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by John Rubino on February 28, 2014 · 14 comments
Only in a world totally corrupted by easy money could the following two things be announced on the same day. First:
Yields on the euro area’s government bonds have never been lower as the potential for extended European Central Bank stimulus helps exorcise memories of the region’s sovereign debt crisis.
The bond-market rally is broad based, encompassing both core economies such asFrance and also peripheral markets including Greece, which was pushed to the brink of exiting the currency bloc during the region’s financial woes. Another of those nations, Portugal, took a step toward exiting an international bailout program today as it bought back bonds, while Italy, supported in the turmoil by ECB bond purchases, sold five-year notes at a record-low rate.
“Investors are starting to look at the non-core European bond markets as a viable investment alternative again,” said Jussi Hiljanen, head of fixed-income research at SEB AB inStockholm. “Further ECB actions have the potential to maintain the tightening bias on those spreads,” he said, referring to the yield gap between core nations and the periphery.
The average yield to maturity on euro-area bonds fell to a record 1.6343 percent yesterday, according to Bank of America Merrill Lynch indexes. It peaked at more than 6 percent in 2011, the data show.
Italy’s 10-year yield fell seven basis points to 3.47 percent after touching 3.46 percent, a level not seen since January 2006. Portugal’s 10-year yield dropped four basis points to 4.81 percent and touched 4.78 percent, the least since June 2010, while Ireland’s two-year note yield and Spain’s five-year rates dropped to records.
Then, at about the same time:
Eternal city warns it will go bust for the first time since it was destroyed by Nero
Matteo Renzi, the Italian prime minister, came under pressure on Thursday as the city of Rome was on the brink of bankruptcy after parliament threw out a bill that would have injected fresh funding.
Ignazio Marino, Rome mayor, said city services like public transport would come to a halt and that he would not be a “Nero” – the Roman emperor who, legend has it, strummed his lyre as the city burnt to the ground.
Marino said that Renzi, a centre-left leader and former mayor of Florence who was only confirmed by parliament this week, had promised to adopt urgent measures to help the Italian capital at a cabinet meeting on Friday.
The newly-elected mayor faces a budget deficit of 816 million euros ($1.1 billion) and the city could be placed under administration if he does not manage to close the gap with measures such as cutting public services.
“Rome has wasted money for decades. I don’t want to spend another euro that is not budgeted,” Marino said, following criticism from the Northern League opposition party which helped shoot down the bill for Rome in parliament.
The draft law would have included funding for Rome from the central government budget as a compensation for the extra costs it faces because of its role as the capital including tourism traffic and national demonstrations.
Other cash-strapped cities complained it was unfair. But Marino warned there could be dire consequences. “We’re not going to block the city but the city will come to a standstill. It will block itself if I do not have the tools for making budget decisions and right now I cannot allocate any money,” he told the SkyTG24 news channel.
Marino said that buses may have to stop running as soon as Sunday because he only had 10 percent of the money required to pay for fuel in March.
He added: “With the money that we have in the budget right now, I can do repairs on each road in Rome every 52 years. That’s not really maintenance.”
How is it that Italy is able to borrow money at low and falling rates – which indicates that borrowers are confident of its ability to pay its bills – while its major city, far more important to that country than New York or Los Angeles is to the US, slides into bankruptcy?
The answer is that Rome is irrelevant in comparison with two other facts. First, Europe is slipping into deflation, which generally leads to lower bond yields. Second, the European Central Bank is virtually guaranteed to respond to fact number one with quantitative easing on a vast scale.
So the bond markets, far from rallying on the expectation of a eurozone recovery, are rising in anticipation of the opposite: a new round of recession/deflation/instability that forces the abandonment of even the pretense of austerity and the adoption of aggressively easy money.
In this scenario, a Roman bankruptcy is actually a good thing because it pushes the ECB, Bundesbank, Bank of Italy and the other relevant monetary entities to stop dithering and start monetizing debt in earnest. Once it gets going, the goal of the program will be to refinance everyone’s debt at extremely low rates, push down the euro’s exchange rate versus the dollar, yen and yuan, and shift the currency war front from Europe to the rest of the world. The race to the bottom continues.
The rest of this series is available here.
Bitcoin holders — especially those who bought in during the crypto-currency’s recent surge past $1,000 — are a bit shell-shocked this week:
Bitcoin prices plunged again Monday morning after Mt.Gox, the major exchange for the virtual currency, said technical problems require it to continue its ban on customer withdrawals.
Mt.Gox said it has discovered a bug that causes problems when customers try to use their account to make a transfer or payment of bitcoins to a third party. It said the problem is not with Mt.Gox software but affects all transfers of bitcoins to third parties.
The exchange said it was suspending withdrawals and third-party payments until the problem is fixed, although trading in bitcoins continues.
A bug is allowing a third party receiving a bitcoin transfer to make it look as if the transfer did not go through, which can lead to improper multiple transfers, Mt.Gox said.
Bitcoin prices on Mt.Gox plunged from about $693 just early Monday to $510 at 6 a.m. ET, soon after the statement was posted. Prices had been as high as $831 just after 7 p.m. Thursday before Mt.Gox’s halt of withdrawals was first disclosed early Friday morning.
