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Germany Flip-Flops on Greek Bailout

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Well, I certainly didn’t expect this. It looks as though Germany is going to rely on the IMF to bail Greece out should the dreaded moment arrive (hint: it will). This does not bode well for the European Union, and indeed, until now, many thought the only way to preserve the integrity of the Euro would be to treat this Greek crisis as an in-house affair. Resorting to IMF loans would do very little to assure investors that the EU is good for its members’ debt, as this basically signals to the rest of the world that Germany (virtually the only healthy economy left in the EU) is either unwilling or unable to shoulder the entire partnership’s burden.

Remember: France, Britain, Spain, Italy, Portugal, Ireland, and Belgium are all facing debt crises of their own, many just as deep, though not as visible, as that of Greece. Germany’s indication that it will not help Greece is effectively a pre-emptive warning to the rest of these countries that when their own respective economies collapse, not to come banging on Germany’s door. Bloomberg reports today that Greece’s Prime Minister has set a deadline for Germany to bail it out, before it goes to the IMF for help. Germany has already indicated that it’s going to let the IMF solve Greece’s problem, effectively rendering that threat moot.

This is big news for several reasons. With Germany, the last healthy EU economy, refusing to bail Greece out, we may be seeing the end of the European Union as a cohesive economic entity. The Euro has been taking a beating ever since fears of a Greek default arose (it’s down more than 10% since this crisis began), and it’s sure to drop further on today’s news. It is unlikely that Greece will default or be forced out of the economic partnership, but if the IMF gets its fingers into Greece, it will only be a matter of time before the rest of the EU comes to the IMF, arms outstretched. Greece will not be the last European country to undergo a debt crisis, as I hope I have shown.

If Greece accepts IMF help, it will be forced into far worse “austerity measures” than anything Germany would have imposed. “Austerity” is generally a euphemism for cutting off social services and indiscriminately firing middle class workers while the rich make off like bandits. Already these measures have caused massive riots and general strikes in Greece, and these are sure to continue if the IMF gets its way.

As always, one can draw a straight line between economic collapse and Wall Street. Many sources have already reported on how Wall Street helped Greece hide its debt for years, and, in fact, encouraged them to take on more debt via “securitized” trades.

But that isn’t all. Wall Street’s “innovative financial instruments” – its Collateralized Debt Obligations and other over-the-counter derivatives – proliferated throughout the European economy, and are at the heart of the myriad debt crises. They made billions selling Europe these worthless junk bonds, and now they’re slowly walking away, whistling, as though they had nothing to do with it. Greece should be demanding massive reparations for the unprecedented fraud of which they, and the rest of the EU, were the victims.

It’s difficult to see where this will end. The IMF bails out Greece instead of Germany – but then what? Portugal, Italy, Spain… then France? What if Britain needs a bailout? Does the IMF have such resources? Are they just going to print the money? Does anyone know what they’re doing?

Europe’s New Debt Solution – Its Own Credit Agency

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Spiegel reports that the EU is unhappy with the standard American credit rating agency, Moody’s, and seeks to create its own. Moody’s is notorious for over-rating US debt, and under-rating nearly everyone else’s, so the frustration is understandable. During the Crisis, Moody’s engaged in outright fraud by pricing worthless derivatives as “Triple-A” paper, along with a raft of other deceptions.

A particular danger now is that Moody’s will downgrade Greece’s debt rating, prohibiting them from borrowing from the EU central bank. If this happens, the Euro is pretty much toast. Their solution is to just create their own rating agency, which seems like a good idea. Relying on Moody’s to gauge the health of an investment is like asking a homeless guy how much he thinks your diamond ring is worth.

But its worth taking a look at the motivations behind Europe’s push for its own rating agency. According to Spiegel, the EU’s major beef with Moody’s is not its widespread fraud and malfeasance during the crisis, but merely the possiblility that it might “downgrade” Greece, along with the “veto power” it exerts over European banks – and indeed, whole countries:

Under existing rules, the ECB can only accept euro-zone sovereign bonds as collateral when lending money if at least one of the three main rating agencies gives the country issuing the securities an A- rating or better. Moody’s is now the only main rating agency that still gives Greece an A2 rating; Standard & Poor’s and Fitch have already lowered their grades to the BBB level.

Although an exception to the rule is in place as a result of the financial crisis — the current minimum rating is just BBB- — that rule will expire at the end of 2010. If Moody’s were to downgrade Greece, as it threatened to do last week, the country would be cut off from ECB loans as of Jan. 1, 2011, triggering a liquidity crisis for the country. This means that Moody’s effectively has a veto over Greece’s access to Europe’s key financing facility.

So what they want is not a stable, accountable rating agency – just one that will consistently give their countries AAA ratings. In effect, they want a “European Moody’s” – a ratings agency that will ignore all tangible market signs and spit out the ratings the big bosses command, just as Moody’s did in America.

I fail to see how this will be an improvement.

Written by pavanvan

March 7, 2010 at 10:01 am

Britain Grapples With Debt of Greek Proportions

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The Times has a pretty strong piece in today’s issue about Britain’s massive debt problems. Yet more evidence that the “Greek Problem” isn’t limited to Greece alone. The whole European Union and most of its satellite economies are probably in for a rough decade:

As for the British government, it has been able to finance a budget deficit of 12.5 percent of G.D.P. — equal to Greece’s — at an interest rate more than two full percentage points lower only because the Bank of England bought the majority of the bonds it issued last year.

