Never bark at the big dog. The big dog is always right.
If your goal is to restore growth and full employment in a crisis-ridden economy, don’t use austerity. It does not work. I have explained this for two years now – in blogs, research papers and numerous debates – and I am pleased to say that my work has been recognized. One step forward on that front is my book, out in July. But more important than the recognition of my work is the constant reminders of austerity failure that reality provides. In addition to raw, statistical evidence of decline and stagnation all over Europe, the German government is now de facto conceding defeat on the austerity front. From British newspaper The Guardian:
Germany has signalled it is preparing a third rescue package for Greece – provided the debt-stricken country implements “rigorous” austerity measures blamed for record levels of unemployment and a dramatic drop in GDP. The new loan, outlined in a five-page position paper by Berlin’s finance ministry, would be worth between €10bn to €20bn (£8bn-16bn), according to the German weekly Der Spiegel, which was leaked the document. Such an amount would chime with comments made by the German finance minister, Wolfgang Schäuble, who, in a separate interview due to be published on Monday insisted that any additional aid required by Athens would be “far smaller” than the €240bn it had received so far.
So how can the German government be admitting it has lost the austerity fight against the economic crisis, when it actually demands more austerity by the Greek government? Simple: the German government together with assorted Eurocrats from Brussels have sold last two fiscal-disaster packages as “the” fix for the crisis. If only Greece agreed to this-or-that austerity measure, and then got a loan, then the Greek economy would be on a fast track to a recovery.
By now proposing not a second, but a third bailout for the Hellenic welfare-state wasteland the German government is de facto admitting that the prior two packages did not at all deliver as promised.
Which, of course, is an outstanding reason to try the same policies a third time while expecting a different outcome…
The Guardian again:
The renewed help follows revelations of clandestine talks between Schäuble and leading EU figures over how to deal with Greece, which despite receiving the biggest bailout in global financial history, continues to remain the weakest link in the eurozone. The talks, said to have taken place on the sidelines of a Eurogroup meeting of eurozone finance ministers last week, are believed to have focused on the need to cover an impending shortfall in the country’s financing and the reluctance Athens is displaying to enforce long overdue structural reforms.
It is a bit unclear what the “structural” element of those reforms would be, but if the history of Greek bailouts is any indication we can safely assume that the “reforms” would be higher taxes and lower entitlement spending. While less spending is highly desirable, it has to come in the form of predictable reductions – and they have to be coupled with targeted tax cuts that give those dependent on government a fighting chance to provide for themselves once the government handouts are gone.
Such reforms are not rocket science. Two years ago I put together five such proposals in a book. I would not expect the Greek government to have read it, or that any Eurocrat would have seen it… but the basic idea – permanent spending cuts coupled with targeted tax cuts – is so common-sensical that you would expect someone in Europe to propose it as a guideline for getting Greece, and Europe, out of its crisis.
So far, though, I have not seen a single proposal for “structural reform” in Greece along these lines.
Perhaps it is understandable, at the end of the day, why no such ideas are floating around in the public debate. After all, the end result is a dismantling of the welfare state, an idea as alien to Europeans as a monarchy is to Americans. But so long as Europe’s political leaders remain married to the welfare state, they will also have to continue to come up with non-solutions to the crisis. One of those solutions is another debt write-down. The Guardian again:
Most of the debt overhang now haunting the country belongs to European governments and at 176% of GDP – up from 120% of national output at the start of the crisis – is not only a barrier to investment but widely regarded as being at the root of its economic woes. “They are missing the point: Greece does not need a third bailout, it needs debt restructuring,” said the shadow development minister and economics professor, Giorgos Stathakis. “Even in the IMF, logical people agree there is no way we can have any more fiscal adjustment when the whole thing has reached its limits,” he said. “There is simply no room for further cuts and further taxes and that is what they are going to ask for.”
It is precisely this attitude that traps Greece in a perpetual crisis. Its plunge into industrial poverty over the past five years was not caused by a financial crisis, as public economic mythology suggests. The plunge was the work of the welfare state, which over a long period of time had drained the private sector of money, entrepreneurship, investments and productivity. When the global recession hit, the excessive cost of the welfare state was exposed full force. Trying first and foremost to save the welfare state, Eurocrats from the EU and the ECB joined forces with economists from the IMF to squeeze even more taxes out of the private sector. At the same time, the rapidly growing crowds of unemployed and poor were deprived of more and more of the only thing that had kept them going: welfare-state handouts.
The result was that those who saw their handouts shrink were even less able to find a job than they had been before. Rising taxes killed the job market for them.
At the core, the Greek crisis is one of a welfare state that costs vastly more than the private sector of the Greek economy can afford, even on a good day. The debt that the good professor and fellow economist Stathakis wants to have forgiven is the result of this historic mess of irresponsible entitlements and burdensome taxes.
If Greece does not fix its welfare-state problem, it does not matter how much debt that is forgiven. It will continue to accumulate more debt, and then what? Another round of debt forgiveness?
Again, this basic insight is missing from the European discussion on what to do with Greece. Even the IMF is apparently concentrating on the debt burden, suggesting, according to the Guardian, that “without additional debt relief by eurozone governments, Greece’s debt burden could smother the country’s economy.” That is exactly wrong: the economy is being smothered by the welfare state, which austerity measures are aimed at saving.
At least there is some common sense in the debate. The Guardian concludes:
China, Brazil, Argentina, India, Egypt and Switzerland have been among the countries expressing grave doubts that the assistance would work, arguing that Greece might end up worse off after the austerity programme.
Thank you for that. Let’s now hope that more people see this and that we can get some traction for a reform program that combines entitlement phase-out with targeted tax cuts. It is the only way to save Greece from generations of industrial poverty – and it is the only way to save the rest of Europe from the same fate.
On Monday I explained that Greece has begun a transition from depression to stagnation. The transition is visible in macroeconomic data: the decline in GDP and private consumption, both of which have been going on for years, are not as fast anymore, and unemployment seems to be plateauing. Government debt is still growing, though, especially when measured as a ratio to GDP. In the second quarter of 2013, the latest number available, the quarter-to-quarter increase in the ratio was faster than it was in any of the three preceding quarters.
The transition from depression to stagnation is largely made possible by two factors. First, the Greeks have lost one quarter of their economy, which includes an enormous drop in standard of living. Most Greeks have had to forfeit consumption that people in other industrialized countries take for granted. What remains is essentially the bare-bones kind of consumption that you realistically cannot sustain without in an industrialized country. At this “core consumption” level of economic activity, it is harder for people to cut away anything more. As a result, they will increase their efforts to protect what they have left.
Secondly, years of austerity has recalibrated the Greek welfare state. The reason why it ran enormous deficits for years is that its tax rates could not produce enough revenue for the spending that the welfare state required. This was a problem before the Great Recession but it exploded into pure urgency as the crisis started unfolding. Instead of trying to turn around the implosion of the economy, the EU and the Greek government decided to recalibrate the welfare state: taxes were raised to produce more revenue at a lower GDP, and spending programs were cut to spend less at that same lower GDP. Each new austerity program effectively constituted another recalibration. Eventually, during last year, the recalibration efforts caught up with the imploding GDP, and austerity tapered off.
