Big Trouble for the Euro as Massive Greek Debt may be too much for the German People to Endure

Posted by PITHOCRATES - September 11th, 2011

Loans aren’t Gifts, you have to Pay them Back

Tax. Borrow. Print. And spend. The social democracies of Europe have been doing it for years. Thanks to central banking. And fiat money. And a little of John Maynard Keynes. You can keep interest rates artificially low. Deficit spend at will. Sell bonds forever and ever. And even print money. That’s Keynesian economics. Liberal Democrats in America were so enamored with the Europeans that they followed their example. And with government having the power to monetize debt, what could go wrong?

Apparently, a lot. Standard and Poor’s just downgraded U.S. sovereign debt. Citing high debt. And growing deficits. Leading them to believe that the U.S. may have trouble paying back what they’ve borrowed. Saying the U.S. government was living beyond their means. Just because they were spending more money than they had.

You mean we can’t do whatever we want? That’s right. You can’t. Because debt has consequences. You can’t keep borrowing more every year. Because people loan money (i.e., buy bonds) expecting you to pay back that loan. Yeah, I know. Crazy talk. But true nevertheless. Loans aren’t gifts. You have to pay them back.

The Root Problem within the Eurozone is Excessive Government Spending, Deficits and Debt

The U.S. has some financial problems. Record deficits. And record debt. Used to finance ever growing government spending. Yes, things may be bad in America, but they pale in comparison to the problems they have in the Eurozone (see German Dissent Magnifies Uncertainty in Europe by Liz Alderman posted 9/11/2011 on The New York Times).

Despite repeated pledges by Chancellor Angela Merkel to keep Europe together, the cacophony of dissent within her country is becoming almost deafening. That is casting fresh doubt — whether justified or not — over the nation’s commitment to the euro.

“The German electorate is not in the mind-set to undertake actions it sees as subsidizing less worthy nations,” said Carl Weinberg, the chief economist of High Frequency Economics in Valhalla, N.Y. “As a result, the government is moving in a very isolationist way to try to establish a fortress Germany that’s economically secure despite the risks in its European Union partners.”

This weekend, Der Spiegel reported that the German government was starting to prepare for a Greek insolvency and was devising various responses to handle a potential default, including allowing Greece to abandon the euro and return to the drachma. The government in Berlin would not comment, but such reports only add to the doubts bedeviling the euro monetary union.

The root problem within the Eurozone is excessive government spending, deficits and debt. Especially in Greece. Where they’ve borrowed heavily to pay for a very generous public sector. And state benefits.

There were strict requirements to join the monetary union. To change their currency to the Euro. The Euro Convergence Criteria required an annual government deficit of 3% of GDP. Or less. And total debt of 60% of GDP. Or less. Deficit and debt above these limits endangered a nation’s financial stability. And the common currency. The Euro. Which would spread one country’s irresponsible ways to the other countries in the Eurozone.

And that’s exactly what happened. Greece ‘fudged’ their numbers. So while they passed themselves off as fiscally responsible they were anything but. Their deficit and debt far exceeded the Euro Convergence Criteria. And when the global financial crisis of 2008 hit, it hit Greece hard. A couple of years later, with their economy depressed, S&P downgraded their sovereign debt. Increasing their borrowing costs. Which they couldn’t afford. So they had to turn to the international community for help. And it came. With a price. Austerity. Which the Greek people didn’t like.

Because of the common currency, Greece’s problems were now Germany’s problems. Because they were the strongest economy in the union. And the German people are growing tired of picking up the tab for Greece. And they’re not alone.

Finland, the Netherlands and Austria have all spoken with dissonant voices on the Greek bailout, revealing deep divisions among Europe’s strongest countries about how far they should go to save their weaker neighbors.

Continued fears over the state of European banks, and French ones in particular, have also roiled financial markets, especially after Christine Lagarde, the managing director of the International Monetary Fund, warned that European banks needed substantial additional capital.

Meanwhile, fears over Greece are only likely to intensify this week, after Mrs. Merkel’s finance minister, Wolfgang Schäuble, warned that Germany, for one, would not approve new financial assistance to help Athens continue to pay its bills through Christmas unless the Greek government fulfilled the conditions of its first bailout.

Can you blame them? Would you want to loan more money to a family member that continues to spend beyond their means? People want to help others. But they don’t want to finance the irresponsible ways that caused their problems in the first place. Austerity isn’t fun. But others are doing it. As they try to adjust their budgets to live within their means.

