Are EU falling for a massive trick?

Posted by Hugh Barton-Smith on 01/04/13

According to the partial results of the latest ECB survey, the median wealth of Spanish households stands at €178,300 while that of their German counterparts languishes at €51,400. This is largely due to contrasting approaches to bricks and mortar: nearly 50% of Germans rent their accommodation and only 25% own it outright, whereas less than 20% of Spaniards are tenants and nearly half have no mortgage or loan against their property.

In Escorial hangs a pictorial tribute to the victory of the Spanish over Dutch rebels in the 1579 siege of Mastrique. Surely the 1992 Treaty won't be turned into revenge for its massacred inhabitants?

So, they don’t just have more sunshine, think Northerners. Well, while warning avid viewers of house makeover programmes that this may come as a shock and apologising to Adam Smith who no doubt expressed it more elegantly, property is only worth a multiple of what you can get for it in rent. And given the kerfuffle over people being evicted from their homes in Spain for not being able to meet mortgage payments, chances are there aren’t that many rents rising to meet falling house prices. Unless there’s a major turnaround in the economy, beyond the entrepreneurial manufacture of safe-equipped mattresses, this trend will continue to bear down as mercilessly on their value as the midday sun does on the rows of ageing for sale signs.

Individuals responsible for mortgages on an unsellable property worth half what they owe are obviously in a dreadful bind. But outright owners lucky enough to find a buyer must accept an eye-watering loss if they want to unlock the value in their homes and, say, help fund their children’s future or invest in a business. So, how rich are they then in fact?

Ah, say the Northerners, but those banks that provided the air for the housing bubble are in even worse shape. Debts need to be repaid. That’s why austerity is necessary. And (uninsured) depositors may need to be bailed in.

Well, irrespective of arguments for or against it, austerity is certainly freezing growth. The Troika are often portrayed as unwelcome conquerors, but it’s not an invasion: more of an extraction.

In cases of hypothermia, blood retreats to the core of the body to keep the vital organs warm. In Europe’s frozen economic landscape, while property wealth is locked in place to wither, those deposits not removed from circulation and stored in mattresses can easily and will likely course through the veins of the Eurozone from the periphery to the core, following in the steps of bond investors, even if last year’s stampede was checked and partially reversed by the ECB’s OMT initiative. If the bank jog is still leisurely, it seems unlikely to slow down.

In sum, just as peripheral sovereigns are paying heavy interest on their borrowings, southern banks will be starved of capital to pump into their economies with a view to repaying them, while northern banks become flush alongside sovereigns that are relatively relaxed with effectively negative interest rates.

Even more disturbing than the migration of capital is that of talented youngsters joining the flow to the heart, leaving the extremities bereft of their best hopes as well as at increasing risk of frostbite.

Ah, say the northerners, but the heart is getting tired of pumping help to the extremities and isn’t as strong as you imagine.

Hmm. A large part of the bailouts so far ended up where they started. The rapid beating of the heart was through fear of not getting enough blood back. Is bailout fatigue more a case of trepidation about the process breaking down into a transfer union? That is not how a body works nor how the Eurozone should work, at least according to adherents of banking union. Transfusions are from one body to another. Is the singleness of the currency in doubt? Is surgery contemplated?

The leader of the new German political party Alternative für Deutschland (AfD), Dr. Bernd Lucke, sees a split between:

“a segment of an economically unsuccessful southern part, and a more northern, or more central, European part, which currently seems to benefit from the misery of the southern European countries, because all of the capital flows back from southern Europe to Germany, and the Netherlands, and other stable countries, where it helps us to do cheap investment, but which is at the expense of those southern European countries”

Same diagnosis. However Herr Doktor proposes applying a tourniquet and proceeding to amputate thus:

“We are running on a platform to dissolve the euro in a stepwise fashion, on a platform which proposes to reintroduce national currencies, but not by having Germany leave the euro, but rather by making the southern European countries leave the euro first, and then breaking up the remaining euro zone into other smaller currency areas, or into countries which each have their own national currency.

What we do not propose is that Germany leave the euro either now or in the future in any kind of unilateral sense.”

Hmm, the last time I saw Hans-Olaf Henkel, he was arguing passionately for a much more humane operation:

“a jointly agreed [euro] exit of the most competitive countries. The euro may then remain – for some time – the common currency of less competitive countries. It would ultimately mean a return to national currencies or to different currencies serving groups of homogeneous countries.”

