Is the EU Bankrupt?

11/15/2011 10:00 am EST


John Mauldin

Chairman, Mauldin Economics

The European issue is not a crisis of confidence, as Merkel and Sarkozy et al keep telling us. It is structural, and until the structural issues are dealt with, the problems will not be solved, writes John Mauldin of Thoughts from the Frontline.

The first problem facing Europe is the glaring sore thumb: there is simply too much sovereign debt in Greece, Ireland, Spain, Italy, Portugal, and Belgium. That is not news.

What has yet to be absorbed by the markets is that the cost of bailouts, present and potential, is likely to be in the €3 trillion ($4.08 trillion) range, talking an average of the estimates I have seen (with the Boston Consulting Group suggesting €6 trillion).

€3 trillion is not pocket change. Indeed, it is a number that is inconceivable in scope.

Greece has been told that they can write off 50% of their debt held by private entities, but not that owed to the IMF, ECB, or other public entities. This means something more like a 20% to 30% haircut on total debt.

Sean Egan suggests that eventually Greece will write off closer to 90%. That is a number that cannot be contemplated in polite European circles, as it is plenty enough to cause a serious banking crisis.

And that is before we get to the rest of the problem…Portugal will need at least a 40% write-off (probably more!). The Irish are going to walk away from the bank debt they assumed in the banking crisis.

While on paper, Spain looks like it may survive, in reality it has significant problems in its banking sector. If they move to insure the solvency of their banks, their debts become unmanageable, not to mention that their debt grows each and every month from the rather large deficits they run and seem totally unwilling to try to reduce.

The Spanish government deficit is likely to be at least 7% next year, well above their target of 6%. The “semi-autonomous regions” are in deep trouble, and their citizens are leveraged due to excessive real estate exuberance. Unemployment across Spain is 21%, and for the young it is over 40%.

The Spanish government has adopted the rather novel idea that if it doesn’t pay its bills, then its deficit will not be as large, and therefore they can get closer to meeting their targets. Yields on Spanish debt are about 1% lower than on Italian debt, but give them time.

And then there is Italy. Italy is simply too big to save. Yes, it looks like Berlusconi is leaving, but he is not the real problem. The problem is a ten-year bond yield at 7%, when your debt is 120% of GDP and growing.

Italy is likely to be in recession soon, which will only make the problem worse. A drop in GDP while deficits rise means that debt-to-GDP rises faster. That means interest-rate costs are rising faster than (the lack of) growth in the economy.

The deficit is a reported 4.6%. By contrast, Germany’s is 4.3%. But the difference is the debt. The market realizes that if you grow debt by 5% a year, it will not be but a few years until Italy is at 150%.

There is no retreat without default from such a number, and the markets are saying, “We’ve seen this movie before and the ending is not a happy one. We think we’ll leave at intermission.”

The only reason that Italian yields have dropped below 7% is that the European Central Bank has been buying Italian debt “in size.” Any retreat by the ECB from buying Italian debt and Italian yields shoot to the moon.

Italy will need to raise close to €350 this year, including new debt and rollover debt. The higher rates will put even more pressure on the deficit.

Debt, whether it is with an individual, a family, a city, or a country, always has a limit. Debt cannot grow beyond the ability to service the debt. That is the clear lesson of Rogoff and Reinhardt’s epic work, This Time Is Different. When that limit is reached, the debt must be restructured in some way, either with better terms or through some sort of default.

Mediterranean Europe simply borrowed more than it could pay, given the cash flows of the various countries. And now we are at the endgame. How can one deal with the debt?

The best solution is to figure out how to grow your economy faster than the growth of debt. Over time, debt service becomes a smaller part of the economy.

But Southern Europe does not seemingly have that option. Certainly not Greece, Portugal, or Spain. And this week we learned that Italian production was off 4.8%. Europe—even Germany—is slipping into recession.

Germany is in the position of wanting the problem countries to cut their deficits through something called austerity. And living within your means is hardly a novel idea. It makes a great deal of sense. But when you are a country in recession and have to cut back, it only makes the recession worse for a period of time.

Asking Greece to cuts its deficit by 4% a year for 4 years to get to something closer to balance means that the Greek economy will shrink by at least 10%, if not more. Tax revenues, never on solid footing, will shrink, making the deficit worse.

How do you ask people to willingly enter into a depression for a rather long time in order to pay back the banks, even if the debts were freely taken on by the government and the money spent on the populace, and even if the haircuts are 50%?

Yes, if Greece leaves the euro, that means they will also have a depression. No one will lend them money for at least three years. Their banks will be insolvent, their pension funds destroyed.

Their ability to buy needed materials (like oil, medicines, etc.) will be limited to the amount of goods they can produce and sell. Government employees will be forced to leave jobs, as there will be no money to pay them. Those on government pensions will get a fraction of what they were promised.

Going back to the drachma will be painful in the extreme. Just as staying in the euro will be painful. Greece has no good choices.

There are those who suggest that Europe is demonstrating the failure of the socialist welfare state. And there is some reason to say that.

But I don’t think the socialist welfare state is the cause of the debt crisis. One can have a welfare state without debt, if you are willing to run a sensible budget. Think of the Scandinavian countries.

And you can have countries without much social welfare get into debt problems. There are plenty of examples in history.

Amassing large amounts of debt is a national problem that has as much to do with character as anything else. That is true for families or for countries. It is wanting to spend for goods and services today and pay for them in the future.

Debt has its uses. Properly used, it can be of great benefit to societies and families. People can buy homes and tools that can be used for the production of goods, build roads and other infrastructure, etc.

But debt cannot be allowed to become the master of the budget or the source for current spending, again whether for families or countries. And Greece and its fellow countries have used debt to fund current spending and now have run up against the inability to borrow more at sustainable levels.

The easy answer is to cut spending. But when you cut back spending, even borrowed spending, it is going to affect GDP. It is something that may have to be done, but it is not without consequence.

Ireland, a small country of 4.2 million people, just paid close to €1 billion to service debt that it owes for taking on the debts of its banks that went bankrupt. That is hugely unpopular in Ireland, and it will not be long before the Irish government simply says no. If the current one does not, then there will be a new one that does.

Unless the Irish renegotiate their debt, they will be paying on it for decades. Debt that was private debt and paid to European banks (who lent to Irish banks) is now public debt. And it is a punitive and crushing debt.

We can go to each problem country and home in on its own particular situation, and the answer almost always seems to be that the debt must be dealt with in some manner that either directly or indirectly amounts to default. (Even if the Eurozone leaders say that a 50% haircut by a bank is “voluntary.” Yeah, right. European leaders have a different understanding of voluntary than I learned in school.)

But that is the problem. The European Commission is trying to figure out how to find €1 trillion to use to bail out southern Europe and Ireland. They so far cannot, and the market recognizes that fact and that the needs are actually much higher.

European leaders cannot (at least publicly) fathom how to find €3 trillion. But whether or not they can “find” another few trillion, that debt will have to be restructured or defaulted.

Once you go down that path, as they have with Greece, it is just a matter of time before you have to do the same for Portugal and Ireland. And are Spain and Italy close on their heels?

Read more Thoughts from the Frontline here…

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