Mt.Gox tried to put the best face on the technical problems in its latest statement, noting that the technology is “very much in its early stages.”
“What Mt.Gox and the Bitcoin community have experienced in the past year has been an incredible and exciting challenge, and there is still much to do to further improve,” it said.
This is one of those “teaching moments” that the President likes to point out. But the lesson isn’t that bitcoin in particular or crypto-currencies in general are fatally flawed. It is that they are currencies, not money or investments, and the differences between these three concepts is crucial to doing asset management right.
An investment is something that, if successful, generates cash flow and potentially capital gains, but if less successful can produce a capital loss. Money, in contrast, is capital. It is what you receive when you sell an investment and/or where you store the resulting wealth until you decide to buy something with it. Money does not generate cash flow and does not “work” for you the way an investment does. Instead, it preserves your capital in a stable form for later use.
“Sound” money exists in limited quantity and doesn’t have counterparty risk – that is, its value doesn’t depend on someone else keeping a promise – so it tends to hold its value over long periods of time. Gold and silver, for instance, have functioned as sound money for thousands of years. As you’ve no doubt heard many times, the same ounce of gold that bought a toga in ancient Rome will buy a nice suit today. Ditto for oil, wheat and most of life’s other necessities.
Currency, meanwhile, is the thing we use for buying and selling. It can also be money, as in past societies where gold and silver coins circulated. But it doesn’t have to be. Paper dollars, euro, and yen are representations of wealth rather than wealth itself and are only valuable because we trust the governments managing them to control their supply and banks to give us back our deposits on demand. Such currencies are not very safe but are extremely convenient, so even people who understand the inherent flaws of today’s currencies keep some around for transacting.
As for bitcoin, for a while the more excitable in the techie community seemed to think that crypto-currencies could function not just as currency but as money, i.e., as a form of savings, because the supply of bitcoin was limited by the algorithm that creates it. But they were overlooking counterparty risk. Since the vast majority of bitcoins in circulation are stored electronically and transmitted over the Internet, they’re only valuable if those media function correctly. Let a system fail, as Mt. Gox apparently has, and the bitcoins in that system are either unavailable (in which case their immediate value is zero) or suddenly very risky, in which case they’re obviously not a good savings vehicle.
Is this a deal-breaker for crypto-currencies? No. In many ways bitcoin is a better currency than the dollar because it can’t be inflated away by a desperate government or confiscated in the coming wave of bank bail-ins.
People who understand crypto-currencies and own a small amount of bitcoin for transactional purposes are probably unfazed by the latest speed bump. And people who had their life savings in it have received a valuable lesson in the nature of money.
At the heart of the European debt crisis is the euro, the currency that ties together 17 countries in an intimate manner. So when one country teeters on the brink of financial collapse, the entire continent is at risk. The following excellent mini-documentary visually explains how such a flawed system came to be… and what’s next?
While China (or Russia) are held up as the world’s most corrupt among developed nations among the status-quo-huggers, it would seem there are two other nations that dominate when it comes to getting caught. Europe paid more in fines (in fact double the US and 10 times China) for price-fixing, bid-rigging, and other anti-trust abuses in 2013.
So why would we believe them that ‘recovery’ is right around the corner?
A ‘Flood of Good News’
As der Spiegel recently reported, the Greek government is intent on smothering its reluctant creditors with good news (in order to be able to accumulate a reasonable amount of such, the last ‘troika’ assessment has apparently been subject to numerous delays):
“A SPIEGEL report that German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble is considering a third rescue package for Greece has electrified the struggling nation. Athens wants to impress its creditors with a stream of good news. But it still has a long list of unkept promises. New loans are welcome, but don’t ask us for any new austerity measures. This pretty much sums up Athens’ reaction to Germany’s reported willingness to approve further loans to Greece to cover the country’s multi-billion euro projected financing gap in 2015-2016.
Although there was no official reaction to SPIEGEL’s report, published on Monday, government sources say that Berlin’s intentions were known to Prime Minister Antonis Samaras, adding that Germany will not pull the rug from under Greece’s feet, especially with the European election due in May.
But the Greek government has also made clear that it will not accept a new round of measures or a continuation of what are perceived by many in Greece as the asphyxiating and humiliating controls by the troika of European Commission, European Central Bank and International Monetary Fund.
Finance Minister Yannis Stournaras is preparing Greece’s position ahead of the troika’s arrival. With a fresh round of bargaining looming on the new loans, he promised an avalanche of “impressively good news” in the coming days to show that Greece doesn’t need any further belt-tightening. It only needs to press on with its structural reforms, he said.
According to a Greek Finance Ministry official, the good news will include the first increase of retail sales in 43 months, and the first rise in the purchasing managers’ index in 54 months. The “super-weapon” in Stournaras’ arsenal, however, is the hefty 2013 primary budget surplus, now estimated at €1.5 billion, well above the official budget forecast of €812 million.
The same official said the expected good news was the reason why Athens doesn’t want the troika to return earlier to conclude a much-delayed round of inspections that started in the autumn.Stournaras is expected to present Greece’s accomplishments to German officials when he visits Berlin later this week. The final details of his trip are still being worked out. Athens also plans a return to the markets by the end of 2014 in what it believes will be a definitive sign that the Greek economy is out of the woods.
