The Great Debate UK

What message is the CDS market sending us?

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By Laurence Copeland. The opinions expressed are his own.

Not many people seem to have noticed, but something almost unthinkable has happened in the Credit Default Swap (CDS) market recently. It is now one point cheaper to insure against a default by Her Majesty’s Government than by the Federal Republic of Germany. Given that only a few months ago, Markit was quoting twice as much to insure against a default on gilts as on bunds, this is a major change – but what is it telling us?

The message is unclear, but my guess is it is not quite the one which Britain’s Chancellor, quite reasonably from his point of view, would have us believe. Yes, the market has faith in our ability and willingness to repay – but that is far from the whole story.

The hint is in the fact that Japan (with its enormous government debt, even before it gets very far with post-tsunami reconstruction) and post-downgrade USA also have low CDS rates. As I have pointed out many times before in these blogs, what we have in common with Japan and America, apart from rockbottom government bond yields and associated low CDS rates, is the freedom to print our own currency. The fact that the three of us have massive debt burdens is therefore regarded as irrelevant. By contrast, this freedom is denied to euro zone countries, who are supposed to repay debt out of government revenue, which makes their creditworthiness dependent on their ability to collect tax and their prospective future growth rates which will determine the size of their tax base. Although Germany has a reasonably modest debt-to-GDP ratio, it cannot straightforwardly print money to repay its creditors. Add to that the fact that the market is finally waking up to the realisation that Germany is coming under heavy pressure to shoulder the debt of the rest of the euro zone, and its debt level suddenly seems far less modest.

It is often said that the markets can only concentrate on one thing at a time, which seems strange – but how else to interpret the current state of affairs? How else can one explain the willingness of the market to lend unlimited amounts to America even though the Fed has made it plain that it will carry on printing money until inflation revives and the dollar gets even weaker? It certainly makes sense for investors to ignore the negligible risk of a CDS-triggering default by Britain or America – but leaving aside CDS rates, even if outright default is ruled out, why would anyone want to buy five-year gilts or U.S. Treasuries at yields of barely 1 percent?

Why is the West bankrupt?

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By Laurence Copeland. The opinions expressed are his own.

The UK, USA, the PIIGS (Ireland and Italy are together in the same stye), France is in poor fiscal shape  – OK, Germany is ostensibly living within its means, but it looks a lot less solvent when you remember that it has underwritten the rest of the euro zone (in large part, to protect its own irresponsible banks). In any case, as I have argued in previous blogs, this or a future German Government is likely to cave in to the pressure from its own electorate and from inflationist economists at home and abroad to join the party and spend, spend, spend. Only Australia and Canada, riding high on the commodities price boom, and a handful of small countries, look stable.

Where will it all end?

With inflation, almost certainly, but beyond that, it is hard to say. However, there is one prediction I would offer for the medium to long term outcome, and it applies not only to the euro zone, but to Britain and America too – in fact to the whole of the comfortable, complacent industrialised world – and it is this.

U.S. debt downgrade: Who cares?

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By Laurence Copeland. The opinions expressed are his own.

As I write this blog, it looks as though the U.S. Congress is going to pass a bill raising the debt ceiling and making modest cuts in Federal Government spending over the coming years. Although it is, quite rightly, being presented as a somewhat hollow victory for the forces of reason, there is one extremely puzzling aspect of the crisis.

It is being reported on all sides that the credit rating agencies may well downgrade U.S. sovereign debt in spite of this “happy ending” – indeed, Egan-Jones, one of the smaller agencies, cut its rating of U.S. debt some weeks ago, and there is much talk of Moody’s and S&P following suit in the very near future.

Greece deal is a compromise and, once again, the banks have won

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By Laurence Copeland. The opinions expressed are his own.

