Euro Area

 

Italian Bankers are Not Amused

Italy’s banks were among the hardest hit by the ECB’s “comprehensive assessment” and the associated demands to increase their capital. The protests of Italian banks which were even echoed by the Bank of Italy (i.e., Italy’s national central bank) are widely seen as a lending the stress tests legitimacy.

For instance, the FT reports:

 

 

 

“Analysts and investors have taken the howls of protest from Italian central bank officials on Sunday as evidence that the European Central Bank’s health check on the continent’s banking system is sufficiently tough.

Complaints from Rome about the outcome of the ECB’s comprehensive assessment have demonstrated how Italy has emerged as the biggest loser from the process, which was designed to restore confidence in the EU’s financial system.”

[…]

“The debate over whether the European banks have lots of holes in their balance sheets is over,” said Davide Serra, founder of hedge fund Algebris. “Banks didn’t know if they had enough capital to lend until now and this will change that.”

“We now know that we can have a 5 per cent contraction in the eurozone economy and the banks will still have more than 8 per cent capital – that is very positive for the sector,” he said.

 

Alas, as this Bloomberg video shows, the debate is far from “over” – not least as numerous banks just sort of scraped by.

In fact, there are other reasons to doubt the toughness of the stress test. We already discussed the large amount of legacy NPLs in the European banking system yesterday, which implies that if a severe downturn were to occur in the near future, this amount would skyrocket to an even more astronomical level.

Moreover, a post stress test aggregate capital shortfall of a mere € 24 billion is just not very believable considering all the other data, especially in light of the fact that the great bulk of this shortfall is concentrated in the tiny countries of Cyprus and Greece.

 

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Bribing a Voting Bloc Out of Existence …

In the EU parliament, forming a voting bloc requires that parties from seven different countries come together in a coalition. Whether one has such a bloc or not is actually quite important, both in terms of funding and in terms of influence. Earlier this month, socialist EU commissioner Martin Schulz tried to sabotage the bloc formed by euro-skeptic UKIP and Italy’s 5-Star movement by allegedly bribing a lone member of a Latvian party (the Latvian Farmer’s Union) by offering here a post (presumably a well-remunerated one).

Readers may remember that in spite of their huge electoral success, UKIP initially found it difficult to form a coalition, as Mr. Farage refused to get into bed with the far right French Front National. Nevertheless, the supporters of the socialist EU-superstate are quite disturbed by the successes of EU-skeptic parties like UKIP and 5-Star, so the allegations may well have merit. Mr. Farage has become a bit of a celebrity on the internet. His speeches in the EU parliament regularly gather far more views on You-tube than any delivered by establishment apparatchiks like Mr. Schulz. How can one not like someone who dishes out speeches like this one?

 


Farage’s famous “Who are you Mr. President” speech in 2010, where he notes en passant that Herman van Rompuy had “the charisma of a damp rag”.

 

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25 Banks Failed, Sort of …

We noted on the eve of the publication of the ECB’s “comprehensive assessment” of European banks (here is the ECB’s complete report, pdf) that the central bank’s review would likely be more stringent than the EBA’s stress tests during the euro area crisis, because the central bank will become their supervisor.

However, it would also not be too harsh in its assessments, as it probably wants to avoid unnerving the markets. Apparently, this is precisely what happened. For instance, the WSJ informs us that “ECB Says Most Banks Are Healthy”. 25 banks failed the test technically, but only 13 of them actually need to come up with additional capital. A similar feelgood article appeared at Reuters, entitled ECB fails 25 banks in health check but problems largely solved”.

The WSJ writes:

 

“Hoping to quell years of anxiety about Europe’s financial health, regulators said Sunday that all but 13 of the continent’s leading banks have enough capital to ride out another economic storm.

The European Central Bank and the European Banking Authority announced the results of a nearly yearlong effort to assess the finances of 150 banks, identifying 13 that still need to come up with a total of €9.5 billion ($12 billion) in extra capital. Overall, 25 banks technically failed the so-called stress tests, facing a cumulative shortfall of €24.6 billion. But most have already taken steps to solve their problems since the end of 2013, the cutoff date for the exercise.

To pass the tests, banks had to show that they had ample capital to survive a crisis that would cause Europe’s economy to fall 7% below current forecasts and the unemployment rate to rise to 13%.

