The two sensible choices

There are two sensible and realistic choices for solving the Euro crisis. The sensible and realistic choices are:

  • Surplus areas like Germany give deficit areas like Greece free money, indefinitely, or,
  • Weak economies like Greece and Spain leave the Eurozone.

These really are the sensible and realistic choices. You need one of these if you want roughly equal purchasing power across the Eurozone. Otherwise, money will flow from unproductive deficit areas to productive surplus areas, people in surplus countries will get steadily richer, people in deficit countries will get continually poorer, and eventually this will come to a head by revolt or other radical means.

Free money recycles this flow, exchange rates stop it. Economically the first is better because more flow of goods and services and money turns the economy forward and makes everyone consume more in aggregate. The latter choice aims for fairness, sacrificing total volume of trade and industry in the process.

Right now we’re still discussing the free money idea. Free money could be given as tax-and-transfer grants like most states do internally, as endless monetary expansion like the US, or by recurrent debt default and restructuring. The only advantage of the third option is it makes a policy look like an accident.

If free money won’t fly, leaving the Eurozone is the choice. Greece should have left the Eurozone… any time from 2001 till tonight would be good. Cynics would say stay until 2011 while the free money vision of Europe looked ascendant, but certainly Greece should have dropped after that. Greece should leave now.

Dropping out of the currency union has only advantages for the weaker economy. The disadvantages for the stronger economy are that it stops the flow of funds from the poor to the rich and removes demand for their exports. Germany selfishly wants the Euro. Greeks are stupidly attached to it because they equate the Euro with the EU and three decades of progress.

There are also a couple of totally fantastical choices that people might believe would fix the Eurozone, but they won’t work.

  • Economies like Germany and Greece become similarly productive any time soon.
  • Regions fix trade imbalances through fiscal discipline and austerity.

These are myths. It would be great if Greece was a bit more prosperous like Germany and that would take a venture investment ethos, congenial labour relations, an orientation to global markets, nourishing a boutique economy, branding, IP rights, stability and democracy. Well, at least Greece has democracy.

Different economies may become more alike, but they won’t become the same. The Mississippi delta is less productive than Silicon Valley and that’s why the meagre social policies of the US transfer funds indefinitely from rich Californians to poor Louisianan’s. Convergence doesn’t remove the need for transfers, it makes them smaller.

As for austerity, austerity is the null policy. Austerity means to just accept the dynamic of unproductive regions being steadily poorer and productive regions being steadily richer without asking for free money to mitigate it. And fiscal discipline means don’t try the free money by monetary expansion or default routes.

Until 2011 it looked like Europe was going to work like a superstate using free money transfers. This would have been better for all, including Germans. This idea now looks dead. Weak economies should ditch the Eurozone, now.

What Grexit looks like

Now that Greece voted No in the referendum it’s likely the institutions will seek a quick compromise to avoid serious damage to themselves and the Euro. In that case we’re looking at a more reasonable bankruptcy negotiation between Greece and the creditors, within the Euro. There will be capital controls for a while, like Cyprus, but eventually they’d be lifted.

The alternative is the Grexit scenario. However Grexit doesn’t mean that Euro deposits get redenominated to drachmas overnight. There’s no legal basis to do that. Euro deposits are obligations of Greek banks to individual depositors. They’re supposed to be guaranteed by the ECB, except last week the ECB decided to stop honoring that obligation. That decision will bite them, but it’s another matter.

Anyway Euro deposits are not the business of the Greek state or the bank of Greece. They could not redenominate Euros to drachmas, except by seizure. Also, there’s no incentive to do so. When the ECB withdraws its guarantee, Euros in Greece are precious hard currency like gold coins. Whatever Euros Greeks have, they’ll want to keep. Why would you convert perfectly good Euros to less valuable drachmas?

So on Monday, after a no vote, we have a scenario where Greek banks have Euro liabilities (deposits) and outstanding Euro loans, and they’re not guaranteed. There’s no lender of last resort for Euros in Greece. Banks would have to be super-prudential about handling Euros in this scenario, with deposits equal to reserves or close. Any MFI creation of Euros through loans would be extremely risky.