Once you release an economy from its austerity stranglehold it will transition from decline to stagnation. However, it will not recover – other than marginally – for one very simple reason: the welfare state is now recalibrated to balance the budget at an abysmally low activity level. Therefore, as soon as economic activity picks up the government budget will suck in excessive amounts of money from the private sector, creating substantial surpluses early on in the recovery. Politicians who have fought the people to subject them to round after round of austerity will not be inclined to cut taxes; they will see the surpluses as yet another sign that “austerity worked”. While they throw victory parties, the economy continues to putter along at permanently higher unemployment and a permanently lower standard of living.
This is exactly what happened in Sweden in the ’90s (I have an entire chapter on that crisis in my upcoming book Industrial Poverty) and the Greek situation is not much different.
Yet despite glaring evidence to the contrary, there are people out there who willingly and eagerly claim that in the austerity war on the crisis, austerity won. In an opinion piece for the EU Observer, Derk Jan Eppink, Member of the EU Parliament from Belgium and vice president of the Parliament’s Conservatives and Reformists group, has this to say:
Irish Premier Enda Kenny has announced his country will exit its bailout programme in December. When he took office in 2011, Ireland’s budget deficit was over 30 percent of GDP. Narrowing it to projections of 7.3 percent this year and 4.8 percent next, Kenny has restored market confidence in Dublin’s ability to sort out its long-term debts. Investors are again willing to buy Irish bonds, raising funds and lowering borrowing costs. In mid-2011, interest on Irish debt stood at 15 percent. Now it is below 4 percent and Ireland has raised sufficient cash balances to cover all its debt payments next year. Standard & Poor’s and Fitch have both returned their Irish rating to investment grade. Without repairing its ability to manage its debts, Ireland’s government could not function for very long as a provider of essential public services. Irish recovery could not have happened without the fiscal consolidation which commentators attack as “austerity.”
It is interesting to notice what metrics Mr. Eppink uses to measure the Irish “success”. The austerity program has recalibrated the Irish welfare state to produce a budget balance at a vastly lower activity level than before the crisis. This means that the Irish government has no incentive to run a fiscal policy that brings the economy back to its higher activity levels; as in the Greek case, its tax-and-spend ratios will actually discourage private-sector growth beyond what is needed for the newly calibrated budget balance.
What this means in practice is easy to see in Eurostat employment numbers. Irish unemployment has fallen over the past two years, with total unemployment down from 15.1 percent in January 2012 to 12.3 percent in November 2013; during the same period of time youth unemployment declined from 31.1 percent to 24.8 percent. This looks like a solid recovery, especially since one in four unemployed aged 15-24 is no longer unemployed. However, if we cross-check these numbers with the employment ratio we get a somewhat different picture:
In the years before the crisis the employment ratio for 15-64 year-olds was 65-70 percent; in the third quarters of 2010, 2011, 2012 and 2013 it has averaged 59.7 percent, with no visible trend either up or down;
In the years before the crisis Irish unemployment for the group aged 15-24 was 45-55 percent; in the third quarters of 2010, 2011, 2012 and 2013 it has averaged 30.9 percent, with no visible trend either up or down.
It is troubling when unemployment falls but employment ratios remain steady. It means that people are either leaving Ireland in desperation or, more likely, that they are leaving the work force. A closer look at the enrollment in various income-security programs would probably give a detailed answer. (I will try to return to that later.)
A glance at GDP data also indicates stagnation rather than recovery. In the third quarter of 2013 the Irish seasonally adjusted, constant-price GDP grew by 1.7 percent over the same quarter in 2012. However, the four preceding quarters GDP contracted. There was more growth in the Irish economy in 2011 than what appears to be the case in 2013. Private consumption has been falling six of the last eight quarters, with entirely negative numbers thus far for 2013.
There is only one conclusion to draw from these numbers: there is no Irish recovery under way. If anything, the end of the Irish austerity campaign has marked the starting point of economic stagnation for the Irish economy just as it has in Greece.
Standard&Poor’s, one of the leading US-based ratings agencies, on Friday (20 December) downgraded EU’s rating by one notch to AA+, citing concerns over how the bloc’s budget was funded. “In our opinion, the overall creditworthiness of the now 28 European Union member states has declined,” Standard&Poor’s said in a note to investors. Last month, it downgraded the Netherlands, one of the few remaining triple-A rated EU countries. In the eurozone, only Germany, Luxembourg and Finland have kept their top rating.
Not surprising. The Netherlands experienced a very tough budget fight in 2012, with a resigning prime minister, upsetting elections and, during 2013, a close encounter with harsh austerity policies. This was not exactly what the Dutch had expected that they would be subjected to. Or, as I explained the situation in March 2013:
The Dutch government, which has been clearly in favor of tough austerity measures on southern European economies where the deficit exceeds the three-percent limit, now suddenly recognizes that austerity is bad for GDP growth. To play on another American proverb, life is not as fun when the austerity chickens are coming home to roost.
Evidently, the Dutch austerity measures did not prevent a credit plunge. Back now to the EU Observer story about the Standard & Poor downgrading:
The agency noted that “EU budgetary negotiations have become more contentious, signalling what we consider to be rising risks to the support of the EU from some member states.” EU talks for the 2014-2020 budget took over a year as richer countries – notably the UK and Germany – insisted on a cut, while southern and eastern ones wanted more money.
And herein lies the gist of why S&P is worried. The EU budget fight is about countries with better government finances wanting to pay less to countries with troubled or outright catastrophic government finances. If there is a cut in EU funds to Spain, Portugal or Greece, those recipient countries will have to take even tougher measures to try to comply with the budget balance targets set by the EU and the ECB. Given that they are already chronically incapable of doing so, it is not hard to see why S&P is very concerned with cuts in the EU budget.
This message, though, seems lost on some Eurocrats:
The news struck just as EU leaders were gathering for their last day of a summit in Brussels. European Commission chief Jose Manuel Barroso dismissed the rating downgrade. “We have no deficit, no debt and also very strong budget revenues from our own resources. We disagree with this particular ratings agency,” the top official said in a press conference at the end of the EU summit. “We think the EU is a very credible institution when it comes to its financial obligations,” Barroso added. … EU Council chief Herman Van Rompuy downplayed the S&P decision. “The downgrade will not spoil our Christmas,” he said.
Perhaps we should not expect anything else from them. After all, the Eurocracy in Brussels has proven, over and over again, that it lacks insight, interest and intelligence to successfully deal with Europe’s perennial economic crisis. This is in itself a troubling fact, as the signs of a continuing crisis are everywhere for everyone to see. A good example, also from the EU Observer:
The number of people unemployed in France rose 0.5% to over 10.5% in November, figures released Thursday show. The statistics are a political blow for President Francois Hollande who had pledged to bring the rate down by the end of 2013. The figures for December will be released end January.
