The debate is profound, and the two stake out radically different positions, even though they end up at pretty much the same place. Soros says that Germany should make a simple choice: either sign on to Eurobonds, where the euro zone as a whole would issue low-yielding debt to the benefit of all, or else leave the euro zone entirely. Either way, he says, Europe would win — either from reducing the fiscal burden of the various national debts, or else from seeing the euro devalue against the new Deutschmark.
Sinn agrees with Soros that Germany would be making a huge mistake were it to leave the euro zone; he disagrees vehemently, however, on the subject of Eurobonds. But both men are clear that given political realities in Germany, neither of Soros’s two choices is going to happen. Germany is going to stay in the euro zone, and Eurobonds aren’t going to happen.
That, says Soros, is a tragedy:
Europe would be infinitely better off if Germany made a definitive choice between Eurobonds and a eurozone exit, regardless of the outcome; indeed, Germany would be better off as well. The situation is deteriorating, and, in the longer term, it is bound to become unsustainable…
There is no escaping the conclusion that current policies are ill-conceived. They do not even serve Germany’s narrow national self-interest, because the results are politically and humanly intolerable; eventually they will not be tolerated. There is a real danger that the euro will destroy the EU and leave Europe seething with resentments and unsettled claims. The danger may not be imminent, but the later it happens the worse the consequences. That is not in Germany’s interest.
And even though Sinn thinks that Soros is wrong, his prognosis seems just as grim, filled with painful austerity and sovereign default:
The only remaining option, as unpleasant as it may be for some countries, is to tighten budget constraints in the eurozone. After years of easy money, a way back to reality must be found. If a country is bankrupt, it must let its creditors know that it cannot repay its debts.
My sympathies in this debate are with Soros, although Sinn does make a good point about the unintended consequences of Alexander Hamilton mutualizing state debts in 1791. (There really aren’t a lot of precedents for the kind of Eurobonds Soros envisages.) The overarching message from both of them, however, is that, as Soros puts it, “the current state of affairs is intolerable”. The only question is whether there’s a better alternative; Soros says there is, while Sinn says there isn’t.
The conclusion from them both, then, would seem to be that Europe as a whole is doomed to misery for as far as the eye can see, and that things are going to get worse before they get worse. I really hope they’re wrong. But so long as Europe’s future generations remain jobless, it’s hard to see a silver lining to this cloud.
It’s always illuminating to sit down with Lee Buchheit. He’s the dean of sovereign debt restructuring, he’s living through by far the most interesting period of his career right now, and this week I got the rare opportunity to ask him a bunch of questions on the record. Argentina, sadly, was ruled off-limits, but that just meant we had more time for Europe, where Buchheit was very, very interesting.
The Reuters TV crew has put the headline “Sovereign debt 101 with Lee C. Buchheit” on this one, which suffers a bit on the truth-in-advertising front: it’s a high-level discussion, and it helps to have a pretty sophisticated understanding of what has happened in Greece, Portugal and Ireland; and also to have read Buchheit’s recent paper with Mitu Gulati, “The Eurozone Debt Crisis — The Options Now”.
In that paper, Buchheit puts forward a novel idea for what Spain and Italy should do if they lose market access at acceptable yields: they should basically do the mother of all can-kickings, and restructure their debt by pushing every bond’s maturities out by five years.
But before we talked about that idea, we talked about Greece, which Buchheit said was pretty much unique in the annals of sovereign debt restructurings in that it was not designed to get the country’s debt load onto a sustainable footing. And as in many ways the primary architect of that deal, he should know.
Buchheit’s point, and it’s a good one, is that Greece was never in control: it basically just always did whatever it was told to do by the official sector. For a good two years after the country lost market access, the official sector told Greece that it must not default on its debts, and instead provided all the money to repay those debts in full and on time — on top of all the money needed to finance Greece’s fiscal deficit. Then, suddenly, the official sector changed its mind, and demanded a private-sector haircut. So, that’s what Greece did. But even after a steep haircut, Greece’s debt is still unsustainable. Which raises the question: what is the official sector going to do about that, and when is it going to do it?
Buchheit’s answer — and I think he’s right about this, at least so long as Greece remains in the euro — is that eventually the official sector will be forced to do a reprofiling, or “treatment”. They’ll avoid taking a nominal haircut: they’ll keep the principal amounts intact, which won’t do any favors to Greece’s debt-to-GDP ratio. But they’ll push maturities out very far indeed, and attach extremely low coupons to them, to minimize the debt-service burden on Greece.
There are massive problems with this, however, not least the fact that I can’t imagine how Greece could ever regain market access under such a regime. Buchheit thinks the same thing: “Greece could not, I think, return to the voluntary markets even if you did stretch out the official sector debt until the 12th of never.”* If it stays in the euro and doesn’t reduce the face value of its official-sector debt, private-sector participants will have no real interest in funding the deficit. What Buchheit is talking about here isn’t a strategy, so much as it’s the absence of a strategy: it’s almost literally the least that the official sector can do. And even then it’s not going to happen until after the German elections in September 2013.
