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Yves here. The word “collapse” may seem overwrought when applied to Europe, but cold-blooded, clear eyed colleagues who have good connections and have spent a bit of time there recently say things that are broadly similar to Ilargi’s take. Despite the conventional wisdom that the cost of a Eurozone breakup is catastrophically high and thus will never take place, that confidence may prove to be the currency union’s undoing. Ideological rigidity about austerity is leading to policies that are crushing large swathes of the population. And Europe, unlike the US, had enough of a tradition of popular revolt that that uprisings, either on the street or in the ballot box, are real possibilities, as the sudden rise of the anti-EU right shows.
My sources, who also read the foreign language press, say that political fracture is underway and the Eurozone leadership is not taking anything remotely resembling adequate measures to halt its progress. That does not mean upheaval is imminent. But the flip side is this sort of unraveling tends to progress not via an clearly discernible decay path, but through sudden state changes.
By Raúl Ilargi Meijer, editor-in-chief of The Automatic Earth. Originally published at Automatic Earth
For me, the quote of the day is this one: “If there’s a periphery of the eurozone’s periphery, that’s Naples.” The city of Napoli hosts ECB boss Mario Draghi and the heads of Europe’s central banks this week in some very posh former Bourbon family royal palace, and the contradictions involved couldn’t be more striking.
Napoli is home to an immense amount of poverty and misery, and the advent of the EU and the euro has done absolutely nothing to make life in the city any better. Quite the contrary. And there’s not a single thing in sight that holds any promise of alleviating the deepening Italian downfall. Therefore things can, and will, only get worse from here.
And that’s not just true for Italy, or Napoli. It’s true for all of Europe. That is not because Mario Draghi hasn’t spent enough money, or too much of it, or that he’s spent it in the wrong places. It’s because Naples is not Berlin or Frankfurt, or even Milan in the much richer north of Italy. And because Italy is not Germany, and Greece is not Finland, and trying to force all of them into one and the same economic mold can only possibly end in the poor getting poorer.
Unless there would be a massive wealth transfer from rich to poor, from north to south, but that’s never been in the cards. The intention was always to make the EU a tide to lift all boats, or even, in the wildest dreams, a boat to lift all tides. That intention has failed in dramatic fashion. But not one single one of the architects and present day leaders is ready to fess up to their failures.
Almost 15 years after the euro was introduced, the battlefields are littered with dead and wounded bodies. And the only answer that comes from Brussels is to strengthen the – financial and political – army. The only answer that comes from Brussels is that Europe, including Italy, Greece, Spain, needs more Brussels, more centralized control.
And Napoli is not the only place that can lay claim to the title “periphery of the eurozone’s periphery”. Spain and Greece have unemployment numbers just like Napoli, only for them it’s in their entire countries. All have had youth unemployment at well over 50% for years now, a sort of real life version of throwing your babies away with the bathwater. And all have regions and cities where things are much worse still.
Oh well, at least Bloomberg has a poetic headline for once:
As Europe’s central bankers gather in Naples to discuss the state of the region’s economy, the city stands as a stark warning of just how bad things can get. “If there’s a periphery of the eurozone’s periphery, that’s Naples,” said economist Riccardo Realfonzo, a former councilman of the Southern Italian city. “The gap between the debate at the Royal Palace in Capodimonte and everyday life can’t be filled with just monetary policy.”
In Naples “there is a hunger for bread and justice, hope and future, work, legality and planning,” local Catholic Archbishop Crescenzio Sepe on Sept. 19 told the faithful gathered in the city’s medieval cathedral for the ritual of the so-called miracle of San Gennaro, the patron saint.
Last year, Naples scored the highest among Italy’s main cities on the misery index, a gauge which combines unemployment and deflation. With a reading of 26.7% it stood above Greece. Much like Greece, Naples, hard hit by Italy’s longest recession on record, risked default this year after a court rejected plans to cut municipal debt of about €1 billion ($1.3 billion). [..] Naples’ 2013 gross domestic product per capita was one-third less than Italy’s average and its unemployment was more than double the national average at 25.8%.
The outlook for the future is far from rosy after Italy entered a new recession in the second quarter and the government was forced to cut the country’s growth forecast. Finance Minister Pier Carlo Padoan said yesterday 2014 GDP is seen shrinking 0.3%, compared with an April forecast of a 0.8% expansion. The government also sees GDP growing just 0.6% next year, compared with a previous estimate of 1.3%.
In that setting, or rather overseeing it from a heavily guarded and inaccessible palace, enjoying the best food and wine freshly printed money can buy, Europe’s central bank bosses are planning their next moves.
And still the only answer is more Brussels. Where Mario Draghi now wants to start buying up Greek and Cypriot junk loans, simply because that’s all they have left to sell. That’s where we stand today. We’re back to toilet paper as the only thing that represents any value.