The Eurocracy’s refusal to see the big, macroeconomic picture is also revealed in their delusional attitude toward the EU’s crisis policy:
The EU says Spain’s banks are back on a “sound footing,” but one in four Spanish people are still unemployed. Klaus Regling, the director of the Luxembourg-based European Stability Mechanism (ESM), made the statement on Tuesday (31 December) to mark the expiry of Spain’s EU credit line. He described the rescue effort as “an impressive success story” and predicted the Spanish economy will “achieve stability and sustainable growth” in the near future.
The only problem is that the crisis in the Spanish banks was not the cause of the economic crisis. The welfare state was the cause. Europe’s banks actually suffered badly from the crisis by having exposed themselves heavily to euro-denoted Treasury bonds: when Greece, Italy, Portugal, Spain, Ireland and even countries like Belgium and Netherlands started having serious budget problems, Treasury bonds lost their status as minimum-risk anchors in bank asset portfolios.
With trillions of euros worth of exposure to government debt, Europe’s banks rightly began panicking when in 2012 Greece forced them to write off some of the country’s debt. The debt write-off was directly linked to a runaway welfare state, whose spending promises vastly exceeded what Greek taxpayers could ever afford. The same problem occurred in Spain where the government’s ability to pay its debt costs have been in serious question for almost two years now.
To highlight the Spanish situation, consider these numbers from Eurostat:
- In 2007 the consolidated Spanish government debt was 382.3 billion euros, of which financial institutions owned 47 percent, or 179.7 billion euros;
- In 2012 the consolidated Spanish government debt was 883.9 billion euros, of which financial institutions owned 57.5 percent, of 507.9 billion euros.
In five short years, Spanish banks bought 382.2 billion euros worth of government bonds. During that same time, the Spanish government plummeted from the comfortable lounges of good credit to the doorstep of the financial junkyard.
It was also during this period of credit downgrading that the Spanish government began subjecting the country to exceptionally hard austerity measures, the terrifying effects of which I have explained repeatedly. However, as today’s third EU Observer story reports, those effects are of no consequence to the Eurocracy, whose praise for austerity will soon know no limits:
He also praised the EU’s austerity policy more broadly, saying: “The people’s readiness to accept temporary hardship for the sake of a sustainable recovery are exemplary … The Spanish success shows that our strategy of providing temporary loans against strong conditionality is working.” Spain will officially exit its bailout later this month, after Ireland quit its programme in December. Unlike Cyprus, Greece, Ireland and Portugal, the Spanish rescue was limited to its banking sector instead of a full-blown state bailout. It saw the ESM put up a €100 billion credit line in July 2012. In the end, the ESM paid out €41.3 billion to a new Spanish body, the Fondo de Restructuracion Ordenado Bancaria (FROM), which channelled the loans, most of which mature in 2024 or 2025, to failing lenders.
So all that has happened is that European taxpayers have been put on the hook for failed Spanish bank loans – loan defaults that Spain’s banks could have dealt with had they not chosen to lend a total of half-a-trillion dollars to their failing government.
Nobody seems to ask how this debt restructuring will help the Spanish government end its austerity policies. Such an end is a must if the Spanish economy is ever to recover. That does not mean a return to “business as usual” under the welfare state – on the contrary, the welfare state must go – but what it does mean is some breathing room for the private sector to regain its regular, albeit slow, pace of business.
Instead of connecting the dots here, the Eurocracy continues to look at the European economic crisis through split-vision glasses, and Spain is no exception. The EU Observer again:
For its part, the European Commission last month warned that the Spanish economy is still in bad shape despite the good news. It noted that “lending to the economy, and in particular to the corporate sector, is still declining substantially, even if some bottoming out of that contraction process might be in sight.” Meanwhile, the latest commission statistics say 26.7 percent of the Spanish labour force and 57.4 percent of its under-25s are out of work. The labour force figure is second only to Greece (27.3%) and much higher than the EU’s third worst jobs performer, Croatia (17.6%). … A poll in the El Mundo newspaper published also on Wednesday showed that 71 percent of Spanish people do not believe they will see any real benefit from Spain’s recovery until 2015 at the earliest.
All this ties back to the Standard & Poor downgrading of the EU. There is, plain and simple, a lot of concern that nothing is going to get better in the EU. There are good reasons to believe this: the persistent message from Brussels over the past two years has been that the next austerity package will be the last, that it will turn things around and put depression-stricken economies back on track again. As we all know, that has not happened, which raises the question if the EU is going to have to actually increase its bailout efforts toward fiscally troubled member states.
This blog’s answer is “yes, very probably”. Europe’s only way back to prosperity and growth goes through the structural elimination of the welfare state.
Welcome to Year of the Lord 2014. (Forget that “Current Era” crap – we are on God’s calendar for a reason!)
A lot is at stake this year. For us here in America we have upcoming midterm elections in November. Republicans have the momentum and it is not impossible that they take the Senate. The Democrats are panicking over what the Obama presidency is doing to their party; they have already suffered costly losses in state legislatures and gubernatorial offices.
We will also see an emerging field of presidential candidates for 2016. There are already some interesting Republicans lurking behind the curtains. New Jersey Governor Chris Christie is often suggested as an early front runner. Senator Ted Cruz has won many informal polls recently, and let’s not forget Senator Rand Paul, a much more realistic libertarian politician than his firebrand father.
To make matters even more interesting, there could actually be some respectable candidates on the Democrat side as well, such as New York Governor Andrew Cuomo (though he might hold off until he’s done two terms).
We also have to get really serious about our budget deficit. Fortunately, Compact for America – I am on their advisory council – is making progress with a good, realistic proposal for a constitutional amendment to bring about a budget balance.
Overall, the outlook for the United States is moderately optimistic. That includes the economy, which is not exactly steaming ahead, but definitely crawling forward faster than the European economy. The fact of the matter is that Europe, or at least the European Union, is in much bigger trouble than the United States. Yes, our interest rates on such indicators as the ten-year Treasury bond may be a bit higher than, e.g., France, but unemployment, GDP growth, taxes and welfare spending are all moving in the wrong direction in the EU.
To make matters worse for Europe, the current crisis, which I have described as a state of industrial poverty, is far from over. In fact, it may very well make a big turn for the worse, a fact that very few people speak openly about. We find a notable exception in one of the world’s few remaining respectable journalists, namely Ambrose Evans-Pritchard at The Telegraph, who does not mince his words when discussing the mounting debt crisis in the industrialized world:
Much of the Western world will require defaults, a savings tax and higher inflation to clear the way for recovery as debt levels reach a 200-year high, according to a new report by the International Monetary Fund. The IMF working paper said debt burdens in developed nations have become extreme by any historical measure and will require a wave of haircuts, either negotiated 1930s-style write-offs or the standard mix of measures used by the IMF in its “toolkit” for emerging market blow-ups. “The size of the problem suggests that restructurings will be needed, for example, in the periphery of Europe, far beyond anything discussed in public to this point,” said the paper, by Harvard professors Carmen Reinhart and Kenneth Rogoff.
