Free Markets, Free People

Eurozone crisis


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.