Whenever I see photos of Chancellor Merkel these days, I’m reminded of the lugubrious features of the creature in the Restaurant at the End of the World, as it recommended to guests which part of its own anatomy they should eat. The details of the “Deal to Save the Euro” are still mysterious and have been given a misleading spin in the official releases, but one or two points seem clear.

First, the package is a compromise – a little bit of default (as required by a reality check) plus assistance to Greece which looks very generous but is still not enough to give it a realistic chance of paying its remaining debts. So the can has been kicked further down the same road yet again.

Another day, another crisis

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By Laurence Copeland. The opinions expressed are his own.

Here we go again – the same sickening feeling, as stock markets reel amid a flight to “safety”. For months, there have been worries about contagion from the Greek imbroglio, and now the nightmare seems to be coming true, as one after another the weak European economies are put to the sword.

First came Greece and Ireland, then Portugal, now it’s the big league – Spain and, even bigger, Italy (and don’t forget Belgium, an accident waiting to happen for many years now, not very important in pure economic terms, but psychologically significant as the home of the whole sorry euro disaster).

Units and unities: can currency change really resolve the Greek tragedy?

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As the Greek tragedy goes into what looks like its final act, there is increasing talk of the country leaving the euro zone and refloating the drachma. Perhaps the Athens street mobs favour this “solution”, but what would it involve, and would it work?

It is a bizarre situation, without precedent as far as I am aware (though I am no economic historian). Usually, new currencies are introduced to replace old ones which have become discredited (typically after hyperinflation), whereas here we are talking about the absolute opposite: abandoning the euro because it is too strong, in favour of a new drachma, which will be a weak currency by design – rather like launching a ship, in the hope it will sink!

Mansion House Hangover

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Last night’s two big Mansion House speeches were impressive when they dealt with the macroeconomy, but depressing (if unsurprising) on the subject of reforming the banks, representing final confirmation of the gloomy conclusion of a blog I posted here in September 2009: It’s All Over – the Banks Have Won.

Of course the banks will squeal – why wouldn’t they? After all, they daren’t be seen cracking open the bubbly.

Nuclear plants aren’t the only meltdown worry in Germany

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Having just got back from a couple of days in Hannover, I couldn’t help but be struck by the dominance of the local news agenda by two topics – and the almost complete absence of a third. Taking the British media at face value, I might have expected a city in near-panic, with people nervously scanning menus for safe dishes to order and maybe antiseptic handwashing facilities being hurriedly installed in public places. In fact, the town looked exactly as I remembered it from my last visit a few years ago, with E.coli rarely mentioned either in conversation or on the 24-hour TV news channels.

In fact, apart from endless replays of the goals from Tuesday night’s football (Germany versus Azerbaijan, a real clash of the Titans that must have been!), the news was all about the remote risk of a meltdown in the country’s nuclear power plants, and the anything-but-remote risk of meltdown in what is left of the Greek economy.

Superstar economics: It’s all showbiz now

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By Laurence Copeland. The opinions expressed are his own.

It seems barely a week goes by without another shock report about the ever-widening gap between those at the top of the earnings distribution and the rest of us. The facts are by now well-established. Throughout the Western world, but most noticeably in Britain and America, the earnings of the top one or two percent are accelerating into the stratosphere, leaving the middle class a long way behind, and the working class completely out of sight. How can one explain this global phenomenon?

Academic economics seems to be taking a surprisingly long time to reach a definitive answer, but I suspect there will turn out to be two long term trends at work here.

Aid: In favour of zero-tolerance

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By Laurance Copeland

After one year, the progress report on the Coalition reads “Moving in the right direction, but with a lot more to do”.

Nonetheless, it is a prisoner of its commitment at the outset to leave two departmental budgets untouched: the NHS and international aid. It is not simply the amounts of money involved (colossal in the case of the NHS, relatively small for aid). It is also the signal it sends that there is such a status as sacrosanct, which immediately begs the question from policemen, firemen, teachers, the legal system, the armed forces: why isn’t our budget sacrosanct too?

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