Free Markets, Free People

EU


Europe discovers its gas problem

German Chancellor Angela Merkel has declared the G8 to be dead, thanks to Russia’s take over of the Crimea:

German Chancellor Angela Merkel declared the Group of Eight leading nations defunct given the current crisis in Ukraine, in a clear message to Russia that the world’s seven other major industrialized countries consider its actions in Ukraine unacceptable. “As long as there is no political environment for such an important political format as the G-8, the G-8 doesn’t exist anymore, not the summit nor the format,” said Ms. Merkel, in Germany’s parliament, the Bundestag. “Russia is widely isolated in all international organizations,” the chancellor said.

Ah, yes, the old “isolated in all international organizations” gambit.  And what have all the “international organizations” done in reaction to Russia’s Crimean takeover?  About what they did when Russia pushed into Georgia.  A whole lot of nothing. It is one thing to have international organizations that have teeth and are willing to do something in reaction to such a blatant act.  But when they mostly issue statements condeming the action and void the Netflix accounts of certain Russian officals, being isolated from those organizations isn’t such a big deal.  All it does is make further diplomatic efforts more difficult, not that it is clear that Russia is open to diplomatic overtures.

Another thing that is happening is Europe is discovering it has managed to put itself in an energy situation that isn’t at all to its advantage.  30% of Europe’s natural gas flows through Russian pipelines (Germany gets 40% of its natural gas supplies from Russia).

So the scramble is purportedly on to change that situation.

European leaders will seek ways to cut their multi-billion-dollar dependence on Russian gas at talks in Brussels on Thursday and Friday, while stopping short of severing energy ties with Moscow for now. EU officials said the current Ukraine crisis had convinced many in Europe that Russia was no longer reliable and the political will to end its supply dominance had never been greater. “Everyone recognises a major change of pace is needed on the part of the European Union,” one EU official said on condition of anonymity. As alternatives to imported gas, the Brussels talks will debate the European Union’s “indigenous supplies”, which include renewable energy and shale gas.

Now, one would think that such a situation would call for drastic and speedy action.  Anyone want to bet how long they dither and, should they decide to exploit their “indigenous supplies”, how onerous the rules and regulations will be?

When leaders of the European Union’s member states meet today and tomorrow (20-21 March) in Brussels, they hope to reach consensus on the EU’s long-term climate goals. But agreement appears unlikely because of deep divisions between east and west. Ahead of the summit, ministers from 13 member states signed a declaration supporting a European Commission proposal for an EU commitment to reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 40% from 1990 levels by 2030 – up from a 20% target set for 2020. This ‘green growth group’ includes France, Germany, Italy and the UK. But Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, Romania and Slovakia are wary of the target and the timeline, and are resisting any such commitment.

The latter group will most likely be all for moving ahead as speedily as possible to exploit “indigenous supplies”.  They’ll meet some pretty stiff headwinds, apparently, from the Western EU nations. You can almost see this train wreck coming.

Meanwhile in the pursuit of “green energy”, Europe is apparently ready to toss in the towel:

Governments across Europe, regretting the over-generous deals doled out to the renewable energy sector, have begun reneging on them. To slow ruinous power bills hikes, governments are unilaterally rewriting contracts and clawing back unseemly profits.

You have to laugh.  “Unseemly profits”?  They’re subsidies, sir.  Not profit.

It’ll be interesting to see if the EU has the will to sort this all out in the next couple of days.  If one is a betting person, you’d have to guess that the odds for success are long, given the EU’s recent history.

~McQ


Greece goes cold turkey

And no, that’s not a joke about Turkey.  What you’re seeing in Greece is what you see in any drug rehab program … the results of withdrawal.  In this case, the addiction isn’t to heroin or cocaine, but other people’s money.  And Greece passed the tipping point of dependency years ago, decades ago.

But the money has finally run out and the addict doesn’t have the necessary money for the next fix.

Result?  Violence, denial and the refusal to accept the treatment.

More than 40 buildings were set ablaze in an orgy of looting that left scores injured as protesters vented their anger at the caretaker government and parliament’s ordering of a further €3.3bn of savings by slashing wages and pensions and laying off public sector workers.

