Monday, March 29, 2010

The Euro and the European Union

When have you last heard that the dollar might drop into the $1.05 to $1.15 range? This morning we are trading at about $1.34.

The lower number is projected if some country leaves the European Union or if there is a national default in the euro area.

The cost of protecting debt from default over the past six-months has risen dramatically in several of the major European countries: Greece leads the world in this category. But, Portugal is right behind as credit-default swap data, compiled by Bloomberg, indicate an increase of about 150% in the last six months. (Remember the debt rating of Portugal was just reduced by Fitch last week.)

Major increases in the cost of protecting debt from default have also been registered against the debt of Spain, Italy, Belgium, England, and France.

The bottom line: governments cannot just spend and spend and spend expecting either the bond markets or the central bank to bail them out. Social programs or not, a democracy has to balance the competing ends within a country and if the social programs cannot be financed through sound finance then they will just have to wait. The lesson is very clear.

Historically, it is government spending that drives the finances of a country and not the central bank. Remember the European Central Bank and the Bank of England have been much more conscious “inflation targeters” than was the United States. Also, governments, historically, were always the leaders in financial innovation and not the private sector. The late 20th century is no exception to this rule. (See Niall Ferguson’s “The Ascent of Money” and also

In the past, if a country over-extended its finances then they would generally have to devalue their currency and then proceed into the future. With a common currency, the euro, a country loses the choice about devaluation because that country is now one among many and so must accept its position in the community. The poor country that has over-extended itself must bring its budget back into line, a very painful process as Greece is now experiencing. This is tough medicine to take.

What about the countries that were prudent and disciplined? Their emphasis on sound finance is now being called a vice by some because they do not want to be overly generous to those countries that were not prudent and disciplined. (One prominent critic has been Martin Wolf of the Financial Times:

And, the current crisis is bringing out those that are or have been opposed to the European Union as it is now constructed. For example, an op-ed piece in the New York Times “Euro Trashed” by a German professor, captures some of the tone of this side of the argument: A suggestion is made that the “strong” governments could pull out of the current arrangement and form a bloc that would “fulfill the euro’s original purpose” and would not have to worry about “laggard” high-debt states.

The betting is against the euro right now. John Taylor, the chairman of the currency hedge fund, FX Concepts Inc., argues that “Those people who are calling for the euro to go up are thinking the stock market is going to continue higher and that the euro zone problem is not going to spin out of control. I disagree with both of these things.” So, of the three areas that have experienced, in the recent past, the most negative vibes concerning the value of their currencies, the United States, Japan, and the euro zone, the pointer has rotated to the euro zone, taking the pressure off the other currencies, at least for the short run.

This could change. The reason for the current focus is that the euro zone faces the most current difficulties that have to be dealt with. But, this focus could be altered overnight because of the things happening in United States financial markets. The first has to do with the Federal Reserve signaling that it will honor its statement that its purchases of mortgage backed securities will end as March 2010 ends. The 10-year U. S. Treasury issue has bounded up to a 3.85% yield again, a level it was at in June 2009, August 2009, and January 2010. The concern by some is that yield could accelerate through 4.00% in the near term.

Why is this of concern? Well for one reason, upon the reaction in the bond markets, mortgage rates have moved above 5.00% with the expectation that they could go higher as the liquidity in the mortgage area of the capital markets declines. Banks and mortgage banks have already put a hold on committing to mortgage rates in the near term because of the uncertainty connected with the future level of mortgage interest rates. This, of course, is problematic because of all the variable rate mortgages or teaser mortgages that must re-price over the next 12 months.

There is also the concern about how easy it will be to place the upcoming quantity of the federal debt coming to the market over the next six to nine months. How much added pressure these new amounts of debt will have on interest rates is highly uncertain at the present time.

And, then what about the Fed’s exit strategy, the Great Undoing? How is the Fed going to act or react to all these market pressures? The exit strategy is planned to take place in an orderly financial market. What if the financial markets don’t cooperate and become dis-orderly over the next year due to everything else going on in the world? Just how is the Fed going to accomplish its Great Undoing in such an environment?

So, the emphasis is all on the euro right now and the political problems being dealt with by the nations of the European Union. Except for Germany’s Chancellor Merkel, the current batch of European leaders seem extremely weak at the present time. The weakness claim extends to the Prime Minister of England as well. What comes out of this mess is anybody’s guess right now, but it would seem that a country, like Germany, who is in relatively good fiscal shape and with a leader that can command some significant backing from her people, can be pretty adamant about what they want. The other countries in the EU may not like what Merkel is advocating, but they are not in the strongest position to suggest alternatives.

If this is the case, then it would seem as if the European Union will continue to battle on, but the debt-heavy countries that are now experiencing significant difficulties obtaining funding will have to get their houses in order for the Union to continue to function. Otherwise, as suggested in the New York Times this morning, we might see a move to one bloc of countries with a single currency who are relatively sound, financially, and all of the others who will re-establish their own currencies once again.

Politicians in the United States should pay attention to what is going on in Europe and take some lessons about their own fiscal responsibilities.

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