In the week following the bankruptcy of Lehman Brothers on September 15, 2008 – global financial markets actually broke down and by the end of the week they had to be put on artificial life support. The life support consisted of substituting sovereign credit for the credit of financial institutions which ceased to be acceptable to counter parties..
As Mervyn King of the Bank of England brilliantly explained, the authorities had to do in the short-term the exact opposite of what was needed in the long-term: they had to pump in a lot of credit to make up for the credit that disappeared and thereby reinforce the excess credit and leverage that had caused the crisis in the first place. Only in the longer term, when the crisis had subsided, could they drain the credit and reestablish macro-economic balance. This required a delicate two phase maneuver just as when a car is skidding, first you have to turn the car into the direction of the skid and only when you have regained control can you correct course.
The first phase of the maneuver has been successfully accomplished – a collapse has been averted. In retrospect, the temporary breakdown of the financial system seems like a bad dream. There are people in the financial institutions that survived who would like nothing better than to forget it and carry on with business as usual. This was evident in their massive lobbying effort to protect their interests in the Financial Reform Act that just came out of Congress. But the collapse of the financial system as we know it is real and the crisis is far from over.
Indeed, we have just entered Act II of the drama, when financial markets started losing confidence in the credibility of sovereign debt. Greece and the euro have taken center stage but the effects are liable to be felt worldwide. Doubts about sovereign credit are forcing reductions in budget deficits at a time when the banks and the economy may not be strong enough to permit the pursuit of fiscal rectitude. We find ourselves in a situation eerily reminiscent of the 1930’s. Keynes has taught us that budget deficits are essential for counter cyclical policies yet many governments have to reduce them under pressure from financial markets. This is liable to push the global economy into a double dip.
It is important to realize that the crisis in which we find ourselves is not just a market failure but also a regulatory failure and even more importantly a failure of the prevailing dogma about financial markets. I have in mind the Efficient Market Hypothesis and Rational Expectation Theory. These economic theories guided, or more exactly misguided, both the regulators and the financial engineers who designed the derivatives and other synthetic financial instruments and quantitative risk management systems which have played such an important part in the collapse. To gain a proper understanding of the current situation and how we got to where we are, we need to go back to basics and reexamine the foundation of economic theory.
I have developed an alternative theory about financial markets which asserts that financial markets do not necessarily tend towards equilibrium; they can just as easily produce asset bubbles. Nor are markets capable of correcting their own excesses. Keeping asset bubbles within bounds have to be an objective of public policy. I propounded this theory in my first book, The Alchemy of Finance, in 1987. It was generally dismissed at the time but the current financial crisis has proven, not necessarily its validity, but certainly its superiority to the prevailing dogma.
Let me briefly recapitulate my theory for those who are not familiar with it. It can be summed up in two propositions. First, financial markets, far from accurately reflecting all the available knowledge, always provide a distorted view of reality. This is the principle of fallibility. The degree of distortion may vary from time to time. Sometimes it’s quite insignificant, at other times it is quite pronounced. When there is a significant divergence between market prices and the underlying reality I speak of far from equilibrium conditions. That is where we are now.
Second, financial markets do not play a purely passive role; they can also affect the so called fundamentals they are supposed to reflect. These two functions that financial markets perform work in opposite directions. In the passive or cognitive function the fundamentals are supposed to determine market prices. In the active or manipulative function market prices find ways of influencing the fundamentals. When both functions operate at the same time they interfere with each other. The supposedly independent variable of one function is the dependent variable of the other so that neither function has a truly independent variable. As a result neither market prices nor the underlying reality is fully determined. Both suffer from an element of uncertainty that cannot be quantified. I call the interaction between the two functions reflexivity. Frank Knight recognized and explicated this element of unquantifiable uncertainty in a book published in 1921 but the Efficient Market Hypothesis and Rational Expectation Theory have deliberately ignored it. That is what made them so misleading.
Reflexivity sets up a feedback loop between market valuations and the so-called fundamentals which are being valued. The feedback can be either positive or negative. Negative feedback brings market prices and the underlying reality closer together. In other words, negative feedback is self-correcting. It can go on forever and if the underlying reality remains unchanged it may eventually lead to an equilibrium in which market prices accurately reflect the fundamentals. By contrast, a positive feedback is self-reinforcing. It cannot go on forever because eventually market prices would become so far removed from reality that market participants would have to recognize them as unrealistic. When that tipping point is reached, the process becomes self-reinforcing in the opposite direction. That is how financial markets produce boom-bust phenomena or bubbles. Bubbles are not the only manifestations of reflexivity but they are the most spectacular.
In my interpretation equilibrium, which is the central case in economic theory, turns out to be a limiting case where negative feedback is carried to its ultimate limit. Positive feedback has been largely assumed away by the prevailing dogma and it deserves a lot more attention.
I have developed a rudimentary theory of bubbles along these lines. Every bubble has two components: an underlying trend that prevails in reality and a misconception relating to that trend. When a positive feedback develops between the trend and the misconception a boom-bust process is set in motion. The process is liable to be tested by negative feedback along the way and if it is strong enough to survive these tests, both the trend and the misconception will be reinforced. Eventually, market expectations become so far removed from reality that people are forced to recognize that a misconception is involved. A twilight period ensues during which doubts grow and more and more people lose faith but the prevailing trend is sustained by inertia. As Chuck Prince former head of Citigroup said, “As long as the music is playing you’ve got to get up and dance. We are still dancing.” Eventually a tipping point is reached when the trend is reversed; it then becomes self-reinforcing in the opposite direction.
Typically bubbles have an asymmetric shape. The boom is long and slow to start. It accelerates gradually until it flattens out again during the twilight period. The bust is short and steep because it involves the forced liquidation of unsound positions. Disillusionment turns into panic, reaching its climax in a financial crisis.
The simplest case of a purely financial bubble can be found in real estate. The trend that precipitates it is the availability of credit; the misconception that continues to recur in various forms is that the value of the collateral is independent of the availability of credit. As a matter of fact, the relationship is reflexive. When credit becomes cheaper activity picks up and real estate values rise. There are fewer defaults, credit performance improves, and lending standards are relaxed. So at the height of the boom, the amount of credit outstanding is at its peak and a reversal precipitates false liquidation, depressing real estate values.
The bubble that led to the current financial crisis is much more complicated. The collapse of the sub-prime bubble in 2007 set off a chain reaction, much as an ordinary bomb sets off a nuclear explosion. I call it a super-bubble. It has developed over a longer period of time and it is composed of a number of simpler bubbles. What makes the super-bubble so interesting is the role that the smaller bubbles have played in its development.
The prevailing trend in the super-bubble was the ever increasing use of credit and leverage. The prevailing misconception was the believe that financial markets are self-correcting and should be left to their own devices. President Reagan called it the “magic of the marketplace” and I call it market fundamentalism. It became the dominant creed in the 1980s. Since market fundamentalism was based on false premises its adoption led to a series of financial crises. Each time, the authorities intervened, merged away, or otherwise took care of the failing financial institutions, and applied monetary and fiscal stimuli to protect the economy. These measures reinforced the prevailing trend of ever increasing credit and leverage and as long as they worked they also reinforced the prevailing misconception that markets can be safely left to their own devices. The intervention of the authorities is generally recognized as creating amoral hazard; more accurately it served as a successful test of a false belief, thereby inflating the super-bubble even further.