[…]

But the scenes of mayhem on the streets of Athens and all across the country leave big questions unresolved regarding Greece’s capacity to stick with the savage austerity. The country is in its fifth year of recession and has little prospect of halting a steep decline in living standards.

[…]

Meanwhile street battles between police firing rounds of teargas and demonstrators hurling firebombs and marble slabs left Syntagma square, the plaza in front of the parliament building, resembling a war zone.

Rubbish bins burned and plumes of smoke and asphyxiating clouds of toxic chemicals filled the air.

The explosions were so loud, they could be heard inside parliament and the teargas drifting across square reached the debating chamber. The buildings that were set on fire included cinemas, banks and a number of shops, and Greek television reported that dozens of citizens and at least 40 police officers had been injured.

Why?  Because the caretaker parliament has, of necessity, tried to do what is necessary to return the country of Greece to fiscal sanity.  And that entails drastically reducing or eliminating decades of entitlements that the government granted but which was obvious the country couldn’t afford.   Among them:

Parliament backed drastic cuts in wages, pensions and jobs on Sunday as the price of a 130-billion-euro ($172 billion) bailout by the European Union and International Monetary Fund …

That included a roll back of Greece’s minimum wage.   This doesn’t settle anything though.  Although the vote was important, EU leaders are still not convinced that implementation will ever happen:

The EU welcomed the vote, but told Greece it had more to do to secure the funds and avoid a disorderly default next month that would have "devastating consequences."

Euro zone finance ministers meet on Wednesday, and the fragile ruling coalition of Prime Minister Lucas Papademos has until then to say how 325 million euros of the 3.3 billion euros in budget savings will be achieved.

A government spokesman said political leaders also had until Wednesday to give a written commitment that they will implement the terms of the deal, reflecting fatigue in Brussels over what EU leaders say have been a string of broken promises.

So this has turned into a series of attempts and votes and “guarantees” and failures leading to this latest attempt to keep Greece afloat – something the rest of Europe, according to reports, deems as critical.

There’s also a vote in April, a month after the demand that the deal agreed upon is scheduled to be implemented.  Many observers believe the vote will be driven to the extreme left or right by these events.  That, of course, would set up political polarization which will be difficult, if not impossible, to overcome.  A preview of that problem was seen after this vote:

The leaders of two of the three major political parties in Prime Minister Lucas Papademos’s interim coalition government — the Socialists and the center-right New Democracy party — agreed on the new round of austerity after days of tense debate, maneuvering and threats. The leader of the third, the right-wing Popular Orthodox Rally, refused to endorse the measures and later withdrew from the coalition.

In the debate on Sunday night before the vote, Mr. Papademos appealed to lawmakers to do their “patriotic duty” and pass the measures, saying they would be saving Greece from bankruptcy in March, when a bond issue comes due that Greece cannot repay without foreign help.

In a sign of how the crisis has frayed the political order in Greece, the three leading political parties all moved swiftly to expel lawmakers who had broken ranks with leaders in the voting.

Although we’re likely to deny any applicability of the crisis there to our circumstances, our country is headed in the same direction, albeit later and more slowly.  But the end-state will be the same.  The difference is just a matter of degree, not design.  Greece is simply the first of many countries who’ve tried to redistribute income to support a socialist inspired lifestyle from a diminishing pool of workers. 

It is our future, if we don’t change our ways … drastically.

~McQ

Twitter: @McQandO


Observations: The QandO Podcast for 29 Jan 12

This week, Bruce, Michael, and Dale talk about the SOTU speech, Republican race, and slow collapse of the EU.

The direct link to the podcast can be found here.

Observations

As a reminder, if you are an iTunes user, don’t forget to subscribe to the QandO podcast, Observations, through iTunes. For those of you who don’t have iTunes, you can subscribe at Podcast Alley. And, of course, for you newsreader subscriber types, our podcast RSS Feed is here. For podcasts from 2005 to 2010, they can be accessed through the RSS Archive Feed.


Here come the Euro credit downgrades

The credit rating companies have had a number of European countries on a credit watch for a while.  And they made it pretty clear that what the leaders of the EU had cobbled together late last year didn’t answer the mail.  So really, this should come as no surprise:

Standard & Poor’s has downgraded France’s credit rating, French TV reported Friday, while several other euro zone countries face the same fate later in the day, according to reports.