Some telling examples of what we are talking about:
- The EU, with 28 member states, had a gross government debt of 86.8 percent of GDP in the second quarter of 2013, up from 84.8 percent in Q2 2012;
- The 17-member euro zone’s debt ratios were 93.4 percent in Q2 2013 and 89.9 percent in Q2 2012;
- Greece: 169.1 percent, up from 149.2;
- Spain: 92.3, up from 77.6;
- France: 93.5, up from 90.8;
- Italy: 133.3, up from 125.6;
- The Netherlands: 73.9, up from 68.4.
Very few EU member states show a falling debt ratio, and when they do, the decline is marginal compared to the rise in other countries.
There is an implicit premise in the IMF report about the relation between the private sector and government. Before we get to it, let’s hear more from Evans-Pritchard:
The [IMF] paper said policy elites in the West are still clinging to the illusion that rich countries are different from poorer regions and can therefore chip away at their debts with a blend of austerity cuts, growth, and tinkering (“forbearance”). The presumption is that advanced economies “do not resort to such gimmicks” such as debt restructuring and repression, which would “give up hard-earned credibility” and throw the economy into a “vicious circle”. But the paper says this mantra borders on “collective amnesia” of European and US history, and is built on “overly optimistic” assumptions that risk doing far more damage to credibility in the end.
Very important indeed. Remember the Greek partial debt default? Not to mention the Cypriot Bank Heist when the government of Cyprus confiscated private savings deposits to pay for a bank bailout. Both these measures are now part of the legislative toolkit as the governments of the EU continue to fight their hopeless fight against the debt.
In reality, this fight is about something else than the debt itself. It is about the very heart and soul of the European economy. If the EU chooses to deal with its current crisis the way the IMF hints at, then it will automatically put government above the private sector. The measures proposed will save government at the expense of the private sector. This is the implicit premise in the IMF report, one that Evans-Pritchard does not address. However, as we return to his column we get some hints of how this premise would inform actual policy:
While use of debt pooling in the eurozone can reduce the need for restructuring or defaults, it comes at the cost of higher burdens for northern taxpayers. This could drag the EMU core states into a recession and aggravate their own debt and ageing crises. The clear implication of the IMF paper is that Germany and the creditor core would do better to bite the bullet on big write-offs immediately rather than buying time with creeping debt mutualisation. The paper says the Western debt burden is now so big that rich states will need same tonic of debt haircuts, higher inflation and financial repression – defined as an “opaque tax on savers” – as used in countless IMF rescues for emerging markets.
Aside the implied acknowledgement that the private sector will have to give in order for Europe’s welfare states to take, this paragraph is an effective IMF acknowledgement that Europe is now in a state of long-term economic stagnation.
The two issues actually connect. If there was any prospect of strong economic growth in the EU, there would not be any need to push for practically authoritarian measures to “save” governments from their own debts. Yet the IMF report cleverly opens for precisely that, namely debt defaults on a much wider scale than happened in Greece, as well as inflation and widespread use of so called “financial repression”:
Most advanced states wrote off debt in the 1930s, though in different ways. … Financial repression can take many forms, including capital controls, interest rate caps or the force-feeding of government debt to captive pension funds and insurance companies. Some of these methods are already in use but not yet on the scale seen in the late 1940s and early 1950s as countries resorted to every trick to tackle their war debts. The policy is essentially a confiscation of savings, partly achieved by pushing up inflation while rigging the system to stop markets taking evasive action.
We hear more and more about inflation as a “solution” to the debt crisis. This is disturbing, especially since when the inflation genie is out of the bottle, he is mighty reluctant to get back in there again. While it is difficult for politicians to cause inflation, it is not impossible, and if they are delusional enough to believe that they can turn off the inflation faucet just as easily as they can turn it on, they are going to use it.
Again, inflation is but one of the measures that politicians would resort to in order to save the welfare state from its own debt. The measures to save the welfare state would by necessity tax the private sector in every way possible, thus forcing voluntary economic activity – the heart and soul of a free society – to take the back seat while coercive economic activity – the welfare state – lives on unperturbed by the weight of its own debt.
The comparison to World War II debt is an egregious way to elevate the welfare-state crisis above the responsibility of statist politicians who built and nurtured it. World War II was an exceptional, disastrous event. The current debt crisis was not caused by a disaster. It was caused by deliberate, long-term political action to take one man’s money and time and give to someone else, for no other reason than that the recipient was considered “entitled”.
Through the build-up of the welfare state, government spending ran amok, demanding far more money than taxpayers could afford, over a long period of time. I explain this in detail in my forthcoming book Industrial Poverty; the short story is that Europe’s welfare states allowed entitlement spending to creep up above tax revenues, little by little, until the combined effect of taxes, entitlements and work discouragement had pushed back the private sector to where it was structurally unable to pay for the welfare state.
At this point it was only a matter of time before the debt that the welfare state brought about would explode. The financial crisis came along and helped the debt balloon inflate – notably the financial crisis was aggravated by banks’ exposure to deteriorating government debt!
This means two things. First, it is high time to stop imposing more regulations on the private sector. The more governments regulate the private sector, the more hindrances they put in place for the only engine that can pull Europe out of its crisis. Secondly, there is no way out of the debt crisis unless we are willing to say farewell to the welfare state. Its entitlement systems and its taxes will continue to weigh down the private sector for as long as the welfare state exists. The same crawling debt crisis that exploded in 2008-09 will begin again as soon as governments all over Europe stop their austerity measures.
At the same time, austerity has only made a bad crisis worse. The design of austerity measures used thus far is clearly to save the welfare state and make it fit within a tighter economy. Yet the burden of entitlement programs has not eased – on the contrary, it has increased. For every new austerity measure that has increased taxes and cut government spending, the economic crisis has worsened, thus giving rise to the need for even more austerity.
Europe must break this vicious circle, and the only way to do this is to abandon the desperate hunt for the balanced budget. Instead, Europe’s political leadership must focus on structurally phasing out the welfare state. They must privatize health care, income security and education – and cut taxes proportionately to their structural spending cuts. They must let the private sector take over what government has failed at delivering, both in terms of producing services and in terms of funding those services. Permanent spending cuts coupled with well designed tax cuts.
Only then can Europe see growth and prosperity again. If they do not choose this path, but instead stick to the old recipe of keeping the welfare state and trying to starve it into a stagnant economy, they will perpetuate their debt crisis.
That, in turn, means static or even declining private-sector activity while more and more people will clamor to the welfare state’s entitlement programs just to be able to make ends meet every month. Government will continue to grow, both in absolute and in relative terms. That growth will continue ad infinitum, until there is nothing but a planned, Sovieticized economy left.
Europe does not need that. Europe needs massive doses of economic freedom.
More signs of desperation out of Europe. Der Spiegel reports:
The European Central Bank wants to spur lending by banks in Southern Europe, but conventional methods have shown little success so far. On Thursday, ECB officials will consider monetary weapons that were previously considered taboo.
