Thursday, October 27, 2011
EU Leaders Throw Europe a Plutonium Life Preserver
The euro system was doomed from inception for fundamental reasons; trying to conjure up "something for nothing" solutions will fail catastrophically, and soon.
As Europe flails helplessly in the waves of insolvency, its leadership has tossed it a life preserver. Too bad it's plutonium, and will take Europe straight to the bottom. Plutonium is of course one of the most toxic materials on the planet, and the "rescue" cooked up by the EU leadership is the financial equivalent of plutonium.
Stripped of propaganda and disinformation, the "rescue" boils down to this: something for nothing. Sound familiar? Isn't "something for nothing" what inflated the bubbles which have popped so violently? The EU "rescue" conjures something for nothing in two ways:
1. The financial alchemist's favorite magic: leverage. Take a couple hundred billion euros in cash, leverage it up with various magic (unlimited power is now at your fingertips!) and voila, you can suddenly backstop 1 trillion euros of banking-sector losses, all with illusory money. Something for nothing.
2. "Guarantees" to cover the first 20% of loan losses. This is being presented as the equivalent of 100% guarantees, because it is inconceivable that losses could exceed 20%. In other words, the credulous buyer of at-risk Euroland bonds is supposed to be reassured enough to load the wagon because 20% of the bond is backstopped.
This is something for nothing because the EU leadership is explicitly claiming the at-risk portion--80% of every bond--is somehow "safer" because the first 20% will be paid by EU taxpayers.
In essence, the EU is claiming that its illusory "something for nothing" magic will turn lead into gold. Abracadabra....oh well, close; it's heavy, it's metallic--oops, it's plutonium.
The leadership is resorting to Cargo Cult incantations and legerdemain because the alternative is to raise the 1 trillion euros in cold hard cash needed to bail out the first wave of failed banks and underwater bondholders by raising taxes and cutting budgets, i.e. austerity. (Recall that the total bill will be at least 3 trillion euros, so 1 trillion is just a down payment.)
Raising cash the hard way is politically unacceptable in both France and Germany, not to mention every other nation in the EU, so the political lackeys of the banking sector and bondholders are cravenly substituting a "something for nothing" magic show which they hope will fool the global bond market.
Note to EU lackeys: there is no free lunch. Leverage is plutonium, not gold, and guaranteeing the first 20% of bonds that are doomed to lose 40%-75% is not terribly appealing to anyone not influenced by the ECB's mind tricks. ("These are not the euros you're looking for; move along.")
No wonder France was so anxious for the ECB to crank up the euro printing press: they wanted-- just like everyone else involved--something for nothing.
The best way to understand the EU's current situation is to imagine an astoundingly dysfunctional family of deep-in-denial-addicts, screaming co-dependent parents, and grown-up grifters acting like spoiled brats, all trapped in a rat-infested, flooded flat that's had the gas turned off for lack of payment--and there's a plutonium life preserver glowing in the knee-high water. Admittedly, this analogy is imperfect, but it does capture the essential psychology of the end-game being played out.
A slightly more formal model for understanding the increasingly unstable dynamics of the EU is the post-colonial "plantation" model I've described here before. The key characteristics of the Colonial Model of Capitalism are:
1. Low cost labor and low-value materials flow from the periphery (colonies) to the Empire (center), which then ships high-value, high-profit finished goods back to the colonies.
2. The colonies must buy the high-value finished goods on credit that is issued and controlled by the Imperial center.
Hmm--doesn't this sound like the relationship of Germany to the European periphery? The euro cemented this co-dependency: Germany had the most efficient production, and once the euro raised the cost of production in the periphery nations, then of course nobody could beat Germany's cost advantages. The euro actually lowered Germany's cost of production in terms of foreign exchange rates while raising the costs in periphery nations that were previously able to lower their cost of production via currency devaluations.
Having surrendered that mechanism to access the deep credit markets of the center, then they had no choice but to buy the high-margin finished goods from Germany, as nobody else could make the same goods for the low German price.
These booming high-profit German exports of finished goods to the European periphery generated vast surpluses of capital that were then loaned to the periphery to enable their further purchases of German goods. Why risk the heavy investment costs of production in the periphery when Germany had the lowest costs of production and was willing to loan the buyers the cash needed to keep buying?
It's the classic mercantilist-consumer co-dependency on a gigantic scale, with low-cost credit fueling both increased consumption and production. As long as the credit flowed in vast torrents of low-cost, easy to borrow money, the co-dependency looked like a "virtuous cycle." Debt junkies eventually have to start servicing their debts, of course, and that's when the ugly realities of colonial dominance become visible.
Germany casts itself in this melodrama as the wronged party, the industrious craftsfolk churning out high-quality goods who have somehow been lured into pouring hard-earned cash down various ratholes to save nefarious EU banks--including their own.
But setting aside the melodrama for a moment, let's ask: how many German goods would have been imported by the EU periphery if those nations had been forced to pay cash for everything from the start? Precious little is the answer; the cash--in the form of actual surpluses available to spend on imports--would have run out immediately after the euro was launched.
In other words, the debt orgy enabled not just carefree consumption, it also enabled vast German exports to the Eurozone. Now we start seeing how the once-mutually beneficial co-dependency has become toxic: now that the periphery's debtors have become debt-serfs, German exports to the periphery are contracting.
This helps explain why even the supposedly prudent Germans are seeking something for nothing as the painless answer to an intrinsically unstable and self-destructive system. When it all implodes, German exports to the periphery will be a shadow of their past glory, and the surpluses which enabled the leveraged orgy of credit will dwindle. (Germany's other big export markets, China and the U.S., are also contracting.)
Sovereign currencies are the only mechanism for discounting differences in credit worthiness and production costs. The euro was established as the currency equivalent of gold, holding the same value in every member country. But the mercantilist/quasi-colonial model requires credit to flow from the center to the periphery, and that is precisely what has happened in the EU.
In the colonial model, the colonists are indebted and poor. The net value of their labor flows to the Imperial center as interest payments, and the banks at the center set the cost of money and the terms--naturally.
This co-dependency based on credit flowing from the mercantilist center to the periphery is both exploitative and systemically unstable. Now that the ontological instability of the euro is being revealed, the dysfunctional family members are blaming each other and desperately trying to conjure up something for nothing to bail themselves out of a system which was doomed to implode from its very inception.
All the complexity and confusion distills down to this: the EU leadership needs something for nothing to save the EU, but there is no free lunch. There is only one solution to the exploitation, the illusory leverage, the crushing debts: massive write-offs of all the bad debt everywhere in the EU. And since debt is someone else's asset, then that means writing down the assets, too. The only way to clear the insolvency is to write off 3 trillion euros of debt-based assets and re-enable sovereign currencies. Anything else is simply more tiresome melodrama.