And there’s another problem too. If Greece gets its official-sector debts reprofiled, then Ireland and Portugal are going to want exactly the same thing. Private-sector debt defaults have large costs; official-sector debt reprofilings do not. And so if the official sector does do this for Greece, they’re going to have to find the wherewithal to do exactly the same thing in Portugal and Ireland. Which won’t be cheap or easy.
If reprofilings are unattractive things to the official sector, they’re much more unattractive to the private sector, which considers them to be a default. So why would Italy and Spain ever consider such a thing with their private bonds?
Buchheit’s answer is that Spain and Italy can’t do a Greek-style restructuring of their domestic debts, with a principal haircut, because that would just render their entire domestic financial systems massively insolvent at a stroke. The resulting bank bailout would cost more than the amount saved on the national debt, making the whole exercise a false economy.
What’s more, such an exercise would put a lot of foam on the runway, as the crisis-management types like to say. As we saw with Argentina, a default which everybody sees coming is actually a lot less damaging, from a systemic perspective, than a default which happens suddenly. (Argentina’s slow train-wreck had much less impact on the markets generally than did Russia’s smaller, but much more unexpected, default, and one of the big problems with the Lehman bankruptcy was the fact that it was unforeseen by the markets.) The exercise of reprofiling Spain and Italy’s debts would give the markets notice that something a bit more drastic might have to happen in five years’ time — and with that kind of advance notice, both the official and the private sectors would have a lot of time to prepare for such a thing.
Finally, Buchheit points out that when it comes to the eurozone, countries always end up doing what the official sector wants, rather than what private-sector bondholders want. And there are lots of reasons why the official sector would like a reprofiling — the biggest of which is that it doesn’t involve the official sector being forced to bail out the private sector. The official sector would still need to fund the countries’ deficits, but at least it wouldn’t need to fund their private-sector principal repayments as well.
There is one more possibility, which Buchheit largely dismisses — and that’s the break-up of the euro. He says, quite rightly, that the euro has brought many benefits to the peripheral countries — but it seems to me that the era of those benefits is largely over, and that we’re now entering an era where the costs are becoming unbearable.
The problem with Buchheit’s reprofiling idea, whether it happens to official-sector debt in Greece and Portugal and Ireland or to private-sector debt in Spain and Italy, is the same as the problem with the Greek debt restructuring: it doesn’t address any of the big problems of a heavily-indebted uncompetitive country with sky-high unemployment. The technocrat’s answer to such problems is always the vague-sounding “structural reforms”, but in most of these countries, I don’t think that “structural reforms” are either politically or practically feasible. Sometimes, huge problems require drastic solutions. And the most drastic solution for a troubled eurozone country is, clearly, a default and devaluation. Which could be quite attractive, if it came with some one-off official-sector financing (to protect depositors), as well as continued membership in the European Union.
*Update: Buchheit emails to clarify that “if indeed the official sector were to stretch out their claims against these countries to the 12th of Never at a very low coupon, I suspect that the markets would be prepared to resume lending. In effect, by virtue of the maturity dates, the official sector will have subordinated itself to new (short and medium term) private sector lending.”
The timing of the Nobel Peace Prize announcement was set in stone a long time ago, of course, but I love the way in which it comes just two days after EADS and BAE — two European arms-dealing behemoths — announced that their greatly-desired merger had been killed by European political infighting. Here’s the Nobel announcement:
The EU is currently undergoing grave economic difficulties and considerable social unrest. The Norwegian Nobel Committee wishes to focus on what it sees as the EU’s most important result: the successful struggle for peace and reconciliation and for democracy and human rights. The stabilizing part played by the EU has helped to transform most of Europe from a continent of war to a continent of peace.
And here’s EADS:
Notwithstanding a great deal of constructive and professional engagement with the respective governments over recent weeks, it has become clear that the interests of the parties’ government stakeholders cannot be adequately reconciled with each other or with the objectives that BAE Systems and EADS established for the merger.
The stock market, for what it’s worth, quite liked the failure of the deal: mega-mergers, after all, rarely work. Maybe they should send flowers to Angela Merkel, who bears most of the credit/blame. Meanwhile, as a proud EU citizen, I’ve been walking on air all day: I can now add the Nobel Prize to the Time Person of the Year award in the list of my personal achievements. Jose Manuel Barroso says so himself!
This prize belongs in much the same category as Barack Obama’s, or Paul Krugman’s: it’s designed to push a certain vision of how the world should look in the future, as much or more than it is designed to recognize some achievement which happened in the past. But there’s a problem here: the things which worked in the past won’t work in the future. The Nobel committee surely has a vision of prosperity and unity — as Dylan Matthews explains, the two have gone hand-in-hand for the past 60 years. But where they used to work together, they’re now working against each other: as Gary Cohn says, there’s a good chance that the EU, or at the very least the eurozone, is going to break up precisely in order to generate the kind of prosperity which no longer seems possible anywhere south of Milan.