The only way to get the European economy going again is to cut taxes, phase out the welfare state and build economic freedom from the ground. But that is about the last thing the clowns in Brussels and Frankfurt want to hear, because in their world, shrinking government – like eating children – is wrong.
Der Spiegel again:
From Mario Drahgi’s perspective, the euro zone has already been split for some time. When the head of the powerful European Central Bank looks at the credit markets within the currency union, he sees two worlds. In one of those worlds, the one in which Germany primarily resides, companies and consumers are able to get credit more cheaply and easily than ever before. In the other, mainly Southern European world, it is extremely difficult for small and medium-sized businesses to get affordable loans. Fears are too high among banks that the debtors will default.
Now, please pay attention to this. We have been told for more than four years now that the current crisis was caused by banks engaging in irresponsible lending. We have been told that it was their credit losses that somehow brought the global economy into a recession and hurled parts of Europe into a depression.
You’d think that with this in mind, with a depression that has wiped out tens of millions of jobs and sent youth unemployment above 20 percent in 20 countries, the last thing that the European Central Bank would wish for is another round of reckless lending.
Well, in a world governed by common sense that would certainly be true. But today’s Europe is not governed by common sense. It is governed by uncommon senselessness. Der Spiegel again:
For Draghi and many of his colleagues on the ECB Governing Council, this dichotomy is a nightmare. They want to do everything in their power to make sure that companies in the debt-plagued countries also have access to affordable loans — and thus can bring new growth to the ailing economies. The ECB has already gone to great lengths to achieve this objective. It has provided the banks with virtually unlimited high credit and drastically lowered the collateral required from the institutions. The central bank has also brought down interest rates to historical lows. Since early November, financial institutions have been able to borrow from the ECB at a rate of 0.25 percent interest. By comparison, the rate was more than 4 percent in 2008.
Private businesses in Greece, Spain, Portugal and the other worst-hit countries are considerably smarter than the big wigs who run the ECB. They are not lending, because they know that in an economy like the Greek one, where GDP has been shrinking for five years in a row, or the Portuguese where GDP is as big today as it was ten years ago, there simply is no market for new investments and business expansion. If anything, business still need to downsize. Which, as Der Spiegel reports, they are still doing:
The only problem is that all those low interest rates have so far barely been put to use. Lending to companies in the euro zone is still in decline. In October, banks granted 2.1 percent less credit to companies and households than in the same period last year.
Apparently willing to ignore elementary banking theory, Mr. Draghi and the Central Bankers are searching for new policy measures. According to Der Spiegel, their search is taking them to the most obscure closets in the ECB attic:
In other words, they want banks to pump more liquidity into the euro-zone economy. Let’s remember that this is an economy that has been flooded with liquidity over the past few years. One liquidity flood gate is the M1 money supply, which is growing at a speed that is about four times as high as the rate of growth in euro-zone GDP. Another is the bond bailout program where the ECB has pledged to buy any amount of government bonds, for any euro-zone welfare state deemed in trouble.
Now they want to send even more liquidity into an already over-liquified euro-zone economy. But what has not worked yet will not work better now just because it is tried a third time. Instead, this will lead to excess amounts of liquidity floating around in the banking system, which history tells us is a great beginning of a great speculation disaster.
But as Der Spiegel explains, this is not all that the ECB has in mind:
The ECB already lent a helping hand to banks with long-term, cheap loans at the end of 2011 and during early 2012, lending financial institutions a total of €1 trillion for the exceptionally long period of three years — a step it has so far only taken one time. Central bank head Draghi spoke at the time of using “Big Bertha,” a reference to a World War I-era howitzer, to battle the crisis. … [The] ECB is still thinking about a new form of long-term credit. Only this time, the loans would only have a term of one year and they are also supposed to have a specific purpose affixed to them. Banks would only be able to obtain the cheap money if they obliged themselves to pass that money on to companies.
And why would banks want to do that when they are already sitting on more idle cash than they have use for?
But wait – there is more:
The ultimate means the ECB has for keeping market interest rates low is to purchase large quantities of bonds from investors. Other central banks including the Fed in the United States, the Bank of England and the Japanese central bank are already using this instrument more or less successfully. The idea behind “quantitative easing” is that a central bank purchases government or company bonds on the market and, by doing so, drives down prices — e.g. interest rates.In contrast to the ECB’s previous bond buying, the new program would not be aimed at easing financing for individual countries.
Somehow the boneheads at the ECB seem to believe that all the euro zone lacks is access to credit. You’d think they would take into account the fact that there is absolutely no growth in any macroeconomically relevant sector of the economy. You’d think that when consumer spending is standing still; when corporate investment is standing still; when unemployment is still slowly trending upward; you’d think they would get the picture. But no. Somehow Mr. Draghi and the Central Bankers got to where they are now in their careers while harboring the delusion that a shrinking or stagnant economy will get started again if more people go into more debt.
I somehow suspect that this is the result of an over-consumption of Austrian economic theory, but I will leave that topic for a later discussion. What matters here and now is that the ECB’s tentative plans to open yet more liquidity floodgates is a big sign of the political desperation that is spreading through the government hallways of Europe.
Desperate people do desperate things. When the desperate people are politicians with a lot of power, the consequences of their desperate actions can be devastating. It remains to be seen what more destruction Europe’s leaders can bring to their continent than they already have (please wait patiently to early 2014 and you will be able to get a full picture of Europe’s disaster in my new book “Industrial Poverty”) but given what the ECB is now contemplating, we have to assume that anything is possible and nothing is impossible.
The original idea with modern government was to provide protection for life, liberty and property. Later on, partly thanks to social conservatives, the first seeds of the welfare state were planted. Among the earliest entitlement programs were public education, retirement benefits and poverty relief. From the Preussan income-security model under Bismarck the radical left got their ideas for the first cornerstones of the modern welfare state.
Over the course of the latter half of the 20th century, governments in the industrialized world ran amok with their welfare states. As I explain in my forthcoming book “Industrial Poverty” (due out early 2014) this has now led to a situation where government is causing a new form of poverty under a depressing regime of perennial economic stagnation.
This long-term change of the role of government calls for intense debate, carefully executed research and just in general a lot of scrutiny of what government is doing to our societies, our economies – and the entire Western Civilization.
Part of that scrutiny lies in the hands of those who monitor the financial health of government. Independent credit rating institutions, such as Standard & Poor, Moody’s and Fitch, are at the forefront of this business. Their job is to inform its clients and, indirectly, the general public of how well – or how poorly – government is managing its finances.
This may seem to be a business totally unrelated to the broader change of the role of government I just discussed. However, the relation is much closer than most people think: the bigger and more economically burdensome a government becomes, the more likely it is to be a bad steward of taxpayers’ money.
On top of that, as we have seen over the past couple of years it is dramatically important that we have credit rating institutions that can tell us when a government is reaching the end of its credit line. We know from the partial Greek debt default that governments do indeed default on their debt, and that lending to them is no longer a risk-free affair. The reason for this is, again, that government has sprawled in all possible – and impossible – directions, with piles of spending commitments that it could never afford.
