Friday, 18 December 2009

The Euro, the Pseudo Gold Standard

The Euros showing signs of stress lately. The Dollar climbed to $1.43, its highest in three months as the fiat race to the bottom continues. Greece's sovereign debt was downgraded with the third generation of a Papandreou residing at the helm in what looks to be another Greek catastrophe. Spain somehow continues to mask the mess it finds itself in. At some point the poison will inevitably seep through. Meanwhile with regards to the other PIIGS (yes thats two i's, Ireland and Italy) we find Ireland have launched their second cost cutting budget in an attempt to appease the other 'sounder' Euro states. According to the governments figures they have come out of recession unlike here in the UK. Italy's leader Berlusconi took a beating, literally. Although the attack was appalling, its more disturbing to see such popular support for Massimo Tartaglia, the person who carried out the senseless assault. Austria's Government followed the new global trend by effectively nationalising the countries 6th largest bank, Carinthian Hypo Alpe Adria Bank AG, with the taxpayer now becoming it's largest shareholder. It's not the only bank in trouble with the countries 4th largest, Oesterreichische Volksbanken AG, also under the governments watch. Exposure in the Balkans and Eastern Europe, Austria's banking system is looking more insolvent as time goes on. Despite what Americans say about their banking losses at least their banks are declaring them. Europe's financial system is one monstrous black box, with everyone trying to call each others bluff. Even Germany seems to be throwing out the rule book announcing tax breaks despite a widening budget deficit, however compared with many other countries double digit percentage horror shows it won't sound an alarm with the bond vigilantes.

There's been many commentaries written in relation to the Euro the single currency that's used by 16 separate nations, usually critical toward the faceless bureaucrats who reside in Brussels. However its important to understand how the Euro came about. During Bretton Woods I, when the US was on it's quasi Gold Standard, they pegged the dollar to gold allowing only foreign central banks to redeem their dollars for gold. With increased deficits by Kennedy and then by Lyndon Johnson this spending had to be paid by someone, therefore the government does what it usually does, it printed money to pay the difference. When the Bretton Woods agreement was created the Keynesian's proclaimed that redeemability of the dollar for gold would cause no issues as institutions would never need to claim. Unfortunately for them they didn't count on Jacques Ruff advisor to former French president Charles De Gaulle. 'They run deficits without tears', thus Ruff advised De Gaulle to call the Americans bluff and trade in the paper promises for something that the American Administration couldn't create out of thin air. Others followed suit.

The rest as they say was history. Bretton Woods I was abandoned, in which we moved to the current global monetary system we still have now. The erratic fluctuations of the currency markets during the seventies accompanied with widespread financial turmoil prompted many European nations to look for solutions to stabilise trade, thus the chaos became one of the prime reasons for the single monetary currency created two decades later. There was an obvious issue from the start. Two distinct tribes existed within the union, the North dominated by Germans who had previously presided over the Mark, a currency as hard as any other in its day. The other faction, the Southern Mediterranean nations a historic bunch of pansies that would use their currency at the first instance of economic trouble to try and solve their problems. During its first 10 years all seemed well but when disorder came, the Mediterranean nations suddenly found themselves in a bind. They couldn't devalue or print as they had in the past, instead they were told by the Northern circle that they must cut their deficits along with reckless spending. Don't get me wrong, the ECB have dabbled in QE however in comparison to the Drachma, Lira, Escudo or Peseta if they still existed and were in the hands of the irresolute Southern Europeans, then things would be getting a whole lot worse for such countries as we tread into unknown waters.

The Euro is in effect a Pseudo Gold Standard for some. Similar to when the majority of nations had a fully convertible Gold Standard, there are checks on Government spending such that they can not rob the public through inflation, or sidestep genuine long term fixes with short term devaluations. This is not to say the rules can't be bent, the rules are always for bending when the government is solely in charge. For example the deficit limit for states that were to join the Euro was originally set at no more than 3% of GDP. Problem being that nations such as Portugal just moved some of their deficit from the official figures to assist in their entry into the Euro to meet the criteria. After the financial crisis fiscal restraint has been put on the back burner, another crisis will need to occur before anyone gets serious again.

Like a Gold Standard, the old bundesbanks dominance on the ECB acts as a check against others that are more willing to deploy looser monetary policy. It depends if you have the stomach for such medicine as to whether you believe it is beneficial.

Many commentators state that the Euro is the problem facing countries like Greece, the reasons given are usually the very same policies that got them in the hole in the first place, in this case excessive government involvement and monetary inflation. They are usually correct on one point, that it was the Euro that exacerbated the credit boom for many such nations. Generous subsidies to promote the Euro's launch created undeserved prosperity, accompanied with negative real interest rates in such countries, meant loose lending was endemic.

Ideas that increased inflation and spending can alleviate the problems we face are wrong. They instead increase the states control and crowd out private enterprise and initiative. Not only does it fail, but it becomes an immoral path as genuine savings are stolen from the people.