What happened between the end of January and the end of March? Henkel’s position was clear in January: he spoke sincerely and eloquently of a separation aimed at alleviating suffering in the south with the weaker of the conjoined twins retaining a functioning heart, whereas in comparison Lucke brings to mind a vivisectionist. His concern for the south being deprived of capital rings hollow: there’ll be very little left by the time his policy stands a chance of influencing events.

I’d hazard that it has become painfully obvious that extend and pretend is running out of road and burden sharing is little more than a pipe dream, with ESM for banks placed carefully alongside OMT on the shelf in the glass case that children are only allowed to look at on Sundays. In which case the game necessarily becomes to see who can best avoid the worst financial repression.

Lucke is convinced that Merkel is hardening her position in response to growing support for AfD. And Jeroen Dijsselbloem would appear to be in tune with this shift.

What is horrifying is that this shift may include contemplating extraction of the life-blood of capital and talent until… Well until there would be little alternative to Lucke’s policy: the frostbitten zones would have been overtaken with gangrene.

AfD claim they are insisting on a return to the principles of Maastricht and try to pass it off as a responsible ma being strict. Nearly a hundred years ago, my grandfather left three frostbitten, gangrenous toes in a trench in Flanders. This return to twenty years ago could overshoot by a factor of five.

This is likely not a conspiracy, but more the result of hardening attitudes. However, instead of talking glibly about moral hazard, we should perhaps consider a deeper morality and see through the massive trick we could be playing on ourselves.


Update: Further reading from Bruegel’s Nicolas Véron.

A morality tale for EU

Posted by Hugh Barton-Smith on 20/06/11

As the eurozone debt crises has spun out of control over the past months I have often recalled my own personal crisis in which I was the creditor and took a severe haircut. Apologies for the long post: the best bit is in the final paragraph.

When I moved to Brussels in 2004, I rented out my modest flat in a less than salubrious Parisian suburb to a Lebanese businessman and his family. I had been reluctant to select someone without a fixed income, but on meeting Mohammed - I always called him by his surname, but for the purposes of this account will refer to him by his given name – I recognised a father determined to ensure the wellbeing of his wife and four children and judged that worth more than a few payslips.

I originally demanded that, in addition to the standard deposit, 6 months’ rent be held in escrow. However, after over a year of tenancy with no payment issues, I was happy to release this sum for him to invest in a new venture. It wasn’t until the summer 2006 war in Lebanon that problems arose. Not only did his businesses suffer in the bombing, but his brother was badly injured. As his family were not Hezbollah supporters, neither insurance payouts nor medical care were forthcoming. I was therefore understanding when he missed a couple of payments. In any case I foresaw seeking the termination of the lease; I was in the process of purchasing a property in Brussels and wanted to sell up in Paris.

The following year things started to go badly wrong for Mohammed. His recently-opened restaurant was closed down on account of a chimney issue: it appears the landlord had acted unscrupulously. His health failed and he found it impossible to rent another apartment. He was stuck in a flat he could no longer afford: from then on he only ever managed to pay about half the rent. I was stuck with an occupied property I couldn’t sell and less income to offset against the mortgage I had taken out in Brussels.

The local authorities were no help: with lengthy waiting lists for council housing, they are happy to let the private sector pick up their bills for as long as possible. So I entrusted the case to a lawyer. To cut a long, tedious, stressful and expensive story short (many friends have gallantly suffered the unabridged version), this process took nearly three years and confirmed my suspicion that French courts tend to rank landlords alongside entrepreneurs as criminal profiteers. In fact the system in place to defend the little guy just increases people’s reluctance to give him a chance. Finally, in summer 2010, long before the bailiffs were finally due to make their move, Mohammed moved out of his own accord, returning with his family to Lebanon.

Now what has this to do with the eurozone crisis? It taught me a lot about the issues of debt and humanity that are achingly relevant to the current situation.

I’m no saint: I often tired of Mohammed’s serial excuses and once, infuriated by a surfeit of “Insha’Allah”s, furiously suggested he ask the local mosque to take him in. However we genuinely liked each other: on the day our case was heard in the small claims court in Seine Saint-Denis (I would recommend a morning there to anyone desirous of discovering the truly parlous state of society), the judge, clerk and my lawyer were somewhat thrown by my helping him sort his papers and his leaping (verbally, he could barely walk) to defend my right to a speedy resolution. Fundamentally the two of us recognised we were both victims of an arrangement that had come unstuck. Ring any bells?

