Tag: Greece

Which Nation Will Be the Next European Debt Domino…or Will It Be the United States?

Thanks to decades of reckless spending by European welfare states, the newspapers are filled with headlines about debt, default, contagion, and bankruptcy.

We know that Greece and Ireland already have received direct bailouts, and other European welfare states are getting indirect bailouts from the European Central Bank, which is vying with the Federal Reserve in a contest to see which central bank can win the “Most Likely to Appease the Political Class” Award.

But which nation will be the next domino to fall? Who will get the next direct bailout?

Some people think total government debt is the key variable, and there’s been a lot of talk that debt levels of 90 percent of GDP represent some sort of fiscal Maginot Line. Once nations get above that level, there’s a risk of some sort of crisis.

But that’s not necessarily a good rule of thumb. This chart, based on 2010 data from the Economist Intelligence Unit (which can be viewed with a very user-friendly map), shows that Japan’s debt is nearly 200 percent of GDP, yet Japanese debt is considered very safe, based on the market for credit default swaps, which measures the cost of insuring debt. Indeed, only U.S. debt is seen as a better bet.

Interest payments on debt may be a better gauge of a nation’s fiscal health. The next chart shows the same countries (2011 data), and the two nations with the highest interest costs, Greece and Ireland, already have been bailed out. Interestingly, Japan is in the best shape, even though it has the biggest debt. This shows why interest rates are very important. If investors think a nation is safe, they don’t require high interest rates to compensate them for the risk of default (fears of future inflation also can play a role, since investors don’t like getting repaid with devalued currency).

Based on this second chart, it appears that Italy, Portugal, and Belgium are the next dominos to topple. Portugal may be the best bet (no pun intended) based on credit default swap rates, and that certainly is consistent with the current speculation about an official bailout.

Spain is the wild card in this analysis. It has the second-lowest level of both debt and interest payments as shares of GDP, but the CDS market shows that Spanish government debt is a greater risk than bonds from either Italy or Belgium.

By the way, the CDS market shows that lending money to Illinois and California is also riskier than lending to either Italy or Belgium.

The moral of the story is that there is no magic point where deficit spending leads to a fiscal crisis, but we do know that it is a bad idea for governments to engage in reckless spending over a long period of time. That’s a recipe for stifling taxes and large deficits. And when investors see the resulting combination of sluggish growth and rising debt, eventually they will run out of patience.

The Bush-Obama policy of big government has moved America in the wrong direction. But if the data above is any indication, America probably has some breathing room. What happens on the budget this year may be an indication of whether we use that time wisely.

American Taxpayers Should Not Bail Out the European Union

The fiscal disintegration of Europe is bad news, though I confess to a bit of malicious glee every time I read about welfare states such as Greece and Portugal getting to the point where they no longer have the ability to borrow enough money to finance their bloated public sectors (I have mixed feelings about Ireland since that nation at least has been a good example of low tax corporate tax rates, but I still think they should get punished for over-spending and bailouts). This I-told-you-so attitude is not very mature on my part, but one hopes that American politicians will learn the right lessons and something good will come from this mess.

I have not written much about the topic in recent months, in part because I don’t have much to add to my original post about this issue back in February. All the arguments I made then are still true, particularly about the moral hazard of bailouts and the economic damage of rewarding excessive government. So why bother repeating myself, particularly since this is an issue for Europeans to solve (or, as is their habit, to make worse)?

Unfortunately, it appears that all of us need to pay closer attention to this issue. The Obama Administration apparently thinks American taxpayers should subsidize European profligacy. Here’s a passage from a Reuters report about a potential bailout for Europe via the IMF.