Outside of Greece, some things have improved, if only haltingly. Italy’s lower house of Parliament is expected to approve a tough new fiscal package in coming days.

France, Portugal and Spain are adopting measures to make it easier to balance budgets, moves intended to reassure investors about their commitments to fiscal prudence.

Which is not helping Mrs. Merkel. For if she continues to try and save the Euro her party may lose power.

Still, Mrs. Merkel must contend with a stark divide between her support for European unity and a German public that sees no reason, in the majority’s view, to pour good money after bad into the indebted countries of southern Europe. Her Christian Democrat Party has now lost five local elections this year. Yet even as many Germans complain bitterly about their southern neighbors, few in business and politics are ready to let the euro zone fall apart.

After all, if the weakest countries were to revert to their original currencies, a German-dominated euro would soar as investors flocked to it as a haven, devastating the business of exporters who have relied on its stability and relatively affordable level against other major currencies.

Then again, if she doesn’t save the Euro, her export economy may tank. A weak Greece is helping to keep the Euro undervalued. And you know what an undervalued currency does. It makes your exports cheap.

Any American who vacationed in Canada understands this well. Back when the U.S. dollar was strong, it was nice crossing into Canada. When you exchanged your strong American dollars for Canadian dollars, you got a lot more Canadian dollars back. In other words, the American dollar bought more in Canada than in the U.S. So people took their vacations in Canada. Which made the Canadian tourism industry boom.

This is the value of a weak currency. When your currency is weak, goods and services in your country, or goods exported out of your country, are cheaper. And the weaker nations in the Eurozone are keeping the Euro undervalued. And German exports strong. But it comes with a price. The taxpayers are basically subsidizing the export industry. By subsidizing the Greece bailout.

In other words, the Germans are damned if they do. And damned if they don’t.

The More the Debt the More the Crisis, the Less the Debt the Less the Crisis

Governments embrace Keynesian economics because it gives them power. It facilities their deficit spending. Legitimizes it. They and their Keynesian economists will dismiss growing debts. Because they’re no big deal. You see, their policy of continuous inflation shrinks that debt in real terms. In other words, as you devalue the currency, old debts are worth less. And easier to repay years later.

But there’s a catch. You need a growing GDP for this to work. When the economy stagnates, tax revenues fall. And if those debts are too big you just may not be able to service those debts. And you know what can happen? Greece. So too much debt can be a bad thing.

And it’s a dangerous game to play. Because as that debt grows so must taxes to service that debt. So they increase tax rates. But higher tax rates work against growing GDP. Flat or falling GDP means less tax dollars. Which leads to more borrowing. So the solution to the problem is more of what caused the problem. Which makes the original problem bigger. It’s a vicious cycle. Until the cycle ends in a credit downgrade. And financial crisis.

Keynesians can say what they want. But one thing they can’t deny is this. If these countries had no debt then they would have no financial crisis. Some countries have less debt and are not in crisis. While the countries in crisis have excessive debt. See the pattern? The more the debt the more the crisis. The less the debt the less the crisis.

Even Keynesians can’t deny this. Then again, Keynesians could. For they do live in denial.

www.PITHOCRATES.com

Share

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

LESSONS LEARNED #32: “America is great but it can’t make bad ideology good.” -Old Pithy

Posted by PITHOCRATES - September 23rd, 2010

Hamilton vs. Jefferson

So what was the deal with these two Founding Fathers?  Why did they hate each other so?  They were exceptionally bright, among the best read of the founders.  They each had impeccable revolutionary credentials.  And, prior to 1787, they had similar visions for their new country.  So what happened?

Despite their similarities, they were two very different men.  Hamilton was a bastard child whose father left him at a young age.  His life was hard.  He had a job while still a child.  Anything he had he had to earn.  Jefferson, on the other hand, was born into the planter elite of Virginia.  His life was not quite so hard. 

A bit shy, Jefferson buried himself in books.  He loved to read.  And to think.  To ponder the great questions of life.  While Hamilton worked in and learned the import/export business in the Caribbean.  As Jefferson pondered about what might be, Hamilton mastered commerce.  Understood capitalism.  Pondered what was.  And could be.  If he ever got off of that godforsaken island.

