Europe's Future Comes Into Focus: Hyperinflation

What struck me most when reading the first responses to the EU summit was this: Most of what you get from the mainstream media pundits or from the financial economists on Wall Street or in the city of London not only misses the relevant points, it usually gets things completely the wrong way round. What these analysts suggest is good policy is almost always bad policy and should be avoided under any circumstances.

Let’s go through the salient points:

1. Write-down of Greek debt to 50%

“Private-sector involvement,” aptly abbreviated PIS, is one of those dreadful phrases that conceals more than it explains. The private sector here means, of course, the banks that were stupid enough to give billions of euros to Greek politicians.

We all know what happens under capitalism to lenders who give money to borrowers, who end up being unable to pay: They lose their money. That is how it should be. That’ll teach them and, hopefully, make them more prudent lenders in the future.

Alas, this is Europe, so there is no capitalism. You can negotiate your losses with the political class and agree on the “appropriate” haircut. In July, a 20% write-off was agreed, now this was upped to 50. Either number is entirely arbitrary.

The positively Orwellian phrase “private-sector involvement” makes it sound as if these poor banks were just innocent bystanders — and respectable members of the private sector, for that matter — who got dragged into this unfortunate business at no fault of their own.

For how much should the “private” sector be “involved”? Well, I would say for exactly as much as it chose to involve itself in the first place, by voluntarily lending money to the Greek government. I mean, have the risk managers and credit analysts at the likes of Credit Agricole and Societe Generale ever been to Athens and inspected the bottomless pit in which their loans were dumped? Or have they, from the start, assumed that the German taxpayer or the ECB would cover their losses?

Of course, a haircut of 50%, as now agreed in Brussels, is better than the ridiculous 20% or so “agreed” in July. But looking at Greece’s dire financial situation, the haircut should be at least 60%, or maybe 90 or 100. There is no reason for the Greek citizens of this and future generations to suffer endlessly because of the corruption of their past governments and the stupidity of their bankers. Embrace default! Just stop paying, go bankrupt, shrink your government, role up your sleeves and start from scratch.

After a complete and proper default, the state will not get loans easily again. This, coincidentally, is an additional bonus of a complete government default. It keeps your future politicians honest. That would be the free-market solution. But again, we are in Europe.

An even bigger haircut, one decided not by political horse-trading but by the market and Greece’s true ability to pay, would be more helpful for the Greeks and would, conveniently, discipline the bankers. Why is it not considered?

Well, the politicians don’t like it, because it would shut much of the government bond market down and make it difficult or impossible for them to keep running deficits of their own, and also, because the banks have skillfully booby-trapped the entire financial system with explosive CDS (credit default swaps) that get triggered if the “private-sector involvement” gets too big. The bankers, increasingly, resemble financial terrorists, effectively declaring, “If you don’t bail us out, we blow the whole place up!”

The bottom line: A haircut of 50% is better than 20, but it is still too little for Greece, and the whole idea that the “private” sector negotiates losses with the politicians doesn’t bode well for the future.

2. Fiscal coordination

Nothing specific was agreed at the summit, but this is where we are going, and the mainstream economists are cheering for it.

For years now, we have heard this in endless macroeconomic research pamphlets and newspaper editorials: There can be no monetary union without a fiscal union. This is, of course, utter nonsense. Complete rubbish. And it doesn’t get any more right by repeating it at nauseam.

The money of capitalism, of the free market and global trade, has always been gold (or silver, but I will refer to gold here). A gold standard is the oldest and best currency union imaginable, and I would argue, the only one workable. Under a gold standard, various countries and their governments use the same currency, gold. There is no central bank and no printing press. Governments have to make do with the income they generate from taxing their local population.

In such a system, the state has to live, just like any other entity in society, within its means. Apparently, this is a truly fantastical notion for today’s politicians and mainstream economists. Under a gold standard, the state may also borrow from the market, but it is clear to the lenders that they assume full risk of default. There is no lender of last resort. This is a powerful constraint on government largesse.

The Greek crisis was a good test to see how closely the European fiat money union could resemble the workings of a proper gold standard. In theory at least, and as intended by the original designs for EMU, there should have been no bailout, and the whole mess should have been a local affair between the Greek government and its lenders, just as it would be under a gold standard.

All this nonsense about the falling apart of the euro was, of course, needless but politically motivated scaremongering. When a government defaults under a gold standard, there is no reason why any other government should give up gold as a currency. Had the no-bailout provision been adhered to, there would equally have been no reason why a Greek default should have affected the acceptance and the usability of the euro in any of the other countries, nor for the Greeks themselves. A currency union does not require a fiscal union.

