Quantum Pranx

ECONOMICS AND ESOTERICA FOR A NEW PARADIGM

Archive for the ‘Geopolitics’ Category

The Nightmare after Christmas

leave a comment »

by Detlev Schlichter
of The Cobden Center
Posted December 26, 2011

THE PATHETIC STATE OF THE GLOBAL FINANCIAL SYSTEM WAS AGAIN ON DISPLAY THIS WEEK. Stocks around the world go up when a major central bank pumps money into the financial system. They go down when the flow of money slows and when the intoxicating influence of the latest money injection wears off. Can anybody really take this seriously? On Tuesday, the prospect of another gigantic cash infusion from the ECB’s printing press into Europe’s banking sector, which is in large part terminally ill but institutionally protected from dying, was enough to trigger the established Pavlovian reflexes among portfolio managers and traders.

None of this has anything to do with capitalism properly understood. None of this has anything to do with efficient capital allocation, with channelling savings into productive capital, or with evaluating entrepreneurship and rewarding innovation. This is the make-believe, get-rich-quick (or, increasingly, pretend-you-are-still-rich) world of state-managed fiat-money-socialism. The free market is dead. We just pretend it is still alive.

There are, of course those who are still under the illusion that this can go on forever. Or even that what we need is some shock-and-awe Über-money injection that will finally put an end to all that unhelpful worrying about excessive debt levels and overstretched balance sheets. Let’s print ourselves a merry little recovery.

How did Mr. Bernanke, the United States’ money-printer-in-chief put it in 2002? “Under a paper-money system, a determined government can always generate higher spending…” (Italics mine.)

Well, I think governments and central banks will get even more determined in 2012. And it is going to end in a proper disaster.

Lender of all resorts

Last week in one of their articles on the euro-mess, the Wall Street Journal Europe repeated a widely shared myth about the ECB: “With Germany’s backing, the ECB has so far refused to become a lender of last resort, …” This is, of course, nonsense. Even the laziest of 2011 year-end reviews will show that the ECB is precisely that: A committed funder of states and banks. Like all other central banks, the ECB has one overriding objective: to create a constant flow of new fiat money and thus cheap credit to an overstretched banking sector and an out-of-control welfare state that can no longer be funded by the private sector. That is what the ECB’s role is. The ECB is lender of last resort, first resort, and soon every resort.

Let’s look at the facts. The ECB started 2011 with record low policy rates. In the spring it thought it appropriate to consider an exit strategy. The ECB conducted a number of moderate rate hikes that have by now all been reversed. By the beginning of 2012 the ECB’s policy rates are again where they were at the beginning of 2011, at record low levels.

So why was the springtime attempt at “rate normalization” aborted? Because of deflationary risks? Hardly. Inflation is at 3 percent and thus not only higher than at the start of the year but also above the ECB’s official target.

The reason was simply this: states and banks needed a lender of last resort. The private market had lost confidence in the ability (willingness?) of certain euro-zone governments to ever repay their massive and constantly growing debt load. Certain states were thus cut off from cheap funding. The resulting re-pricing of sovereign bonds hit the banks and made it more challenging for them to finance their excessive balance sheets with money from their usual sources, not least U.S. money market funds.

So, in true lender-of-last resort fashion, the ECB had to conduct a U-turn and put those printing presses into high gear to fund states and banks at more convenient rates. While in a free market, lending rates are the result of the bargaining between lenders and borrowers, in the state-managed fiat money system, politicians and bureaucrats define what constitutes “sustainable” and “appropriate” interest rates for states and banks. The central bank has to deliver.

The ECB has not only helped with lower rates. Its balance sheet has expanded over the year by at least €490 billion, and is thus 24% larger than at the start of the year. This does not even include this week’s cash binge. The ECB is funding ever more European banks and is accepting weaker collateral against its loans. Many of these banks would be bust by now were it not for the constant subsidy of cheap and unlimited ECB credit. If that does not define a lender of last resort, what does?

And as I pointed out recently, the ECB’s self-imposed limit of €20 billion in weekly government bond purchases (an exercise in market manipulation and subsidization of spendthrift governments but shamelessly masked as an operation to allow for smooth transmission of monetary policy) is hardly a severe restriction. It would allow the ECB to expand its balance sheet by another €1 trillion a year. (The ECB is presently keeping its bond purchases well below €20 billion per week.)

