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EU-phoria Fades

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The most recent “light at the end of the tunnel” for the European sovereign debt crisis was seen on Friday June 29.  At a summit in Brussels, leaders of the European Union member nations agreed upon yet another “plan for a plan” to recapitalize failing banks – particularly in Spain.  The Summit Statement, which briefly summarized the terms of the plan, explained that an agreement was reached to establish a supervisory entity which would oversee the European banking system and to allow recapitalization of troubled banks without adding to sovereign debt.  By owning shares in the ailing banks, the European Stability Mechanism would no longer have a senior creditor status, in order to prevent investors from being scared away from buying sovereign bonds.

The bond markets were relieved to know that once again, taxpayers would be paying for the losses sustained by bondholders.  The reaction was immediate.  Spanish and Italian bond yields dropped faster than William Shatner’s pants when he passed through airport securitySpain’s ten-year bond yield dropped to 6.51 percent on June 29 from the previous day’s closing level of 6.87 percent.  Italy’s ten-year bond yield sank to 5.79 percent from the previous closing level of 6.24 percent.

Global stock indices went parabolic after the news from Brussels on June 29.  Nevertheless, many commentators expressed their skepticism about the latest plan.  Economist John Hussman of the Hussman Funds discussed the shortcomings of the proposal in his Weekly Market Comment:

The upshot here is that Spain’s banks are undercapitalized and insolvent, but rather than take them over and appropriately restructure them in a way that requires bondholders to take losses instead of the public, Spain hopes to tap European bailout funds so that it can provide capital directly to its banks through the European Stability Mechanism (ESM), and put all of Europe’s citizens on the hook for the losses.Spainhas been trying to get bailout funds without actually having the government borrow the money, because adding new debt to its books would drive the country further toward sovereign default.  Moreover, institutions like the ESM, the ECB, and the IMF generally enjoy senior status on their loans, so that citizens and taxpayers are protected.  Spain’s existing bondholders have objected to this, since a bailout for the banks would make their Spanish debt subordinate to the ESM.

As a side note, the statement suggests that Ireland, which already bailed its banks out the old-fashioned way, will demand whatever deal Spain gets.

So the hope is that Europe will agree to establish a single bank supervisor for all of Europe’s banks.  After that, the ESM – Europe’s bailout fund – would have the “possibility” to provide capital directly to banks.  Of course, since we’re talking about capital – the first buffer against losses – the bailout funds could not simply be lent to the banks, since debt is not capital.  Instead, it would have to be provided by directly purchasing stock (though one can imagine the Orwellian possibility of the ESM lending to bank A to buy shares of bank B, and lending to bank B to buy shares of bank A).  On the question of whether this is a good idea, as opposed to the alternative of properly restructuring banks, ask Spain how the purchase of Bankia stock has been working out for Spanish citizens (Bankia’s bondholders should at least send a thank-you note).  In any event, if this plan for a plan actually goes through, the bailout funds – provided largely by German citizens – would not only lose senior status to Spain’s government debt; the funds would be subordinate even to the unsecured debt held by the bondholders of Spanish banks, since equity is the first thing you wipe out when a bank is insolvent.

It will be interesting to see how long it takes for the German people to figure this out.

The criticism expressed by Charles Hugh Smith is particularly relevant because it addresses the latest move by the European Central Bank to lower its benchmark interest rate by 25 basis points (0.25%) to a record low of 0.75 percent.  Smith’s essay, entitled “Sorry Bucko Europe Is Still in a Death Spiral” consisted of sixteen phases of the death spiral dynamic.  Here are the final seven:

10. Transferring bad debt to central banks does not mean interest will not accrue: interest on the debt still must be paid out of future income, impairing that income.

11. Lowering interest rates does not create collateral where none exists.

12. Lowering interest rates only stretches out the death spiral, it does not halt or reverse it.

13. Centralizing banking and oversight does not create collateral where none exists.

14. Europe will remain in a financial death spiral until the bad debt is renounced/written off and assets are liquidated on the open market.

