“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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The Nobel WTF Prize

So the European Union won the Nobel Peace prize for “having over six decades contributed to the advancement of peace and reconciliation, democracy and human rights in Europe.”

Is this a joke? Nigel Farage thinks so, exclaiming that “this goes to show that the Norwegians really do have a sense of humour.”

The Telegraph reports:

The award of the prestigious prize sparked a mixed response in Greece, where living standards have crashed as the economy has contracted 20 per cent in the last three years, despite bailouts totalling 240 billion euros (£200 billion).

With social tensions still high, more than 7,000 police had to be deployed to protect Mrs Merkel on a visit to Athens this week, when she was derided by some as a reincarnation of the Third Reich.

Rena Dourou, an MP for the Left-wing Syriza opposition, said of the award: “At first, many people thought this was some kind of joke. It is a very big surprise.”

The European economic system really isn’t working. Many predicted at the inception of the Euro that a single monetary policy could not work for such a wide and diverse collection of countries and economies with many language barriers, many nationalisms, and very low inter-state labour mobility. Indeed the architects of the Euro admitted that they did not have the policy tools at the inception of the Euro to make the system work.

Instead of fostering “peace, reconciliation, democracy and human rights” as the Nobel Committee contends, as the ideological integrationists have pushed for more and more integration  the European system has in recent years led to more friction between the nations. In the early years of the Euro, Eurozone nations could access to credit at a single rate:

Cheap capital flowed into nations like Greece, Spain, Italy and Portugal, leading to property bubbles and the acquisition of unsustainably high levels of government and household debt. Once the global economy weakened, the Emperor was left wearing no clothes as the property bubbles burst. Such an unsustainable debt spree would have typically led to large-scale money printing operations in the periphery to keep the debt serviceable, but under the new European regime, nations can no longer do this. This has been a shock for the periphery, which is struggling to come to terms with the new reality of spending cuts, tax hikes and elevated unemployment. Here’s industrial production in Spain, Greece and Italy compared to the United States during the Depression era:

Unsurprisingly, trust in European institutions is collapsing:

And as a result, support for extreme political parties is rising. Opinion polls suggest that an election in Greece today would put the Neo-Nazi Golden Dawn party in third place. Simply, the European system that was supposed to bring Europe together could well be on the verge of tearing Europe apart.

Awarding the Peace Prize to the war-mongering, extrajudicial-assassination-approving, NDAA-signing, promise-breaking imperialist Barack Obama was not enough for these clowns. They seem fully determined to obliterate any last semblance of respectability the Nobel Peace Prize once had.

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.

Will Tsipras Blow Up Europe?

The world’s eyes are on the Greek election, and whether or not Greeks will elect New Democracy’s Samaras (widely-assumed to be pro-bailout, pro-status quo), or SYRIZA’s Tsipras (widely-assumed to be anti-bailout, anti-status quo).

The Eurocrats have very sternly warned Greece against voting against austerity. Merkel said:

It is extremely important for Greeks to elect lawmakers who would respect the terms of the bailout.

In recent days, opinion has swung back toward the status quo, with Intrade rating New Democracy’s chances of winning the largest number of seats at 65%, and SYRIZA at just 33%.

While I cannot rule out New Democracy winning, I think that I’d flip those odds. Greece widely reviles German-imposed austerity, but fears the consequences of leaving the Euro — 85% of Greeks want to stay in. A vote for New Democracy would reflect fear of Drachmatization. Meanwhile, a vote for SYRIZA would seem to reflect the idea that through brinkmanship and the threat of Euro collapse, Greece can negotiate their way to a much more favourable bailout position.

So why do I think SYRIZA are the likelier winner? The election is on a knife-edge, so I think the difference might be football.

Greece — against all odds — managed to bumble through the Euro 2012 group stage, beating Russia 1-0 and likely setting up a poetic quarter final against Germany. I think that that victory against Russia will fire enough Greeks to try their luck and assert themselves against austerity.

For Greece, this is an important election. Inside the euro, their heavily state-dependent economy will continue to suffer scathing austerity. Outside the euro, they can freely debase, and — as Nigel Farage has noted — enjoy the benefits of a cheaper currency like renewed tourism and more competitive industry. If Greeks want growth sooner rather than much later, they should choose life outside the euro (and by voting for Tsipras and trying tough negotiating tactics, they will be asking to be thrown out).

But for the rest of the world, and the rest of Europe, this is all meaningless. As Ron Paul has noted, when the banking institutions need the money, central banks — whether it’s the ECB, or the Fed, or the BoE, or a new global central superbank — will print and print and print. Whether Greece is in or out, when the time comes to save the financial system the central bankers will print. That is the nature of fiat money, as much as the chickenhawks at the ECB might pretend to have hard-money credentials.

Tsipras, though — as a young hard-leftist — would be a good scapegoat for throwing Greece out of the Eurozone (something that — in truth — the core seems to want).

The real consequence throughout Europe as austerity continues to bite into state-dependent, high-unemployment economies will be more political fragmentation and support for political extremes, as the increasingly outlandish and unpopular political and financial solutions pushed by Eurocrats — specifically more and deeper integration, and banker bailouts — continue to help special interests and ignore the wider populations.

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.

Catastrophe or Liberation?

Kevin O’Rourke contributes an intriguing article on the shape of the new fiscal union emerging in Europe:

The most obvious point about the recent summit is that the “fiscal stability union” that it proposed is nothing of the sort. Rather than creating an inter-regional insurance mechanism involving counter-cyclical transfers, the version on offer would constitutionalize pro-cyclical adjustment in recession-hit countries, with no countervailing measures to boost demand elsewhere in the eurozone. Describing this as a “fiscal union,” as some have done, constitutes a near-Orwellian abuse of language.

Many will argue that such arrangements are needed to save the eurozone, but what is needed to save the eurozone in the immediate future is a European Central Bank that acts like a proper monetary authority. True, Germany is insisting on a “fiscal stability union” as a condition of allowing the ECB to do even the minimum needed to keep the euro afloat; but this is a political argument, not an economic one. Economically, the proposal would make an already terrible institutional design worse.

This is essentially a variation on the idea that while pro-cyclical measures might have solved the problems from being created (a la Keynes’ idea that austerity should be undertaken during booms, not busts), it won’t do anything to fix the problem now that the horse is out of the stable.

Of course, while I cannot see why anyone buys the pro-austerity view, the pro-printing view is merely a means of kicking the can down to the end of the pier. Boosting demand, creating inflation, and re-expanding bubbles does not really address any of the underlying structural problems, most significantly systemic fragility, and high residual debt. At very best O’Rourke’s “solution” buys more time to address those problems. As we have seen (and as I keep pointing out) policy makers and markets believe that bouncing back in a fluster of newly printed money is recovery, and then continue to ignore the problems, which means broken systems just continue to be broken, and old problems jump back out of the swamp to rear their ugly heads.

This brings me to the most intriguing aspect of O’Rourke’s view:

A eurozone collapse in the immediate future would be widely perceived as a catastrophe, which should at least serve as a source of hope for the future. But if it collapses after several years of perverse macroeconomic policies required by countries’ treaty obligations, the end, when it comes, will be regarded not as a calamity, but as a liberation.

When viewed from my perspective — that boosting demand is essentially just another perverse macro policy that will kick the can for a few more years — this really shines a light. The choice for European countries is a painful unwinding now, or years of crushing teutonic austerity (or Japanese-style zombification) unwinding in something far, far worse: riots, revolutions, international breakdown, perhaps even war.