With the leftist opposition alliance Syriza leading most opinion polls, some observers say the Greek government needs to be able to show success soon. Athens was therefore quick to react to the reports about new loans, telling the public it should not fear a new wave of measures.
By all accounts SYRIZA would indeed win elections if they were held today – by a solid margin of almost 8% over its nearest rival New Democracy, the party of current prime minister Antonis Samaras. Electoral support for his coalition partner PASOK – for a long time the ruling party in Greece – has all but disappeared. Even the Stalinist KKE is set to grab a bigger share of the vote.
The upcoming European as well as municipal elections in Greece are bound to see SYRIZA winning comfortably. Meanwhile, the coalition’s majority in parliament has shrunk to a mere three MPs. It won’t take much to topple it, hence all the frantic activity described above.
Greetings from Charles Ponzi
So what’s the problem if there are all those good news, including a ‘hefty primary surplus’? As an aside, said surplus is already greedily eyed by various Greek bureaucrats who have suffered salary cuts which they are currently challenging in court. As the WSJ recently reported, a few European finance ministers held a ‘private meeting’ over Greece recently, to which their Greek colleague wasn’t invited. The problem? The month of May:
“Top officials peeled away from colleagues after a gathering of euro-zone finance ministers in Brussels on Monday evening for a private meeting to discuss mounting concerns over Greece’s bailout. Greek Finance Minister Yiannis Stournaras, who was briefing the press in a building across the street at the time, wasn’t invited.
High-level officials from the International Monetary Fund, the European Commission, and the European Central Bank, as well as senior euro-zone officials and the German and French finance ministers were present.
The meeting reflects anxiety that Greece could yet disturb the relative calm in euro-zone financial markets. But the issue is unlikely to come to a head until May when Greece needs to repay some €11 billion ($14.85 billion) of maturing government bonds.
The private meeting, confirmed by several people with direct knowledge of the talks, comes as Athens struggles to meet some of the conditions set by its official creditors for further payouts from bailout funds. The Monday meeting was held to discuss how to press Athens to forge ahead with unpopular reforms to its labor and product markets, and how to scramble together extra cash to cover a shortfall in the country’s financing for the second half of the year that is estimated at €5 billion to €6 billion.The meeting was inconclusive, people familiar with the situation said.
An € 11 billion bond repayment and a shortfall of € 5 to 6 billion? Oh well, that’s why it’s called a “primary surplus” instead of just a “surplus”. “Primary” means it’s not really a surplus – only that it would be one, if not for the debtberg Greece must service. However, if servicing said debtberg costs more than Greece’s government can actually bring in, then its entire debt edifice remains a Ponzi scheme. Only, contrary to other governments that are able to finance their own Ponzi debt schemes in the markets, Greece needs Ponzi financing from elsewhere, or to be precise, from unwilling tax cows residing elsewhere. That is currently the main difference. The problem for all the other States is that it is important that people don’t start thinking too much about the essential Ponzi nature of government debt. If they do, then there might be another debt crisis. After all, nearly the entire euro zone sports a lot more debt today (both absolute and relative to GDP) than at any time during the most severe crisis months. That fact in turn means that the current calm in the markets really hangs by the thinnest of threads, propped up by misplaced confidence alone. Meanwhile, the much-lamented ‘banks-sovereigns doom loop’ has become worse by almost an order of magnitude in countries like Italy and Spain.
On the other hand, selling yet another bailout of Greece to the voters in creditor countries is quite a tall order at this stage, with the eurocracy already being subject to much scorn and revulsion (all of it well deserved).
What to do?
Helloooo, ‘European partners’ … thinking about me lately?
(Image source: The Web / Author unknown)
Let Us ‘Stipulate For All Times to Come’
Ludwig von Mises once wrote with regard to the inexorably growing mountains of government debt around the world:
“The long-term public and semi-public credit is a foreign and disturbing element in the structure of a market society. Its establishment was a futile attempt to go beyond the limits of human action and to create an orbit of security and eternity removed from the transitoriness and instability of earthly affairs. What an arrogant presumption to borrow and to lend money for ever and ever, to make contracts for eternity, to stipulate for all times to come!”
In the case of Greece, the eurocrats seem to have precisely such an arrogant presumption in mind:
“The next handout to Greece may include extending the maturity on rescue loans to 50 years and cutting the interest rate on some previous aid by 50 basis points, according to two officials with knowledge of discussions being held by European authorities.
The plan, which will be considered by policy makers by May or June, may also include a loan for a package worth between 13 billion euros ($17.6 billion) and 15 billion euros, another official said.Greece, which got 240 billion euros in two bailouts, has previously had its terms eased by the euro zone and International Monetary Fund amid a six-year recession.
“What we can do is to ease debt, which is what we have done before through offering lower interest or extending the maturity of loans,” Dutch Finance Minister Jeroen Dijsselbloem, who heads the group of euro finance chiefs, said yesterday on broadcaster RTLZ. “Those type of measures are possible but under the agreement that commitments from Greece are met.”
Good luck with that last one boys. Greece is still the same over-bureaucratized corrupt swamp it was prior to the bailouts. There will be a deep freeze in hell before the ‘commitments are met’.
