Free Markets, Free People

Italy


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 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.


Michael Moore’s inner totalitarian peeks out

Michael Moore, the “documentary” film maker who has pushed various liberal causes with extraordinarily slanted films, has called on President Obama to “show some guts” and arrest the head of Standard & Poors.

“Pres Obama, show some guts & arrest the CEO of Standard & Poors. These criminals brought down the economy in 2008& now they will do it again,” Mr. Moore wrote.

Yes, it’s all S&P’s fault. Somehow the 100% of GDP debt, 4 trillion of which was heaped on the pile within the last 3 years, was an S&P plot. Apparently Moore is of the opinion that credit rating agencies ought to align themselves politically and if they don’t, or won’t, well they’re open to arrest. S&P obviously should have just kept to itself and supported the outrageous spending this administration has committed itself too.

It seems in Moore’s world the rating agency’s job is to turn a blind eye to actions and activities which, for any other country, would have earned a downgrade quite a while ago.

It it is telling that on the liberal side of things, the first inclination is to attack the messenger. And that inclination is driven by one primary thing – politics.  Specifically the politics of personal destruction.  The downgrade obviously hurts Obama politically. And all the spinning in the world doesn’t change that.

Because they see this as a desperate situation, the mask slips a bit and you see the true face of "liberalism". Imagine, in a Moore approved regime, how dissent would be handled if he’s now calling for the arrest of the CEO of S&P.

Mr. Moore went on to note that the “owners of S&P are old Bush family friends,” continuing a theme he has developed through several films about capitalism as essentially a crony system for the rich and Wall Street, especially the Bush family.

He went on to link approvingly to an article last week in the Guardian, a left-wing British newspaper, about a police raid in Milan against the offices of S&P and fellow ratings agency Moody’s. Italian police were searching for evidence on whether the rating agencies, in the words of a local prosecutor, “respect regulations as they carry out their work”.

Two more interesting points – somehow it is “Bush’s fault” (there’s a surprise).  Additionally it is “important to respect regulations” when these agencies carry out their work. Of course Italy was downgraded by Moody’s and the reaction there by government has been much the same as here – “what us? How dare you”.  Fallback?  Government regulations, of course. 

Naturally Moore doesn’t bother to point out that the government of Italy is run by a right-wing Prime Minister who, at any other time, he’d now be calling a “fascist” for doing that.

Vintage Moore. Vintage liberalism. Liberalism in very deep trouble. And that’s always when its inner totalitarian usually begins to show.

~McQ

Twitter: @McQandO


How Bad Is It? Check Out Europe

It is certainly worse abroad than here. As Dale pointed out, if this is a failure of the “free market” why is Europe, which is very tightly regulated, having a worse time than we are? Ambrose Evans-Pritchard has a blog post outlining the woes of Europe. First, the real possibility of repudiation of debt:euro

Ex-Bundesbank chief Karl Otto Pohl has just said that Ireland and Greece are in danger of defaulting on their sovereign debts and/or may be forced out of the Euro, for those who may not be aware of his Sky interview by my colleague Jeff Randall.

“I think there are countries considering the possibility. It would be very expensive,” he said. “The exchange rate would go down, 50 or 60% and then interest rates would go sky high because the markets would lose all confidence.”

Then we have the possible abandonment of the Euro in order to “re-establish economic competitiveness quickly”:

Laurence Chieze-Devivier from AXA Investment Managers — in “Leaving the Euro?” — says that the rocketing debt costs of Ireland, Greece, Spain, and Italy are taking on a life of their own. (Italy has just revised is public debt forecast from 2010 from 101pc to 111pc. That is a frightening jump. While the CDS default swaps on Irish debt is are at 376 basis pouints. Austria is at 240. This is getting serious).

It is far for clear whether all these countries will accept the sort of drastic retrenchment required to stay in EMU. “By leaving the euro, internal adjustments would become less `painful’. An independent currency would re-establish economic competitiveness quickly, not achieved by a sharp drop in employment or wage cuts”.

 

euronations

The possible death of the “European nation”:

Carsten Brzeski for ING in Brussels said the eurozone laggards were more likely to default than pay the punishing costs of leaving EMU.

“It is difficult to believe that Portugal, Italy, Ireland, Greece, and Spain, would be better off outside the eurozone. While a government could possibly get away with a redenomination of its debt, the private sector would still have to service its foreign debt. We believe any attempts to leave monetary union would lead to the mother of all crises, and total isolation in any future European integration”

Mr Brzeski said the bigger danger is that countries will face a buyers’ strike for their debt as a flood of bond issues across the world saturates the markets.

“A further worsening of the crisis could lead to (partial) sovereign defaults in one or several countries.”

How is that likely to happen?

The country’s parliament could pass a law redenominating debt into the new Lira, Drachma, or whatever. But there would be a pre-emptive run on bank deposits long before then. “Anyone not desirous of losing money would presumably see the writing on the wall and transfer any funds beyond the reach of the state. In other words, close down that account with Monte dei Paschi di Siena and open a new one with Commerzbank in Germany”.

Such a wholesale shift would lead to a collapse in the money supply, perhaps equal to the 38pc contraction in M3 from October 1929 to April 1933 in the US — but concentrated in a much shorter period. “Banks would be forced to call in outstanding loans, bring about a collapse in the country’s business.”

Certainly a bit of a doomsday scenario, but, unfortunately, not at all outside the realm of possibility. In fact, as they are, some are arguing it will happen in the near future. Almost every bit of it the result of market distortions implemented or enabled by government.

~McQ