The United States would be ready to support the extension of the European Financial Stability Facility via an extra commitment of money from the International Monetary Fund, a U.S. official told Reuters on Wednesday. “There are a lot of people talking about that. I think the European Commission has talked about that,” said the U.S. official, commenting on enlarging the 750 billion euro ($980 billion) EU/IMF European stability fund. “It is up to the Europeans. We will certainly support using the IMF in these circumstances.” “There are obviously some severe market problems,” said the official, speaking on condition of anonymity. “In May, it was Greece. This is Ireland and Portugal. If there is contagion that’s a huge problem for the global economy.”

This issue will be an interesting test for the GOP. I think it’s safe to say that the Tea Party movement didn’t elect Republicans so they could expand the culture of bailouts - especially if that means handouts for profligate European governments. Some people will argue that American taxpayers aren’t at risk because this would be a bailout from the IMF instead of the Treasury. But that’s an absurd and dishonest assertion. The United States is the largest “shareholder” in that international bureaucracy, and there’s no way the IMF can get more involved without American support.

In some sense, this is a corporatism vs. free markets battle for Republicans. Big banks and Wall Street often support bailouts since they like the idea of somebody else saving them from their bad investment decisions (though American financial institutions fortunately are not as exposed as their European counterparts). Economists despise bailouts, by contrast, since they subsidize risky choices and lead to the misallocation of capital.

Which side is John Boehner on? Or Mitch McConnell? And what about Mitt Romney, or Mike Huckabee?

Fannie Mae and Greece’s Problems Enabled by Basel

On the surface the failures of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac would appear to have little connection to the fiscal crisis in Greece, outside of both occurring in or around the time of a global financial crisis.  Of course in the case of Fannie and Freddie, primary blame lies with their management and with Congress.  Primary blame for Greece’s problems clearly lies with the Greek government. 

Neither Greece or Fannie would have been able to get into as much trouble, however, if financial institutions around the world had not loaded up on their debt.  One reason, if not the primary reason, for bailing out both Greece and the US’s government sponsored enterprises is the adverse impact their failures would have on the banking system.

Yet bankers around the world did not blindly load up on both Greek and GSE debt, they were encouraged to by the bank regulators via the Basel capital standards.  Under Basel, the amount of capital a bank is required to hold against an asset is a function of its risk category.  For the highest risk assets, like corporate bonds, banks are required to hold 8%.  Yet for those seen as the lowest risk, short term government bonds, banks aren’t required to hold any capital.  So while you’d have to hold 8% capital against say, Ford bonds, you don’t have to hold any capital against Greek debt.  Depending on the difference between the weights and the debt yields, such a system provides very strong incentives to load up on the highest yielding bonds of the least risky class.  Fannie and Freddie debt required holding only 1.6% capital.  Very small losses in either Greek or GSE debt would cause massive losses to the banks, due to their large holdings of both.

The potential damage to the banking system from the failures of Greece and the GSEs is not the result of a free market run wild.  It was the very clear and predictable result of misguided and mismanaged government policies meant to create a steady market for government borrowing.

The Welfare State, Taken to Its Logical Conclusion

The economic tragedy unfolding in Greece is the welfare state taken to its logical conclusion.  When groups of people use the state to live at the expense of others, the feedback loop about the costs of those transfers is attenuated – often by design.  The welfare state therefore makes commitments that it cannot honor.  By the time creditors or taxpayers say, “Enough,” the welfare state has created a clash between expectations and means that leads to unrest and hardship – a clash that never had to occur.

Reuters reports that this tragedy is playing itself out in Canada, where the Medicare system is straining the budgets of taxpayers and provincial governments – even as Canada remains infamous for providing inadequate access to care.  According to Reuters, the provincial government in populous Ontario predicts that “health care could eat up 70 percent of its budget in 12 years, if all these costs are left unchecked.”  Toronto-Dominion Bank senior economist at Derek Burleton remarks:

There’s got to be some change to the status quo…We can’t continually see health spending growing above and beyond the growth rate in the economy because, at some point, it means crowding out of all the other government services.  At some stage we’re going to hit a breaking point.