On the more optimistic side:

"The consequence (if France is downgraded) is that the EFSF cannot keep its triple-A rating," said Commerzbank chief economist Joerg Kraemer.

"That may irritate markets in the short term but wouldn’t be a big problem in a world where the U.S. and Japan also don’t have a triple-A rating anymore. Triple-A is a dying species," he said.

Wow, that’s wonderful, no?  “Triple-A is a dying species?”  Oh well, moving on…

Triple-A is a dying species because of the obscene spending of welfare-state politicians.  We’re supposed to shrug and accept it per the Kraemer’s of the world.  This is just an “irritation”, you see.

In reality it is much more than that:

John Wraith, Fixed Income Strategist at Bank of America Merrill Lynch told CNBC the confirmation of a mass downgrade would be another serious step in the crisis and would lead to a serious worsening of sentiment.

"To a large degree it’s widely anticipated," Wraith said. "However, we think the reality of it is going to have a knock-on, ongoing impact on these markets."

“It clearly deteriorates still further the credit worthiness of a lot of the European banks and just keeps that negative feedback loop between struggling banks and the sovereigns that may have to support them if things go from bad to worse in full force,” Wraith added.

A downgrade could automatically require some investment funds to sell bonds of affected states, making those countries’ borrowing costs rise still further.

"It’s been priced in for several weeks, but the market had been lulled into complacency over the holidays, and the new year began with a bounce in risk appetite, thanks partly to a good Spanish auction," said Samarjit Shankar, Director Of Global Fx Strategy at BNY Mellon in Boston.

"But the Italian auction brought us back to earth and now we face the spectre of further downgrades."

Italy’s three-year debt costs fell below 5 percent on Friday but its first bond sale of the year failed to match the success of a Spanish auction the previous day, reflecting the heavy refinancing load Rome faces over the next three months.

As we’ve said for some time, the key to whether this works out or not lies in the bond markets.  And this will make the bond markets very uneasy.

Oh, and just to add fuel to the fire.  From Zero Hedge:

Last week, when we pointed out what was then a record $77 billion in Treasury sales from the Fed’s custody account, in addition to noting the patently obvious, namely that contrary to what one hears in the media, foreigners are offloading US paper hand over first, there was this little tidbit: "The question is what they are converting the USD into, and how much longer will the go on for: the last thing the US can afford is a wholesale dumping of its Treasurys. Because as the chart below vividly demonstrates, the traditional diagonal rise in foreign holdings of US paper has not only pleateaued, but it is in fact declining: a first in the history of the post-globalization world." Well as of today’s H.4.1 update, the outflow has increased by yet another $8 billion to a new all time record of $85 billion, in 6 consecutive weeks, which is also tied for the longest consecutive period of outflows from the Fed’s Custody account ever. This week’s sale brings the total notional of Treasurys in the Custody account to just $2.66 trillion (down from a record $2.75 trillion) and the same as April of last year. And since the sellers are countries who have traditionally constantly recycled their trade surplus into US paper, this is quite a distrubing development. So while the elephant in the room could have been ignored 4, 3 and 2 weeks ago, it is getting increasingly more difficult to do so at this point, especially with US bond auctions mysteriously pricing at record low yields month after month. But at least the mass dump in Treasurys explains the $100 swing higher in gold in the past month.

Click on over and check out the chart.  Lots of questions to be answered for which, apparently, only a few are chasing  answers.

While the media is dominated by political races and urinating Marines, this little drama is passing by almost unnoticed.  But trust me, it’s effect, should everything collapse as it may, will be profoundly noticed.

~McQ

Twitter: @McQandO


How to start a trade war in one easy step

Decide, as the EU has, to unilaterally impose a carbon tax on airlines and watch what happens:

China has warned the European Union to abandon its controversial carbon tax on airlines or risk provoking a global trade war. Adding weight to the warning, an industry insider told the Financial Times that the Chinese government was seriously considering measures to hit back at the EU if it insists on charging international airlines for their carbon emissions. –Simon Rabinovitch, Financial Times, 22 December 2011