Deflation? What deflation?

It is noteworthy that there still seems to be a widespread belief that all this money-printing will not lead to higher inflation because of the offsetting deflationary forces emanating from private bank deleveraging and fiscal austerity.

Read the rest of this entry »

U.S. Corp and the impending IMF merger

with 2 comments

by Robert Denner
of Daily Economic Update
Posted December 1, 2011

BEEN LOTS OF TALK AROUND LATELY REGARDING THE COLLAPSE OF THE U.S. DOLLAR AND WHAT THAT WOULD MEAN FOR THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA AND THE WORLD. There has also been a lot of talk about the Federal Reserve Bank of the United States of America and how unhappy the people of the US are getting with this largely unknown organization.

These two forces are converging together in what could be a very serious and detrimental way as it relates to the average US citizen. This article will rely heavily on flawed analogies to help the lay person understand the inner workings of both the IMF and the Federal Reserve Bank. This is not to be taken as an academic piece and I would ask that it not be judged as such. This is meant to help those people that have recently woken up to the reality that their country has been hi-jacked and those that are desperate to get up to speed as quickly as possible. So let’s jump right into the thick of it shall we? First we need to start with what I hope are simple lessons so that you can take what I am about to teach you and apply it to the real world.

There is one thing that bankers and computer people love to do and that is to use big scary acronyms to scare off the simple folk. So here is your first lesson.

IMF and the SDR

So right off the bat we are using acronyms that mean absolutely NOTHING to the lay person and yet that is an actual sentence believe it or not… IMF stands for the International Monetary Fund. The SDR is short for Special Drawing Rights and is the currency of the IMF. The International Monetary Fund is a private bank that is used to help sovereign nations engage in international commerce. Just like if you owned a company and you used bank A, and your supplier used Bank B, the IMF would be the bank that both banks A and B used to transfer payments and credits back and forth to each other. To Company A and B (using Bank A and B) it would be seamless.

But the IMF does a whole lot more for the global economy. They are the creditor of last resort for a lot of countries. For if you want to engage in international commerce in the free world (meaning the world now) you must be a part of the IMF system. Should a country that is part of this system become over leveraged because of mismanagement and debt accumulation, the IMF stands ready to come to the rescue. To understand how this relationship has worked in the past (and the present); I MUST go into some history. I will keep it brief I promise.

To understand how the global monetary/commercial world works you have to go back to the end of World War II. Following the war the United States was alone as a major industrial power. The rest of the industrial countries were in shambles. The United States was also nearly alone as a producer of oil. It is this later point that needs to be highlighted.

The United States used its vast oil reserves and coupled it with a highly trained industrial labor force and put it to work in its vast expanse of industrial capacity to re-build the rest of the world. It is this fact that is at the very center of our current monetary system some 60 years later. So I will start with my first analogy…

The US Corp could be seen as a huge company like General Motors. Following WWII US Corp was the only company left with the capacity to make things and it had the working capital and energy to do what it wanted. US Corp went out into the world and started to acquire other businesses. First was Japan Corp which US Corp had beaten into a pulp during the war. US Corp decided that it was in its own best interest to build Japan Corp back up but it needed to make sure that it never again could threaten US Corp the way it did in WWII.  Japan Corp used its own currency called the YEN and US Corp obviously used the Dollar. So to make this all work, US Corp had to make sure that the workers at Japan Corp didn’t feel like the last of their country was being taken from them. To keep them vested in the viability of their own country it was very important to let them keep their own currency and their own political structure, albeit greatly modified under the surface. We allowed Japan Corp to keep their figurehead CEO (the Emperor) and we installed a new board of directors (Democratic institutions). We linked the Bank of Japan to US Corp’s bank the Federal Reserve Bank through a new institution called the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank.

If we were to compare this to General Motors this would be like GM buying another company and bringing it under the umbrella of the GM brand. So in this case Japan is like Pontiac and they are given free rein to run their subsidiary the way they see fit, SO LONG as they abide by the parent companies rules.

