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The Collapsing Euro And Its Implications

The Collapsing Euro And Its Implications

Authored by Alasdair Macleod via GoldMoney.com,

The euro system and its currency are descending…

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The Collapsing Euro And Its Implications

Authored by Alasdair Macleod via GoldMoney.com,

The euro system and its currency are descending into crisis. Comprised of the ECB and the National Central Banks, the system is over its head in balance sheet debt, and it is far from clear how that can be resolved.

Normally, a central bank is easy to recapitalise. But in the case of the euro system, when the lead institution and all its shareholders need to be recapitalised all at the same time the challenge could be impossible.

And then there’s all the imbalances in the TARGET2 system to resolve as well before national legislatures can sign it all off. Additionally, but part of the TARGET2 problem there’s the repo market with €8.7 trillion outstanding, set to implode on rising interest rates, destroying commercial bank balance sheets which are already highly leveraged.

This goes some way to explaining the deep reluctance the ECB has about raising interest rates. While producer prices in key member states are rising at over 30% year-on-year, and consumer prices by over 8%, the ECB keeps its deposit rate at minus 0.5%. It knows that if euro bond yields go any higher their situation which is already untenable will disintegrate into a full-blown crisis.

Therefore, the euro is sliding. Markets can see that all the ECB is doing is talking the talk and otherwise is frozen into inaction.

Fiddling while Rome burns…

At a political level there appear to be terrifying levels of ignorance about the economic consequences of continuing to punish Britain for Brexit (yes, that still rankles) and now ostracising Russia for its belligerence at a time when the EU’s own economy is teetering on the edge of a financial and economic catastrophe. The EU exercises its political agendas despite any economic mayhem created.

Russia is a far more serious issue than Brexit ever was. The EU has, to varying degrees, disposed of its fossil fuel capacity to placate environmentalists, exporting their production to nations not so squeamish about fashionable climate change strictures. Consequently, the EU has become highly dependent on Russian natural gas and oil, which in cavalier fashion it has decided to do without to punish Russia over its invasion of Ukraine.

The economic consequences have been to put Germany’s economy on life support with its industrial limbs beginning to shut down, along with the productive capacity of many other EU states. In the coming months there will be food shortages exacerbated by lack of fertiliser supplies. Then there will be winter without heating fuel and frequent power cuts. And winter with food shortages in a continental climate is no joke. They will spark riots and growing political instability.

The financial consequences stem partly from bank exposure to Russian entities, but far more important is the effect of soaring producer and consumer prices on the entire Eurozone financial structure. The euro system has depended on redistributing wealth from Germany and the fiscally conservative northern states to bail out the profligate south using suppressed interest rates. That scheme is now kaput.

The ECB, and the euro system of shareholder national central banks, has metaphorically been caught with their collective trousers down. Having suppressed interest rates into negative territory, they allowed member governments to borrow ultra-cheaply. Now that Eurozone CPI is rising at 8.6% and Germany’s producer prices are up 33.6%, either interest rates must rise smartly or the euro crashes. Our headline chart of the euro/dollar rate at the top of this article refers to the market’s reaction so far.

Bonds in the ECB’s Asset Purchase Programme have accumulated as shown in the chart below, split out into the Public Sector Purchase Programme (PSPP), Corporate Sector Purchase Programme (CSPP), Asset-backed Securities Purchase Programme (ABSPP) and the Third Covered Bond Purchase Programme (CBPP3). In June, they totalled €3,265,172 million. 

From a year ago, government bonds have risen in yield from minus 0.5% to 1.36% for Germany’s 10-year bond, an overall rise of 1.86%. The rise in yield for a similar Italian bond is 2.87%, Spain’s 2.3%, France’s 2%, and Greece’s 3.2%. Given that government stock is 65% of the total, the rest being generally higher yielding corporate bonds, a conservative estimate is that if the portfolio has an average maturity of ten years the mark-to-market loss from a year ago is already in the region of €750bn. This is almost seven times the combined euro system balance sheet equity and reserves of €109.272bn. And as yields rise further, euro system losses of double that are easy to imagine.

Doubtless, if challenged the ECB would claim the euro system will hold these bonds to maturity, so they will continue to value them at par. But the euro system is unlikely to cease funding member states by inflationary means. And we cannot ignore the likelihood of further rises in yield due to the disparity between current interest rates (the ECB’s deposit rate is minus 0.5%) and a CPI heading towards annual increases of 10%.

The monetary error behind the EU concept

The concept underlying the EU can be summed up as the socialising of the wealth of the northern states to subsidise the southern and less wealthy member nations. In keeping with its post-war low political profile, Germany went along with the European project’s evolution from being a trading bloc into a currency union. 

The euro was intended to be a leveller, enabling nations like Italy, Spain and Greece to piggyback on Germany’s debt rating, on the statist argument that being issued by a sovereign nation tied into a common currency and settlement system, there is little difference between owning German and Italian, or even Greek sovereign debt. The consequences were that through investing institutions Germany’s savers directly and indirectly subsidised debt issued at levels that fail to compensate for the borrower’s true risk. The FRED chart below shows the effect on otherwise risky Italian 10-year benchmark bond yields.

