Monday, January 19, 2009

The Euro Trap

Ambrose Evans-Pritchard has a brilliant piece in the Sunday Telegraph. Every now and again a commentator strikes at the core of the issue as in this instance.

Events are moving fast in Europe. The worst riots since the fall of Communism have swept the Baltics and the south Balkans. An incipient crisis is taking shape in the Club Med bond markets. S&P has cut Greek debt to near junk. Spanish, Portuguese, and Irish bonds are on negative watch.

Dublin has nationalised Anglo Irish Bank with its half-built folly on North Wall Quay and €73bn (£65bn) of liabilities, moving a step nearer the line where markets probe the solvency of the Irish state.

A great ring of EU states stretching from Eastern Europe down across Mare Nostrum to the Celtic fringe are either in a 1930s depression already or soon will be. Greece's social fabric is unravelling before the pain begins, which bodes ill.

Each is a victim of ill-judged economic policies foisted upon them by elites in thrall to Europe's monetary project – either in EMU or preparing to join – and each is trapped.

As UKIP leader Nigel Farage put it in a rare voice of dissent at the euro's 10th birthday triumph in Strasbourg, EMU-land has become a Völker-Kerker – a "prison of nations", to borrow from the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

The straight jacket of a single currency, binding together economies with different dynamics, different needs, different problems, is perhaps the most idiotic concept ever conceived, and the most incredible display of hubris by politicians. Ambrose goes on with a devastating analysis...

These three states are all members of the Exchange Rate Mechanism (ERM2), the euro's pre-detention cell. They must join. It is written into their EU contracts.

The result of subjecting ex-Soviet catch-up economies to the monetary regime of the leaden West has been massive overheating. Latvia's current account deficit hit 26pc of GDP. Riga property prices surpassed Berlin.

The inevitable bust is proving epic. Latvia's property group Balsts says Riga flat prices have fallen 56pc since mid-2007. The economy contracted 18pc annualised over the last six months.

Leaked documents reveal – despite a blizzard of lies by EU and Latvian officials – that the International Monetary Fund called for devaluation as part of a €7.5bn joint rescue for Latvia. Such adjustments are crucial in IMF deals. They allow countries to claw their way back to health without suffering perma-slump.

This was blocked by Brussels – purportedly because mortgage debt in euros and Swiss francs precluded that option. IMF documents dispute this. A society is being sacrificed on the altar of the EMU project

I do like the metaphor of the ERM as a pre-detention cell, particularly since it is so apt. The surprise is that, while any objective commentator can see the impossibility of economies with such vast troubles ever comfortably unifying themselves within the Eurozone, the EU is literally sacrificing entire societies on the alter of the EMU project. The Euro is and has always been a political project.

The political capital invested, and the importance of a common currency in the eyes of Europhiles, who see it as a necessary pre-requisite to a single federal European state, drives the process forward at breakneck speed. To hell with the consequences, to hell with the damage wrought on the lives of families in these countries - the pain is but a necessary evil; to recycle the words of Normal Lamont on unemployment it "is a price worth paying".

Latvians have company. Dublin expects Ireland's economy to contract 4pc this year. The deficit will reach 12pc of GDP by 2010 on current policies. "This is not sustainable," said the treasury. Hence the draconian wage deflation now threatened by the Taoiseach.

The Celtic Tiger has faced the test bravely. No government in Europe has been so honest. It is a tragedy that sterling's crash should have compounded their woes at this moment. To cap it all, Dell is decamping to Poland with 4pc of GDP. Irish wages crept too high during
the heady years when Euroland interest rates of 2pc so beguiled the nation.

Spain lost a million jobs in 2008. Madrid is bracing for 16pc unemployment by year's end.

Private economists fear 25pc before it is over. Spain's wage inflation has priced the workforce out of Europe's markets. EMU logic is wage deflation for year after year. With Spain's high debt levels, this is impossible.

Italy's treasury awaits each bond auction with dread, wondering if can offload €200bn of debt this year. Spreads reached a fresh post-EMU high of 149 last week. The debt compound noose is tightening around Rome's throat. Italian journalists have begun to talk of Europe's "Tequila Crisis" – a new twist.

They mean that capital flight from Club Med could set off an unstoppable process.

When economies are deprived of a floating exchange rate, which would ordinarily allow the economy to re-value according to economic pressures, the pain must necessarily show in other ways. The Eurozone economies are merely experiencing this - wages and unemployment.

Don't expect tremors before an earthquake – and there is no fault line of greater historic violence than the crunching plates where Latin Europe meets Teutonia.

Greece no longer dares sell long bonds to fund its debt. It sold €2.5bn last week at short rates, mostly 3-months and 6-months. This is a dangerous game. It stores up "roll-over risk" for later in the year. Hedge funds are circling.

Traders suspect that investors are dumping their Club Med and Irish debt immediately on the European Central Bank in "repo" actions.

In other words, the ECB is already providing a stealth bail-out for Europe's governments – though secrecy veils all.

An EU debt union is being created, in breach of EU law. Liabilities are being shifted quietly on to German taxpayers. What happens when Germany's hard-working citizens find out?

Well, there you have it folks. The Euro is in meltdown and will most likely fail, as many multi-national monetary unions have before it. Thank God we in Britain are not in the Euro. Where would we be if we were unable to devalue as we have in recent months? The Euro is doomed, I just hope we have the sense to keep well out of it, and that its inevitable demise doesn't drag us down with it!


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