Since we mentioned the banks earlier, here is the next non-suprise:
“As Greece seeks to meet its aid conditions and unlock more money from its existing bailouts, it’s also looking for ways to make the most of 50 billion euros that was set aside for bank recapitalization. The country had hoped some money might be left over for other financing needs. That now looks less likely because the Greek banks will need more capital, according to an EU official close to the bailout process.”
You really couldn’t make this sh*t up.
This is what happens when unsound debt is artificially propped up instead of being liquidated. Now there is a never-ending drama. Creditors keep throwing good money after bad, into what appears to be a kind of financial black hole – money falls inside, but it looks like it will never come back. Meanwhile, the population of Greece has been so thoroughly ground into the dirt by the crisis that it is prepared to rather vote for Nazis and communists than continue with the situation as is. What a great accomplishment!
Quick, this thing still needs some more glue …
(Image source: The Web / Author unknown)
Why would the central bank of Nigeria decide to sell dollars and buy Yuan?
At first glance it might not seem the most interesting or pressing question for you to consider. But I think it is one of those little loose threads that if pulled upon carefully begins to unravel the hints and traces of a much larger story. But please be warned this is speculative.
Two days ago the Nigerian Central Bank announced it was going to increase the share of its foreign currency reserves held in Yuan from 2% at present, to up to 7%. To do this it was going to sell US Dollars. Now a 5% swing in anything financial is big. In our debt drunk times it’s difficult somethimes to remember that 2.15 billion dollars (which is what 5% comes to) is actually a great deal of money, even if it is less than a drop in America’s multi trillion dollar debt ocean. On the other hand even a 5% increase in Yuan would still leave 80% of Nigeria’s $43 billion worth of reserves in dollars.
BUT while it is small in raw financial terms I think it is significant in geopolitical terms.
Nigeria is Africa’s second largest oil and gas exporter. It holds as many dollars as it does because oil is sold in dollars. Nigeria gets paid in dollars which it then needs to recycle. This is the famous petrodollar in action. It is also a major reason the dollar is still the world’s major reserve currency and that in turn is why America can have such a monumental pile of debt and still (for now) be the risk-off haven that institutional investors run to when other currencies and markets become too risky and unstable.
What interest me is that prior to this announcement from Nigeria’s central bank, China has, for some years now, been working hard and succesully to buy exploitation rights in Nigeria’s oil fields. In 2009 The Wall Street Journal reported,
Chinese companies have proposed investing $50 billion to buy 6 billion barrels of oil reserves in Nigeria, the African nation’s presidential adviser on energy said Tuesday.
A year later in 2010 the WSJ reported,
Nigeria and China have signed a tentative deal to build three oil refineries in the West African state at a cost of $23 billion, in a move to boost badly needed gasoline supply in Nigeria and to position China for more access to the country’s coveted high-quality oil reserves.
And just last year China extended a $1.1 billion loan in return for a reported agreement that oil exports to China would increase from around 20 000 barrels a day to 200 000 per day by 2015. This loan was on top of a range of development agreements betwen the two countries for various infrasctructure projects such a telecoms and railways.
Nigeria had, as of 2011, over 37 billion barrels of proven oil reserves. China is now one of its major trading partners. China wants Nigerian oil and my guess is that if it isn’t doing so already it is going to trade it entirely in Yuan. Such a move would mean Nigeria would need fewer dollars and more Yuan and the PetroYuan would begin to rise at the expense of the Petrodollar.
For some years now China has been making the Yuan a settlement currency. I have written about this a lot over the years. In 2012 I wrote a piece called “A new reserve currency to challenge the dollar – What’s really going on in the Straits of Hormuz.” China has created a series of bilateral settlement agreements with, among others, the EU, South Korea, Iran, India and Russia. All of these agreements by-pass the US dollar. If China now trades its oil in Yuan where will that leave the dollar? Of course Saudi would never agree to such a thing, would it?
Now Its a long way from Nigeria’s 200 000 barerels a day to overthrowing the dollar as the premiere oil currency. But let’s face it the US has gone to war on more than one occasion recently in part because the country involved had been going to sell its oil in Euros. And the US is Europe’s friend, isn’t it?
The US hawks have always been afflicted with dominophobia – fear of falling dominoes. Somewhere in a room in the Pentagon or Langley, there is a huddle of spooks, military types, oil men and State department advisors all wondering how to prevent this new creeping menace. Because you cannot afford to be complacent you know. It starts in one country and if you don’t do something other’s will follow and before you know it the rich Western Africa oil bonanza is flowing into Yuan, to be followed by all those North African and Middle Eastern Arab Spring countries where the clean-cut boys are already having to ‘advise’ on the need to take a firm line with potentially anti-American Muslim Brotherhood types by locking them up, shooting them and generally branding them as terrorists.
What would happen, someone will mention almost in a whisper, if Qatar were to triumph over Saudi and then cut a multi-lateral deal to sell its gas in Euros to Europe and in Yuan to China?
But to return from the overheated imaginations of the Virginia Hawks to some sort of reality, Nigeria is increasing its Yuan reserve at the expense of the dollar and is developing far closer ties to China than to the US. Which is why I think you will soon find the US dramatically increasing its involvement, both financial and military, in Angola.
Angola is going to be America’s answer to China’s Nigeria. And I think the signs are already there.