At the end he owed me considerably north of €30K and I sold the flat for at least €40K less than it could have fetched in 2007 before the market retreated and the dilapidations of 6 people living in a two-bedroomed apartment had taken their toll. I occasionally think wistfully about how nice it would be to have such sums set aside for my daughters’ education, but in fact, as I was earning well for most of this period, the lack of rent had little impact. Whereas the monthly income for Mohammed’s entire family was revealed in court as around €1400, all in benefits. Another tinkle?

Nevertheless, losing what is rightfully yours grates, especially when you find yourself paying someone else’s hefty water bills. I had to find a way to feel comfortable with the situation. I reasoned that even if I hadn’t had any choice in the matter, I had enabled Mohammed to keep his family together and for his youngest daughter to finish school. It may have served my interests well, as the basis for his unforced departure out of respect for my increasingly desperate to need to sell, but my desire to help Mohammed maintain his dignity throughout quite simply made me feel better. When I finally reclaimed the flat, this was in essence what he thanked me for as he tearfully recounted his shame in having incurred such a debt and promised to honour his obligation as soon as it proved possible. I’m not holding my breath, but it was a small sacrifice to pretend otherwise and give him the gift of believing in his aspiration. A recent letter from him indicates he still puts great store in foreseeing a satisfactory resolution, possibly as much for his own pride as for my comfort.

I have been told that such protestations are not worth much from someone of Mohammed’s ilk, that he strung me along as far as he could and that I should not consider his voluntary exit from the premises as indicative of anything more than that the timing suited him. I might be deluding myself in giving him the benefit of the doubt, but I lose nothing and gain much in considering him an honourable man. There is a lesson in there somewhere.

Just like my projections of a profitable property arrangement, the eurozone hopes of convergence have been dashed. If I had rented through an agency and found an ostensibly more reliable tenant, I could still have ended up in a similar situation. Would better enforcement of the Stability and Growth pact or more intrusive Eurostat inspections have assuredly enabled a better outcome?

Mohammed couldn’t pay and there was no tribunal that could force him to. The Greeks can’t pay and the proposed regime does not look likely to help. I had to assume my loss and move on. It seems the creditor countries will have to do the same. I managed to do it with good grace, I have a friend in Lebanon and can smile when I think of him. The EU should perhaps recall it was put in place to bind the wounds of conflict, not generate more bad blood. I tell myself it’s only money. We perhaps need to remember it’s just a currency.

UPDATE 09/08/11

Mohammed just called me from Lebanon. Had I received his letter? Did I understand that things were still difficult? He is about to undergo heart surgery, but has told his children they have to honour the debt.

When the human spirit can be so strong in such frail circumstances, there is hope.

EU can’t escape this hold-up

Posted by Hugh Barton-Smith on 07/01/11

There’s an old joke about a dinner party being rudely interrupted by a masked gunman demanding the surrender of money and valuables. One chap surreptitiously hands his neighbour 50 euros, whispering “Here’s what I owed you.” In essence, this is what’s happening across Europe as the markets call in the debt.

exposure to Belgian sovereign debt

Not pocket change: exposure to Belgian debt

This graphic nicked from the FT (thanks, hope you don’t mind chaps) shows how €500bn of Belgian pubic and private sector debt is spread among the region’s banks. If you can, visit the interactive graphic, where you’ll see the pattern repeated across Europe (Belgium was chosen for aesthetic reasons). Now imagine all these banks and governments seated at the dinner table, squirming to find a way to leave with the least loss.

Alerted to the situation, Inspectors Rehn and Juncker arrive on the scene, followed by Detective Trichet. Unfortunately police chief Merkel hasn’t given the two inspectors a big enough weapon to seriously deter the gunman and the detective is keenly aware that he has to pay for his own ammunition and is therefore reluctant to do more than make the bulge in his jacket visible. The gunman is getting increasingly jittery in a tense standoff.

Suddenly Constable Barnier bursts into the room with a plan for ensuring taxpayers won’t have to foot the bill for bank failures in the future: the bondholders will take the hit. What a relief.

Except it isn’t. The memo accompanying today’s announcement declares that it “should not be read across to the current debate around sovereign debt.” But, rather like the way in which the announcement of the project for the European Stability Mechanism is said to have led to the Irish bailout, the markets appear to have done just that: the gunman is waving his gun around again and the FT headlines: “Euro slides as peripheral debt yields spike.

