Sunday, February 7, 2010

Trouble Ahead

Back in 1831, as cholera was sweeping across Europe, French authorities confidently announced that France, with its advanced medical knowledge and modern public health system, was safe, and indeed the crisis seemed to strike all around while leaving France unscathed. But the next year the epidemic came to France and killed, among many others, the prime minister, Casimir Périer. Now it is 2010, and we have all heard how France has avoided the worst effects of another crisis. But here is a warning from a former chief economist of the IMF, Simon Johnson:

What are the stronger European countries, specifically Germany and France, doing to contain the self-fulfilling fear that weaker eurozone countries may not be able to pay their debt – this panic that pushes up interest rates and makes it harder for beleaguered governments to actually pay?

The Europeans with deep-pockets are doing nothing – except insist that all countries under pressure cut their budgets quickly and in ways that are probably politically infeasible.  This kind of precipitate fiscal austerity contributed directly to the onset of the Great Depression in the 1930s.
As this pressure mounts, we’ll see cracks appear also in the private sector.  Significant banks and large hedge funds have been selling insurance against default by European sovereigns.  As countries lose creditworthiness – and, under sufficient pressure, very few government credit ratings will hold up – these financial institutions will need to come up with cash to post increasing amounts of collateral against their derivative obligations (yes, the same credit default swaps that triggered the collapse last time).

Remember that none of the opaqueness of the credit default swap market has been addressed since the crisis of September 2008.  And generalized counter-party risk – the fear that your insurer will fail and this will bring down all connected banks – raises its ugly head again.
In such a situation, investors scramble for the safest assets available – “cash”, which actually (and ironically, given our budget woes) means short-term US government securities.  It’s not that the US is in good shape or even has anything approaching a credible medium-term fiscal framework, it’s just that everyone else is in much worse shape.

Another Lehman/AIG-type situation lurks somewhere on the European continent, and again our purported G7 (or even G20) leaders are slow to see the risk.  And this time, given that they already used almost all their fiscal bullets, it will be considerably more difficult for governments to respond effectively when they do wake up.