Entries in Greece (4)


In a World of Volatility and Artificial Liquidity for Banks, Update your Cash Strategy

(This piece originally appeared at Peak Prosperity.)

Global central banks are afraid. Before Greece stood up to the Troika, they were merely worried. Now it’s clear that no matter what they tell themselves and the world about the necessity or even righteousness of their monetary policies, liquidity can still disappear in an instant. Or at least, that’s what they should be thinking.

The Federal Reserve and US government led policy of injecting liquidity into the US and then into the worldwide financial system has resulted in the issuance of trillions of dollars of debt, recycling it through the largest private banks, and driving rates to 0% -- or below. The combined book of debt that the Fed and European Central Bank (ECB) hold is $7 trillion. None of that has gone remotely into fixing the real global economy. Nor have the banks that have ben aided by this cheap money increased lending to the real economy. Instead, they have hoarded their bounty of cash. It’s not so much whether this game can continue for the near future on an international scale. It can. It is. The bigger problem is that central banks have no plan B in the event of a massive liquidity event.  

Some central bank entity leaders have admitted this. IMF chief, Christine Lagarde for instance, warned Federal Reserve Chair, Janet Yellen that potential US rate hikes implemented too soon, would incite greater systemic calamity. She’s not wrong. That’s what we’ve come to: a financial system reliant on external stimulus to survive.

These “emergency” measures were supposed to have healed the problems that caused the financial crisis of 2008 -- the excessive leverage, the toxic assets wrapped in complex derivatives, the resultant credit and liquidity crunch that occurred when banks lost faith in each other. Meanwhile, the infusion of cheap money and liquidity into banks gave a select few of them more power over a greater pool of capital than ever. Stock and bond markets skyrocketed as a result of this unprecedented central bank support.

QE-infinity isn’t a solution -- it’s a deflection. It’s a form of financial subterfuge that causes extra problems. These range from asset bubbles to the inability of pension and life insurance funds to source longer term less risky long-term assets like government bonds, that pay enough interest for them to meet liabilities. They are thus at risk of rapid future deterioration and more shortfalls precisely because they have nothing to invest in besides more risky stock and lower-rated bond markets.

Even the latest Bank of International Settlement (BIS) 85th Annual Report revealed the extent to which global entities supervising the banking system are worried. They harbor growing fears about greater repercussions from this illusion of market health (echoing concerns I and others have been writing about for the past seven years.)

The BIS, or bank for the central banks was established during the global Great Depression in 1930 in Basel, Switzerland, when bank runs on people’s deposits were the norm. The body no longer buys into zero-interest rate policy as an economic cure-all. In their words, “Globally, interest rates have been extraordinarily low for an exceptionally long time, in nominal and inflation-adjusted terms, against any benchmark. Such low rates are the remarkable symptom of a broader malaise in the global economy.”

They go on to note the obvious, “The economic expansion is unbalanced, debt burdens and financial risks are still too high, productive growth too low, and the room for maneuvering in macroeconomic policy too limited. The unthinkable risks becoming routine and being perceived as the new normal.”

These are troubling words coming from an organization that would have much preferred to deem central bank policies a success. Yet the BIS also states, “Global financial markets remain dependent on central banks.” Dependent is a strong word. How quickly the idea of free markets has been turned on its head.

Further, the BIS says, “Central bank balance sheets remain at unprecedented high levels; and they grew even larger in several jurisdictions where the ultra low policy rate environments were reinforced with large purchases of domestic and foreign assets.”

Central banks are not yet there, but rising volatility is indicative of the accelerating approach to the nowhere left to go mark from a monetary policy perspective. This, after seven years of a reckless Anti-Main Street, inequality and instability inducing, policy.

Not only have the major banks been the main recipient of manufactured liquidity, they have also received consolidated access to our deposits, which they can use like hostages to negotiate future bailout situations. Elite bankers moan about the extra regulations they have had to endure in the wake of the financial crisis, while scooping up cash dispersed under the guise of stimulating the general economy.

Central banks seek fresh ways to keep the party going as countries like Greece shut down banks to contain capital flight, and places like Puerto Rico and multiple states and municipalities face economic ruin. But they are clueless as to what to do.

In this cauldron of instability and lack of leadership, cash is the one remaining financial possession that Main Street can translate into goods, services and security. That’s why private banks want more control over it.

Banks Want Your Cash For Their Latent Emergencies

One of the most inane reasons cited for restricting cash withdrawals for normal people is that they all might turn out to be drug dealers or terrorists. Meanwhile, drug-dealing-money-laundering terrorists tend to get away with it anyway, by sheer ability to use a plethora of banks and off shore havens to diffuse cash around the globe.

Every so often, years after the fact, some bank perpetrators receive money-laundering fines.  For average depositors though, these are excuses for a bureaucracy built upon limiting access to cash whether from an ATM (many have $500 per day limits, some have less) or an account (withdrawals above a certain level get reported to the IRS).

As Charles Hugh Smith wrote at Peak Prosperity recently, there’s a difference between physical cash (the kind you can touch and use immediately) and the electronic kind, associated with your bank balance or credit card cash advance limit.  If you hold it, you have it – even if keeping it in a bank means it’s probably slammed with various fees.

Banks, on the other hand, can leverage your deposits or cash, even while complying with various capital reserve requirements. That’s not new. But the expanding debates about how much of your cash you get to withdraw at any given moment, is.