This setup worked wonderfully and within a decade Japan Corp was back on its feet and was supplying cheap labor and products for US Corp and with every single barrel of oil Japan Corp bought on the international market it further linked them with our monetary system.  To keep the Japanese citizens from feeling that it was the US Corp in charge of everything we came up with the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. Of course these institutions were funded initially by the United States and Great Britain and as such they were just pseudo US institutions. But it worked and the Japanese subsidiary of US Corp gladly bought oil and products from the United States in its own currency (the Yen) but it was linked via the IMF to the US Dollar. For you see US Corp linked everything that the industrial world needed to the US Dollar. All gold/oil/silver/food/etc were priced first in US Dollars and depending upon the relative “strength” of your currency to the US Dollar, this would dictate how much of your currency it would take to purchase a barrel of oil or an ounce of gold. This gave US Corp a huge advantage in the world as we produced almost everything anyways. We had most of the world’s oil supply and a very large portion of the food supply. We were the largest producer of the big complex things the world needed to rebuild. We allowed the smaller subsidiaries to produce the little stuff we needed or wanted. Japan Corp was great at the later, supplying us with small radios and other cool electronic gadgets.

US Corp built a company with dozens and dozens of subsidiaries, each one of them bringing something to the table either large or small. And as the world re-built, other countries wanted to get in on the good times and they voluntarily sold themselves to US Corp. Other countries were very reluctant to join our big happy company. Those countries fell into two groups. Either they were affiliated with Russia Corp or they wanted to stay neutral. But in a world that was moving fast towards globalization it became apparent that each country would have to choose a side lest they be shut out of the global market. For remember that the only way to gain access to US Corp’s vast array of markets and supplies is to be a part of the IMF/World Bank. It was the only way to convert your currency to other currencies (like the US Dollar to buy OIL!!).

I will end this history lesson there as I could get sucked in for hours explaining how US Corp and Russia Corp went to economic(and sometimes real) war with each other and how Russia Corp tried to have it both ways by linking themselves partially to the IMF to gain access to US Corps vast supplies and labor.

I will leave that to YOU to go out and study on your own as it is a story to rival any fictional book you have ever read. The important thing to take away here is that the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank are institutions that were created by the United States and Great Britain. It is a global system that allows countries using different currencies to exchange their goods and services with each other almost seamlessly. Remember also that the system was setup INITIALLY to allow US Corp to control the world’s most important supplies. Things like FOOD, OIL, COMMODITIES (gold,silver,etc) and the rest. At the time this system was created it was the United States that was supplying the lion’s share of these items. But as the decades have come and gone, these items have increasingly come from other parts of the world.  And a good portion of these countries are ones that were FORCED into our system either out of necessity or by direct manipulation of their country by forces outside their borders(meaning the US and the IMF).

CONFESSIONS OF AN ECONOMIC HITMAN

This next part of our story is centered on how the US has maintained its spot at the top of the economic order even in the face of massive budget deficits and seemingly unending debt loads. The title of this section is called Confessions of an Economic Hit Man, as I give a nod to a book of the same name written by a man named John Perkins. Mr. Perkins is a trained economists and his specialty was international finance. His job was to go out into the world and sell foreign leaders on US Corp and to convince them to get on board with our system. Or more importantly, it was his job to make sure that they were forever caught up in our system and that they did not attempt to leave our company.

Read the rest of this entry »

The real contagion risk

with one comment

 by Chris Martenson
Posted October 24, 2011 

 

AROUND HERE, WE LIKE TO TRACK THINGS from the outside in, as the initial movements at the periphery tend to give us an early warning of when things might go wrong at the center. It is always the marginal country, weakest stock in a sector, or fringe population that gives us the early warning that trouble is afoot. For example, rising food stamp utilization and poverty levels in the US indicate that economic hardship is progressing from the lower socioeconomic levels up towards the center –that is, from the outside in.

That exact pattern is now playing out in Europe, although arguably the earliest trouble was detected with the severe weakness seen in the eastern European countries nearly two years ago.