In the run up to the replacement of national currencies by the euro, the Maastricht rules for qualification were ignored. Otherwise, Italy’s level of sovereign debt would have disqualified its entry. The market rate for Italy’s 10-year government bond was a yield of 12.4% when the Maastricht treaty setting the conditions for entry into monetary union came into effect in 1992. Germany’s equivalent benchmark yielded 8.3% for a differential of 4.1%. Today the German benchmark yields 1.35% and the Italian 3.37%, a difference of 2.2%. Not only has the gap converged, but by the end of 2021 the quantity of Italian government debt had increased to over 150% of GDP.

Similar examples can be shown of the other PIGS — Portugal, Greece, and Spain. Clearly, the evidence is that markets are not pricing sovereign risk as they should, and their yields are being heavily suppressed. Stuck in debt traps, even more debt needs to be issued because the outlook for budget deficits in these nations is simply dire, made worse by a Eurozone economy on the verge of an energy induced meltdown.

The ECB and its impossible task

So far, we have laid bare the consequences of the energy crisis for the eurozone economy and the losses that arise on the euro system balance sheets. Overseeing it all is the ECB’s president, who previously served as Chair of the IMF and before that held roles in the French government, including economy and finance minister. With this experience she was appointed to the ECB as a safe pair of hands. And as such, she has inherited an impossible position, because she has no mandate to moderate the ECB’s inflationary policies.

More correctly, Lagarde inherited two impossibilities. The first is to continue to distribute Germany’s national wealth to support the PIGS, and the second is a banking system that is well and truly broken. And as stated earlier, Germany itself is now on life support.

Table A shows the relationship between the Eurozone G-SIBs’ balance sheet totals, their balance sheet equity, and market capitalisations to illustrate the fragility of the Eurozone’s global systemically important banks (G-SIBs).

G-SIBs are required to have extra capital buffers designed to ensure they do not create or spread counterparty risk. The liquidity is created from the structure of the total balance sheet and does not require shareholders’ capital to be involved. Nevertheless, gearing between total assets and balance sheet equity (which includes undistributed profits and ranking capital other than common shares) average just over twenty times for the Eurozone G-SIBs, ranging from Credit Agricole at 27 times to Unicredit at 14.8 times.

Price to book values for all these banks are at a discount, some deep enough to call their immediate survival into question, given that an economic downturn for the Eurozone is now in progress. If they are to protect their shareholders’ equity, these banks have no alternative but to contract their balance sheets where they can. Indeed, when it occurs, a downturn in GDP is due in large measure to the withdrawal of bank credit. This is bound to expose and create bad debts, which threatens to wipe out shareholders’ capital entirely. 

Much of the devil is to be found in those non-performing loans. It has become routine for national regulators to deem them performing so that they can act as collateral for loans from the national central bank. When they then become lost in the TARGET2 settlement system they are forgotten, and miraculously the commercial bank appears solvent again. But TARGET2 becomes riddled with those bad debts and imbalances arise as the next chart from the Euro Crisis Monitor shows. In theory, these imbalances should not arise, and before the Lehman crisis it was generally true.

This is one way Germany’s national savings are being redistributed to the PIGS. At end-May, Germany’s Bundesbank was “owed” €1,160bn.

At the same time, the greatest debtors, Italy, Spain, Greece, and Portugal have combined TARGET2 debts of €1,255bn.  But the most rapid deterioration for its size is in Greece’s negative balance, more than tripling from €25.7bn at end-2019 to €106bn in April. Spain’s deficit is also increasing at a worrying pace, up from €392.4bn to €505bn, and Italy’s from €439.4bn to €597bn. 

If one national central bank runs a Target2 deficit with the other central banks, it is because it has loaned money to its commercial banks to cover payments, instead of progressing them through the settlement system. These loans to commercial banks appear as an asset on the national central bank’s balance sheet, which is offset by a liability to the ECB’s Eurosystem through TARGET2 — hence the PIGS’ deficits. In effect, central banks running deficits are providing their commercial banks with extra liquidity. This is mostly done through repurchase agreements, more of which anon. The fact that commercial banks in the PIGS require this liquidity is a red flag.

Under the rules, if the TARGET2 system fails, the costs are shared out by the ECB on the pre-set capital key formula based on the equity ownership of ECB shares by the national central banks. The ECB itself has a deficit of €365bn arising from non-payment of bond purchases by national central banks acting on its behalf. These non-payments are recorded as assets on the national central bank balance sheets, reducing their net TARGET2 liabilities. The extent to which Italian, Spanish, Greek, and Portuguese central banks are owed money by the ECB for bond purchases reduces their apparent TARGET2 obligations. For these NCBs, the true position could be considerably worse than the declared figures suggest.

Furthermore, it is in the interest of a national central bank to run a greater deficit in relation to its capital key by supporting the insolvent commercial banks in its jurisdiction. That way, if TARGET2 fails, its write-off becomes greater than its contribution to the ECB’s recapitalisation. 

