The Euros showing signs of stress lately. The Dollar climbed to $1.43, its highest in three months as the fiat race to the bottom continues. Greece's sovereign debt was downgraded with the third generation of a Papandreou residing at the helm in what looks to be another Greek catastrophe. Spain somehow continues to mask the mess it finds itself in. At some point the poison will inevitably seep through. Meanwhile with regards to the other PIIGS (yes thats two i's, Ireland and Italy) we find Ireland have launched their second cost cutting budget in an attempt to appease the other 'sounder' Euro states.
According to the governments figures they have come out of recession unlike here in the UK. Italy's leader Berlusconi took a beating, literally. Although the attack was appalling, its more disturbing to see such popular support for Massimo Tartaglia, the person who carried out the senseless assault. Austria's Government followed the new global trend by effectively nationalising the countries 6th largest bank, Carinthian Hypo Alpe Adria Bank AG, with the taxpayer now becoming it's largest shareholder. It's not the only bank in trouble with the countries 4th largest, Oesterreichische Volksbanken AG, also under the governments watch. Exposure in the Balkans and Eastern Europe, Austria's banking system is looking more insolvent as time goes on. Despite what Americans say about their banking losses at least their banks are declaring them. Europe's financial system is one monstrous black box, with everyone trying to call each others bluff. Even Germany seems to be throwing out the rule book announcing tax breaks despite a widening budget deficit, however compared with many other countries double digit percentage horror shows it won't sound an alarm with the bond vigilantes.
There's been many commentaries written in relation to the Euro the single currency that's used by 16 separate nations, usually critical toward the faceless bureaucrats who reside in Brussels. However its important to understand how the Euro came about. During Bretton Woods I, when the US was on it's quasi Gold Standard, they pegged the dollar to gold allowing only foreign central banks to redeem their dollars for gold. With increased deficits by Kennedy and then by Lyndon Johnson this spending had to be paid by someone, therefore the government does what it usually does, it printed money to pay the difference.
When the Bretton Woods agreement was created the Keynesian's proclaimed that redeemability of the dollar for gold would cause no issues as institutions would never need to claim. Unfortunately for them they didn't count on Jacques Ruff advisor to former French president Charles De Gaulle. 'They run deficits without tears', thus Ruff advised De Gaulle to call the Americas bluff and trade in the paper promises for something that the American Administration couldn't create out of thin air. Others followed suit.
The rest as they say was history. Bretton Woods I was abandoned, in which we moved to the current global monetary system we still have now. The erratic fluctuations of the currency markets during the seventies accompanied with widespread financial turmoil prompted many European nations to look for solutions to stabilise trade, thus the chaos become one of the prime reasons for the single monetary currency created two decades later. There was an obvious issue from the start. Two distinct tribes existed within the union, the North dominated by Germans who had previously presided over the Mark, a currency as hard as any other in its day.
The other faction, the Southern Mediterranean nations a historically bunch of pansies that would use their currency at the first instance of economic trouble to try and solve their problems. During its first 10 years all seemed well but when disorder came, the Mediterranean nations suddenly found themselves in a bind. They couldn't devalue or print as they had in the past, instead they were told by the Northern circle that they must cut their deficits along with reckless spending. Don't get me wrong, the ECB have dabbled in QE however in comparison to the Drachma, Lira, Escudo or Peseta if they still existed and were in the hands of the irresolute Southern Europeans, then things would be getting a whole lot worse for such countries as we tread into unknown waters.
The Euro is in effect a Pseudo Gold Standard for some. Similar to when the majority of nations had a fully convertible Gold Standard, there are checks on Government spending such that they can not rob the public through inflation, or sidestep genuine long term fixes with short term devaluations. This is not to say the rules can't be bent, the rules are always for bending when the government is solely in charge. For example the deficit limit for states that were to join the Euro was originally set at no more than 3% of GDP. Problem being that nations such as Portugal just moved some of their deficit from the official figures to assist in their entry into the Euro to meet the criteria. After the financial crisis fiscal restraint has been put on the back burner, another crisis will need to occur before anyone gets serious again.