While in Nigeria Chinese companies are expanding, in Angola the big players are the Western Oil majors: Chevron/Texaco(US), Exxonmobil (US), BP (UK), ENI (Italy), Total (FR), Maersk (DK) and Statoil (NOR). There are others but these are the big players. Of these Total is probably the largest presence producing about a third of all Angola’s oil output. And Total has recently increased its presence. Of the others Chevron is one of the largest and is expanding aggressively.
Angola itself is busy selling off new concessions. 10 new blocks containing an estimated 7 billion barrels of oil, which is over half of all Angola’s proven reserves are to be auctioned this year. Angola has recently edged ahead of Nigeria to be Africa’s largest oil exporter. If I’m correct I expect the Western nations/companies, led by the US and new best war-buddy, France to make sure the Chinese do not get a large share of the spoils. One to watch.
As part of this new Western push, I expect to see China also restricted in any new oil fields around Sao Tome and Principe. The big players to date are Chervon, Exxonmobil and Nigeria. The latter suggesting a way in for the Chinese that I think the Westerners will want to push shut. To which end what I found interesting about recent events in Soa Tome and Principe is the visit there of Isabel dos Santos, the daughter of Angola’s President for life. I have written about her and her banking empire in The Eurofiscal Corruption Contest – The Portuguese entry. Isobel is most often refered to as Africa’s or Angola’s most famous business woman or Africa’s richest woman (She’s a billionaire). Rarely does anyone from the press raise the question of how she became so vastly wealthy.
She made a visit to the islands and both she and Angola’s state companies have begun to invest heavily. Angolan companies now have a very commanding position in the island’s economy and Angola, even though its own people live in poverty, found the money to loan Sao Tome and Principe $180 million which is half of the island’s GDP. Top that Beijing! The Islands are Portuguese speaking, the largest bank is Portuguese, and the islands also house a broadcast station for Voice of America.
I think taken together the signs are that the West, led by America, has in mind to try to contain or perhaps even confront Chinese expansion particularly as it concerns access to oil and gas in West and North Africa, and to rare earth minerals – but that’s another story. I don’t think there can be any doubt that America and Europe are looking at Chinese expansion and its hunger for resources and see a threat. The question is what will they do? America is accustomed to being the hegemonic power and its hawks have proved over and over that they are are quite prepared for military confrontation. The question for them would be how? Invading countries who have – in reality – very little military or economic might is one thing, but directly confronting another superpower is another. I think all sides would see direct and open military confrontation to be out of the question. Not just for military reasons but for global economic ones as well. They need to find ways of fighting that do not sink the world economy – neither its flows of goods and trade , nor its flows of captail and debt. Which is why I wonder about the possibility of seeing an era of new proxy wars being faught out in tit-for-tat destabilization escalating up to protracted gorilla/civil wars.
In West Africa the front line seems to run between Angola and Nigeria. So who would like to play a game of destabilize your neighbour? There is already unrest about Chinese goods flooding Nigeria. How tempting might it be to think about fanning flames of unrest in already unstable Nigeria espeicially in the delta?
In return what would you have to do to re-ignite the lines of mistrust and division which blighted Angola through decades of civil war? Dos Santos and the MPLA may have been the Soviet proxy but he’s a capitalist now. So, how about a nice cold-war style proxy war? I cannot bring myself to believe that no one at the Pentagon has dusted off the old plans for such conflict and set some analysts to working up some new ones with China scribbled in, in place of Russia.
Something is, I suspect, already afoot. One last pull on that little thread, one last detail that makes me wonder. Just last April (2013) the Israeli billionaire, Dan Gertler sold back to the government of the Democratic Republic of Congo, one of the oil companies/exploration blocks he had bought from it, but for 300% more than he paid. Anti-corruption campaigners have been up in arms.
Two facts interest me . One, that the purchase was actually financed by Sanangol, the Angolan state oil company (the company from which $32 billion had gone missing. Missing billions: billionaire dos Santos… No connection obviously). The DRC is to pay Sanangol back from oil revenue. Until that time, of course, Sanangol calls the tune. Two, that this oil block lies between the DRC and Angola in what was contested territory but has since been decreed a zone of cooperation.
Now this sale by Gertler could just be a bog standard pillage-Africa deal. And I might well be seeing things that just aren’t there, but why now? This sort of big money, that is connected to the top of the DRC government (how do you think Gertler was able to buy the concession at the price he did? And who do you think might be the, so far, hidden second beneficiary of Gertler’s oil company? The government minister who sold the concession to him in the first place, maybe?) moves when its contacts suggest this is a better time to lock in profit than times to come.
All in all, if I were a religious man, I would be saying a prayer for the children of Nigeria and Angola.
A note on all this speculation and non-financial stuff. I don’t usually write this much speculation but recently I have become more convinced that we are in a watershed in which everything around us, all the rules we are used to, all the lines on the map, are up for grabs and are changing around us. For me, finance is not separate from politics so we have to understand how they rub against one another. I hope you will bear with me.
A paper currency system contains the seeds of its own destruction. The temptation for the monopolist money producer to increase the money supply is almost irresistible. In such a system with a constantly increasing money supply and, as a consequence, constantly increasing prices, it does not make much sense to save in cash to purchase assets later. A better strategy, given this senario, is to go into debt to purchase assets and pay back the debts later with a devalued currency. Moreover, it makes sense to purchase assets that can later be pledged as collateral to obtain further bank loans. A paper money system leads to excessive debt.
