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Archive for the ‘Euro’ Category

At the beginning of the year, I was asked whether Europe’s fiscal crisis was over. Showing deep thought and characteristic maturity, my response was “HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA, are you ;@($&^#’% kidding me?”

But I then shared specific reasons for pessimism, including the fact that many European nations had the wrong response to the fiscal crisis. With a few exceptions (such as the Baltic nations), European governments used the crisis to impose big tax hikes, including higher income tax rates and harsher VAT rates.

Combined with the fact that Europe’s demographic outlook is rather grim, you can understand why I’m not brimming with hope for the continent. And I’ve shared specific dismal data for nations such as Portugal, France, Greece, Italy, Poland, Spain, Ireland, and the United Kingdom.

But one thing I’ve largely overlooked is the degree to which the European Central Bank may be creating an unsustainable bubble in Europe’s financial markets. I warned about using bad monetary policy to subsidize bad fiscal policy, but only once in 2011 and once in 2012.

Check out this entertaining – but worrisome – video from David McWilliams and you’ll understand why this issue demands more attention.

I’ve openly argued that the euro is not the reason that many European nations got in trouble, but it appears that Europe’s political elite may be using the euro to make a bad situation even worse.

And to add insult to injury, the narrator is probably right that we’ll get the wrong outcome when this house of cards comes tumbling down. Instead of decentralization and smaller government, we’ll get an expanded layer of government at the European level.

Or, as I call it, Germany’s dark vision for Europe.

That’s Mitchell’s Law on steroids.

P.S. Here’s a video on the five lessons America should learn from the European crisis.

P.P.S. On a lighter note, the mess in Europe has generated some amusing videos (here, here, and here), as well as a very funny set of maps.

P.P.P.S. If all this sounds familiar, that may be because the Federal Reserve in the United States could be making the same mistakes as the European Central Bank. I don’t pretend to know when and how the Fed’s easy-money policy will turn out, but I’m not overly optimistic about the final outcome. As Thomas Sowell has sagely observed, “We all make mistakes. But we don’t all have the enormous and growing power of the Federal Reserve System… In the hundred years before there was a Federal Reserve System, inflation was less than half of what it became in the hundred years after the Fed was founded.”

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I’ve been worried for quite some time that the European Central Bank was losing its independence, thus undermining the long-run prospects of the euro.

Well, yesterday’s announcement that the ECB would buy the dodgy debt of nations such as Spain didn’t make me feel any better.

Central banks should not be bullied into creating too much money simply because politicians are too corrupt, venal, and short-sighted to control spending.

Here is some of what Allister Heath of City A.M. wrote earlier today. He begins with a wise warning about moral hazard.

There is nothing markets love more than a good dose of monetary activism, especially when they detect a hidden bailout, so it is no wonder that traders and investors reacted so positively to Mario Draghi’s bond buying plan. …Yet generally speaking these days, the more the markets like a central bank intervention, the more I worry. This is because all too often investors are trying to get central banks – and ultimately, the taxpayer – to monetise debt to protect themselves, or because they believe that there are monetary solutions to real, structural problems. I disagree on both counts: excessive debt needs to be written off, with the cost born by the creditors, not redistributed to the taxpayers of more prudent countries or inflated away. It is right that investors should be able to make a fortune if they make a correct bet – but it is equally right that they should lose their shirt when their investment goes sour. This habit of quietly enjoying the former but loudly refusing the latter is one of the main reasons why the City’s reputation is at such a low ebb.

He then explains that the ECB shouldn’t try to mask reality.

…there is a perfectly good reason why the yields of peripheral Eurozone nations have shot up over the past year. It is because the markets have finally started to price risk properly. Higher yields on Spanish or Greek debt reflect the reality of deeply troubled, structurally uncompetitive nations… The market is sending a clear and precise signal, and warning the world that there is a major problem that needs resolution; buying vast amounts of bonds to try and distort or even entirely eliminate that signal and pretend that nothing is wrong with Europe’s weaker economies would be an absurd act of delusion.