By constantly monitoring the finances of our governments, these credit rating institutions keep the elected officials of our modern welfare states on their toes. Our politicians should take their ratings seriously and do their best to avoid being downgraded.
Instead there have been initiatives, primarily in Europe, to discredit or legislatively intimidate the credit rating industry. This new and rather ugly trend in politics has its origin in the fact that several welfare states have lost their stellar AAA rating in recent years. Politicians who are used to being able to do essentially what the heck they want, suddenly find themselves facing an industry they have a very hard time dealing with. Like an elephant in a china shop, they continue to behave as if they were above all checks and balances. Euractiv.com reports:
The “Big Three” agencies that rate European Union government debt could be fined after failing to fix poor practices from the past, the sector’s regulator said on Monday (2 December). Credit ratings are a key part of the financial system, helping investors assess the likelihood that they will recoup their money. But the financial crisis led to unease that the market is relying to heavily upon them.
Nonsense. This was the first time governments got knocked by these rating institutions. Thin-skinned politicians who take themselves far too seriously could not live with the criticism. Instead they went after their critics. Euractiv again:
The European Securities and Markets Authority (ESMA) published results of an investigation into how Moody’s, Standard & Poor’s and Fitch compiled ratings on sovereign bonds between February and October this year. ESMA is the EU agency responsible for authorising and supervising rating agencies in EU countries, some of which have objected strongly to their ratings by agencies.
Let’s note that the regulator of credit rating here is the same entity whose credit will then be rated. Imagine if we individuals could determine how Equifax, TransUnion etc rate our credit…
Sovereign ratings became politically charged at the height of the euro zone crisis when S&P infuriated Greece in 2011 by cutting the rating of its debt while the country’s EU bailout was being renegotiated. This led to the third of three EU laws to regulate rating agencies in as many years. From next month, the agencies can only release changes to sovereign ratings according to a pre-set calendar to improve transparency.
There is nothing wrong with how S&P handled the Greek situation. The bailout did not solve the crisis; it did nothing to alter the course of the crisis and only served the purpose of prolonging an already unsustainable situation. To use that as a reason for regulatory changes to the ratings industry is to go after the kid who points our that the emperor has no clothes.
“ESMA’s investigation revealed shortcomings in the sovereign ratings process which could pose risks to the quality, independence and integrity of the ratings and of the rating process,” ESMA Chairman Steven Maijoor told reporters. “They should speed up their processes and make sure they get their house in order.”
What shortcomings? More than likely, this is bureaucrat-speak for changes to what these rating institutions can and cannot say, with the explicit purpose to make sure government can continue to borrow money without risking credit downgrades. This would correlate well with some of the Basel III regulations that the world’s welfare states have imposed on the financial industry.
The latest news on the U.S. fiscal crisis is that President Obama is changing is mind on negotiations with Congressional Republicans. The man who would rather negotiate without preconditions with Iran’s Islamist thug regime than democratically elected American legislators has been pushed to the negotiation table by the looming threat of October 17. That is the date when, according to the Obama administration, the U.S. Treasury runs out of money and will default on its debt. Therefore, in order to avoid having to do the unconstitutional, namely to not make debt payments, Obama chooses to sit down with the only people on the face of the planet that he would never negotiate with.
In theory, if the president had ordered the Treasury not to make debt payments he could have been impeached. We will not know for a long time what has been going on behind the scenes in DC over the past couple of weeks, but it is noteworthy that the president suddenly decided that it was better to show a glimpse of leadership on the federal budget situation. It is an open question what the outcome will be, but at least there are talks and different views are being vetted, allowed to clash and then pave the way to an informed compromise. It may not be the best compromise in terms of fiscal policy, but the very fact that there is a vigorous debate in Washington, DC – and that the sides involved can take such harsh stances that the federal government shuts down for a while – is ultimately a sign that the American constitutional republic is in fact working.
As I explained recently, while the Europeans may be laughing at the American “bickering” and government shutdown, their own fiscal house is far from in good order. While there is a hot political fight over how to get the U.S. debt under control, the Europeans seem to have given up entirely on that front. Consider these numbers from Eurostat, reporting changes in debt-to-GDP ratio from first quarter of 2011 to first quarter of 2013:
Source: Eurostat; seasonally adjusted numbers.
Over the past two years, 23 out of the EU’s 27 member states (not counting rookie member Croatia) have increased their debt-to-GDP ratio. Portugal is worst: in the first quarter of 2011 their government debt was 95.1 percent of the Portuguese GDP; in the first quarter of 2013 it was 127.2 percent of GDP, an increase by 32.1 percentage points in two short years.
For the EU-27 as a whole, debt has increased from 80.2 percent to 85.9 percent. This is partly due to the fact that almost all of Europe’s economies are standing still, but the main reason is of course that the variables that drive spending in Europe’s welfare states are still in place. Much of government spending in a welfare state is on autopilot, driven by eligibility variables in entitlement programs. In Denmark, e.g., conventional wisdom among economists is that the legislature can directly affect about three percent of the annual government budget – the rest is governed primarily by welfare-state entitlement programs.
Needless to say, there is a connection between a GDP that stands still and a welfare state that has to dole out more money through its entitlement systems. But this only reinforces the point that Europe has a big debt problem: if structural spending systems run away with the government budget, you don’t sit around with your arms crossed. You dismantle those spending systems.
If you don’t, you will keep on borrowing. Which, again, is precisely what the welfare states in Europe do. Of the 27 EU states, 25 increased their debt in euros – only Hungary and Greece had a nominally smaller debt in Q1 of ’13 than in Q1 of ’11 – and the decline in the Greek debt was entirely due to the partial default almost two years ago. In terms of growth, their debt is back on an out-of-control path.
In total, the 27 EU states have borrowed another 1.1 trillion euros over the past two years. Five countries now have a debt that exceeds 100 percent of their GDP: Greece, Italy, Portugal, Ireland and Belgium. This is compared to two countries, Greece and Italy, two years ago. France is heading in that direction, with a ratio that has increased from 84 percent in 2011 to 92 percent today.
These are all bad numbers. But what is worse is that there is no debate in Europe about how to stop this debt growth. The austerity policies put in place by the EU, the ECB and the IMF have been embraced as fiscal policy gospel by Europe’s political leaders. Since austerity has been in place for four years now in some countries, and since the outcome has been utterly disappointing, it is high time for Europe to reconsider its current path.
For that to happen, though, you need an open and honest debate. America has an open and honest debate. Europe does not.
Guess who will prevail in the end…
I recently expressed my deep concerns regarding the unstable political situation in Greece, concluding that the government’s attempt to ban or otherwise neutralize the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn party is a very risky game. while morally the right thing to do, and politically probably necessary, the potential for a violent backlash is very high. One reason is that many Golden Dawn supporters appear to be supporting the party because they want Greece out of either the currency union or both the EU and the euro.