Because of this tendency for trouble to begin at the periphery before spreading to the center, here at ChrisMartenson.com headquarters we spend a disproportionate amount of our time watching junk bonds instead of Treasurys, looking at weak sectors instead of strong ones, and generally spending our time at the edges trying to scout out where there are early signs of trouble that can give us a sense of what’s coming next. In this report, we explore the idea that Europe is the canary in the coal mine that tells us it is time to begin preparing for how the world might change if the contagion spreads all the way to US Treasurys (which is mathematically inevitable, in our view).

Why the US should care about Europe

At the very core of the global nuclear money reactor are US Treasurys and the dollar. If the dollar’s role as the world’s reserve currency wanes or even collapses, then the scope and pace of the likely disruptions will be enormous. Of course, we’ll be glad to have as much forewarning as possible.

Accordingly, it is my belief that if the contagion spreads from Greece to Portugal (or Italy or Spain), and then to the big banks of France and Germany in such a way that they fail, then rather than strengthening the dollar’s role (as nearly everyone expects), we should reserve some concern for the idea that the contagion will instead jump the pond and chew its way through the US financial superstructure.

While I am expecting an initial strengthening of the dollar in response to a euro decline, I believe this will only be a temporary condition.

The predicament is that the fiscal condition of the US is just as bad as anywhere, and we’d do well to ignore the idea, widely promulgated in the popular press, that the US is in relatively better shape than some other countries. ‘Relatively’ is a funny word. In this case, it’s kind of meaningless, as all the contestants in this horse race are likely destined for the glue factory, no matter how well they place.

While there are certain to be a lot of false starts and unpredictable twists and turns along the way, eventually the precarious fiscal situation of the US will reach a critical mass of recognition. Before that date, the US will be perceived as a bastion of financial safety, and afterwards everyone will wonder how anyone could have really held that view.

A good recent example of how swiftly sovereign fortunes can change: One day, everything was fine in Greece, which enjoyed paying interest rates on its national debt that were a few skinny basis points (hundredths of a percent) above Germany’s. A few short months later, Greece was paying over 150% interest on its one-year paper.

What I am asking is this: What happens when the same sweep of recognition visits the US Treasury markets? Is such a turn of events even possible or thinkable?  Here’s one scenario:

How contagion will spread to the US

My belief is that someday, perhaps within a matter of months but more likely in a year or two, the US Treasury market will fall apart as certainly and as magnificently as did Greece’s. Here’s how that might happen:

Read the rest of this entry »

Germany and Greece flirt with mutual assured destruction

leave a comment »

by Ambrose Evans-Pritchard
The Telegraph
Posted 11 September 2011

BILD ZETUNG POPULISM HAS PREVAILED. Germany is pushing Greece towards a hard default, risking the uncontrollable chain reaction so long feared by markets. Greece can, if provoked, pull the pin on the European banking system and inflict huge damage on Germany itself. Photo: AP

First we learn from planted leaks that Germany is activating “Plan B”, telling banks and insurance companies to prepare for 50pc haircuts on Greek debt; then that Germany is “studying” options that include Greece’s return to the drachma. German finance minister Wolfgang Schauble has chosen to do this at a moment when the global economy is already flirting with double-dip recession, bank shares are crashing, and global credit strains are testing Lehman levels. The recklessness is breath-taking.

If it is a pressure tactic to force Greece to submit to EU-IMF demands of yet further austerity, it may instead bring mutual assured destruction.

“Whoever thinks that Greece is an easy scapegoat, will find that this eventually turns against them, against the hard core of the eurozone,” said Greek finance minister Evangelos Venizelos. Greece can, if provoked, pull the pin on the European banking system and inflict huge damage on Germany itself, and Greece has certainly been provoked.

Germany’s EU commissioner Günther Oettinger said Europe should send blue helmets to take control of Greek tax collection and liquidate state assets. They had better be well armed. The headlines in the Greek press have been “Unconditional Capitulation”, and “Terrorization of Greeks”, and even “Fourth Reich”.

Mr Schauble said there would be no more money for Athens under the EU-IMF rescue package until the Greeks “do what they agreed to do” and comply with every demand of ‘Troika’ inspectors.

Yet to push Greece over the edge risks instant contagion to Portugal, which has higher levels of total debt, and an equally bad current account deficit near 9pc of GDP, and is just as unable to comply with Germany’s austerity dictates in the long run. From there the chain-reaction into EMU’s soft-core would be fast and furious.

