It is hard to believe we are now approaching the fourth anniversary of Lehman’s failure. This bankruptcy started a series of events that led to a worldwide financial meltdown. Governments worldwide reacted with vigor, bailing out banks and other large firms, setting interest rates at historic lows, and significantly increasing the money supply. While these actions may have avoided a more precipitous drop in economic activity initially, it is likely that the actions prolong the downturn and has led to potentially more serious economic problems going forward.
The governmental interventions since Lehman’s failure have not addressed the key issue that started the recession, excess debt. Instead, the interventions took what was bad debt in the private sector and moved it to the governments’ balance sheets at significantly higher levels. It doesn’t take a PhD in economics to understand that a problem caused by excess debt cannot be resolved by creating still more debt.
For over a year the world has focused on the economic challenges of Europe. Initially this focus was on Greece and the possibility that it would default on its debt. In recent weeks it has become apparent that Greece will default on its debt obligations and in fact may leave the European Union. While these events are significant, it is the possibility of contagion at the larger European economies including Spain and Italy that is starting to become a concern.
Jim Cramer of CNBC’s Mad Money last week predicted a run-on Spanish and Italian banks within weeks, as posted in the video below. Should this occur, the potential for at least financial anarchy in Europe is significant. What four years ago began as a problem for the private banks including Lehman, has morphed into the more serious problem of sovereign debt in various European countries.
While governmental interventions of the past four years played a role in creating Europe’s current sovereign debt problems, the incompetent manner in which the European Union was put together by bureaucrats in political leaders played an even more significant part. While the political arrangements between the European countries has been reasonably successful, the financial union was doomed to failure from the beginning due to its flawed structure.
For those interested in understanding details behind the flawed European financial union, posted below is a piece by David Zervos of Jefferies and Company. The extent of the incompetence behind the flawed policies that led to the creation of the European Union is staggering and raises some interesting questions. Who is responsible for this mess and will they be taken to task by the Leftist media in the same way that the bankers were attacked? Given the extent of governments’ failings that led to the creation of the current economic maladies and the governments’ inability to fix the problem in four years, is it logical to expect these same folks to be any more successful going forward?
The Separation of Bank and State
By David Zervos
“The euro monetary system is flawed. It is a system that was cobbled together for political purposes; and sadly it was set up in such a way that each member state retained significant sovereign powers – most importantly the ability to exit the system and default on debts in times of stress. There is virtually NO federal power in the Union, as witnessed by the complete breakdown of the Maastrict and Lisbon treaties. In fact, what we are seeing today is that the structure of the monetary system is so poorly designed, it actually creates perverse fiscal linkages across member states that incentivize strategic default and exit. Our new leader of the Greek revolt, Mr CHEpras, has figured this one out. And in turn he is holding Angie hostage as we head into June 17th!
[JFM note: CHEpras is David’s tongue-in-cheek name for the 37-year-old leader of the Syriza Party, Alexis Tsipras, whose rhetoric does indeed resemble Che Guevara’s from time to time.]
“To better understand these flaws in the Eurosystem, let’s assume the European monetary system was in place in the US. And then imagine that a US ‘member state’ were to head towards a bankruptcy or a restructuring of its debts – for example, California.
“So let’s suppose California promised its citizens huge pensions, free health care, all-you can-eat baklava at beachside state parks, subsidized education, retirement at age 45, all-you-can-drink ouzo in town squares, and paid 2-week vacations during retirement. And let’s assume the authorities never come after anyone who doesn’t pay property, sales, or income taxes.
“Now it’s probably safe to further assume that the suckers who bought California state and municipal debt in the past (because it had a zero risk weight) would quickly figure out that the state’s finances were unsustainable. In turn, these investors would dump the debt and crash the system.
“So what would happen next in our US member-state financial crisis? Well, the governor of California would head to the US Congress to ask for money – a bailout. Although there is a ‘no-bailout’ clause in the US Constitution, it would be overrun by political forces, as California would be deemed systemically important. The bailout would be granted and future reforms would be exchanged for current cash. The other states would not want to pay unless California reformed its profligate policies. But the prospect of no free baklava and ouzo would then send Californians into the streets, and rioting and looting would ensue.