The notion of a bail-in, or recourse to people’s deposits, is related to the idea of restricting the movement, or existence, of physical cash. Bail-ins, like any cash limitations, imply that if a bank needs emergency liquidity, your deposits are the place to find it, which has negative repercussion on your own solvency. This is exactly what the Glass-Steagall Act of 1933, coupled with the creation of the FDIC sought to avoid – banks confiscating your money at the worst possible times.

The ‘war on cash’ is thus really a war on the difference between the money you can hold on to and the money the banks can take away from you. The existence of this cash debate underscores the need for a personal policy of cash extraction from the big banks. If you don't have one, consider creating one sooner rather than later.



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.



Too Big to Fail or Too Stupid to Stop - Screw banks/not people

This morning, amidst news of Moodys cutting Greece's debt rating to Caa1, I came across a phrase I wish I'd thought of first, reading through a friend's morning commentary. The phrase? "Too Stupid to Stop". 

According to Bill Blain, Senior Director at Newedge in London, and self-professed Euro skeptic, "'Too Stupid to Stop' is based on politicians behaving as rational maximisers of their electoral objectives." He was referring to the real reason behind all the bank-demanded bailout loans for austerity measures throughout Europe.

In the United States, that mantra can be extended to include appointed officials, like Treasury Secretary, Tim Geithner (still not admitting our record debt increase came directly from the $4 trillion worth of Treasury issuance and other forms of assistance extended to our banking system since late 2008, as we endure his stomach-churning 'show-begging' to the GOP for a debt cap raise) and Fed Chairman, Ben Bernanke (ditto). It also, of course, applies to congress people whose political survival depends on corporate and bank contributions and financial support, the ones that believe the Dodd-Frank bill changes anything.

Rather than considering how governments have systematically done, and continue to do, the wrong (as in immoral, unfair, and uneconomically sound) thing by trying to preserve banks, any politicians possessing the ability to think independently (an oxymoron, I know) should be asking themselves instead, how clever they could be about closing them down. Take a cue from Iceland.

But, the 'Too Stupid to Stop" behavior, prevents this from occurring. 

Bill and I used to work together at Bear Stearns in London during the 1990s, before the Euro came into being. Then, arguments in favor of its inception were more about how it would lead to a 'much-needed' consolidation of political-economic control, rather than an engendering of widespread economic well-being to more European citizens, which didn't even enter the realm of political discussion.

Fifteen years, marked by global currency crises, a US recession caused by energy and telecommunications fraud, a bank fostered global Depression, and a persistent strategy to gouge citizens to pay for the sins of bankers, later -  nothing has changed.

What Greece should do is default. Not as a sign of economic weakness, but as a sign of protective strength befitting the notion of Democracy that the country is credited for having brought to the world. Default as an act of much-needed financial defiance and independence from the insatiability of banks.

Last year, Greece's bailout was fashioned in order to make foreign banks and their investors 'whole' on their investments in Greece. It had zero to do with strengthening Greece's local economy or its citizens' financial futures. Indeed, it was designed to further trash the Greek economy, to chain the country to untenable loan conditions that required selling assets at discount prices to pay off new and old debt, while callously condemning its population to decreased average wages and increased unemployment rates, particularly amongst the nation's youth.

Rather than telling those banks that were out the money - THEY HAD RISKED to begin with, to take the free-market, s**t happens, hit, all sorts of austerity measures were attached to the $157 billion bailout loan. They hurt citizens immediately in terms of reducing pension and other social-economic benefits, and hurt them ad infinitum by forcing ongoing fire sales of their national assets which resulted in job losses. The same banks on the hook for lending money to Greece during Phase 1 of the massive global leveraged bet gone wrong, demanded repayment for their risk (otherwise their investors would be upset). Now, they have a greater opportunity to scrounge (read: extract fees) for new deals via brokering European and global firms swooping in for fresh kill, amidst the remains of Greece's assets, such as communication and energy infrastructure.

And yet, rather than say - screw you - to the ECB and the IMF, and all the mega-banking conglomerates that signed off and received fees on deals and debt gone wrong, rather than say - you know what? - we owe a debt to OUR CITIZENS, not the banks that bet against them, and we don't like the terms of this arrangement, Greek politicians are saying - screw you citizens. Again.

Greece is set to present a brand new austerity plan on Friday calling for a FASTER pace of privatization, and more tax hikes on its citizens - just to be able to pay off bondholders and the risk incurred by international banks. This won't end well. If Greece does get a second bailout package, everyone will discover that absent a strategy to revive the local economy, the package will incur further pain, and at some point there won't be any national infrastructure left to sell, and unemployment will skyrocket further. A few bondholders will be happy temporarily because they DON'T CARE whether Greece succeeds or the ECB and IMF keeps creating debt to prop debt (like we do here in the US as a matter of economic policy), same difference. A few banks won't have to write down their losses for the same reason, and a few global corporations will have bought some more assets at rock-bottom prices in a country whose citizens won't be able to afford the payments that will be counted upon to price the related securitization deals. And Greece will be screwed even more.

The better plan would be to disband the Too Stupid to Stop mentality. Screw the banks. Sadly, it's a self-fullfilling downward spiral of incompetence - in Greece, Ireland, Portgual, Spain, Italy, and the United States where the Fed is gearing up for some verison of QE3 in the wake, ironically, of Euro-pay-the-banks, indenture-the-citizens, chaos.  

I have a feeling meanwhile, there will be a lot more Greeks protesting in the streets come Friday.