All of which is to say that fractiousness, these days, seems to be more remunerative than unity. We’re becoming a go-it-alone, winner-takes-all world, where opposition beats cooperation — and that, in turn, bodes ill for peace and for federalism wherever it’s found. There’s no chance of outright war within the EU: that particular achievement is nailed down, and has been for decades now. But riots and unrest and national-independence movements are on the rise, in large part because the European project of ever-greater integration and unity has stopped producing wealth and started destroying it instead.
The dot-com boom of the late 1990s was financed in large part by the peace dividend of the early 1990s: money which used to get poured into the Cold War could be spent much more productively elsewhere. Indeed, for most of the past 50 years, western Europe has been steadily moving money out of swords and into ploughshares and the welfare state. But that trend has been taken about as far as it can go, at least in Europe. And so while peace and prosperity have historically been aligned, as the consultants might have it, that alignment is getting thrown out of whack right now.
Which is why I think the Nobel committee decided to give the EU its gong this year. It’s their way of saying that the European project is a worthy and noble one regardless of whether it creates wealth and prosperity. In reality, however, if a European economy falls into a deep recession where the only visible way out is exit from the euro, then that economy will inevitably exit the euro. Politics might sometimes trump economics, but economics nearly always trumps ethics. Almost everybody likes the EU in theory. But unless it works for them in practice, it will certainly fall apart.
Sony Kapoor has a very good post on the Spanish bank bailout today, explaining that when Spanish credit spreads rose in the wake of the bailout, that had nothing to do with the fact that bailout funds were senior to privately-held bonds, and everything to do with enforced austerity.
The clever thing about Kapoor’s post is that he explains this empirically, through simple force of arithmetic. Basically, channelling new money to a liquidity-constrained debtor is always good for existing creditors, even if the new money is senior. That’s obviously the case if the new money prevents insolvency, but it’s also the case if it doesn’t:
Imagine a country has an NPV of expected future primary surpluses equal to x euros, which defines its sustainable debt carrying capacity and that its debt stock is y euros; we don’t need to say whether x is bigger than y or not. Now on a date say the 1st of Jan 2013, it gets a public bailout equal to z euros. Its debt repayment capacity is x+z euros as it now has the equivalent of z euros in a bank and its total debt is now y+z euros. If y>x then y+z>x+z and nothing changes. Assume x = 0.8 y, then bondholders would face a 20% haircut, whether before or immediately after the public injection of z euros.
Now imagine that the z euros bailout is at a concessional rate of interest. Then it will improve the sustainability of debt, all else remaining the same and increase the potential pay out to private bondholders. Equivalently, if the country invests the z euros it obtains in NPV positive projects, the sustainability of its debt improves, making the outcomes for private bondholders more positive.
So why are Spanish bond yields now so much higher than they were before the bank bailout? Isn’t the bailout a good thing? Not necessarily:
There is one exception to this rule, which is when the conditionality accompanying a public bailout is so flawed that it makes the recipient country adopt policies that actually hurt growth prospects and reduce its debt carrying capacity thus increasing the likelihood of insolvency and the size of private sector losses. This is a big and legitimate fear given the current excessive focus on austerity in the Eurozone and may play some part in the panic around Spain.
The logic here is scary, but also entirely coherent: the more bailout funds a country gets, the more it ends up being forced into austerity programs which will ultimately do more harm than good.
On the other hand, there’s hope here, too. If Mediterranean Europe eventually manages to tear Germany away from its unhealthy austerity addiction, then all this extra liquidity in the Eurozone could trigger a significant tightening in sovereign yields. Even if it’s subordinating those bonds at the same time.
Essentially, Soros characterizes the European project as being a bit like a runner, moving at a steady clip in the direction of greater unity. Running is a weird thing: it’s basically the art of falling over continuously in a particular direction. So long as you keep on moving forwards, you can maintain a dynamic equilibrium. But stopping is really hard, because whenever you try to do that, you’re out of balance:
The process of integration was spearheaded by a small group of far sighted statesmen who practiced what Karl Popper called piecemeal social engineering. They recognized that perfection is unattainable; so they set limited objectives and firm timelines and then mobilized the political will for a small step forward, knowing full well that when they achieved it, its inadequacy would become apparent and require a further step. The process fed on its own success, very much like a financial bubble.
The problem here is that the statesmen didn’t understand that they were running: they thought they were walking. They thought that while forward momentum was a good thing and maybe even necessary, ever-greater union was in and of itself a good thing, which would bring the continent closer together and make it stronger. With hindsight, by contrast, we can see that it was a way of turbo-charging the European bubble, and setting it up for a catastrophic pop if and when the process of integration didn’t continue far beyond what was politically feasible circa Maastricht.