This is especially true of players that can expect that they will be bailed out with newly produced money such as big businesses, banks, and the government.
We are now in a situation that looks like a dead end for the paper money system. After the last cycle, governments have bailed out malinvestments in the private sector and boosted their public welfare spending. Deficits and debts skyrocketed. Central banks printed money to buy public debts (or accept them as collateral in loans to the banking system) in unprecedented amounts. Interest rates were cut close to zero. Deficits remain large. No substantial real growth is in sight. At the same time banking systems and other financial players sit on large piles of public debt. A public default would immediately trigger the bankruptcy of the banking sector. Raising interest rates to more realistic levels or selling the assets purchased by the central bank would put into jeopardy the solvency of the banking sector, highly indebted companies, and the government. It looks like even the slowing down of money printing (now called “QE tapering”) could trigger a bankruptcy spiral. A drastic reduction of government spending and deficits does not seem very likely either, given the incentives for politicians in democracies.
So will money printing be a constant with interest rates close to zero until people lose their confidence in the paper currencies? Can the paper money system be maintained or will we necessarily get a hyperinflation sooner or later?
There are at least seven possibilities:
1. Inflate. Governments and central banks can simply proceed on the path of inflation and print all the money necessary to bail out the banking system, governments, and other over-indebted agents. This will further increase moral hazard. This option ultimately leads into hyperinflation, thereby eradicating debts. Debtors profit, savers lose. The paper wealth that people have saved over their life time will not be able to assure such a high standard of living as envisioned.
2. Default on Entitlements. Governments can improve their financial positions by simply not fulfilling their promises. Governments may, for instance, drastically cut public pensions, social security and unemployment benefits to eliminate deficits and pay down accumulated debts. Many entitlements, that people have planned upon, will prove to be worthless.
3. Repudiate Debt. Governments can also default outright on their debts. This leads to losses for banks and insurance companies that have invested the savings of their clients in government bonds. The people see the value of their mutual funds, investment funds, and insurance plummet thereby revealing the already-occurred losses. The default of the government could lead to the collapse of the banking system. The bankruptcy spiral of overindebted agents would be an economic Armageddon. Therefore, politicians until now have done everything to prevent this option from happening.
4. Financial Repression. Another way to get out of the debt trap is financial repression. Financial repression is a way of channeling more funds to the government thereby facilitating public debt liquidation. Financial repression may consist of legislation making investment alternatives less attractive or more directly in regulation inducing investors to buy government bonds. Together with real growth and spending cuts, financial repression may work to actually reduce government debt loads.
5. Pay Off Debt. The problem of overindebtedness can also be solved through fiscal measures. The idea is to eliminate debts of governments and recapitalize banks through taxation. By reducing overindebtedness, the need for the central bank to keep interest low and to continue printing money is alleviated. The currency could be put on a sounder base again. To achieve this purpose, the government expropriates wealth on a massive scale to pay back government debts. The government simply increases existing tax rates or may employ one-time confiscatory expropriations of wealth. It uses these receipts to pay down its debts and recapitalize banks. Indeed the IMF has recently proposed a one-time 10-percent wealth tax in Europe in order to reduce the high levels of public debts. Large scale cuts in spending could also be employed to pay off debts. After WWII, the US managed to reduce its debt-to-GDP ratio from 130 percent in 1946 to 80 percent in 1952. However, it seems unlikely that such a debt reduction through spending cuts could work again. This time the US does not stand at the end of a successful war. Government spending was cut in half from $118 billion in 1945 to $58 billion in 1947, mostly through cuts in military spending. Similar spending cuts today do not seem likely without leading to massive political resistance and bankruptcies of overindebted agents depending on government spending.
6. Currency Reform. There is the option of a full-fledged currency reform including a (partial) default on government debt. This option is also very attractive if one wants to eliminate overindebtedness without engaging in a strong price inflation. It is like pressing the reset button and continuing with a paper money regime. Such a reform worked in Germany after the WWII (after the last war financial repression was not an option) when the old paper money, the Reichsmark, was substituted by a new paper money, the Deutsche Mark. In this case, savers who hold large amounts of the old currency are heavily expropriated, but debt loads for many people will decline.
7. Bail-in. There could be a bail-in amounting to a half-way currency reform. In a bail-in, such as occurred in Cyprus, bank creditors (savers) are converted into bank shareholders. Bank debts decrease and equity increases. The money supply is reduced. A bail-in recapitalizes the banking system, and eliminates bad debts at the same time. Equity may increase so much, that a partial default on government bonds would not threaten the stability of the banking system. Savers will suffer losses. For instance, people that invested in life insurances that in turn bought bank liabilities or government bonds will assume losses. As a result the overindebtedness of banks and governments is reduced.
Any of the seven options, or combinations of two or more options, may lie ahead. In any case they will reveal the losses incurred in and end the wealth illusion. Basically, taxpayers, savers, or currency users are exploited to reduce debts and put the currency on a more stable basis. A one-time wealth tax, a currency reform or a bail-in are not very popular policy options as they make losses brutally apparent at once. The first option of inflation is much more popular with governments as it hides the costs of the bail out of overindebted agents. However, there is the danger that the inflation at some point gets out of control. And the monopolist money producer does not want to spoil his privilege by a monetary meltdown. Before it gets to the point of a runaway inflation, governments will increasingly ponder the other options as these alternatives could enable a reset of the system.
