Posts tagged ‘Greece’

Dear Paul Krugman: Please Explain Labor Demand Elasticity in Puerto Rico

Paul Krugman and a surprisingly large portion of Leftish economists have staked out a position that labor does not act like any other commodity, such that higher minimum wages have no effect on demand.  I have had people on the Left tell me that this absurd, common-sense-offending position is actually "settled".  So explain Puerto Rico:

Another problem is that just 40 percent of the population [of Puerto Rico] has a job—or is even looking for one. That figure has plummeted in recent years. In the United States as a whole, it is 62.9 percent....

The report cites one surprising problem: the federal minimum wage, which is at the same level in Puerto Rico as in the rest of the country, even though the economy there is so much weaker. There are probably some people who would like to work, but because of the sickly economy, businesses can't afford to pay them the minimum wage.

Someone working full time for the minimum wage earns $15,080 a year, which isn't that much less than the median income in Puerto Rico of $19,624.

The report also cites regulations and restrictions that make it difficult to set up new businesses and hire workers, although it's difficult to know just how large an effect these rules might or might not have on the labor market.

By the way, the fact that the author thinks this is "surprising" just goes to show how far this anti-factual meme of a non-sloping labor demand curve has penetrated.

As pointed out in several places today, Puerto Rico has a surprising number of parallels to Greece.   It seems to have zero fiscal restraint, it has structural and regulatory issues in its economy that suppress growth, and has its currency pegged to that of a larger, much richer nation.  It is apparently facing a huge $70+ billion potential debt default.

Greece's Lesson for Gold Bugs

I have been predicting for years that the only solution for the Greece problem is for it to exit the Euro, go through a horrible economic crisis and deal with substantial devaluation, and then hopefully move on with a cheaper currency that makes its tourist industry look better and plugs the hole between taxing and spending with inflation.  It appears we are closer than ever to this actually happening.  The Greeks would likely be moving forward now, like Iceland, if they had taken their medicine years ago rather than try to kick the can.  Now it is just going to be worse.

I have been enamored off and on with the idea of a gold standard but Megan McArdle made some powerful points today about how the Greek situation teaches us that a gold standard doesn't necessarily impose discipline on governments.

It's easy to moralize Greece's feckless borrowing, weak tax collection and long history of default, and hey, go ahead; I won't stop you. But whatever the nation's moral failures, what we're witnessing now shows the dangers of trying to cure the problems of weak fiscal discipline with some sort of externally imposed currency regime. Greek creditors and Brussels were not the only people to joyously embrace the belief that the euro would finally force Greece to keep its financial house in order; you hear the same arguments right here at home from American gold bugs. During the ardent height of Ron Paul's popularity, I tried to explain why this doesn't work: "You don't get anything out of a gold standard that you didn't bring with you. If your government is a credible steward of the money supply, you don't need it; and if it isn't, it won't be able to stay on it long anyway."

This goes double for fiscal discipline. Moving to a fixed exchange rate protects bond-holders from one specific sort of risk: the possibility that inflation will erode the real value of your bonds. But that doesn't remove the risk. It just transforms it. Now that the government can't inflate away its debt, you instead face the risk that they are going to run out of money to pay their bills and suddenly default. That's exactly what happened to Argentina, and many other nations on various other currency regimes, from the gold standard to a currency peg. The ability to inflate the currency had gone away, but the currency regime didn't fix any of the underlying institutional problems that previous governments had solved with inflation. So bondholders protected themselves from inflation, and instead took a catastrophic haircut.

Postscript #1:  I had one issue with McArdle's piece when she writes

The only people this will be good for is people who long to vacation on the Greek Islands. If Grexit actually happens, book those plane tickets now, but hold off on the hotel. It will be cheaper in six months. Then try to enjoy it as you remember that those fabulous savings are someone else's whole life evaporating.

Hey, if Grexit occurs, you have no reason to feel guilty about taking advantage of the weak currency and low prices for a Greek vacation.  There is nothing the Greeks need more than for you to do exactly that.   It is the single best thing you could do for the Greek people.

Postscript#2:  Here is why exiting the Euro, devalutation, and inflation are the only way out for Greece at this point. Creditors allow countries to run long-term deficits and keep lending despite rising debt (see: Japan) because of a combination of a) the country can always just print the money they need; b) the country can raise taxes and take the money it needs or c) the country can keep spending flat and grow their way out from the debt.

None of these are available to Greece. They can't print money, at least without running up new debts (excess printing of Euros is automatically added to Greece's debt to the ECB).  They can't raise taxes because their citizens don't pay the taxes that already exist.  And they can't grow their way out because there is zero support for austerity or market-based reforms that would be necessary, and besides a huge portion of Greek deficit spending is for inherently unproductive activities.  At this point Greece's only option is charity, that the other countries of the EU will forgive debt or write them new debt, either to be nice or to avoid bad precedents with other PIGS countries.  But  the EU seems at the end of its charity rope, and besides given zero prospects of any sort of Greek recovery, even after a major write-off of debt the EU would be in the position of still having to send Greece new money for its new debts.