“Next, the reforms agreed by the Governor fail to pass the state legislature. And as the bailout money slows to a trickle, the fed-up Californians elect a militant left-wing radical, Alexis (aka Alec) Baldwin, to lead them out of the mess!
“When Alexis takes office, US officials in DC get very worried. They cut off all California banks from funding at the Fed. But luckily, the “Central Bank of California” has an Emergency Liquidity Assistance Program. This gives the member-state central bank access to uncollaterized lending from the Fed – and the dollars and the ouzo keep flowing. But the Central Bank of California starts to run a huge deficit with the other US regional central banks in the Fed’s Target2 system. As the crisis deepens, retail depositors begin to question the credit quality of California banks; and everyone starts to worry that the Fed might turn off the ELA for the Central Bank of California.
“Californians worry that their banks will not be able to access dollars, so they start to pull their funds and send them to internet banks based in ‘safe’ shale-gas towns up in North Dakota. Because, in this imaginary world, there is no FDIC insurance and resolution authority (just as in Europe), the California banks can only go to the Central Bank of California for dollars, and it obligingly continues to lend dollars to an insolvent banking system to pay out depositors. In order to reassure depositors, California announces a deposit-guarantee program; but with the state’s credit rating at CCC, the guarantee does nothing to stem the deposit outflow.
“In this nightmare monetary scenario, with the other regional central banks, ELA, and Target2 unable to stop the bleeding – and no FDIC – the prospect of a California default FORCES a nationwide bank default. The banks automatically fall when the state plunges into financial turmoil, because of the built-in financial structure. A bank run is the only way to get to equilibrium in this system.
“There is sadly no separation of member-state financials and bank financials in our imaginary European-like financial system. So what’s the end game? Well, after Californians take all their US dollars out of California banks, Alexis realizes that if the Central Bank of California defaults, along with the state itself and the rest of its banks, the long-suffering citizens can still preserve their dollar wealth and the state can start all over again by issuing new dollars with Mr. Baldwin’s picture on them (or maybe Che’s picture). This California competitive devaluation/default would leave a multi-trillion-dollar hole in the Fed’s balance sheet, and the remaining, more-responsible US states would have to pick up the tab. So Alexis goes back to Washington and threatens to exit unless the dollars and ouzo and baklava keep coming.
“And that’s where we stand with the current fracas in Europe!
“Can anyone in the US imagine ever designing a system so fundamentally flawed? It’s insane! Without some form of FDIC insurance and national banking resolution authority, the European Monetary System will surely tear itself to shreds. In fact, as Target2 imbalances rise, it is clear that Germany is already being placed on the hook for Greek and other peripheral deposits. The system has de facto insurance, and no one in the south is even paying a fee for it. Crazy!
“In the last couple days I have spent a bit of time trying to find any legal construct which would allow the ELA to be turned off for a member country. I can’t. That doesn’t mean it won’t be done (as the Irish were threatened with this 18 months ago), but we are entering the twilight zone of the ECB legal department. Who knows what happens next?
“The reality is that European Monetary System was broken from the start. It just took a crisis to expose the flaws. Because the member nations failed to federalize early on, they created a structure that allows strategic default and exit to tear apart the entire financial system. If the Greek people get their euros out of the system, then there is very little pain of exit. With the banks and government insolvent, repudiating the debt and reintroducing the drachma is a winning strategy! The fact that this is even possible is amazing. The Greeks have nothing to lose if they can keep their deposits in euros and exit!
“Let’s thank our lucky stars that US leaders were smart enough to federalize the banking system, thereby not allowing any individual state to threaten the integrity of our entire financial system. There is good reason for the separation of the banking system and the member states. And Europe will NEVER be a successful union until it converts to a state-independent, federalized bank structure. The good news is that our radical Greek friend Mr CHEpras will probably force a federalised structure very quickly. The bad news (for him) is that he will likely not be part of it! I suspect this Greek bank run will be just the ticket to precipiate a federalized, socialized, stabilized Europe. Then maybe we can get back to the recovery and growth path everyone in the US is so desperately seeking.
“Good luck trading.”