Entries in Europe (2)

Tuesday
Feb212012

The Greek Tragedy and Great Depression lessons not learned  

Greece has been the most pillaged country in Europe this Depression, among other reasons, because no one in any leadership position seems to have learned lessons from the 1930s. Plus, banks have more power now than they did then to call the shots.

Despite no signs of the first bailout working – certainly not in growing the Greek economy or helping its population - but not even in being sufficient to cover speculative losses, Euro elites finalized another 130 billion Euro, ($170 billion) bailout today. This is ostensibly to avoid banks’ and credit default swap players’ wrath over the possibility of Greece defaulting on 14.5 billion Euros in bonds.

Bailout promoters seem to believe (or pretend) that: bank bailout debt + more bank bailout debt + selling national assets at discount prices + oppressive unemployment = economic health. They fail to grasp that severe austerity hasn’t, and won’t, turn Greece (or any country) around. Banks, of course, just  want to protect their bets and not wait around for Greece to really stabilize for repayment.

Prior to the Great Depression, the Greek economy experienced years of growth, a healthy commercial activity spree, and like today, a stark increase in (less-leveraged) bank loans to finance it. When the Depression struck, banks and local businesses faced unpayable loans and declining asset values.  (Stop me when this sounds familiar).

Credit constricted immediately, choking internal economic activity.  In 1928, the Greek Drachma was tied to the gold standard, but pegged to the British pound. When Britain devalued its pound in 1931, the Greek government responded by raising public investments and pegging the Drachma to the US dollar.

But by early 1932, central bank reserves had fallen so much that they only backed 40% of Greek bonds. Even without the slow drip of rating agency downgrades to highlight this leveraged debt situation (which is nothing compared to say, today’s US reserves vs. debt leverage), the lack of reserves caused foreign speculators to fleece the Drachma/dollar exchange rate. Bond yields blew out. Borrowing costs shot up.  

So in March 1932, the League of Nation’s (the precursor bank bailout entity to the ECB/IMF) agreed to provide a loan to service Greece’s debt in return for – wait for it - austerity measures. Unlike today, the government said ‘hell no.’ Instead, in April, 1932, it floated the Drachma - which devalued quickly. It also declared a public debt moratorium, and increased infrastructure spending to strengthen its economy. It negotiated repayment terms with creditors for overdue interest.  By 1934, agriculture and industrial production rose, the currency was more stable, employment increased, and the budget balanced.

The situation is different now. Though national Greek banks registered relatively few domestic loan losses in 2009 ( a fact unrecognized by the bailout supporters), they did begin taking losses in their trading books due to various international bets. Their borrowing and margin costs rose sharply and quickly with each rating downgrade which increased their trade losses, and kept them from extending or renegotiating loans locally, which caused more economic pain for the population.

Greece would have been better off, had it not suffered a rapid series of downgrades and been pulverized by subsequent hot-money flight and pressure. Despite a clear warning from the Central Bank of Greece in late 2009 (when Greece was critical, but breathing) that it could sustain its costs if they didn’t rise egregiously, Moody’s (and later others) cut Greece’s sovereign debt rating from A1 to A2 in December, 2009.  From that point on, the international banking community went into ravage mode, fast.

Moody's cut Greece’s debt again, to A3 in April, 2010, to Ba1 (junk) in June, 2010, and to B1 in March, 2011. Three months later, Greece’s rating was cut to Caa1. By September, 2011 the six biggest Greek banks were downgraded to Caa2, a smidge above default levels, crushing national credit flow to the population.

When any country is downgraded from single A to junk within 18 months, it has to issue more expensive debt to stay even, which by definition, makes the credit-worthiness of its bonds decline.  As in any country, Greece's banks are big buyers of its government bonds. They also use those bonds as collateral for other borrowing  and trades - with each other – and with  international banks.

As Greek banks weakened and borrowing costs soared, their ability to buy Greek bonds from their own government diminished, which weakened the value of government debt. Circularly, Greek banks took further hits for holding the devalued Greek bonds and thus become weaker - further reducing their ability to sustain local needs.