The exams are part of an effort to reassure investors and the public that, following years of destabilizing banking meltdowns and long after the U.S. defused its financial crisis, Europe’s lenders are back on solid footing. Restoring that confidence is a top priority, because the continent’s sluggish economy needs healthy banks to provide loans to households and businesses.

For the ECB, Sunday’s results are the final milestone before it takes over supervision of major eurozone banks on Nov. 4. Turning the ECB into the currency union’s bank watchdog is a key step to setting up a so-called eurozone banking union. The hope is that moving control over important banks out of national hands will prevent the kind of banking crises that rocked Ireland, Spain and Cyprus in recent years.

Investors and analysts mostly applauded the tests, saying they appeared to be much more rigorous than previous years’ versions. But some expressed disappointment that European Union supervisors didn’t take the opportunity to get more banks to thicken their capital cushions.

Philippe Bodereau, global head of financial research at Pimco, said the regulators’ strictures were a step in the right direction. But “I would have preferred they be a bit tougher and force more [banks] to raise capital,” he said.

 

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ECB’s Comprehensive Bank Assessment Finalized

A considerable level of apprehension was noticeable in the financial press in recent days, as the ECB just finished its “stress tests” and its comprehensive assessment of 130 systemically important banks in the euro are. This time, the stress tests are a bit more interesting than previous exercises of this sort were.

Contrary to the white-wash attempts that characterized the laughable stress tests performed during the euro area’s sovereign debt crisis by the EBA (European Banking Authority), the ECB is forced to walk a slightly finer line. The reason is that it will become the regulator of these 130 large banks and will therefore be held responsible if anything goes wrong. On the other hand, the ECB is also eager to avoid a panicky market reaction to the results, and will therefore presumably try not to be too harsh in its assessments. In fact, looking at press reports, it certainly appears as though the criteria have been watered down quite a bit. Some observers argue that the ECB is far too beholden to political and market expectations to make its assessment credible (see also further below).

To this it should be noted that no fractionally reserved bank can be regarded as truly solvent, for the simple reason that such banks cannot actually fulfill their payment obligations to holders of overnight deposits. It works only as long as only a small percentage of depositors attempt to withdraw the money that they have been promised to receive “on demand”. Under normal conditions, this doesn’t pose a big problem, as banks continually receive new deposits and most deposit money tends to stay inside the system. Up to a point, a bank threatened by a run on its deposits can also rely on the lender of last resort (i.e., the central bank) to supply it with liquidity by discounting its securities.

Since money is nowadays a mere token signifying nothing, there is also no limit on its production. The ECB seems quite confident with regard to this aspect of the banking system, as its minimum reserve requirement for demand deposits stands at a mere 1%. In theory, the European banking system could multiply every deposit a hundred-fold by creating additional fiduciary media on the back its existing deposit base. In practice, this is highly unlikely to happen, but it shows that it is nowadays not seen as necessary anymore to even pretend that deposits are sufficiently “backed” with standard money (in the fiat money system, standard money = currency and bank reserves with the central bank).

The banks themselves have already received the results of the ECB’s assessment yesterday, but they will only be made public on Sunday – apparently the intention is to avoid roiling the markets. European bank stocks have recently tested an important short term technical support level and rebounded from there over the past few days:

 

1-Euro-Stoxx Banks, STEuro-stoxx Bank Index, daily – click to enlarge.

 

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Will They Ever Learn?

Europe’s economies are once again on the verge of a downturn, which in the euro area may as well mean “another crisis”. The establishment has lost the confidence of the voting public some time ago. The leader of France’s statist brain trust, Francois Hollande, enjoys the lowest approval rating of a French president ever, at 13%. If an election were held tomorrow, Marine Le Pen of the Front National would probably win it.

In that sense, Jean-Claude “we lie when occasion demands it” Juncker, the new EU commission president is not entirely wrong when he states that:

 

“Citizens are losing faith,” he said in remarks to an assembly to which many new Euroskeptic members were elected in May. “Extremists on the left and right are nipping at our heels. “We are last-chance Europe. Let’s seize this chance.”