The US has threatened to take retaliatory action against the European Union unless Brussels drops its plan imminently to start charging any airline flying into the bloc for its carbon pollution. In a sharp escalation of tensions over Brussels’ move to bring aviation into its emissions trading system from January 1, Hilary Clinton, US Secretary of State, has written to her European Commission counterpart, Catherine Ashton, and other top commissioners, to “strongly urge” the EU to halt or suspend its plan. –Pilita Clark and Andrew Parker, Financial Times, 20 December 2011

The Indian government has asked the country’s airlines to refrain from submitting carbon emissions data to the European Union (EU) for a new tax that will become applicable from 1 January for flights to Europe, hardening its stand further against the imposition of the levy. — Tarun Shukla, Live Mint, 18 December 2011

The EU is already in financial trouble and now it wants to compound that problem by something as silly as a carbon tax to support a very specious premise concerning global warming.  It’s all about agenda politics and its timing couldn’t be worse given the financial crisis in the EU.  This is either EU stupidity or simply bureaucratic inertia, but in either case, the stances taken by the US, China and India are not particularly “mild”.  The attempt to impose the tax on January 1st could cause quite an uproar and a suspension of flights into the EU until the outcry makes them back off.   And, of course, it won’t be the airlines who pay the tax, will it?  It will be their customers. 

The EU has more problems than it can handle now.  Starting a trade war over a carbon tax would be the cherry on top of the “stupid” sundae.  But then, for years and contrary to logic, they thought “other people’s money” would never run out, didn’t they?

~McQ

Twitter: @McQandO


Half Solutions Will Not Work

Brett Arends is skeptical about Europe’s current direction:

Their proposal is preposterous. Anything can happen in this life, but it would be remarkable indeed if this idea got off the ground. Anyone pinning their hopes that this will solve the crisis needs to think it through.

Why would the Portuguese accept the right of Germany to impose budget cuts on their country? Why would the Greeks?

Would we accept that role for the Chinese and the Japanese, the biggest holders of Treasury debt? How would you feel if you opened the paper to be told that the new Sino-Japanese “Fiscal Stability Commission” in Washington had just slashed your grandma’s Social Security checks by one-third, scaled back federal highway repairs, and that it would impose a 10% national sales tax?

That is, after all, effectively what is being offered to the people of Greece, Italy, Spain, Portugal and Ireland.

It’s absurd. There is no reason why these countries should have to surrender sovereignty. They can simply, where necessary, default. A default by, say, Louisiana would not destroy the dollar. Neither did the bankruptcy of Enron or Lehman.

What happens when after signing the new treaty (if it ever actually comes to be) the Greeks or Italians decide to thumb their noses at the EU and default anyway? Kick them out? Isn’t that right where we are now? Isn’t the fear that countries are kicked out or leave leading to financial chaos and defaults? Will these countries truly continue to pay their bills and accept austerity in the face of a severe recession/depression?

If that is the concern, just as I have been pointing out for some time, anything short of true fiscal and political union will fail. The right of existing states to refuse to honor the treaty (remember the last one was treated as inconsequential by violators, including Germany and France) cannot exist which means the right of states to secede or be expelled from the union cannot exist. If that option is not off the table then Eurozone bonds cannot be treated as risk free. If they are not seen as risk free then they will be rated accordingly and the Eurozone will be unstable as Louis-Vincent Gave points out:

Basically, we have to remember that the average sovereign debt buyer is not a hazardous investor. The guy who buys a government bond is looking for a very specific outcome: he gives the government 100 only so he can get back 102.5 a year later. That’s all the typical sovereign debt investor is looking for. Nothing more, nothing less.

But now, the problem for all EMU debt is that the range of possible outcomes is growing daily: possible restructurings, possible changes in currencies, possible assumption of other people’s debt, possible mass monetization by the central bank etc. Given this wider range of possible outcomes, and the consequent surge of uncertainty, the natural buyer of EMU debt disappears. Again, the typical sovereign investor is not in the game of handicapping possible outcomes; he is in the game of getting capital back!

This is very problematic because once uncertainty creeps in, bonds will tend to gradually drift towards what I have come to call the bonds “no-man’s-land”. Basically, once sovereign bonds reach 90c to par, they tend to have a much higher volatility and much greater uncertainty. As a result, they are no longer attractive to the typical bond manager or asset allocator looking to buy bonds to diversify equity risk (think how Italian bond yields are now correlated to European equities. If you want to be bullish Italian bonds, you may now just as well spend a fifth of the money and buy European banks for the same portfolio impact…). And once a bond enters into no-man’s-land, it has to fall a lot before attracting the attention of distressed debt and vulture investors (usually yields of 15%+). So the first obvious problem is that more and more European debt markets are entering this “no man’s land” bereft of “normal” investors.

