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Archive for August 7th, 2011

In this grave crisis, the world’s leaders are terrifyingly out of their depth

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by Peter Oborne
Posted August 6th, 2011

Ineffectual: an emergency telephone conference among the G7 finance ministers feels as relevant as a Bourbon family get-together in the summer of 1789

CERTAIN YEARS HAVE GONE DOWN IN HISTORY AS GREAT GLOBAL TURNING POINTS, after which nothing was remotely the same: 1914, 1929, 1939, 1989. Now it looks horribly plausible that 2011 will join their number. The very grave financial crisis that has hung over Europe ever since the banking collapse of three years ago has taken a sinister turn, with the most dreadful and sobering consequences for those of us who live in European democracies.

The events of the past few days have been momentous: the eurozone sovereign debt crisis has escaped from the peripheries and spread to Italy and Spain; parts of the European banking system have frozen up; US Treasuries have been stripped of their AAA rating, which may be the beginning of a process that leads to the loss of the dollar’s vital status as the world’s reserve currency.

There have been warnings that we may be in for a repeat of the calamitous events of 2008. The truth, however, is that the situation is potentially much bleaker even than in those desperate days after the closure of Lehman Brothers. Back then, policy-makers had at their disposal a whole range of powerful tools to remedy the situation which are simply not available today.

First of all, the 2008 crisis struck at the ideal stage of an economic cycle. Interest rates were comparatively high, both in Europe and the United States. This meant that central banks were in a position to avert disaster by slashing the cost of borrowing. Today, rates are still at rock bottom, so that option is no longer available.

Second, the global situation was far more advantageous three years ago. One key reason why Western economies appeared to recover so fast was that China responded with a substantial economic boost. Today, China, plagued by high inflation as a result of this timely intervention, is in no position to stretch out a helping hand.

But it is the final difference that is the most alarming. Back in 2008, national balance sheets were in reasonable shape. In Britain, for example, state debt (according to the official figures, which were, admittedly, highly suspect) stood at around 40 per cent of GDP. This meant that we had the balance sheet strength to step into the markets and bail out failed banks. Partly as a result, national debt has now surged past the 60 per cent mark, meaning that it is impossible for the British government to perform the same rescue operation without risking bankruptcy. Many other Western democracies face the same problem.

The consequence is terrifying. Policy-makers find themselves in the position of a driver heading down the outside lane of a motorway who suddenly finds that none of his controls are working: no accelerator, no brakes and a faulty steering wheel. Experience, skill and a prodigious amount of luck are required if a grave accident is to be averted. Unfortunately, it is painfully apparent that none of these qualities are available: Western leaders are out of their depth.

Barack Obama feels more and more like a president from the Jimmy Carter tradition: well meaning but ineffectual. And contemplate the sheer fatuity of the statement issued by Angela Merkel’s office on Friday night: “Markets caused the drama. Now they have to make sure to get things straight again.” This remark reveals in the German Chancellor a basic inability even to grasp the nature, let alone understand the scale, of the disaster facing Europe this weekend. Such a failure of comprehension is entirely typical of a certain type of leader throughout history, at times of grave international urgency.

An emergency telephone conference among the finance ministers of the G7 (membership: United States, Japan, Britain, Germany, France, Italy and Canada) has been convened. There was a time when this organisation – with its sublime pretence that financial powerhouses such as India, China and Brazil do not exist – counted for a great deal. This latest discussion feels as relevant as a Bourbon family get-together in the summer of 1789.

Another symptom of the frivolity of the European political class is that the European Central Bank is being urged to intervene in the Italian bond market to restore stability. Standard & Poor’s and Moody’s do not produce ratings for the ECB, but if they did, it would be given junk bond status, or worse. The ECB is bankrupt, and this would be evident for all to see but for the fact that it has grossly overvalued the practically worthless Greek, Irish and Portuguese bonds in its portfolio. At some point, eurozone states will be asked to fill the massive holes in the ECB’s balance sheet, and matters will then get messy. Some may plead poverty; others will point out that the constitution of the ECB specifically prevents it from purchasing national bonds, and that its market operations must have been ultra vires.