 

So what does the grandiose plan to rescue Europe consist of? Simple: let’s throw money at the problem:

 

“Designated European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker called on Tuesday for a 300 billion euro ($409 billion) public-private investment programme to revive the European economy, create jobs for the young and stimulate growth over the next three years.

The money should be mobilised from existing budget resources, the European Investment Bank and the private sector, without changing the bloc’s strict rules on budget deficits and debt reduction, he told the European Parliament during a debate on his confirmation to head the EU’s executive.

“We need a reindustrialization of Europe,” the former Luxembourg prime minister said, promising a work program in February 2015 for investments in energy, transport and broadband networks and industry clusters.”

 

(emphasis added)

 

140613_juncker_kln_w714_h714

(Cartoon via elinea.nl)

 

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Nothing to Lose …

Europe’s all-too-predictable relapse into recession is gathering force, threatening not only the pipe dream of economic and political unity, but eroding grandiose illusions that have helped prop up the world’s financial house of cards. The unwillingness of France in particular to play by the EU’s — i.e.,  Germany’s — rules appears to have doomed the EU dream.

The idea of a border-less Europe bound by a common currency and a shared desire to forever banish war from the Continent was a lofty one, but it was mired from the start in deeply rooted political animosities, grass-roots skepticism and bureaucratic overreach. Now these problems, along with a great many others, have turned the EU project into a Tower of Babel. A million pages of meticulously codified EU rules might as well have been written in cuneiform, so inscrutable and arcane have they become.

And useless as well. France’s prolonged economic death rattle has been made possible by running annual deficits larger by half than the 3% “allowed” by Brussels. And now, channeling  de Gaulle for what could turn out to be France’s last hurrah, the French have flouted Merckel’s authority, and common sense itself, by proposing to remedy the problem by hiring more government workers and expanding tax breaks.

Portugal, Greece, Spain and the other deadbeat rabble have been cheering them on, and why not? They think they have nothing to lose — that Germany is the only country with any skin in the game. Their folly is about to be laid bare, however, unless Germany gives in and allows Europe’s Central Bank to monetize the collective debts of Europe Fed-style.

 

france-government-debt-to-gdpFrance’s public debt to GDP ratio. Flaunting Maastricht since forever and a day – click to enlarge..

 

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The Bad News First – Greece is Crashing Again

We only recently reported on the ludicrous idea of Greek prime minister Antonis Samaras to pretend that the Greek government is suddenly not bankrupt anymore (see: “Greece Tries to Escape Bail-Out” for details). Note that non-performing bank loans in Greece stand at an estimated €90 billion, so it should also be kept in mind that the banking system remains de facto insolvent as well – in spite of having been bailed out once already.

It is probably getting more so in recent days – Greek stocks and bonds have essentially crashed, with government bond yields back at levels that normally indicate severe crisis conditions (in other words, they are way above the level that would allow for what is generally considered “sustainable” refinancing of the government’s debt). The Greek stock market meanwhile is very close to getting cut in half once again:

 

AGTThe Athens General Index has been in free-fall lately – click to enlarge.

 

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Firmly on the Road to Ruin

Well, we warned them not to do it. You can read it all in “How to Destroy Germany’s Economic Gains” and “Germany Rolls Back Labor Reforms”. As we pointed out on these occasions, economic laws cannot be suspended by political fiat. Germany has managed just fine for hundreds of years without a legislated minimum wage. However, when the new coalition agreement between Germany’s pseudo-Conservatives and the Socialists was made, the socialist faction finally saw an opening to push the minimum wage through.

The consequences were easy to predict: many unskilled workers would lose their jobs and become wards of the State forever. Minimum wages are not only truly hair-raising economic nonsense, they are moreover a violation of people’s right to freely enter into contracts. An unskilled worker is no longer even allowed to offer his labor at less than the minimum wage, since that would amount to “unfair competition”. A new underclass is thus created in Germany, and the country’s hard-won gains in terms of labor productivity are endangered. We can expect further side effects from this, such as e.g. rising crime rates.

Of course the socialists love it (even if they would never say so out loud). Higher unemployment means more people will depend on handouts from the State – and these people are regarded as a natural reservoir of votes for the socialists. Apparently they have forgotten that there was once a time when precisely such an underclass actually chose quite a different kind of political party, one that eventually made short shrift of all socialists.