Their motive is not hard to understand: it has now been five years since Greece entered the economic crisis, and at least four of those years have to the average Greek been dominated by EU-imposed austerity. In package after package, the EU, the ECB and the IMF have dictated bone-crushing spending cuts and prosperity-destroying tax hikes. Since Greece is a welfare state, government is deeply involved in almost every aspect of people’s lives. When it goes on an austerity rampage the effects are by necessity both far-reaching and painful for Greek families.
Today, Greece stands with one foot in the EU and one foot in social and economic chaos. Political extremism is growing, both in the form of terrorizing socialist political violence and growing political intimidation from Golden Dawn. At the same time, unforgiving austerity policies, aimed at stabilizing government debt, have been a complete and utter failure, Greece’s government budget is suffering from chronic deficits, partly because one quarter of the tax base, a.k.a., GDP, has vanished during the austerity years, and partly because a much larger portion of the Greek population depends on the welfare state now than was the case before the crisis.
The question is what the EU-ECB-IMF troika is going to do next. Before we seek an answer to that, let’s take a look at the Greek debt trajectory. This figure shows the Greek government’s debt as percentage of GDP per quarter since 2008:
The debt ratio rises steadily through 2011, then drops dramatically at the beginning of 2012. That is the point when the Greek government, aggressively “encouraged” by the Troika, wrote down its own debt.
When the write-down – effectively a partial default – was executed the Greek government owed 170 euros for every 100 euros of Greek GDP. That ratio was considered entirely unsustainable at the time, especially since the quarter-to-quarter increase in the ratio was at 3.3 percent. But the problem for the EU-ECB-IMF Troika is that the rise in the Greek debt ratio has not changed since the partial default – at least not for the better. Through the first quarter of this year the debt-to-GDP ratio has grown by 4.1 percent per quarter, putting the ratio at 160.3 for the first quarter of 2013.
Before the end of this year Greece will probably have a debt ratio that exceeds what it was at the partial-default point. Here are two scenarios:
The blue line represents a scenario where the Greek debt ratio continues to grow as it has during 2012 and 2013 thus far. The red line extends with a growth trajectory based on the ratio growth rate from 2010 and 2011, namely 3.3 percent per quarter.
As we can see, the difference is negligible. And even if we disregard the exceptionally high debt ratio growth from the first quarter of 2012 (9.3 percent) we still end up with a post-default debt ratio growth of 2.5 percent per quarter. In other words, it is only a matter of time before Greece is back in the same situation as it was in 2011, only this time with an even more tense political situation, an even higher level of economic despair among the people and a youth unemployment rate at a completely destructive 60 percent.
So, back to the question: what is the Troika going to do next? Part of the answer lies in Angela Merkel’s decisive victory in last week’s German elections. Merkel wants to save Greece, keep the currency union intact and put a smiley face on every EU citizen. As far as she is concerned, the Troika should continue to help Greece.
At the same time, Greece’s self-proclaimed saviors are running out of options. The partial debt default was evidently a disaster that has, at best, bought the Greek government one year of breathable air. No one this side of a lunatic asylum would try another debt default. But austerity has also been utterly ineffective. The Greek economy simply refuses to produce the result that the designers of austerity expected.
What to do? Well, the only workable solution is so radical it will never win even a remotely serious consideration from the Troika – at least not its two European comrades, the EU and the ECB. That solution would involve Greece leaving the EU, reinstating its own national currency, and a dedicated program to reform away the welfare state.
It is almost a given that the EU won’t let any of that happen. But that brings us back to what options the Troika has left.
Well, what options do they have left?
As I have reported recently, the European crisis is still cooking. Despite five years of austerity, deficits have not gone away. They are so persistent, in fact, that the European Central Bank has been forced to create an unlimited bond buyback program for troubled welfare states: whatever amounts of Greek, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese or any other euro-denominated Treasury bond anyone wants to sell, the ECB promises to buy them without the buyer losing any money.
This program is not making the welfare-state debt crisis easier, but worsening it. Its ultimate consequence could be high and persistent inflation; in order to see why, let us begin with acknowledging another consequence, namely that you can now buy 100,000 euros worth of ten-year Greek Treasury bonds, get 10,290 euros in interest over a year and then be guaranteed to get your money back as if you had bought a Swiss Treasury bond at 1.09 percent. Two weeks ago I explained the potential consequences of this bond buyback program:
In short: there will come a point when the international bond market will test the ECB’s cash-for-bonds promise. Just to give an idea of how much money the ECB could be forced to print, here is a list of government debt by the most troubled euro zone countries: Government debt 2012
Italy 1,988 bn
Ireland 192 bn
France 1,833 bn
Spain 884 bn
Portugal 204 bn
TOTAL 5,101 bn
Greece, notably, does not report its government debt to Eurostat. Nevertheless, here alone we are talking about five trillion euros worth of government debt. If the ECB had to execute on its bonds buyback program for only ten percent of that, it would have to rapidly print 500 billion euros. To put this in perspective, according to the latest monetary statistical report from the ECB, M-1 money supply in the euro zone is 5.3 trillion euros. Of this, 884 billion euros is currency in circulation while the rest is overnight deposits. If the ECB had to print money to meet a run on the bonds in the countries listed above, it would find itself having to expand the M-1 money supply by up to ten percent in a very short time window (theoretically over night). This is to be compared to the 7.7 average annual growth rate of M-1 in May, June and July of 2013.
For all you statists out there, this means increasing growth in M-1 money supply from 7.7 percent to 17.7 percent. By comparison, the Federal Reserve has increased the U.S. M-1 money supply by an average of 11.5 percent per year over the past 12 months (measured month past year to month current year). The growth rate has dropped in recent months, though, falling to 9.1 percent in August.
A temporary boost in euro money supply to stave off a run-on-the-Treasury wave of bond sales would hurl the euro boat into very rocky waters for some time, but if the buyback program really works as intended, the relentless cash pumping by the ECB will eventually calm things down. The problem for the ECB – just as for the Federal Reserve – is that it is a lot harder to reduce money supply than to increase it. Basically, once the cash is out there in private hands, people are not voluntarily going to give it back to the government.
That is, if the buyback program works as intended. It is a very risky program, especially if it would be extended to other euro-zone countries as well. France alone has 1.8 trillion euros in debt, and even though they are technically not covered by the bond buyback program at this time, they could be the next link in the euro chain to come under stress. Their ridiculous tax policies of late will guarantee very weak GDP performance in the next couple of years. I would be very surprised, frankly, if the French economy manages to grow, on average, in 2013 and 2014.
With zero GDP growth, or worse, tax revenues will not grow as the French government intended. They are still wrestling with a deficit – their taxpayers simply cannot keep up with the cost of the welfare state – and with the new, socialist-imposed extra tax burden that deficit is going to be even more persistent.
Since president Hollande and his socialst cohorts in the French National Assembly have pledged to end austerity, they have opened the door for more government spending. This obviously adds insult to injury for an economy already under great stress. It is therefore increasingly likely that the ECB will have to extend its bond buyback program to cover frog-issued bonds as well.