The bubble was a consequence of the convergence trade, which in turn, says Soros, was a function of BIS risk weightings:
When the euro was introduced the regulators allowed banks to buy unlimited amounts of government bonds without setting aside any equity capital; and the central bank accepted all government bonds at its discount window on equal terms. Commercial banks found it advantageous to accumulate the bonds of the weaker euro members in order to earn a few extra basis points. That is what caused interest rates to converge which in turn caused competitiveness to diverge. Germany, struggling with the burdens of reunification, undertook structural reforms and became more competitive. Other countries enjoyed housing and consumption booms on the back of cheap credit, making them less competitive. Then came the crash.
The problem here is that the convergence trade could probably have been better described as a divergence trade: it created a two-tier Europe, with a strong creditor-filled center funding a weak debtor-filled periphery. And as a result the political union — which had always been the necessary other shoe to drop — became impossible, rather than inevitable.
At this point, says Soros, optimistically, Europe still has three months to pull together a comprehensive package to save the union — a package which is just as economically necessary for Germany as it is for Spain. But politically, getting this done is going to be incredibly hard: “the disintegration of the European Union,” says Soros, is “just as self-reinforcing as its creation”.
The economic necessity for Germany, here, is a product of Target 2, the mechanism by which the Bundesbank’s balance sheet now holds €660 billion in peripheral-country claims. Germany needs to throw money, more or less continuously, at the European periphery at this point, because if it doesn’t, its central bank will suddenly find itself insolvent to the tune of roughly €1 trillion. That wouldn’t be the end of the world: if Germany got its Deutschmark back, then the Bundesbank could simply print €1 trillion worth of Deutschmarks to fill that hole. But a world where the Bundesbank is willing to print €1 trillion worth of Deutschmarks is simply not the world we’re living in, and the Germans will do pretty much anything to avoid that outcome.
Which leaves us with the only alternative:
Germany is likely to do what is necessary to preserve the euro – but nothing more. That would result in a eurozone dominated by Germany in which the divergence between the creditor and debtor countries would continue to widen and the periphery would turn into permanently depressed areas in need of constant transfer of payments. That would turn the European Union into something very different from what it was when it was a “fantastic object” that fired peoples imagination. It would be a German empire with the periphery as the hinterland.
This is, in a nutshell, the bet I have with Joe Weisenthal. He, like Soros, says that Europe — including Greece — will become a German empire, where the Germans reluctantly dole out a stream of transfer payments to a resentful periphery. I’m taking the other side of that bet, because I think it’s politically impossible, in a union of democratic nations. And also because I think that even if perpetual transfer payments to Spain are justifiable, perpetual transfer payments to Greece are not. Either way, here’s the video.
Mark Dow has found an astonishing set of results from a February opinion poll in Greece; it’s hard to imagine that Greek attitudes to Germany have improved since then. Here’s just one of the 13 slides:
The final question, in particular, renders rather unfunny the joke about the German Chancellor flying to Athens for some meetings, and being stopped at immigration. “Name?” she’s asked. “Angela Merkel.” “Occupation?” “No, I’m just here for a couple of days.”
For his part, Dow seizes on a different question — one which shows that 51% of Greeks attribute Germany’s strong economy to corruption, and only 18% attribute it to competitiveness. Greek public opinion, it seems, is decidedly of the view that the only way Greece can compete with Germany is to become a lot more corrupt.
Stephan Faris, in his profile of Alexis Tsipras’s far-left Syriza party, writes:
Tsipras possesses not just a deep knowledge of the Greek electorate but a populist’s knack for channeling mass emotion…
Polls show Greeks are pulled by two seemingly contradictory desires. Roughly two-thirds of the country opposes the bailout conditions. Yet almost 80 percent say they want to stay in the euro…
Tsipras’s demand that other EU countries — namely Germany — renegotiate the bailout deal on Athens’s terms reflects a seeming indifference to the very real failures in Greece’s economy.
Looking at the poll, I see something different. The overwhelming majority of the Greek electorate believes that Germany, quite literally, owes Greece money. In the decades since World War II, Greece has been waiting patiently for its rightful reparations — and instead it’s finding itself in the midst of another attempted takeover by Germany, a Fourth Reich. Looked at through this lens, the Syriza position doesn’t seem contradictory or indifferent to the realities of the Greek economy. Instead, it’s noble resistance to a dangerous hegemon.
All of which is to say that the relationship between Germany and Greece is irredeemably oppositional, at this point. The Germans think of Greeks as corrupt scroungers, who just want to live on the fruits of Germany’s productive labor; the Greeks think of Germany as, well Nazis. (Check out page 2 of the opinion poll: when asked “What is the first word that comes in your mind when you hear the word Germany?”, and given one spontaneous reply, 32% of Greeks said something about Hitler, Nazism, or the Third Reich. And in general, again, the overwhelming majority of answers were highly negative.
