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Straight Talk On The European Financial Mess

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The European sovereign debt crisis has generated an enormous amount of nonsensical coverage by the news media.  Most of this coverage appears targeted at American investors, who are regularly assured that a Grand Solution to all of Europe’s financial problems is “just around the corner” thanks to the heroic work of European finance ministers.

Fortunately, a number of commentators have raised some significant objections about all of the misleading “spin” on this subject.  Some pointed criticism has come from Michael Shedlock (a/k/a Mish) who recently posted this complaint:

I am tired of nonsensical headlines that have a zero percent chance of happening.

In a subsequent piece, Mish targeted a report from Bloomberg News which bore what he described as a misleading headline:  “EU Sees Progress on Banks”.  Not surprisingly, clicking on the Bloomberg link will reveal that the story now has a different headline.

For those in search of an easy-to-read explanation of the European financial situation, I recommend an essay by Robert Kuttner, appearing at the Huffington Post.  Here are a few highlights:

The deepening European financial crisis is the direct result of the failure of Western leaders to fix the banking system during the first crisis that began in 2007.  Barring a miracle of statesmanship, we are in for Financial Crisis II, and it will look more like a depression than a recession.

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Beginning in 2008, the collapse of Bear Stearns revealed the extent of pyramid schemes and interlocking risks that had come to characterize the global banking system.  But Western leaders have stuck to the same pro-Wall-Street strategy:  throw money at the problem, disguise the true extent of the vulnerability, provide flimsy reassurances to money markets, and don’t require any fundamental changes in the business models of the world’s banks to bring greater simplicity, transparency or insulation from contagion.

As a consequence, we face a repeat of 2008.  Precisely the same kinds of off-balance sheet pyramids of debts and interlocking risks that caused Bear Stearns, then AIG, Lehman Brothers and Merrill Lynch to blow up are still in place.

Following Tim Geithner’s playbook, the European authorities conducted “stress tests” and reported in June that the shortfall in the capital of Europe’s banks was only about $100 billion.  But nobody believes that rosy scenario.

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But to solely blame Europe and its institutions is to excuse the source of the storms.  That is the political power of the banks to block fundamental reform.

The financial system has mutated into a doomsday machine where banks make their money by originating securities and sticking someone else with the risk.  None of the reforms, beginning with Dodd-Frank and its European counterparts, has changed that fundamental business model.

As usual, the best analysis of the European financial situation comes from economist John Hussman of the Hussman Funds.  Dr. Hussman’s essay explores several dimensions of the European crisis in addition to noting some of the ongoing “shenanigans” employed by American financial institutions.  Here are a few of my favorite passages from Hussman’s latest Weekly Market Comment:

Incomprehensibly large bailout figures now get tossed around unexamined in the wake of the 2008-2009 crisis (blessed, of course, by Wall Street), while funding toward NIH, NSF and other essential purposes has been increasingly squeezed.  At the urging of Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, Europe has been encouraged to follow the “big bazooka” approach to the banking system.  That global fiscal policy is forced into austere spending cuts for research, education, and social services as a result of financial recklessness, but we’ve become conditioned not to blink, much less wince, at gargantuan bailout figures to defend the bloated financial institutions that made bad investments at 20- 30- and 40-to-1 leverage, is Timothy Geithner’s triumph and humanity’s collective loss.

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A clean solution to the European debt problem does not exist. The road ahead will likely be tortuous.

The way that Europe can be expected to deal with this is as follows.  First, European banks will not have their losses limited to the optimistic but unrealistic 21% haircut that they were hoping to sustain.  In order to avoid the European Financial Stability Fund from being swallowed whole by a Greek default, leaving next-to-nothing to prevent broader contagion, the probable Greek default will be around 50%-60%.  Note that Greek obligations of all maturities, including 1-year notes, are trading at prices about 40 or below, so a 50% haircut would actually be an upgrade.  Given the likely time needed to sustainably narrow Greek deficits, a default of that size is also the only way that another later crisis would be prevented (at least for a decade, and hopefully much longer).

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Of course, Europe wouldn’t need to blow all of these public resources or impose depression on Greek citizens if bank stockholders and bondholders were required to absorb the losses that result from the mind-boggling leverage taken by European banks.  It’s that leverage (born of inadequate capital requirements and regulation), not simply bad investments or even Greek default per se, that is at the core of the crisis.

Given the fact that the European crisis appears to be reaching an important crossroads, the Occupy Wall Street protest seems well-timed.  The need for significant financial reform is frequently highlighted in most commentaries concerning the European situation.  Whether our venal politicians will seriously address this situation remains to be seen.  I’m not holding my breath.


 

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