And, you know, if a country like Spain, with 25% unemployment, can get investors to nevertheless buy its bonds with real yields below zero, maybe there is some – although doomed – logic somewhere in Draghi’s ideas. If you distort and pervert values enough so nobody knows what anything is worth anymore, and you still have all these big funds needing to roll over their ‘investments’, you have them trapped, or at least temporarily.
The question is, for how long?
Record-low interest rates in Europe have flipped bond investing on its head. Some bond buyers, typically paid for lending out their money, have begun paying borrowers to look after their cash. In September, yields on two-year Irish government debt dipped below zero for the first time, just four years after the country needed a €67.5 billion ($85.6 billion) bailout to avert a banking-system collapse. At the height of the eurozone’s debt crisis, Ireland’s two-year bonds were yielding more than 14%.
Now, they are yielding about minus 0.01%. Yields move inversely to prices. The sharp drop in Ireland’s borrowing costs marks a rapid return of investor confidence, but the recovery is also part of a wider theme in Europe: central-bank policy pushing interest rates ever lower, and in some cases, turning bond yields negative.
[..] “We think negative yields will spread, because the impact of the ECB’s rate cut is ongoing,” said Mr. Bayliss. Yields will continue their decline as short-term debt matures and cash is reinvested, he added. “You’re going to see more countries and longer maturities in the negative-rate camp,” he said. Given that backdrop, one way investors can boost returns is by buying longer-dated bonds. Spanish government debt maturing in July 2017, for instance, yields roughly 0.5%, according to Tradeweb.
By instead lending to Spain for 10 years, yields jump to about 2%. Another way to snag higher yields is to buy riskier bonds with lower credit ratings. Ben Bennett, a credit strategist at Legal & General Investment Management, says that with investment-grade corporate bonds yielding so little the only way to get a reasonable return in Europe is by lending to junk-rated companies or by buying junior bonds that are first to take a hit if a company defaults on its debt. “This should work out fine if the ECB’s policies kick-start the European economy, but they don’t have a very successful track record in recent years,” Mr. Bennett said.
They sure don’t. And that’s not even Draghi’s fault, he’s just a clown. The entire structure of the EU is to blame. Draghi won’t be able to buy any toilet paper unless Merkel gives in. But the EU economy has now started to drag down Germany as well, so she will have to choose to protect her own people first. Which is precisely where the EU fails, that that is still possible.
In the US California can’t say screw Kansas. In the EU, that is an option. The richer nations only signed up to the project to get richer off it. The same as the poorer. Nobody ever gave any thought to what should be done is everybody got poorer, and if they did, it certainly wasn’t put into written words. So Germany CAN elect to put itself first, and try to boost its economy at the expense of Spain. And that’s what it’ll do, especially after the recent rise of anti-euro sentiments.
Sentiments that will crop up and grow in ever more places in ever stronger ways. Because there is no way to save the pan-European ideals within the settings laid out inside the EU. You can’t turn Spain into Germany overnight, for the same reason that you can’t demand the Spanish turn to beer and bratwurst from one day to the next.
There is not one reason why Europe couldn’t be a looser organization of nation states, each with their own currency if that works better for them, but still with many ties defined by those things that do indeed bind them. The thing is, France has close ties to Spain, they share the same border, and France has similar ties to Germany, but Germany and Spain don’t have those ties.
It’s much easier to resolve regional differences within a country the size of France or Spain that it is within a 28-member EU. The differences have become too overwhelming. People from Finland vote on issues in Greece, but they have no idea about those issues. While the Greeks sink into desolation:
Three in every five Greeks, or some 6.3 million people, were living in poverty or under the threat of poverty in 2013 due to material deprivation and unemployment, a report by Parliament’s State Budget Office showed on Thursday. Using data on household incomes and living conditions, the report – titled “Minimum Income Policies in the European Union and Greece: A Comparative Analysis” – found that “some 2.5 million people are below the threshold of relative poverty, which is set at 60% of the average household income.” It added that “3.8 million people are facing the threat of poverty due to material deprivation and unemployment,” resulting in a total of 6.3 million people.
In the medium term, Europe will fall to bits. It’s inevitable. The crumbling of the walls could only be prevented by overall increasing wealth, but the very structure of the Union doesn’t allow for that to happen. And neither does the global economy.
As for the cheap loans and the yields on peripheral sovereign bonds, the money that investors have out there will flee in a massive move to the global financial center, the US, as soon as interest rates there are raised. Which is another major reason why they indeed will be raised. Come to daddy.
And the EU will go from the lofty ideal of a peacemaker to the reality of being a cause for unrest and then war. It has already made that switch, but nobody notices yet.