Along with Luxembourg, Germany is the biggest loser in the arrangement. Germany’s equity ownership in the ECB is 21.44% of its capital.[i] If TARGET2 collapsed, the Bundesbank would lose over a trillion euros owed to it by the others and the ECB itself, and pay up to €387bn of the net losses, based on current imbalances. It would wipe out the Bundesbank’s own balance sheet many times over. 

Beyond the ECB’s obligations for unsettled bond purchases, to understand how and why some of the problem arises, we must go back to the earlier European banking crisis following Lehman. From that time non-performing loans began to accumulate at the commercial banks. 

If a national banking regulator deems loans to be non-performing, the losses would be a national banking problem. Alternatively, if the regulator deems them to be performing, they are eligible for the national central bank’s refinancing operations — mostly done through repurchase (repo) agreements. A commercial bank using the questionable loans as collateral borrows from the national central bank, which in turn borrows to cover by withholding payments into the TARGET2 system. Insolvent loans are thereby removed from the PIGS’ national banking systems and lost in the euro system.

In Italy’s case, the very high level of non-performing loans (NPLs) peaked at 17.1% in September 2015 but by March this year had been miraculously reduced to 4%.[ii] Given the incentives for the regulator to deflect the non-performing loan problem from the domestic economy into the Eurosystem, it would be a miracle if the reduction in NPLs is entirely genuine. And with all the covid-19 lockdowns, Italian NPLs will be soaring again along with Italian banking exposure to Russia and Ukraine. There’s no sign of this being reflected in national banking statistics, so it must be concealed somewhere.

In the member states with negative TARGET2 balances, such as Italy, there have been long established and growing trends towards liquidity problems for legacy industries, rendering many of them insolvent without the drip feed of additional credit. With the banking regulator incentivised to not admit these recorded and unrecorded NPL problems in the domestic economy, loans to these insolvent companies have been continually rolled over and increased by effectively funding them through TARGET2 and the relevant national central bank. The consequence is that new businesses have been starved of bank credit for lack of balance sheet space. And now, responding to deteriorating economic conditions banks need to contract their lending obligations. 

Officially, there is no problem, because the ECB and all the national central bank TARGET2 positions net out to zero, and the mutual accounting between the central banks in the system keeps it that way. To its architects, a systemic failure of TARGET2 was inconceivable. But because some national central banks are now accustomed to using TARGET2 as a source of funding for their own insolvent banking systems, the Ukraine crisis and the rising interest rate environment attributed to producer price and consumer inflation threaten to increase imbalances even further, potentially bringing the euro-settlement system crashing down.

The euro system member with the greatest problem is Germany’s Bundesbank, now owed well over a trillion euros through TARGET2. The risk of losses is set to accelerate rapidly because of repeated rounds of Covid lockdowns in the PIGS and now with the Ukraine situation. Under Jens Weidmann (who has since resigned) the Bundesbank was right to be very concerned.

This is a direct quote from the highly respected Professor Sinn’s paper on the subject:

“… the Target issue hit political headlines when the new President of the German Bundesbank, Jens Weidmann, voiced his concerns over the Bundesbank’s target claims in a letter to ECB president Mario Draghi. In the letter Weidmann not only demanded higher credit rating criteria for collateral submitted against refinancing loans, but also called for collateralisation of the Bundesbank’s soaring Target claims. Weidmann wrote his Target letter after several months of silence on the part of the Bundesbank, during which it conducted extensive internal analysis of the Target issue. This letter marked a departure by Weidmann from the Bundesbank’s earlier position that Target balances represent irrelevant balances and a normal by-product of money creation in the European currency system.”

So Weidmann, who has since resigned from the Bundesbank, knew precisely the danger described in this article, wanting better quality collateral standards to prevent the dumping of non-performing loans into the TARGET2 system. There must be a strong suspicion that he was powerless to change things, forcing him to resign on this vital issue. But the problem remains: as a mechanism that permits the PIGS to shelter nonperforming loans in increasing quantities, the TARGET2 setup has become rotten to the core and off the record is known to be. And now, thanks to the economic impact of the coronavirus followed by Ukraine, sooner rather than later the settlement system is set to fail completely. 

Until then, TARGET2 is a devil’s pact which is in no one’s interest to break.

The sheer scale of a TARGET2 failure makes a resolution appear impossible. Current imbalances over the whole system total €1.736 trillion. As mentioned above, according to the capital keys, in a systemic failure the Bundesbank’s net TARGET2 assets of €1.160 trillion would be replaced by liabilities up to €387bn, the rest of the losses being spread around the other national banks in the EU. No one knows how it would work out because failure of the settlement system was never contemplated; but many if not all of the national central banks would have to be bailed out, presumably by the ECB as guarantor of the system. But with only €7.66bn of subscribed capital, the ECB’s balance sheet capitalisation is miniscule compared with the losses involved, and its shareholders will themselves be seeking bailouts in turn to bail the ECB. A TARGET2 failure would appear to require the ECB to recapitalise itself and the whole eurozone central banking system.