One of the questions people ask is what will become of the Euro? Will it survive? Will its members fragment? Will it gain in numbers and strengthen? I don't think we can arrive at a conclusive decision on any of the above as they are all legitimate possibilities.

Fragmentation could be possible. A number of nations could drown in their own debt but we have to realise governments always bend the rules. The ECB may show a tough hand for the moment but could ease if events got out of hand. If a nation did wish to exit then imagine the stigma attached to the politician in office at the time. It would take a brave politician to declare an exit from the Euro while others in the Balkan's, Baltic's and the East are clamouring for such prestige.

Would others join the Euro as a refuge? Possibly, however if the above were to occur we could see the emergence of a new strengthened Euro. Nations such as Norway or Switzerland could join, forming what would be one of the soundest currencies in the world. They didn't join in the beginning with the current members therefore , if the weakest were weeded out they could have a change of heart. This would be the only reason I could see them joining.

Survival? I'm bearish on all fiat money. Even the Euro. There are many problems contained in Europe. It could however emerge as a genuine contender to the Dollar if the harder money circles have their way.

So is the Euro a good or bad thing? Well I'd prefer the ECB administering my nations currency rather than the current set of inept individuals who are running riot with the UK's monetary policy. German jokes aside, you have to wonder how they do it. After a crippling war they arose as the dominant power of Europe once more, a dynamic economy that produced quality products, while other Western nations industries went into decline. It dealt with unification as Communism collapsed thus inheriting a nation with years of decay that required to be rectified. She then became one of the key participants to unify Europe under the single currency opting to bin their sound Mark. Subsidies were provided to Ireland and Spain to promote the Euro, subsidies paid for by the German taxpayer. She wasn't even resource rich, importing many commodities. There was however a culture of hard work, along with the abstinence of partaking in speculative activities such as Real Estate even as the 'Anglo-Saxon' economic models mocked the Germans for relative stagnant growth in comparison. Since the arrival of the crisis the jokes have stopped and once more the Germans hold the key to Europe, to the pseudo fiat Gold Standard known as the Euro. History leads me to the opinion that I'd prefer the Germans to manage my sovereign currency. Its the same story for many others who are current members of the Euro, it just depends if their culture can adapt to a different monetary way of thinking.

Friday, 4 December 2009

Britain, the Canary down the Western Coal Mine

"We used to think that you could spend your way out of a recession and increase employment by cutting taxes and boosting government spending. I tell you in all candour that that option no longer exists, and in so far as it ever did exist, it only worked on each occasion since the war by injecting a bigger dose of inflation into the economy, followed by a higher level of unemployment as the next step."
Jim Callaghan - Speech at the Labour Party Conference, 28 September 1976

Gold prices had been on the rise for weeks, then all of a sudden fell back with a thud as we were told that only 11,000 jobs were lost in the US during November. Another Brown bounce in the polls left Cameron backtracking, austerity is so last month, instead 'growth' by government spending is now acceptable as policy is dictated by focus groups. The Middle Easts version of Las Vegas got a helping hand which was good news for many UK banks, however only a mere $80 Billion would have been at stake. Years ago it would have meant something, not today with Trillion dollar bailouts. China's vice governor at the peoples bank declared 'We must watch out for bubbles forming on certain assets, and be careful in those areas' referring to golds recent upward trajectory. Nice try, that deceit may wash with CNBC but those of us in the loop know full well that China would love to transfer much of their paper assets into hard assets such as Gold.

It's sometimes easy to forget what the average person thinks in relation to financial matters. Articles posted here are certainly not consistent with mainstream thinking. People are still on the same broken record, 'Buy a house now while prices are cheap before you get priced out', 'We are past the worst now and good times are ahead', 'The government will make a good profit for the taxpayers with the bank bailouts'. Ask people who read the financial sections of broadsheet newspapers about gold and you get told 'The price can go up as well as down' as though this is a unique quality that does not apply to other assets such as bonds, real estate or stocks. Indeed it is important to remember just what people are thinking, because you don't want to be on the same page as them. 'Repeat after me, Gold is a bubble, Central Banks can 'tame' markets, the sustainable recovery is here and there is no inflation! There is no spoon!' There's no analysis of the thunderstorm that is brewing in the distance.

So what about this Gold bubble then? People are right, however they are 5, 10, 15 years too early in calling it. People are buying the stuff because one day it will be a bubble as the Worlds Central Banks are busy blowing the next bubbles as I write. The currency and Government Bond bubbles will eventually burst causing mass inflation and creating the next bubble, commodities and precious metals. As Bernanke and Company try to assess how best to deal with bubbles, they fool the public as though these events are some mystical force that no one can control. I have a simple solution, how about stop printing so much money. We instead move from bubble to bubble, the Centrals banks policy after one pops is to inject further easy money into the system. Like some drunk who throws up after a bottle of vodka, 'I best have another to sort myself out'.