Of course banks are much more exposed than this. Soon, because of bad loans or the ongoing bank run, Greek banks go insolvent in Euros. At that point, the Bank of Greece steps in and guarantees deposits, but in Drachmas. And that’s how the conversion happens.

There’s a haircut on deposits until the Euro accounts of banks drop to the super-prudential level they’d need to be to operate safely. That means deposits equal reserves plus really safe loans. Greek banks continue to operate Euro accounts in this way thereafter, to facilitate transactions in tourism, import/export, etc. Euro loans will be hard to make and they’d only be made to businesses with good short-term collateral such as outstanding invoices. Not mortgages. Euro will effectively stay in Greece as a business currency.

The remainder (the amount that was haircut) gets converted to drachmas. So if you had €1000 in the bank and after haircut you’re left with €600, you also get the equivalent of €400 in drachmas, courtesy of the Bank of Greece. People can’t really complain about this change, because it’s the big bad ECB that haircut your Euros and the Greek state (Bank of Greece) saved you by giving you drachmas in compensation.

Thereafter the two currencies exist in parallel. Banks operate both types of accounts. Euros are not guaranteed, hence super-prudential: hard to get Euro loans, no Euro credit cards. The Banks of Greece acts as lender of last resort for drachmas, like a normal central bank. Drachmas operate with all banking services immediately and eventually notes and coins are introduced. Businesses that deal with tourism or import/export will surely maintain both Euro and drachma accounts. Everyone will have to declare their Euro and their drachma income separately and pay taxes in each.

Ordinary people like pensioners and dentists will either run out of Euros eventually, or they’ll use them for savings (bad idea, not guaranteed), or they’ll accept some offer to close their Euro account and convert to drachma. Pensions, salaries, house purchases, utility bills, and other big domestic prices will be negotiated in drachmas. Shops will post two prices, at least for a few months.

Eventually anything that’s related to tourism or imports, like electronics, will post both prices. Everyday domestic trade like street markets for food, plumbers, English lessons, hairdressers etc. will transact pretty much only in Drachmas. The Drachma has to be the official currency and there’s enough need for money for it to be accepted. The Euro just has to be legal to circulate, it doesn’t need any encouragement.

And then life will be good!

Having your own currency does three things: It makes imports expensive relative to domestic goods; it lets you pursue monetary policy; and it lets you devalue to make your exports price-competitive. The first two are crucial for Greece. The third is moot.

Greece is in a mess with external Euro debt because individuals prefer to buy imports than to pay taxes and so Euros leave the country. After the switch, businesses that earn Euros will have Euros to spend and they’ll have to be responsible because Euro loans will be super hard to get. Everyone else will face a Euro/Drachma exchange rate when buying imported goods. It’ll make iPhones expensive if you’re not directly earning Euros, and that’s really the worst part of the whole transition to drachmas thing.

The macro effect is Greeks will be buying more basics such as food, housing, and services which are predominantly domestic. They’ll be buying fewer discretionaries such as cars or electronics which are imports. Some essentials such as oil, clothing, and medicines require imports but currently those imports are cheap and there’s some production capacity in Greece for these sectors. That’s a very fortunate configuration for Greece’s balance of trade.

More importantly, the Bank of Greece will finally be able to run monetary policy in a way that fits Greece and not the gold standard delusions of Germany. Obviously it’ll be an expansionary Keynesian policy and the drachma will drop, but not alarmingly. Greece’s economy isn’t a basket case because of inflationary tendencies, By now it’s in a hard currency straitjacket.

Greece has massive unemployment, it’s demand-side limited, and there’s a huge amount of informal debt because of lack of liquidity. The plumber owes the teacher, the teacher owes the dentist, etc. and no-one has any money. As soon as money of any kind flows into the economy people will start paying their bills and the economy will pick up be amenable to taxation. Even if the Greek state makes up a few percent of fiscal spending with monetary easing that’s unlikely to yield so much drachma inflation to be a problem.