Eventually, he did.  He came to the colonies and went to college.  And gave Jefferson a run for his money in the smarts department.  And in one area, he simply left Jefferson in the dust.  Hamilton could understand things if you put dollar signs in front of them.  Jefferson could not.  For all his genius, Jefferson couldn’t make a buck.  He was forever in debt.  Because he struggled in these areas, he distrusted banking and commerce.  And the big cities that they corrupt.  Hamilton, though, understood banking and commerce.  He understood capitalism.  And what it could do.

Thus the divide between these two men.  Hamilton, a champion of capitalism.  And Jefferson, a champion of the yeoman farmer (a farmer who owns and works his own land.).  Of course, Jefferson was anything but a yeoman farmer.  He had others (i.e., slaves) work his land.  Here he was like the contemporary liberal.  Do as I say.  Not as I do.  For wealth and luxury obtained from the labors of others is okay for me and my fellow planter elite.  But not for you.  Especially when the ‘black arts’ of commerce and banking are concerned.

London, Paris/ Versailles and Madrid

The old world capitals had many things in common.  They were the homes of powerful monarchies.  They were the financial capitals of their countries.  And they caused a lot of mischief in the world.  Jefferson saw the connection between money and power.  More money, more power.  More power, more mischief.  Another good reason to hate commerce and banking in Jefferson’s book.

Of course, Hamilton saw it differently.  He saw one empire in ascent.  And two in descent.  And it was no coincidence that the better practitioner of capitalism was also the empire in ascent.  Great Britain.  He may have fought against her in the Revolutionary War, but he still admired her.  Where Jefferson feared the combination of money and power, Hamilton saw the Royal Navy.  Great wooden walls (as John Adams called them) that had protected the empire since she became an empire.  Grew her empire.  Increased her wealth.  And her power.  In fact, losing her British colonies was the only real defeat this empire had suffered.

When the Founding Fathers looked west they saw great potential.  Jefferson saw farms.  Hamilton saw empire.  One greater than Great Britain.  For after all, the Americans did what no other European nation could.  They defeated her in war and took huge chunks of her empire.  (Of course, our Revolutionary War was but one theater in a world war Great Britain was fighting at that time.)  Hamilton saw great potential for his new nation.  If only business and government partnered to harness that great potential.

Money + Power = Corruption

When business partners with government we don’t get capitalism.  We get mercantilism.  Or crony capitalism.  But you have to understand things were different in Hamilton’s day.  A good politician then went to great lengths NOT to profit from his time in public service.  It was expected.  Selfless disinterest.  In fact, it was unseemly to even campaign for public office.  That was just something a gentleman of the Enlightenment wouldn’t do.  And if anything was important in those days, it was showing how much a gentleman of the Enlightenment you were.

That said, business partnering with government would NOT lead to corruption.  At least, in Hamilton’s eyes.  With the right men in power, only good would result.  Though Jefferson, too, was a gentleman of the Enlightenment, he had no such faith in government.  To him, it was simple arithmetic (as long as there were no dollar signs involved):

                Money + Power = Corruption

So the new American capital wouldn’t be in a big American city.  Not in New York City.  Not in Philadelphia.  It would be in a swamp.  On the Potomac.  In Virginia’s backyard.  So Jefferson and his planter elite brethren could make sure the new American government would speak with a southern accent.  So much for that enlightened disinterest. 

Both Right.  Both Wrong.

No man is perfect.  Not even me.  No, really.  It’s true.  I’m not.  And neither were Hamilton nor Jefferson.  Hamilton may have wanted to conquer the world.  And Jefferson may have been such a good liar that he even fooled himself.  But the Hamilton treasury department gave this nation international respectability and allowed her to service her debt.  Which allowed her to borrow.  Which allowed her to survive.  And Jefferson fully understood what Lord Acton would say a century later:  Power corrupts.  Absolute power corrupts absolutely.

However benign a government may be, however it may look out after the people’s interests, government is still a body of men.  Jefferson understood this.  The Founding Generation was special.  They knew it.  They knew they were making history.  But were they unique?  Would this moment of selfless disinterest in time prove to be fleeting?  (As it turned out, yes.)  And, if so, what would happen to later generations?  When men of lesser character assume offices of sweeping powers?  What then?  Well, they would abuse their power.  So what to do?

Simple.  You prevent such a scenario from happening.  By not giving government sweeping powers.  And by not letting them accumulate great wealth.  Because bad things happen when you do.