Could the US unemployment figures signal the turn with people getting back to work? Maybe in the short term, but I don't think this will be a long term trend. You have to remember governments everywhere are printing huge amounts of money and this is bound to give the so called 'prosperity' effect in the short term but it won't last, the free market hasn't healed. During the coming stagflation a lot of conventional indicators will seem to be healing when in fact the underlying fundamentals are deteriorating. For ten years after the credit crunch in 1973/74 the unemployment rate in the UK kept rising.

It didn't move up in a straight line, with periods of consolidation and even movements to the downside. When the correct path was taken it took years to fall. Numbered estimates in the news are useless, three million, four million, all have been given as figures for the short term, however no one can say for certain, all we do know is that history says it will keep rising over the long term.

For a developed country the British people sure do love their inflation. While many other nations inflation indices have plummeting like many a British Banks shares, the UK's inflation rate has remained remarkably 'sticky'. Whether its the appreciation of our assets, our rising incomes, our increased levels of debt or the fallacy that we believe the weak pound is good, we really do want to beat other nations in the race to the bottom. The yanks scream 'bloody murder' watching their beloved dollars debasement from the powers that be, not realising that one hundred years ago a British pound used to be worth $5. Anything you can do across the pond, we can do it much worse. Over the next decade I'm sure we will show the developed world what not to do. The problem I see is that British people want inflation. We want to see rising prices, we believe that this is a healthy state of affairs and will thus allow a greater level of leniency towards our policymakers compared with other nations when it comes to expansive monetary policy.

Will the BoE raise interest rates when the market forces their hand? Contrary to what people believe it is the market that controls long term interest rates. We may like to think of central banks under a paternalistic viewpoint, our saviours there to insulate us from financial destruction and chaos, to solve economic issues should they arise. Central bankers are just like their Communist Central Planning counterparts, eventually market forces get the better of them where eventually they follow the market, not set the tempo as they would have us all believe.

In order to understand how markets dictate prices such as interest rates its easier to compare the lowering of interest rates to say lowering the price of bread. If the government declared rather than liquidity not been easily accessible that the issue was now high bread prices, they therefore set forth a policy to fix the price lowering it below the market one. As suppliers begin making losses they shut down production, at the same time people consume more as they can purchase more of the product. Eventually the country runs out of bread with all stocks depleted. Rather than bite the bullet immediately the government would in all probability resort to rationing rather than admit the error of their ways with bread queues becoming a common occurrence. A black market may appear as people under their free will and against the governments law begin selling bread to one another for a price set by people, the marketplace. If however the government wishes to fix the state of affairs they must liberate the price once more, allowing the market to determine the price of production. As suppliers closed down long ago abandoning their supply networks it takes a short while for supply to meet demand once more. During this period the price of bread goes into the stratosphere as people bid up the cost of the present scarce bread. Eventually market forces will drive the cost down over time to a point of equilibrium.

How does bread relate to interest rates? Its the same principle. Governments can set the price low but eventually the market will force its hand to raise the price, with the price going into the stratosphere. This is why we had 18% interest rates when Thatcher tried to put things right, or when Paul Volker put US rates above 20%. The policy makers were just chasing the market, trying to reign in inflation which was driving the free markets interest rates haywire. During the 1973/74 credit crunch Central Banks had the same idea as now, that is they lowered interest rates in response to the recession, but the longer and lower you try to hold down these prices the higher and sharper they have to eventually rise as many an older reader will painfully remember.

The BoE could be forced to raise interest rates under a number of scenarios. They may have to raise rates if there is a currency crisis with the pound falling as investors flee. Like the bread situation above, they will put off the price liberation, instead they will put currency controls or limits on capital (like bread rationing) in order to try and provide a short term fix. Eventually the market beats them and they have to hike rates as over the long run a lack of foreign investment creates a less dynamic economy and higher inflation.

It could be forced to raise rates if inflation got out of hand with the free market demanding increased real rates of return to negate the depreciation of the currency. Even if central banks keep buying government debt at artificially low rates, private banks still lend to all of us, with this mortgage rates could rise for example. Its similar to what we see now, despite base rates at near zero average mortgage rates are far higher as the free market realises there are inflation risks over the medium to long term. They are also hedging against their potential losses as the government props them up.

However they could do none of the above. They could keep rates low, spurring on more inflation as the government can no longer afford increased rates on the ever expanding debt. They by pass the market and lend to individuals themselves at these rates. They print money directly to cover the shortfall in the various government payrolls. Currency collapse is ensured at this point as it becomes clear to all that its time to pack your suitcase. Marc Faber believes this is the conundrum America will face at some point in which its policymakers will not rise to challenge, instead they will shirk away from the correct action to take, opting for runaway inflation. At some point the stock market of such a country would be a screaming buy, just at the depths of the seemingly never ending hyperinflation when the average person has lost all confidence.

Could the UK be the Canary down the Western coal mine? There are many other nations with serious issues that have faced or will face issues sooner, but I wouldn't put them in the same tier as Britain, a nation who still has a recent innovative and industrious past. She could however, be the warning signal for many other Western nations that mass inflation and/or interest rate rises are just around the corner. Either option ain't pretty.