I Have Been Wondering This Same Thing

In an article on an incipient bank run in Greece, Zero Hedge wonders, "What is perhaps more shocking is that anyone still had money in Greek banks at all..."  I agree.  With talk for weeks of capital controls and the example of raids on depositor funds (even supposedly insured deposits) in Cyprus, my money would have been long gone.  Even in the US in 2008-2010, I took our corporate funds out of the main Bank of America account and spread them all over.  It was a pain in the butt to manage but even facing much smaller risks than in Greece, I thought it was worth it.

What I Think is Going on With Greece

I want to offer a perspective on the Greek financial mess.

I am not confused about the Greek desire to get out from under their debt load - past governments have built up intolerable levels of debt which is costs a huge portion of Greek GDP to pay off.

At one time in my life I would have been confused by folks, often on the Left, who argue that the answer to Greek debt problems is ... deficit spending.  This might have seen inexplicable to me earlier in life as a wondered how the same behavior of fiscal irresponsibility that led them into debt would get them out.  But I have learned that there is no limit to the optimism Keynesians hold for the effects of government spending.  The last trillion of debt may have not done anything measurable but the next trillion is always going to be the one that turns us around.  Sort of like Cubs fans.

No, what confuses me today is the fact that other institutions and countries are still willing to buy Greek debt and even entertain some sort of debt swap where they end up with even more Greek debt.  I have heard it said by many experts that it is unrealistic to expect that lenders will get even a fraction of their principle back from these loans.  So why loan more?

The key for me in understanding this is the book "Engineering the Financial Crisis".  In that book, the authors presented the theory that the Basel capital accords, which set capital requirements for banks, had a lot to do with the last financial crisis.  Specifically, the rules allowed bank investments in two types of securities to be counted at 100% towards their capital levels.  Any other type of investment was severely discounted, so there were enormous incentives in the regulations to focus bank investments on these two types of securities.  What were they?  Sovereign debt and mortgages (and mortgage-backed securities).

In the authors' view, which I find persuasive, a lot of the last financial crisis was caused by these rules creating a huge artificial demand by banks for mortgage securities.  This created a sort of monoculture that was susceptible to small contagions spreading rapidly.  As this demand for mortgage backed securities inevitably drove down their returns, it also created a demand for higher-yielding, riskier mortgage investments that might still "count" as mortgage securities under the capital requirements.

Anyway, for the Greek crisis, we need to look at the other piece of these capital requirements that give 100% capital credit:  sovereign debt.  Now, I may have this wrong, but for Euro denominated credit, it all counts as 100% whether its German or Greek, which is a bit like saying a mortgage to Bill Gates and a mortgage to Clark Griswold's country cousins count the same, but those are the rules.

So here is the problem as I understand it:  Greek debt, because of its risk, paid higher returns than other sovereign debt but still counted the same against capital requirements.   So European banks loaded up on it.  Now that the debt is clearly bad, I am sure they would love to get paid for it.  But what they want even more is to continue to get credit for it on their balance sheets against capital requirements.  So what the banks need more than getting paid is for the debt to still exist and to (nominally) be current so that they can still count it on their balance sheets.  Otherwise, if the debt gets written off, that means banks need to run out and raise hundreds of billions in new capital to replace it.

Yes, I know this seems insane.  If everyone knows that the debt is virtually worthless, isn't it a sham to keep taking expensive steps (like issuing even more new debt) just to make sure the debt still appears on the books at 100%?  Yes, of course it is.  This is a problem with just about every system ever tried on bank capital requirements.  Such requirements make sense (even to this libertarian) in a world of deposit insurance and too big to fail, but they can and do create expensive unintended consequences.

Surprise! Greek Problems Were Not Solved By Kicking the Can Down the Road

Greece is looking like it's falling apart again.  Or perhaps more accurately: Greece continues to fall apart and the lipstick Europe put on the pig a few years ago is wearing off and people are noticing again.

I warned about this less than a year ago:

Kevin Drum quotes Hugo Dixon on the Greek recovery:

Greece is undergoing an astonishing financial rebound. Two years ago, the country looked like it was set for a messy default and exit from the euro. Now it is on the verge of returning to the bond market with the issue of 2 billion euros of five-year paper.

There are still political risks, and the real economy is only now starting to turn. But the financial recovery is impressive. The 10-year bond yield, which hit 30 percent after the debt restructuring of two years ago, is now 6.2 percent....The changed mood in the markets is mainly down to external factors: the European Central Bank’s promise to “do whatever it takes” to save the euro two years ago; and the more recent end of investors’ love affair with emerging markets, meaning the liquidity sloshing around the global economy has been hunting for bargains in other places such as Greece.

That said, the centre-right government of Antonis Samaras has surprised observers at home and abroad by its ability to continue with the fiscal and structural reforms started by his predecessors. The most important successes have been reform of the labour market, which has restored Greece’s competiveness, and the achievement last year of a “primary” budgetary surplus before interest payments.