The ending of TARGET2 is therefore likely to be a complete write-off for the national central banks and will mark the end of the ECB, at least in its current form. And we haven’t even mentioned the immediate impact of rising interest rates, let alone the failure of TARGET2 on the Eurozone’s commercial banks.

Shuffling non-performing loans into central banks is achieved principally through the repo market. Under a repurchase agreement (repo), a bank swaps collateral for cash, a transaction which is reversed later. In this way the central bank ends up with collateral, which has been cleared as “performing” by the local bank regulator, and the commercial bank gets cash and a seemingly clean balance sheet. Any amount of rubbish can be concealed by these means.

The euro repo market is enormous, estimated by the International Capital Markets Association to have been €8.726 trillion outstanding in June 2021. It is far larger than the US dollar equivalent, which at the moment is just over $2 trillion of reverse repos, i.e. the other way with the Fed taking in cash instead of dishing it out. While much of this excess in euro repos is the consequence of negative interest rates, even paying banks to borrow against government bond collateral, it is of such a size as to easily hide bad and doubtful debts within the central bank settlement system.

The ECB has fostered this market, because it creates demand for government debt to be used as colateral, which with minimal and even negative yields would not otherwise be bought. Rising interest rates will collapse this market, withdrawing liquidity from the commercial banks and putting yet more pressure on them to reduce their balance sheets.

It is hard to avoid the conclusion that the ECB must prevent rising interest rates and bond yields at all costs, not only to preserve the euro system itself, but to prevent a collapse of the entire commercial banking network.

Assuming the status of the euro as a medium of currency and credit is to continue, a different and formulaic system of currency management designed to recapitalise the national central banks and keep the currency moderately scarce throughout the Eurozone would have to be implemented. And because its implementation would have to be instantaneous, it would probably prove to be impossible. Therefore, the euro is extremely unlikely to survive its systemic crisis.

The EU’s future following the ECB’s failure

The failure of TARGET2 would require national central banks to address their own relationships with their commercial banking networks properly. It is beyond our scope to see how this might be done in individual jurisdictions, being more interested in the bigger picture and the prospects for the euro and its successors.

Therefore, it is now a when, rather than an if, the TARGET2 system collapses. Foreign G-SIBs appear to have low exposure to the euro system and its commercial banking network, evidenced during the US’s repo crisis in September 2019, when the sale of Deutsche Bank’s primary dealership to BNP was completed. Consequently, the immediate currency effect is likely to be driven by domestic Eurozone entities, rather than foreign liquidation. 

Loans denominated in euros will be called in. To the extent that bank customers have deposits and liquid investments in foreign currencies, selling them will inevitably become a source of funds to pay euro obligations, initially driving the euro’s exchange rate higher against other currencies. Furthermore, foreigners who use the euro as the basis of a carry trade, for example to back positions in the fx swap market, will also have their positions unwound, leading to further demand for euros on the foreign exchanges. 

Given the extent to which the dollar is currently over-owned by foreigners and while the euro is under-owned internationally, it is the dollar which is likely to suffer most from a eurozone monetary crisis, at least initially. The euro’s fate as a medium of exchange will then be principally in the hands of its users. This will be the background against which Germany’s Bundesbank will be considering its options. 

The case for a new mark

A failure of the Eurosystem, which we can now see is becoming inevitable, has also been seen as a danger in some quarters of the Bundesbank, whose staff under Weidmann looked into the reasons for TARGET2 imbalances. Doubtless, the internal arguments over the situation were put on hold by his resignation last year.

This is the logical conclusion from Weidmann’s letter to Mario Draghi at the ECB. It therefore follows that somewhere in the bowls of the Bundesbank there is a Plan B in existance, which at the least will be intended to insulate the Bundesbank from the difficulties faced by other national central banks and the ECB itself in a crisis. This can only be achieved with a new currency, based on the German mark before it was folded into the euro. That way the euro-based Bundesbank can be written off as the Eurosystem collapses, while a mark-based Bundesbank emerges.

Germany will not want to resuscitate old enmities. The Bundesbank will be acutely aware what pursuing its own interests would mean for the PIGS, and also for France whose eurozone ambitions are entirely political. Interest rates in the replacement currencies for these nations would almost certainly rise sharply, collapsing their bond markets insofar as they still exist, undermining any surviving commercial banks, and destroying national finances. These nations would have no practical alternative but to seek the shelter of a better form of money than the euro to re-establish their bond markets, and with a view to having continuing access to credit. In short, the monetary consensus could eventually move from an overtly inflationary monetary system gamed by the national central banks and their regulators to one based on a sounder form of currency and credit.

But instead of debtor nations fully abandoning inflationary habits, their intention is likely to retain the facility of inflationary funding in new clothes. With its new currency, the Bundesbank is therefore likely to resist moves which in effect leaves it in the position of the defunct ECB, taking on responsibility for the circulation of all currency in the former eurozone. Admittedly, the German government, as opposed to the Bundesbank, might view the situation differently, but even it is likely be aware of the political implications of appearing to have escaped a euro crisis relatively unscathed compared with the other nations, and then taking over control of the defunct eurozone’s money. For this reason, the mark is unlikely to be offered up as a replacement for the euro.