Let us be clear, the chief reason why Greece cannot meet its deficit targets is because the EU has imposed the most violent fiscal deflation ever inflicted on a modern developed economy – 16pc of GDP of net tightening in three years – without offsetting monetary stimulus, debt relief, or devaluation.

This has sent the economy into a self-feeding downward spiral, crushing tax revenues. The policy is obscurantist, a replay of the Gold Standard in 1931. It has self-evidently failed. As the Greek parliament said, the debt dynamic is “out of control”. We all know that Greece behaved badly for a decade. The time for tough love was long ago, when the mistakes were made and all sides were seduced by the allure of EMU.

Even if the Papandreou government met every Troika demand at this point, it would not make any material difference. Greek citizens already understand this, and they understand that EU loan packages are merely being recycled to northern banks. Instead of recognizing the collective EU failure at every stage of this debacle, the creditor powers are taking out their fury on what is now a victim.

We have never been so close to EMU rupture. Friday’s resignation of Jurgen Stark at the European Central Bank is literally a kataklysmos, a German vote of no confidence in EMU management. Dr Stark is not just an ECB board member. He is the keeper of the Bundesbank’s monetary flame.

The vehemence of his protest against ECB bond purchases confirm what markets suspect: that the ECB cannot shore up Italian and Spanish debt markets for long without losing Germany. “I look at what is happening in EMU and the words that spring to mind are total and utter disaster”, said Andrew Roberts, credit chief at RBS. He thinks German Bund yields could break below 1pc in the flight to safety.

Citigroup and UBS both issued reports last week on the mechanics of EMU break-up, both concluding with touching faith that EU leaders cannot and will not allow it to happen.

“The euro should not exist,” said Stephane Deo from UBS. It creates more costs than benefits for the weak. Its “dysfunctional nature” was disguised by a credit bubble. The error is now “painfully obvious”. Yet Mr Deo warns that EMU exit would not be as painless as departing the ERM in 1992. Monetary unions do not break up lightly. The denouement usually entails civil disorder, even war.

If a debtor such as Greece left, the new drachma would crash by 60pc. Its banks would collapse. Switching sovereign debt into drachma would be a default, shutting the country out of capital markets. Exit would cost 50pc of GDP in the first year. If creditors such as Germany left, the new mark would jump 40pc to 50pc against the rump euro. Banks would face big haircuts on euro debt, and would need recapitalization. Trade would shrink by a fifth. Exit would cost 20pc to 25pc of GDP. UBS concludes that the only course is a “fiscal confederation”, a la Suisse.

Read the rest of this entry »

Too much of a good thing is not a good thing

leave a comment »

by David Galland of Casey Research
Posted August 12, 2011

I AM BEGINNING TO FEEL A BIT LIKE ONE OF THE FRENCH unfortunates stumbling through the fog in the Ardennes, circa 1914. Except that, instead of Germans full of deadly intent coming at me in the gloomy forest, it is a flock of black swans. As it was for the French in the Ardennes, the number of problems – then Germans, now black swans – is becoming overwhelming.

Consider just a little of what we as investors, and as individuals looking forward to retirement in accommodations more commodious than a shipping box, must contend with:

  • The Euro-Stone. Despite all the bailouts and bluster flying about Europe, the yields in the wounded “piiglets” of Greece, Portugal, etc. have failed to soften to more tolerable levels. Worse, yields in the fatter PIIGS of Spain and Italy are hardening. This is of no small import to the German and French banks, which together are owed something like US$2 trillion by the porkers. At this point, it is becoming clear that the eurozone’s systematic flaws doom the euro to continue trending down until it ultimately takes its place in the pantheon of failed monies.
  • The Yen Has Lost Its Zen. This week the Japanese government again began intervening in currency markets because, remarkably, the yen has been pushed to highs against the dollar. This in a nation with a government debt-to-GDP ratio that is better than twice the also horrible ratio sported by these United States.

That ratio ensures that Japan’s long struggles will continue, burdened as it also is with the aftermath of the deadly tsunamis and the ongoing drama at Fukushima. Adding to its woes are the commercial challenges it faces from aggressive neighbors, and maybe worst of all, the demographic glue trap it is stuck in, with fewer and fewer young to pick up the social costs of the old. Toss in the waterfall plunge in Japan’s much-vaunted savings rate – formerly a big prop keeping Japanese interest rates down – and the picture for Japan is anything but tranquil.