The third aspect of having a weak floating currency is that Greece could devalue it, deliberately or by letting it slide, to make its exports more attractive. If only Greece had exports, that would be a great idea. Greece makes its Euros from tourism and in the Grexit scenario that income would be the same or slightly less. Tourism is price sensitive but it’s not that scalable. If you have capacity for a million visitors you can’t bring in two million by being slightly cheaper the way you can scale up industrial production.

Greece’s other exports are oil product (basically running a refinery, it has no wells) and things like ore and agricultural goods. Again, what is Greece going to do? Grow twice as many tomatoes? Greece’s competitiveness problem is not having industrial, not that they’re expensive. The idea of being more competitive by devaluing the currency is beside the point for Greece. Greece’s long term competitiveness needs to come from things like boutique exports and tech startups, and there’s nothing about Grexit that works against these. Sweden is not in the Euro and full of tech startups.

Overall the supposedly disastrous scenario of Greece leaving the Euro won’t be disastrous. For Greece. It may be disastrous for the Euro, or for the careers of some politicians and mainstream economists because Greece will be doing spectacularly better almost immediately and various parties will begin to question what benefits the Euro really delivers.

The ECB broke the Euro, already

Can we get something straight? Euro deposits in Eurozone banks are liabilities of Eurosystem to individual EU citizens. Euro deposits in Greek banks are liabilities of those banks, and indirectly of the ECB, to individual depositors who live in Greece. Not to the Greek state. The Greek state is not part of this contract. If Greek banks were drachma banks they’d be the responsibility of the Bank of Greece. Now that they’re Euro banks they’re the responsibility of the ECB.

This is a contract of trust between the ECB and individual residents of EU states, including the Greeks. The Greek state is another actor, in essence a very large bankrupt business. The ECB is justified to be angry that the Greek state is threatening non-payment of its debt to the ECB, but that’s a dispute between a bankrupt business called the Greek state and the ECB. Because the ECB is unhappy with the Greek state, it decided to breach its contract with individual Greek citizens and refuse to honor their deposits. Sure enough, Greek citizens have a say in what the Greek state does but in the supposedly professional world of banking and contracts the individuals and the state are not the same thing.

To put this in perspective it’s like JP Morgan, the US bank, seizing the deposits of its customers in Detroit because it is owed money by Ford, Chrysler, etc. where these same people work. JP Morgan would then say “Ford employees refused to waive their pension claims in order to give Ford money to pay us, so we’re grabbing the deposits of these same employees directly”. Americans, how does that sound? I thought so. You cannot seize one person’s private property to recover the debt of another entity, however related. Well, you can if you are a political sovereign, but not with any pretence of legality.

Spaniards, how would you like it if the ECB decided not to honour your deposits after September because you voted Podemos?

Scots, what if your country voted Yes on independence and a few months down the line the Sottish state had a falling out with England? Inconceivable, I know. What if then the Bank of England refused to honour the deposits of individual RBS customers?

Germans, your banks now have tens of billions of liabilities to Greeks, Cypriots, Spaniards, etc. who decided as individuals to transfer their deposits to Germany. In the world of banking every liability requires a corresponding asset and in the Euro system the asset is something called TARGET2 balance from Greek to German banks. The asset behind that is Euro loans of Greek citizens to Greek banks. If you let the ECB seize deposits in Greece, Euro loans in Greece will go bad, Greek banks will fail, and said TARGET2 balances would be worth nothing.

German banks will then have tens of billions of Euros of liability to individual people, many of whom happen to be Greeks and Cypriots, with no corresponding asset. What solution will you legislate for that? Will you let your banks honour individual deposits or not based on the passport of the account holder? Will you haircut all deposits in Germany? Will you bail the banks out?

The rules of the game are that he ECB is responsible for all Euro accounts. It has accounts more or less directly with states – states are treated like very large businesses. The faith of the ECB also stands behind private banks, so that the private banks can honour Euro accounts of individuals. With Cyprus, and now with Greece, the ECB has decided to price in default risk, country by country, by refusing to honour the full value of the accounts of individuals.

If that is so the Euro has already failed. It is not one currency, it is already three: Cypriot Euro, Greek Euro, and the rest. If this policy line continues soon there will be a fourth, fifth, and more currencies all called Euro but having different net present value depending on in which country they exist as bank deposits. This is not a single currency system, it is a failure.