The obvious solution is for German to adopt a credible gold standard, and to encourage other member states to do the same. Figure 2 shows the official gold reserves of key member states.

The ECB’s gold reserves were originally created by transfers from the national central banks, so we can assume its 504.8 tonnes will be transferred back to them, because other than other EU central banks outside the eurozone they are the ECB’s only creditors. That being the case, the top ten eurozone holders will have over 10,500 tonnes between them. The gold is, however, unevenly distributed, with Germany, Italy and France possessing significant reserves. But Holland and Portugal have ample reserves for their size as well.

While credible gold standards are the best solution, all these nations, including Germany, are likely to be reluctant to mobilise their gold to back new currencies. Germany recovered from two currency collapses in the last century without gold backing, and the Bundesbank is likely to take the view that mere possession of its gold reserves and its historic reputation for sound currency will be enough to convince its citizens that a new mark will be stable and a credible currency. Furthermore, it is not sufficient to turn fiat into gold exchange currencies without addressing government spending. Not only does a successful gold standard require balanced budgets, but a deliberate reduction in overall spending must be maintained for the standard to stick over time. The failure of the Maastricht treaty in this respect illustrates the difficulties of fiscal discipline in the European context.

Politically, it requires a reversal of the European social democratic ideal, risking a political vacuum, threatened to be replaced by various forms of extremism.

International influences

The political and monetary evolution of a post-euro Europe will not be determined solely by endogenous events. There is a similar but less complex crisis evolving in Japan, equally leading to a failing yen mirroring the euro. And both the Fed and the Bank of England are desperately hoping that they won’t be forced to raise interest rates to reflect persistent price inflation. And everywhere that significant financial markets exist, they are under the doleful influence of the bear.

Obviously, the implications of several separate developing crises for each other and the timings involved cannot be predicted beyond guesswork, but there are common threads. The most notable is that the suppression of interest rates and government bond yields by the major central banks has come to an end.

Central banks have maintained their objectives by the inflation of currency and credit, allowing debt creation to balloon and inflate financial asset bubbles. These bubbles have different systemic characteristics. The ECB and Bank of Japan along with a few others imposed negative interest rates while, the Fed and Bank of England have respected the zero bound. With the US economy being more financial in nature and the dollar being the international reserve currency, the dollar’s loss of purchasing power is the primary driver of global commodity and energy prices.

A common linkage between major financial centres is through the G-SIBs. A failure in the eurozone’s banking system will almost certainly undermine that of the US, as well as of the others. History has shown that even a minor bank failure in a distant land can have major consequences worldwide. In this context, it is to be hoped that by exposing the faults in both the TARGET2 system and the eurozone’s commercial banks, a greater understanding of the monetary dangers faced by us all has been achieved. And for citizens in the EU, the regaining of national power from the Brussels bureaucracy is the opportunity for an improvement on the current situation — assuming it is used wisely.

Tyler Durden Mon, 07/18/2022 - 02:00

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Plunging pound and crumbling confidence: How the new UK government stumbled into a political and financial crisis of its own making

Liz Truss took over as prime minister with an ambitious plan to cut taxes by the most since 1972 – investors balked after it wasn’t clear how she would…

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The hard hats likely came in handy recently for Prime Minister Liz Truss and Chancellor of the Exchequer Kwasi Kwarteng. Stefan Rousseau/Pool Photo via AP

The new British government is off to a very rocky start – after stumbling through an economic and financial crisis of its own making.

Just a few weeks into its term on Sept. 23, 2022, Prime Minister Liz Truss’ government released a so-called mini-budget that proposed £161 billion – about US$184 billion at today’s rate – in new spending and the biggest tax cuts in half a century, with the benefits mainly going to Britain’s top earners. The aim was to jump-start growth in an economy on the verge of recession, but the government didn’t indicate how it would pay for it – or provide evidence that the spending and tax cuts would actually work.

Financial markets reacted badly, prompting interest rates to soar and the pound to plunge to the lowest level against the dollar since 1985. The Bank of England was forced to gobble up government bonds to avoid a financial crisis.

After days of defending the plan, the government did a U-turn of sorts on Oct. 3 by scrapping the most controversial component of the budget – elimination of its top 45% tax rate on high earners. This calmed markets, leading to a rally in the pound and government bonds.

As a finance professor who tracks markets closely, I believe at the heart of this mini-crisis over the mini-budget was a lack of confidence – and now a lack of credibility.

A looming recession

Truss’ government inherited a troubled economy.

Growth has been sluggish, with the latest quarterly figure at 0.2%. The Bank of England predicts the U.K. will soon enter a recession that could last until 2024. The latest data on U.K. manufacturing shows the sector is contracting.