Color me suspicious.  Both the media and investors fall for this kind of thing all the time -- the dead cat bounce masquerading as a structural improvement.  I hope like hell Greece has gotten its act together, but I would not bet my own money on it.

In that same article, I expressed myself skeptical that the Greeks had done anything long-term meaningful in their labor markets.  They "reformed" their labor markets in the same way the Obama administration "reformed" the VA -- a lot of impressive statements about the need for change, a few press releases and a few promised but forgotten reforms.  At the time, the Left wanted desperately to believe that countries could continue to take on near-infinite amounts of debt with no consequences, and so desperately wanted to believe Greece was OK.

I have said it for four years:  There are only two choices here:  1.  The rest of Europe essentially pays off Greek debt for it or 2.  Greece leaves the Euro.  And since it is likely Greece will get itself into the same hole again some time in the future if #1 is pursued, there is really only leaving the Euro.  The latter will be a mess, with rampant inflation in Greece and destruction savings, but essentially the savings have already been destroyed by irresponsible government borrowing and bank bail-ins.  At least the falling value of Greek currency would make it an attractive place at for tourism if not investment and Greece could start rebuilding its economy on some sort of foundation.  Instead of bailing out banks and Greek officials, Germany should let it all fall apart and spend its money on helping Greece to pick up the pieces.

By letting Greece join the Euro, the Germans essentially let their irresponsible country cousins use their American Express Platinum card, and the Greeks went on a bender with the card.   The Germans can't keep paying the bill -- at some point you have to take the card away.

Everything Looks Like a Nail When You Have A Hammer

Kevin Drum quotes Hugo Dixon on the Greek recovery:

Greece is undergoing an astonishing financial rebound. Two years ago, the country looked like it was set for a messy default and exit from the euro. Now it is on the verge of returning to the bond market with the issue of 2 billion euros of five-year paper.

There are still political risks, and the real economy is only now starting to turn. But the financial recovery is impressive. The 10-year bond yield, which hit 30 percent after the debt restructuring of two years ago, is now 6.2 percent....The changed mood in the markets is mainly down to external factors: the European Central Bank’s promise to “do whatever it takes” to save the euro two years ago; and the more recent end of investors’ love affair with emerging markets, meaning the liquidity sloshing around the global economy has been hunting for bargains in other places such as Greece.

That said, the centre-right government of Antonis Samaras has surprised observers at home and abroad by its ability to continue with the fiscal and structural reforms started by his predecessors. The most important successes have been reform of the labour market, which has restored Greece’s competiveness, and the achievement last year of a “primary” budgetary surplus before interest payments.

Color me suspicious.  Both the media and investors fall for this kind of thing all the time -- the dead cat bounce masquerading as a structural improvement.  I hope like hell Greece has gotten its act together, but I would not bet my own money on it.

Anyway, that is a bit beside the point.  I found Drum's conclusion from all this odd:

If this keeps up—and that's still a big if—it also might be a lesson in the virtue of kicking the can down the road. Back in 2012, lots of commenters, including me, believed that the eurozone had deep structural problems that couldn't be solved by running fire drills every six months or so and then hoping against hope that things would get better. But maybe they will! This probably still wasn't the best way of forging a recovery of the eurozone, but so far, it seems to have worked at least a little better than the pessimists imagined. Maybe sometimes kicking the can is a good idea after all.

For those that are not frequent readers of his, I need to tell you that one of the themes he has been pounding on of late is that the US should not be worried about either its debt levels or inflation -- attempting to rebut the most obvious critiques of his strong support for more deficit spending and monetary stimulus.

I would have thought the obvious moral of this story was that austerity and dismantling all sorts of progressive labor market claptrap led to a recovery far faster than expected**.  But since Drum opposes all those steps, his  conclusion seems to be simply a return to his frequent theme that debt is A-OK and we shouldn't be worried about addressing it any time soon.

** I don't believe for a moment that Greece has really changed the worst of its structural labor market, regulatory,  and taxation issues.  This story gets written all the time about countries like, say, Argentina.  Sustained incompetence is not really newsworthy, which is likely one reason we get so few African stories.  They would all be like "Nigeria still a mess."  A false recovery story gives the media two story cycles, one for the false recovery and one for the inevitable sinking back into the pit.

Thank God For The Internet

Reading about the Golden Dawn fascist party in Greece, I thought, "wasn't that the made-up terrorist group mentioned in Die Hard?"  It turns out I was wrong, it was Asian Dawn, but others have made this same mistake, and someone on the Internet was nice enough to write a whole article clearing this up.  Alan Rickman's eurotrash terrorist Hans Gruber is still one of my favorite movie bad guys.

Re-Inflating the Bubble

We all know from progressive and Democratic writers the the Community Reinvestment Act and other efforts to offer cheap home loans to people without good credit had nothing to do with the mortgage industry offering too many loans to people without good credit.

So we should not be in the least bit worried that the Obama Administration is calling for more mortgages to be given to people with weaker credit, while sub-prime auto loans are simply booming.  Because we have learned from Iceland and Greece and Cyprus that the best way to deal with a debt crisis is by encouraging consumers to take on more debt, and the best way to respond to an asset bubble is to try to re inflate the bubble.

