Greece photo

One of my very good friends had a small private dinner this week with the chairman of a major German bank, who remarked, with a sense of gallows humor, that he thought he could get his fellow German banks to chip in enough money to give to Greece to just make them go away. They really have Greek Exhaustion Syndrome.

He also thought Portugal would eventually would have to leave, and said he thought he would take a haircut on Irish debt. Italy and Spain will somehow make it. At least that is the view from the top of the German bank pyramid.

Portuguese interest rates are soaring. Without life support from Europe, they cannot keep up their borrowing at rates that will allow them to recover. While they are gamely trying to reduce their deficit, austerity is reducing their GDP and thus their tax revenues. They will have no choice but to default at some point.

The interesting case is Italy. They have room in their budget to cut, as I have outlined in prior letters. If the ECB subsidizes their debt (lowering the interest-rate cost) or an agreement is reached to lower the rate on their bonds, they theoretically could make it. But either path is default by another name. Maintaining the status quo is not possible. It will not be long before they are at 130% debt-to-GDP, if Europe falls into recession. The IMF has long maintained that 120% is the line in the sand.

It is just a matter of who pays and how the payment is made. But someone will pay.

And there’s this note for those who think austerity comes with few consequences. From the Centre for European Reform:

“Eurozone policy-makers – from President Sarkozy and Wolfgang Schäuble to the former President of the ECB, Jean-Claude Trichet – advocate that Italy and Spain should emulate the Baltic states and Ireland. These four countries, they argue, demonstrate that fiscal austerity, structural reforms and wage cuts can restore economies to growth and debt sustainability. Latvia, Estonia, Lithuania and Ireland prove that so-called “expansionary fiscal consolidation” works and that economies can regain external trade competitiveness (and close their trade deficits) without the help of currency devaluation. Such claims are highly misleading. Were Italy and Spain to take their advice, the implications for the European economy and the future of the euro would be devastating.

“What have the three Baltic economies and Ireland done to draw such acclaim? All four have experienced economic depressions. From peak to trough, the loss of output ranged from 13 per cent in Ireland to 20 per cent in Estonia, 24 per cent in Latvia and 17 per cent in Lithuania. Since the trough of the recession, the Estonian and Latvian economies have recovered about half of the lost output and the Lithuanian about one third. For its part, the Irish economy has barely recovered at all and now faces the prospect of renewed recession.

“Domestic demand in each of these four economies has fallen even further than GDP. In 2011 domestic demand in Lithuania was 20 per cent lower than in 2007. In Estonia the shortfall was 23 per cent, and in Latvia a scarcely believable 28 per cent. Over the same period, Irish domestic demand slumped by a quarter (and is still falling). In each case, the decline in GDP has been much shallower than the fall in domestic demand because of large shift in the balance of trade. The improvement in external balances does not reflect export miracles, but a steep fall in imports in the face of the collapse in domestic demand.”

Portugal and Greece are on that path, if they do not opt out of the eurozone. Italy and Spain cannot avoid the sad results of too much debt without major European support, which means the ECB, as no country will offer that amount of help, as none has the money to do so. But that means a lower-valued currency and purchasing power, higher energy and commodity costs, etc. As I keep saying, it is not a matter of pain or no pain, it is simply a choice of which pain and how much of it you want to have.

It is interesting to watch the game being played with Greek debt (merely interesting, because I have no Greek debt). Private bond holders are now looking at only getting about 30% on the euro. They are now asking that the ECB share some of their pain, and the IMF seemingly agrees that the ECB should. The ECB is aggressively resisting any such notion. An interesting principle is being set here. If you do it for Greece, then the line will get much longer. The euro is on its way to parity with the dollar, as I have said for a very long time.

Those predicting the death of the dollar (at least against major world currencies) and hyperinflation do not understand the rather vicious nature of deflation and debt deleveraging. But that is a topic for a later letter.

Ah, but what do we have here, at 3:36 AM (via my London partner, Niels Jensen), but anarticle by Nick Doms on Examiner.com, asserting that, yes indeed, Greece will default:

“Greece plans an orderly exit out of the Eurozone according to two sources close to Mr. Papademos, Greek Prime Minister, who spoke on condition of anonymity earlier today.??The sources confirmed that plans are ready to return to a legacy currency given the current circumstances and that such exit would be dealt with, quote ‘in as orderly a fashion as possible’ unquote….

“A Greek exit strategy will probably not be announced officially until early March when the EU finance ministers meet.”

Well then, we shall see.