Now we have the first empirical confirmation that the minimum wage is indeed about to wreak economic havoc on a breath-taking scale.

 

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Greek Government Worried About Its Survival

Antonis Samaras has a problem: just as the relatively tough austerity medicine Greece was forced to take seems to be beginning to bear some fruit (Greece is the one euro area country where nominal government spending has indeed declined significantly), his shaky coalition government may soon be stumbling over the country’s upcoming presidential election. The problem in a nutshell is that if Samaras fails to get his presidential candidate elected, new parliamentary elections would be triggered – and according to current polls, the coalition would lose against SYRIZA.

 

1-greece-government-spendingGreek government spending has declined significantly in nominal terms (though not as a percentage of GDP, as GDP has declined a lot) – click to enlarge.

 

SYRIZA as readers may recall, once was a smallish coalition of tiny left-wing parties to the left of the social democrats that didn’t really have a lot of electoral support. After the financial crisis and the bankruptcy of the Greek government, it quickly became the country’s largest party. SYRIZA is anti-bailout, whereby we are not quite sure what this stance actually entails. Presumably, a SYRIZA victory would mean a Greek exit from the euro, as Greece’s creditors would have to accept the country’s bankruptcy, and its banking system would lose the ECB’s support (since it would be instantly bankrupt, and hence no longer eligible to receive ECB funding). Moreover, tearing up the agreements with the “troika” would definitely lead to Greece being made into a pariah, so as to discourage others from following suit.

 

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A Comprehensive Interview with the ECB Dissenter

Jens Weidmann, president of the German Bundesbank, is well-known for his disdain of the ECB’s unconventional policy measures. He continues to believe that the way forward does not require ever looser monetary policy, but economic reform. On these points we tend to agree with him; however, just as other central bankers, he of course supports the nonsensical ECB “price stability target”.

Needless to say, if the money issued by the central bank were to lose 2% of its purchasing power every year as planned, we would say that this would not represent price stability by any stretch of the imagination. However, we are actually not really critical of the precise “target” of the policy, but of the entire concept as such. It is a dangerous concept even if it were to target 0% price inflation. It has produced untold mischief over the past century, mainly in the form of major booms and busts (we have detailed the problems in “The Errors and Dangers of the Price Stability Policy”).

Anyway, Weidmann has recently given an interview to German news magazine Der Spiegel, which is well worth reading in its entirety. Weidmann evidently does not trust the calm in the financial markets and definitely does not believe that the euro area crisis is over and done with just because sovereign bond yields have declined a lot. Below are excerpts containing the parts we found most interesting:

 

SPIEGEL: Mr. Weidmann, you are notorious for being a tough critic of European Central Bank President Mario Draghi. But the euro crisis seems to be over, largely thanks to ECB intervention. Has he not been proven right?

Weidmann: It’s not about being right or a personal confrontation. When it comes to extremely important monetary policy decisions, the ECB Governing Council does its utmost to find the correct path. And the decisions are so difficult because the crisis is not yet behind us, even if the current calm on the financial markets might suggest as much.

SPIEGEL: Yet Spain, once wracked by the euro-zone crisis, can today borrow money more cheaply than ever before in the history of the monetary union. Do you not think that is a consequence of Mario Draghi’s 2012 pledge to save the euro “whatever it takes”?

Weidmann:You shouldn’t mistake the thermometer for the illness. I have never disputed that the ECB could impress and move the markets with the announcement that it would make massive purchases of sovereign bonds if necessary. But such measures focus on the symptoms and don’t cure the causes of the crisis. As such, the current calm is misleading and even dangerous, because it takes pressure off of the governments to implement badly needed reforms. If they are not undertaken, investors could quickly change their risk evaluations.

SPIEGEL: But if the ECB hadn’t intervened, the euro zone patient may well have died from its 2012 fever.

Weidmann: I don’t believe that is the case. In reaction to the crisis, policymakers established a multibillion euro bailout fund to assist the crisis countries in exchange for their adherence to certain stipulations. That was the correct, democratically legitimate path. Even more so given that the bailout fund can also purchase sovereign bonds. The central bank in the euro zone, by contrast, is forbidden from providing credit to countries and from purchasing sovereign bonds on the primary market. By making targeted bond purchases on the secondary market, the ECB opened itself to accusations of skirting this ban.

