Wednesday, June 13, 2012

The EU Fighting Market Forces

A fundamental reason why EU bailouts repeatedly belly flop is that the EU is trying to work against market forces, rather than harnessing them to its advantage. The most recent 100 billion Euro "bailout" of Spain consisted of a press release promising a large sounding amount of money, with no details about where the money would come from or on what terms. Evidently, the idea was to use a big number to impress the bond vigilantes into simmering down. But the BVs are much better poker players than the EU's top ministers, and sniffed out the bluff in one trading day.

The baseline reason why the EU is in debt hell is that it's growing too slowly to service the outstanding amounts of its sovereign and quasi-sovereign debt (the latter including bank liabilities which national governments are legally or de facto obligated to cover). The simple solution to this problem is to boost economic growth. The time-honored way of fostering growth is to increase the nation's international competitiveness and thereby rev up its domestic production. This would be done by devaluing the currency and lowering wages. Governments would cut back on deficit spending, so as to begin the process of deleveraging. These adjustments are economically painful and politically difficult. But they put debtor nations in the position of using market forces to their advantage. This generally leads toward the path to recovery.

The EU's policies to date have focused on fighting bond market forces with "bailouts" that consisting of c0mbatting debt with more debt. Profligate nations are told to adopt policies aimed at austerity. But the European Central Bank won't devalue the Euro, so part of the normal path to recovery isn't being taken. Profligate nations are told to attempt dramatically painful cuts in government benefits and pay, without the assistance of a devalued currency. But too much drama is offputting and we are seeing the consequences in anti-austerity movements across much of the EU. These protest movements, in Greece, France and elsewhere, could lead to the break-up of the EU, as German taxpayers are likely to balk at ponying up the hundreds of billions of Euros it would cost to preserve the EU. The bond markets aren't fooled, and private sector money is gradually staging a run on Euro-denominated debt owed by any nation whose creditworthiness is in question. Only massive purchases of sovereign debt by debtor nation banks (which in turn may need bailouts themselves if things get stinkier) are keeping the credit markets open for some of the bigger spenders in the EU.

By trying to flimflam the bond markets while not effectively making the underlying economic adjustments that would lead to renewed growth, the EU continues to run off the road into the ditch. As we learned in the 2007-08 collapse of the real estate and mortgage markets in America, when conditions become extreme enough, basic economic forces prevail over government band-aids. To preserve the EU, everyone has to make painful sacrifices. People in profligate nations must accept lower wages and government benefits, along with much greater control over their governments' spending by the bureaucrats in Brussels. People in wealthy nations like Germany must accept significantly increased tax burdens to help their struggling neighbors through the crisis. The entire EU must accept the notion that the Euro should be devalued, by a lot and quickly.

The EU can't declare de facto bankruptcy because so much of its sovereign debt is held by its own banks that defaults would send its banking system swirling down the porcelain goddess. Of course, that wouldn't actually happen because national governments in Europe would bail out their banks. But the bailouts would require a new round of sovereign debt, thus perpetuating the not at all virtuous cycle.

The citizenry of Europe were told that the European Union would bring prosperity. These political promises now hinder effective resolution of the problem. Once promised prosperity, the citizens won't allow the politicians to take it away. But economic cycles have not been (and cannot be) repealed. Every society built on promises of permanent prosperity will eventually be hoisted by its own petard (see Soviet Union, Communist China for further reading). China and its much lower wages represent a path that won't be acceptable to Europe's bourgeoisie. The United States, with its bona fide national identity, will be difficult for Europeans, who are provincial deep down, to emulate. Indeed, it took a bloody civil war for America to truly become one nation. Europe won't go that far, not after the two world wars in the 20th Century.

The breakup of the Soviet Union may well illustrate what will happen to the EU. The Soviet Union was a historical experiment in fighting market forces, and it failed spectacularly. The EU won't fair any better in the end.

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