All of this, of course, is simply crazy talk.  The people who are involved HAVE to know this won't end well, because the most recent example of this leading to disaster is only 4 years old.  Hell, the people doing this were in office when this same approach fell apart last time.  But politicians refuse to face some pain now to avoid huge pain in the future - for politicians, the discount rate on pain is infinite.

Part of The Hole Germans Are Being Asked to Fill In

Greek Olympic venues.  I am sure that baseball field gets a lot of use.  And that state-of-the-art man-made kayaking course and associated stadium sure seem to be contributing a lot to GDP.

The whole world patted Greece on the back for completing this boondoggle when in fact we were just enabling an alcoholic, congratulating Greece for, in effect, driving home safely after drinking a fifth of tequila.

 

Why We May Be Bailing Out Chrysler Again

I work in a small, four-story suburban office building.  I have seen our fire drills and can look out at our parking lot, and I would be surprised if there are 200 people in the building.    A few months ago some division of Chrysler moved in and took a bunch of the space.   A lot still remains empty (which is why I am here -- cheap!)

The Chrysler folks put a sign downstairs a few days ago saying that they would be hosting a luncheon for the building.  Great, I thought, a free hot dog and some fruit salad.  Imagine my shock when I saw this when I arrived today:

Chrysler sent three full semi-trailers, one of cars and two of convention-type booths and displays, plus a whole crew of people to set this up, all for a lunch in our building with less than 200 people.  I thought maybe that we were just getting a preview of a larger public event, but I am looking out my window now and they are tearing down again.  Crazy.

One thing that even many libertarians get wrong:  Wasting money is not unique to government entities.  Private and public entities can become senescent, and grow bureaucracies that lose focus on what they are supposed to be doing.  The difference between the private and the pubic sphere, though, is that for private companies, markets eventually enforce discipline (either forcing change or killing off the bloated entity).   There is no similar mechanism for state agencies short of perhaps absolute bankruptcy, and Greece is proving even that is not enough to force change.

Of course, when the government gives large private entities with political pull special protections and bailouts, then no such accountability is enforced.  The same people are operating the company with the same false assumptions and unlearned lessons.

A Good Reason To Get Obama Out of Office

OK, there are lots of reasons to get Obama out of office.  The problem is, that for most of them, I have no reasonable hope that Romney will be any better.  Corporatism?  CEO as Venture-Capitalist-in-Chief?  Indefinite detentions?  Lack of Transparency?  The Drug War?   Obamacare, which was modeled on Romneycare?  What are the odds that any of these improve under Romney, and at least under Obama they are not being done by someone who wraps himself in the mantle of small government and free markets, helping to corrupt the public understanding of those terms.

But here is one issue Obama is almost certainly going to be worse:  Bail outs of states.  States will start seeking Federal bailouts, probably initially in the form of Federal guarantees of their pension obligations, in the next 4 years.  I had thought that Obama would be particularly susceptible if California is the first to come begging.  But imagine how fast he will whip out our money if it is Illinois at the trough first?

Now that Chicago's children have returned to not learning in school, we can all move on to the next crisis in Illinois public finance: unfunded public pensions. Readers who live in the other 49 states will be pleased to learn that Governor Pat Quinn's 2012 budget proposal already floated the idea of a federal guarantee of its pension debt. Think Germany and eurobonds for Greece, Italy and Spain.

Thank you for sharing, Governor.

Sooner or later, we knew it would come to this since the Democrats who are running Illinois into the ground can't bring themselves to oppose union demands. Illinois now has some $8 billion in current debts outstanding and taxpayers are on the hook for more than $200 billion in unfunded retirement costs for government workers. By some estimates, the system could be the first in the nation to go broke, as early as 2018....

For years, states have engaged in elaborate accounting tricks to improve appearances, including using an unrealistically high 8% "discount" rate to account for future liabilities. To make that fairy tale come true, state pension funds would have to average returns of 8% a year, which even the toothless Government Accounting Standards Board and Moody's have said are unrealistic....

Look no further than the recent Chicago teachers strike. The city is already facing upwards of a $1 billion deficit next year with hundreds of millions of dollars in annual pension costs for retired teachers coming due. But despite the fiscal imperatives, the negotiation didn't even discuss pensions. The final deal gave unions a more than 17% raise over four years, while they keep benefits and pensions that workers in the wealth-creating private economy can only imagine.

As a political matter, public unions are pursuing a version of the GM strategy: Never make a concession at the state level, figuring that if things get really bad the federal government will have no political choice but to bail out the pensions if not the entire state. Mr. Quinn made that official by pointing out in his budget proposal that "significant long-term improvements" in the state pension debt will come from "seeking a federal guarantee of the debt."

I had not paid much attention to the Chicago teacher's strike, except to note that the City basically caved to the unions.  The average teacher salary in Chicago, even without benefits, will soon rise to nearly $100,000 a year for just 9 months work.  But I am amazed at the statement that no one even bothered to challenge the union on pensions despite the fact that the system is essentially bankrupt.  Illinois really seems to be banking on their favorite son bailing them out with our money.