15. Anything other than this is theater.  Pushing the endgame out a few months is not a solution, nor will it magically create collateral or generate sustainable “growth.”

16. The Martian Central Bank could sell bonds to replace bad debt in Europe, but as long as the MCB collects interest on the debt, then nothing has changed.

The Martians would be extremely bent when they discovered there is no real collateral for their 10 trillion-quatloo loan portfolio in Europe.

Of course, Mr. Smith is forgetting that the Martians could call upon those generous taxpayers from planet Zobion for a bailout   .   .   .


 

Niall Ferguson Softens His Austerity Stance

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I have previously criticized Niall Ferguson as one of the gurus for those creatures described by Barry Ritholtz as “deficit chicken hawks”.  The deficit chicken hawks have been preaching the gospel of economic austerity as an excuse for roadblocking any form of stimulus (fiscal or monetary) to rehabilitate the American economy.  Ferguson has now backed away from the position he held two years ago – that the United States has been carrying too much debt

Henry Blodget of The Business Insider justified his trip to Davos, Switzerland last week by conducting an important interview with Niall Ferguson at the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum.  For the first time, Ferguson conceded that he had been wrong with his previous criticism about the level of America’s sovereign debt load, although he denied ever having been a proponent of “instant austerity” (which is currently advocated by many American politicians).  While discussing the extent of the sovereign debt crisis in Europe, Ferguson re-directed his focus on the United States:

I think we are going to get some defaults one way or the other.  The U.S. is a different story.  First of all I think the debt to GDP ratio can go quite a lot higher before there’s any upward pressure on interest rates.  I think the more I’ve thought about it the more I’ve realized that there are good analogies for super powers having super debts.  You’re in a special position as a super power.  You get, especially, you know, as the issuer of the international reserve currency, you get a lot of leeway.  The U.S. could conceivably grow its way out of the debt.  It could do a mixture of growth and inflation.  It’s not going to default.  It may default on liabilities in Social Security and Medicare, in fact it almost certainly will.  But I think holders of Treasuries can feel a lot more comfortable than anyone who’s holding European bonds right now.

BLODGET: That is a shockingly optimistic view of the United States from you.  Are you conceding to Paul Krugman that over the near-term we shouldn’t worry so much?

FERGUSONI think the issue here got a little confused, because Krugman wanted to portray me as a proponent of instant austerity, which I never was.  My argument was that over ten years you have to have some credible plan to get back to fiscal balance because at some point you lose your credibility because on the present path, Congressional Budget Office figures make it clear, with every year the share of Federal tax revenues going to interest payments rises, there is a point after which it’s no longer credible.  But I didn’t think that point was going to be this year or next year.  I think the trend of nominal rates in the crisis has been the trend that he forecasted.  And you know, I have to concede that. I think the reason that I was off on that was that I hadn’t actually thought hard enough about my own work.  In the “Cash Nexus,” which I published in 2001, I actually made the argument that very large debts are sustainable, if your borrowing costs are low. And super powers – Britain was in this position in the 19th century – can carry a heck of a lot of debt before investors get nervous.  So there really isn’t that risk premium issue. There isn’t that powerful inflation risk to worry about.  My considered and changed view is that the U.S. can carry a higher debt to GDP ratio than I think I had in mind 2 or 3 years ago.  And higher indeed that my colleague and good friend, Ken Rogoff implies, or indeed states, in the “This Time Is Different” book.  I think what we therefore see is that the U.S. has leeway to carry on running deficits and allowing the debt to pile up for quite a few years before we get into the kind of scenario we’ve seen in Europe, where suddenly the markets lose faith.  It’s in that sense a safe haven more than I maybe thought before.

*   *   *

There are various forces in [the United States’] favor. It’s socially not Japan.  It’s demographically not Japan. And I sense also that the Fed is very determined not to be the Bank of Japan. Ben Bernanke’s most recent comments and actions tell you that they are going to do whatever they can to avoid the deflation or zero inflation story.