Like a Gold Standard, the old bundesbanks dominance on the ECB acts as a check against others that are more willing to deploy looser monetary policy. It depends if you have the stomach for such medicine as to whether you believe it is beneficial.
Many commentators state that the Euro is the problem facing countries like Greece, the reasons given are usually the very same policies that got them in the hole in the first place, in this case excessive government involvement and monetary inflation. They are usually correct on one point, that it was the Euro that exacerbated the credit boom for many such nations. Generous subsidies to promote the Euro's launch created undeserved prosperity, accompanied with negative real interest rates in such countries, meant loose lending was endemic.
Ideas that increased inflation and spending can alleviate the problems we face are wrong. They instead increase the states control and crowd out private enterprise and initiative. Not only does it fail, but it becomes an immoral path as genuine savings are stolen from the people.
One of the questions people ask is what will become of the Euro? Will it survive? Will its members fragment? Will it gain in numbers and strengthen? I don't think we can arrive at a conclusive decision on any of the above as they are all legitimate possibilities.
Fragmentation could be possible. A number of nations could drown in their own debt but we have to realise governments always bend the rules. The ECB may show a tough hand for the moment but could ease if events got out of hand. If a nation did wish to exit then imagine the stigma attached to the politician in office at the time. It would take a brave politician to declare an exit from the Euro while others in the Balkan's, Baltic's and the East are clamouring for such prestige.
Would others join the Euro as a refuge? Possibly, however if the above were to occur we could see the emergence of a new strengthened Euro. Nations such as Norway or Switzerland could join, forming what would be one of the soundest currencies in the world. They didn't join in the beginning with the current members therefore , if the weakest were weeded out they could have a change of heart. This would be the only reason I could see them joining.
Survival? I'm bearish on all fiat money. Even the Euro. There are many problems contained in Europe. It could however emerge as a genuine contender to the Dollar if the harder money circles have their way.
So is the Euro a good or bad thing? Well I'd prefer the ECB administering my nations currency rather than the current set of inept individuals who are running riot with the UK's monetary policy. German jokes aside, you have to wonder how they do it. After a crippling war they arose as the dominant power of Europe once more, a dynamic economy that produced quality products, while other Western nations industries went into decline. It dealt with unification as Communism collapsed thus inheriting a nation with years of decay that required to be rectified. She then she became one of the key participants to unify Europe under the single currency opting to bin their sound Mark. Subsidies were provided to Ireland and Spain to promote the Euro, subsidies paid for by the German taxpayer. She wasn't even resource rich, importing many commodities.
There was however a culture of hard work, along with the abstinence of partaking in speculative activities such as Real Estate even as the 'Anglo-Saxon' economic models mocked the Germans for relative stagnant growth in comparison. Since the arrival of the crisis the jokes have stopped and once more the Germans hold the key to Europe, to the pseudo fiat Gold Standard known as the Euro. History leads me to the opinion that I'd prefer the Germans to manage my sovereign currency. Its the same story for many others who are current members of the Euro, it just depends if their culture can adapt to a different monetary way of thinking.
By Phill Tomlinson
The Age of Stupidity "There is no means of avoiding the final collapse of a boom brought about by credit expansion. The alternative is only whether the crisis should come sooner as a result of a voluntary abandonment of further credit expansion, or later as a final and total catastrophe of the currency system involved.", Ludwig Von Mises
© 2009 Copyright Phill Tomlinson - All Rights Reserved Disclaimer: The above is a matter of opinion provided for general information purposes only and is not intended as investment advice. Information and analysis above are derived from sources and utilising methods believed to be reliable, but we cannot accept responsibility for any losses you may incur as a result of this analysis. Individuals should consult with their personal financial advisors.
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