Saturday, May 22, 2010

Economics 22/05/2010: More nonsensical German proposals

Thursday was another day of great ideas from Berlin on “How to wreck world financial infrastructure while earning little political capital: the Angela Merkel Way”.

For a couple of weeks now, global investors have shown Madam Chance-a-lot (oops… Chancellor) that Greek Tragedy rule 1 applies: If you want to write a tragedy, set up a story where an irrational, arrogant and morally reprehensible sovereign challenges the Gods. Inevitably, in Greek classical tradition, the Gods win, while having a laugh. Mrs Merkel’s epic battle with the markets is exactly that. Markets, like Greek deities, are inevitably going to prevail. And Mrs Merkel and the retinue of euro area leaders – bent on ring-fencing their own politically connected banking sectors and shielding them from any meaningful pain for the errors committed in the past – will lose. The only thing that still might be at stake here is the degree of vengeance the markets will deal to the EU, should the euro zone embrace German proposals. With every new ‘bright idea’ on punishing the markets coming, the likelihood of an awesome spectacle of the Gods punishment meted out to Europe is rising too.


Following new taxes and short selling ban (covered by me yesterday) Mrs Merkel has now unveiled her third pillar of the reform strategy: a European ratings agency. It’s bonkers, folks. Just as the rest of the European financial sector reforms proposals so far:
  • EU Rating Agency will never be independent of political interference, so no one, save for the institutionalised writers in the EU official press will ever pay any attention to whatever the agency might produce. In so far as delivering anything usable by the market or by anyone, save Eurocrats, the EURA will be a complete waste of taxpayers’ money.
  • EU premise for launching EURA will be as crooked as an old local authorities politico with development firm in his backyard. Germany has departed on the EURA trip from the assertion that Euro needs an agency that can honestly upraise the extent of fiscal risks on sovereign balance sheets. Were EURA to do so, its ratings will have to be even gloomier than those of the Big 3 private rating agencies.
  • EURA is unlikely to have any serious competency in what it does because unlike the Big 3 it will never be a rating agency for non-EU sovereign debt. In other words, EURA, having no recognition of non-EU sovereigns, will be forced to look at the EUniverse, a subset of the world bond markets. Which makes a proposal equivalent to simulating a tsunami in a coffee mug.
  • And, of course, as any other rating agency, EURA will be no more than a lagging indicator, which means that its musings on bond valuations are going to be read only by retired intellectuals, plus pensions funds with automatic quality mandates. And even then, EURA will be forced to follow, in the news hierarchy, the Big 3.

In response to Mrs Merkel’s expensive (and it is expensive, from the point of view of European economy and taxpayers – see here) populism, Canadian finance minister told Mrs Merkel into her face last night that his country would not take part in either one of the three European policy follies. You see, Canada has a healthy banking system. And it has the intellectual and policy capital to understand that finance is crucial to country economic prosperity.

Americans, like Canadians and the Brits, think that the idea of a transaction tax is downright potty. All three have done the right things in trying to reform their banks. The EU, so far, is staunchly refusing to do the same. Why should the sane join the outright gaga club of countries that keep preserving rotten banking system at the expense of the real economy?

Even Finnish finance minister is saying Germany’s short sale ban had surprised everybody, unpleasantly. Finns can see through the German plans to the point where a Tobin tax on financial services will exert adverse selection against smaller exchanges in favour of the larger ones (again, see more on this here).

Why? Because the problem with financial institutions today has nothing to do with volatility in financial assets prices. It has everything to do with reckless lending by the banks and the willingness of bondholders to underwrite excessive borrowing (including that by the sovereigns). In the real world banks are willing to write poor loans because they and their shareholders and bondholders know that they will be rescued by the state, should things go pear-shape. And, of course, governments always oblige. Look no further than Nama. Wrecking regulatory vengeance on the markets in order to address the problems with the banks – as Mrs Merkel is doing – is hardly a way forward.


Only a massive scale intervention by the ECB, going most likely well beyond simple sterilization of €20 billion of sovereign bonds purchased by the bank so far, has pushed the euro up against the dollar. But at what cost, one might wonder, especially in the environment where deflation is creeping back into the US stats? I don’t have the data on ECB operations this week, but something was certainly hitting the markets for FX and bonds. Of course, sterilizing and supporting currency are two individually costly propositions. But for ECB to engage in this double game for a prolonged period of time will spell significant drying up of the liquidity. It is like an overweight elderly amateur playing alone against, simultaneously, Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal. The result will be painful, quick and devastating.

Sterilized cash can be re-injected into the banks reserves, without cash hitting the streets, but that would only mean more real money being trapped in the liquidity sucking spiral of government financing via ECB lending to the banks. We’ve been there for the last 24 months and it is not pretty.


In addition, there is a pesky issue of the US position. In effect, Japan, China, Germany and the entire euro zone are playing beggar-thy-neighbour game with the US by artificially suppressing the cost of their exports to America. The problem, as I have pointed out before (here) is that this requires US consumers to start borrowing again to sustain massive trade deficits. If this fails to materialise, and it is hard to see how it can, then the entire pyramid scheme of global trade will collapse. In the end, the double dip, this time caused by trade tensions and falling exports, is on the cards for all, as undervalued currencies in the three major powerhouses of global trade will prevent their consumers from expanding their own imports demand.

Such an outcome, however, will be preceded by a significant pain for Europe’s domestic economy. While a 10% devaluation of the Euro against a basket of global currencies can be expected to lead to a significant boost in Euro area economy (ca +0.7% in year one after devaluation and up to +1.8% in year 4), this exports-led growth will be associated with massive increases in the interest rates (+85bps in year one, to +220bps in year 3). These estimates are taken from Econbrowser (here). Obviously, the rest of the world will be just cheering EU and Mrs Merkel in this destruction of economic growth... or not?
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