Since the initial euro crisis erupted in Greece two years ago, I have speculated that the necessary move toward austerity would be sidetracked by a political response from the impacted populations, which would elect leaders who promised a move away from such austerity. I didn’t realize how rapid and rabid the response would be.
The table below shows a list of headline anti-austerity movements, and, yes, I’ve included such movements in the U.S.
|France||The May 6th election of Hollande, a leader who promised more government spending, higher taxes and a reduction in the retirement age, at a time when budget deficits and austerity are key issues.|
|Greece||Greek voters flocked to anti-austerity parties during the May 6th elections, stoking concern in Europe that austerity may be derailed.|
|Ireland||Sentiment has turned sour on austerity with elections scheduled this spring.|
|Argentina||Nationalization of Spanish owner Repsol’s (REP) 51% stake in YPF (YPF), a major oil producer.|
|Bolivia||Seizure of Spanish power grid operator Red Electrica’s (REE.MC) 57% ownership of a Bolivian power line company which controlled 85% of the power lines in the country.|
|Spain||Inability (or lack of determination) to meet promised austerity targets.|
|U.S.||Political attack on the so-called wealthy and on cash rich corporations for not paying their “fair share” of taxes, in order to keep from having to cut spending.|
Much of the backlash is occurring because governments can no longer fulfill the promises made, whether they be in transfer payments, services, or salaries and benefits, etc., due to shortfall of revenue and a remarkable growth in public debt burdens. As is clear now, it is one thing for politicians to talk about austerity, and another to live with the immediate consequences, often resulting in higher unemployment and recession.
Naturally, the hotbed of anti-austerity is Europe where they have long lived the entitlement life. Europe is clearly in recession, and it appears that it will be a long and deep one. The latest data from Europe shows that the Purchasing Managers’ Index (PMI) for March was 43.8 (where 50 is the line of demarcation between contraction and expansion). In Spain, now officially in recession, the PMI was 43.5, and in depression wracked Greece, it is 40.7. The manufacturing indexes in Europe are also contracting. The manufacturing PMI in France in March was 46.9, and even in mighty Germany, the manufacturing index was 46.2.
Spain’s unemployment rate is over 24%; Greece’s more than 21%. In Europe, the number of unemployed stands at 17.4 million, an increase of more than 1.7 million in the past year. The official unemployment rate in the European Union will soon surpass 11%. So, it isn’t any wonder that those politicians that have adopted the Robin Hood approach have gained populist support. After all, politics are politics – and populations used to entitlements naturally vote for candidates that promise to give them something, usually by taking it away from someone else.
When the European Central Bank (ECB) embarked upon its Long Term Refunding Operations (LTRO1 and LTRO2), which gave all European banks access to 1% money for 3 years in order to stave off a rapidly approaching financial crisis in those banks, there was an unwritten quid pro quo. The bargain was the liquidity to stave off the financial crisis, and, in return, the member countries would have to embark upon a path of fiscal reform–austerity–that is now being unwound.
The question is, will the ECB continue along this money printing path to stave off the next phase of the financial crisis if the member countries have shunned their part of the bargain? Or, will the new and emerging concept of a European “growth pact” give the ECB the political cover it needs to continue printing. I suspect the latter.
The concept of a “growth pact” is nothing new to Europe. Austerity in the ’90s morphed into the “Stability and Growth Pact” (SGP), and it appears to be doing so again. The idea is to have the economy “grow” so that tax collections rise and deficits are reduced. Who can oppose that idea? Unfortunately, there is little that the European governments can do pro-actively to spur such growth.
The best thing would be to get out of the way of the private sector, but such ideas are anathema. Nevertheless, the Keynesian hope is that more deficit stimulus and more money printing with less austerity will prove to be the cure. I doubt this approach will be anything more than further can kicking. Furthermore, it is a dangerous game, especially in the hands of politicians, because even the “growth pact” still demands discipline in the budget and spending process.
In Greece, no government has been formed from the May 6th election results which pits polar opposite political views among the highest vote getters. The leader of the party with the second most votes ran on a platform to renege on the austerity agreements already in place with the external financing partners, to raise public pension payments and salaries, etc. And that leader seems to have gained even more popularity for the upcoming June elections. At current spending rates, Greece will run out of funds to pay its obligations by the end of June. And, it will be up to the Troika (European Commission, European Central Bank, and International Monetary Fund) to determine if Greece will get its next tranche of external financing (i.e., loans).
It appears that Europe is moving perilously closer to financial chaos. A Greek default on its external debt could easily result in a disorderly withdrawal from the EMU (European Monetary Union), which could trigger worldwide financial instability. Imagine if you were a Greek citizen and you woke up one morning to find that the euros in your local bank had been converted to new drachmas on a 1:1 basis. Later that day you discover that your new drachmas are worth substantially less than the euros you had yesterday. People aren’t dumb. Over the past few months, we have observed, through the borrowings at the ECB, a growing silent run on European banks in the at-risk countries (Spain, Italy). Italy even limited the amount of cash a bank can give its clients. And now, there is an outright run on Greek Banks.A Greek dismissal or withdrawal from the EMU along with its default on external debt is likely to trigger massive outright runs on Spanish, Italian and other weak European banks. The domino effects of this are unknown – all the way from other weak EMU partners electing the Greek path to a complete implosion of the EMU. The impacts will be worldwide. Expect volatility in markets and significant U.S. dollar strength.