Consumer confidence is at its lowest level ever as soaring inflation – currently at an annualized pace of 9.9% – drives up the cost of living, especially for food and fuel. At the same time, real, inflation-adjusted wages are falling by a record amount, or around 3%.

It’s important to note that many countries in the world, including the U.S. and in mainland Europe, are experiencing the same problems of low growth and high inflation. But rumblings in the background in the U.K. are also other weaknesses.

Since the financial crisis of 2008, the U.K. has suffered from lower productivity compared with other major economies. Business investment plateaued after Brexit in 2016 – when a slim majority of voters chose to leave the European Union – and remains significantly below pre-COVID-19 levels. And the U.K. also consistently runs a balance of payments deficit, which means the country imports a lot more goods and services than it exports, with a trade deficit of over 5% of gross domestic product.

In other words, investors were already predisposed to view the long-term trajectory of the U.K. economy and the British pound in a negative light.

An ambitious agenda

Truss, who became prime minister on Sept. 6, 2022, also didn’t have a strong start politically.

The government of Boris Johnson lost the confidence of his party and the electorate after a series of scandals, including accusations he mishandled sexual abuse allegations and revelations about parties being held in government offices while the country was in lockdown.

Truss was not the preferred candidate of lawmakers in her own Conservative Party, who had the task of submitting two choices for the wider party membership to vote on. The rest of the party – dues-paying members of the general public – chose Truss. The lack of support from Conservative members of Parliament meant she wasn’t in a position of strength coming into the job.

Nonetheless, the new cabinet had an ambitious agenda of cutting taxes and deregulating energy and business.

Some of the decisions, laid out in the mini-budget, were expected, such as subsidies limiting higher energy prices, reversing an increase in social security taxes and a planned increase in the corporate tax rate.

But others, notably a plan to abolish the 45% tax rate on incomes over £150,000, were not anticipated by markets. Since there were no explicit spending cuts cited, funding for the £161 billion package was expected to come from selling more debt. There was also the threat that this would be paid for, in part, by lower welfare payments at a time when poorer Britons are suffering from the soaring cost of living. The fear of welfare cuts is putting more pressure on the Truss government.

a man in a brown stocking hat inspects souvenirs near a bunch of UK flags and other trinkets
The cost of living crisis in the U.K. has everyone looking for deals where they can. AP Photo/Kirsty Wigglesworth

A collapse in confidence

Even as the new U.K. Chancellor of the Exchequer Kwasi Kwarteng was presenting the mini-budget on Sept. 23, the British pound was already getting hammered. It sank from $1.13 the day before the proposal to as low as $1.03 in intraday trading on Sept. 26. Yields on 10-year government bonds, known as gilts, jumped from about 3.5% to 4.5% – the highest level since 2008 – in the same period.

The jump in rates prompted mortgage lenders to suspend deals with new customers, eventually offering them again at significantly higher borrowing costs. There were fears that this would lead to a crash in the housing market.

In addition, the drop in gilt prices led to a crisis in pension funds, putting them at risk of insolvency.

Many members of Truss’ party voiced opposition to the high levels of borrowing likely necessary to finance the tax cuts and spending and said they would vote against the package.

The International Monetary Fund, which bailed out the U.K. in 1976, even offered its figurative two cents on the tax cuts, urging the government to “reevaluate” the plan. The comments further spooked investors.

To prevent a broader crisis in financial markets, the Bank of England stepped in and pledged to purchase up to £65 billion in government bonds.

Besides causing investors to lose faith, the crisis also severely dented the public’s confidence in the U.K. government. The latest polls showed the opposition Labour Party enjoying a 24-point lead, on average, over the Conservatives.

So the government likely had little choice but to reverse course and drop the most controversial part of the plan, the abolition of the 45% tax rate. The pound recovered its losses. The recovery in gilts was more modest, with bonds still trading at elevated levels.

Putting this all together, less than a month into the job, Truss has lost confidence – and credibility – with international investors, voters and her own party. And all this over a “mini-budget” – the full budget isn’t due until November 2022. It suggests the U.K.‘s troubles are far from over, a view echoed by credit rating agencies.

David McMillan does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

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What’s next for ancient DNA studies after Nobel Prize honors groundbreaking field of paleogenomics

Thousands of ancient genomes have been sequenced to date. A Nobel Prize highlights tremendous opportunities for aDNA, as well as challenges related to…

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Researchers need to be careful not to contaminate ancient samples with their own DNA. Caia Image via Getty Images

For the first time, a Nobel Prize recognized the field of anthropology, the study of humanity. Svante Pääbo, a pioneer in the study of ancient DNA, or aDNA, was awarded the 2022 prize in physiology or medicine for his breathtaking achievements sequencing DNA extracted from ancient skeletal remains and reconstructing early humans’ genomes – that is, all the genetic information contained in one organism.