Things You Didn't Know About the European Debt Crisis

Apparently the most important issue is not the unsustainability of deficit spending, lack of fiscal responsibility, or the tough problems of balancing expensive bailouts with expensive defaults.  It is making sure the timing of a Greek default does not negatively affect Obama's re-election.  From the Independent (UK) entitled, "Obama asks eurozone to keep Greece in until after election day"

American officials are understood to be worried that if they decide Greece has not done enough to meet its deficit targets and withhold the money, it would automatically trigger Greece's exit from the eurozone weeks before the Presidential election on 6 November.

They are urging eurozone Governments to hold off from taking any drastic action before then – fearing that the resulting market destabilisation could damage President Obama's re-election prospects. European leaders are thought to be sympathetic to the lobbying fearing that, under pressure from his party lin Congress, Mitt Romney would be a more isolationist president than Mr Obama.

 

Thinking About Greece

Mike Rizzo writes:

A typical sovereign government can secure funds from three “legitimate” places.*What are these sources?

  1. Taxes today.
  2. Taxes tomorrow. In other words we can borrow money today in order to build our bridge and then use future tax revenues to pay for the debt tomorrow. By the way, if the government is in the business of actually producing valuable “public goods” then you can easily think of this as value enhancing.
  3. Printing money. It’s not generally done this way, but in effect the monetary authorities can monetize the borrowing of a sovereign entity (how they do it is beyond the scope of this post). For simplicity, imagine instead that a central bank prints new bank notes from scratch, hands them to the Treasury, and then the Treasury spends them on goods and services. This is just another form of a tax, again beyond the scope of this post.

So, this is what the government budget identity looks like for “normal” countries:

G = T + the change in debt + the change in base money

I think this is a useful simplification, but I wanted to add a couple other refinements  (refinements by the way he did not neglect in his text, just did not put in the formula).  One other source of funds we have seen in Greece is what I would call Aid, which used to be humanitarian aid (think India in the 1970s) but today tends to be bailout money and debt forgiveness.  So we will write the equation

G = Taxes + ΔDebt  + Money Printing + Aid

But due to the Keynesian orientation of many commenters on the Greek and European situation, it becomes useful to expand the "taxes" term into some sort of base income, which I will just call GDP for simplicity, and some sort of tax rate t.  So then we get:

G = GDP x t + ΔDebt  + Money Printing + Aid

The Greeks can't print money (unless the EU does it for them) and at the moment no one in their right mind will lend to them without guarantees from stronger European countries (e.g. Germany).  If we call EU money printing for Greece or EU loan guarantee programs Aid, we get

G = GDP x t + Aid

As Rizzo noted, aid is drying up and Greek tax revenues are going down rather than up, so basically they are screwed.  The only out seems to be for Greece to exit the Euro and then, once on the drachma again, print money like crazy and inflate their way out of the debt.

But expanding the tax term reveals one more policy alternative that is being suggested.   Keynesians seem to believe there is a path out of this situation in Greece (or if Greece is too far gone, certainly in Italy and Spain) where money from some source  (aid, borrowing, whatever) is spent in the economy by the government in some way that is stimulative, thus increasing GDP and therefore taxes and allowing Greece to increase the money available to the government.  Since Aid is currently only be granted tied to "austerity" programs rather than stimulative spending, they feel Germany et al are following exactly the wrong course.

I am incredibly skeptical of this for two reasons, beyond just my general skepticism of Keynesian stimulus.  First, I have heard something akin to this in my personal experience.  For a short time in my life, during the Internet crazy period, I was brought in by some investors to look at their portfolio of languishing Internet plays (e.g. discountshoelaces.com)* and decide if they should keep pouring money in or shut down.  The plan I got from management was always - always - this stimulus approach.  They suggested that rather than cut back, the investors should give them a bunch of new money to really blow out the marketing effort, which would kick start their growth, etc. etc.

The problem was that they never, ever had a lick of evidence beyond just hope that the next $1 million would suddenly do what the last $10 million failed to do.  So we shut most of these efforts down.  Your first loss is your best loss, as they say.

Similarly, I don't think Keynesians can point to any example in history where this actually worked.   A country is drowning in debt, but suddenly a Hail Mary play of adding a huge chunk more to the debt and spending it on civil service worker salaries suddenly turned the tide.  Seriously, do people honestly think this will work?  Or are they just frustrated because they grew up with an assumption that there is always a public policy answer for everything and there just does not seem to be one here.

I have an emerging hypothesis, not backed by any evidence at this point, that the value of the Keynesian multiplier shifts as debt to total GDP increases.  I am not sure in actual practice it is ever above one, but if it were to be above 1 at 20% debt to GDP, it certainly is not going to be the same at, say, 150%.

New Greek Bailout Announced

It is an open question how long this bailout will plug the dam.  I continue to maintain the position that Greece is going to have to be let out of the Euro. Pulling this Band-Aid off a millimeter at a time is delaying any possible recovery of the Greek economy, and really the European economy, indefinitely.  All to protect the solvency of a number of private banks (or perhaps more accurately, to protect the solvency of the counter-parties who wrote the CDO's on all that debt).

