What Europe Is About

Let us briefly consider what the 'idea of Europe' as conceived by the EU's founders actually is. After WW2, Adenauer, Schuman and de Gasperi wanted to create a counterpoint to the errors of Nazism and socialism that had swept the world in the first half of the 20th century. They wanted Europe to return to the classical-liberal ideas that marked the better part of the 19th century. A commonwealth of nations within which trade was free and people and capital  could move freely, while preserving full subsidiarity in all the nations joining the EU (for more details on this we want to once again recommend Philipp Bagus' essay 'Two Visions for Europe'). In short, the 'idea of Europe' as envisaged by the EU's founders was mainly the idea of restoring freedom. At no point did they plan to erect a centralized socialist super-state, the idea that has begun to 'take over' the proceedings when people like Jaques Delors and Francois Mitterand entered the scene as Philipp Bagus relates.

Since 1957 the bureaucracy in Brussels has issued more than 700,000 pages of regulations that have the binding force of law; if all of the EU's laws were laid out length-wise, it would be a 125 miles long paper snake.

One wonders how ever did we survive before these laws were introduced? They range from absurdities like the 'Working at Height Directive' (which dictates that a ladder can only be used if a risk assessment considers it to be so low risk that an alternative is not suitable; in one example, the rule forced a priest to pay € 1,500 to an expert to change a light bulb in his church. Oh, and light bulbs have become illegal in the EU in the meantime!) to a 50 page long directive on the use of condoms, to a 24 page user's manual without which one can no longer sell Wellington boots (it must be in 10 languages, so the total runs to 240 pages – it gives advice on risk assessment, storage conditions, life expectancy, washing in a mild detergent, on resistance to electricity, cold weather and oil, but not water. Users are advised to try each boot for fitting before use. Even the amount of energy absorbed by the heels is recorded. The manufacturers are required to test their boots twice a month at EU approved laboratories to ensure they comply with the standards). Non-compliance means one is running afoul of the EU's 'Directive for Personal Protective Equipment'. We could go on and on, as there is a sheer endless reservoir of similarly absurd and costly red tape. It would probably be best to simply burn the 700,000 pages and replace them with a single one which decrees that trade and the movement of people and capital shall be free.

As Günther Verheugen, the former EU commissioner for Trade and Industry admitted back in 2005, the EU's regulations cost businesses some 530 billion per year at the time already (we can be certain the cost has risen since then), eating 5.5% of the total wealth created in the EU. This may well negate all the gains accruing from free trade.

Looking back at the introduction of the euro, we think that the euro such as it is now constituted must be regarded as part of the socialist 'plan B' that has slowly but surely become Europe's  'plan A' over the decades.

The reason for this conclusion is simply this: it was made crystal clear to the politicians and technocrats at the time of the currency's introduction that it was a severely flawed  concept from an economic point of view. Early critics such as the group of economists and lawyers led by Joachim Starbatty and Karl Albrecht Schachtschneider in Germany laid out in painstaking detail why it would not work, what would eventually go wrong and how it would play out.

They have been proved right: every single one of their predictions has come to pass. They were of course not the only ones criticizing the project. A great many economists warned of the flaws of the euro, and even though many of the critiques were not framed in the manner we would have framed them, they  should have made it unambiguously clear to the eurocracy that the project was doomed from the outset.

They went ahead anyway. Since they went ahead in spite of knowing that the system would eventually suffer a crisis, we must conclude the following:  some of them were simply incompetent, while others wanted a crisis to occur on purpose. Their calculation probably was that once a crisis erupted, the next stage in the erection of the socialist super-state could be far more easily implemented. This next stage is the end of subsidiarity, or rather, what little is left of it.