Niall Ferguson deserves credit for admitting (to the extent that he did so) that he had been wrong.  Unfortunately, most commentators and politicians lack the courage to make such a concession.

Meanwhile, Paul Krugman has been dancing on the grave of the late David Broder of The Washington Post, for having been such a fawning sycophant of British Prime Minister David Cameron and Jean-Claude Trichet (former president of the European Central Bank) who advocated the oxymoronic “expansionary austerity” as a “confidence-inspiring” policy:

Such invocations of the confidence fairy were never plausible; researchers at the International Monetary Fund and elsewhere quickly debunked the supposed evidence that spending cuts create jobs.  Yet influential people on both sides of the Atlantic heaped praise on the prophets of austerity, Mr. Cameron in particular, because the doctrine of expansionary austerity dovetailed with their ideological agendas.

Thus in October 2010 David Broder, who virtually embodied conventional wisdom, praised Mr. Cameron for his boldness, and in particular for “brushing aside the warnings of economists that the sudden, severe medicine could cut short Britain’s economic recovery and throw the nation back into recession.”  He then called on President Obama to “do a Cameron” and pursue “a radical rollback of the welfare state now.”

Strange to say, however, those warnings from economists proved all too accurate.  And we’re quite fortunate that Mr. Obama did not, in fact, do a Cameron.

Nevertheless, you can be sure that many prominent American politicians will ignore the evidence, as well as Niall Ferguson’s course correction, and continue to preach the gospel of immediate economic austerity – at least until the time comes to vote on one of their own pet (pork) projects.

American voters continue to place an increasing premium on authenticity when evaluating political candidates.  It would be nice if this trend would motivate voters to reject the “deficit chicken haws” for the hypocrisy they exhibit and the ignorance which motivates their policy decisions.


 

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Trouble Ahead

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I find it very amusing that we are being bombarded with so many absurd election year “talking points” and none of them concern the risk of a 2012 economic recession.  The entire world seems in denial about a global problem which is about to hit everyone over the head.  I’m reminded of the odd brainstorming session in September of 2008, when Presidential candidates Obama and McCain were seated at the same table with a number of econ-honchos, all of whom were scratching their heads in confusion about the financial crisis.  Something similar is about to happen again.  You might expect our leaders to be smart enough to avoid being blindsided by an adverse economic situation – again – but this is not a perfect world.  It’s not even a mediocre world.

After two rounds of quantitative easing, the Kool-Aid drinkers are sipping away, in anticipation of the “2012 bull market”.  Even the usually-bearish Doug Kass recently enumerated ten reasons why he expects the stock market to rally “in the near term”.  I was more impressed by the reaction posted by a commenter – identified as “Skateman” at the Pragmatic Capitalism blog.  Kass’ reason #4 is particularly questionable:

Mispaced preoccupation with Europe:  The European situation has improved.   .  .  .

Skateman’s reaction to Kass’ reason #4 makes more sense:

The Europe situation has not improved.  There is no escape from ultimate disaster here no matter how the deck chairs are rearranged.  Market’s just whistling past the graveyard.

Of particular importance was this recent posting by Mike Shedlock (a/k/a Mish), wherein he emphasized that “without a doubt Europe is already in recession.”  After presenting his readers with the most recent data supporting his claim, Mish concluded with these thoughts:

Telling banks to lend in the midst of a deepening recession with numerous austerity measures yet to kick in is simply absurd.  If banks did increase loans, it would add to bank losses.  The smart thing for banks to do is exactly what they are doing, parking cash at the ECB.

Austerity measures in Italy, Spain, Portugal, Greece, and France combined with escalating trade wars ensures the recession will be long and nasty.

*   *   *

Don’t expect the US to be immune from a Eurozone recession and a Chinese slowdown.  Unlike 2011, it will not happen again.