That is why the Greek government wants to bolster its now junk-rated banks (in addition to the money that banks are getting directly from bailout-for-austerity loans) and foreign ones, at the cost of hurting the population.  But since the economy (even at its healthiest level ever) can’t sustain its bailout borrowing costs (as opposed to its operating costs which would have been payable without the increased rates and bailout principle mixed in), this is an unstoppable downward spiral.

Greece’s GDP has contracted 13% (by 7% in the last quarter of 2011) from a late 2008 record high. (By comparison, the United Kingdom’s GDP has fallen by 20% in the same period, and though its unemployment rate has risen, its borrowing costs remain manageably low, making it cheaper to sustain its banks.) Greece’s savings rate at 7.5% is at three decade lows (but still higher than that of the US).

Meanwhile, Greece’s debt to GDP ratio is 160%. (It hovered around 100% from 1994 through 2008.) The unemployment rate at 20.9%, and the youth unemployment rate at 48%, has doubled since January 2008. There is nothing to indicate it won’t keep rising.

Money continues fleeing Greek banks, bonds, and stocks, as citizens try to preserve what they can, and foreign speculators play a game of chicken with bailout providers. The Greek stock market stands at just one-fifth of its January 2008 level. Ten year government bond yields are at 33%, compared to 5% just two years ago.

The speed and intensity of Greece’s decline reflects nothing short of an international mafia-style hit.

The majority of Greek workers didn’t break the government’s back, even if a very small subset strained it. Further, the more bailout measures forced on Greece, the more its economy will be ravaged to repay them.  After four rounds of austerity, nationwide protests, $110 billion Euros in IMF and ECB bailouts, escalating interest rates driving borrowing costs higher and choking credit, a downgrade to junk, a Prime Minister replacement, and now another big bailout, Greece’s tragedy is just beginning.

Yet lessons from the Great Depression exist. By floating the Drachma (the equivalent of leaving the Euro), negotiating individually with creditors (telling banks to back off), and increasing internal public focus (the opposite of what's going on now) Greece was able to stabilize more quickly than larger European countries. It’s not entirely too late to try again: but it requires the currently unimaginable: a political will that is population – rather than bank – oriented.

 

Wednesday
Nov302011

The Fed’s European “Rescue”: Another back-door US Bank / Goldman bailout?

In the wake of chopping its Central Bank swap rates today, the Fed has been called a bunch of names: a hero for slugging the big bailout bat in the ninth inning, and a villain for printing money to help Europe at the expense of the US. Neither depiction is right.

The Fed is merely continuing its unfettered brand of bailout-economics, promoted with heightened intensity recently by President Obama and Treasury Secretary, Tim Geithner in the wake of Germany not playing bailout-ball.  Recall, a couple years ago, it was a uniquely American brand of BIG bailouts that the Fed adopted in creating $7.7 trillion of bank subsidies that ran the gamut from back-door AIG bailouts (some of which went to US / some to European banks that deal with those same US banks), to the purchasing of mortgage-backed–securities, to near zero-rate loans (for banks).

Similarly, today’s move was also about protecting US banks from losses – self inflicted by dangerous derivatives-chain trades, again with each other, and with European banks.

Before getting into the timing of the Fed’s god-father actions, let’s discuss its two kinds of swaps (jargon alert - a swap is a trade between two parties for some time period – you swap me a sweater for a hat because I’m cold, when I’m warmer, we’ll swap back). The Fed had both of these kinds of swaps set up and ready-to-go in the form of : dollar liquidity swap lines and foreign currency liquidity swap lines. Both are administered through Wall Street's staunchest ally, and Tim Geithner's old stomping ground, the New York Fed.

The dollar swap lines give foreign central banks the ability to borrow dollars against their currency, use them for whatever they want - like to shore up bets made by European banks that went wrong, and at a later date, return them. A ‘temporary dollar liquidity swap arrangement” with 14 foreign central banks was available between December 12, 2007 (several months before Bear Stearn’s collapse and 9 months before the Lehman Brothers’ bankruptcy that scared Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley into getting the Fed’s instant permission to become bank holding companies, and thus gain access to any Feds subsidies.)

