Given the speed at which markets move, and given the volatility that accompanies the hopes and fears that occur when the key European leaders meet to try to make progress on the European debt crisis, it is somewhat risky to try to describe what will happen to the European Monetary Union (EMU) in 2012. Something that I write today, in early December, could be obsolete as early as next week. So, I will approach this with what I consider to ultimately be the most likely scenario, why it is most likely, and where the remaining dangers lie.
There are two opposing forces in Europe regarding the approach that should be taken to resolve the crisis:
- Those that want the European Central Bank (ECB) to act just like the U.S. Fed and rapidly expand its balance sheet, either to support a strengthened European Financial Stability Facility (EFSF), or directly. The ECB has no mandate in its charter to do this;
- Those that want the causes of the crisis, overspending and out of control deficits via entitlement and social welfare spending, to be addressed. While these folks appear to be the minority among the political class, their strength lies in the fact that the politicians representing the economically strongest EMU member, Germany, hold this view.
As an aside, some have wondered why the euro has kept its value high vis-à-vis the U.S. dollar. It is precisely because the ECB hasn’t significantly expanded its balance sheet while the U.S. Fed has. In fact, the big worldwide market rally on Nov. 30 due to the “coordinated” central bank policy of insuring liquidity for Europe’s banks, was a “dollar” policy, i.e., dollars, not euros were made available. So far, the ECB appears to have remained faithful to its mandate as the guardian against inflation, and nothing else.
Most Likely Scenario
The U.S. Fed tripled the size of its balance sheet with some apparent success at keeping its financial system from collapsing and, until now, those actions appear to have had no apparent large unintended consequences. There has been some moderate inflation officially reported (and disputed by some), and some believe that the Fed’s balance sheet expansion has been behind the rapid rise in commodity and food prices. But given the apparent success in staving off financial collapse with such policies, the most likely scenario is the first one outlined above, i.e., the use of the ECB or some structure around it (including the EFSF and the International Monetary Fund (IMF)) to directly purchase or partially guarantee the sovereign bonds of the peripheral countries.
The “bazooka” theory appears to apply here. As long as the market knows that the ECB has a bazooka (the power and authority to print euros), and is willing to use it, it won’t have to. As U.S. Treasury Secretary, Hank Paulson found out in 2009 that the “bazooka” theory doesn’t always work. Time and again, the capital markets have demonstrated that they are much more powerful than any central bank or sovereign treasury.
The most likely scenario, then, is an emerging consensus in Europe as follows: Through a series of bilateral agreements to avoid having to get 17 separate countries to approve changes to the treaties that govern the EMU, a painstakingly long process, the offending peripheral countries (Italy, Portugal, Spain, and perhaps, Ireland) may agree to some level of verifiable austerity with benchmarks and external audits. In return, Germany and its political allies will permit the ECB to expand its balance sheet either by directly purchasing the sovereign debt of the peripheral countries, or by making credit available to the EFSF or whatever structure emerges.
Once again, as an aside, under this scenario, you can expect the value of the euro to fall relative to other currencies. Of course, if the U.S. Fed embarks on QE3, the euro’s relative value to the dollar may well hold.
Of course, once the crisis atmosphere passes and things settle down, under this most likely scenario, the peripheral countries may not feel the pressure to continue with their promised austerity. Don’t forget, politics plays a large role and austerity often leads to political defeat for those politicians who negotiated it. Already we have seen political changes in Greece, Italy and Spain as a result of this crisis.
Perhaps these countries will follow Greece’s lead and hire Goldman Sachs to help them issue off the books debt so that they have the appearance of complying with their austerity promises. That could very well buy several years, as it did for Greece. (Ireland appears to be an exception. After their bailout, they appear to have abided by their austerity promises and have made great progress in addressing their fiscal and economic issues. Then, again, none of Ireland’s shores touch the Mediterranean Sea.)
So, as we enter 2012, the stage is set for some calming over Europe’s sovereign debt and the solvency of Europe’s banks. Mind you, it may be a rocky road over the near term to get there including setbacks and lots of uncertainty and market volatility. The biggest issues will likely revolve around the magnitude of the guarantees and the capacity of the guaranteeing entities. Nevertheless, the most likely scenario is coming into clearer focus.
Unfortunately, this scenario, or any other one that emerges, means recession in Europe, most likely severe recession. This has implications for markets worldwide, as Europe’s economy matches or exceeds the size of the U.S., depending on which countries you include. Once again, the recession, coupled with the austerity measures, may change the political backdrop such that the populations of some of the peripheral countries may well want to exit the EMU.
While 2012 may bring calmer conditions, even if the most likely scenario is executed, the future of the euro and the EMU is still not assured. It rests on the effectiveness of the fiscal controls. If EMU members retain sovereignty over their fiscal policies, then there has to be some mechanism to expel fiscal offenders from the EMU in an orderly manner. Without this, we may well see a replay of this crisis within the decade. Let’s hope there is enough political courage to include such measures.
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.