment businesses compete for the custom of individuals based on their ability to provide the best products and services. Individuals spend their money to satisfy their needs. New businesses can generally enter the marketplace at any time, and take business away from existing competitors. Competition is beautiful, because it allows economies to quickly adjust capital, labour and resource allocation to the preferences of society based on which goods and services people choose to purchase.

Under a model where private contractors compete for government cash, this is impossible because contractors are essentially bidding for a state-backed monopoly. State bureaucrats determining which contractor will get the money is not competition; there is no market mechanism, there are no consumer preferences. Contractors are just bidding for handouts from the taxpayers’ purse based on the preferences of economic planners. Consumers cannot take their custom elsewhere, because the custom is involuntarily coming out of their taxation.

This has also been the reality of privatisation. Although I am no fan of government-controlled industry, the reality of privatisation in the UK has been the transfer of state monopolies into private hands.

One very clear example of this is telecoms infrastructure. BT Openreach, an arm of the privatised BT, has a complete state-enforced monopoly on telephone exchanges. Other telecoms providers have to lease their infrastructure in order to operate.

And the same for railways; rail lines are sold off as monopolies for ten-year periods. For travellers who want to travel by rail from one destination to another, there is no competition; there is only a state-backed monopoly operating for private profit. No competition, only endless fare hikes, delays and a complete lack of market accountability as contractors take the government cash and do whatever they want.

Ultimately, the state-backed-monopoly model seems to manifest the worst of all worlds. Costs for taxpayers remain high, budget deficits continue to grow, and utilities remain inefficient and messy. The only difference appears to be that taxpayers’ money is now being funnelled off into corporate pockets.

A free society cannot be based on economic planners allocating resources based on a bidding process. A free society is based on the state letting society allocate resources based on the market for goods and services that people want and need.

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The European Union is Destroying European Unity

So we know that the pro-bailout parties in Greece have failed to form a coalition, and that this will either mean an anti-bailout, anti-austerity government, or new elections, and that this will probably mean that the Greek default is about to become extremely messy (because let’s face it the chances of the Greek people electing a pro-austerity, pro-bailout government is about as likely as Hillary Clinton quitting her job at the State Department and seeking a job shaking her booty at Spearmint Rhino).

It was said that the E.U.’s existence was justified in the name of preventing the return of nationalism and fascism to European politics.

Well, as a result of the austerity terms imposed upon Greece by their European cousins in Brussels and Frankfurt, Greeks just put a fully-blown fascist party into Parliament.

From the Telegraph:

The ultra nationalist far right party Golden Dawn supporters celebrated on Sunday after exit polls showed them winning between 5 to 7 per cent of the vote, enough for them to gain representation in parliament for the first time in Greek history. Golden Dawn Leader, Nikolaos Michaloliakos shouted “The Europe of the nations returns, Greece is only the beginning” as he walked towards party headquaters and pledged to deal with illegal immigrants first.

For doubters of their intellectual lineage, here’s their logo:

I (among many others) have argued since at least last year that increased nationalism would be a result of the status quo, which is of course deeply ironic.

Winston Churchill famously noted that a new European unity was the path to the people of Europe forgetting the “rivers of blood that have flowed for thousands of years”.

Well it looks like some of the memories of those rivers of blood are about to be unleashed. How was it possible that a regime set up ostensibly to create more and deeper European unity seems to have sown the seeds for division and nationalism? Quite easily, really.

By designing a system that allowed for governments to spend freely in a fiat currency they could not print more of, Brussels effectively set up member states for fiscal crises. But the fiscal crisis hit at the worst possible time, one of global economic contraction. And by enforcing contractionary policies on states that were already in a depression, economies in Europe are getting to Great Depression levels:

The key here is that the Euro system is not giving the public the idea that all peoples are in the same boat. It is giving the impression that some nations are benefiting at the expense of others.

For there can be no doubting the perception on the ground in Europe that Germany (the first nation, lest we forget, to violate the Stability and Growth Pact) is sado-masochistically brutalising the periphery in the name of its own prosperity. And the facts back that up:

Certainly, the steep austerity policies have in Portugal, Spain and Greece only produced bigger deficits as tax revenues have fallen. But what really matters is that Europeans more and more are coming to see the E.U. and the policies it enforces as counter to their interests and harmful.

While Britons have long resented the E.U. and its micro-managerial regulatory regime, it is becoming clear that much of Europe is coming to distrust the E.U. and its institutions:

In the wake of WW2 there was deep and genuine grassroots concern throughout Europe for unity, and Europe should never have to go through another war. Yet the actions of this bureaucratic, centralising, technocratic institution are jeopardising that reality. This is top-down fragility transmitted throughout Europe by the actions of misguided planners.

I don’t believe that many Europeans really want to go down this path again. But as the European economies continue to bleed, as millions of youths remain jobless, those deep scars that thousands of years of war and violence created, culminating in the rise of Nazism and WW2, are rising again to the surface.

Voters become radical when they are denied economic opportunity. That’s the reality I think we should all take from Hitler’s rise to power, and that’s the reality of Europe today.

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…

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.

America Priced in Gold

Let’s imagine that the gold standard was not abolished in 1971, and was instead maintained — or, alternatively, assume that only gold is money and that other things are merely paper intermediaries. What would be the shape of economic data under that paradigm? Here’s retail gasoline:

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Reindustrialisation

I’ve talked a lot recently about reindustrialisation. Now, I’m fairly certain David Cameron hasn’t been reading what I write. But I’m also fairly certain we have been looking at the same statistics: Manufacturing has shrunk from nearly 40 percent of Britain’s gross domestic product in the late 1950s to not much more than 10 percent now. And while Cameron might not put it this way, that has left Britain as a shrivelled husk of an economy: overly reliant on services, foreign oil, Chinese manufacturing, junk food, corporate handouts, and too-big-to-fail-too-big-not-to-fail financials. So it’s no surprise that Cameron has been talking up manufacturing. From Bloomberg:

Prime Minister David Cameron has latched on to manufacturing as a cure for Britain’s economic hangover and its 7.9 percent jobless rate. U.K. Business Secretary Vince Cable says that for sustainable, long-term growth, “manufacturing is where we need to be.”

“One of the main growth sectors of the economy in recent years has been banking,” Cable said in an interview. “For reasons that are blindingly obvious, that’s not going to be so important in future.”

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