It should be emphasized that my theories of bubbles cannot predict whether a test will be successful or not. This holds for ordinary bubbles as well as the super-bubble. For instance I thought the emerging market crisis of 1997-1998 would constitute the tipping point for the super-bubble, but I was wrong. The authorities managed to save the system and the super-bubble continued growing. That made the bust that eventually came in 2007-2008 all the more devastating.
What are the implications of my theory for the regulation of the financial system?
First and foremost, since markets are bubble-prone, the financial authorities have to accept responsibility for preventing bubbles from growing too big. Alan Greenspan and other regulators have expressly refused to accept that responsibility. If markets can’t recognize bubbles, Greenspan argued, neither can regulators—and he was right. Nevertheless, the financial authorities have to accept the assignment, knowing full well that they will not be able to meet it without making mistakes. They will, however, have the benefit of receiving feedback from the markets, which will tell them whether they have done too much or too little. They can then correct their mistakes.
Second, in order to control asset bubbles it is not enough to control the money supply; you must also control the availability of credit. This cannot be done by using only monetary tools; you must also use credit controls. The best-known tools are margin requirements and minimum capital requirements. Currently they are fixed irrespective of the market’s mood, because markets are not supposed to have moods. Yet they do, and the financial authorities need to vary margin and minimum capital requirements in order to control asset bubbles.
Regulators may also have to invent new tools or revive others that have fallen into disuse. For instance, in my early days in finance, many years ago, central banks used to instruct commercial banks to limit their lending to a particular sector of the economy, such as real estate or consumer loans, because they felt that the sector was overheating. Market fundamentalists consider that kind of intervention unacceptable but they are wrong. When our central banks used to do it we had no financial crises to speak of. The Chinese authorities do it today, and they have much better control over their banking system. The deposits that Chinese commercial banks have to maintain at the People’s Bank of China were increased seventeen times during the boom, and when the authorities reversed course the banks obeyed them with alacrity.
Third, since markets are potentially unstable, there are systemic risks in addition to the risks affecting individual market participants. Participants may ignore these systemic risks in the belief that they can always dispose of their positions, but regulators cannot ignore them because if too many participants are on the same side, positions cannot be liquidated without causing a discontinuity or a collapse. They have to monitor the positions of participants in order to detect potential imbalances. That means that the positions of all major market participants, including hedge funds and sovereign wealth funds, need to be monitored. The drafters of the Basel Accords made a mistake when they gave securities held by banks substantially lower risk ratings than regular loans: they ignored the systemic risks attached to concentrated positions in securities. This was an important factor aggravating the crisis. It has to be corrected by raising the risk ratings of securities held by banks. That will probably discourage loans, which is not such a bad thing.
Fourth, derivatives and synthetic financial instruments perform many useful functions but they also carry hidden dangers. For instance, the securitization of mortgages was supposed to reduce risk thru geographical diversification. In fact it introduced a new risk by separating the interest of the agents from the interest of the owners. Regulators need to fully understand how these instruments work before they allow them to be used and they ought to impose restrictions guard against those hidden dangers. For instance, agents packaging mortgages into securities ought to be obliged to retain sufficient ownership to guard against the agency problem.
Credit default swaps (CDS) are particularly dangerous they allow people to buy insurance on the survival of a company or a country while handing them a license to kill. CDS ought to be available to buyers only to the extent that they have a legitimate insurable interest. Generally speaking, derivatives ought to be registered with a regulatory agency just as regular securities have to be registered with the SEC or its equivalent. Derivatives traded on exchanges would be registered as a class; those traded over-the-counter would have to be registered individually. This would provide a powerful inducement to use exchange traded derivatives whenever possible.
Finally, we must recognize that financial markets evolve in a one-directional, nonreversible manner. The financial authorities, in carrying out their duty of preventing the system from collapsing, have extended an implicit guarantee to all institutions that are “too big to fail.” Now they cannot credibly withdraw that guarantee. Therefore, they must impose regulations that will ensure that the guarantee will not be invoked. Too-big-to-fail banks must use less leverage and accept various restrictions on how they invest the depositors’ money. Deposits should not be used to finance proprietary trading. But regulators have to go even further. They must regulate the compensation packages of proprietary traders to ensure that risks and rewards are properly aligned. This may push proprietary traders out of banks into hedge funds where they properly belong. Just as oil tankers are compartmentalized in order to keep them stable, there ought to be firewalls between different markets. It is probably impractical to separate investment banking from commercial banking as the Glass-Steagall Act of 1933 did. But there have to be internal compartments keeping proprietary trading in various markets separate from each other. Some banks that have come to occupy quasi-monopolistic positions may have to be broken up.
While I have a high degree of conviction on these five points, there are many questions to which my theory does not provide an unequivocal answer. For instance, is a high degree of liquidity always desirable? To what extent should securities be marked to market? Many answers that followed automatically from the Efficient Market Hypothesis need to be reexamined.
It is clear that the reforms currently under consideration do not fully satisfy the five points I have made but I want to emphasize that these five points apply only in the long run. As Mervyn King explained the authorities had to do in the short run the exact opposite of what was required in the long run. And as I said earlier the financial crisis is far from over. We have just ended Act Two. The euro has taken center stage and Germany has become the lead actor. The European authorities face a daunting task: they must help the countries that have fallen far behind the Maastricht criteria to regain their equilibrium while they must also correct the deficinies of the Maastricht Treaty which have allowed the imbalances to develop. The euro is in what I call a far-from-equilibrium situation. But I prefer to discuss this subject in Germany, which is the lead actor, and I plan to do so at the Humboldt University in Berlin on June 23rd. I hope you will forgive me if I avoid the subject until then
CA$H IS KING
أعرف أن غالبيتنا لا يحب القراءة ، لكني أراها فرصة حيث عمل سوروس تلخيص للأوضاع وكيف يرى الأمور من منظوره بطريقة بسيطة تمكن بعض الأعضاء والزوار من فهم شو صار ابتداء من انهيار ليمان براذرز
الخطاب استغرق سوروس 25 دقيقة تقريبا ... قراؤتو ماكسيمم ممكن تستغرق منك 45 دقيقة
التعديل الأخير تم بواسطة MCH71311 ; 06-12-2010 الساعة 10:55 PM
CA$H IS KING
thank you Mr. MCH
totaly appreciate this post
this man realy understand what's he saying
it has many insights, many points to look at
قال الملياردير الأمريكي "جورج سوروس" أن أوروبا ستواجه ركوداً لا مفر منه تقريباً خلال العام القادم ، والذي ربما يستمر لسنوات، فلقد كانت استجابة صناع القرار السياسي بطيئة في التعامل مع الأحداث وهو الأمر الذي أدخل منطقة اليورو في دوامة عنيفة.
جاء ذلك خلال الندوة التي نظمها المجلس الأوروبي للعلاقات الخارجية بالإشتراك مع مركز الإصلاح الأوروبي يوم الثلاثاء الماضي، حيث حذر "سورس" من قدرة الأزمة الحالية على تدمير سبعة وعشرين دولة تنتمي للإتحاد الأوروبي.
وأضاف "سوروس" أن المانيا قد فرضت معاييرها الخاصة فيما يتعلق بآلية تطبيق خطة الإنقاذ "التريليونية" -750 مليار يورو- "لكن لا يمكن أن يكون هناك دولة دائنة.. دولة تحقق فائضاً تجارياً، دون أن يكون هناك بالمقابل دولة أخرى تعاني من عجز مالي"على حد قول"سورس" نفسه.