Back on October 8, Jeff Sommer wrote an article for The New York Times, discussing the Economic Cycle Research Institute’s forecast of another recession:

“If the United States isn’t already in a recession now it’s about to enter one,” says Lakshman Achuthan, the institute’s chief operations officer.  It’s just a forecast.  But if it’s borne out, the timing will be brutal, and not just for portfolio managers and incumbent politicians.  Millions of people who lost their jobs in the 2008-9 recession are still out of work.  And the unemployment rate in the United States remained at 9.1 percent in September.  More pain is coming, says Mr. Achuthan.  He thinks the unemployment rate will certainly go higher.  “I wouldn’t be surprised if it goes back up into double digits,” he says.

Mr. Achuthan’s outlook was echoed by economist John Hussman of the Hussman Funds, who pointed out in his latest Weekly Market Comment that investors have been too easily influenced by recent positive economic data such as payroll reports and Purchasing Managers Indices:

I can understand this view in the sense that the data points are correct – economic data has come in above expectations for several weeks, the Chinese, European and U.S. PMI’s have all ticked higher in the latest reports, new unemployment claims have declined, and December payrolls grew by 200,000.

Unfortunately, in all of these cases, the inference being drawn from these data points is not supported by the data set of economic evidence that is presently available, which is instead historically associated with a much more difficult outcome.  Specifically, the data set continues to imply a nearly immediate global economic downturn.  Lakshman Achuthan of the Economic Cycle Research Institute (ECRI) has noted if the U.S. gets through the second quarter of this year without falling into recession, “then, we’re wrong.”  Frankly, I’ll be surprised if the U.S. gets through the first quarter without a downturn.

At the annual strategy seminar held by Société Générale, their head of strategy – Albert Edwards – attracted quite a bit of attention with his grim prognostications.  The Economist summarized his remarks this way:

The surprise message for investors is that he feels the US is on the brink of another recession, despite the recent signs of optimism in the data (the non-farm payrolls, for example).  The recent temporary boost to consumption is down to a fall in the household savings ratio, which he thinks is not sustainable.

Larry Elliott of The Guardian focused on what Albert Edwards had to say about China and he provided more detail concerning Edwards’ remarks about the United States:

“There is a likelihood of a China hard landing this year.  It is hard to think 2013 and onwards will be any worse than this year if China hard-lands.”

*   *   *

He added that despite the recent run of more upbeat economic news from the United States, the risk of another recession in the world’s biggest economy was “very high”.  Growth had slowed to an annual rate of 1.5% in the second and third quarters of 2011, below the “stall speed” that historically led to recession.  It was unlikely that the economy would muddle through, Edwards said.

So there you have it.  The handwriting is on the wall.  Ignore it at your peril.


 

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Another Great Idea From Ron Paul

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Congressman Ron Paul is one of the few original thinkers on Capitol Hill.  Sometimes he has great ideas, although at other times he might sound a little daft.  He recently grabbed some headlines by expressing the view that the United States “should declare bankruptcy”.  A June 28 CNN report focused on Paul’s agreement with the contention that if bankruptcy is the cure for Greece, it is also the cure for the United States.  However, as most economists will point out, the situation in Greece is not at all relevant to our situation because the United States issues its own currency and Greece is stuck with the euro, under the regime of the European Central Bank.  Anyone who can’t grasp that concept should read this posting by Cullen Roche at the Seeking Alpha website.

Nevertheless, economist Dean Baker picked up on one of Congressman Paul’s points, which – if followed through to its logical conclusion – could actually solve the debt ceiling impasse.  The remark by Ron Paul which inspired Dean Baker was a gripe about the $1.6 trillion in Treasury securities that the Federal Reserve now holds as a result of two quantitative easing programs:

“We owe, like, $1.6 trillion because the Federal Reserve bought that debt, so we have to work hard to pay the interest to the Federal Reserve,” Paul said. “We don’t, I mean, they’re nobody; why do we have to pay them off?”

