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Political unrest is always and everywhere a monetary phenomenon – also in Greece

This is Sara Sjolin at MarketWatch.com:

Greece’s Athex Composite tanked almost 13% Tuesday — the biggest drop for the index on record, according to FactSet. The renewed jitters came after the government, in a surprise move late Monday, said it would bring forward presidential elections to Dec. 17, potentially, setting the scene for snap elections in early 2015.

Here’s why that’s important: Far-left party Syriza currently is leading the early polls and it seems likely they would win a snap election. This is how to think about Syriza:

  • The party has been calling for an end to austerity in Greece
  • Has been campaigning for market-unfriendly measures
  • Is firmly against the international bailout program that helped the country avoid a default during the depths of its financial crisis.

How bad is Greece’s Tuesday collapse? It’s worse than the 9.7% drop the market saw Oct. 24, 2010, at the peak of Greek debt worries. The drop also eclipses the 10% fall Greek markets saw in 1989 during a bout of political turmoil.

…With Greece’s problems once again in the limelight, investors all across Europe. the Stoxx Europe 600 index slumped 2.3%, while Germany’s DAX 30 index fell 2.2% and France’s CAC 40 index  gave up 2.5%.

Greek government bond yields  jumped 75 basis point to 7.90%, according to electronic trading platform Tradeweb.

So once again political news slips in to the financial section of the news. As Scott Sumner once expressed it about his studies of the Great Depression:

“And the worst part was the way political news kept slipping into the financial section. Nazis make ominous gains in the 1932 German elections, Spanish Civil War, etc, etc. In the 1930s the readers didn’t know what came next—but I did.”

I must admit that the similarities between the continued euro crisis and the situation during the 1930s worries me a great deal and my regular readers well-know that I to a large extent blame the deepening political troubles in Europe on the deep economic crisis caused mainly by extremely tight monetary conditions in the euro zone.

Just to remind everybody how bad it is in Greece. Take a look graph below comparing the real GDP lose in Austria during Great Depression and Greece during the present crisis (Year 0 is 1929 for Austria and 2008 for Greece.)

I used Austria as a comparison because the country had massive banking crisis (in 1931), had one of the deepest depressions of all of the European economies during the Great Depression and maintained the Gold Standard the longest.

Greece Austria

Given the scale of the crisis in Greece it is hardly surprising that extremist parties like Syriza and Golden Dawn are very popular parties. After all Austria disintegrated politically during the 1930s and eventually ceased to exist as an independent nation in 1938.

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BIS is fearful of bubbles, but is not always right (remember the gold standard?)

I think there is a bubble in bubble fears. This is particularly the the case for central bankers and institutional monetary institutions.

Here  in the Telegraph:

The two watchdogs launched broadsides against central bank largess last week. The BIS — the forum of central banks — was particularly blunt, seeming to imply that quantitative easing “does not work”.

Critics say this risks undermining the credibility of radical measures when more may yet be needed. They fear central banks could repeat the mistake made in 1937 when the Federal Reserve lost its nerve and tightened too soon, tipping America back into depression.

And here is my response in the same article:

“The BIS and the IMF are deeply misguided and risk doing the world a grave disservice. The biggest threat right now is irrational fear of bubbles among central banks,” said Lars Christensen 

Particularly the advise of BIS is taken to be very important as the general perception is that the BIS “got it right” prior to the crisis – the fact that it got it mostly wrong over the past five year apparently is less important. Paul Krugman has some not too kind words about BIS – or the Sadomonetarists of Basel as Krugman calls the institution headquartered in Switzerland:

I guess we can check the record here and see just how prescient the BIS was. What I do recall, however … is that the BIS has spent years warning about the dangers of low interest rates. Except that a couple of years back it was telling a completely different story about why we needed to raise rates; you see, the big danger was of imminent inflation…

…In fact, inflation is running below target just about everywhere. You might therefore think that the BIS would step back a bit and reconsider both its policy recommendations and the framework it uses to derive those recommendations.