وقد أكد على أن إنخفاض قيمة اليورو ستعزز من قدرة الإقتصاد الألماني على المنافسة، لذا فهي تتحرك بنشاط من أجل مصلحتها، فالأمر أشبه بذهاب المانيا للتنزه بينما يتجة بقية أعضاء الإتحاد الأوروبي إلى دوامة طاحنة، بل ربما يكون الأمر أسوأ من ذلك، فالركود صار أمراً لامفر منه في ضوء السياسات الحالية.
وقال "سورس" أيضاً أن الخطر الحقيقي الذي يشكله الوضع الحالي يأتي من خلال محاولة فرض نوع من الإنضباط المالي في وقت يقل فيه الطلب، بالإضافة إلى وجود ضعف في النظام المصرفي، فكيف يمكنك اذاً الحصول على ميزانية متوازنة بينما ترزح وتئن تحت وطأة المسار الدوامي الهابط؟؟
فالبنوك الأوروبية إشترت كمية كبيرة من السندات الحكومية في بلدان "منطقة اليورو" الأضعف، وهذا يعد أحد أهم الأسباب التي دفعت تلك البنوك إلى الإفراط في الإستدانة، والآن لديهم خسارة لا يدركونها في ميزانياتهم، وهو الأمر الذي يقلل من مصداقية هذه البنوك، وبالتالي يكون النظام المصرفي كله في وضع خطر.
وأخيراً يحذر "سورس" بأنه في حالة عدم وجود مخرج حقيقي من الوضع الحالي فإنه سيكون من المنطقي أن ننتظر إضطرابات إجتماعية، ومن ثم زيادة الجرائم .
CA$H IS KING
مع عشاق الملل المفيد ، جورج سوروس في نص خطابه في جامعة Humboldt في 23 يونيو 2010
Giving a speech in Berlin, I feel obliged to speak about the euro because the euro is in crisis and Germany is the main protagonist. Unfortunately I didn’t get the timing right because the crisis has both a fiscal component and a banking component and the situation of the banks is just now approaching a climax. A comprehensive analysis will have to await the publication of stress test results. The best I can do at this moment is to put matters into a historical perspective.
I believe that misconceptions play a large role in shaping history and the euro crisis is a case in point.
Let me start my analysis with the previous crisis, the bankruptcy of Lehman Brothers. In the week following September 15, 2008 global financial markets actually broke down and by the end of the week they had to be put on artificial life support. The life support consisted of substituting sovereign credit for the credit of financial institutions which ceased to be acceptable to counterparties.
As Mervyn King of the Bank of England explained, the authorities had to do in the short-term the exact opposite of what was needed in the long-term: they had to pump in a lot of credit, to replace the credit that had disappeared, and thereby reinforce the excess credit and leverage that had caused the crisis in the first place. Only in the longer term, when the crisis had subsided, could they drain the credit and reestablish macro-economic balance.
This required a delicate two phase maneuver – just as when a car is skidding, first you have to turn the car into the direction of the skid and only when you have regained control can you correct course.
The first phase of the maneuver has been successfully accomplished – a collapse has been averted. But the underlying causes have not been removed and they have surfaced again when the financial markets started questioning the credibility of sovereign debt. That is when the euro took center stage because of a structural weakness in its constitution. But we are dealing with a worldwide phenomenon, so the current situation is the direct consequence of the crash of 2008.
The situation is eerily reminiscent of the 1930s. Doubts about sovereign credit are forcing reductions in budget deficits at a time when the banking system and the economy may not be strong enough to do without fiscal and monetary stimulus. Keynes taught us that budget deficits are essential for counter-cyclical policies, yet governments everywhere feel compelled to reduce them under pressure from the financial markets. Coming at a time when the Chinese authorities have also put on the brakes, this is liable to push the global economy into a slowdown or possibly a double dip. Europe, which weathered the first phase of the financial crisis relatively well, is now in the forefront of the downward pressure because of the problems connected with the common currency.
The euro was an incomplete currency to start with. The Maastricht Treaty established a monetary union without a political union. The euro boasted a common central bank but it lacked a common treasury. It is exactly that sovereign backing that financial markets started questioning that was missing from the design. That is why the euro has become the focal point of the current crisis.
Member countries share a common currency, but when it comes to sovereign credit they are on their own. This fact was obscured until recently by the willingness of the European Central Bank to accept the sovereign debt of all member countries on equal terms at its discount window. This allowed the member countries to borrow at practically the same interest rate as Germany and the banks were happy to earn a few extra pennies on supposedly risk-free assets by loading up their balance sheets with the government debt of the weaker countries. These positions now endanger the creditworthiness of the European banking system. For instance, European banks hold nearly a trillion euros of Spanish debt of which half is held by German and French banks. It can be seen that the euro crisis is intricately interconnected with the situation of the banks.
How did this connection arise?
The introduction of the euro brought about a radical narrowing of interest rate differentials. This in turn generated real estate bubbles in countries like Spain, Greece, and Ireland. Instead of the convergence prescribed by the Maastricht Treaty, these countries grew faster and developed trade deficits within the eurozone, while Germany reigned in its labor costs, became more competitive and developed a chronic trade surplus. To make matters worse some of these countries, most notably Greece, ran budget deficits that exceeded the limits set by the Maastricht Treaty. But the discount facility of the ECB allowed them to continue borrowing at practically the same rates as Germany, relieving them of any pressure to correct their excesses.
The first clear reminder that the euro does not have a common treasury came after the bankruptcy of Lehman. The finance ministers of the European Union promised that no other financial institution whose failure could endanger the system would be allowed to default. But Angela Merkel opposed a joint Europe-wide guarantee; each country had to take care of its own banks.
At first, the financial markets were so impressed by the guarantee that they hardly noticed the difference. Capital fled from the countries which were not in a position to offer similar guarantees, but the interest differentials within the eurozone remained minimal. That was when the countries of Eastern Europe, notably Hungary and the Baltic States, got into difficulties and had to be rescued.
It was only this year that financial markets started to worry about the accumulation of sovereign debt within the eurozone. Greece became the center of attention when the newly elected government revealed that the previous government had lied and the deficit for 2009 was much larger than indicated.
Interest rate differentials started to widen but the European authorities were slow to react because the member countries held radically different views. Germany, which had been traumatized by two episodes of runaway inflation, was allergic to any buildup of inflationary pressures; France and other countries were more willing to show their solidarity. Since Germany was heading for elections, it was unwilling to act. But nothing could be done without Germany. So the Greek crisis festered and spread. When the authorities finally got their act together they had to offer a much larger rescue package than would have been necessary if they had acted earlier.
In the meantime, the crisis spread to the other deficit countries and, in order to reassure the markets, the authorities felt obliged to put together a €750 billion European Financial Stabilization Fund, €500 billion from the member states and €250 billion from the IMF.
But the markets are not reassured, because the term sheet of the Fund was dictated by Germany. The Fund is guaranteed not jointly but only severally so that the weaker countries will in fact be guaranteeing a portion of their own debt. The Fund will be raised by selling bonds to the market and charging a fee on top. It is difficult to see how it will merit a triple A rating.
Even more troubling is the fact that Germany is not only insisting on strict fiscal discipline for weaker countries but is also reducing its own fiscal deficit. When all countries are reducing deficits at a time of high unemployment they set in motion a downward spiral. Reductions in employment, tax receipts, and exports reinforce each other, ensuring that the targets will not be met and further reductions will be required. And even if budgetary targets were met, it is difficult to see how the weaker countries could regain their competitiveness and start growing again because, in the absence of exchange rate depreciation, the adjustment process would require reductions in wages and prices, producing deflation.