In an article for The New Republic, Dr. Baker commended Dr. Paul for his creativity and agreed that having the Federal Reserve Board destroy the $1.6 trillion in government bonds it now holds as a result of quantitative easing “is actually a very reasonable way to deal with the crisis”.  Baker provided this explanation:

Last year the Fed refunded almost $80 billion to the Treasury.  In this sense, the bonds held by the Fed are literally money that the government owes to itself.

Unlike the debt held by Social Security, the debt held by the Fed is not tied to any specific obligations.  The bonds held by the Fed are assets of the Fed.  It has no obligations that it must use these assets to meet.  There is no one who loses their retirement income if the Fed doesn’t have its bonds.  In fact, there is no direct loss of income to anyone associated with the Fed’s destruction of its bonds.  This means that if Congress told the Fed to burn the bonds, it would in effect just be destroying a liability that the government had to itself, but it would still reduce the debt subject to the debt ceiling by $1.6 trillion. This would buy the country considerable breathing room before the debt ceiling had to be raised again.  President Obama and the Republican congressional leadership could have close to two years to talk about potential spending cuts or tax increases.  Maybe they could even talk a little about jobs.

Unfortunately, the next passage of Dr. Baker’s essay exposed the reason why this simple, logical solution would never become implemented:

As it stands now, the Fed plans to sell off its bond holdings over the next few years.  This means that the interest paid on these bonds would go to banks, corporations, pension funds, and individual investors who purchase them from the Fed.

And therein lies the rub:  The infamous “too-big-to-fail” banks could buy those bonds with money borrowed from the Fed at a fractional interest rate, and then collect the yield on those bonds – entirely at the expense of American taxpayers!  Not only would the American people lose money by loaning the bond purchase money to the banks almost free of charge – we would lose even more money by paying those banks interest on the money we just loaned to those same banks – nearly free of charge.  (This is nothing new.  It’s been ongoing since the inception of “zero interest rate policy” or ZIRP on December 16, 2008.)  President Obama would never allow his patrons on Wall Street to have such an opportunity “stolen” from them by the American taxpayers.  Banking industry lobbyists would start swarming all over Capitol Hill carrying briefcases filled with money if any serious effort to undertake such a plan reached the discussion stage.  At this point, you might suspect that the grifters on the Hill could have a scheme underway:  Make a few noises about following Baker’s suggestion and wait for the lobbyists to start sharing the love.

In the mean time, the rest of us will be left to suffer the consequences of our government’s failure to raise the debt ceiling.


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Screw The People And Save The Banks

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The economic crisis in Ireland (and the rest of Europe) has resulted in a morass of published commentaries, some of which make sense and most of which don’t.  Sometimes it appears as though the writer hasn’t really formed an opinion on the issue, even though the tone of the article seems to be expressing one.  The problem experienced in Ireland is the same as it is everywhere else:  During tough economic times, governments always choose to bail out the banks regardless of the expense and suffering to be endured by the citizens.  The Pragmatic Capitalist recently upbraided the writer of one of the more poorly-thought-out essays dealing with the Irish predicament:

Sheila Bair, the head of the FDIC, has remained one of the more levelheaded and helpful leaders during the financial crisis.  But in an op-ed in the Washington Post this morning she took a decisive turn for the worse when she waded into waters that were certain to drown her.  Bair is now echoing the cries that have been heard across Ireland for the last 2 years – cries of fiscal austerity.  Of course, the USA is nothing like Ireland and has an entirely different monetary system, but Bair ignores all of this (in fact proves she is entirely ignorant of this).  What’s sad is that Bair clearly understands that this crisis is still largely hurting Main Street America   .   .   .