This is why we see many German legislators and even the president of the constitutional court raise their voices in alarm. They know full well that the failing bailout regime means that the latest 'saving the euro' project could eventually lead  to a fiscal union in addition to the monetary union, fulfilling the wet dream of the socialist centralizers. Under the cover of emergency, the powers of the bureaucracy in Brussels may end up vastly enhanced. The 'tax harmonizers' will finally get their wish and will be able to impose the highest possible regime of taxes and the most onerous regime of regulations imaginable on the entire EU. There will no longer be any tax or regulatory competition between the EU member nations thereafter, reducing the  personal and economic liberty of the EU's citizens to a shadow of what it once was in one fell swoop. Living standards and liberty would both decline in unison. The economic crisis would become a perpetual crisis, leading to more and more interventions and curtailments of individual freedom. The centralizers, whether they know it or not,  are the enemies of civilization itself.

It would be vastly better if the euro were to simply fall apart.

 

Stupidity May Have Limits, But It Has No Boundary….

Stupidity is a bit like the universe. There is simply too much of it for us to fully comprehend it.

The most recent example of what we may call 'applied stupidity' emanating from the eurocracy brings us more proof that H.L. Mencken was perfectly right when he said: „Democracy is the theory that the common people know what they want, and deserve to get it good and hard.“

While the euro-land economy is on the verge of imploding as a result of the sovereign debt crisis and the associated crisis of the fractionally reserved banking system, what do the eurocrats have time to debate?

The introduction of a new tax! Once again, every expert opinion and study done on the topic tells them that this tax will  lower the euro-zone's GDP, won't increase overall tax revenues due to the negative effect on economic activity and will weaken the already severely weakened financial system further. And yet there are few things on which unanimity has been achieved faster than this tax (there are a few holdouts, see further below). No wonder, as the manner in which politicians have framed this taxation proposal – the financial transaction tax –  has transformed it into a populist cause that promises to find the approval of the mob of uneducated sheeple who will actually end up paying through the nose for it.

On the surface, it sounds harmless. A 0.1% tax on financial transactions? It doesn't sound like much, although the eurocrats (falsely) claim that it will generate €57 billion in annual tax revenue. Allegedly this tax is supposed to be a punishment for the transgressions of the banks that have led to the 2008 crisis. They must now 'contribute something' to restore the public purse to health, so it is argued. Many people apparently believe this nonsense, judging from comments we have read on the inter-tubes. First of all, once the tax is introduced, it won't remain at 0.1%, for the simple reason that the projected revenues won't materialize. Business will migrate to other places in the world where capital is treated better. The eurocrats will then 'logically' conclude that 0.1%  isn't high enough. Secondly, the banks won't actually pay one red cent. Pension funds will see their returns diminish, lowering the net present value of every private pension plan in the EU. Insurance companies will see their investment income fall, necessitating higher premiums or lower payout ratios. Banks will simply pass the costs on to their clients. The very mob that cheers the politicians on in its righteous wrath against the perceived perpetrators of the financial crisis will end up paying for the tax.

But even worse than this is the sheer incalculable damage that may be done to the economy as liquidity in European capital markets evaporates, making  the raising of capital less efficient and more costly.

We would note that the politicians most in favor of this tax are the very ones who judging from their public comments are among the economically most illiterate politicians in Europe and in some cases are well known for hating free markets, especially the financial markets, which they deem to be populated by 'evil speculators' intent on destroying their statist dreams. At the top of the  list of market-haters and economic illiterates we find of course French president Nicolas Sarkozy,  closely followed by Mrs. Merkel from Germany and Austria's minister of finance Maria Fekter. 

Luckily, the tax threatens one of the centers of international finance disproportionally – namely London.

We say 'luckily' because this means the UK is highly unlikely to agree to the proposal, and its opposition may yet stop it from being implemented. However, Merkel and Sarkozy already let it be known that in this case the euro-area members would consider going it alone. Let's destroy our capital markets, what could be better? 

Meanwhile, Sweden already once introduced such a tax and has warned the rest of the EU in no uncertain terms of the negative consequences. As Swedish finance minister Anders Borg noted:


“Sweden attempted a transaction tax and “basically, our futures trading, our bond trading and our stock trading to a large extent just moved to London,” Borg said in an interview with Francine Lacqua on Bloomberg TV’s Countdown program before the meeting. “If we would introduce a unilateral European system, it’s quite likely the trading will move to the U.S. or Switzerland. It’s not a system that can work actually.

