You know those movies with the bomb set to a timer ticking down to øø.øø where the sweaty hero nervously cuts one wire at a time while holding his breath and then at øø.ø1 he stops the bomb? Well Europe is like that except that the bomb goes off and kills everyone.
Our planet has a problem. Its leading economies, the U.S., Japan, and the E.U. are declining. That is, about one-sixth of the world's population is losing ground. These big economies are the ones that lead the rest of the world, including China. Countries like China, India, and Brazil, depend on the health of the big economies to keep buying their products and commodities so they can grow and generate wealth for their citizens.
What is especially concerning is the blow-up that is about to happen in Europe. It is not something that is happening "over there." In a world that is so interconnected financially and by trade, a sinking Europe is everyone's concern.
Their problems are much the same as ours with a twist. Their governments and central banks have also pursued reckless monetary and fiscal policies and now, effect is following cause. They have more or less followed the same policies as has the U.S., much to the same end. They spent large, engaged in Keynesian fiscal stimulus in a bailout attempt, ran up huge debts and deficits, and their economies are in decline.
The twist is the European Monetary Union (EMU), known as the eurozone. It is as if here in the U.S. there was no federal government and each state was truly sovereign, but there was a Federal Reserve Bank. Some states spend more than others, funding deficits by borrowing huge sums to support programs their citizens wanted. The profligate states want the Fed to buy their debt and float them loans created out of thin air, or otherwise they will go belly up and they will take down many states' banks. The responsible states know they will be stuck with the bill.
The EMU started on the idea that it would bind the EU closer. In essence it was a political decision rather than an economic decision. They passed a stern rule that said no state could run of deficits of more than 3% of their GDP. Except for Estonia, Finland, and Luxembourg, all countries, including Germany, now exceed the limit. Thus their politicians sacrificed fiscal probity for political gains.
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They have hit the wall: Greece will soon default on their sovereign debt. On Tuesday, yields on one year Greek bills reached 60%. It is a sign that investors have no faith in the Greek government's ability to repay their debt.
The EU, ECB, and the IMF are trying to establish a European Financial Stability Facility (EFSB) in order to further bail Greece out. They have already pledged €110 billion and they are trying to put another package together of €109 billion. But Finland insists that Greece puts up additional collateral, which is not possible. Since the collateral would be part of the bailout money, it would be, in essence, Germany and France guaranteeing Finland's contribution.
Greece has missed every fiscal target it or its saviors has had. They are trying to get their deficit down to 7.6% of GDP through more austerity measures, but it looks like they will miss again (est. 8.5+%). Basically they are asking the Greeks to do something they don't want to do, and they will no doubt take to the streets again in protest.
If they default, then that opens a can of worms. European banks, other than Greek banks, hold €46 billion of Greek sovereign debt. Belgium's Dexia hold Greek sovereign debt equal to 39% of its equity; for Germany's Commerzbank, it's about 27%. On top of that, EU banks are into private Greek companies for about €94B (France, €40B; Germany €24B). According to the Wall Street Journal, the total market cap of all EU banks was just €240. The same article also points out additional unknown liabilities to insurers and investment banks.
The International Accounting Standards Board (IASB) has warned banks they need to write down, or mark-to-market, the Greek debt they hold. Whether they do or don't doesn't matter. The fact is that these banks are undercapitalized and in trouble. Their "stress tests" are a fiction. Liquidity is starting to shrink in their banking system because of these jitters. Rabobank, for example, said it is growing cautious about interbank lending – now limited to overnight loans. More banks are stepping up to the ECB window for funds. Overall, credit is starting to tighten. Nervous Greek depositors are withdrawing funds from their banks. Rich Greeks never trusted their banks.
In other words the Europeans have created a problem that they can't solve, easily at least.
Here are their alternatives:
- Keep bailing out Greece, with the specter of Italy and Spain being the next target of market forces as EU economies cool off. This is not appealing to Germany and France who know their taxpayers will have to put up most of the money.
- Have the ECB buy as much Greek debt as necessary to keep Greece afloat. The problem with that is inflation and the prospect that they may be setting a bad precedent for other countries.
- Have the EU issue bonds guaranteed by individual countries, which again is mainly Germany and France. Same problem as No. 1. As Sarkozy said they don't wish to guarantee debt they don't control – the spenders have no incentive to curtail spending.
- Opt for a fiscal union whereby Brussels controls spending and taxation. Or, at least, as Sarkozy and Merkel propose, coordinate their fiscal and tax policies and pass a balanced budget amendment in each country. Good luck with that. Chances: zero.
Which one of those policies will best satisfy these three necessary goals required to ameliorate the worst damage:
- Remove the need for the ECB to buy bonds continually on secondary markets;
- Ensure that troubled countries have access to financing;
- Prevent the strong countries from being dragged down by the weak.
Which one of the above policies will prevent Greece from defaulting, will let the rich countries off the hook, will create enormous liquidity in the eurozone, and will bail out the banks?
The answer is the obvious one, the one that won't hit the taxpayers of the EU's powerful economies, that reduces the net effect of debt to sovereigns, that bolsters the reserves of nearly insolvent banks (at least on paper), and puts the problem off for another day. That would be solution No. 2— quantitative easing, or monetization of Greek debt.
It also lets the taxpayers of Germany, France, and Belgium, whose banks hold lots of Greek public and private debt, off the hook because Greece will be able to repay their obligations in devalued euros. That is, the taxpayers in those countries won't have to pay the tab to refloat their banks. Or, at least as big of a tab as if Greece defaulted.
This plan solves nothing except in the very short-term. The day after tomorrow, inflation will melt away much of the eurozone's sovereign debt as well as private debt, and savers will be robbed of their capital. Capital will be destroyed and consumed by price inflation. Their economies will continue to stagnate, unemployment will remain high, tax revenues will eventually decline in real terms, and they will again be facing the same problems they face today. There is no way to avoid it.
The EU faces an insolvable problem, but it is one they created. You can't have a monetary union without a fiscal union. At least when no nation is obligated to play fair. They either terminate the EMU or paper it over. There is no other practical fix, at least when economies of member states are declining. They are the poster child for the failure of Keynesian-Monetarist economics.
This article originally appeared on the Daily Capitalist.
Disclosure: I have no positions in any stocks mentioned, and no plans to initiate any positions within the next 72 hours.