Economics

The official start of the European transfer union

There are basically three scenarios for the future of the European Monetary Union as I argue in my book The Tragedy of the Euro.

First, the Stability and Growth Pact (SGP) is reformed and enforced with automatic sanctions for countries not complying with its conditions. This requires harsh austerity measures, privatizations, labor market reforms and reduction of living standards in the periphery. The case of Greece shows that this option may just not be viable considering political structures and socialist voters resisting a reduction of the state’s size. Indeed, for 2011 the Greek deficit is expected to be at 9.5% of GDP, far above of the 3% limit established by the SGP and the 7.4% target established by the European Commission.

The second scenario is a break-up of the monetary union. The periphery has no interest in exiting the Eurozone. Periphery governments are benefitting from guarantees by the core and from monetary redistribution. An exit would imply a substantial reduction of living standards in the periphery. But why are core countries not leaving the Euro? While a euro exit would be in the interest of the common population, the political elite and their financiers from the banking sector want to continue the Euro project. As we have seen in the summit on the second Greek bailout, German Chancellor Merkel not only defied the “no-bailout clause” of the Maastricht Treaty but also a resolution of the German parliament against purchasing commonly-guaranteed bonds from February 2011. This leads us to the third scenario, which we are approaching fast: a transfer union and a European superstate. The EU summit of Thursday, 21st of July 2011 marks a big step in this direction.

The Greek government will get an additional €109 bn. bailout loan until 2014. Maturities for Greek bonds from the first bailout were raised from 7.5 to 15 years (originally it was 3 years). Interest rates were reduced from 4.2 % (originally at 5.2 %) to 3.5 %. Likewise, interest rates on loans to Portugal and Ireland were reduced.

The day brought also another bailout of banks. Banks, insurance companies and other private investors can swap their old Greek government bonds against new ones with a longer maturity. Joseph Ackermann, CEO of Deutsche Bank, estimates write-downs for banks around 21%. Politicians sell the  so-called “participation of private investors” in the bailout as a great success. However, it is just another bailout for the banking system, limiting losses to 21% and putting taxpayers’ money on the hook. Old bonds are swapped into new bonds that are guaranteed by the EFSF and such by European taxpayers. Without the second bailout the Greek government would have had to default. Banks would have had to take much higher losses in a restructuring. Estimates of losses range between 50-70%. After the swap, banks are effectively protected. The financial industry, the governments’ main financier, can be very happy about this covert bailout.

The most important consequence of 21st of July was the official establishment of a transfer union by granting more powers to the EFSF (the European bailout fund). In the Eurozone, there have always been transfers through monetary redistribution: The ECB accepts bonds from the periphery as collateral thereby monetizing deficits indirectly. Last year, the ECB even started to buy government bonds from the periphery outright, spreading the burden of the bailout to all users of the currency. Yet, from now on, direct purchases by the ECB may become unnecessary. The burden of the bailouts will be more concentrated. Not all currency users will pay in form of a dilution of the Euro but rather taxpayers in countries that effectively guarantee the EFSF.

The EFSF now can give credit lines to countries that are expected to have financing problems. In addition, the EFSF may purchase government bonds on the secondary market. The role of the ECB is thereby partially taken over by the EFSF.

The possibility of financing through the EFSF reduces the pressure for countries to eliminate deficits and reduce government debts. Why introduce harsh austerity measures, reform labor markets and privatize the public sector if there are loans available from the EFSF at ridiculously low interest rates? If you want to win elections, you should not reform but spend. Only through deficit spending one can maintain the artificially high living standards in the periphery. Indeed, debts are still on the rise. Deficits are huge and far from being eliminated. Most probably, Greece, Ireland, Portugal and soon Spain, Italy and even Belgium will borrow exclusively from the EFSF. To be effective, the size of the EFSF will have to be extended. The main guarantor will be Germany. Considering peripheral funding needs, a report from Bernstein calculates:

As the guarantees of the periphery including Italy are worthless, the guarantee Germany would have to provide rises to €790bn or 32% of GDP.

If France is downgraded, the German share increases to €1.385 trillion — 56% of GDP.