Do these countries need the Euro over the long term to be prosperous? More Brett:

The British look smarter and smarter for staying out of the euro area in the first place. Prime Minister John Major, and then, later, Chancellor of the Exchequer Gordon Brown, each took the decision to keep the British pound free. At the time fashionable opinion predicted disaster for the Brits. So much for that.

(Predictably, fashionable opinion now says the Brits look “isolated” for staying out. Really, you couldn’t make it up).

My guess is Brett is correct that we are no where close to a real resolution, which is a path to political unification or breakup.

It has long been clear the Franco-German duo wanted to use their shared currency to bludgeon the continent into something closer to a federal system.

Any investor pinning their hopes on this bird flying needs to be aware it looks a lot more like a turkey than an eagle.

This week’s meeting of European leaders already marks the fifth “summit” to solve the region’s debt crisis since early 2009.

My favorite comment this time: “After a series of ‘final’ summits, it would be nice this time to have a real ‘final’ summit.” That was from Standard & Poor’s chief European economist, appropriately-enough named Jean-Michel Six. What’s the betting Mr. Six will be attending Summit No. Six in the new year?

Which is not to say that the ECB or some other entity couldn’t stem the immediate crisis and kick the can further down the road. Maybe, but if so the question is how far? A week, a year, five years? That I cannot answer now.


Observations: The QandO Podcast for 27 Nov 11

This week, Bruce Michael, and Dale record talk about the implications of Germany’s failed bond auction.

The direct link to the podcast can be found here.

Observations

As a reminder, if you are an iTunes user, don’t forget to subscribe to the QandO podcast, Observations, through iTunes. For those of you who don’t have iTunes, you can subscribe at Podcast Alley. And, of course, for you newsreader subscriber types, our podcast RSS Feed is here. For podcasts from 2005 to 2010, they can be accessed through the RSS Archive Feed.


Observations: The QandO Podcast for 13 Oct 11

In this podcast, Bruce Michael, and Dale discuss Obama’s “Americans are lazy” comment, the failing EU. and the presidential race.

The direct link to the podcast can be found here.

Observations

As a reminder, if you are an iTunes user, don’t forget to subscribe to the QandO podcast, Observations, through iTunes. For those of you who don’t have iTunes, you can subscribe at Podcast Alley. And, of course, for you newsreader subscriber types, our podcast RSS Feed is here. For podcasts from 2005 to 2010, they can be accessed through the RSS Archive Feed.


Irony: Biofuels may be 167% more polluting than fossil fuels

Even more irony – the groups lining up against the EU’s energy targets mandating the use of biofuels are not who you would expect:

Energy targets for 23 of the EU’s 27 members suggest 9.5 percent of the bloc’s transportation energy will come from biofuels by 2020, said the groups, which include Friends of the Earth, Greenpeace and ActionAid. The crops may need an area twice the size of Belgium, and clearing the necessary land could make the fuels 167 percent more polluting for the climate than sticking with gasoline and diesel, they said.

The proponents naturally say that’s all nonsense:

The EU aims to get 10 percent of its energy for transportation from biofuels, hydrogen and renewable power by 2020. The target is meant to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 20 percent by 2020.

EU energy spokeswoman Marlene Holzner said the targets require less land than the study suggests and that EU guidelines prevent the use of deforested land.

“The Renewable Directive says very clearly that it is not allowed to chop down forests to produce biofuels,” Holzner said in an e-mail. “The same goes for drained peatland, wetland or highly biodiverse areas.”

Well of course it says that’s not allowed. Whether or not that’s actually followed is another matter entirely. But here’s the point – the directive’s implementation means that existing land that can be used to reach the targets must be converted from growing whatever it is growing now (food?) to being dedicated to biofuel production. Either way a large area (twice the size of Belgium?) is going to have to be dedicated to such production to make the 10 percent target viable. So where does "food production" go? Looking for new land, that’s where. Or, the EU learns to live with the reduction in agricultural products and the resultant increase in prices required to turn the existing land into biofuel production.