This is not, in any real sense, a European Union: if two people with these feelings for each other were married, everybody would agree that they should get divorced.
Looked at from the US, it’s easy to see Tsipras as playing a deeply tactical game: he’s advocating that Greece call Germany’s bluff, and thereby continue to get EU financing while reducing the amount of austerity that Greece has to impose on itself in return. But looking at this poll, I don’t see tactics: I think that Tsipras is simply reflecting very real Greek attitudes to Germany — attitudes which consider Germany to be not only fascist, but also deeply corrupt. If you think you’re owed money by such a country, you’re not going to be particularly willing to accept onerous bailout conditions in order to receive it.
All of which says to me that Grexit is inevitable, sooner or later. These two countries have pretty much nothing in common, bar their current currency. And now the tensions caused by that common currency are surfacing in particularly ugly ways. Before things get much worse, it would surely be better for both of them if Greece decided to go its own way.
And yet, there’s a silver lining, here. As far as I know, these attitudes to Germany are not shared by most people in Spain, or Portugal, or Italy. It makes sense for the EU to allow Greece to leave the euro, and then to put a big and credible firewall up around Iberia. Greece really is a special case. And the other 14 members of the euro, if they join together, still have the ability to remain together.
What exactly does the EU’s José Manuel Barroso mean, when he says today that the EU should move towards “a full economic union”, which would include “a banking union with integrated financial supervision and single deposit guarantee scheme”? In a simultaneous EC report, there was also talk of “direct recapitalization by the ESM (European Stability Mechanism)” when banks run into solvency issues.
The big idea here is simple, and relatively easy to understand. Banks in Europe’s peripheral countries, most importantly Spain, are understandably seeing their deposits move to countries like Germany, where there’s no risk of devaluation. But that kind of a slow bank run — Mohamed El-Erian calls it a “bank jog” — inevitably weakens those banks’ balance sheets, and the straitened PIIGS governments are in no position to shore up their banking systems with billions of euros in bailout money.
Here’s Mohamed’s suggestion, which seems to be extremely close to what the EC is now signing on to:
An incredibly disruptive situation could be avoided if Greek depositors were given quick access to a region-wide (as opposed to just national) deposit insurance scheme that is unambiguously supported by the fiscal authorities in the strongest eurozone countries. This would need to be coupled with even larger liquidity support from the European Central Bank, along with direct capital injection into the Greek banks from regional funds (e.g., the European Stability Mechanism, or ESM) and multilateral institutions (namely the International Monetary Fund).
I have a funny feeling that this is exactly what’s going to happen, but that implementation is going to be carefully timed so that it happens after Grexit, and not before. First you wait for Lehman Brothers to go bankrupt, then you give investment banks full access to the Fed discount window.
The problem is that deposit-guarantee schemes need to be tested before they’re trusted. Even with an EU-wide guarantee in place, at the margin German banks are always going to be safer places to put your money than Irish banks — and of course a guarantee would only cover relatively small six-figure retail deposits, it wouldn’t cover the huge corporate cash balances which only the most foolish of corporate treasurers would still consider leaving on deposit at, say, Bankia.
All of which is to say that although the degree of risk and uncertainty in Europe is high and can come down, there’s also a limit to how far it can come down. As Walter Russell Mead masterfully explains, Europe’s politics — much of which are playing out at the national level within multi-nation states — will inevitably and fatally trump whatever theoretical economic union the Eurocrats attempt to put in place. And because that risk is now so clear, the one thing that no one has to worry about is the kind of complacency where enormous systemic risks build up quietly without anybody noticing or worrying about them.
That’s the point that Nassim Taleb was trying to make in his Montreal speech yesterday — a speech which got reported by Bloomberg as simple investment advice. I know Nassim reasonably well, and I can promise you that he would never say that he “favors investing in Europe over the US” — he has nothing but disdain for anybody who makes such grand and stupid pronouncements. He would be happy, however, to reprise the theme of of his Foreign Affairs article last year, on the subject of “How Suppressing Volatility Makes the World Less Predictable and More Dangerous”. Clearly, the US is much better at suppressing volatility than Europe is, right now.
That essay has disappeared behind a paywall now, but I excerpted a bit of it here:
A robust economic system is one that encourages early failures (the concepts of “fail small” and “fail fast”)…
Consider that Italy, with its much-maligned “cabinet instability,” is economically and politically stable despite having had more than 60 governments since World War II (indeed, one may say Italy’s stability is because of these switches of government).
During the global economic crisis, the US was happy to see many more domestic bank failures than Europe was — and on top of that was happy to put its big automakers into bankruptcy. Those decisions served America well. Now, Taleb’s saying, the tables are turned: the volatility in Europe has become unavoidable, while the US appears to be a beacon and a safe haven. And whenever you achieve safe-haven status, the short-term benefits (the 10-year Treasury bond now yields just 1.65%, which more or less amounts to the markets begging the US government to borrow more) are always offset by hidden tail risks which tend to bite very hard indeed when they finally materialize.