His accomplishment was once only the stuff of Jurassic Park-style science fiction. But Pääbo and many colleagues, working in large multidisciplinary teams, pieced together the genomes of our distant cousins, the famous Neanderthals and the more elusive Denisovans, whose existence was not even known until their DNA was sequenced from a tiny pinky bone of a child buried in a cave in Siberia. Thanks to interbreeding with and among these early humans, their genetic traces live on in many of us today, shaping our bodies and our disease vulnerabilities – for example, to COVID-19.

The world has learned a startling amount about our human origins in the last dozen years since Pääbo and teammates’ groundbreaking discoveries. And the field of paleogenomics has rapidly expanded. Scientists have now sequenced mammoths that lived a million years ago. Ancient DNA has addressed questions ranging from the origins of the first Americans to the domestication of horses and dogs, the spread of livestock herding and our bodies’ adaptations – or lack thereof – to drinking milk. Ancient DNA can even shed light on social questions of marriage, kinship and mobility. Researchers can now sequence DNA not only from the remains of ancient humans, animals and plants, but even from their traces left in cave dirt.

Alongside this growth in research, people have been grappling with concerns about the speed with which skeletal collections around the world have been sampled for aDNA, leading to broader conversations about how research should be done. Who should conduct it? Who may benefit from or be harmed by it, and who gives consent? And how can the field become more equitable? As an archaeologist who partners with geneticists to study ancient African history, I see both challenges and opportunities ahead.

Building a better discipline

One positive sign: Interdisciplinary researchers are working to establish basic common guidelines for research design and conduct.

In North America, scholars have worked to address inequities by designing programs that train future generations of Indigenous geneticists. These are now expanding to other historically underrepresented communities in the world. In museums, best practices for sampling are being put into place. They aim to minimize destruction to ancestral remains, while gleaning the most new information possible.

But there is a long way to go to develop and enforce community consultation, ethical sampling and data sharing policies, especially in more resource-constrained parts of the world. The divide between the developing world and rich industrialized nations is especially stark when looking at where ancient DNA labs, funding and research publications are concentrated. It leaves fewer opportunities for scholars from parts of Asia, Africa and the Americas to be trained in the field and lead research.

The field faces structural challenges, such as the relative lack of funding for archaeology and cultural heritage protection in lower income countries, worsened by a long history of extractive research practices and looming climate change and site destruction. These issues strengthen the regional bias in paleogenomics, which helps explain why some parts of the world – such as Europe – are so well-studied, while Africa – the cradle of humankind and the most genetically diverse continent – is relatively understudied, with shortfalls in archaeology, genomics and ancient DNA.

Making public education a priority

How paleogenomic findings are interpreted and communicated to the public raises other concerns. Consumers are regularly bombarded with advertisements for personal ancestry testing, implying that genetics and identity are synonymous. But lived experiences and decades of scholarship show that biological ancestry and socially defined identities do not map so easily onto one another.

I’d argue that scholars studying aDNA have a responsibility to work with educational institutions, like schools and museums, to communicate the meaning of their research to the public. This is particularly important because people with political agendas – even elected officialstry to manipulate findings.

For example, white supremacists have erroneously equated lactose tolerance with whiteness. It’s a falsehood that would be laughable to many livestock herders from Africa, one of the multiple centers of origin for genetic traits enabling people to digest milk.

The 2010 excavation in the East Gallery of Denisova Cave, where the ancient hominin species known as the Denisovans was discovered. Bence Viola. Dept. of Anthropology, University of Toronto, CC BY-ND

Leaning in at the interdisciplinary table

Finally, there’s a discussion to be had about how specialists in different disciplines should work together.

Ancient DNA research has grown rapidly, sometimes without sufficient conversations happening beyond the genetics labs. This oversight has provoked a backlash from archaeologists, anthropologists, historians and linguists. Their disciplines have generated decades or even centuries of research that shape ancient DNA interpretations, and their labor makes paleogenomic studies possible.

As an archaeologist, I see the aDNA “revolution” as usefully disrupting our practice. It prompts the archaeological community to reevaluate where ancestral skeletal collections come from and should rest. It challenges us to publish archaeological data that is sometimes only revealed for the first time in the supplements of paleogenomics papers. It urges us to grab a seat at the table and help drive projects from their inception. We can design research grounded in archaeological knowledge, and may have longer-term and stronger ties to museums and to local communities, whose partnership is key to doing research right.

If archaeologists embrace this moment that Pääbo’s Nobel Prize is spotlighting, and lean in to the sea changes rocking our field, it can change for the better.

Mary Prendergast does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

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Economics

Roubini: The Stagflationary Debt Crisis Is Here

Roubini: The Stagflationary Debt Crisis Is Here

Authored by Nouriel Roubini via Project Syndicate,

The Great Moderation has given way to…

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Roubini: The Stagflationary Debt Crisis Is Here

Authored by Nouriel Roubini via Project Syndicate,

The Great Moderation has given way to the Great Stagflation, which will be characterized by instability and a confluence of slow-motion negative supply shocks. US and global equities are already back in a bear market, and the scale of the crisis that awaits has not even been fully priced in yet.

