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Spain/Europe Approaching Tipping Point

Posted by Steve Markowitz on June 10, 2012

What started with bubbles, particularly in the real estate markets, morphed into a larger international  banking crisis in 2008.  Interventionist governments including the United States acted quickly in bailing out the banks and other financially dysfunctional corporations and individuals.  These radical steps in essence bailed out reckless borrowers at the expense of more prudent ones were enacted in the name of saving the world from economic Armageddon.  Nearly 4 years later the worldwide economy is once again heading towards the brink.  Clearly these policies have failed.  But that will not stop the governments from throwing more good money after bad.

The inevitable and huge costs of the bailouts were hiding from the People by using printed money to purchase the bad debt.  This did not eliminate the debt, but instead increased and moved to it to various countries’ balance sheets.  These countries then went about selling bonds to cover this massive debt and forcing their commercial banks, especially in Europe, to purchase these toxic assets.  This has played a large role in creating the banking crisis raging in Europe. with Spain currently being at its epicenter.

Yesterday Spain announced it would accept a $125 million European bailout, the fourth and largest European country to require a bailout in the ongoing sovereign debt crisis.  It is unlikely that this bailout will be any more successful than previous European attempts to stop the economic bleeding.  Already the politicians are bracing for more problems.  After announcing the bailout, Spain’s Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy told The Associated Press: “This year is going to be a bad one.”  Given that 25% of the Spanish workforce is already unemployed, this is an ominous statement.

Jens Boysen-Hogrefe, Kiel Institute for the World Economy economist said of the bailout: “It’s a calming signal at a time when calming signals are badly needed.  The uncertainty is still high and bad news can pop up anywhere in the euro area.  This is not a final solution.”  Translation; the can has once again merely been kicked down the road a bit.

This weekend, Nouriel Roubini and Niall Ferguson published an op-ed in the Financial Times that put Europe’s economic crisis into proper perspective.  Roubini, an American economist and professor at New York University’s Stern School of Business, predicted the collapse of the housing market and subsequent massive recession before these events occurred.  Ferguson is a British historian who specializes in financial and economic history with specific expertise in hyperinflation and the bond markets.  These well respected experts stated in their op-ed titled One Minute to Midnight?:

“We fear that the German government’s policy of doing ‘too little too late’ risks a repeat of precisely the crisis of the mid-20th century that European integration was designed to avoid.”

“…….  Fixated on the nonthreat of inflation, today’s Germans appear to attach more importance to 1923 (the year of hyperinflation) than to 1933 (the year democracy died). They would do well to remember how a European banking crisis two years before 1933 contributed directly to the breakdown of democracy not just in their own country but right across the European continent.”

“But now the public is finally losing faith and the silent run may spread to smaller insured deposits.  Indeed, if Greece were to leave the eurozone, a deposit freeze would occur and euro deposits would be converted into new drachmas: so a euro in a Greek bank really is not equivalent to a euro in a German bank.  Greeks have withdrawn more than €700m from their banks in the past month.”

“More worryingly, there was also a surge in withdrawals from some Spanish banks last month.   ….   This kind of process is potentially explosive.”

“Germans must understand that bank recapitalisation, European deposit insurance and debt mutualisation are not optional; they are essential to avoid an irreversible disintegration of Europe’s monetary union.  If they are still not convinced, they must understand that the costs of a eurozone breakup would be astronomically high – for themselves as much as anyone.”

“Ultimately, as Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, herself acknowledged last week, monetary union always implied further integration into a fiscal and political union.  But before Europe gets anywhere near taking this historical step, it must first of all show it has learnt the lessons of the past.  The EU was created to avoid repeating the disasters of the 1930s. I t is time Europe’s leaders – and especially Germany’s – understood how perilously close they are to doing just that.”

Roubini and Ferguson are indicating that the European crisis is a game changer that will require commensurate game changing strategies.  The nickel and dime approach of kicking the can down the road cannot work.  Just as significant, time is running out for such halfhearted approaches.

Many financial experts agree with Roubini’s and Ferguson’s thesis that Europe will require decisive action, and sooner rather than later.  This includes financier George Soros and Nobel Laureate Joseph Stiglitz, among others.

The problem of excessive debt, not only in Europe, but in the United States as well, is the most pressing problem facing the world today.  Governments use of printing presses for problem resolution over the years has made many citizens oblivious to this reality, including some very smart people.  Just last week France’s new President Hollande incredibly lowered the retirement age in his country from 62 to 60 years old.  This will exasperate France’s debt problems.

In the United States debt has been growing at an alarming pace for the past 30 years with it significantly quickening under the tutelage of Barack Obama.  Instead of concern for this serious problem, many Americans focus self-serving economic and social issues.  Unless the Country is on stable financial footing, all Americans will be weaker and have less rights.

Economists John Mauldin said of the financial crisis in Europe that: “Europe has no good choices, only a choice among very distressing and expensive options.”  This same conclusion can be made of all countries with excess debt.  Sovereign debt is an immoral methodology whereby future generations are demanded to pay for the good life of the current generation.  Pulling the plug on this false economic high, like any addiction, is painful.

When a country deleverages, i.e. pays down its debt which ultimately must do, is an unpleasant experience.  Initially, special interest groups attempt to use political leverage to shield themselves from the pain.  This only can continue until a full-blown crisis hits.  That is the status of current Europe and other countries including the United States are not far behind.  Either a country takes corrective action, a difficult task for any democracy, or the cruel and unbending hand of supply and demand will enforce its own corrective actions.

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