SPIEGEL: Since the beginning of the financial crisis, the European Central Bank has injected liquidity into the markets at decreasing intervals. It is a bit reminiscent of a junkie who has to continually up the dosage to have the desired effect.

Weidmann:It is certainly true that after each loosening of monetary policy, the public immediately begins speculating about what might come next.

 

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Flash PMI Disappointment

Markit released its euro area composite Flash PMI and the Flash PMIs for the “core” countries Germany and France on Tuesday. The data once again showed that economic growth in Europe is not much to write home about. Germany’s data look superficially good, but there is a widening gulf between manufacturing and service sector data, with the former weakening markedly.

The euro area composite output index fell to a 9 month low, the manufacturing PMI to a 14 month low – at 50.5 it remains barely in positive territory. Note in this context that in spite of the popular myth that manufacturing is only an insignificant part of the economy, it is actually its largest and most important part. In GDP accounting, almost the entire production structure is ignored (only investment in fixed capital assets is considered). And yet, if one looks at industry gross output tables, it becomes clear that this ignored portion of the economy actually represents the bulk of economic activity. Properly considered, consumer spending amounts only to about 35%-40% of economic activity, not 70% as is generally assumed. In short, manufacturing PMI data are actually a rather important gauge of an economy’s health.

France’s PMIs remain in contraction, even if it is mild at this point. However, it is not surprising that French unemployment remains near multi-year highs and that the government consistently fails to meet its budget deficit targets.

 

1-EZ-PMI and growthEuro area, Markit composite PMI and GDP growth – click to enlarge.

 

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Central Planners and Untenable Theories

The European Central Bank again cut the interest rates it controls. Notably, the deposit rate was moved deeper into negative territory. It is now -0.2% (minus 20 basis points, that is not a typo). The ECB says it’s trying to nudge prices higher, but it’s actually feeding the cancer of falling interest.

The linked article above, like most, is focused on the quantity of euros and the presumed direct relationship to price. The following bit of editorializing from that article is uncontroversial in Frankfurt, London, New York, Mumbai, or Shanghai.

“Inflation weakened to a five-year low in August, just 0.3% in annual terms. That is far below the ECB’s target of a little under 2% over the medium term, raising fears that the region could face a debilitating stretch of weak or falling prices that hampers debt-financing and investment. Those fears intensified as market-based measures of inflation expectations weakened, too.”

 

Mario DraghiThe chart shows the 5yr./5yr. swap rate, a.k.a. the 5 year forward inflation breakeven rate. This is the “inflation rate”, or rather the annual rate of change in harmonized euro area CPI, which market participants expect to reign 5 years hence over the following 5 years. This inherently imprecise datum is employed by the ECB as a measure of whether long term inflation expectations are “well anchored” (chart caption by PT).

 

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The Man with Nothing to Lose

France’s president Francois Hollande these days finds himself at a similar crossroads as another French socialist president once upon a time: Francois Mitterand. After nationalizing vast swathes of industry and introducing all sort of policies favored by the Left, Mitterand was eventually forced to do an 180 degree turn to avoid inflation spiraling out of control and in order not to suffer the embarrassment of the French franc falling out of the ERM (European Exchange Rate Mechanism). Mitterand later was forced into cohabitation with a conservative parliamentary majority, and concentrated on foreign policy and defense, leaving economic policy to Jacques Chirac.

Mr. Hollande these days enjoys the relative freedom that comes from being the most despised French president in all of history. The “welfare state incarnate” as Gaspard Koenig once called him, has seen his approval rating plunge to 13% in September. Ironically, if one adds up the approval ratings of Hollande and the reportedly evil Vladimir Putin, one gets 100%. And yet, it is Hollande who is now the relatively more unconstrained of the two, after all, no matter what he does from here on out, things simply cannot get much worse.