The transfer union implies a transfer of power to the European Commission. We get ever closer to a European superstate. Incentives to reduce deficits will be reduced both in the periphery and in the core. Germans will start to resist cuts in public spending. Why save if the savings flow to the periphery? Instead of reducing German pensions to guarantee Greek pensions, German voters will push for more public spending. To pay for welfare states and transfers, more taxes (maybe a European tax) and money production will become necessary. The centralization of power allows for harmonization of regulations and taxes. Once tax competition ends, there will be a tendency towards ever higher taxes. With the transfers, the power of Brussels will continue to rise. There seems to be only one bold, albeit costly way, to stop the process towards a EUSSR: withdrawal from the transfer union. With an exit from the Euro, Germany could bring down the whole Euro project and save Europe.

Cobden Centre Radio

Cobden Centre Radio: Europe’s Deep Freeze of Debt

In this latest Cobden Centre Radio programme, I interview Professor David Howden, a member of our Advisory Board, about his new book, Deep Freeze: Iceland’s Economic Collapse, co-authored with Professor Philipp Bagus.

Amongst other subjects, we fly south from Iceland down to Ireland, then compare how these two North Atlantic islands are coping with their respective economic crises, before Howden considers Portugal, Greece, and Spain, and how the fate of these nations may be tied to the immediate fate of the Euro, by weighing up the latest evidence from an Austrian perspective:

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Cobden Centre Radio

Cobden Centre Radio: The Iberian Situation

In a detailed 28-minute conversation, I spoke last night to Professor David Howden, Associate Professor of Economics at St. Louis University, in Madrid, about the current fiscal situation in Portugal and Spain, particularly as regards the Euro and its ongoing woes and tribulations in the international bond markets:

We also brushed upon the debt and deficit situation here in Britain, the mysterious and interesting involvement of the Chinese in the Euro crisis, and the Douglas E. French prize awarded at the Mises University each year for the student who emerges from the Mises University oral examination with the best academic record, particularly after being grilled by Professor Hoppe, et al; therefore a prize never won by the faint of heart.

Iberian Peninsula

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Two main books are referenced within the interview. You can download complete PDFs of both books, by clicking through the links below:

Economics

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly of Portugal’s Bond Auction

Portugal tested the chilly New Year auction waters on January 5th as it auctioned €500 million of six-month bonds. The good news is that investors bought the small offering without too much difficulty. The bad news is that they demanded 3.68 percent from Portugal for the short-term loans. The ugly news is that this interest rate is double what Portugal had to pay only back in September, and more than six times what it had to pay a year ago.

While this soaring interest rate is inconsequential for the paltry sum auctioned, it has grave repercussions for the future.

Within the next year Portugal will need to raise as much as €20 billion. Simple arithmetic tells us that the increased interest payment will be stifling for the small Iberian country. If the situation doesn’t deteriorate any, and investors don’t change their willingness to loan insolvent countries more money, Portugal will pay 3.68 percent on its future bond sales. On €20 billion this means that Portugal will have to pay over €736 million just to keep the game going for another six months.

While trillions are quickly becoming the new billions, €736 million may seem like small potatoes. Annualized it will represent a drain of 0.67 percent of Portugal’s stagnating GDP. Meanwhile, Portugal’s existing government debt is about 77 percent of GDP.  If it were all to be refinanced at the same 3.68 percent the current offering received, it would represent an annual interest payment of 2.8 percent of GDP. That’s a grand total of about 3.5 percent of GDP entirely dedicated to servicing the national debt — a monumental drain on a country whose economy shrunk by 3.3 percent in 2009 alone!

One way to interpret the evidence is that without this staggering debt Portugal’s horrendous collapse of GDP growth would merely have been flat. Another way is that Portugal’s economy must grow faster than 3.5 percent a year just to service its existing debt (never mind paying down any of the principal).

This recent experiment in the bond market may buy some time, with the operative word being “some”. Eventually the funds will run out. The important question then becomes: what happens next?

This crisis is not one of illiquidity. If it was, continued bond auctions could potentially keep the game going and the Eurozone on track until normalcy returns. What we are in the midst of today is a crisis of insolvency. Several countries of the Eurozone – Portugal included – lack the assets (or access to assets) to pay off their liabilities.

Loaning these troubled countries more money will not solve the problem; it will only exacerbate the inevitable. In the future, Portugal will need to raise money to pay off these loans. And then the same old problem resurfaces again. In the meantime, the continual funding availability eases pressures from what should be stringent budget cuts. Getting its fiscal affairs in order is essential if Portugal (and its colleagues, the other PIIGS) want to survive.

Continued bond auctions will buy time, but without meaningful budget cuts, they will not provide a solution.