For a year now, I have argued that the increase in inflation would be persistent, that its causes include not only bad policies but also negative supply shocks, and that central banks’ attempt to fight it would cause a hard economic landing. When the recession comes, I warned, it will be severe and protracted, with widespread financial distress and debt crises. Notwithstanding their hawkish talk, central bankers, caught in a debt trap, may still wimp out and settle for above-target inflation. Any portfolio of risky equities and less risky fixed-income bonds will lose money on the bonds, owing to higher inflation and inflation expectations.

How do these predictions stack up? First, Team Transitory clearly lost to Team Persistent in the inflation debate. On top of excessively loose monetary, fiscal, and credit policies, negative supply shocks caused price growth to surge. COVID-19 lockdowns led to supply bottlenecks, including for labor. China’s “zero-COVID” policy created even more problems for global supply chains. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine sent shockwaves through energy and other commodity markets. And the broader sanctions regime – not least the weaponization of the US dollar and other currencies – has further balkanized the global economy, with “friend-shoring” and trade and immigration restrictions accelerating the trend toward deglobalization.

Everyone now recognizes that these persistent negative supply shocks have contributed to inflation, and the European Central Bank, the Bank of England, and the US Federal Reserve have begun to acknowledge that a soft landing will be exceedingly difficult to pull off. Fed Chair Jerome Powell now speaks of a “softish landing” with at least “some pain.” Meanwhile, a hard-landing scenario is becoming the consensus among market analysts, economists, and investors.

It is much harder to achieve a soft landing under conditions of stagflationary negative supply shocks than it is when the economy is overheating because of excessive demand. Since World War II, there has never been a case where the Fed achieved a soft landing with inflation above 5% (it is currently above 8%) and unemployment below 5% (it is currently 3.7%). And if a hard landing is the baseline for the United States, it is even more likely in Europe, owing to the Russian energy shock, China’s slowdown, and the ECB falling even further behind the curve relative to the Fed.

Are we already in a recession? Not yet, but the US did report negative growth in the first half of the year, and most forward-looking indicators of economic activity in advanced economies point to a sharp slowdown that will grow even worse with monetary-policy tightening. A hard landing by year’s end should be regarded as the baseline scenario.

While many other analysts now agree, they seem to think that the coming recession will be short and shallow, whereas I have cautioned against such relative optimism, stressing the risk of a severe and protracted stagflationary debt crisis. And now, the latest distress in financial markets – including bond and credit markets – has reinforced my view that central banks’ efforts to bring inflation back down to target will cause both an economic and a financial crash.

I have also long argued that central banks, regardless of their tough talk, will feel immense pressure to reverse their tightening once the scenario of a hard economic landing and a financial crash materializes. Early signs of wimping out are already discernible in the United Kingdom. Faced with the market reaction to the new government’s reckless fiscal stimulus, the BOE has launched an emergency quantitative-easing (QE) program to buy up government bonds (the yields on which have spiked).

Monetary policy is increasingly subject to fiscal capture. Recall that a similar turnaround occurred in the first quarter of 2019, when the Fed stopped its quantitative-tightening (QT) program and started pursuing a mix of backdoor QE and policy-rate cuts – after previously signaling continued rate hikes and QT – at the first sign of mild financial pressures and a growth slowdown. Central banks will talk tough; but there is good reason to doubt their willingness to do “whatever it takes” to return inflation to its target rate in a world of excessive debt with risks of an economic and financial crash.

Moreover, there are early signs that the Great Moderation has given way to the Great Stagflation, which will be characterized by instability and a confluence of slow-motion negative supply shocks. In addition to the disruptions mentioned above, these shocks could include societal aging in many key economies (a problem made worse by immigration restrictions); Sino-American decoupling; a “geopolitical depression” and breakdown of multilateralism; new variants of COVID-19 and new outbreaks, such as monkeypox; the increasingly damaging consequences of climate change; cyberwarfare; and fiscal policies to boost wages and workers’ power.

Where does that leave the traditional 60/40 portfolio? I previously argued that the negative correlation between bond and equity prices would break down as inflation rises, and indeed it has. Between January and June of this year, US (and global) equity indices fell by over 20% while long-term bond yields rose from 1.5% to 3.5%, leading to massive losses on both equities and bonds (positive price correlation).

Moreover, bond yields fell during the market rally between July and mid-August (which I correctly predicted would be a dead-cat bounce), thus maintaining the positive price correlation; and since mid-August, equities have continued their sharp fall while bond yields have gone much higher. As higher inflation has led to tighter monetary policy, a balanced bear market for both equities and bonds has emerged.

But US and global equities have not yet fully priced in even a mild and short hard landing. Equities will fall by about 30% in a mild recession, and by 40% or more in the severe stagflationary debt crisis that I have predicted for the global economy. Signs of strain in debt markets are mounting: sovereign spreads and long-term bond rates are rising, and high-yield spreads are increasing sharply; leveraged-loan and collateralized-loan-obligation markets are shutting down; highly indebted firms, shadow banks, households, governments, and countries are entering debt distress.

The crisis is here.

Tyler Durden Tue, 10/04/2022 - 17:25

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