To the extent that the Irish situation bears any resemblance to what we are experiencing (or may soon experience) in the United States, economist John Hussman has written the best essay on this issue.  Hussman began with this point, made by another economist:

“If you have bad banks then you very urgently want to clean up your banks because bad banks go only one way:  they get worse. In the end every bank is a fiscal problem.  When you have bad banks, it is in a political environment where it is totally understood that the government is going to bail them out in the end.  And that’s why they are so bad, and that’s why they get worse.  So cleaning up the banks is an essential counterpart of any attempt to have a well functioning economy.  It is a counterpart of any attempt to have a dull, uninteresting macroeconomy.  And there is no excuse to do it slowly because it is very expensive to postpone the cleanup.  There is no technical issue in doing the cleanup.  It’s mostly to decide to start to grow up and stop the mess.”

MIT Economist Rudiger Dornbusch, November 1998

The TARP bailout was not the only time when our government chose a temporary fix (as in cure or heroin injection) at great taxpayer expense.  I’ve complained many times about President Obama’s decision to scoff at using the so-called “Swedish solution” of putting the zombie banks through temporary receivership.  John Hussman discussed the consequences:

If our policy makers had made proper decisions over the past two years to clean up banks, restructure debt, and allow irresponsible lenders to take losses on bad loans, there is no doubt in my mind that we would be quickly on the course to a sustained recovery, regardless of the extent of the downturn we have experienced.  Unfortunately, we have built our house on a ledge of ice.

*   *   *

As I’ve frequently noted, even if a bank “fails,” it doesn’t mean that depositors lose money.  It means that the stockholders and bondholders do.  So if it turns out, after all is said and done, that the bank is insolvent, the government should get its money back and the remaining entity should be taken into receivership, cut away from the stockholder liabilities, restructured as to bondholder liabilities, recapitalized, and reissued.  We did this with GM, and we can do it with banks.  I suspect that these issues will again become relevant within the next few years.

The present situation

Europe will clearly be in the spotlight early this week, as a run on Irish banks coupled with large fiscal deficits has created a solvency crisis for the Irish government itself and has been (temporarily) concluded with a bailout agreement.  Ireland’s difficulties are the result of a post-Lehman guarantee that the Irish government gave to its banking system in 2008.  The resulting strains will now result in a bailout, in return for Ireland’s agreement to slash welfare payments and other forms of spending to recipients that are evidently less valuable to society than bankers.

*   *   *

Over the short run, Ireland will promise “austerity” measures like Greece did – large cuts in government spending aimed at reducing the deficit.  Unfortunately, imposing austerity on a weak economy typically results in further economic weakness and a shortfall on the revenue side, meaning that Ireland will most probably face additional problems shortly anyway.

The “austerity” approach is more frequently being used as a dividing line to distinguish “liberal” economists from “conservative” economists.  The irony here is that many so-called liberal politicians are as deeply in the pocket of the banking lobby as their conservative counterparts.  Economist Dean Baker recently wrote an article for The Guardian, urging Ireland to follow the example of Argentina and simply default on its debt:

The failure of the ECB or IMF to take steps to rein in the bubble before the crisis has not made these international financial institutions shy about using a heavy hand in imposing conditions now.  The plan is to impose stiff austerity, requiring much of Ireland’s workforce to suffer unemployment for years to come as a result of the failure of their bankers and the ECB.

While it is often claimed that these institutions are not political, only the braindead could still believe this.  The decision to make Ireland’s workers, along with workers in Spain, Portugal, Latvia and elsewhere, pay for the recklessness of their country’s bankers is entirely a political one.  There is no economic imperative that says that workers must pay; this is a political decision being imposed by the ECB and IMF.

Bloomberg News columnist, Matthew Lynn wrote a great article for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, setting out five reasons why Ireland should refuse a bailout from the European Union and the International Monetary Fund to opt for default as the logical approach.

Pay close attention to how your favorite politicians weigh-in on the Irish situation.  It should give you a fairly good tip as to what actions those pols can be expected to take when the Wall Street bankers dash back to Capitol Hill for TARP 2 The Sequel.


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