To some extent a continued decline in the value of the euro may mitigate the deflation but as long as there is no growth, the relative weight of the debt will continue to grow. This is true not only for the national debt but also for the commercial loans held by banks. This will make the banks even more reluctant to lend, compounding the downward pressures.
The euro is a patently flawed construct and its architects knew it at the time of its creation. They expected its defects to be corrected, if and when they became acute, by the same process that brought the European Union into existence.
The European Union was built by a process of piecemeal social engineering, indeed it is probably the most successful feat of social engineering in history. The architects recognized that perfection is unattainable. They set limited objectives and firm deadlines. They mobilized the political will for a small step forward, knowing full well that when it was accomplished its inadequacy would become apparent and require further steps. That is how the coal and steel community was gradually developed into the European Union, step by step.
Germany used to be at the heart of the process. German statesmen used to assert that Germany has no independent foreign policy, only a European policy. After the fall of the Berlin Wall, Germany’s leaders realized that unification was possible only in the context of a united Europe and they were willing to make considerable sacrifices to secure European acceptance. When it came to bargaining they were willing to contribute a little more and take a little less than the others, thereby facilitating agreement. But those days are over. Germany doesn’t feel so rich anymore and doesn’t want to continue serving as the deep pocket for the rest of Europe. This change in attitudes is understandable but it did bring the process of integration to a screeching halt.
Germany now wants to treat the Maastricht Treaty as the scripture which has to be obeyed without any modifications and this is not understandable, because it is in conflict with the incremental method by which the European Union was built. Something has gone fundamentally wrong in Germany’s attitude towards the European Union.
Let me first analyze the structural defects of the euro and then examine Germany’s attitude. The biggest deficiency in the euro, the absence of a common fiscal policy, is well known. But there is another defect that has received less recognition: a false belief in the stability of financial markets. As I tried to explain in my writings, the Crash of 2008 has demonstrated that financial markets do not necessarily tend towards equilibrium; they are just as likely to produce bubbles. I don’t want to repeat my arguments here because you can find them in my lectures which have just been published in German. All I need to do is remind you that the introduction of the euro created its own bubble in the countries whose borrowing costs were greatly reduced. Greece abused the privilege by cheating, but Spain didn’t. It followed sound macro-economic policies, maintained its sovereign debt level below the European average, and exercised exemplary supervision over its banking system. Yet it enjoyed a tremendous real estate boom which has turned into a bust resulting in 20% unemployment. Now it has to rescue the savings banks called cajas and the municipalities. And the entire European banking system is weighed down by bad debts and needs to be recapitalized. The design of the euro did not take this possibility into account.
Another structural flaw in the euro is that it guards only against the danger of inflation and ignores the possibility of deflation. In this respect the task assigned to the ECB is asymmetric. This is due to Germany’s fear of inflation. When Germany agreed to substitute the euro for Deutschmark it insisted on strong safeguards to maintain the value of the currency. The Maastricht Treaty the contained a clause that expressly prohibited bailouts and the ban has been reaffirmed by the German Constitutional Court. It is this clause that has made the current situation so difficult to deal with.
And this brings me to the gravest defect in the euro’s design; it does not allow for error. It expects member states to abide by the Maastricht criteria without establishing an adequate enforcement mechanism. And now that several countries are far away from the Maastricht criteria, there is neither an adjustment mechanism nor an exit mechanism. Now these countries are expected to return to the Maastricht criteria even if such a move sets in motion a deflationary spiral. This is in direct conflict with the lessons learnt from the Great Depression of the 1930s and is liable to push Europe into a period of prolonged stagnation or worse. That will, in turn, generate discontent and social unrest. It is difficult to predict how the anger and frustration will express itself.
The wide range of possibilities will weigh heavily on the financial markets. They will have to discount the prospects of deflation and inflation, default and disintegration. Financial markets dislike uncertainty.
If that were to happen, Germany would have to bear a major share of the responsibility because as the strongest and most creditworthy country it calls the shots. By insisting on pro-cyclical policies, Germany is endangering the European Union. I realize that this is a grave accusation but I am afraid it is justified.
To be sure, Germany cannot be blamed for wanting a strong currency and a balanced budget but it can be blamed for imposing its predilection on other countries that have different needs and preferences – like Procrustes, who forced other people to lie in his bed and stretched them or cut off their legs to make them fit. The Procrustes bed inflicted on the eurozone is called deflation.
Unfortunately Germany does not realize what it is doing. It has no desire to impose its will on Europe; all it wants to do is to maintain its competitiveness and avoid becoming the deep pocket to the rest of Europe. But as the strongest and most creditworthy country it is in the driver’s seat. As a result Germany objectively determines the financial and macroeconomic policies of the Eurozone without being subjectively aware of it. When all the member countries try to be like Germany they are bound to send the eurozone into a deflationary spiral. That is the effect of the policy pursued by Germany and – since Germany is in the driver’s seat – these are the policies imposed on the eurozone.
The German public does not understand why it should be blamed for the troubles of eurozone. After all, it is the most successful economy in Europe, fully capable of competing in world markets. The troubles of the eurozone feel like a burden weighing Germany down. It is difficult to see what would change this perception because the troubles of the eurozone are depressing the euro and being the most competitive Germany benefits the most. As a result Germany is likely to feel the least pain of all the member states.
The error in the German attitude can best be brought home by engaging in a thought experiment. The most ardent instigators of that attitude would prefer that Germany leave the euro rather than modify its position. Let us consider where that would lead.
The Deutschmark would go thru the roof and the euro would fall thru the floor. This would indeed help the adjustment process but Germany would find out how painful it can be to have an overvalued currency. Its trade balance would turn negative and there would be widespread unemployment. German banks would suffer severe exchange rate losses and would require large injections of public funds. But it would be politically more acceptable to rescue German banks than Greece or Spain. And there would be other compensations: pensioners could retire to Spain and live like kings, helping Spanish real estate to recover.
Let me emphasized that this scenario is totally hypothetical because it is extremely unlikely that Germany would be allowed to leave the euro and to do so in a friendly manner. Germany’s exit would be destabilizing financially, economically and above all politically. The collapse of the single market would be difficult to avoid. The purpose of this thought experiment is to convince Germany to change its ways without going thru the actual experience that its current policies hold in store.
What would be the right policy for Germany to pursue? It cannot be expected to underwrite other countries’ deficits indefinitely. So some tightening of fiscal policies is inevitable. But some way has to be found to allow the countries in crisis to grow their way out of their difficulties. The countries concerned have to do most of the heavy lifting by introducing structural reforms but they do need some outside help to allow them to stimulate their economies. By cutting its budget deficit and resisting a rise in wages to compensate for the decline in the purchasing power of the euro Germany is actually making it more difficult for the other countries to regain competitiveness.
So what should Germany do? It needs to recognize three guiding principles.
First, the current crisis is more a banking crisis than a fiscal one. The continental European banking system has not been properly cleansed after the crash of 2008. Bad assets have not been marked-to-market but are being held to maturity. When markets started to doubt the creditworthiness of sovereign debt it was really the solvency of the banking system that was brought into question because the banks were loaded with the bonds of the weaker countries and these are now selling below par. The banks have difficulties in obtaining short-term financing. The interbank market and the commercial paper market have dried up and banks have turned to the ECB both for short-term financing and for depositing their excess cash. They are in no position to buy government bonds. That is the main reason why risk premiums on government bonds have widened, setting up a vicious circle.
