Global bear rally of 2009 will end as Japan’s hyperinflation rips economy to pieces
by Ambrose Evans-Pritchard
Originally posted January 4th, 2010
THE CONTRACTION OF M3 MONEY IN THE U.S. and Europe over the last six months will slowly puncture economic recovery as 2010 unfolds, with the time-honoured lag of a year or so. Ben Bernanke will be caught off guard, just as he was in mid-2008 when the Fed drove straight through a red warning light with talk of imminent rate rises – the final error that triggered the implosion of Lehman, AIG, and the Western banking system.
As the great bear rally of 2009 runs into the greater Chinese Wall of excess global capacity, it will become clear that we are in the grip of a 21st Century Depression – more akin to Japan’s Lost Decade than the 1840s or 1930s, but nothing like the normal cycles of the post-War era. The surplus regions (China, Japan, Germania, Gulf ) have not increased demand enough to compensate for belt-tightening in the deficit bloc (Anglo-sphere, Club Med, East Europe), and fiscal adrenalin is already fading in Europe. The vast East-West imbalances that caused the credit crisis are no better a year later, and perhaps worse. Household debt as a share of GDP sits near record levels in two-fifths of the world economy. Our long purge has barely begun. That is the elephant in the global tent.
We will be reminded too that the West’s fiscal blitz – while vital to halt a self-feeding crash last year – has merely shifted the debt burden onto sovereign shoulders, where it may do more harm in the end if handled with the sort of insouciance now on display in Britain.
Yields on AAA German, French, US, and Canadian bonds will slither back down for a while in a fresh deflation scare. Exit strategies will go back into the deep freeze. Far from ending QE, the Fed will step up bond purchases. Bernanke will get religion again and ram down 10-year Treasury yields, quietly targeting 2.5pc. The funds will try to play the liquidity game yet again, piling into crude, gold, and Russian equities, but this time returns will be meagre. They will learn to respect secular deflation.
Weak sovereigns will buckle. The shocker will be Japan, our Weimar-in-waiting. This is the year when Tokyo finds it can no longer borrow at 1pc from a captive bond market, and when it must foot the bill for all those fiscal packages that seemed such a good idea at the time. Every auction of JGBs will be a news event as the public debt punches above 225pc of GDP. Finance Minister Hirohisa Fujii will become as familiar as a rock star.
Once the dam breaks, debt service costs will tear the budget to pieces. The Bank of Japan will pull the emergency lever on QE. The country will flip from deflation to incipient hyperinflation. The yen will fall out of bed, outdoing China’s yuan in the beggar-thy-neighbour race to the bottom. By then China too will be in a quandary. Wild credit growth can mask the weakness of its mercantilist export model for a while, but only at the price of an asset bubble. Beijing must hit the brakes this year, or store up serious trouble. It will make as big a hash of this as Western central banks did in 2007-2008.
The European Central Bank will stick to its Wagnerian course, standing aloof as ugly loan books set off wave two of Europe’s banking woes. The Bundesbank will veto proper QE until it is too late, deeming it an implicit German bail-out for Club Med.
More hedge funds will join the EMU divergence play, betting that the North-South split has gone beyond the point of no return for a currency union. This will enrage the Eurogroup. Brussels will dust down its paper exploring the legal basis for capital controls. Italy’s Giulio Tremonti will suggest using EU terror legislation against “speculators”.
Wage cuts will prove a self-defeating policy for Club Med, trapping them in textbook debt-deflation. The victims will start to notice this. Articles will appear in the Greek, Spanish, and Portuguese press airing doubts about EMU. Eurosceptic professors will be ungagged. Heresy will spread into mainstream parties.
Greece’s Prime Minister Papandréou will balk at EMU immolation . The Hellenic Socialists will call Europe’s bluff, extracting loans that gain time but solve nothing. Berlin will climb down and pay, but only once: thereafter, Zum Teufel. [which roughly means your on your own or the devil with you. Not quite sure that’s polite German.] In the end, the Euro’s fate will be decided by strikes, street protest, and car bombs as the primacy of politics returns. I doubt that 2010 will see the denouement, but the mood music will be bad enough to knock the euro off its stilts.
The dollar rally will gather pace. America’s economy – though sick – will shine within the even sicker OECD club. The British will need the shock of a gilts crisis to shatter their complacency. In time, the Dunkirk spirit will rise again. Mervyn King’s pre-emptive QE and timely devaluation will bear fruit this year, sparing us the worst. By mid to late 2010, we will have lanced the biggest boils of the global system. Only then, amid fear and investor revulsion, will we touch bottom. That will be the buying opportunity of our lives.