Those dollar-swap lines ended on February 1, 2010. BUT – three months later, they were back on, but this time the FOMC re-authorized dollar liquidity swap lines with only 5 central banks through January 2011. BUT – on December 21, 2010 – the FOMC extended the lines through August 1, 2011. THEN– on June 29th, 2011, these lines were extended through August 1, 2012.  AND NOW – though already available, they were announced with save-the-day fanfare as if they were just considered.

Then, there are the sneakily-dubbed “foreign currency liquidity swap” lines, which, as per the Fed's own words, provide "foreign currency-denominated liquidity to US banks.” (Italics mine.) In other words, let US banks play with foreign bonds.

These were originally used with 4 foreign banks on April, 2009  and expired on February 1, 2010. Until they were resurrected today, November 30, 2011, with foreign currency swap arrangements between the Fed, Bank of Canada, Bank of England, Bank of Japan. Swiss National Bank and the European Central Bank.

They are to remain in place until February 1, 2013, longer than the original time period for which they were available during phase one of the global bank-led meltdown, the US phase. (For those following my work, we are in phase two of four, the European phase.)

That’s a lot  of jargon, but keep these two things in mind: 1) these lines, by the Fed’s own words, are to provide help to US banks. and 2) they are open ended.

There are other reasons that have been thrown up as to why the Fed acted now – like, a European bank was about to fail. But, that rumor was around in the summer and nothing happened. Also, dozens of European banks have been downgraded, and several failed stress tests. Nothing. The Fed didn’t step in when it was just Greece –or Ireland  - or when there were rampant ‘contagion’ fears, and Italian bonds started trading above 7%, rising unabated despite the trick of former Goldman Sachs International advisor Mario Monti replacing former Prime Minister, Silvio Berlusconi’s with his promises of fiscally conservative actions (read: austerity measures) to come.

Perhaps at that point, Goldman thought they had it all under control, but Germany's bailout-resistence was still a thorn, which is why its bonds got hammered in the last auction, proving that big Finance will get what it wants, no matter how dirty it needs to play.  Nothing from the Fed, except a small increase in funding to the IMF.

Rating agency, Moody’s  announced it was looking at possibly downgrading 87 European banks. Still the Fed waited with open lines. And then, S&P downgraded the US banks again, including Goldman ,making their own financing costs more expensive and the funding of their seismic derivatives positions more tenuous. The Fed found the right moment. Bingo.

Now, consider this: the top four US banks (JPM Chase, Citibank, Bank of America and Goldman Sachs) control nearly 95% of the US derivatives market, which has grown by 20% since last year to  $235 trillion. That figure is a third of all global derivatives of $707 trillion (up from $601 trillion in December, 2010 and $583 trillion mid-year 2010. )

Breaking that down:  JPM Chase holds 11% of the world’s derivative exposure, Citibank, Bank of America, and Goldman comprise about 7% each. But, Goldman has something the others don’t – a lot fewer assets beneath its derivatives stockpile. It has 537 times as many (from 440 times last year) derivatives as assets. Think of a 537 story skyscraper on a one story see-saw. Goldman has $88 billon in assets, and $48 trillion in notional derivatives exposure. This is by FAR the highest ratio of derivatives to assets of any so-called bank backed by a government. The next highest ratio belongs to Citibank with $1.2 trillion in assets and $56 trillion in derivative exposure, or 46 to 1. JPM Chase's ratio is 44 to 1. Bank of America’s ratio is 36 to 1.  

Separately Goldman happened to have lost a lot of money in Foreign Exchange derivative positions last quarter. (See Table 7.) Goldman’s loss was about equal to the total gains of the other banks, indicative of some very contrarian trade going on. In addition, Goldman has the most credit risk with respect to the capital  it holds, by a factor of 3 or 4 to 1 relative to the other big banks. So did the Fed's timing have something to do with its star bank? We don't really know for sure. 

Sadly, until there’s another FED audit, or FOIA request, we’re not going to know which banks are the beneficiaries of the Fed’s most recent international largesse either, nor will we know what their specific exposures are to each other, or to various European banks, or which trades are going super-badly.

But we do know from the US bailouts in phase one of the global meltdown, that providing ‘liquidity' or ‘greasing the wheels of ‘ banks in times of ‘emergency’ does absolute nothing for the Main Street Economy. Not in the US. And not in Europe. It also doesn’t fix anything, it just funds bad trades with impunity.