How to understand Greece’s negotiations with its creditors, part 1

Greece: We can’t pay the interest on our debt because the principal is high, the rate of interest is high, and our income is much too low thanks to the income-reducing austerity measures imposed by our creditors.

Creditors line so far: Prioritize paying creditors above anything else. We don’t care about the cumulative damage it does to your economy.

Greece with Syriza: We refuse to do that any more. Besides, can’t you see it’s pointless? We have less and less income to possibly pay you with.

Creditors after election: Well we can’t remove the debt principal from the books because debt is money and European nations’ money would have to disappear.

OK, these are good opening positions for negotiation. Greece is asserting you can’t collect from a business you’re running into the ground. Central bankers are asserting that “Europe’s money is our balance sheet” and you can’t remove debt from the assets side of the balance sheet without something bad happening to the liabilities (money) side.

What next? Compromise I expect. Either central bankers accept that balance sheets with liabilities exceeding assets are OK for central banks, or they’ll figure out a way to make old debt a token asset that generates little or no current account obligations. The first would be easiest, but the economic Zeitgeist is against it so I expect the latter. Some sort of indefinite near-zero real interest rollover as is the case with US or Japanese debt.

To clarify for the concerns of northern European folk:
No-one really expects a nation to pay back its debt. It’s not a project to build a highway, or little of national debt is like that. Nations borrow more or less indefinitely and the amount of debt may rise and fall but that’s an investment concern like the stock market rising and falling in valuation. Generally debt is supposed to rise slowly, and to pay it all back is a bad thing because it removes bonds from the investment market. Neither is Greece expected to pay back northern Europe nor are northern European taxpayers on the hook to pay Greece’s bill to someone. Sovereign debts are not like auto loans.

Rather, sovereign debts are like stocks or mortgages. They’re assets in the banking system. Greece essentially borrowed into a bubble and in 2010 was revealed to be a bad asset. Greece’s economy is worth less than it’s mortgage, so to speak. Bad call, maybe reckless, but it’s the truth. Since then the bad asset that’s Greece’s debt has been passed around until it ended up in Europe’s central banks, the way bad assets in the US ended un in the Fed. That’s OK, it’s partly what central banks are for. No one is going to liquidate a central bank because its liabilities exceed its assets. Except the ECB, if they decide to. But that would be dumb.

So what the negotiation is about is seeking one of two outcomes: Either agree in banking circles that having big holes in the balance sheets of central banks is OK, in which case they can write off a big chunk of debt and put the remaining amount back on the investment market on a sound footing, or figure out a clever way to keep the debt on the books so the books look neat but the debt generates no real interest or pressure on the real economy. The first is emotionally cleaner and revives the economy, and it’s what Syriza wants. The latter buries the problem until it dies of old age and is the Japanese approach. I like Japan…

Either there’s parity between M0 and M1 or there isn’t

For a given currency such as the Euro, either there is 1:1 parity between M0 (central bank money) and M1 (commercial bank money) or there isn’t. Actualy many problems would be mitigated if there was no guaranteed parity, i.e. if bank deposits could fall in value when monetary-financial bubbles burst. If in 2008 there had been a haircut on all bank deposits to write off bad debts, that would have been much preferable to austerity as a means of rebalancing. At least it would be so in substance – selling it to the public would have been a challenge.

However, parity or not parity has to be uniform across a currency. If Euro-denominated bank deposits in some Cypriot banks are overvalued and must be cut then all Euro-denominated deposits in the zone must be cut equally, by a smaller amount. That is necessary for a single currency and banking system to work. Otherwise, Cypriot bank money, or Greek, or whoever’s is next is not actually trading 1:1 with German bank money due to risk perception and we don’t really have a single currency. Or more accurately we have single M0 (central bank money and printed notes) but M1 (bank deposits and nearly all inter-bank payments) is already fragmented and exposed to de-facto exchange rate risk. That risk premium is opaque and thus much higher than if it were a properly floating national currency. Greek businesses, and presumably soon Cypriot ones, are unable to pay for imports with Greek-bank M1 (bank money) at parity. Businesses in countries with stricken bank systems are de-facto thrown out of the single currency already.