None of which, of course, is or should be taken as investment advice. A long-Europe, short-US trade would be highly risky right now, with a greater-than-even probability of losing money. Now back in his trading days, Taleb specialized in putting on trades with a greater-than-even probability of losing money: he reckoned those trades were generally underpriced, and that the amount you made in the minority of cases where the bet paid off could more than cover the amount you lost in the majority of cases where it didn’t. But Taleb’s not a trader any more, and in any case none of that kind of sophistication made it into the Bloomberg article.
If you want a safe place to put your money, the conventional wisdom remains correct: Germany and the US are definitely safer than Spain and Greece. Nassim’s new book isn’t going to help you find a new, undiscovered safe haven. But it might serve to remind you that the stronger you think a political economy is, the more violently it tends to break.
One of the hardest questions to answer, when people ask about the European crisis in general and the Greek crisis in particular, is “why should we in the US care?” The simple answer is that well, this is an important part of the world, and it’s big news. But if you only care about news insofar as it directly effects the US, then the answer is harder.
One possible answer — I’ve heard this given in a number of places — is that another major crisis in Europe would spill over into the US, cause serious economic damage here, and could quite possibly make the difference between an Obama and a Romney victory. But just how likely is that? I’m no expert when it comes to assigning probabilities to events, but we can at least come up with a general framework which lets us answer the question.
Let’s start with the fiscal pact. Will all of Europe credibly commit to fiscal austerity going forwards? If so, that increases the chances of crisis and Grexit, since southern European countries in general, and Greece in particular, simply can’t operate under an austerity regime in the way that, say, the Baltics have managed, painfully, to do. On the other hand, everybody seems quite likely to break the fiscal pact in one way or another — which means that there has to be a good chance the pact will end up being honored mostly in the breach. Let’s call the probability of a Europe-wide austerity regime A; my best guess for A is roughly 15%, or 0.15.
So the next question is — what is the probability of Grexit, any time soon? That’s really two questions. First, what is the probability of Grexit if there’s Europe-wide austerity. Let’s call that B, and I’ll peg it at 85%, or 0.85. Second, what’s the probability of Grexit if Europe-wide austerity slips a bit? We’ll call that C, and I’ll say it’s 65%, or 0.65. Overall, we can define the chance of Grexit, D, as A * B + (1-A) * C. If you’re playing along at home, that’s 0.68, or 68%.
But just because Grexit happens, doesn’t mean it will necessarily affect the US election. For one thing, by definition, Grexit can’t affect the US election if it hasn’t happened by the time the election takes place. So the next question is: if there’s Grexit, what are the chances that it will happen by November? The Europeans have proven themselves very good at kicking the can down the road, so even if Grexit is inevitable, it’s still not inevitable by November. In any case, let’s define E as being the conditional probability of Grexit by November, given Grexit. I’ll say that’s 50%. Which means that the overall probability of Grexit by November, F, is D * E, or 34%.
Grexit, if and when it happens, will cause a lot of disruption in European markets, and certain deposit flight out of Spanish and Portuguese banks. Again, there are two ways this can play out. Either it will cause a series of further dominoes to fall, or else it will concentrate the Europeans’ mind and force them to build a large and genuinely effective firewall, drawing a line in the sand and saying “this far, but no further”. Will Europe let the Grexit crisis go to waste? Let’s say the probability of a credible, coordinated and constructive pan-European response to Grexit is G. Then the probability of Grexit causing a big European crisis is 1-G. What’s G? That’s a tough one, but I’ll put it at 35%.
For the purposes of this calculation, we’ll assume that Greece alone is too small to cause a big global crisis: you need contagion, for that. So we’re looking for H, the chance of a big European crisis before the US election. We can calculate that as F * (1-G), or 22% — that’s the chance of Grexit before November, multiplied by the chance of a bigger crisis if Grexit happens. (Note that a big European crisis can happen at any time; the chance of that is D * (1-G), which works out at 44%.)
If we have a big European crisis before the election, then that will certainly send US stocks falling. But will a sharp drop in the US stock market have any effect on the outcome of the election? Probably only if the election is reasonably close — and certainly not if Romney is in the lead. A European crisis, and consequent plunge in US stocks, would only be good for Romney and bad for Obama, just as the crisis in the fall of 2008 was good for Obama and bad for the incumbent Republicans. So what we’re looking for, here, is I, the probability that Obama will have a narrow lead over Romney — one small enough to be erased by a big stock-market plunge. I’ll peg I at 65%.
And thus, finally, we get to the big answer: what is X, the probability of Grexit toppling Obama? That is H * I, which using my off-the-top-of-my-head probabilities, works out at about 14%. But you should work this out for yourself. Come up with your own values for all these:
A: What is the probability of a Europe-wide austerity regime?
B: If we get Europe-wide austerity, what are the chances of Grexit, any time soon?