Why? The new Money Supply blog at the FT reasons thus:

Here they are talking about bank bondholders. But government bonds – already jittery – are feeling the pain. There seem two likely explanations for this. First, that markets believe bondholder rights will be viewed the same way by the EC, whether bank or sovereign. In other words, today’s news makes it more likely sovereign bondholders will also face losses in the event of default.

There is another, more alarming explanation. That is that all debt is now one. Governments often own lots of banks, after all. Are their holdings so great that the value of their own debt now depends upon that of their banks’?

If this seems arcane, bear in mind that government bond yields (in the secondary, resale market) are the best indication we have of how much governments will pay on debt they raise – confirmed by recent auctions. And governments – i.e. taxpayers – will pay ever more of their GDP servicing their debt.

One way or another, we’re all going to pay, and probably sooner as well as later. Unless, of course, you’ve got a very sneaky hiding place for the cash your neighbour just slipped you.

You can’t force people to love EU

Posted by Hugh Barton-Smith on 16/10/10

Mathew’s great post about Mediacafé – Europe: no medium, no message?, picks up on the phrase (Mathew’s emphasis) “The production of qualitative EU coverage should be incorporated in the charters of public broadcasters and it should be supervised as well.” As Mathew sums up: “State-coerced, force-fed media should not be what Europe is about.”

An appeal for this type of intervention is all the more surprising in the context of the Pascal Decroos Foundation for Investigative Journalism. But perhaps, if the EU is involved, a different paradigm is required.

Chatting with a West African diplomat earlier on the relative value to Africa of China and Europe, I learnt that the former is more appreciated because it gets in there and provides what’s needed (obviously in return for access to raw materials), while the latter tends to wrap up its assistance in red tape and sermonising. In short, the EU ends up supporting bureaucracy instead of democracy. The Chinese are apparently prepared to deal with their African interlocutors on an egalitarian basis, making them feel like partners in the process, whereas Europeans seem to treat them as supplicants, in a manner occasionally reminiscent of missionaries bringing the gifts of Christian civilisation to savages.

What’s the link? The same holier-than-thou attitude. The sort that was on such extraordinary display in the 10:10 video that had people and sponsors running for the hills.

The striking lack of judgment in releasing this film made many people consider that the 10:10 team were evidently so full of self-importance that their take on climate change could be equally dumb.

This spoof of the caricature of global warmists as ecofascists was no doubt intended to make it obviously ridiculous. Instead it made people seriously consider that the caricature is even more accurate than they originally feared.

Perhaps the phrase “and should be supervised” is also a spoof intended to make us think the “EUSSR” idea is overblown?

Laughing all the way to the image bank

Posted by Hugh Barton-Smith on 03/10/10
Tags: ,  

AFP was awarded a major contract last week to provide EBS with coverage of “the movements and activities of members of the European institutions in most regions of the world” and “establish image banks illustrating the themes of major importance to the commission, the parliament and the Council of Europe.”

Er, sorry guys, but shouldn’t that be the Council of the European Union or the European Council? Well, with a bit of luck, by the time you have to tag all these videos for “broadcast on the European channel” or delivery to “media around the world rights-free” you’ll have found someone who does understand that the Council of Europe is not an institution of the European Union.

Still, what’s an institution here or there, when there’s “tens of millions of euros over four years” on the table for glossy advertorial: “AFP has decided to develop this activity as a totally separate entity from editorial; the contract is being managed by a wholly-owned subsidiary of AFP and by a specially formed unit to avoid any possible conflict with its traditional role as a news agency.”

Obviously this contract must have been developed before the publication of Project Europe 2030, where the Reflection Group on the Future of the EU suggest that:

The image of the EU which is conveyed to the public must be balanced, reflecting both strengths and weaknesses, rather than an idealised or overly pessimistic account. Instead of focusing on a communication policy which sometimes verges on propaganda, it would be preferable to communicate on policies, explaining frankly what is at stake and the different options available.

Fortunate timing! Citizens around the world will be delighted with what’s now in store. Not only will they be able to see more of the great and the good of the EU going about their activities at a safe distance from all that unremittingly negative news, their cravings for audiovisual material on “themes of major importance” to the institutions will finally be satisfied. Networks, meanwhile, will be glad to pad their schedules at zero cost, except, of course, the potential loss of audience share.

The European taxpayer will undoubtedly be ecstatic at making so many people happy, while AFP are laughing all the way to the image bank…