Note: The views expressed in Daily Articles on Mises.org are not necessarily those of the Mises Institute.
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Philipp Bagus is an associate professor at Universidad Rey Juan Carlos. He is an associate scholar of the Ludwig von Mises Institute and was awarded the 2011 O.P. Alford III Prize in Libertarian Scholarship. He is the author of The Tragedy of the Euro and coauthor of Deep Freeze: Iceland’s Economic Collapse. The Tragedy of the Euro has so far been translated and published in German, French, Slovak, Polish, Italian, Romanian, Finnish, Spanish, Portuguese, British English, Dutch, Brazilian Portuguese, Bulgarian, and Chinese. See his website. Send him mail. Follow him on Twitter @PhilippBagus See Philipp Bagus’s article archives.
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From Russ Certo, head of rates at Brean Capital
Two Roads Diverged
As we know, it has been a suspect week with a variety of earnings misses. Although I have been constructive on risk asset markets generally, equities anecdotally, as figured year end push for alpha desires could let it run into year end. New year and ball game can change quickly. Just wondering if a larger rotation is in order.
There is an overall considerable theme of what you may find when a liquidity tide recedes as most major crises or risk pullbacks have been precipitated by either combination of tighter monetary or fiscal policy. Some with a considerable lag like a year after Greenspan departed from Fed helm, or many other examples. I’m not suggesting NOW is a time for a compression in risk but am aware of the possibility, especially when Fed Chairs take victory laps, Bernanke this week. Symbolic if nothing more. Cover of TIME magazine?
I happen to think that 2014 is a VERY different year than 2013 from a variety of viewpoints. First, there appears to be a dispersion of opinion about markets, valuations, policy frameworks and more. This is a healthy departure from YEARS of artificiality. Artificiality in valuations, artificiality in market and policy mechanics and essentially artificiality in EVERY financial, and real, relationship on the planet based on central bank(s) balance sheet expansion and other measures intended to be a stop-gap resolution to tightening financial conditions, adverse expectations of economic activity, and the great rollover….of both financial and non-financial debt financing. Boy, what a week in the IG issuance space with over $100 billion month to date, maybe $35 billion on the week. Debt rollover on steroids.
Beneath the veneer of market aesthetics, I already see fundamental (and technical) relevance. This could be construed as an optimist pursuit or reality that markets are incrementally transcending reliance and/or dependence on the wings of central bank policy prerogatives. The market bird is trying to fly on its own with inklings of a return to FUNDAMENTAL analysis. A good thing, conceptually, and gradualist development of passing the valuation baton back to market runners. A likely major pillar objective of policy despite more than a few critics worried about seemingly dormant lurking imbalances created by immeasurable policy and monetary and fundamentally skewed risk asset relationships globally.
This exercise of summarization of ebb and flow and comings and goings of markets and policy naturally funnels a discussion to what stature of central bank policy currently or accurately exists? Current events. What is the accurate stage of policy?
I actually think this is a more delicate nuance than I perceive viewed in overall market sentiment. Granted, we have taken a major step for mankind, which is the topical engagement of some level of scope or reduction of liquidity provisioning,” not tightening.” Tip of the iceberg communique with markets to INTRODUCE the concept of stepping off the gas but not hitting the break. Reeks of fragility to me but narrative headed in right direction to stop medicating the patient, the global economy.
Some markets have logically responded in kind. The highest beta markets as either beneficiaries or vulnerable to monetary policy changes, the emerging markets, have reflected at least the optics of change with policy. More auditory than optics in hearing a PROSPECTIVE change in garbled Fedspeak. The high flyer currencies which capture the nominal flighty hot money flows globally affirmed the Fed message.
In literally the simplest of terms, the G7 industrialized, not peripheral; interest rate complex has simply moved the needle in form of +110 basis point higher moves in nominal sovereign interest rates. And there are a bevy of other expressions which played nicely and rightly conformed to the messages coming out of the central bank sandbox. But there are ALSO notable dichotomies, which send a different or even the opposite message.
I perceive a deviation in perception of message as some markets or market participants appear to be betting on taper or a return to normalcy in global growth or U.S. growth outcomes??? OR no taper, or conversely QE4 or whatever. Sovereign spreads have moved materially tighter vs. industrial and supposed risk free rates (Tsys, Gilts, Bunds) both last year and in the first three weeks of 2014. Something a new leg of QE would represent, not a taper. A different year!!!
There have been VERY reliable risk asset market beta correlations over the last 5 years and sovereign or peripheral spreads have been AS volatile and correlated as any asset class. These things trade like dancing with a rattle-snake. Greece, Spain, France etc. They can bite you with fangs. They have been meaningfully more correlated to high yield spreads and yields and to central bank balance sheet expansion as nearly any asset class. So, the infusion of central bank liquidity into markets has seen “relief” rallies in peripherals and one would think the converse would be true as well. The valuations have represented the flavor and direction of risk on/risk off or liquidity on/liquidity off reliably for many months/years.
