Markets have been in the limelight because they have simultaneously decided there will be too little growth ahead to sustain the massive debts the west has built up. The spend now pay later model followed by the US, and much of Euroland, only works if enough of the money is spent wisely on productive investments which can pay the interest and repay the capital in due course. If public and private sectors borrow to spend too much on current consumption, eventually lenders ask “How can you afford to pay us back?”
The immediate triggers of this phase of the crisis were twofold. In the US the politicians were at war over whether to limit future US borrowings. Republicans blame the President. He allowed markets to think the US might not pay the interest on all its debt if he did not get his way. Suddenly American bonds, the gold standard of government loans, were in doubt. He did not point out that if the debt ceiling were kept too low for spending he could cut other spending whilst paying the interest from taxes. Democrats blame the Tea party. They say if the Tea party group had not made a big issue out of whether the US could afford to carry on borrowing, the markets would not have got into a spin. The debt was affordable, they say, until the Tea party said it was not.
On the other side of the Atlantic a more serious crisis was ready to explode. In the EU the politicians did not alarm markets by a serious row about an important issue – how much should a country borrow? They upset markets by an even more damaging row over which countries might default or reschedule their debts, and over whether the Euro scheme could be trusted to manage “sovereign” or country borrowing in any responsible way. As newspapers have been saying, the crisis this week in the EU has been where is the leadership? Who speaks for the Eurozone? When will there be any sensible answers to some fundamental questions about the conduct of monetary and state borrowing policy? The US had too many political voices over the last few weeks for the comfort of the markets . Euroland was inaudible. The US did debate a crucial issue – how much debt is wise? She did come to some kind of an answer. Euroland did not debate how to control her wayward members and did not come to an answer.
In the US the sovereign was split by a family row between the Congress and the President, whilst in the EU there is a continuing row over whether there is a Euro sovereign at all.
When markets are in a herd like emotional spasm, be it bearish or bullish, it requires the authorities to be clear, firm, and to boss the markets. Over the last week the Euro authorities did too little too late, and came across as out of touch, indecisive and worried sick. It is not a good combination. Yesterday at the Euro news conference a range of financial journalists asked a range of crucial and well based questions. There were answers to practically none.
We do not know when the latest fund to prop the Euro will be fully established and ratified. We do not know if they will expand it in case it is needed to intervene for Italy and Spain. We cannot be sure how serious the ECB is about buying in bonds of Euro countries the market no longer trusts. We do not know when the EU will complete its plans to put in stronger economic governance to curb and control the deficits of the wayward members. We do not know how much extra if anything German and French taxpayers will put in to help the poorer countries. We do not know if there are plans to borrow much more on the Euro credit card, to lend on to individual countries that cannot afford the rates they have to pay now to borrow directly.
What the markets now know is there will be slower growth ahead in both the US and Europe. The weight of debts on both sides of the Atlantic is too great. Debt needs limiting. Some debts need paying off. This will slow economies down whilst the debt is controlled. Share markets partly fell to discount slower growth.
The most worrying feature of the crisis is the return of fears about banks. As predicted here, the Regulators set up this crisis by their response to the last one. They instructed banks to hold much more cash and reserve in the form of government bonds. They saw these bonds as risk free. Now the markets are saying many of these country bonds have fallen substantially in price. This has meant large losses for the banks holding Greek or Portuguese or Irish debt. As the individual bond markets collapse, so the bank shares plunge. As the shares plunge markets become more suspicious about the weaker banks. Some of the European banks have been through falls in assets and share prices larger than anything assumed in the most recent stress tests. Now the only way the weakest banks can be kept functioning is through the plentiful supply of cash from the Central Bank.
During the week US, German and UK government bonds did well compared to most of the rest. The strain was taken by Italian and Spanish government bonds, by bank shares and by general equities.
UK bonds have had a good period because the government has been crystal clear in its commitment to deficit reduction in all that it has said. It now needs to deliver the figures to show the policy is being successfully implemented. I would be happier if the UK was taking stronger action to control the government overhead and less desirable spending.
US bonds have benefitted from rumours that the US might print some more money to buy more of them up, given the new weakness in the economy. There has also been some relief that a deal was stitched together, and that action is now envisaged to cut future spending. The US has to negotiate the downgrade of its credit rating, and then to deliver better borrowing numbers in the months ahead.
Germany deserves a strong credit rating for herself, but will increasingly be questioned if she accepts the need to underwrite or subsidise the large deficits elsewhere in the Euro zone. Socialising the Euro risk between all members will help Greece and Portugal but impose new costs on Germany.
“The flight to quality” is itself a risky strategy in a western world where there is too much debt, too many imports, and not enough exports. The west has to get better at earning its living in a very competitive world. Cutting the borrowings is not an easy task. It is task that cannot now be avoided. Too many western countries have got used to borrowing 10% of their National Income each year through some combination of private and public sector borrowing. Increasingly the borrowing is public sector, as the private sector takes the painful steps to rebuild its overstretched balance sheet. The markets are merely stating the obvious when they say governments cannot carry on like that.