The U.S. isn’t too far behind Europe in the entitlement game as it has caught up rapidly over the past decade. But, in the U.S., the anti-austerity movement has taken a slightly different track. The ploy here is to avoid the basic issue of federal government overspending, over indebtedness and over promises. So, the greedy and evil corporations, which “evade” just and fair taxes, are blamed for the deficit because they refuse to pay their “fair share.” And those same corporations that “hoard” cash are responsible for lack of job growth because they won’t spend and invest those cash hoards.
The simple truth is that Apple (AAPL), Microsoft (MSFT), Wal-Mart (WMT), and all of the others are simply playing the tax game that was written and is orchestrated by none other than the politicians themselves. In what remains of our capitalist system, corporate managers are supposed to maximize profits, and one doesn’t do that without uncovering every dollar-saving loophole written into the tax code.
As for the cash, much of it remains offshore because it would be taxed if brought back. But it remains unused because of the ongoing uncertainties today’s politicians have imposed. No tax law is now permanent or at least has a long enough life for corporate managers to make prudent investment decisions. Most have a one or two year life (Bush tax cut extensions, payroll tax reduction, depreciation laws, etc.). Without some certainty about the tax code, about deficits, or about the cost of energy, those cash hoards simply won’t be invested – at least not in the U.S or other slow growth industrial countries.
This rhetoric is really a diversion from the real issue of too much debt, unsustainable deficits, and living beyond our means. The size of government is being addressed at most state and local levels (even by Jerry Brown in California, but definitely not at the federal level.
Unfortunately, the movement away from austerity either prolongs the crisis, or makes it ultimately worse. In Bolivia, the series of nationalizations that began in ’06 (natural gas fields) are now causing capital formation issues. The gas wells are producing less, as is the normal course for such wells, but there is no internal capital for new exploration (all the capital that could, fled long ago), and foreign capital simply won’t go there based upon the last six years of political behavior and private sector confiscation (besides Bolivia, the other Latin American countries with extreme left wing governments are Venezuela, Argentina, Ecuador, and Nicaragua).
As is evident in places like Bolivia and Venezuela, the move away from austerity via class warfare, confiscation, and nationalizations only prolongs the economic problems, usually making them far worse than the original austerity would have imposed.
The point is, “taxing the rich,” attacking successful corporations, nationalizing industries, or simply allowing government to pick the winners and the losers does nothing to create economic growth or jobs. It does just the opposite. Austerity, in some form, is necessary to pay back the over borrowing and over consuming of the past. There is no way around it.
Printing more money, running high deficits and taxing the productive members of society will not fix the growth and jobs issues. Rejecting the necessary austerity will just exacerbate the problem(s) or shift the burdens to other unsuspecting citizens, like seniors, retirees, or onto future generations through high or hyper inflation.
Erskine Bowles, a Democrat, co-chair of President Obama’s Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform, and co-author of the Simpson-Bowles fiscal plan said this to the Council on Foreign Relations on April 24th:
Without serious debt reduction, it won’t take much of an increase in interest rates to create a fiscal crisis for the country the likes of which only those who lived through the Great Depression can recall. Once interest rates reach a level that reflects the genuine risk inherent in our ongoing fiscal mismanagement, and debt service eats up more and more of a shrinking pie, the financial crisis we just lived through (and are still living through) will seem like a sideshow… Deficits are truly like a cancer and over time they are going to destroy our country from within.
Most industrial countries with large fiscal deficits have a choice between something bad (austerity now) and something awful (high inflation, hyperinflation, social upheaval, or worse). While no one likes austerity, the consequences of choosing to kick the can further down the road are much worse. Yet, that is clearly what is happening with likely dire financial consequences, perhaps as soon as Greece formally defaults. Nonetheless, at this particular moment, “austerity” has become just another dirty word.
Robert Barone and Joshua Barone are Principals and Investment Advisor Representatives of Universal Value Advisors, LLC, Reno, NV, an SEC Registered Investment Advisor. Statistics and other information have been compiled from various sources. Universal Value Advisors believes the facts and information to be accurate and credible but makes no guarantee to the complete accuracy of this information.
Universal Value Advisors, LLC is a registered investment adviser with the Securities and Exchange Commission of the United States. A more detailed description of the company, its management and practices are contained in its “Firm Brochure”, (Form ADV, Part 2A). A copy of this Brochure may be received by contacting the company at: 9222 Prototype Drive, Reno, NV 89521, Phone (775) 284-7778.Robert Barone (Ph.D., Economics, Georgetown University) is a Principal of Universal Value Advisors (UVA), Reno, NV, an SEC Registered Investment Advisor. Dr. Barone is a former Director of the Federal Home Loan Bank of San Francisco, and is currently a Director of Allied Mineral Products, Columbus, Ohio, AAA Northern California, Nevada, Utah Auto Club, and the associated AAA Insurance Company where he chairs the Investment Committee.Information cited has been compiled from various sources which UVA believes to be accurate and credible but makes no guarantee as to its accuracy. A more detailed description of the company, its management and practices is contained in its “Firm Brochure” (Form ADV, Part 2A) which may be obtained by contacting UVA at: 9222 Prototype Dr., Reno, NV 89521. Ph: (775) 284-7778.