The provinces are contemplating measures that would further reduce access, such as ratcheting government price controls downward, “health taxes” on medical services, and (gasp!) charging patients. (Speaking of feedback loops, an economist at Scotia Capital reasons that patients “will use the services more wisely if they know how much it’s costing…If it’s absolutely free with no information on the cost and the information of an alternative that would be have been more practical, then how can we expect the public to wisely use the service?”)

The Greek and Canadian dramas are a preview of what the welfare state, aided by its most recent expansion, will provoke here in the United States.  Again, Reuters:

Canada, fretting over budget strains, wants to prune its system, while the United States, worrying about an army of uninsured, aims to create a state-backed safety net.

Burleton captures the problem nicely:

[F]rom an economist’s standpoint, we point to the fact that sometimes Canadians in the short term may not realize the cost.

Indeed, that’s the very essence of the welfare state, and why its logical outcome is crisis.

Europe’s Über Bailout

I’m semi-impressed with the Europeans for choosing the hog-wild approach to bailouts. Not because it is good policy, but rather because it will be a useful demonstration of the old rule that bad policy begets more bad policy (which begets God knows what, but it won’t be pretty). The background is that many European nations have been over-spending, over-taxing, and over-regulating. This has created a poisonous combination of weak economies, pervasive dependency, and political corruption, with Greece being the nation farthest down the path to Krugman-topia. Europe’s political elite at first thought they could paper over the problems with a $140 billion Greek bailout. The ostensible motives were to stop contagion and to demonstrate “solidarity,” but behind-the-scenes lobbying by big European banks (which foolishly own a lot of government debt from profligate nations such as Greece, Portugal, Spain, and Italy) may have been the most important factor. Regardless of the real motive, the original bailout was a flop, so the political class has decided to go with the in-for-a-dime-in-for-a-dollar approach and commit nearly $1 trillion of other people’s money to prop up the continent’s welfare states. The Wall Street Journal reports on the issue, noting that American taxpayers will be involuntary participants thanks to the financial world’s keystone cops at the International Monetary Fund:

The European Union agreed on an audacious €750 billion ($955 billion) bailout plan in an effort to stanch a burgeoning sovereign debt crisis that began in Greece but now threatens the stability of financial markets world-wide. The money would be available to rescue euro-zone economies that get into financial troubles. The plan would consist of €440 billion of loans from euro-zone governments, €60 billion from an EU emergency fund and €250 billion from the International Monetary Fund. Immediately after the announcement, the European Central Bank said it is ready to buy euro-zone government and private bonds “to ensure depth and liquidity” in markets, and the U.S. Federal Reserve announced it would reopen swap lines with other central banks to make sure they had ample access to dollars.

Back when Greece first began to collapse, I argued that bankruptcy was the best option. And I noted more recently that my colleague Jeff Miron reached the same conclusion. Everything that has since happened reinforces this viewpoint. Here are a few additional observations on this latest chapter in the collapse of the welfare state.

1. A bailout does not solve the problem. It just means that taxpayers bear the cost rather than the banks that foolishly lent money to corrupt and incompetent governments.

2. A bailout rewards profligate politicians and creates a moral hazard problem by letting other politicians think that it is possible to dodge consequences for reckless choices.

3. A bailout undermines growth by misallocating capital, both directly via bailouts and indirectly by signaling to financial markets and investors that governments are a “safe” investment.

4. A bailout will cause a short-term rise in the market by directly or indirectly replenishing the balance sheets of financial institutions, but this will be completely offset by the long-run damage caused by moral hazard and capital misallocation.

The last point deserves a bit of elaboration. Assuming markets continue to rise, the politicians will interpret this to mean their policies are effective. But that is akin to me robbing my neighbor and then boasting about how my net wealth has increased. In the long run (which is probably not too long from now), though, this system will not work. At best, Europe’s political elite have postponed the day of reckoning and almost certainly created the conditions for an even more severe set of consequences. No wonder, when I was in Europe a couple of weeks ago, I kept running in to people who were planning on how to protect their families and their money when the welfare state scam unravels. Their biggest challenge, though, is finding someplace to go. People use to think the United States was a safe option, but the Bush-Obama policies of bigger government have pushed America much closer to European levels of fiscal instability.