The crisis has now culminated in forcing the authorities to disclose the results of their stress tests. We cannot judge how serious the situation is until the results are published – indeed, we shall not be able to judge even then because the report will deal only with the twenty five largest banks and the biggest problems are in the smaller banks, notably the Cajas in Spain and the Landesbanken in Germany. It is clear however that the banks need to be recapitalized on a compulsory basis. They are way over-leveraged. That ought to be the first task of the European Financial Stabilization Fund. That will go a long way to clear the air. It may be seen, for instance, that Spain does not have a fiscal crisis at all. Recent market moves point in that direction. Germany’s role may also be seen in a very different light if it becomes a bigger user than contributor of the Stabilization Fund.
Second, a tightening of fiscal policy must be offset by a loosening of monetary policy. Specifically, the ECB could buy treasury bills directly from Spain significantly reducing its financing cost below the punitive rate charged by the German inspired European Financial Stabilization Fund. But that is not possible without a change of heart by Germany.
Third, this is the time to put idle resources to work by investing in education and infrastructure. For instance, Europe needs a better gas pipeline system and the connection between Spain and France is one of the bottlenecks. The European Investment Bank ought to be able to find other investment opportunities as well.
It is impossible to be more concrete at the moment but there are grounds for optimism. When the solvency situation of the banks has been clarified and they have been properly recapitalized it should be possible to devise a growth strategy for Europe. And when the European economy has regained its balance the time will be ripe to correct the structural deficiencies of the euro. Make no mistake about it; the fact that the Maastricht criteria were so massively violated shows that the euro does have deficiencies that need to be corrected.
What is needed is a delicate, two-phase maneuver, similar to the one the authorities undertook after the failure of Lehman Brothers. First help Europe to grow its way out of its difficulties and then revise and strengthen the structure of the euro. This cannot be done without German leadership. I hope Germany will once again live up to the responsibilities that go with its leadership position. After all, it had done so in the past. Thank you
CA$H IS KING
اضف عليها انو ايضا الكثير من النماذج الفنية و اشارات البيع كان واضحة مثل عين الشمس بالتالي الاتفاق بين المدرستين كان واضح و جلي و النهاية كانت مأسوية و ذلك بالنظر الى الانحدار الشديد الذي تعرض له و لا يزال الضغط مشدد على المدى المتوسط و البعيد مستهدفا مستوى الباريتي او قريبا منها لأنو تبعات خطة الانقاذ رح يكون عليها تأثير كبير (انظر الى المعروض النقدي و الذي انخفضت قوته بشكل كبير في اخر ربعين مما يعني ان على المركزي الاوربي ضخ كميات اكبر من النقود في عصب البنوك والتي ستكون شرارة اكمال مشواره الى اسفل)
بالنسبة للمتابعة: خلينالك الاسهم اللعب فيها على راحتك و مسامحك فيها (ما الي مصلحة ) خليني على الي بعرفه بالعملات و الفيوتشرات احسنلي هههههه
نص خطاب جورج سوروس في منتدى قادة العالم في جامعة كولومبيا بتاريخ الخامس من أكتوبر 2010
The Sovereign Debt Problem
As you know I have written several books which serve to explain the crash of 2008. Two years have elapsed since then – it is time to bring the story up to date. That is what I propose to do today.
The theory I shall use is the same as in my previous books, so I shall not repeat it here. The main points to remember are, first, that rational human beings do not base their decisions on reality but on their understanding of reality and the two are never the same – although the extent of the divergence does vary from person to person and from time to time – and it is the variance that matters. This is the principle of fallibility. Second, the participants’ misconceptions, as expressed in market prices, affect the so-called fundamentals which market prices are supposed to reflect. This is the principle of reflexivity. The two of them together assure that both market participants and regulators have to make their decisions in conditions of uncertainty. This is the human uncertainty principle. It implies that outcomes are unlikely to correspond to expectations and markets are unable to assure the optimum allocation of resources. These implications are in direct contradiction to the theory of rational expectations and the efficient market hypothesis.
The extent and degree of uncertainty is itself uncertain and variable. Conditions may range from near-equilibrium to far from equilibrium. Again, it is the variance that matters. In practice markets have a tendency to move towards one of these extremes rather than to hover near a historical or theoretical midpoint between them. In evolutionary systems theory these extremes are called “strange attractors”. My contention is that financial markets tend towards these strange attractors, not to equilibrium. So much for theory. Now for the actual course of events.
In the crash of 2008 the uncertainties reached such an extreme that the markets actually collapsed. But that was a short lived phenomenon. The authorities intervened and managed to keep the markets functioning by putting them on artificial life support. In retrospect, the momentary collapse may seem like a bad dream, but it was real enough and two years later we still suffer from its consequences.
Let me explain why.
When a car is skidding you have to turn the wheel in the direction of the skid to prevent the car from crashing. Only when you have regained control can you correct the direction of the car. That is how the financial authorities had to deal with the crash. The underlying cause of the crash was the excessive use of credit and leverage. To prevent a catastrophe they had to avoid a sharp contraction of credit. The only way to do it was to replace the private credit that lost credibility with the credit of the state which still commanded respect. Only after financial markets resumed functioning could they hope to reverse course and reduce the outstanding credit and leverage. This meant that they had to do in the short term the exact opposite of what would be needed in the long term.
The first phase of this delicate maneuver has now been successfully completed. Financial markets are functioning more or less normally with toxic credit instruments replaced or guaranteed by sovereign credit. But the second phase is running into difficulties. Before the economy has recovered and unemployment has fallen, the credibility of sovereign credit has come into question. If governments are now forced to pursue fiscal discipline and tighten monetary and fiscal policy too soon there is a danger that the recovery will stall. That is because the imbalances that have accumulated over a quarter of a century have not yet been corrected. The US still consumes too much and China is still running an unsustainable export surplus vis-à-vis the US. A similar imbalance prevails within the eurozone, with Germany in the surplus position. In addition, the housing and commercial real estate bubbles in the US have not yet been fully deflated and in the eurozone the banks have not yet been properly recapitalized. The deleveraging of the private sector is underway, but it is far from complete. In the US it applies to banks, corporations and households alike. In Europe it is heavily concentrated in the banking sector.
Because the global imbalances which were at the root of the financial crisis still remain to be corrected, the question arises: How much government debt is too much? That is one of the central questions confronting policymakers today.
The discussion is eerily reminiscent of the 1930s. Then the fiscal conservatives led by Andrew Mellon and Irving Fisher were confronted by rebels led by John Maynard Keynes. Now, the division of opinion is more along national lines. The center of fiscal conservatism is Germany, while those who have rediscovered Keynes are located mainly in the United States.
The clash of views has led to a drama which is unfolding differently in different parts of the world. The remarkable unanimity that prevailed in the first phase of the crisis and culminated in the one trillion dollar rescue package that was put together for the London meeting of the G20 in April 2009 has dissipated and political and ideological differences have arisen. Misconceptions are rampant. They complicate matters enormously because it would require global cooperation to correct the global imbalances.
I shall briefly review how the credibility of sovereign credit came to be questioned in various parts of the world and then I shall address the question – how much debt is too much?
Doubts concerning sovereign credit first reached a crisis point in Europe and they revolved around the euro. But what appeared to be a currency crisis was in reality more a banking crisis and a clash of economic philosophies.
The euro was an incomplete currency to start with. The Maastricht Treaty established a monetary union without a political union. The euro boasted a common central bank but it lacked a common treasury.
