How The Euro Exploded, Part 1

"I have no idea what I'm doing!"

Italian stock markets rally on rumours that Berlusconi may step down. That says everything really. Usually the forced resignation of a head of government sends the markets plummeting, as a country switches from general predictability into leaderless chaos. But it seems even leaderless chaos would be more relaxing than Silvio Berlusconi. You can actually calculate the millions he’s costing his country every minute he hangs on.

If he does go though, he will be the third national leader directly forced out by the financial crisis. I don’t think there’s been such a wave of regime change across Western Europe since 1968. How did it come to this – and to ask the question that everyone really wants answered, whose fault is it?

You can’t pinpoint a single cause in these things of course, but surprisingly I think we can narrow it down to just three:

Problem one: The credit boom. We’ve spoken of this before, but its origins can be traced back to the liberalisation of the US banking industry, and the creativity this consequently introduced into a previously staid profession. In particular, the creativity about what the term ‘asset’ means.

It’s always been quite acceptable to loan someone some money and then consider their promise to pay you back as an asset you own – as long as the value you give to that asset realistically reflects the risk of them not paying you back at all. Be unrealistic however, and you’re in trouble. Though many complex and obscure mechanisms were applied to the task, I don’t think it’s grossly oversimplifying to say the basic problem was that overvalued loans were used as collateral to raise more money, which was then turned into more overvalued loans, which were used to raise more money, which was… Et voil√†, magic money from nowhere. Inevitably this reached the point where it was mutually profitable for everyone involved to overvalue the loans they were all giving to each other.

This free money fountain naturally encouraged borrowing throughout the US and Europe, and indeed about everywhere with access to currency markets. The first I knew something had gone badly wrong was when I got a letter from my bank telling me I’d been ‘pre-approved’ for a loan I hadn’t asked for. I’m a freelance artist for God’s sake. When banks go round pushing loans on poor people, the Emperor is out waving his dangly bits to a cheering audience.

But it wasn’t just private borrowing that got out of control. Countries too found credit temptingly cheap. What’s more, easy credit helped fuel a consumption boom, which upped tax revenues, which encouraged governments to ease off rates and make more promises. The problem is that largely fictitious revenues can dematerialise overnight.¬† Public borrowings and spending commitments on the other hand are not so easily gotten rid of.

This though merely sets the global scene; in Europe specifically there was further trouble brewing. To follow…

The End Of The Euro Crisis?

The economic growth of Portugal, Italy, Irelan...
Economic Growth - Or Lack Thereof

I hate the silly term double-dip recession. It makes it sound like there is some sort of mathematical explanation for this graph, a predictability about it. What we have is false recovery, the kind that only happens because markets work on the assumption that recessions will come to an end out of some sort of natural pattern. Would-be investors wait for the whole boom-bust cycle to start all over again so they can get in at the bottom. The brief spurts of growth we see are like sprinters waiting too long for a race to start. They dash off alone, only slowing to a halt when they realise no one’s joining in.

We are not recovering yet because, simplistically put, we have not yet reached the bottom. More accurately though, we can’t rebuild an economy when there is so much non-existent money in the way.

We need to face up to the fact that the western economy is still stuffed to the ears with bad debt. We are treating bad investments that will never yield a damn thing as real money that somehow must be paid back to the investor – even if the taxpayer has to be made to do it. But it’s not real money. These are failed investments. The money has been lost. It no longer exists.

This blog post is highly speculative, but it argues that the sudden willingness of European banks to take a loss on Greece is because they foresee things getting much worse, soon. One of Italy’s largest banks is stuffed with bad debt, and it seems more than likely that if it goes, the Italian economy will go with it. The Eurozone cannot afford to bail out a country that large.

But this is actually a good thing. We will finally have to stop pretending this can be fixed with bandages, and do the major surgery necessary. It will hurt, but not as much as treating innocent taxpayers like reckless debtors hurts.