But I THOUGHT markets were deliberating tapering views and expressions as validated by some good soldier markets BUT that is not necessarily what the rally in riskiest of sovereign “credits” is suggesting. The complex seems to be decoupling with Fed balance sheet correlation and message. Some are OVER 100 standard deviations from the mean! They are rich and could/should be sold. Especially if one was to follow the obvious correlation with the direction of central bank as stated.
But look to other arena’s like TIPS breakevens which also have been correlated with liquidity and risk on/off and central bank balance sheet expansion. Correlated to NASDAQ, HY, peripherals and the like. BUT this complex COUNTERS what peripherals are doing. They haven’t shown up to the punch bowl party yet. Not invited. This is a departure of markets that have largely and generally been in synch from a liquidity and performance correlation view.
Like gold and silver which got tattooed vis a vis down 35%+ performance last year MOSTLY, but not exclusively, due to perceptions of winds of central bank change. BUT even within a contrary, the fact that rallies in Spain, France, Greece, and Italy reflect more of central bank easing notions, the opposite of taper. In essence, the complex has gone batty uber-appreciation this year. Sure, many eyeball the Launchpad physical metals marginal stabilization no longer falling on a knife but the miner bonds and the mining stocks are string like bull with significant appreciation. This decidedly isn’t the stuff of taper which had the bond daddy’s romancing notions of 3% 10yr breaks, 40 basis point Green Eurodollar sell-offs, emerging market rinse, and upticks in volatility amongst other things.
Equity bourses appear to be changing hands between investors with oscillating rotations which mark the first prospective 3 week consecutive sell-off in a while. New year. This is taper light. Somewhere in between and further blurs the correlation metrics.
So, which is it? Are we tapering or not and why are merely a few global asset classed pointed out here, why are they deviating or arguably pricing in different central bank prospects or scenarios or outcomes?
I’m not afraid but I am intrigued as to the fact that there may some strong opinions within markets and I perceive a widely received comfortability with taper or tightening notions, negative leanings on interest rate forecasts, a complacency of Fed call if you will. And all of these hingings occur without intimate knowledge of the most critical variable of all, what Janet Yellen thinks? She has been awfully quiet as of late and there are many foregone conclusions or assumptions in market psyche without having heard a peep from the new MAESTRO.
Moreover, looking in the REAR view mirror within a week where multiple (two) Fed Governor proclamations, communicated and implicated notions which arguably would be considered radical in ANY other policy period of a hundred years. How to conduct “monetary policy at a ZERO lower bound (Williams) ” and “doing something as surprising and drastic as cutting interest on excess reserves BELOW zero (Kocherlakota).”
This doesn’t sound like no stinking taper? A tale of two markets. To be or not to be. To taper or not to taper. Two roads diverged and I took the one less traveled by, and that has made all the difference. Robert Frost.
Which is it? Different markets pricing different things. Right or wrong, the market always has a message; listen critically.
Europe is recovering, right? Wrong. As Nigel Farage raged last night, things are not what they seem and even the IMF is now beginning to get concerned again (especially after Lagarde’s call yesterday for moar from Draghi and every other central banker). As Bloomberg’s Niraj Shah notes, it’s not just the PIIGS we have to worry about (or not), Denmark, Finland, Norway and Poland have been added to the IMF’s list of countries with the potential to destabilize the global economy.
Via Bloomberg’s Niraj Shah ( @economistniraj ),
The IMF’s decision means the four nations will be subject to mandatory financial sector assessments. The total number of countries on the list has risen to 29 from 25. The IMF’s decision may further undermine the safe-haven status of the Nordic nations, where rising household debt imposes a financial risk.
Ballooning Household Debt
Household debt and government-imposed austerity measures are deterring consumers from spending in the Nordic region. Denmark’s financial regulator is considering curbing banks’ lending policies to address the record household debt load. Danish households owe creditors 321 percent of disposable income, the OECD says. Norway’s household debt reached a record 200 percent of disposable income in 2011.
Austerity Triggered by Rising Government Debt
Finland’s debt-to-GDP ratio will almost double to 60.5 percent by 2015 from 33.9 percent in 2008, the IMF forecasts. The fund estimates the Finnish economy shrank 0.65 percent last year. Polish government debt reached 57.6 percent of GDP last year. A clause in the country’s constitution states that breaching a 55 percent ceiling triggers mandatory austerity measures.
Competitiveness at Risk
Denmark has dropped to 15th place in the World Economic Forum’s global competitiveness report from third in 2008. Labor costs rose 9.1 percent between 2008 and 2012, compared with an EU average increase of 8.6 percent in the period. Norway has the highest labor costs in Europe at 48.3 euros per hour in 2012, compared with 30.4 euros in Germany. That may undermine competitiveness and the growth outlook.
Most Financially Interconnected Countries
The inclusion of three Nordic nations for mandatory assessment is the result of a new methodology by the IMF that gives more weight to financial interconnectedness. The U.K. is the most financially linked nation in the world, followed by Germany. Seven of the top 10 most interconnected financial nations are in the euro-area.
So as the world congratulates itself (most notably Ben Bernanke today), the IMF seems concerned that this could all get worse again very quickly. Think they are all too small to worry about? Remember Lehman?