I’m not as optimistic as Allister is in this next section, largely because the supposed conditionality will lead to the kind of fiscal gimmicks and moving goal posts that we see in Greece.

…while there are many problems with Draghi’s plans, he is actually being relatively sensible. He will not help Portugal, Ireland and Greece until they are able to access bond markets; even more importantly, Spain and Italy will need to ask for European bailout fund support, and accept the ensuing conditionality, before ECB bond-buying starts. It will theoretically be unlimited in scale but Draghi only wants to “do whatever it takes” as long as politicians toe the line. Given that they won’t, and that many countries will soon be borrowing even more, the crisis will soon flare up again. The simple reality is that the Eurozone in its current form is doomed. Draghi’s plan will buy some time, and his next one even more, as will the one after that. But eventually the size of the fiscal and competitiveness crisis, combined with voter anger in both Northern and Southern countries, will overwhelm all of his attempts at papering over the cracks. It’s just a matter of time.

But I obviously agree with his conclusion. Unless European politicians decide to reduce the burden of government spending, the continent is in deep trouble.

Last but not least, the problem in Europe is not the euro. It is the welfare state. I’m not a huge fan of the single currency, but it is way down on my list of reasons that nations such as Spain, Italy, and Greece are in trouble.

P.S. America will be in the same boat at some point in the future if we don’t reform entitlements.

P.P.S. Allister is the author of this great article explaining why tax competition and tax havens are so important and valuable in the global economy.

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Like Sweden and Denmark, Germany is a semi-rational welfare state. It generally relies on a market-oriented approach in areas other than fiscal policy, and it avoided the Keynesian excesses that caused additional misery and red ink in America (though it is far from fiscally conservative, notwithstanding the sophomoric analysis of the Washington Post).

Nonetheless, it’s difficult to have much optimism for Europe’s future when the entire political establishment of Germany blindly thinks there should be more centralization, bureaucratization, and harmonization in Europe.

The EU Observer has a story about the agenda of the de facto statists in the Christian Democratic party who currently run Germany.

“Harmonization über alles!”

…what Merkel and her party are piecing together is a radical vision of the EU in a few years time – a deep fiscal and political union. The fiscal side involves tax harmonisation, a tightly policed Stability and Growth Pact with automatic sanctions for countries that breach debt and deficit rules, and the possibility of an EU Commissioner responsible for directly intervention to oversee budgetary policy in a crisis-hit country. …On the institutional side, the CDU backs a directly elected President of the European Commission as well as clearly establishing the European Parliament and Council of Ministers as a bi-cameral legislature with equal rights to initiate EU legislation with the Commission.

Keep in mind that the Christian Democrats are the main right-of-center party in Germany, yet the German political spectrum is so tilted to the left that they want tax harmonization (a spectacularly bad idea) and more centralization.

Heck, even the supposedly libertarian-oriented Free Democratic Party is hopelessly clueless on these issues.

Not surprisingly, the de jure statists of Germany have the same basic agenda. Here’s some of what the article says about the agenda of the Social Democrat and Green parties.

…its commitments to establish joint liability eurobonds and a “common European fiscal policy to ensure fair, efficient and lasting receipts” would also involve a shift of economic powers to Brussels. While both sides have differing ideological positions on the political response to the eurozone crisis – they are talking about more Europe, not less.

The notion of eurobonds is particularly noteworthy since it would involve putting German taxpayers at risk for the reckless fiscal policies in nations such as Greece, Italy, and Spain. That’s only a good idea if you think it’s smart to co-sign a loan for your unemployed and alcoholic cousin with a gambling addiction.

All this makes me feel sorry for German taxpayers.

Then again, if you look at the long-run fiscal outlook of the United States, I feel even more sorry for American taxpayers. Thanks to misguided entitlement programs, we’re in even deeper trouble than Europe’s welfare states.

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Considering the spectacular incompetence of the Italian government, I’m not surprised that the Italian people take extraordinary steps to protect their income from the tax police.

But I have a hard time cheering their actions, since they routinely vote for corrupt politicians and also seek to mooch off the government that they don’t want to pay for.