C: If we don’t get Europe-wide austerity, what are the chances of Grexit, any time soon?
D: What, then, is the probability of Grexit? This is calculated as A * B + (1-A) * C.
E: If we have Grexit, what are the chances it’ll happen before the election?
F: This is the overall probability of Grexit before the election, and is D * E.
G: If we have Grexit, what are the chances of it eliciting a credible, coordinated and constructive pan-European response?
H: This is the probability of a big European crisis before the election, it’s F * (1-G).
I: What is the probability of Obama having a narrow enough lead over Romney that it would be erased by a plunging stock market?
Put these all together, and you can finally come up with a number for:
X: The probability of Grexit toppling Obama. It’s H * I.
I’d be interested to know what results you get, but my guess is that most of them will come up with a number which is low and yet still significant. It’s something to bear in mind, but of course it’s also something which is pretty much entirely out of Obama’s control. That’s the way that crises work: individual politicians are rarely personally responsible for them, but whomever’s in power when they happen nearly always ends up getting the blame.
The size of the run on Greek banks is not at all clear: while it seems that something on the order of €1 billion has left the banks of late, it’s less obvious whether that was over the course of one day, three days, or two weeks. The big picture, though, is unambiguous:
What you’re seeing here is Greece down to its last €165 billion or so in deposits, and at the margin the rate of decrease is probably accelerating, despite the fact that most sensible Greeks will have already stashed their hard-earned euros safely outside the country a long time ago. I don’t know what the minimum amount is that Greeks need on deposit just to serve their near-term liquidity requirements, but we’re not there yet: Greece’s total population is only 11 million. So there’s a long way further this number can fall — especially since the Greek banking system isn’t receiving the support it needs from the ECB.
The more realistic constraint is simply that many Greeks lack the education and sophistication and language skills needed to move their money out of the country. This, for instance, is telling:
A 60-year-old textiles store owner who gave his name only as Nasos said he had transferred 10,000 euros over the phone to a bank in fellow euro zone state Cyprus on Tuesday afternoon.
If Greece exits the euro, there’s no doubt that there will be a massive banking crisis in Cyprus — it’s pretty much the least safe haven conceivable for someone looking to move their money from Greece. The only reason to move money to Cyprus rather than, say, Luxembourg is that they speak Greek there, and the logistics of moving money to Cyprus are easier than the logistics of moving money to any other country.
Meanwhile, in the rest of the eurozone periphery, foreigners are already pulling their deposits from Italian banks, while the Spanish banking system is only getting increasingly precarious:
All of which is to say that the causal relationship between sovereign crises and banking crises is rather more complicated than one causing the other: in reality, they cause each other, in a vicious cycle which clearly isn’t close to being broken in any of the southern European states. Greece is further along in the cycle than Spain or Portugal or Italy, but they’re all still moving in the wrong direction.
Greece’s banks, remember, are the mechanism by which the rest of Europe will force Grexit. Banks are the circulatory system of any economy: if they stop pumping money, the country dies. And so, in extremis, Greece will need to do a complete blood transfusion, replacing all euros with drachmas, if the only alternative is to see the flow of euros dry up entirely.
In the meantime, however, expect to see deposits continue to leave Greece — and the rest of the European periphery as well. Even if your euros are reasonably safe in a big Italian bank, they’re surely safer in a big German bank. And the first thing that all depositors want is safety. Now that questions have been raised about the solvency of various southern European banking systems, it’s going to be very hard to reconstitute the eurozone in a robust fashion. The Eurozone was never designed to cope with millions of Spaniards moving their money out of the country, behaving like middle-class Venezuelans with offshore accounts in Miami. And it also was never designed to cope with capital controls. But increasingly, it looks like we’re going to end up with one or the other. Or both.
A lot of people were looking forward to Richard Koo deliver his paper at INET last week; it comes with associated slides, here. Koo is the intellectual father of the idea of the balance-sheet recession — an idea which was born in Japan, has increasingly been adopted in the US and the UK, and which is now gaining traction in the Eurozone.
Koo’s diagnosis that Europe is in a balance-sheet recession, which he defines as a post-bubble-bursting state of affairs where individuals and companies choose to pay down their debts rather than borrow money, even when interest rates are at zero. That certainly seems to be the problem in Spain; Koo’s charts can be hard to read, but what you’re seeing here is a massive borrowing binge by the Spanish corporate sector — the dark-blue line — suddenly turning into net savings after the crisis hits. And to make matters worse, Spanish households — the red line — did exactly the same thing. As a result, the government had to run a massive deficit after the crisis; the four lines always have to sum to zero.
In this kind of a recession, monetary policy — reducing rates to zero — doesn’t work. And tax cuts don’t work either: they just increase household savings. You need government spending, at least until the economy has warmed up to the point at which companies and individuals start borrowing again. And the good news is that in a balance sheet recession, government spending is pretty much cost-free, since interest rates are at zero.