Anyway, the interesting part for me is that with this bailout, the total cumulative charity sent the Greek's way by other European countries now exceeds Greek GDP, by a lot.

Will Reality Never Set In?

I had thought the situation in Greece would eventually hammer home for everyone the perils of reckless enlargement of the state and deficit spending.  But apparently, it is not to be.  This is how Kevin Drum describes the core problem in Greece:

the austerity madness prompted by the 2008 financial collapse

So the problem is not a bankrupt state, but the "austerity" which by the way has at best carved only a trivial amount out of spending.  And it was triggered not by a ballooning deficit as a percent of GDP and an inability to meet interest and principle payments, but by the US financial crisis.

This is willful blindness of absolutely astounding proportions.  Which means the same folks are likely just rehearsing to ride the US right into the same hole.

Great Moments in Bad Ideas

Via the Weekly Standard (with video):

Gene Sperling, director of the White House's national economic council, said today at an official meeting that "we need a global minimum tax":

Pegging our tax rates to France is almost as good an idea as pegging our exchange rates to Greece.

Also, this statement is a hilarious mass of contradictions

“He supports corporate tax reform that would reduce expenditures and loopholes, lower rates for people investing and creating jobs in the U.S., due so further for manufacturing, and that we need to, as we have the Buffett Rule and the individual tax reform, we need a global minimum tax so that people have the assurance that nobody is escaping doing their fair share as part of a race to the bottom or having our tax code actually subsidized and facilitate people moving their funds to tax havens," Sperling said.

He wants to lower rates for people investing, but he wants to institute the Buffett Rule, which effectively raises taxes on people whose income is substantially dividends and capital gains, ie people who invest.  He wants special rates for creating jobs and extra special rates in manufacturing, but he wants to get rid of loopholes, most of which were created at least with the nominal intent of spurring investment in certain sectors, particularly manufacturing.

The Bankrupt as Victims

One of the amazing aspects of our new post-modern outlook on personal responsibility and obligations is that folks who are profligate and take on too much debt are increasingly considered victims to which other people owe something (generally a bailout).

We see this no only among US mortgage holders but in Greece as well

Greek Prime Minister Lucas Papademos told lawmakers to back a deeply unpopular EU/IMF rescue in a vote on Sunday or condemn the country to a "vortex" of recession.

He spoke in a televised address to the nation, ahead of Sunday's vote on 3.3 billion euros ($4.35 billions) in wage, pension and job cuts as the price of a 130-billion-euro bailout from the European Union and International Monetary Fund.

The effort to ease Greece's huge debt burden has brought thousands into the streets in protest, and there were signs on Saturday of a small rebellion among lawmakers uneasy with the extent of the cuts.

So outsiders generously agree to pay for 130 billion Euros of past Greek spending if only the Greeks will cut their current spending by 3.3 billion Euros (at which spending level the country would still be running large deficits).  And people riot as if they have been gang-raped.  Incredible.

Let the Greeks go.  Of course, this is not actually about bailing out Greece, but about bailing out, indirectly, European banks that invested in Greek bonds.  The banks seem to run public policy in Europe, even more so than in the US.

For Some, There Can Never Be Enough Government Spending

In his New York Times column, Paul Krugman blames the coming British recession on the government's "austerity."  In the Left's parlance, "austerity" means the government is not spending and in particular deficit spending enough.

But it turns out that

a. Of 44 major economies in the world, the British have been running the highest budget deficits of any country except two - Greece and Egypt are higher.

b. British real government spending has risen every year through the financial crisis

Presuming Krugman has access to these basic facts, is his argument that Britain should be deficit spending even more (and if so, wtf is enough?) or is this just political hackery to help Obama dispel concerns about his deficits?

Flash: European Finances Still Screwed Up

As I predicted, the various highly touted European debt and currency interventions last month did squat.  This is no surprise.  The basic plan currently is to have the ECB give essentially 0% loans to banks with the implied provision that they use the money to buy sovereign debt.  Eventually there are provisions for austerity, but I wrote that I don't think it's possible these will be effective.   It's a bit unclear where this magic money of the ECB is coming from - either they are printing money (which they refuse to own up to because the Germans fear money printing even more than Soviet tanks in the Fulda Gap) or there is some kind of leverage circle-jerk game going where the ECB is effectively leveraging deposits and a few scraps of funding to the moon.

At this point, short of some fiscal austerity which simply is not going to happen, I can't see how the answer is anything but printing and devaluation.  Either the ECB prints, spreading the cost of inflation to all counties on the Euro, or Greece/Spain/Italy exit the Euro and then print for themselves.

The exercise last month, as well as the months before that, are essentially mass hypnosis spectacles, engineered to try to get the markets to forget the underlying fundamentals.  And the amazing part is it sort of works, from two days to two weeks.  It reminds me of nothing so much as the final chapters of Atlas Shrugged where officials do crazy stuff to put off the reckoning even one more day.