But EMU is no gold standard, and it already failed its first test of whether it could even be a currency union of some discipline. The gold standard was abandoned globally, precisely so that governments would not have to live within their means. The euro is political paper money, fiat money. It is issued to allow persistent fiscal irresponsibility, as is any other paper currency. Central banks have always been created to fund the state and the banks. The ECB is no different.

This is the global picture in 2011: After 40 years of complete paper money, public debt around the world has reached such momentous dimensions that the major central banks are now increasingly funding the state directly. This is what is happening in the U.S., the U.K. and increasingly, the eurozone. It is either accepted with suspicious equanimity or enthusiastically supported by bank economists and the inflationistas in the mainstream media. The trend is the same pretty much everywhere. It is only that, within the eurozone, it is less clear which government has first call on the printing press. In other paper money economies, this can be done more straightforwardly.

To assume that some form of institutional framework for fiscal coordination will discipline the European governments and reduce the desire for ongoing central bank debt monetization is at least naive. Maybe outright stupid. All governments in Europe are fiscally irresponsible, even the German one.

In the run-up to EMU, Germany imposed the Maastricht criteria on her European partners. Anyone remember the 60% debt-to-GDP limit? Laughable. Today, Germany is at 83% and rising, which may look relatively prudent if compared with Belgium or Greece, but if Germany has to pay up on its already-agreed-upon commitments under the European Financial Stability Fund, she will go above 90% in one giant leap, roughly where Ireland was when her creditors said, “No mas!” Germany may have the lowest unemployment rate in 20 years and, last year, had the highest GDP growth in 20 years, but she is still running deficits, accumulating debt every year, just like anybody else in Europe.

On a long-enough timeline, everywhere is Greece!

The bottom line: We will see a plethora of treaty changes, top-level EU summits and other pointless boondoggles. All to no avail. To assume that governments will not collectively resort to the printing press and that they will, instead, discipline one another, when all of them are long-standing, habitual and incorrigible fiscal offenders, is beyond ridiculous! If you believe it, call me, I may have something I want to sell you!

3. “Unlimited firepower” courtesy of the central bank

I guess you might argue that it could have been worse. Merkel could have given in to demands by Sarkozy to use the ECB straight away to leverage the €440 billion bailout fund. Seems like she didn’t, and Sarkozy will have to go, hat in hand, to the Chinese and see if they have some change to spare. However, this is not a long-term solution, and once Italy and Spain are in trouble, the bailout fund will be depleted.

One of the most shocking aspects of this crisis is how acceptable it has become for the mainstream economists and the pundits in the media to point toward the “unlimited resources” of the ECB. True, a fiat money central bank can print unlimited amounts of paper and electronic money to bail out everybody, the government, the banks, the pension funds, etc. It is just that such a policy used to be advocated only by suicidal cranks. That’s likely because it is a sure recipe for complete currency annihilation.

Today, established and supposedly highly regarded economists point out the importance of “keeping the ECB engaged,” because only the ECB has the “unlimited” resources to underwrite the boundless fiscal profligacy of modern democratic governments and their vote-buying political elites, and to underwrite the gargantuan debt pile.

As the hysterical calls by the inflationistas for a bold ECB policy get ever shriller, Mario Draghi, the new money-printer-in-chief for Europe, has already signaled his support for the ECB’s debt monetization policy, that is, ongoing buying of depressed and ultimately worthless government bonds with the help of the euro printing press.

Anyone who has any savings stored in the euro-area should be extremely concerned about what is going on here, and in particular, about the tone of the debate. When the mainstream speaks of “unlimited” resources of the ECB, they do in fact mean unlimited. The creation of new euro-currency units will be without ANY LIMIT. And the remaining inflation will also be without limit.

The bottom-line…On the face of it, the German position has won: deeper haircuts and no use of the ECB for leveraging the EFSF for now. But from where is the money for the larger EFSF going to come? Italy and Spain will remain under pressure. Nobody has the money to save them or to recapitalize the banks again when the big deficit countries lose access to the market and fail.

The ECB is not off the hook. Resorting to the printing press has become a global policy theme for the past three years, and sadly, such thinking is now part of the mainstream. The balance sheet of the ECB will not shrink; it will grow. There is no exit strategy. Pressure for further and accelerated monetization of debt, of budget deficits and bank balance sheets, will continue and intensify. The endgame will be inflation.


Detlev Schlichter

The Daily Reckoning