David McWilliams Explains Why Austerity Is Doomed In Europe

A very interesting video by an Irish economist explaining how the current reduce government spending (“austerity”) approach to the Eurozone debt and currency crisis is doomed to fail. It is doomed because cutting government spending in a recession only makes the recession worse, which in turn, reduces tax collections which then makes the government deficits worse not better.  But not only is the austerity approach all wrong to solving the debt crisis, it carries very significant risk of social upheaval.  (hat tip to Philip Pilkington and New Economic Perspectives).

Now I’ll offer one pre-emptive comment.  Critics of the arguments McWilliams makes often claim that either government spending isn’t really effective, that somehow only private investment spending will stimulate an economy.  Or, the critics claim that any resources the government puts into use through spending actually detract from the economy by denying those resources to some supposedly better, privately chosen use. Both of these criticism fail.  We are clearly discussing a situation in which there are excess, unused economic resources in the economy.  In plain language:  there’s high unemployment and people are out of work.  The criticisms are all based on an idea called “crowding out”.  For crowding out to occur, the economy must be at full employment – the opposite of being in a recession.

Warning: More Bank Bailouts Possible

One area I haven’t commented on much is the ongoing European “debt crisis”.  The Greek debt crisis is a part of it, but it’s only the tip of the iceberg.  The roots are much deeper.  One reason I haven’t commented is because it’s fairly complex and requires a lot of background explanation which I haven’t had time to write.  Nonetheless, it’s something worth mentioning.  In particular because it’s likely to mean more big bank bailouts.

In short, the crisis involves the way the Euro currency zone is constructed.  Countries that use the Euro have surrendered their sovereignty on monetary policy – that’s now the purview of the European Central Bank (ECB).  This means that government debt levels do matter for countries in the Euro.  They can default because they don’t have control over their own currency.  The U.S., Japan, UK, Canada, Australia, and others can’t default because they control their own central bank and currency.  But Euro countries can.  In the case of Greece and Ireland this means a high likelihood of default.  When the global economy crashed three years ago, it sent the economies of most countries down.  This raised the debt-to-GDP level by reducing the denominator, the GDP number.  But a country in a recession needs to increase government spending and deficits to stimulate growth.  Instead, the construction of the Euro agreement and pressures from the ECB forced these countries to pursue an austerity-based policy of cutting government programs.  But the cutting of government spending has only worsened the recession and shrunk their GDP even more, reducing tax collections.  It’s made default more likely.

In the Greek case, default appears inevitable.  The question is how much of a loss do bondholders take and when.  Therein lies a problem.  The people who own the Greek debt are largely big French and German banks. These banks themselves aren’t exactly robust.   If Greece defaults at a level that will actually help Greece find it’s way out instead of simply delaying the crisis, then these banks will likely take very heavy losses.  The losses are large enough to jeopardize the solvency of the banks themselves.  So Greek default also means figuring out how to recapitalize these big banks.  These are so-called “too big to fail banks”.

Currently there are negotiations going on about how to structure a  Greek default, simultaneously prop up the Euro banks, and stop a possible contagion effect from spreading to Ireland, Portugal, Spain, Italy, and Belgium.  But there have been negotiations over this crisis for nearly two years now with much successs.  The German and French leaders have promised a comprehensive solution later this week. It was supposed to be today, but it’s been delayed to mid-week.

What does that have to do with the U.S.?  Nobody really knows.  The devil is in the details.  At first pass, big U.S. banks aren’t supposed to have much exposure to Greek debt, so they shouldn’t be endangered by a large Greek default.  But, the big U.S. banks like Citi, JP Morgan Chase, BofA, and Goldman Sachs have large stakes in the big Euro banks.  A failed Euro bank could have repercussions.  Of greater concern are derivatives, particularly Credit Default Swaps. The U.S. banks, particularly Goldman are known to have been active in selling these derivatives.  Since the derivative markets and positions are largely secret and non-transparent (a failure of the Dodd-Frank Financial Reform bill), we don’t know if a Greek default will trigger significant liabilities for these banks.