Disclosure:  I have never, ever been successful at market timing investments or playing individual stocks, so I generally don't.  But the last few months I have had fun shorting European banks and financial assets on the happy-hypnosis news days and covering once everyone wakes up.  About the only time in my life I have made actual trading profits.

Thought problem:  I wish I understood the incentives facing European banks.  It seems like right now to be almost a reverse cartel, where the cartel holds tightly because there is a large punishment for cheating.  Specifically, any large bank that jumps off the merry-go-round described above likely starts the whole thing collapsing and does in its own balance sheet (along with everyone else's).  The problem is that every day they hang on, the stakes get higher and their balance sheets get stuffed with more of this crap.  Ironically, everyone would have been better getting off a year ago and taking the reckoning then, and certainly everyone would be better taking the hit now rather than later, but no one is willing to jump off.  One added element that makes the game interesting is that the first bank to jump off likely earns the ire of the central bankers, perhaps making that bank the one bank that is not bailed out when everything crashes.  It's a little like the bidding game where the highest bidder wins but the two highest bidders have to pay.  Anyone want to equate this with a defined economics game please do so in the comments.

Greek Government Essentially in State of Default

Nice tax refund you have coming .... we think we'll keep it

The [Greek] government has decided to stop tax returns and other obligation payments to enterprises, salary workers and pensioners as it sees the budget deficit soaring to over 10 percent of gross domestic product for 2011.

For all the supposed austerity, the budget situation is worse in Greece.  Germany and other countries will soon have to accept they have poured tens of billions of euros down a rathole, and that they will have to do what they should have done over a year ago - let Greece move out of the Euro.

Government workers and pensioners simply will not accept any cuts without rioting in the street.  And the banks will all go under with a default on government debt.  And no one will pay any more taxes.  And Germany is not going to keep funding a 10% of GDP deficit.  The only way out seems to be to print money (to pay the debt) and devalue the currency (to effectively reduce fixed pensions and salaries).  And the only way to do all that is outside of the Euro.  From an economic standpoint, the inflation approach is probably not the best, but it is the politically easiest to implement.

Also From the "This Time We Really, Really Mean It" Files

Apparently European leaders are close to an agreement that countries cannot run budget deficits higher than 3% of GDP.  If you are left to wonder, "hey, didn't they already have that rule before" the answer is yes.  Everyone had to promise a really, really stern oath not to run higher deficits before joining in the Euro group.

Of course, these promises meant nothing as there was no penalty for breaking the promise, and so the EU is proposing a new enforcement mechanism

Governments whose debts exceeded three percent of their GDP would be cited by the European Court of Justice, after which a super-majority of 85 percent of European governments would have to agree to impose some sort of sanction against the offending country.

I am not clear if the 85% is of the whole EU  (which would require a vote of 23 of the 27 members) or of just the Euro zone (which would require 15 of the 17 countries that use the Euro as currency).  Either way, I disagree with Drum and can't see how there is any hope at all here.  I am left with a number of questions

  • What is the likelihood that European countries will adopt this Constitutional provision and precedent for reduced sovereignty?  Don't treaty changes have to be unanimous?
  • Even if ratified, does anyone imagine the penalties will be high?  Imagine Greece today if such penalties exist.  How much are they going to worry about fines when they are already bankrupt?  And what will be the optics of the EU adding new costs to countries that are in financial crisis?  If a country in the future is doing things to endanger the euro from too much debt, the last thing the EU is going to be able to do is add to that country's burdens -- in fact, it is doing the opposite now, sending huge checks to all these countries
  • How are they every going to get the votes when this comes up?  Again, think about today.  Would Italy, Belgium, Spain, Ireland, etc. vote to sanction Greece, when they know they are next?

I just can't see this going anywhere.  And I would be surprised if the folks involved do either.  My guess is that they hope this will settle the bond markets so they can kick the can down the road.  Sure, we will have to deal with this all over again the first, inevitable time a country breaches the 3%, but that is later and right now they will accept a few years, even a few months, of survival.

How the Left Analyzes Greece

I find the Left's opinions on Greece to be fascinating.  After all, Greece is essentially the logical end result of all of their love for deficit spending, so what kind of cognitive dissonance is necessary to write about Greece on the Left?  This kind:

OK, but they're spending too much money. Surely they know they have to cut back?

Sure, but the deals on offer are pretty unattractive. Europe wants to forgive half of Greece's debt and put them on a brutal austerity plan. The problem is that this is unrealistic. Greece would be broke even if all its debt were forgiven, and if their economy tanks they'll be even broker.

But that's the prospect they're being offered: a little bit of debt forgiveness and a lot of austerity.

Well, them's the breaks.

But it puts Greece into a death spiral. They can't pay their debts, so they cut back, which hurts their economy, which makes them even broker, so they cut back some more, rinse and repeat. There's virtually no hope that they'll recover anytime in the near future. It's just endless pain. What they need is total debt forgiveness and lots of aid going forward.