The bureaucrats wave away the concern:

The 10 percent target would require 2 million to 5 million hectares of land, and there is enough unused terrain in the EU that was previously used for crop production to cover its needs, Holzner said.

This is classic government intrusion into markets and the beginning of the inevitable market distortions that brings along with the law of unintended consequences.  Biofuels have to be grown somewhere.  Government is going to subsidize that at a rate higher than growing food.  That means, at some point, food growth is going to be displaced.   Holzner, with an airy wave of the hand says “hey, the land is available – problem solved”. 

Of such are man-made disasters cluelessly formulated and executed.

~McQ


Welfare State In Crisis

The bailout of Greece may not work. Spain is teetering on the edge of serious financial doom. The Euro is taking a beating. And the banks of Europe are not looking too healthy overall. Meanwhile, here in the States, unfunded government debt, already expanding at an unprecedented rate, is set to explode. What do all of these things have in common? They are the direct result of expanding the welfare state without any means of actually paying for all of it.

In truth, there is never a way to pay for expanding the welfare state because, while wealth creation isn’t a zero-sum game, the population of wealth-creators is; after all, not just anyone can create electricity, telephones, heart medications, MicroSoft, Wal-Mart, or even pencils without some know-how, sweat and inspiration. If that were possible, then wealth creation could never be retarded, regardless of the impediments. Some wise, noble, and completely selfless individual would always emerge to drive the economy forward. Alas, self-interest trumps all, without which wealth-creation is for the horses.

No matter how ingenious the plan, or divine the motives, the only way for governments to fund the welfare state is to tax the wealth-creators. As even the most Marxist of intellectuals knows, if you want less of something, then tax it. This is why cigarettes are levied against in ridiculous proportions, and why carbon taxes are considered (by some) to be the savior of our planet. Well, taxing wealth-creation works exactly the same way: tax it more, and you will get less of it. Which leads to the inexorable conclusion that, as the governments of the world sink deeper into fiscal crisis, the looters will be coming en masse.

Does that mean that we are in for another Great Depression? Not necessarily. In fact, I predict that no such thing will occur. For starters, we have many institutions in place today that didn’t exist in the 1930′s such as the FDIC, Social Security, Medicare, the IMF, and the World Bank. Some of these things are arguably beneficial in that they smooth out the rough patches that economies inevitably encounter. The U.S. economy, for example, may not have realized the devastation it did if old people, like McQ, could have survived without taxing their families’ resources so much, or the FDIC had been in place to quell bank runs. Maybe. But more importantly, in this day and age our politics and law-making bodies (and those of every democratic society) are dominated by those whose own self-interest is firmly grounded in the ability to buy votes. That ability is highly dependent upon feeding the welfare state, since the vast majority of votes are bought from those who don’t create electricity or heart medications. This is why politicians of all stripes won’t take steps that would decrease the welfare state, because to do so will cost them votes — to the politician who promises more largesse at the expense of whatever hated rival is being villainized at the time. Accordingly, the odds are rather stacked against wealth-creators continuing to employ their skills in service of the very state that punishes them.

Instead of the Great Depression, Part Deux, I would predict that the elites (those, and their friends, who hold the power to dole out goodies for votes) will shuffle the deck just enough to ensure that they stay in favor, while allowing the overall health of the economy to softly fade into oblivion. They are like Dr. Kevorkian administering to capitalism. The ability to create wealth will slowly continue to be arrogated to the governors and “experts,” while the welfare state expands in decrescendo. Eventually, we will be left with something akin to the Ottoman Empire: all power and glory in name only, inside a rotting shell, harkening back to a time so dissimilar as to be unworthy of the title. What’s left will be hopeless, farcical and cruel, and will not have the slightest ability to nurture the welfare state that started it all. Perhaps the “Long Morose” would be a better title.

Irrespective of my gloomy predictions, there simply isn’t any question that, at some point, the beneficiaries of the great welfare state will have to take a bath. Most likely, that day will come when everyone jumps in the tub together. Until that time, prepare for the politically powerful to loot the wealth-creators out of existence in order to pay off the welfare beneficiaries. Eventually the only ones left to take that bath will be the filthy and the unwashed.

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