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The Nightmare after Christmas

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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.

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