In separate news, Bank of America, is on a death-watch by some analysts.  Yves Smith at Naked Capitalism clues us in:

If you have any doubt that Bank of America is in trouble, this development should settle it. I’m late to this important story broken this morning by Bob Ivry of Bloomberg, but both Bill Black (who I interviewed just now) and I see this as a desperate (or at the very best, remarkably inept) move by Bank of America’s management.

The short form via Bloomberg:

Bank of America Corp. (BAC), hit by a credit downgrade last month, has moved derivatives from its Merrill Lynch unit to a subsidiary flush with insured deposits, according to people with direct knowledge of the situation…

Bank of America’s holding company — the parent of both the retail bank and the Merrill Lynch securities unit — held almost $75 trillion of derivatives at the end of June, according to data compiled by the OCC. About $53 trillion, or 71 percent, were within Bank of America NA, according to the data, which represent the notional values of the trades.

That compares with JPMorgan’s deposit-taking entity, JPMorgan Chase Bank NA, which contained 99 percent of the New York-based firm’s $79 trillion of notional derivatives, the OCC data show.

Now you would expect this move to be driven by adverse selection, that it, that BofA would move its WORST derivatives, that is, the ones that were riskiest or otherwise had high collateral posting requirements, to the sub. Bill Black confirmed that even though the details were sketchy, this is precisely what took place.

Part of BofA’s problems, well, actually a very large part of it’s problems stem from the loose and possibly illegal banking practices at Countrywide Mortgage which it took over in 2008.  Yves updates us on this here.

Bottom-line on all this:  expect more big bank bailouts of some kind in coming months.  It might only be big Euro banks.  It might only involve Bank of America.  But there’s significant,if less than probable, chance that we’ll have to see another round of bank bailouts.

Why do we always find Goldman, Sachs where there’s trouble?

The Baseline Scenario concludes with a warning that Goldman must be dealth with:

And the US government, at the highest levels, has to ask a fundamental question: For how long does it wish to be intimately associated with Goldman Sachs and this kind of destabilizing action?  What is the priority here – a sustainable recovery and a viable financial system, or one particular set of investment bankers?

To preserve Goldman, on incredibly generous terms, in the name of saving the financial system was and is hard to defend – but that is where we are.  To allow the current government-backed (massive) Goldman to behave recklessly and with complete disregard to the basic tenets of international financial stability is utterly indefensible.

The credibility of the Federal Reserve, already at an all-time low, has just suffered another crippling blow; the ECB is also now in the line of fire.  Goldman Sachs has a lot to answer for.

What prompts this indictment of Goldman as public nuisance?  Greece’s troubles are threatening the Eurozone.  And how did Greece’s situation get out of hand?  Thanks to Goldman.  Shades of sub-prime and AIG credit default swaps. Here’s the full story.

At 9:30pm on Sunday, September 21, 2008, Goldman Sachs was saved from imminent collapse by the announcement that the Federal Reserve would allow it to become a bank holding company – implying unfettered access to borrowing from the Fed and other forms of implicit government support, all of which subsequently proved most beneficial.  Officials allowed Goldman to make such an unprecedented conversion in the name of global financial stability.  (The blow-by-blow account is in Andrew Ross Sorkin’s Too Big To Fail; this is confirmed in all substantial detail by Hank Paulson’s memoir.)

We now learn – from Der Spiegel last week and today’s NYT – that Goldman Sachs has not only helped or encouraged some European governments to hide a large part of their debts, but it also endeavored to do so for Greece as recently as last November.  These actions are fundamentally destabilizing to the global financial system, as they undermine: the eurozone area; all attempts to bring greater transparency to government accounting; and the most basic principles that underlie well-functioning markets.  When the data are all lies, the outcomes are all bad – see the subprime mortgage crisis for further detail.

A single rogue trader can bring down a bank – remember the case of Barings.  But a single rogue bank can bring down the world’s financial system.

Goldman will dismiss this as “business as usual” and, to be sure, a few phone calls around Washington will help ensure that Goldman’s primary supervisor – now the Fed – looks the other way.

But the affair is now out of Ben Bernanke’s hands, and quite far from people who are easily swayed by the White House.  It goes immediately to the European Commission, which has jurisdiction over eurozone budget issues.  Faced with enormous pressure from those eurozone countries now on the hook for saving Greece, the Commission will surely launch a special audit of Goldman and all its European clients.

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