Thursday, 27 May 2010

Conway: Is Europe heading for a meltdown?

I don't share Edmund Conway's views on how to resolve our financial woes, but I do share his fear that the worst is still to come:
Mervyn King, the Bank of England Governor, summed it up best: "Dealing with a banking crisis was difficult enough," he said the other week, "but at least there were public-sector balance sheets on to which the problems could be moved. Once you move into sovereign debt, there is no answer; there's no backstop."
The European financial crisis may look and smell rather different to the American banking crisis of a couple of years ago, but strip away the details – the breakdown of the euro, the crumbling of the Spanish banking system to take just two – and what you are left with is the next leg of a global financial crisis. Politicians temporarily "solved" the sub-prime crisis of 2007 and 2008 by nationalising billions of pounds' worth of bank debt. While this helped reinject a little confidence into markets, the real upshot was merely to transfer that debt on to public-sector balance sheets.

This kind of card-shuffle trick has a long-established pedigree: after the dotcom bust, Alan Greenspan slashed US interest rates to (then) unprecedented lows, which helped dull the pain, but only at the cost of generating the housing bubble that fed sub-prime. It is not so different to the Ponzi scheme carried out by Bernard Madoff, except that unlike his hedge fund fraud, this one is being carried out in full public view.
Conway goes on to explain the unsustainable nature of our boom-time borrowing and spending:
The Club Med nations – and in many senses Britain – were not so different to sub-prime households: they borrowed cheap in order to raise their standards of living, ignoring the question of whether they could afford to take on so much debt. But, as King points out, sub-prime households – and the banks that lent to them – can usually be bailed out. The International Monetary Fund simply does not have enough cash to bail out a major economy like Spain, Italy or, heaven forfend, Britain. So, again, we find ourselves in unknown territory.
Later in the article, Conway gets closer than ever to understanding the true horror of our predicament:
The problem is not merely that holders of Greek government debt would dump their investments, or even that they would ditch their Spanish and Portuguese bonds while they were at it. It is that government debt is the very bedrock of the financial system: should Greek government bonds collapse, the country's banking system would become insolvent overnight. In fact, banks throughout the euro area would be at risk, given that they tend to hold so much of their neighbours' government debt.
But despite these insights, Conway still clings to the Keynesian illusion that prosperity can be achieved through increased consumption:
Spain and Italy are, rightly, inflicting severe cuts on their budgets, but so is Germany, which ought, according to a host of economists including Mervyn King, to be spending more, not less.
On the contrary, real wealth is generated by deferred gratification, savings and investment.

Dark times lie ahead.

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