That’s the good news in Japan and the US and the UK, anyway. But it’s not the case in Spain. This is a big problem with the single currency, as Koo explains: it encourages capital to flow in exactly the wrong direction.
When presented with a deleveraging private sector, fund managers in non- eurozone countries can place their money only in their own government’s bonds if constraints prevent them from taking on more currency risk or principle risk.
In contrast, eurozone fund managers who are not allowed to take on more principle risk or currency risk are not required to buy their own country’s bonds: they can also buy bonds issued by other eurozone governments because they all share the same currency. Thus, fund managers at French and German banks were busily moving funds into Spanish and Greek bonds a number of years ago in search of higher yields, and Spanish and Portuguese fund managers are now buying German and Dutch government bonds for added safety, all without incurring foreign exchange risk.
The former capital flow aggravated real estate bubbles in many peripheral countries prior to 2008, while the latter flow triggered a sovereign debt crisis in the same countries after 2008. Indeed, the excess domestic savings of Spain and Portugal fled to Germany and Holland just when the Spanish and Portuguese governments needed them to fight balance sheet recessions. That capital flight pushed bond yields higher in peripheral countries and forced their governments into austerity when their private sectors were also deleveraging. With both public and private sectors saving money, the economies fell into deflationary spirals which took the unemployment rate to 23 percent in Spain and to nearly 15 percent in Ireland and Portugal.
With the recipients, Germany and Holland, also aiming for fiscal austerity, the savings that flowed into these countries remained unborrowed and became a deflationary gap for the entire eurozone. It will be difficult to expect stable economic growth until something is done about these highly pro-cyclical and destabilizing capital flows unique to the eurozone.
The solution to this problem is eurobonds. If all the eurozone countries funded themselves jointly and severally, then the yields on European government debt would be very low, and there would be no fiscal crisis in Spain.
But that’s not the solution that Koo provides to the problem that he quite correctly diagnoses. Instead, he said at the INET conference that the way to bring Spanish government bond yields down would be to massively decrease the number of people allowed to buy Spanish bonds.
This doesn’t make any sense to me at all. After all, in any market, the greater the number of potential buyers, the higher the price. But I’ll let Koo try to explain:
Eurozone governments should limit the sale of their government bonds to their own citizens. In other words, only German citizens should be allowed to purchase Bunds, and only Spanish citizens should be able to buy Spanish government bonds. If this rule had been in place from the outset of the euro, none of the problems affecting the single currency today would have happened.
The Greek government could not have pursued a profligate fiscal policy for so long if only Greeks had been allowed to buy its bonds, since private-sector savings in the country was nowhere near enough to finance the government’s spending spree…
The new rule will also resolve the capital flight problem by preventing Spanish savings from flowing into German Bunds. This will prompt Spanish fund managers facing private sector deleveraging to invest in Spanish government bonds, just as their counterparts in the US, UK or Japan must buy bonds issued by their own governments. That would allow Spanish government bond yields to come down to UK—if not to US—levels. With low bond yields and high bond prices, talk of a sovereign debt crisis would also disappear.
It’s absolutely true that a lot of Spanish fund managers, in a flight-to-quality trade, are buying up German and Dutch government bonds. It’s also true that Koo’s proposed rule would prevent them from doing that. But it’s emphatically not true that if they couldn’t buy German or Dutch government bonds, they would buy Spanish government bonds instead.
I asked Koo about this, in Berlin, and the conceptual problem quickly emerged. On the one hand, Koo is careful not to say that he wants fully-fledged capital controls preventing Spanish fund managers from investing abroad at all. He’s confining his proposal just to government bonds, and is not including corporate bonds, equities, structured credit, or anything else that Spaniards can currently invest in. But, he still thinks that this one rule would, single-handedly, take the 6% of GDP that the Spanish private sector is currently saving, and divert it directly into the Spanish government bond market, sending yields there plunging.
The fact is that when money flows into US Treasuries or JGBs or Gilts during a balance-sheet recession, that has absolutely nothing to do with the fact that they’re government bonds, and absolutely everything to do with the fact that they’re the dollar- or yen- or pound-based securities with the lowest perceived credit risk. If you ban Spanish institutional investors from investing in Bunds, then they’ll just buy something else with extremely low credit risk instead — AAA-rated corporate bonds, perhaps, or covered mortgage bonds from somewhere in the north, or some other kind of highly collateralized structured credit instrument. None of those things might have quite the degree of liquidity that Bunds can offer, but they’re still safer than Spanish government debt right now.
Koo is absolutely right that the flow of savings out of Spain is doing absolutely gruesome things to the Spanish economy: you can’t possibly grow when your companies and households are paying down debt, and all your national savings are fleeing the country. So maybe there’s a case for fully-fledged capital controls. But Koo’s weak-tea version would only serve to decrease, rather than increase, demand for Spanish government bonds. Their price would go down, their yields would go up, and Spain would be in an even worse position than it’s in now.