Sicily is a useful example. Here are key passages from a New York Times report.

…one region in particular has been in the spotlight: Sicily, which some fear has become “the Greece of Italy” and is at risk of defaulting on its high public debts. …an official in the Sicily branch of Italy’s leading industrialists association called for the island to be put into receivership by the central government to clean up its finances. …Sicily highlights the challenges that Mr. Monti is facing in trying to use pressure from European leaders and international markets to push Italy’s politicians to cut costs. Those expenses have ballooned after decades of a patronage system in which the state has been the primary means of employment in Sicily.

We know there’s a mess. And, to give credit where it’s due, the New York Times does discuss the bloated bureaucracy in Sicily.

…critics say Italy — and Sicily in particular — has been driven into dire financial straits not by austerity but by the rampant public spending of the past, the product of an entrenched jobs-for-votes system that helped keep Italian governments in power and Sicilians employed. Today, Sicily’s regional government has 1,800 employees — more than the British Cabinet Office — and the island employs 26,000 auxiliary forest rangers; in the vast forest lands of British Columbia, there are fewer than 1,500. Out of a population of five million people in Sicily, the state directly or indirectly employs more than 100,000 of them and pays pensions to many more. It changed its pension system eight years after the rest of Italy. (One retired politician recently won a case to keep an annual pension of 480,000 euros, about $584,000.)

Not surprisingly, the political class doesn’t want to fire any of the deadwood, which means an enormous burden on taxpayers and lots of suffering for young people.

“Of course that’s too many,” Mr. Lombardo said of the forest rangers. But he said it was difficult to cut back because state workers have job protection. “We have to wait for them to retire.” That system has come at a cost. Last month, Italy’s audit court issued a scathing report saying that Sicily had 7 billion euros, about $8.5 billion, of liabilities at the end of 2011 and showed “signs of unstoppable decline.” Sicily’s unemployment rate is 19.5 percent, twice the national average, and 38.8 percent of young people do not have jobs.

Lombardo must have spent time in Chicago

By the way, the head of the Sicilian government is a very accomplished politician. It’s not uncommon for lawmakers to go to prison after a stint in government, but it takes a special politician to then go back into “public service.”

Mr. Lombardo, who belongs to the Movement for Autonomy — which believes that Sicily should secede from the Italian state, as unlikely as that is to happen — said he would step down as agreed. (He is under investigation for Mafia ties. He denies the accusations and has not been formally charged. He was jailed on corruption charges in the early 1990s, though he was later acquitted.)

At least some residents have figured out how the political system works.

Many Sicilians, for their part, take a world-weary view of the political class. “If I steal a little, I go to jail; if I steal a lot, I advance my career,” Gioacchino De Giorgi, 34, said as he worked in a tobacco shop in downtown Palermo.

Needless to say, this story is yet another example of why bailouts are a bad idea. As I’ve explained before, governments will only make the right reforms as a final option. Bailouts, by contrast, simply give politicians more time to delay, while also making the debt bubble even bigger as reforms are postponed.

This is true, regardless of whether bailouts come from national governments, the European Commission, or international bureaucracies such as the International Monetary Fund.

And it’s true whether we’re talking about an Italian province, or an American state that also is governed by short-sighted and corrupt politicians. Like California.

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The mess in Europe has been rather frustrating, largely because almost everybody is on the wrong side.

Some folks say they want “austerity,” but that’s largely a code word for higher taxes. They’re fighting against the people who say they want “growth,” but that’s generally a code word for more Keynesian spending.

So you can understand how this debate between higher taxes and higher spending is like nails on a chalkboard for someone who wants smaller government.

And then, to get me even more irritated, lots of people support bailouts because they supposedly are needed to save the euro currency.

When I ask these people why a default in, say, Greece threatens the euro, they look at me as if it’s the year 1491 and I’ve declared the earth isn’t flat.

So I’m delighted that the Wall Street Journal has published some wise observations by a leading French economist (an intellectual heir to Bastiat!), who shares my disdain for the current discussion. Here are some excerpts from Prof. Salin’s column, starting with his common-sense hypothesis.