Doing Business in Greece and Europe’s Economic Crisis

In a telling editorial today, the Wall Street Journal extensively cites the World Bank’s Doing Business annual survey to explain an underlying cause of the Greek crisis. Burdensome regulations, high taxes, and a costly legal system make it extremely difficult to start and run a business in Greece. The country ranks last in terms of the ease of doing business among the 27 members of the European Union, and it ranks 109 out of 183 countries.

The need for fundamental structural reform, including of public pension systems, there and in much of Europe will be the message of Simeon Djankov, Bulgaria’s deputy prime minister and minister of finance, as he speaks at a Cato policy forum next Tuesday. Cato senior fellow Steve Hanke, “father” of Bulgaria’s successful currency board, will also speak.

Before his current post in Bulgaria, Djankov was the initiator and lead author of the Doing Business report that is now being so widely cited in relation to Greece’s woes. No doubt he’ll have something to say about that.

For a further description of the long-term lack of economic freedom in Greece, see this op-ed by prominent Greek journalist Takis Michas, which was based on his talk at a recent Cato policy forum.

As Goes Greece,…

Today Politico Arena asks:

What are the implications for us of the crisis in Greece?

My response:

The questions posed to Arena contributors this morning, prompted by the unfolding Greek tragedy and its implications, are several, but they go well beyond economics. “Unwise lending and excessive borrowing” led to the tragedy, Steven Pearlstein notes in the Washington Post, but he adds that “there is little doubt that Greece’s debt crisis is of its own making, the result of corruption and tax avoidance and that seductive Mediterranean coupling of high living and low productivity.”

More immediately, in the Wall Street Journal today we find that when it comes to “overall ease of doing business,” the World Bank ranks Greece 109 out of 183 countries — “dead last among the 27 members of the European Union,” the Journal notes.  “You have to go up 30 slots to find the next worst EU performer, Italy.” Pointing to Sacramento, Albany, and Washington, for good reason, the Journal’s editorialists conclude that “Greece shows that the welfare state model of development, dominated by public unions, onerous regulations, high taxes and the political allocation of capital, has hit the wall.”

Indeed it has, but notice that underpinning this tale are political and moral concerns. To touch on just two, the European Union is a textbook example of the downside of political union. To be sure, there is an upside, especially when union eliminates parochial restrictions on free association, as has happened to a substantial extent under the EU. But to move beyond creating a free market, to create instead a regime of mutual obligations as reflected in the phrase “we’re all in this together,” is to invite the very moral hazard we see before us today. Angela Merkel is in a political bind precisely because, as Pearlstein notes, prudent Germans are recoiling “at the thought of bailing out the profligate Greeks.” Milton Friedman put it simply: No one spends someone else’s money as carefully as he spends his own.

And that leads to a second concern, of particular importance in our own case. It was to gain the benefits of union while avoiding its downside that America’s Founders drafted our Constitution so carefully, giving Congress the power to override state restrictions on interstate commerce, for example, but otherwise leaving us free, as private citizens and associations, to plan our own affairs and live our own lives. That, however, was anathema to the social engineers of the Progressive Era, the elites who sought “change” through the collective undertakings of the modern administrative state. “Our task now,” said FDR, is one of “distributing wealth and products more equitably,” precisely what the Constitution forbade. And so Roosevelt, with his Court-packing threat, turned the document on its head — or, as Rexford Tugwell would later put it, “To the extent that these new social virtues [i.e., New Deal policies] developed, they were tortured interpretations of a document intended to prevent them.” There followed, of course, endless redistributive schemes, federal, state, and local, that have brought us today to the “unwise lending and excessive borrowing” that surrounds and suffocates us.

As goes Greece,…