Monday, January 16, 2012
The EU Has Fallen Into a Liquidity Trap and It Can't Get Up
The 'Helicopter Economics Investing Guide' is meant to help educate people on how to make profitable investing choices in the current economic environment. We have coined this term to describe the current monetary and fiscal policies of the U.S. government, which involve unprecedented money printing. This is the official blog of the New York Investing meetup.
While the EU is still reeling from S&P's downgrade of the sovereign debt of nine of its members on January 13th and the latest talks to keep Greece afloat have hit a wall, there is an even bigger problem with the effectiveness of its stimulus programs -- the money is just not finding its way into the economy.
Global markets were jubilant in December when the ECB (European Central Bank) pumped 490 billion euros of three-year loans into the EU banking system. These funds were used by eurozone banks to buy high-risk government debt from the struggling peripheral countries. This indeed caused a temporary decline in interest rates, especially for Spain and Italy. Money from this program and other EU stimulus measures is stuck in the banking system however and it is doing little to keep the EU from sinking into a deep recession. As of Monday January 16th, the ECB had 493 billion euros on overnight deposit -- more than the entire December stimulus package.
Large amounts of funds on deposit at any central bank are an indication of a crisis in the banking system. Before the current EU debt crisis, eurozone banks usually kept only around 100 million euros on deposit at the ECB. Even during the height of the 2008 Credit Crisis, EU banks kept only around 33% of money lent out by the ECB on deposit. The percent now is over 70% (the ECB has lent out 664 billion euros in total) meaning things are in much worse shape in the EU than they were after Lehman Brothers collapsed. When money is trapped in the banking system, the economy suffers and extra stimulus measures don't help to revive it. EU money-printing measures meant to rescue its profligate debt-ridden members aren't likely to help its economy, which in turn will result in a self-feeding cycle of more and more debt (as happened in Japan during the last two decades) or more and more money printing (as has been taking place in the U.S. since the 2008 Credit Crisis). Like the U.S., the EU has run out of borrowing power, so debt without money printing is no longer an option.
Weaker economies mean more downgrades from the ratings agencies can be expected. On Friday, both France and Austria lost their coveted triple A ratings from S&P. They were downgraded a notch as was Malta, Slovakia and Slovenia. Italy, Spain, Portugal and Cyprus were downgraded two notches. Italy is now rated BBB+. The only countries in the eurozone that still have triple A ratings are Germany, the Netherlands, Luxembourg, and Finland. S&P put the later three on negative outlook for a possible future downgrade however. The EFSF bailout fund itself may also be downgraded.
The current debt crisis that is now impacting the entire eurozone started in Greece in late 2009. The problems there have yet to be fixed despite numerous mainstream media reports to the contrary in the last two years. Greece is now on financial life support. Any missed bailout payment from the EU will send it immediately into default. Talks have broken down once again, but as before will once again be resuming shortly. The market has never been convinced that any of the proposed Greek bailouts will work. On Monday, Greek one-year government bond yields hit a high of 416% and 10-year yields a high of 35%. These rates have continued to rise after each bailout proposal. Greece has to make substantial bond payments this March.
The EU's debt crisis is not getting resolved because it is no more possible to solve a debt crisis with more debt than it is to sober up a drunk by giving him more alcohol. Yet, every mainstream news article has comments from well-placed sources that are hopeful that some resolution will be coming to the EU's problems soon. Rarely is it mentioned they have been hopeful -- and wrong -- for the last two years as the situation has increasingly deteriorated. Nor is it mentioned that the Japanese with similar problems in their financial system have now been hopeful for twenty years that their economy will fix itself. Wishful thinking doesn't fix markets, nor do plans involving spining straw into gold -- no matter what central bankers and their toadies claim.
Author: "Inflation Investing - A Guide for the 2010s"
Organizer, New York Investing meetup
This posting is editorial opinion. There is no intention to endorse the purchase or sale of any security.