…there is no “euro crisis.” The single currency doesn’t have to be “saved” or else explode. The present crisis is not a European monetary problem at all, but rather a debt problem in some countries—Greece, Spain and some others—that happen to be members of the euro zone. Specifically, these are public-debt problems, stemming from bad budget management by their governments. But there is no logical link between these countries’ fiscal situations and the functioning of the euro system.

Salin then looks at how the artificial link was created between the euro currency and the fiscal crisis, and he makes a very good analogy (and I think it’s good because I’ve made the same point) to a potential state-level bankruptcy in America.

The public-debt problem becomes a euro problem only insofar as governments arbitrarily decide that there must be some “European solidarity” inside the euro zone. But how does mutual participation in the same currency logically imply that spendthrift governments should get help from the others? When a state in the U.S. has a debt problem, one never hears that there is a “dollar crisis.” There is simply a problem of budget management in that state.

He then says a euro crisis is being created, but only because the European Central Bank has surrendered its independence and is conducting backdoor bailouts.

Because European politicians have decided to create an artificial link between national budget problems and the functioning of the euro system, they have now effectively created a “euro crisis.” To help out badly managed governments, the European Central Bank is now buying public bonds issued by these governments or supplying liquidity to support their failing banks. In so doing, the ECB is violating its own principles and introducing harmful distortions.

Last but not least, Salin warns that politicians are using the crisis as an excuse for more bad policy – sort of the European version of Mitchell’s Law, with one bad policy (excessive spending) being the precursor of additional bad policy (centralization).

Politicians now argue that “saving the euro” will require not only propping up Europe’s irresponsible governments, but also centralizing decision-making. This is now the dominant opinion of politicians in Europe, France in particular. There are a few reasons why politicians in Paris might take that view. They might see themselves being in a similar situation as Greece in the near future, so all the schemes to “save the euro” could also be helpful to them shortly. They might also be looking to shift public attention away from France’s internal problems and toward the rest of Europe instead. It’s easier to complain about what one’s neighbors are doing than to tackle problems at home. France needs drastic tax cuts and far-reaching deregulation and labor-market liberalization. Much simpler to get the media worked up about the next “euro crisis” meeting with Angela Merkel.

This is a bit of a dry topic, but it has enormous implications since Europe already is a mess and the fiscal crisis sooner or later will spread to the supposedly prudent nations such as Germany and the Netherlands. And, thanks to entitlement programs, the United States isn’t that far behind.

So may as well enjoy some humor before the world falls apart, including this cartoon about bailouts to Europe from America, the parody video about Germany and downgrades, this cartoon about Greece deciding to stay in the euro, this “how the Greeks see Europe” map, and this cartoon about Obama’s approach to the European model.

P.S. Here’s a video narrated by a former Cato intern about the five lessons America should learn from the European fiscal crisis.

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For quite some time, I’ve thought of Herman van Rompuy as the poster child of Europe’s incompetent political elite.

Virtually unknown to people in the real world (his sole claim to fame is that a British MEP, in a speech that went viral on YouTube, said he resembled a “low-grade bank clerk”), the President of the European Council manages to blunder from one mistake to another.

But Jose Manuel Barroso, President of the European Commission, is trying very hard to be an even bigger joke.

Well, Barroso now has done something else that deserves mockery and scorn. He’s whining that some of his opponents are happy about the mess in Europe.

Here’s some of what the EU Observer reported.

European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso Tuesday (3 July) launched an angry attack on British Conservative’s in the European Parliament, accusing them of “taking delight” in the eurozone debt crisis. …Barroso’s outburst in Strasbourg followed a speech by Tory MEP Martin Callanan, who heads the eurosceptic ECR group.

Since I also experience some Schadenfreude about the mess in Europe, I suspect Barroso is right that the Tories are enjoying the situation. But that doesn’t give Barroso any moral authority to complain since the fiscal crisis largely exists because of policies he supported.

I also can’t resist adding this passage from the story.

President Barroso said he was “puzzled” that British eurosceptics were encouraging countries to leave the euro adding that this was “in stark contrast” to statements made by UK Prime Minister David Cameron.