Furthermore, it is unclear to whom the ECB – whose dodgy accounting, reckless investments and contemptuous disregard of banking standards make even the most irresponsible Mayfair hedge fund look like a model of propriety – is ultimately accountable. The idea that it can step effectively into the Italian bond market, whose total value of around 1.8 trillion euros makes it larger by far than Greece, Portugal and Ireland combined, is a joke.

Wake up: the eurozone is very close to collapse. It will come as no surprise if some Italian and Spanish banks are forced to close their doors in the course of the next few weeks. Indeed, British holidaymakers on the Continent should be advised to take care: hold only the minimum of the local currency, and treat with especial suspicion euro notes coded Y, S and M (signifying they were printed in Greece, Italy and Portugal respectively). Take plenty of dollars with you, which shopkeepers will certainly accept if there is a run on the banks, or if euros suddenly cease to be legal currency. The precautions may not prove necessary, but there is no point in taking risks.

Where does this leave Britain? First of all, there is no point intruding on private grief. Nothing we can do or say will solve the problems of the eurozone. George Osborne does, however, face one overriding imperative: he must maintain the British national credit. Fortunately, the Chancellor grasps this essential point very clearly. After last year’s general election, he took exactly the right steps to cut the deficit. He must not be driven off course, or the markets will refuse credit to Britain as well (a point that Ed Balls, Labour’s economic spokesman, appears not to understand). An economic firestorm is heading our way, and Britain will be doing very well just to survive.

Merkel faces a Hobson’s choice on eurozone

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by Philip Aldrick
Telegraph Economics Editor
Posted 06 August 2011

Muggings have been on the rise on the streets of east London, Scotland Yard said this week. And blood-stained necklaces have been turning up in pawnbrokers with alarming frequency. It’s no coincidence, police claimed. The surge in snatch-and-grab is all to do with the soaring price of gold.

GOLD HAS BEEN HITTING RECORD HIGH AFTER RECORD HIGH because the precious metal is considered the ultimate safe-haven by nervous investors. And there are a lot of nervous investors in the markets. This week gold struck another record, at $1,681.67 an ounce. Nick Bullman, managing director of ratings agency CheckRisk, reckons it will not stop until breaking its inflation-adjusted peak of $2,300.

It’s not just the shoppers of Canning Town who are getting a mugging. Fear is stalking the markets. Fear of a US downturn, fear of a sovereign debt crisis in Italy or Spain – countries considered “too big to bail”, fear of another global recession. As those fears gathered into panic this week, the world witnessed an extraordinary series of events.

Stock markets did not just crash, they crumpled. Some £149bn was wiped off the value of Britain’s blue-chip stocks as the FTSE 100 suffered the fifth largest fall in its history. Trading in the shares of the country’s biggest banks were suspended after dropping more than 10pc. In just seven trading days from July 26, $4.5 trillion was wiped off the value of equities worldwide.

As investors fled to traditional safe-havens of the Swiss franc and the Japanese yen authorities were forced to act. So strong had panic buying made their currencies that it threatened growth. Both nations intervened. Japan sold about ¥4 trillion (£30bn) of its yen reserves and did ¥10 trillion of quantitative easing (QE). Switzerland cut rates to zero and launched Sfr50bn (£40bn) of QE. The moves bought temporary relief.

The hunt for safety created other bizarre distortions. Yields on US treasury bills – short-term government debt – turned negative. Similarly, Bank of New York Mellon, America’s biggest custodial bank, started levying a fee on deposits of over $50m as it was flooded with cash. Market norms were turned on their head. Investors were paying to lend money. “When you do that, you are saying everything else is just too scary,” said Mr Bullman.