Borg said there’s “a lot” of opposition to a transaction tax, which will “increase the risks and make the markets less liquid.” Such a measure is “quite likely to reduce our public revenues because we will lose in capital gains taxes and if the trading moves elsewhere, the taxes will also move elsewhere.


What more does one need to know? Alas, this has not deterred the eurocrats from proceeding anyway. As Bloomberg reports (below are a few pertinent snips with our comments in [] brackets):


“The European Union proposed a financial-transactions tax that would take effect in 2014 and raise about 57 billion euros ($78 billion) a year, prompting renewed opposition from the U.K.

The proposal would apply a tax of 0.1 percent on trading of stocks and bonds, with a 0.01 percent rate for derivatives contracts, the European Commission, the EU executive, said today in Brussels. Those minimum rates would apply throughout the 27- nation bloc. The measure would deliver “a fair contribution from the financial sector,” EU Tax Commissioner Algirdas Semeta said. [as noted bove, this is simply a lie; the cost of the tax would be passed one and citizens would pay for it, ed.]

European governments are split over the merits of a transactions tax, while British banks warn that an EU-only measure would drive business to other regions. The U.K., home to Europe’s biggest financial center, has opposed the move, which requires the unanimous support of all EU countries [this leaves us slightly hopeful, ed.]. The U.K. Treasury reiterated today that such a levy would need to apply globally [not a chance, ed.]

[….]

Treasury Secretary Timothy F. Geithner said this month that a transaction tax could create “frictions” that would worsen the impact of a crisis without offering a protective reduction in volatility or risk-taking. [for once, we agree with Turbo-Tim, ed.]”

Europe needs to focus on rebuilding its economies and fostering recovery. This proposal will do nothing to support either of those aims,” the Association for Financial Markets in Europe, a lobby group that represents banks and brokers including Goldman Sachs Group Inc., Deutsche Bank AG and UBS AG, said in an e-mailed statement. “Europe’s leaders should reject this proposal as potentially damaging to their economies and the financial system.” [Amen, ed.]

Transactions with the European Central Bank and other central banks wouldn’t be covered by the tax, according to the proposal. It also features an exemption for the “primary market,” which includes sovereign and corporate bond auctions [of course they would exempt sovereign debt, ed.]

[…]

The BBA said “banks conduct transactions for their customers, therefore any tax on transactions would be an additional tax on customers.”  [and that is the crux, ed.]

The plan drew support from Oxfam International and Catholic Development Agencies, who said the measure would increase justice and provide funding for environmental and social goals. [this is a joke, right?, ed.]

[…]

French President Nicolas Sarkozy and German Chancellor Angela Merkel have called for the EU to introduce its own transactions tax irrespective of whether other regions follow suit. The finance ministers of Spain and Belgium said on Sept. 17 that the euro area’s 17 governments should consider introducing their own transaction tax if no agreement were possible at the global or EU level. [translation: we want to be stupid regardless of the cost, because we think it will buy us votes from the deluded mob, ed.]

[…]

Today’s announcement follows a 2010 proposal that failed to draw agreement among member nations. The financial industry says a transaction tax would affect the broader economy because banks would pass on costs to clients [that much should be crystal clear, ed.].

An impact assessment accompanying the proposal says that the plan would have a “long-run” negative impact of 0.5 percent of gross domestic product. [and this may turn out to be an understatement; it is not possible to truly calculate the cost, but crippling one's capital markets certainly doesn't come for free, ed.]


And so the EU keeps blundering from one economically damaging policy to the next. No wonder the continent has become 'sclerotic' and barely has any real economic growth anymore. The recent mini-boom in Germany due to the ECB's  low interest rate regime is a rare exception that will likely turn out to have done considerable economic damage now that it is winding down (it is probably superfluous to comment on the economic boom the periphery went through in 2003-2007 – that this short 'feel-good' period has exacted a steep price should by now be obvious to all).

 

Euro Area Credit Market Charts And Recent Developments

Below is our usual collection of charts of CDS spreads, bond yields,  euro basis swaps and a number of other charts. Prices in basis points, with both prices and price scales color-coded where applicable. All prices are as of Wednesday's close.