I certainly agree that Greece is now in a death spiral, but this analysis is just amazing.  The only way for other countries to avoid sharing Greece's fate is to, very simply, spend within their means.  If they do, problem avoided.  If they don't, and get hooked on deficit spending, then Greece is their future, the only question is when.

So what does Drum do?  He calls the spending withing their means strategy "unrealistic" and "brutal austerity."    So he occupies a long post lamenting what a totally SNAFU'd situation Greece is in, but takes off the table the only possible approach for other counties to avoid the same fate.   And in fact advocates a strategy that will push a few others over the cliff sooner, or even cause a few to jump on their own (after all, if the punishment for spending your way into financial disaster is to get, as Drum recommends, all your debt forgiven and years of aid payments, why the hell would anyone want to be fiscally responsible?)

And it is amazing to me that he calls forgiving half their debt, the equivalent in the US of our creditors erasing about $7 trillion, as "a little bit of debt forgiveness" while cutting government spending a few percent of GDP is "a lot of austerity."

His solution, of course, is not for Greece to face up to its problems but to transfer the costs of its irresponsibility to others and then remain nearly perpetually on the dole.

His mistake is to assume Greece faces endless pain.  It does not.  History has shown that countries that are willing to rip off the bandage quickly rather than over a few decades can recover remarkably quickly if sensible policies are put in place.  Heck, the Weimar Republic, which had inflation so bad people got paid 3 times a day so their family could buy something before the money became worthless a few hours later, got its house in order in a matter of months.

Thoughts on the Greek Bailout / Debt Writedown

I am not at all a financial or Wall Street guy, but I had a few thoughts

  • I am amazed at the equity rally over this.   Writing down one country's debt, without fixing its underlying financial problem or dealing with all the other countries who have problems, seems a small win.  Particularly when this one country stretched European resources to the breaking point, and there are a lot of other lined up just behind Greece.
  • Its interesting to see how much everyone bent over backwards not to trigger payouts from credit default swaps (CDS).  If this is the wave of the future, I would be shorting sovereign debt at the same time I was writing CDS contracts on sovereign debt.    Maybe this is exactly why I am not a trader, but it strikes me that if you had an arsonist around burning down houses, while at the same time the government worked hard to let fire insurance companies avoid paying off on the fire damage, wouldn't you be shorting houses and long on fire insurance companies?
  • How smart does the UK feel right now for staying out of the common currency?  The anti-EU folks in the UK should be calling for that referendum on EU participation right now.   It would likely fail by a landslide.
  • The question that keeps nagging at me -- is it really worth as much as a trillion euros to keep Greece in the Euro?  Why?
Update:  Oh, and I left out the obvious take:  moral hazard
When sharing our kneejerk reaction to yesterday's latest European resolution, we pointed out the obvious: "Portugal, Ireland, Spain and Italy will promptly commence sabotaging their economies (just like Greece) simply to get the same debt Blue Light special as Greece." Sure enough, 6 hours later Bloomberg is out with the appropriately titled: "Irish Spy Reward Opportunity in Greece’s Debt Hole." Bloomberg notes that Ireland has not even waited for the ink to be dry before sending out feelers on just what the possible "rewards" may be: "Greece’s failure to cut spending and boost revenue by enough to meet targets set by the European Union and International Monetary Fund prompted bondholders to accept a 50 percent loss on its debt. While Ireland won’t seek debt discounts, the government might pursue other relief given to Greece, including cheaper interest payments on aid and longer to repay it, according to a person familiar with the matter who declined to be identified as no final decision has been taken."

Definition of Insanity

I am amazed that the US equity market can fall for the same load of BS over and over again

Stocks finished with strong gains amid optimism about plans to recapitalize euro-zone banks.

Two thoughts

  1. There is simply no source of money (and will) anywhere large enough to fill in the European debt hole.  Heck, there isn't enough money and will to fix Greece, and that is a small percentage of the problem
  2. Even if the current hole could nominally be recapitalized, it would be virtually meaningless because the no one in Europe is fessing up to anywhere near the total extent of the problem.

Countries are going to start to default in Europe, and I don't see any way around it.  The Euro isn't toast but its going to have a lot fewer members in 3 years.  And speaking of bad news, I don't see any way to avoid a massive Chinese bubble burst in the next 3 years either.

Greece: Where Default is, err, the Default State

One might think a line like about Greek finances was printed just this week

What followed could only be described as a comic progression of populist pandering [and] the spread to the national economy of a series of parasitic labor unions and cabals

But in fact it is describing Greek conditions circa 1944.

A while back I observed that the difference between Greek and US finances is that the US needs to return to a spending level circa 2007, while Greece has no similar default state of relative fiscal sanity it can return to.  This article in Finem Respice reinforces this premise by discussing the absolute insanity of Greek fiscal management before and after and even during WWII, which was characterized by all the exact same problems that have driven the current crisis.  Good background reading.

Greece, then as now, was dominated by an expensive public sector funded insufficiently by a tax system that did not work.  As may happen soon, Greece was not able to borrow, so all they could do was print money and inflation soared.  Only one man was able to stop the inflation, and I won't spoil the ending by the humorous way he did so.