Three major issues must be resolved to save the European Monetary Union (EMU): The value of sovereign debt; the European bank capital issues; and the fiscal capacity or will to provide the needed financing. Unfortunately, no feasible solutions exist. The politicians have done everything they could to keep the market on the edge while, at the same time, continuing to kick the can down the road. The farther the can is kicked, the more painful and costly the ultimate resolution — the breakup of the EMU.
The Value of Sovereign Debt
As of this writing, the haircut on Greek sovereign debt currently on the table is 50%. The French want as small a discount as possible (it was originally set to 21% in the July agreement which was just ratified by the EMU countries a couple of weeks ago) because French banks hold volumes of Greek sovereign debt.
Germany, the other major player in the drama, wants a larger discount to force the private sector to contribute to the resolution, and because they know that they, and they alone, are the ultimate guarantor. The 50% haircut, however, is really not 50% because the EFSF and ECB, which hold 55% of all Greek debt, are exempt from the haircut. So, at the max, Greece will be relieved of 22.5% of its debt.
However, in order to give Greece a half a chance to survive within the euro circle, the discount should be 80%, not 22.5%%. Even at an 80% discount, Greece’s Debt/GDP ratio will still be greater than 90%. At a 22.5% haircut, their Debt/GDP ratio will be so high, and interest payments to outside debt holders so onerous that it will require too much austerity. As we have just witnessed, Greece cannot meet the current required austerity measures imposed by outsiders. If the haircut on the Greek debt is too small and austerity is too severe, which it will be under the current set of principles being discussed, social unrest will continue.
Ultimately, the Greek people will elect politicians who vow to remove the imposed austerity. The rise of Hitler was partly the result of imposed “reparations” from the previous war and the hyperinflation that resulted. If still inside the EMU, the problem of the value of the Greek sovereign debt re-emerges under the scenario now on the table. So, it is vital that the Greek debt haircut be large enough to give Greece at least a chance to succeed within the EMU. Of course, that assumes that there is a shift within Greece away from the entitlement mentality that pervades the culture and that, given a second chance, they will adhere to a fiscal discipline. History indicates low odds of this.
But there are more issues that arise in the scenario in which Greece is given a second chance and kept inside the EMU. The slippery slope is that if the bond haircut is high, then Portugal, Ireland, Spain and Italy see that Greece has been given a second chance with much of its debt forgiven, they will want the same treatment. After all, why should these countries institute austerity to pay the private sector and often foreign debt holders when Greece doesn’t have to.
In order to avoid the contagion that the others will want the same deal as Greece, there will have to be a consequence that dissuades them. The only consequence I can think of that is serious enough to dissuade them is expulsion from the EMU. Therefore, in order to avoid contagion under a scenario of an 80% bond haircut, it is essential that Greece leave the monetary union, and that the EU set up and strictly enforce expulsion criteria.
Ultimately, though, because the four problem countries all have the same entitlement mentality, they will never be able to maintain the required fiscal discipline, and will ultimately be expelled. Apparently, the European politicians recognize this. So, the 22.5% haircut deal currently on the table simply kicks the can further down the road. The deal on the table cannot ultimately work.
European Bank Capital Issues
No matter how it is sliced or diced, Europe’s major banks are undercapitalized, and that is being kind. If the sovereign debt they hold is marked to market, they are all insolvent. As we know from America’s S&L crisis in the ’80s and from the recent ’09 meltdown experience, a financial institution can operate in an insolvent condition for years, as long as it can get liquidity. In fact, there may still be such zombies in the U.S.
Enter the European Financial Stability Facility (EFSF). It’s function will be to support (i.e., buy) the underwater sovereign debt held on the books of Europe’s financial institutions at prices significantly above market, thus transferring the ultimate losses from the private sector to the taxpayer. The Fed did this in ’09, purchasing billions of mortgage-backed securities at above market prices from U.S. financial institutions. In effect, this is equivalent to the taxpayer making a capital contribution to the banks without receiving any ownership interest. This is just a gift from taxpayers to stock and bond holders.
The ultimate capital contribution to the European banks will be in the trillion euro range, and it is likely that the EFSF will attempt to use leverage. But, because the capital contributions to the EFSF already being discussed (and I expect they aren’t as large as they need to be) are large relative to Europe’s GDP, there are likely to be ratings downgrades, causing interest costs to rise and making austerity in the EU even harder to bear. Under existing discussions, France, one of the two major characters in the whole crisis, is expected to make a contribution to the EFSF that is equal to 8% of its GDP. This alone will surely result in a ratings downgrade, as its Debt/GDP ratio has risen nearly 20 percentage points this year alone.
How long will the public endure the resulting austerity? Only long enough for the political process to elect leaders who promise to get rid of it. And, how do they do that? Exit the EMU.
It is clear that Germany and France are the key players (who are expected to be saviors) in this European drama. As explained above, as the drama unfolds, it is likely to put a tremendous strain on France’s fiscal capacity making it impossible for France to contribute further resources to the crisis (they are already on the hook for a significant contribution to resolve the Dexia issues). That leaves Germany as the last bastion of the euro. Think of the irony. The German people, by a large majority, never wanted to join the EMU. Their politicians brought them in kicking and screaming. Now, they are going to be asked to pay for all the entitlement and profligacy of their European neighbors. This just isn’t going to fly. When it gets to this point, and it will, Germany will simply say no, and that will be the end of the EMU.
It is already too late. The euro cannot be saved without the adoption of the U.S. federal model where the countries become the equivalent of U.S. states with one monetary and fiscal policy, ultimately run by Germany. Because of culture and history, the odds of this happening are about 0%.
The financial ministers can meet. There can be weekly, or even daily summits between the prime ministers. They can dream up debt Ponzi schemes with the EFSF, and can transfer losses from the private sector to the taxpayer. And, they are likely to do all of the above. But, ultimately, it is too late.
The EMU did not enforce its original rules, and now there is way too much debt. Like the S&Ls in the U.S. in the ’80s, it can be propped up for awhile. But, all of the actions that add debt or transfer it from the private sector to the taxpayer only make the final resolution more gut wrenching, difficult, and expensive. All roads lead to the breakup of the EMU. Better to do it now, in a controlled and orderly way, rather than let the happenstance of random events cause it to happen in the midst of a market crash.
Robert Barone, Ph.D.
|Robert Barone and Joshua Barone are Principals and Investment Advisor Representatives of Universal Value Advisors, LLC, Reno, NV, an SEC Registered Investment Advisor.
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