What had the markets spooked was the dawning realisation that Spain and, in particular, Italy may not repay their debts. If that happened, the world would suffer another seizure. “It would be Lehman Brothers on steroids,” as some traders have put it. Italy has been worrying markets since mid-June, a month after Standard & Poor’s put its credit rating on watch. Its benchmark 10-year bonds have been creeping higher ever since – the clearest sign of a looming crisis.

This week’s panic, though, was the culmination of weeks of frayed nerves and political paralysis. “Politicians keep scaring the hell out of people as they seem to be burying their heads in the sand,” Mr Bullman said. Which is why, if there was an original tipping point, it can be traced to July 21. That was the day the second Greek rescue was agreed and further measures unveiled to prevent another eurozone country being sucked into the crisis – following Ireland and Portugal as well as Greece. The backstop was dangerously weak, though. The size of the eurozone bail-out fund, the European Financial Stability Facility (EFSF), was increased from €250bn to €440bn and the terms of its operations broadened to make it more nimble. But the agreement needed a vote, due in September, and seemingly ignored the risk of a Spanish or Italian crisis.

To provide a real firebreak, the EFSF needs about €2 trillion, analysts reckon. Italy’s national debts are €1.8bn, the third largest debt market in the world behind the US and Japan. Spain’s are €640bn. An EFSF with €440bn was woefully inadequate. Europe’s leaders, though, simply closed their ears to the siren voices and turned to planning their summer holidays.

Alarm bells should have already been ringing. At 4.8pc on June 21, Italian bonds had surged to 5.68pc shortly before the Greek bail-out. The lesson from Greece, Ireland and Portugal was that once bonds top 5pc, they soar to 7pc within 30 to 60 days without intervention. At 7pc, the debt problem becomes a full-blown crisis – as markets decide the country can no longer pay its bills. With no credible backstop, market fears were allowed to burn out of control.

Already wearied by the drawn-out deal to raise the US debt ceiling, which only entrenched political cynicism, and unnerved by evidence that the global recovery is stalling, the second tipping point came this week. First the President of the European Commission, José Manuel Barroso admitted in a letter to European heads of state that the size of the EFSF needed to be increased. Hours later, the European Central Bank intervened in the markets – but instead of buying distressed Spanish and Italian debt it targeted Portuguese and Irish bonds. Seemingly, political divisions within the ECB were neutering its powers.

Holger Schmieding, economist at Berenberg Bank, said the ECB’s move “may go down in history as its worst blunder yet”. “What would we make of a fire brigade that responds to a major emergency but then drives to the wrong place and refuses to turn around and douse the real fire?” Traders scented weak political will and rounded in fear on Italy. Its bonds rocketed to 6.189pc – a fresh euro record.

If it can’t raise funds, Italy has until the end of September before it runs out of cash or Europe comes to its aid. Spain has until February. The problem is now purely political. Italy needs more austerity to reduce its debt burden, and to push through structural reforms to make its labour market more competitive. Spain must recapitalise its banks, and accelerate its own austerity plans. In return, Europe has to make the EFSF a viable safety net.

As usual in Europe, it all comes back to truculent Germany. Only Berlin can provide the guarantees needed to restore confidence. But it is too late to buy confidence cheaply. Angela Merkel, the German Chancellor, faces a classic Hobson’s choice. Put taxpayer money on the line and lose her job, or risk a catastrophe. That’s a mugging in all but name. Unsettling parallels are being drawn between the current panic and the market meltdown in 2008.

Then, as now, oil had blown sky high. It hit $145 a barrel in July 2008 before coming back down. This time it struck $125. Inflation, too, was out of control – at around 5pc – in line with most economists’ forecasts for the next few months. Stock markets had moved sharply lower and growth had started to slow.

More pertinently, the country had been wrestling with a looming crisis for months – that time with the banks. Seized by similar indecision, policymakers took five months to nationalise Northern Rock and failed to recapitalise other lenders until too late. Then, a political decision not to bail out Lehman Brothers triggered panic that paralysed markets. This time, it is again in politicians hands. The parallels are not surprising. Ultimately, the current crisis is the latest manifestation of the last one.