Thursday, May 20, 2010

Economics 20/05/2010: Germany's new plan for Europe

“Berlin means business” says Spiegel about the latest plans by German Government for an EU-wide revision of fiscal and financial architecture.

This Tuesday, “EU finance ministers announced efforts to both rein in hedge funds operating in Europe and to introduce a tax on financial transactions”.

Wait a second, folks – take Ireland: a sick financial system with plenty of financial services taxes, including a stamp duty on transactions, all the way down to bank cards levies. Has the presence of the Tobin tax here helped to prevent the crisis? Will it work in Europe? Not really. Why? For several reasons:
  1. Tax is avoidable by offshoring trades outside the EU. The effect of this will be – higher cost of capital raising for companies, selection bias in favour of larger companies in access to the capital market (AIG advantage anyone?), lower after-tax returns to investors and higher cost of financial services to all of us. Falling listings in Europe and greater state pensions reliance. Which part of this equation makes any economic sense?
  2. The tax will not fund sufficient insurance provision against the need for future bailouts. When you think of the magnitude of bailouts we’ve witnessed, the levels of taxation would have to be so high, there will be no financial markets in Europe left.
  3. The tax will, however, fund general Government spending in the Eurozone. Which, of course, means more of our money (yes, yours and mine – as long as we have pensions, savings, investments or if we work for companies that have listed shares or have plcs as their clients…) will be going to noble causes of public sector retirement and wages packages, social welfare spending, politically motivated pet projects, and so on.
  4. The tax will retard economic development in Europe. One of the reason why European banks are so sick is because European companies are heavily reliant on banks lending. European businesses are based on loans, not equity - in other words, they are based on debt. Vast amounts of debt. And when such culture of financing collides with an asset bubble drivers of exuberant expectations, banks balance sheets swell with bad loans. The new tax will only perpetuate this inherently inefficient utilization of equity financing across Europe. Which means less growth, fewer businesses and fewer jobs.

Next, of course, in the line of fire are the hedge funds. They had to be reined in because… no wait, remind me, why exactly? Hedge funds did not cause the current fiscal crisis (they have no control over the Governments’ borrowings and spending), nor did they pollute banks balance sheets or caused the property bubbles. Why are they a target then? Because for European leadership, ‘Doing right’ means ‘Doing politically easy’. Hedgies have no strong lobbyist interest behind them, unlike the banks, property developers, sovereign bondholders, sovereign bond issuers, farmers, trade unions and public 'servants' - all who inhabit the vast ques to the trough of Government subsidies. So here you are – we attack a bystander to pretend that we are tackling the criminal in sight.

After hedgies, came in other imaginary villains. On Tuesday night the EU banned naked short-selling and the trading of naked credit default swaps involving euro-zone debt. Oops.. before Tuesday night we knew what markets were betting on into the future – the short positions revealed actual expectations with the power of having real money put behind them. Now we do not. This, per EU leaders, is some sort of transparency. Socratic cave analogy comes to mind.

The EU ban target two types of trading that “have been blamed for exacerbating the financial crisis and Europe's sovereign debt crisis.” Actually, IMF explicitly said (here) in its report last week that the entire CDS markets - not just short sales in these markets - were not enough to cause the crisis. Never mind - EU leaders know how to deal with independent advice from international experts. Any hope, then, that Mrs Merkel's pipe dream of 'independent budgets oversight' (see below) can come true in this land of pure politicization of everything - from rating agencies, to traders, to investors?

It turns out, folks, that European crisis was, after all, not about absurdly high levels of public debt carried by PIIGS, nor by fraudulent (yes, fraudulent) deception by some Governments of investors about the true extent of national deficits. It was not exacerbated by the decade-long low growth recession across the Euro area, nor by a recent severe depression that afflicted Euro area economies. Nope. The cause of this, per Mrs Merkel & Co, were investors who were betting on all of these factors adding up to an unsustainable fiscal and economic situation in Europe. Off we fighting the evil windmills, then, Don Quixote from Berlin!


Worse than that, on top of the ridiculous policies decisions made over the last two days, Chancellor Merkel has also been working hard “on far-reaching changes to the treaty underpinning Europe's common currency, the euro.” Per Der Speigel, “Merkel would like to see increased monitoring of member states' annual budgets, the introduction of stiff sanctions for those in violation of euro-zone debt rules and the suspension of voting rights in the European Council. Furthermore, Germany wants to establish bankruptcy proceedings for insolvent euro-zone countries.”

Really? I wrote about the actual chances of any of this working to the desired effect in the earlier post (here). But now we have some details to the plan:

“According to the document, Germany would like to see annual budgets in euro-zone countries undergo a "strict and independent check." Berlin proposes that the job be taken over by the European Central Bank or by a collection of economic research institutes.”

Now, the problem with this part is that there are no independent organizations in Europe left. The ECB is now a full hostage to Europe’s push for retaining fiscal sovereignty while maintaining unsustainable prolificacy. ‘Institutes’ Mrs Merkel has in mind are a host of EU-funded ‘Yes, Minister’ organizations that populate the realm of economic policymaking on the continent (with a number of them operating in Ireland). By-and-large, they have no capability of delivering anything of real value, let alone anything independent. Even the likes of the OECD – a very capable organization with some degree of independence – is not free from European political interference.

"Euro-zone member states that do not conform to deficit reduction rules should temporarily be disallowed from receiving structural funds," the draft reads. In extreme cases, that funding could be permanently eliminated.”

Imagine Greece today, receiving €110 billion bailout today, being told, ‘Naughty! We will withhold some €5 billion in funds.” Apart from being unrealistic, this idea is potentially quite dangerous. Structural funds go to finance infrastructure and other longer term investment programmes. Many of these rely on co-funding from the Member States and/or private partners. All have private contractors. Impose this potential penalty and cost of public projects financing will have to rise due to uncertain nature of the funding stream.

Withholding these funds will either be meaningless (if the funds withheld are small, as it will cause no damage and will have no power of prevention) or it will cause an economic mayhem as bills go unpaid and workers lose jobs (in which case the sanction will be undermining the process of fiscal recovery and triggering more bailouts).

In short, the threat is either toothless or self-defeating. Either way – it is a cure that threatens to make the disease incurable.

Two more proposals are mentioned in the Spiegel.

“Earlier this month, Schäuble had mentioned the possibility of suspending member states' votes should they find themselves in violation of European debt rules, an idea which is mentioned in the draft proposal.”

This should make wonders of the EU efforts to strengthen its democratic legitimacy. And would this extend to suspending MEPs powers too? European court judges? Commissioners? Where does the buck stop? Should this come to pass, Italy, Greece… no wait – at 60% debt to GDP level, virtually the entire EU will be suspended (see table here). Who will end up voting in Europe? Germany won’t – its own debt/GDP ratio is 72.5%... Ditto for the deficits benchmark.

Finally, per plan: “Should all else fail, the draft calls for a plan to be established for euro-zone members to declare bankruptcy.”

Err… what? Hold on – bankruptcy? Given that the EU own rules to date have so spectacularly failed to contain debts and deficits from breaching EU-own rules, that would be a collective bankruptcy then… One presumes with Germany in tow?
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