So even though member countries share a common currency, when it comes to sovereign credit they are on their own. Unfortunately, this fact was obscured until recently by the willingness of the European Central Bank to accept the sovereign debt of all member countries on equal terms at its discount window. This allowed the member countries to borrow at practically the same interest rate as Germany and the banks were happy to earn a few extra pennies on supposedly risk-free assets by loading up their balance sheets with the government debt of the weaker countries. For instance, European banks hold more than a trillion euros of Spanish debt of which more than half is held by German and French banks. The large positions came to endanger the creditworthiness of the European banking system, depriving them of the capacity to add to their positions.
Although it was the inability of the banks to continue accumulating the government debt of the heavily indebted countries that precipitated the crisis, but it was the introduction of the euro and ECB’s willingness to refinance sovereign debt that got the banks weighed down with these large positions in the first place. It led to a radical narrowing of interest rate differentials and that, in turn, generated real estate bubbles in countries like Spain, Greece and Ireland. Instead of the convergence prescribed by the Maastricht Treaty, these countries grew faster and developed trade deficits within the eurozone, while Germany reigned in its labor costs, became more competitive and developed a chronic trade surplus. The discount facility of the ECB allowed the deficit countries to continue borrowing at practically the same rates as Germany, relieving them of any pressure to correct their excesses. So the introduction of the euro was indirectly responsible for the development of internal imbalances within the eurozone.
The first clear reminder that the euro lacked a common treasury came after the bankruptcy of Lehman Brothers. The finance ministers of the European Union promised that no other financial institution whose failure could endanger the system would be allowed to default. But Angela Merkel opposed a joint Europe-wide guarantee; each country had to take care of its own banks.
At first, the financial markets were so impressed by the guarantee that they hardly noticed the difference. Capital fled from the countries which were not in a position to offer similar guarantees pushing the countries of Eastern Europe, notably Hungary and the Baltic States into difficulties. But interest rate differentials within the eurozone remained minimal.
It was only this year that financial markets started to worry about the accumulation of sovereign debt within the eurozone. Greece started the process when the newly elected government revealed that the previous government had lied and the deficit for 2009 was much larger than indicated.
Markets panicked and interest rate differentials widened dramatically. But the European authorities were slow to react because member countries held radically different views. Germany, which had been traumatized by two episodes of runaway inflation, was adamantly opposed to any bailout. France was more willing to show its solidarity. Since Germany was heading for elections, it was unwilling to act, and nothing could be done without Germany. So the Greek crisis festered and spread. When the authorities finally got their act together they had to offer a much larger rescue package than would have been necessary if they had acted earlier.
In the meantime, doubts about the creditworthiness of sovereign debt spread to the other deficit countries and, in order to reassure the markets, the authorities had to put together a €750 billion European Financial Stabilization Fund, €500 billion from the member states and €250 billion from the IMF. The turning point came when China re-entered the market and bought Spanish bonds and the euro.
So, under duress, the euro has begun to remedy its main shortcoming, the lack of a common treasury. The Stabilization Fund is very far from a unified fiscal policy, but it is a step in that direction. Member countries are now a little bit pregnant and they will be obliged to take additional steps if necessary. So the crisis has passed its high water mark and the euro is here to stay. But it is far too early to celebrate because the emerging common fiscal policy is dictated by Germany and Germany is wedded to a false doctrine of macro-economic stability which recognizes only the threat of inflation and ignores the possibility of deflation.
This misconception is incorporated in the constitution of the euro. When Germany agreed to substitute the euro for Deutschmark it insisted on strong safeguards to maintain the value of the currency. As a result, the ECB was given an asymmetric directive. Moreover, the Maastricht Treaty contains a clause that expressly prohibits bailouts and the ban has been reaffirmed by the German Constitutional Court. It is this clause that has made the crisis so difficult to deal with.
This brings me to the gravest defect in the euro’s design; it does not allow for error. It expects member states to abide by the Maastricht criteria without establishing an adequate enforcement mechanism. And now, when practically all member countries are in violation of the Maastricht criteria, there is neither an adjustment mechanism nor an exit mechanism.
Now these countries are expected to return to the Maastricht criteria in short order. What is worse, Germany is not only insisting on strict fiscal discipline for the weaker countries but is also reducing its own fiscal deficit. When both creditor and debtor countries are reducing deficits at a time of high unemployment they set in motion a deflationary spiral in debtor countries. Reductions in employment, tax receipts, and consumption reinforce each other and are not offset by exports, raising the prospect that deficit reduction targets will not be met and further reductions will be required. And even if budgetary targets were met, it is difficult to see how the weaker countries could regain their competitiveness vis-à-vis Germany and start growing again because, in the absence of exchange rate depreciation, they need to cut wages and prices, creating deflation. And deflation renders the burden of accumulated debt even heavier.
Deficit reduction by a creditor country such as Germany is in direct contradiction of the lessons learnt from the Great Depression of the 1930s. It is liable to push Europe into a period of prolonged stagnation or worse. That may, in turn, produce social unrest and, since the unpopular policies are imposed from the outside, turn public opinion against the European Union. So the euro, with its asymmetric directive, may endanger the social and political cohesion of Europe.
Unfortunately, Germany is unlikely to realize that it is following the wrong macroeconomic policy because that policy is actually working to its advantage. Germany is the shining star in the economic firmament. It dealt with the burden of reunification by reducing its labor costs becoming more competitive and developing a chronic trade surplus. And the euro-crisis brought about a decline in the value of the euro. This favored Germany against its main competitor, Japan. In the second quarter of 2010 the GDP jumped by 9% annualized.
Germany believes it is doing the right thing. It has no desire to impose its will on Europe; all it wants to do is to maintain its competitiveness and avoid becoming the deep pocket to the rest of Europe. But as the strongest and most creditworthy country it is in the driver’s seat. As a result Germany objectively determines the financial and macroeconomic policies of the Eurozone without being subjectively aware of it. And the policies it is imposing on the eurozone are liable to send the eurozone into a deflationary spiral. But people in Germany are unlikely to recognize this because they are doing much better than the others and the difficulties of the others can be blamed on structural rigidities.
The German commitment to fiscal rectitude is also gaining the upper hand in the rest of the world. Angela Merkel went into the recent G20 meeting in the minority and – with the help of the host country, Canada, and the newly elected Conservative British Prime Minister, David Cameron – came out as the winner. Prior to the meeting President Obama publicly appealed to Chancellor Angela Merkel to change her ways, but at the meeting the US yielded to the majority and agreed that budget deficits should be cut in half by 2013. This may be the right policy but it comes at the wrong time.
The policies of the Obama administration are dictated not by financial necessity but by political considerations. The US is not under the same pressure from the bond markets as the heavily indebted states of Europe. European debtor countries have to pay hefty premiums over the price at which Germany can borrow. By contrast, interest rates on US government bonds have been falling and are near record lows. This means that financial markets anticipate deflation not inflation.
The pressure is entirely political. The public is deeply troubled by the accumulation of public debt. The Republican opposition has succeeded in blaming the Crash of 2008 and the subsequent recession and persistent high unemployment on the ineptitude of government and in claiming that the stimulus package was largely wasted.
There is an element of truth in this narrative but it is far too one sided. The Crash of 2008 was primarily a market failure and the fault of the regulators was that they failed to regulate. Without a bailout the financial system would have stayed paralyzed and the subsequent recession would have been much deeper and longer. It is true that the stimulus was largely wasted but that was because most of it went to sustain consumption and did not correct the underlying imbalances. As I explained earlier, the government was obliged to do in the short run the exact opposite of what is needed in the long run. Now consumption still needs to fall as a percentage of the GDP and fiscal and monetary stimulus are still needed to keep the GDP from falling and to prevent a deflationary spiral.