The French Revolution

France was the cradle of the Enlightenment.  In the 18th century, anyone who mattered spoke French.  France was the dominate European power.  And some in France lived very well.  Most did not.  The majority were still feudal peasants.  Or poor laborers, artisans and craftsmen.  And they were hungry.  Poor.  And without breeches (those fancy knee-length pants the rich people wore).

While the sans-culottes (those without breeches) went without, the king, nobles and clergy were living large.  All the wealth of the largest European country was concentrated in their few hands.  As was the power.  And, of course, you add money and power and what do you get?  That’s right.  Corruption.  Add to that some crop failures and you get a very unhappy population.  Who overthrow the monarchy.  Execute their king.  And his queen.  And quite a few others before they stopped the bloodletting. 

Note that France’s troubles were the result of the money combining with the power.  The French monarchy incurred a huge debt fighting their perpetual war (it seemed) with Great Britain.  At the end of the world war that included the American Revolution, both saw those great debts grow larger.  Great Britain, an advanced capitalist nation, was able to service her debt and get on with the business of empire.  France, still fundamentally feudal, could not.  This great nation that had sparked the modern age could not even feed her own people.  She had taken all her people could give.  And her people could give no more.

Beware the Do-Gooder

The downfall of most nations results from this combination of money and state power.  This is an ideology that history has proven a failure.  The more money the state accumulates, the more it can do.  And the less you can do.  You go with less.  And the state causes greater hardships for everyone.  It can go to war.  Which it can lose.  Or prolong.  Hitler started out strong but the German people paid a steep price in the long run.  The allied bombers destroyed their homes.  And killed their families and neighbors.  While the allied armies killed their husbands, fathers, brothers and sons.  And those Germans who unfortunately fell within Soviet controlled territory after the war faced possible retribution for the crimes their husbands, fathers, brothers and sons committed against the soviet people.  In that hell on earth know as the Eastern Front.

But war is not the only mischief a state can do.  They can build opulent palaces (like at Versailles).  Or they can create a welfare state.  Where they get as many people as possible dependent on the state.  And the more they do, the more wealth the state transfers from the private sector to the public sector.  The state does well.  Especially the inner-party members.  The few who control the wealth.  And what happens in the long run?  The state gets richer and the people get poorer.  Just like they did in pre-revolutionary France.  In pre-revolutionary Tsarist Russia.  And, ironically, the state that replaced Tsarist Russia; the Soviet Union.  Communist China.  Cuba.  North Korea.  Peron’s Argentina.  Idi Amin’s Uganda.  Saddam Hussein’s Iraq.  Etc.

Whenever the government has large amounts of money and power, they rarely do good things.  What typically happens is that the ruling elite live well while the masses suffer.  And they use fear, intimidation, torture and execution to maintain their power.  What a nation chooses depends on how much they care what the free world thinks of them.  The Communists cared little so they used more brutal force.  Social democracies do care.  So theirs is a much softer tyranny.  These people don’t use force.  They seduce with promises of free stuff and a better life.  Which they never deliver.  Well, not to the people.  They do deliver it to those who hold power.

You Get What You Pay For

It’s bad when we don’t learn from world history.  It’s especially sad when we don’t learn from our own history.  We know what works.  And what hasn’t.  Wilson’s progressivism didn’t work.  FDR’s New Deal didn’t work.  LBJ’s Great Society didn’t work.  These administrations just transferred more money from the private sector to the public sector.  Money plus power equals corruption.  And these administrations were rife with corruption.  When we suffered the stagflation of the 1970s, those in power were still living large. But we never learn, do we?

The Obama administration is transferring more money from the private sector to the public sector than any other previous administration.  Our national debt will exceed our gross national product (GDP).  For all intents and purposes, it will be permanent.  All subsequent generations will work more and more just to service this massive debt.  And pay for all that ‘free stuff’ we were promised.  Sure, we’ll have free health care.  It just won’t be any good.  Nothing free is.  The free toy in a box of cereal is never as good as the toy you pay for.  Because you get what you pay for.  And if the government is going to give everyone free health care, it will have to be ‘free toy inside a cereal box’ quality health care.  For the same reason they don’t put expensive toys in cereal boxes.  If you give something to everyone, you have to give everyone less.  It’s the only way you can afford to give something to everyone.  You have to give everyone crap.

These things have never worked.  Nor will they.  Ever.  Even if the United States does them.  Because bad ideology is just bad ideology.  No matter how great the nation is that tries it. 

www.PITHOCRATES.com

Share

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,