Given the size of the French economy, and debt, this would put the buyback program to the test. Not immediately, but eventually. Today France is paying lower interest rates on its national debt than the United States, but the trend is upward. After almost two years of declining interest rate costs, early this year the trend shifted direction. Interest rates have been going up since February of this year, and the ten-year French Treasury bond now pays almost a half a percent more than it did this past spring.
When the Spanish government started having problems with selling its bonds, it had to increase the interest rate from four to six percent in less than a year. That is a 50-percent spike in the yield demanded by investors, and at the time back in 2011 it took both the ECB and the Spanish government by surprise. Let’s hope no one is surprised if France finds itself in a similar situation 12-18 months from now.
If the ECB thus finds itself saddled with the responsibility to – at least in theory – have cash ready for almost seven trillion euros worth of government debt, it will have to abandon its prime goal, namely price stability. While the United States has proven that you can increase money supply five, six even eight times faster than GDP without causing high inflation, this does not mean that there is no inflation threat attached to money printing. However,
- if the freshly printed money goes out to the private sector in the form of reckless lending – as in China – then there is an inflation price to pay (the Chinese are looking at six or more percent inflation this year); or
- if the fresh new cash goes into the hands of entitlement recipients, thus feeding private consumption without a corresponding increase in private productive activity,
then high, persistent inflation is knocking on the door.
If the ECB starts buying back Treasury bonds en masse, the latter effect could kick in:
1. Troubled governments know that the ECB will guarantee their bonds, thus significantly reducing their incentives to shrink their deficits;
2. The ECB has attached austerity demands to the buyback program, but those demands have proven totally ineffective against government deficits, thus practically voiding those austerity demands of meaning;
3. Persistent, high and socially stressful unemployment has shifted the fiscal balance in troubled welfare states on a permanent basis, with fewer taxpayers and more entitlement takers; in order to maintain political and social stability national politicians will avoid more cuts in the welfare state;
4. As the welfare state’s spending programs remain and more people join them as a result of the economic crisis, government spending will rise while tax revenues are stalled or even decline.
By allowing an increasing share of the population to live on entitlements, Europe’s troubled welfare-state governments will create an imbalance between productive and improductive economic activity strong enough to drive up inflation.
Add to this the imported inflation that inevitably comes in from other countries when the ECB’s new, massive money supply eventually weakens the currency.
The involvement of the ECB in trying to keep Europe’s welfare states afloat is troubling for many reasons. The prospect of the bond buyback program bringing about inflation is not a very healthy one. But for every year that goes by without the EU doing anything to reform away its welfare states, the scenario outline here, which is somewhat speculative today, moves closer and closer to becoming reality.
Just because you have not heard a lot about the European welfare-state debt crisis does not mean the crisis is over. Quite the contrary, it is alive and kicking. This story from the EU Observer is a good update:
The European Central Bank (ECB) is prepared to back its promise to do “whatever it takes” to save the euro by utilising its controversial government bond purchase programme, an ECB executive board member has said. Speaking on Monday (2 September) at a conference organised by the German Institute for Economic Research in Berlin, Benoit Couere, a member of the ECB’s executive board, said the bank’s Outright Monetary Transactions programme remained “necessary from a monetary policy perspective.” “OMTs are not just words: the ECB is fully prepared to use them,” he added.
The practical meaning of this is that the ECB is ready to buy up as much EU member state debt as is needed to continue to give the impression that the debt crisis is either over (haha) or stabilized (yeah right).
The Frankfurt-based bank unveiled its OMT programme in August 2012, with President Mario Draghi saying that the ECB would do “whatever it takes” to prevent countries being forced out of the eurozone by spiralling debt costs. The programme, which allows the ECB to buy up government bonds with maturities of between one and three years, has been widely credited for ending fears about a possible break-up of the eurozone.
Obviously. If you can buy a Spanish treasury bond at seven percent interest and then sell it to the ECB with the same reliability of getting your money back as if you had bought a Swiss government bond at a fraction of that interest rate, then what reason does anyone have to ponder the possibility that the euro zone would break apart? Never mind that this program means that the ECB will have to keep its monetary printing press working overtime, flooding the world with increasingly worthless euros.
The EU Observer again:
It has also calmed the bloc’s sovereign debt markets, pushing down borrowing costs faced by Spain and Italy, regarded as the eurozone’s ‘too big to fail’ economies.
That is only because demand for those bonds increased as a result of the ECB’s guarantee. Higher bond prices by definition mean lower interest rate on those same bonds. The Eurocrats, on the other hand, take this as a sign that they have somehow solved the crisis. All they have done is put a more effective band aid on it.
Then the EU Observer lets us know that the austerity programs put in place by the EU-ECB-IMF troika are also alive and well:
The ECB has also insisted that it will only use the programme if countries keep to tough economic reforms agreed with the eurozone’s permanent bailout fund, the European Stability Mechanism (ESM). For his part, Couere added that the programme would “never be used to indiscriminately push down government bond spreads” which should “continue to reflect the underlying country specific economic fundamentals.”
Nonsense. The very existence of the buy-all-your-bonds program neutralizes the “underlying country … fundamentals”. Bond buyers now know that once a country in crisis reaches a certain “boiling point” in its path from macroeconomic health to a Greek meltdown, the ECB will step in with its cash-for-bonds program. At that point it does not matter what the specific country risk profile looks like.
Interestingly, the ECB boasts about the program to the point where they make big noise of not having had to use it:
“The irony of this success is that it has actually been a pure psychological tool so far. The ECB has not bought any single bond under the OMT programme, yet,” ING chief economist Carsten Brzeski told this website.
Of course not. It was just created. But just wait until the next major euro zone country plunges into the hole. France is a good candidate, with its ridiculous tax hikes. When that happens, the exposure of the bond buyback program will reach entirely new levels.
In short: there will come a point when the international bond market will test the ECB’s cash-for-bonds promise. Just to give an idea of how much money the ECB could be forced to print, here is a list of government debt by the most troubled euro zone countries:
|Government debt 2012|
Greece, notably, does not report its government debt to Eurostat. Nevertheless, here alone we are talking about five trillion euros worth of government debt. If the ECB had to execute on its bonds buyback program for only ten percent of that, it would have to rapidly print 500 billion euros.
To put this in perspective, according to the latest monetary statistical report from the ECB, M-1 money supply in the euro zone is 5.3 trillion euros. Of this, 884 billion euros is currency in circulation while the rest is overnight deposits. If the ECB had to print money to meet a run on the bonds in the countries listed above, it would find itself having to expand the M-1 money supply by up to ten percent in a very short time window (theoretically over night). This is to be compared to the 7.7 average annual growth rate of M-1 in May, June and July of 2013.
A more than doubled growth rate in the M-1 money supply is not a good way to run an already weak currency.
The welfare-state debt crisis in Europe is far from over. It is brimming and brewing under the surface, bursting out occasionally, with the ECB running around as a whack’em’all player trying to beat down the symptoms of the crisis.