Where the Obama administration did go wrong, in my opinion, was in the way it bailed out the banking system: it helped the banks earn their way out of a hole by supplying them with cheap money and relieving them of some of their bad assets. But this was an entirely political decision; on a strictly economic calculation it would have been more effective to inject new equity into the balance sheets of the banks. But the Obama administration considered that politically unacceptable because it would amounted to nationalizing the banks and it would have been called socialism.
That political decision backfired and caused a serious political backlash. The public saw the banks earning bumper profits and paying large bonuses while they were badly squeezed by their credit card charges jumping from 8% to nearly 30%. That was the source of the resentment that the Tea Party exploited so successfully. In addition, the administration had deployed the so–called “confidence multiplier” to restore confidence and that turned to disappointment when unemployment failed to fall.
The Administration is now on the defensive. The Republicans are campaigning against any further stimulus and they seem to be winning the argument. The administration feels that it has to pay lip service to fiscal rectitude even if it recognizes that the timing may be premature.
I disagree. I believe there is a strong case for further stimulus. Admittedly, consumption cannot be sustained indefinitely by running up the national debt. The imbalance between consumption and investment needs to be corrected. But to cut back on government spending at a time of large-scale unemployment would ignore all the lessons learned from the Great Depression.
The obvious solution is to draw a distinction in the budget between investments and current consumption and increase the former while reducing the latter. But that seems unattainable in the current political environment. A large majority of the population is convinced that the government is incapable of efficiently managing an investment program aimed at improving the physical and human infrastructure. Again, this belief is not without justification: a quarter of a century of agitation calling the government bad has resulted in bad government. But the argument that stimulus spending is inevitably wasted is patently false: the New Deal produced the Tennessee Valley Authority and the Triborough Bridge.
It is the Obama administration that has failed to make a convincing case. There are times like the present when we cannot count on the private sector to employ the available resources. The Obama administration has in fact been very friendly to business. Corporations operate very profitably, but instead of investing their profits, they are building up their liquidity. Perhaps a Republican victory will give them more confidence; but in its absence investment and employment needs to be stimulated by the government. I do not believe that monetary policy can be successfully substituted for fiscal policy. Quantitative easing is more likely to stimulate corporations to devour each other than to create employment. We shall soon find out.
This brings us to the question I raised earlier. How much room does the government have for fiscal stimulus? How much public debt is too much? This is not the only unresolved question but it is at the center of political debate and the debate is riddled with misconceptions.
That is because the question does not have a hard and fast answer. In saying this I am not being evasive; on the contrary, I am making an important assertion. The tolerance for public debt is highly dependent on the participants’ perceptions and misconceptions. In other words it is reflexive.
There are a number of variables involved. To start with, the debt burden is not an absolute amount but a ratio between the debt and the GDP. The higher the GDP the smaller the burden represented by a given amount of debt. The other important variable is the interest rate: the higher the interest rate the heavier the debt burden. In this context the risk premium attached to the interest rate is particularly important: once it starts rising, the prevailing rate of deficit financing becomes unsustainable and needs to be reigned in. Exactly where the tipping point is located remains uncertain because it is dependent on prevailing attitudes.
Take the case of Japan: its debt ratio is approaching 200%, one of the highest in the world. Yet ten year bonds yield little more than 1%. Admittedly, Japan used to have a high savings rate but it has an ageing and shrinking population and its current savings rate is about the same as the US. The big difference is that Japan has a trade surplus and the US a deficit. But that is not such a big difference as long as China does not allow its currency to appreciate because that policy obliges China to finance the deficit one way or another.
The real reason why Japanese interest rates are so low is that the private sector – individuals, banks and corporations – have little appetite for investing abroad and prefer ten year government bonds at a 1% to cash at zero percent. With the price level falling and the population aging, the real return on such instruments is considered attractive by the Japanese. As long as US banks can borrow at near zero and buy government bonds without having to commit equity and the dollar is not allowed to depreciate against the renminbi, interest rates on US government bonds may well be heading in the same direction.
That is not to say that it would be sound policy for the US to maintain interest rates at zero and preserve the current imbalances by issuing government debt indefinitely. Once the economy starts growing again interest rates will rise and if the accumulated debt is too big it may rise precipitously, choking off the recovery. But premature fiscal tightening may choke off the recovery prematurely.
The right policy is to reduce the imbalances as fast as possible while keeping the increase in the debt burden to a minimum. This can be done in a number of ways but cutting the budget deficit in half by 2013 while the economy operating far below capacity is not one of them. Investing in infrastructure and education makes more sense. So does engineering a moderate rate of inflation by depreciating the dollar against the renminbi. What stands in the way are misconceptions about budget deficits exploited for partisan and ideological purposes. There is a real danger that the premature pursuit of fiscal rectitude may wreck the recovery.
CA$H IS KING
Does the Euro Have a Future?
The euro crisis is a direct consequence of the crash of 2008. When Lehman Brothers failed, the entire financial system started to collapse and had to be put on artificial life support. This took the form of substituting the sovereign credit of governments for the bank and other credit that had collapsed. At a memorable meeting of European finance ministers in November 2008, they guaranteed that no other financial institutions that are important to the workings of the financial system would be allowed to fail, and their example was followed by the United States.
Angela Merkel then declared that the guarantee should be exercised by each European state individually, not by the European Union or the eurozone acting as a whole. This sowed the seeds of the euro crisis because it revealed and activated a hidden weakness in the construction of the euro: the lack of a common treasury. The crisis itself erupted more than a year later, in 2010.
There is some similarity between the euro crisis and the subprime crisis that caused the crash of 2008. In each case a supposedly riskless asset—collateralized debt obligations (CDOs), based largely on mortgages, in 2008, and Euro-pean government bonds now—lost some or all of their value.
Unfortunately the euro crisis is more intractable. In 2008 the US financial authorities that were needed to respond to the crisis were in place; at present in the eurozone one of these authorities, the common treasury, has yet to be brought into existence. This requires a political process involving a number of sovereign states. That is what has made the problem so severe. The political will to create a common European treasury was absent in the first place; and since the time when the euro was created the political cohesion of the European Union has greatly deteriorated. As a result there is no clearly visible solution to the euro crisis. In its absence the authorities have been trying to buy time.
In an ordinary financial crisis this tactic works: with the passage of time the panic subsides and confidence returns. But in this case time has been working against the authorities. Since the political will is missing, the problems continue to grow larger while the politics are also becoming more poisonous.
It takes a crisis to make the politically impossible possible. Under the pressure of a financial crisis the authorities take whatever steps are necessary to hold the system together, but they only do the minimum and that is soon perceived by the financial markets as inadequate. That is how one crisis leads to another. So Europe is condemned to a seemingly unending series of crises. Measures that would have worked if they had they been adopted earlier turn out to be inadequate by the time they become politically possible. This is the key to understanding the euro crisis.
Where are we now in this process? The outlines of the missing ingredient, namely a common treasury, are beginning to emerge. They are to be found in the European Financial Stability Facility (EFSF)—agreed on by twenty-seven member states of the EU in May 2010—and its successor, after 2013, the European Financial Mechanism (EFM). But the EFSF is not adequately capitalized and its functions are not adequately defined. It is supposed to provide a safety net for the eurozone as a whole, but in practice it has been tailored to finance the rescue packages for three small countries: Greece, Portugal, and Ireland; it is not large enough to support bigger countries like Spain or Italy. Nor was it originally meant to deal with the problems of the banking system, although its scope has subsequently been extended to include banks as well as sovereign states. Its biggest shortcoming is that it is purely a fund-raising mechanism; the authority to spend the money is left with the governments of the member countries. This renders the EFSF useless in responding to a crisis; it has to await instructions from the member countries.