“It’s not just ‘basket cases’ like Greece that can be considered candidates for sovereign crises,” said Simon White of Variant Perception, a research house in London that caters to hedge funds and wealthy individuals. “Gilts and sterling will continue to come under pressure as scrutiny of the U.K. fiscal situation intensifies.”

Now, unlike the United States, other countries’ deficits actually mean something. They aren’t allowed to go around printing as much money as they want, running absurd amounts of debt, and forcing everyone to except their currency at the barrel of a gun. Running budget-busting deficits isn’t just something they can laugh off, like we can here in America – over a long enough time scale, those deficits can make a country’s currency worthless.

It’s tough to see where this will end. The whole EU and attached economies are vulnerable to this “contagion”, which, I cannot stress enough, has a lot to do with Wall Street’s reckless bets during the aughts. If we were living in a fair world, these Wall Street firms would pay reparations to the affected countries for essentially destroying their economies. As it is, it looks as though we’re going to have to watch the EU go down in flames before anyone does anything.

Then, likely, we’ll see some backdoor deals, a few hurried conferences, and the US Government will come out with a new TARP program, this time for Europe. Washington has always had a flair for publicity – maybe they’ll call it a “second Marshall Plan”. It’s inconceivable that the US would allow its most favored “allies” to go down without assistance. And such a move would likely have incidental benefits – namely, bringing the EU firmly under our political control.

Sure, the American taxpayer will eventually have to foot the bill, but who ever cared about that?

Written by pavanvan

March 3, 2010 at 4:00 pm

Greek Street

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The Times has a pretty good rundown on Wall Street’s complicity in Greece’s current budget woes. The European Union has rather strict rules on the size of the deficit its member countries are allowed to have; but Greece, it turns out, has been under-reporting its deficit for nearly a decade. I wonder where they learned to cook their books?

The bankers, led by Goldman’s president, Gary D. Cohn, held out a financing instrument that would have pushed debt from Greece’s health care system far into the future, much as when strapped homeowners take out second mortgages to pay off their credit cards.

It had worked before. In 2001, just after Greece was admitted to Europe’s monetary union, Goldman helped the government quietly borrow billions, people familiar with the transaction said. That deal, hidden from public view because it was treated as a currency trade rather than a loan, helped Athens to meet Europe’s deficit rules while continuing to spend beyond its means.

Oh.

We’re going to hear a lot in the coming weeks about Greece’s irresponsibility and how Wall Street callously enabled them like a heroin dealer that profits from a junkie’s weakness. And while these accusations are no doubt true, they miss the real point of the Greek debt story, which has to do with the paradox on which the European Union is founded. In fact, a crisis like this was bound to happen. Greece’s and Wall Street’s malfeasance are inexcusable, and certainly no one should try to absolve them from blame on this, but we have to ask ourselves: how long did Europe expect this partnership to last?

At the heart of the EU’s troubles lie the fundamental disparities between its member economies. Germany, as we all know, is an economic powerhouse, and produces the lion’s share of the EU’s GDP. France does well for itself, as do Austria, Sweden, Switzerland and a host of other countries. But the countries that aren’t doing so well: Greece, yes, but also Italy, Portugal, Ireland, and Spain are all  in a difficult and ultimately insoluble position.

Their economic fortunes entwined with that of the rest of Europe, they find themselves under enormous pressure to report spectacular economic growth. If unable to do so, their troubles extend to the other member countries, and, most importantly, cast aspersions upon the value of their shared currency – the Euro. So the incentive to fudge the numbers is tremendous.

The paradox of “Eurozone” (zone of countries that use the Euro) directly stems from this. Put simply, no country can leave the Eurozone after it joins, and at the same time, every Eurozone member has to post annual growth without fail. The Greek situation is a perfect illustration of this, but the point is that it could have happened (in fact, probably will happen) to several EU countries. Greece just happened to be the scapegoat because it had the biggest debt.

This handy chart from Der Spiegel should nicely demonstrate this point.

Even Germany and France, the so-called “EU powerhouses”, are technically breaking their own debt rules. But why doesn’t Greece just divest itself from the Euro, say it was too hasty in joining, and maybe re-apply for admission in a few years once it gets its economy under control? Well, it could do this  – and likely would, if France and Germany had their say – but such a move would precipitate a run on Greece’s banks, sink its economy, and leave it a European pariah for at least a generation. Think about it: if you had a bank account in a Greek bank in Euros, and the Greek Premier announces one day that your account will be transformed into Greek Drachmas on such-and-such a date, what would you do? Obviously you would liquidate your holdings and invest in some more stable Eurozone country. Germany, perhaps?

But at the same time, Greece’s economic situation is causing near-panic among investors and ravaging the Euro. The Euro’s value has dropped more than 9% in just two months. And therein lies the paradox. By staying in the Eurozone, Greece threatens the whole enterprise. By leaving, it dooms itself to economic collapse.

A recent interview with the EU Central Bank chief economist Jurgen Stark displays the confusion now embroiling the EU. It’s clear that no one knows what to do about this. For the time being, I suppose, Germany or France will have to pony up the cash to bail Greece out, but this does nothing but delay the central problem described above.

Written by pavanvan

February 14, 2010 at 4:02 pm