I can, however, do better than Krugman. BIS’ Sadomonetarist tendencies date back more than five years. This is from BIS’ third annual report publish in May 1933:

“For the Bank for International Settlements, the year has been an eventful one, during which, while the volume of its ordinary banking business has necessarily been curtailed by the general falling off of international financial transactions and the continued departure from gold of more and more currencies, culminating in the defection of the American dollar, nevertheless the scope of its general activities has steadily broadened in sound directions. The widening of activities, aside from normal growth in developing new contacts, has been the consequence, primarily, of a year replete with international conferences, and, also, of the rapid extension of chaotic conditions in the international monetary system. In view of all the events which have occurred, the Bank’s Board of Directors determined to define the position of the Bank on the fundamental currency problems facing the world and it unanimously expressed the opinion, after due deliberation, that in the last analysis “the gold standard remains the best available monetary mechanism” and that it is consequently desirable to prepare all the necessary measures for its international reestablishment.”

And this is what I earlier had to say about that report:

Take a look at the report. The whole thing is outrageous – the world is falling apart and it is written very much as it is all business as usual. More and more countries are leaving the the gold standard and there had been massive bank runs across Europe and a number of countries in Europe had defaulted in 1932 (including Greece and Hungary!) Hitler had just become chancellor in Germany.

And then the report state: ”the gold standard remains the best available monetary mechanism”! It makes you wonder how anybody can reach such a conclusion and in hindsight obviously today’s economic historians will say that it was a collective psychosis – central bankers were suffering from some kind of irrational “gold standard mentality” that led them to insanely damaging conclusions, which brought deflation, depression and war to Europe.

Unfortunately BIS’ view haven’t changed much since 1933. Should we listen to the Sadomonetarists in Basel today?

“Incredible Europeans” have learned nothing from history

The conservative Partido Popular won the general elections in Spain over the week and PP leader Mariano Rajoy will now become Prime Minister in Spain. That makes it three – that is the number of new Prime Ministers in Southern European countries in a couple of weeks.

So the European crisis continues and as in 1931 this is to a large extent a political crisis and policy makers seem unable to learn much from the past. Here is Scott Sumner for you:

“The events of the last few years have caused me to radically revise my views of the Great Depression.  Not in terms of the causal factors, those have been amply confirmed.  Falling NGDP does create domestic and international financial turmoil—no doubt about that.  But I used to think people were stupid back in the 1930s.  Remember Hawtrey’s famous “Crying fire, fire, in Noah’s flood”?  I used to wonder how people could have failed to see the real problem.  I thought that progress in macroeconomic analysis made similar policy errors unlikely today.  I couldn’t have been more wrong.  We’re just as stupid as they are.”

I am only quoting, but find it hard to disagree. One thing is to agree with with Scott Sumner (I am used to that), but agreeing with Paul Krugman is slightly less normal for me, but here he is (and I agree):

“I had some hopes for Mario Draghi; he has just done his best to kill those hopes. In his view, it’s all about credibility, defined thusly:

Credibility implies that our monetary policy is successful in anchoring inflation expectations over the medium and longer term. This is the major contribution we can make in support of sustainable growth, employment creation and financial stability. And we are making this contribution in full independence.

Unbelievable. Right now, the ECB has too much credibility on the inflation front; the spread between German nominal and real interest rates, which is an implicit forecast of the inflation rate, is pointing to disastrously low medium-term inflation“.

Draghi also seems to suffer from a variation of the “Gold Standard mentality”. Anybody who have studied the Great Depression should find recent European events surreal. Day-by-day history repeats itself. It is tragic.

If there is any European policy makers out there reading this – you should take a look at events of 1931 – try not to repeat anymore of events from that tragic year. You could start reading my comment on 1931.

PS I wonder if Mariano Rajoy know how Spain avoided the Great Depression 80 years ago…(hint: Spain was not on the gold standard).

PPS I have been thinking – FX policy is the responsibility of EU Finance Ministers rather than of the ECB. You can draw your own conclusions.

PPPS Tyler Cown also has a comment on the European crisis.

PPPPS Ambrose Evans-Pritchard has a comment on Spain that is unlikely to cheer up anybody.

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