  • China’s Crucible. There are many reasons for being optimistic about the outlook for China, including a large and hard-working populace. But there is one overriding reason to expect a big bump in the path to China’s emergence as the world’s reigning economic powerhouse.

Simply, it’s a capitalistic country with a communist problem.

Now, in the same way that some people believe in leprechauns or any of dozens of other magical beings, some people believe that an economy can be successfully commanded just as a captain commands the crew of a Chinese junk cruising along the coast. It’s a fantasy.

While the comrades in charge have done quite well – largely by getting out of the way of natural human actions – they are fast reaching the limits of their ability to navigate the shoals. As I don’t need to tell you, China is a massive country, with hundreds of millions of people capable of every manner of human strengths and frailties. But if they share one interest, it is in a job that allows them to keep their rice bowls full and a roof over their heads. Said jobs don’t come from government dictate – at least not on a sustainable basis – but rather by the messy process of free-wheeling commerce… and the more free-wheeling, the better.

In the July edition of The Casey Report, guest contributor James Quinn discusses the very real challenges facing China, not the least of which is that in the latest reporting period, official Chinese inflation popped up to 6.4%. Even more concerning was a 14% rise in the price of food.

Scrambling to keep employment high while also keeping inflation low, the Chinese government is throwing all sorts of ingredients into the mix – building ghost cities, raising interest rates, stockpiling commodities, clamping down on dissent, hacking everyone – but in the end, the irrefutable laws of economics must prevail. And so the Chinese government will have to atone for the massive inflation it unleashed in 2008, and for the equally disruptive misallocations of capital that are the hallmark of command economies.

While the blowup in China will wreak havoc in world markets, including many commodities, a bright side for gold investors is that the country’s rising inflation should help keep the wind in the sails of monetary metal. It’s no coincidence that the World Gold Council’s latest data show investment demand for gold in China more than doubling in the first quarter of this year.

  • Uncle Scam. Then there is the United States. Casey Research readers of any duration know the fundamental setup… The political avarice that dominates both parties… The fear and greed of John Q. Public and his steady demands that the government do more… The scam being run by the Treasury and the Fed to provide the funny money to keep the government running… The cynical attempts by certain politicians to stoke a class war… The cellars full of toxic paper at the nation’s financial institutions… The outright corruption and deceit of the various government agencies as they twist and torture the data to fool the people into supporting them in their scams.

But there’s a growing problem: An increasing number of people and institutions are coming to understand just how intractable the problems are. This has resulted in a steady move into tangible assets – gold, especially – that are not the obligation of any government. And it’s not just individuals and money managers moving into gold, but central banks as well. That is an absolute sea change from the situation even a few years ago.

Meanwhile, with the Treasury unable to borrow since May, a backlog in government financing needs has built up. Which begs the question: With the Fed standing aside (for the moment), where is the government going to find all the buyers for the many billions of dollars worth of Treasuries it needs to flog in order to keep the scam going?

If I were a conspiracy theorist, I might look at the sell-off in equities this week, triggered as it was by nothing specific, and see a gloved hand operating behind the curtain. After all, nothing like a good old-fashioned stampede out of equities to send billions chasing after “safe” Treasuries… which has been exactly the case this week.

Regardless, with the crossroads for hard choices now behind us, the global economy finds itself at the top of a long hill… with no brakes. From here on, it will increasingly be every nation for itself – meaning a return to competitive currency devaluations and, in time, exchange and even trade controls. And we will see a return of the Fed to the markets. On that topic, I will once again trot out a chart from an article by Bud Conrad that ran in The Casey Report a couple of years back.

I do so because it shows what I think is a very strong corollary between what occurred in Japan after its financial bubble burst and what is now going on here in the U.S. (and elsewhere). As you can see, as a direct result of the Japanese central bank engaging in quantitative easing, the Japanese stock market bounced back strongly. But then, when the quantitative easing stopped, the market quickly gave back all its gains.

Read the rest of this entry »

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

leave a comment »

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

leave a comment »

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.