The following is a related contribution from the same writer:
Greece defies Europe as EMU crisis turns deadly serious
by Ambrose Evans-Pritchard
Originally published 13 Dec 2009
EUROLAND’S REVOLT HAS BEGUN. Greece has become the first country on the distressed fringes of Europe’s monetary union to defy Brussels and reject the Dark Age leech-cure of wage deflation. George Papanderou, the Greek prime minister, faces potential riots if he cuts spending to address the deficit While he offered pro forma assurances at Friday’s EU summit that Greece would not default on its €298bn (£268bn) debt, his words to reporters afterwards had a different flavour.
“Salaried workers will not pay for this situation: we will not proceed with wage freezes or cuts. We did not come to power to tear down the social state,” he said. Were we to believe that a country in the grip anarchist riots and prey to hard-Left unions would risk its democracy to please Brussels? Mr Papandreou has good reason to throw the gauntlet at Europe’s feet. Greece is being told to adopt an IMF-style austerity package, without the devaluation so central to IMF plans. The prescription is ruinous and patently self-defeating. Public debt is already 113pc of GDP. The Commission says it will reach 125pc by late 2010. It may top 140pc by 2012.
If Greece were to impose the draconian pay cuts under way in Ireland (5pc for lower state workers, rising to 20pc for bosses), it would deepen depression and cause tax revenues to collapse further. It is already too late for such crude policies. Greece is past the tipping point of a compound debt spiral.
Ireland may just pull it off. It starts with lower debt. It has flexible labour markets, and has shown a Scandinavian discipline. Mr Papandreou faces circumstances more akin to those of Argentine leaders in 2001, when they tried to cut wages in the mistaken belief that ditching the dollar-peg would prove calamitous. Buenos Aires erupted in riots. The police lost control, killing 27 people. President De la Rua was rescued from the Casa Rosada by an air force helicopter. The peg collapsed, setting in train the biggest sovereign default in history.
Economists waited for the sky to fall. It refused to do so. Argentina achieved Chinese growth for half a decade: 8.8pc in 2003, 9pc in 2004, 9.2pc in 2005, 8.5pc in 2006, and 8.7pc in 2007. London bankers were soon lining up to lend money (our pension funds?) to the Argentine state – despite the 70pc haircut suffered by earlier creditors. In theory, Greece could do the same: restore its currency, devalue, pass a law switching internal euro debt into drachmas, and “restructure” foreign contracts. This is the “kitchen-sink” option. Such action would allow Greece to break out of its death loop.
Bondholders would scream, but then they should have delved deeper into the inner workings of EMU. RBS said the UK and Ireland have most exposure, with 23pc of Greek debt between them (mostly for global clients). The French hold 11pc, Italians 6pc. Remember, Athens holds the whip hand over Brussels, not the other way round. Greek exit from EMU would be dangerous. Quite apart from the instant contagion effects across Club Med and Eastern Europe, it would puncture the aura of manifest destiny that has driven EU integration for half a century.
I don’t wish to suggest that Mr Papandreou – an EU insider – is thinking in quite such terms. Full membership of the EU system is imperative for a country dangling off the bottom of Balkans, all too close to its Seljuk nemesis. But Mr Papandreou cannot comply with the EU’s deflation diktat.
No doubt, EU institutions will rustle up a rescue. RBS says action by the European Central Bank may be “days away”. While the ECB may not bail out states, it may buy Greek bonds in the open market. EU states may club together to keep Greece afloat with loans for a while. That solves nothing. It increases Greece’s debt, drawing out the agony. What Greece needs – unless it leaves EMU – is a permanent subsidy from the North. Spain and Portugal will need help too.
The danger point for Greece will come when the Pfennig drops in Berlin that EMU divergence between North and South has widened to such a point that the system will break up unless: either Germany tolerates inflation of 4pc or 5pc to prevent Club Med tipping into debt deflation; or it pays welfare transfers to the South (not loans) equal to East German subsidies after reunification.
Before we blame Greece for making a hash of the euro, let us not forget how we got here. EMU lured Club Med into a trap. Interest rates were too low for Greece, Portugal, Spain, and Ireland, causing them all to be engulfed in a destructive property and wage boom. The ECB was complicit. It breached its inflation and M3 money target repeatedly in order to nurse Germany through slump. ECB rates were 2pc until December 2005. This was poison for overheating Southern states. The deeper truth that few in Euroland are willing to discuss is that EMU is inherently dysfunctional – for Greece, for Germany, for everybody.