The situation has been further aggravated by the recent decision of the German Constitutional Court. While the court found that the EFSF is constitutional, it prohibited any future guarantees benefiting additional states without the prior approval of the budget committee of the Bundestag. This will greatly constrain the discretionary powers of the German government in confronting future crises.
The seeds of the next crisis have already been sown by the way the authorities responded to the last crisis. They accepted the principle that countries receiving assistance should not have to pay punitive interest rates and they set up the EFSF as a fund-raising mechanism for this purpose. Had this principle been accepted in the first place, the Greek crisis would not have grown so severe. As it is, the contagion—in the form of increasing inability to pay sovereign and other debt—has spread to Spain and Italy, but those countries are not allowed to borrow at the lower, concessional rates extended to Greece. This has set them on a course that will eventually land them in the same predicament as Greece. In the case of Greece, the debt burden has clearly become unsustainable. Bondholders have been offered a “voluntary” restructuring by which they would accept lower interest rates and delayed or decreased repayments; but no other arrangements have been made for a possible default or for defection from the eurozone.
These two deficiencies—no concessional rates for Italy or Spain and no preparation for a possible default and defection from the eurozone by Greece—have cast a heavy shadow of doubt both on the government bonds of other deficit countries and on the banking system of the eurozone, which is loaded with those bonds. As a stopgap measure the European Central Bank (ECB) stepped into the breach by buying Spanish and Italian bonds in the market. But that is not a viable solution. The ECB had done the same thing for Greece, but that did not stop the Greek debt from becoming unsustainable. If Italy, with its debt at 108 percent of GDP and growth of less than 1 percent, had to pay risk premiums of 3 percent or more to borrow money, its debt would also become unsustainable.
The ECB’s earlier decision to buy Greek bonds had been highly controversial; Axel Weber, the ECB’s German board member, resigned from the board in protest. The intervention did blur the line between monetary and fiscal policy, but a central bank is supposed to do whatever is necessary to preserve the financial system. That is particularly true in the absence of a fiscal authority. Subsequently, the controversy led the ECB to adamantly oppose a restructuring of Greek debt—by which, among other measures, the time for repayment would be extended—turning the ECB from a savior of the system into an obstructionist force. The ECB has prevailed: the EFSF took over the risk of possible insolvency of the Greek bonds from the ECB.
The resolution of this dispute has in turn made it easier for the ECB to embark on its current program to purchase Italian and Spanish bonds, which, unlike those of Greece, are not about to default. Still, the decision has encountered the same internal opposition from Germany as the earlier intervention in Greek bonds. Jürgen Stark, the chief economist of the ECB, resigned on September 9. In any case the current intervention has to be limited in scope because the capacity of the EFSF to extend help is virtually exhausted by the rescue operations already in progress in Greece, Portugal, and Ireland.
In the meantime the Greek government is having increasing difficulties in meeting the conditions imposed by the assistance program. The troika supervising the program—the EU, the IMF, and the ECB—is not satisfied; Greek banks did not fully subscribe to the latest treasury bill auction; and the Greek government is running out of funds.
In these circumstances an orderly default and temporary withdrawal from the eurozone may be preferable to a drawn-out agony. But no preparations have been made. A disorderly default could precipitate a meltdown similar to the one that followed the bankruptcy of Lehman Brothers, but this time one of the authorities that would be needed to contain it is missing.
No wonder that the financial markets have taken fright. Risk premiums that must be paid to buy government bonds have increased, stocks have plummeted, led by bank stocks, and recently even the euro has broken out of its trading range on the downside. The volatility of markets is reminiscent of the crash of 2008.
Unfortunately the capacity of the financial authorities to take the measures necessary to contain the crisis has been severely restricted by the recent ruling of the German Constitutional Court. It appears that the authorities have reached the end of the road with their policy of “kicking the can down the road.” Even if a catastrophe can be avoided, one thing is certain: the pressure to reduce deficits will push the eurozone into prolonged recession. This will have incalculable political consequences. The euro crisis could endanger the political cohesion of the European Union.
There is no escape from this gloomy scenario as long as the authorities persist in their current course. They could, however, change course. They could recognize that they have reached the end of the road and take a radically different approach. Instead of acquiescing in the absence of a solution and trying to buy time, they could look for a solution first and then find a path leading to it. The path that leads to a solution has to be found in Germany, which, as the EU’s largest and highest-rated creditor country, has been thrust into the position of deciding the future of Europe. That is the approach I propose to explore.
To resolve a crisis in which the impossible becomes possible it is necessary to think about the unthinkable. To start with, it is imperative to prepare for the possibility of default and defection from the eurozone in the case of Greece, Portugal, and perhaps Ireland.
To prevent a financial meltdown, four sets of measures would have to be taken. First, bank deposits have to be protected. If a euro deposited in a Greek bank would be lost to the depositor, a euro deposited in an Italian bank would then be worth less than one in a German or Dutch bank and there would be a run on the banks of other deficit countries. Second, some banks in the defaulting countries have to be kept functioning in order to keep the economy from breaking down. Third, the European banking system would have to be recapitalized and put under European, as distinct from national, supervision. Fourth, the government bonds of the other deficit countries would have to be protected from contagion. The last two requirements would apply even if no country defaults.
All this would cost money. Under existing arrangements no more money is to be found and no new arrangements are allowed by the German Constitutional Court decision without the authorization of the Bundestag. There is no alternative but to give birth to the missing ingredient: a European treasury with the power to tax and therefore to borrow. This would require a new treaty, transforming the EFSF into a full-fledged treasury.
That would presuppose a radical change of heart, particularly in Germany. The German public still thinks that it has a choice about whether to support the euro or to abandon it. That is a mistake. The euro exists and the assets and liabilities of the financial system are so intermingled on the basis of a common currency that a breakdown of the euro would cause a meltdown beyond the capacity of the authorities to contain. The longer it takes for the German public to realize this, the heavier the price they and the rest of the world will have to pay.
The question is whether the German public can be convinced of this argument. Angela Merkel may not be able to persuade her own coalition, but she could rely on the opposition. Having resolved the euro crisis, she would have less to fear from the next elections.
The fact that arrangements are made for the possible default or defection of three small countries does not mean that those countries would be abandoned. On the contrary, the possibility of an orderly default—paid for by the other eurozone countries and the IMF—would offer Greece and Portugal policy choices. Moreover, it would end the vicious cycle now threatening all of the eurozone’s deficit countries whereby austerity weakens their growth prospects, leading investors to demand prohibitively high interest rates and thus forcing their governments to cut spending further.
Leaving the euro would make it easier for them to regain competitiveness; but if they are willing to make the necessary sacrifices they could also stay in. In both cases, the EFSF would protect bank deposits and the IMF would help to recapitalize the banking system. That would help these countries to escape from the trap in which they currently find themselves. It would be against the best interests of the European Union to allow these countries to collapse and drag down the global banking system with them.
It is not for me to spell out the details of the new treaty; that has to be decided by the member countries. But the discussions ought to start right away because even under extreme pressure they will take a long time to conclude. Once the principle of setting up a European Treasury is agreed upon, the European Council could authorize the ECB to step into the breach, indemnifying the ECB in advance against risks to its solvency. That is the only way to forestall a possible financial meltdown and another Great Depression.
CA$H IS KING
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