Wednesday, May 12, 2010

European Central Bank and its USD$1 Trillion Bailout Plan

Kris Sayce from Money Morning Australia gives an over-the-Tasman perspective on the European Central Bank crying havoc, and letting slip the printing presses of doom.
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The Bank of Japan? Check.

The Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe? Check.

The United States Federal Reserve? Check.

The Bank of England? Check.

The European Central Bank? Check.

The Reserve Bank of Australia? [Silence].


Not yet, reader. Will its time come to openly and brazenly print money?

We know it and the retail banks do it behind closed doors. But it hasn’t yet announced a multi-billion dollar plan to monetise debt obligations. Of course, so far it hasn’t had to because thanks to the “we’re different” mentality, Australians have continued to make sure private sector debt continues to rise.

For instance, according to the Reserve Bank of Australia (RBA), as of March 2010 residential loans by banks stood at $935.2 billion.

That’s compared to a paltry $634 billion when the economy last peaked in October 2007.

In other words, household debt obligations have increased by about 50% over the last two-and-a-half years. An increase which has occurred almost without stopping for breath.

Who needs a central bank bail-out when it’s easier to just convince the population into believing “Australia is different.”

But anyway, back to the European Central Bank and its EUR40 billion bailout… [murmur, murmur] HOW MUCH?!

[Hehem] Right, well, what I should have said is, the European Central Bank and its USD$1 trillion bailout plan. Or to put it another way, $1.1 trillion – more than the annual output of the Australian economy.

Where did the trillion come from? We’re sure this all started off as a EUR40 minor problem. I mean, that was the reason behind the mainstream’s argument about Greece being irrelevant.

OK, we did note over the last couple of weeks that the number had ratcheted up quietly to EUR130 billion. That’s a pretty big number by itself.

But then, whammo! At 3.15am in Frankfurt, the European Central Bank announced to the world – but not to the Europeans because they were all asleep [Shhhh!] – that it was using its “nuclear option” of monetising the debt in order to fight the “wolfpack.”

Yep, that’s right, the free market gets the blame for problems ultimately caused by… that’s right, the politicians, bureaucrats and central bankers. Even though the free market – or ‘wolfpack’ as they call it – had nothing to do with it.

But what are the chances of the European Central Bank’s money-printing plans working any better than the money-printing strategy of the Fed, the Bank of England and the Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe?

No chance, we’d say.

In fact, it rather reminds us of Mission Gainsborough
General Melchett: Field Marshall Haig has formulated a brilliant new tactical plan to ensure final victory in the field.
Captain Blackadder: Ah, would this brilliant plan involve us climbing up out of our trenches and walking very slowly towards the enemy sir?
Captain Darling: How could you possibly know that Blackadder? It’s classified information.
Captain Blackadder: It’s the same plan we used last time… And the seventeen times before that.
General Melchett: E-e-exactly! And that is what is so brilliant about it. It will catch the watchful Hun totally off-guard, doing precisely what we’ve done eighteen times before is exactly the last thing they’ll expect us to do this time…
And the Watchful Huns in the markets certainly were caught unawares. Hence the French CAC40 climbing 9% and the Spanish market surging 14%.

The market obviously wasn’t entirely convinced that the European Central Bank would be so stupid to just print a bunch of new cash in order to pay off debts. I mean, it’s obviously the kind of crass thing the Americans would do… but not the Europeans.

And the British with their Anglo-Saxon ways are just as bawdy as the Yanks. But surely the sophisticated French, the sensible Germans, and the, erm, er, Belgians would have a more balanced plan of attack.

It appears not.

In fact, based on the numbers bandied around over the last few weeks it seems to have been more like a central bank version of Deal or No Deal rather than the thoughtful deliberation of supposedly intelligent men.

We can only think that they’ve been frantically opening briefcases with numbers inside. As the ‘Bank’ spun the numbers and offered the magic trillion, the finance ministers leapt with joy, “Voila! Nous sommes rich!”

And so today the European printing presses whirr into action.

But wasn’t it nice of them to do all this in the early hours of the European morning. What dedicated public servants they are. And obviously it was so urgent, that they had to release the news before Fritz in Cologne, Francois in Lyon and Giuseppe in Milan had woken from their slumber – “Don’t wake them, they need the sleep, they’ll have to work twice as hard to pay this off! Ha, ha, ha…”

Or maybe they were more eager to rubber-stamp it before Stavros and Effi in Athens had woken up.
You remember what happened last time they got mad!

It still startles us how our Keynesian friends can’t grasp how illogical it is to just print money. Look at the number again, it’s the equivalent of A$1.1 trillion or greater than the entire yearly output of the Australian economy.

Think of it this way. It will take the European Central Bank about, ooh, a tenth of a second to create the billions of Euros needed.

Yet it will take 10.9 million Australians working an average of 35 hours per week for 52 weeks to produce the same output.

Got that? One-tenth of a second versus one year.

One-tenth of a second versus a combined 19.8 billion hours or 71.4 trillion seconds [Ed note: we just wanted to keep going until we notched up a trillion].

The obvious question is why bother going through all that effort if when push comes to shove the central bankers will just print the money anyway?

Naturally, the reason you have to go through all that effort is because you know there’s something illogical and not right about a bank just creating money from thin air.

You don’t need to be a Doktor der Wirtschaftswissenschaften from the Ludwig-Maximilian-Universität München to work out that even as a short-term measure printing money doesn’t actually solve the initial problem.

All it does is shift the problem. It wipes debt from one bunch of people and plops it onto another bunch.

Because guess what, instead of the Greeks having to come up with a way of repaying their debts or just defaulting, the European Central Bank is just handing over the Euros in exchange for Greek government bonds.

In return, the European Central Bank and European taxpayers get a bunch of crappy Greek debt that no-one else wanted. Well, they would take it on, but only at an 18% interest rate. In fact, so little did anyone want it that the European Central Bank actually has to create the money to buy it.

The issue now is what happens to the billions that will be handed out to the Greeks, Portuguese, and anyone else that needs it? The answer is that the national governments will feed the cash out to their favoured industries and pet projects.

Some will gain by the increased money supply – those that get the new money first, but others will lose out. And because the new money is in effect unearned income, like a handout, it will be wasted and squandered in exactly the same way as any other type of handout.

Not forgetting the moral hazard of having bailed them out once, is it really likely the European Central Bank will tell them to get stuffed if they ask for more? And what about other governments? It can only be a matter of time before they play the “where’s our free money” card.

As we’ve pointed out several times, the most honourable action would have been for the Greeks and other European tin-pot governments to just default on the debt obligations.

There would still be losers of course, we’re not claiming that there wouldn’t. But at least the losers would have been investors. Investors who should always enter into an investment with the risk that they’ll lose money.

Instead, at 3.15am Frankfurt time, the European Central Bank decided it was much more important that they and their political paymasters kept their jobs. The result being that the average German, French and Italian – and every other European – will pay via the devaluation of their savings and their wages.

All just to ensure the governments are saved, central bankers are saved, and bond investors receive back 100 cents on the Euro for their crappy Greek bond investment.

What are the odds that in a year’s time we’ll hear that Goldman Sachs or JP Morgan made a matzo from buying cheap Greek debt two weeks ago and then selling it to the ECB this week?

We can see the headline now, “Evil Bankers Profited as Greece Burned.”

The free market will be blamed again, and capitalism will be accused of being out of control. Of course, what the bankers and politicians will conveniently forget is that without the money printing, those profits – if they exist, and we’re sure they do – wouldn’t have happened.

The odds on that story making it to the front pages are pretty good we’ll guess.

Cheers,
Kris.

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