Barroso is right. There is a gulf between the views of British MEPs and the attitude of the U.K.’s Prime Minister. But that’s because David Cameron is a wobbly statist with no strong beliefs (other than that he should be Prime Minister).

Arguing over who’s the biggest buffoon

Barroso’s comments, in other words, are akin to an American leftist saying that Republicans shouldn’t attack Obama’s statist agenda because Bush supported the same big-government policies when he was President.

In closing, I will acknowledge that I agree with Barroso on one point. He warned that democracy could collapse in Europe if economic conditions continue to unravel, and I think that could happen. But, as I’ve explained before, Europe’s future is somewhat bleak because of the policies supported by Barroso and his fellow travelers like van Rompuy.

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With all the fiscal troubles in Greece, Spain, Ireland, Portugal, and Italy, there’s not much attention being paid to Cyprus.

But the Mediterranean island nation is a good case study illustrating the economic dangers of big government.

For all intents and purposes, Cyprus is now bankrupt, and the only question that remains to be answered is whether it will get handouts from the IMF-ECB-EC troika, handouts from Russia, or both. Here’s some of what has been reported by AP.

Cyprus’ president on Thursday defended his government’s decision to seek financial aid from the island nation’s eurozone partners while at the same time asking for a loan from Russia, insisting that the two are perfectly compatible. …Cyprus, with a population of 862,000 people, last week became the fifth country that uses the euro currency to seek a European bailout… The country is currently in talks with the so-called ‘troika’ — the body made up of officials from the European Commission, the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund — on how much bailout money it will need and the conditions that will come attached. Locked out of international markets because of its junk credit rating status, Cyprus is paying its bills thanks to a €2.5 billion ($3.14 billion) Russian loan that it clinched last year. But that money is expected to run out by the end of the year.

So what caused this mess? Is Cyprus merely the helpless and innocent victim of economic turmoil in nearby Greece?

That’s certainly the spin from Cypriot politicians, but the budget data shows that Cyprus is in trouble because of excessive spending. This chart, based on data from the International Monetary Fund, shows that the burden of government spending has jumped by an average of 8.3 percent annually since the mid-1990s.

My Golden Rule of fiscal policy is that government spending should grow slower than economic output. Nations that follow that rule generally enjoy good results, while nations that violate that rule inevitably get in trouble.

Interestingly, if Cypriot politicians had engaged in a very modest amount of spending restraint and limited annual budgetary increases to 3 percent, there would be a giant budget surplus today and the burden of government spending would be down to 21.4 percent of GDP, very close to the levels in the hyper-prosperous jurisdictions of Hong Kong and Singapore.

Actually, that’s not true. If the burden of government spending had grown as 3 percent instead of 8.3 percent, economic growth would have been much stronger, so GDP would have been much larger and the public sector would be an ever smaller share of economic output.

Speaking of GDP, the burden of government spending in Cyprus, measured as a share of GDP, has climbed dramatically since 1995.

A simple way to look at this data is that Cyprus used to have a Swiss-sized government and now it has a Greek-sized government. Government spending is just one of many policies that impact economic performance, but is anyone surprised that this huge increase in the size of the public sector has had a big negative impact on Cyprus?

Interestingly, if government spending had remained at 33.9 percent of GDP in Cyprus, the nation would have a big budget surplus today. Would that have required huge and savage budget cuts? Perhaps in the fantasy world of Paul Krugman, but politicians could have achieved that modest goal if they had simply limited annual spending increases to 6 percent.

But that was too “draconian” for Cypriot politicians, so they increased spending by an average of more than 8 percent each year.

What’s the moral of the story? Simply stated, the fiscal policy variable that matters most is the growth of government. Cyprus got in trouble because the burden of government grew faster than the productive sector of the economy.

That’s the disease, and deficits and debt are the symptoms of that underlying problem.

Europe’s political elite doubtlessly will push for higher taxes, but that approach – at best – simply masks the symptoms in the short run and usually exacerbates the disease in the long run.

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