A first sign that Hollande realizes that different economic policies are required was his appointment of the centrist Manuel Valls as prime minister about six months ago. The recent “purge”, that saw former economy minister Arnaud Montebourg, minister of culture Aurelie Filipetti and education minister Benoit Hamon replaced by people more in line with Valls’ new course was an even stronger sign. Montebourg specifically was highly influential early in Hollande’s term and as might be expected, pursued policies extremely hostile to business. All three of the ministers that were replaced were considered “Socialist rebels” – i.e., far to the left of Mr. Valls. Montebourg was replaced by his polar opposite, someone on the very right of the Socialist Party,  former investment banker Emmanuel Macron. How did Valls survive the confidence vote the purge necessitated? In spite of the rebellion of the left, French socialist parliamentarians are well aware that a new election would sweep most of them out of the halls of power. It is this fear Hollande and Valls gambled on, and they were proved right.

 

Readers may recall that earlier in Hollande’s term, we often argued that Hollande’s baffling reluctance to embrace reform could be explained by his fear of being overtaken from the left – not only the extreme leftist wing of his own party, but also the La Gauche party led by Jean-Luc Melenchon. However, recent polls in France seem to suggest that Melenchon’s outfit is facing a lot of competition from another radical party, namely the Front National (FN). To be sure, the FN is likely to steal votes from every quarter, but for a small party like Melenchon’s this can conceivably mean total wipe-out. And so it comes that Hollande is now embracing Valls’ reform course, which aims to slash government spending, lower business taxes and introduce some badly needed deregulation.

 

manuel-valls-et-francois-hollande-10975172oxxld_1713Manuel Valls and Francois Hollande, thinking things over …

(Photo credit: AFP)

 

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AfD Wins Big In Another Two German State Elections

We recently pointed out that Germany’s EU-skeptic AfD party has the potential to become a serious political force (see “22% Can Imagine Voting for the AfD” for details). Over the weekend, two further German state elections in Thuringia and Brandenburg confirmed this assessment. In both elections, the AfD was by far the biggest winner, going from zero to 10.6% of the vote in Thuringia and from zero to 12.2% in Brandenburg. We prefer to refer to the party as EU-skeptic rather than simply “euro-skeptic”, although the latter is the label most often used in the mainstream press. While the euro-area’s sovereign debt crisis was the main motivation for the party’s establishment, its ideas had already come in favor among a growing number of people before the crisis. There merely was no party-political platform available to them previously – now there is.

Once again the Free Democratic Party was essentially wiped out in both states (which we believe is unfortunate), but the AfD also seems to have attracted voters from the left – from the Left Party in Brandenburg and the SPD (social democrats) in Thuringia. This is an interesting development, as the party is certainly not leftist in its outlook.

Although the party has gained a respectable percentage of the vote – beating e.g. the Green Party handily – it will be spared from taking part in a coalition government, as majority governments can be formed in both states without its participation and the establishment refuses to have anything to do with the AfD. We say “it will be spared” because experience has shown that being the junior partner in coalition can be deadly. The junior partner as a rule loses much of its base, which tends to be unhappy with the compromises that need to be made in order to join a governing coalition. The opposition role by contrast allows for the party’s stance to be pursued with the same undiluted vigor as before. Voters often see participation in coalitions simply as a way to gain well-remunerated posts by essentially selling out.

 

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It Wasn't Always Easy …

“What’s the secret?”  We had decided to put the question directly. Why not? How often do you have dinner with a Rothschild, much less dozens of them? 

Today, one of Bordeaux’s most notable winemakers goes to her grave. Philippine de Rothschild was already stone cold when we arrived in town on Saturday; she died last week at 80. Today, she will be buried. 

But we came not to bury a Rothschild, but to praise one. That is to say we came not for an unhappy occasion, but for a happy one: the marriage of one of Philippine’s cousins. 

“She was so loved and respected in the wine industry here in Bordeaux,” a relative reported, “that the other winegrowers, merchants, and even the field hands lined the road and took off their hats when they brought her body back from Paris.” 

Philippine told the French leftist newspaper Libération that, despite the family name and the family fortune, she had not always had an easy time of it. During World War II, being a Rothschild in France was hazardous. Philippine’s mother was sent to a concentration camp near Berlin, where she was murdered in 1945. 

Philippine used her mother’s maiden name, escaped the deportations and, after the war, she went onstage in Paris as Philippine Pascal. Then in 1988, her father died. And she came back to Bordeaux to run the famous Château Mouton Rothschild wine estate. 

 

James_Mayer_de_Rothschild_by_Southworth__Hawes-231x300James Meyer de Rothchild

 

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