The Bundesbank hawks can’t have it both ways. Either the Euro is a single currency, which means a Euro in a bank in Cyprus is a Euro in a bank in Italy is a Euro in a bank in Germany so you can use it for payments, or it isn’t. That absolutely means that whetever happens to one Eurozone commercial bank in terms of crisis response has to be collectivized across the zone. Otherwise we don’t have the benefts of a single currency. We just have the penalties and there is no reason that electorates should accept such a flawed construction.

Europe’s two problems

Europe has two big problems. Doubtless one of them is political, or to put it more precisely, it’s in the space of national politics.

The post-national European project has  stalled. It has certainly taken us a long way, from warring nation-states to an open community where we feel free and entitled as citizens throughout the continent. We’ve largely lost our national identities, and it may come as a surprise to Americans that we don’t care about our flags. National cultures are cherished as heritage, but not something to be defensive or overly proud of – certainly not something to kill or die for. The nation state was born in Europe in the 1700s and it died in Europe in 1945. Generations of visionary leaders have taken the people of Europe from the aftermath of an existential war to a point where the state is little more than an old-fashioned cultural and administrative unit. It took a lot of paternalism and manipulation to get us here, but on the whole we are grateful. Even the insular British do not prefer to go back to a time of animosity where crossing the border to Germany or France had the significance that entering Israel or Iran has today.

The problem is that after the Maastricht treaty and the introduction of the Euro the post-nationalist transformation has stopped. The Euro obviously came too soon for Europe, but also obviously it was the first of a sequence of bold steps that the then heads of state could not take all at once. Having the Euro is like putting one foot on a moving streetcar, but not climbing on board, instead limping desperately after it with the other foot on the street. The onward steps were very much expected and obvious, but they didn’t come: an elected European presidency; real powers for the European Parliament or some reformed elected chamber; continent-wide taxation, social security, and pension systems; business reform to allow companies to operate across the zone without country subsidiaries; stronger education, development, and technology agencies. None of this happened. The Euro and the ECB were the last post-national institutions that Europe saw.

We haven’t stopped to ask why. Continue reading

Greeks should vote against Merkel tomorrow

I’ll vote against Angela Merkel in the upcoming Greek elections, and I think it’s very important that all with the right to vote in Greece do so. The choice is as follows:

If Antonis Samaras, the conservative New Democracy party gets elected his government will implement the austerity, deflation, and asset-stripping recipe/punishment prescribed by big European Capital through the German government. The economy will continue to deteriorate, a lot, until whatever is left of Greek capital (mostly small and medium business) is destroyed and Greece becomes a cheap labour and no social safety net state. There will be riots, fascism, and widespread hardship in Greece especially amongst old people and the self/family employed. The successful enforcement of austerity and de-capitalisation will be roundly seen as a triumph by EU and international capital, and Spain and Italy will be next in line for the same treatment. That is why the Greek press and even the German edition of the FT are practically intimidating Greeks to accept it. Vote this way or unspecified bad things will happen.

If Alexis Tsipras of the left SYRIZA (means “from the root”) party wins, his government will reject the terms of the austerity and impoverishment package and force a re-negotiation. He is not especially anti-Euro and neither is Greek public opinion. A hard rejection of the austerity terms by Greece will force the Eurozone, meaning the ECB and Ms. Merkel, to shelve the “austerity for the losers” doctrine and come up with something else. There will be a period of frantic deliberation, whose possible outcomes include: very optimistically reforming the Euro to a model that works and is under political control like the US Fed; realistically some form of flawed compromise with the Euro and ECB in the hands of private capital but with a human face; and pessimistically and unlikely a breakup of the Euro. In the latter case, Greek savers will lose another chunk of their savings (unless they move them to other EU banks, in which case they may lose them outright due to unpaid Target 2 balances). Germany will be stuck with a strong currency and exposed banks, which will require inflation. More to the point, the Merkel government will be seen to have presided over a colossal failure and will likely lose power, perhaps prematurely.