More euro-tragedy

Alasdair Macleod – 30 January 2015

Despite the uncertainties ahead of the Greek general election, the European Central Bank (ECB) went ahead and announced quantitative easing (QE) of €60bn per month from March to at least September 2016.

What makes this interesting is the mounting evidence that QE does not bring about economic recovery. Even Jaime Caruana, General Manager of the Bank for International Settlements and who is the central bankers’ central banker, has publicly expressed deep reservations about QE. However, the ECB ploughs on regardless.

The Keynesians at the ECB are unclear in their thinking. They are unable to answer Caruana’s points, dismissing non-Keynesian economic theory as “religion”, and they sweep aside the empirical evidence of Keynesian policy failures. Instead they are panicking at the spectre of too little price inflation, the continuing fall in Eurozone bank lending and now falling commodity prices. To them, it is a situation that can only be resolved by monetary stimulation of aggregate demand applied through increased government deficit spending.

This is behind the supposed solution of the ECB’s QE, most of which will involve national central banks in the euro-system propping up their own national governments’ finances.

The increased socialisation of the weaker Eurozone economies, especially those of France, Greece, Italy, Spain and Portugal, will inevitably lead to unnecessary economic destruction. QE always transfers wealth from savers to financial speculators and other early receivers of the new money. Somehow, the impoverishment of the working and saving masses for the benefit of the central bankers’ chosen few is meant to be good for the economy.

Commercial banks will be corralled into risk-free financing of their governments instead of lending to private enterprise. This is inevitable so long as the Single Supervisory Mechanism (the pan-European banking regulator) with a missionary zeal is discouraging banks from lending to anyone other than governments and government agencies. So the only benefit to employment will come from make-work programmes. Otherwise unemployment will inevitably increase as the states’ shares of GDP grow at the expense of their private sectors as the money and bank credit shifts from the former to the latter: this is the unequivocal lesson of history.

It may be that by passing government financing to the national central banks, the newly-elected Greek government can be bought off. It will be hard for this rebelling government to turn down free money, however angry it may be about austerity. But this is surely not justification for a Eurozone-wide monetary policy. While the Greek government might find it easier to appease its voters, courtesy of easy money through the Bank of Greece, hard-money Germans will be horrified. It may be tempting to think that the ECB’s QE relieves Germany from much of the peripheral Eurozone’s financing and that Germans are therefore less likely to oppose the ECB’s QE. Not so, because the ECB is merely the visible head of a wider euro-system, which includes the national central banks, through which there are other potential liabilities.

The principal hidden cost to Germany is through the intra-central bank settlement system, TARGET2, which should only show minor imbalances. This was generally true before the banking crisis, but since then substantial amounts have been owed by the weaker southern nations, notably Italy, to the stronger northern countries. Today, the whole of the TARGET2 system is being carried on German and Luxembourg shoulders as creditors for all the rest. Germany’s Bundesbank is owed €461bn, a figure that is likely to increase as the debtors’ negative balances continue to accumulate.

The currency effect

The immediate consequence of the ECB’s QE has been to weaken the euro against the US dollar, and importantly, it has forced the Swiss franc off its peg. The sudden 20% revaluation of the Swiss franc has generated significant losses for financial institutions which were short of the franc and long of the euro, which happens to have been the most important carry-trade in Europe, with many mortgages in Central and Eastern Europe denominated in Swiss francs as well. The Greek election has produced a further problem with a developing depositor run on her banks. Doubtless both the carry-trade and Greek bank problems can be resolved or covered up, but problems such as these are likely to further undermine international confidence in the euro, particularly against the US dollar, forcing the US’s Fed to defer yet again the day when it permits interest rates to rise.

This was the background to the Fed’s Open Market Committee (FOMC) meeting this week, and the resulting press release can only be described as a holding operation. Statements such as “the Committee judges that it can be patient in beginning to normalise the stance of monetary policy” are indicative of fence-sitting or lack of commitment either way. It is however clear that despite the official line, the US economy is far from “expanding at a solid pace” (FOMC’s words) and external events are not helping either. For proof of that you need look no further than the slow-down of America’s overseas manufacturing and production facility: China.

The consequences for gold

Until now, central banks have restricted monetary policy to domestic economic management; this is now evolving into the more dangerous stage of internationalisation through competitive devaluations. We now have two major currencies, the yen and the euro, whose central banks are set to weaken them further against the US dollar. Sterling, being tied through trade with the euro, should by default weaken as well. To these we can add most of the lesser currencies, which have already fallen against the dollar and may continue to do so. The Fed’s 2% inflation target will become more remote as a consequence, and this is bound to defer the end of zero interest rate policy. So from all points of view competitive devaluations should be good for gold prices.

This is so far the case, with gold starting to rise against all major currencies, including the US dollar, with the price above 200-day and 50-day moving averages in bullish formation. To date from its lows gold has risen by up to 13% against the USD, 18% against the pound, 30% against the euro, and 32% against the yen. The rise against weaker emerging market currencies is correspondingly greater, fully justifying Asian caution about their government currencies as stores of value.

We know that Asian demand for bullion has absorbed all mine production, scrap and net selling of investment gold from advanced economies for at least the last two years. Indeed, the bear market in gold has been a process of redistribution from weak western into stronger eastern hands. So if there is a revival in physical demand from the public in these advanced economies it is hard to see how it can be satisfied at anything like current prices, with physical bullion now in firm hands.

The gold price is an early warning of future monetary and currency troubles, and it is now becoming apparent how they may transpire. The ECB move to give easy money to profligate Eurozone politicians is likely to have important ramifications well beyond Europe, and together with parallel actions by the Bank of Japan, can now be expected to increase demand for physical gold in the advanced economies once more.

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Alasdair started his career as a stockbroker in 1970 on the London Stock Exchange. In those days, trainees learned everything: from making the tea, to corporate finance, to evaluating and dealing in equities and bonds. They learned rapidly through experience about things as diverse as mining shares and general economics. It was excellent training, and within nine years Alasdair had risen to become senior partner of his firm. Subsequently, Alasdair held positions at director level in investment management, and worked as a mutual fund manager. He also worked at a bank in Guernsey as an executive director. For most of his 40 years in the finance industry, Alasdair has been de-mystifying macro-economic events for his investing clients. The accumulation of this experience has convinced him that unsound monetary policies are the most destructive weapon governments use against the common man. Accordingly, his mission is to educate and inform the public in layman’s terms what governments do with money and how to protect themselves from the consequences.