Among recent noteworthy developments, we think it should be noted that Ireland's bond yields have continued their downtrend, a rare positive move in the otherwise still tense situation in peripheral euro area credit markets. Nonetheless, some in Ireland continue to argue that default would be preferable, as hundreds of millions keep being wasted on propping up the bondholders of Ireland's insolvent banks.

On the other hand, Portugal's yield's keep creeping higher,  a sign that markets think it may go the way of Greece and that its debt spiral will become similarly unstoppable. The jury is still out on this of course, but the fact remains that Irish and Portuguese yields have begun to diverge ever more.

Meanwhile, Finland's vote on enlarging the EFSF has gone through surprisingly smoothly, with the entire six-party coalition in favor. This is surprising because popular resistance to the bailout policy has been especially strong in Finland.

At the time of writing, Germany's Bundestag is debating the ratification of the EFSF agreement and much will depend on the outcome of this vote. If the ratification goes through, markets will likely breathe a sigh of relief. If it goes through but brings down Mrs. Merkel's government, we are not sure how markets react. In our opinion, an eventual new 'big coalition' between Mrs. Merkel's party and the socialists or a socialist-led government would be even more likely to pursue a pro-bailout policy.

Lastly,  as we told you would happen, the ban on shorting financial stocks in several euro-area countries has just been extended again. Financial market illiteracy continues to reign, in spite of the clear evidence that the ban has not 'worked' at all.

 


 

5 year CDS on Portugal, Italy, Greece and Spain – the pullback continues – click for higher resolution.

 


 

5 year CDS on Ireland, France, Belgium and Japan – a general pullback, but Japan is the sole exception and sees its CDS still rising. This needs to be watched closely – click for higher resolution.

 


 

5 year CDS on Bulgaria, Croatia, Hungary and Austria – CDS on CEE sovereigns continue to be in demand – click for higher resolution.

 


 

5 year CDS on Latvia, Lithuania, Slovenia and Slovakia –  a slight bounce – click for higher resolution.

 


 

5 year CDS on Romania, Poland, Slovakia and Estonia – also bouncing – click for higher resolution.

 


 

5 year CDS on Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Morocco and Turkey – the pullback continues – click for higher resolution.

 


 

5 year CDS on Germany, the US and the Markit SovX index of CDS on 19 Western European sovereigns – click for higher resolution.

 


 

Three month, one year and five year euro basis swaps – the recent bounce continues – click for higher resolution.


 


 

 

Our proprietary unweighted index of 5 year CDS on eight major European banks (BBVA, Banca Monte dei Paschi di Siena, Societe Generale, BNP Paribas, Deutsche Bank, UBS, Intesa Sanpaolo and Unicredito). Stalling out on Wednesday – click for higher resolution.


 


 

10 year government bond yields of Ireland, Greece, Portugal and Spain – pullbacks everywhere. The move in Irish yields is notable – recent economic news from Ireland have been fairly positive, especially exports have been rising considerably – click for higher resolution.

 


 

10 year government bond yields of Italy and Austria, UK Gilts and the Greek 2 year note. The 'safe haven' bond yields continue to rise, but Italy still looks dicey to us – click for higher resolution.


 


 

5 year CDS on the 'big Four' Australian banks. There is no let-up in sight yet, and ominously it all happens while copper prices continue to fall and the Shanghai stock index plumbs new lows – click for higher resolution.


 




The daily chart of the VIX should scare stock market bulls – this is a bullish chart – click for higher resolution.

 



 

China's stock market and copper plunge in unison – click for higher resolution.

 


 

 

Charts by: Bloomberg, StockCharts.com


 


 
 

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5 Responses to “The European Idea and The Eurocacy’s Latest Silly Plans”

  • mc:

    $57B revenue from this tax seems small, way too small to matter in fact. With EU GDP at ~$16 Trillion, this is a trivial amount that will neither ‘contribute something’ to restore the public purse to health nor cause the EU economy to crash – it is just too small. Since a large fraction of transactions will continue to occur outside of the jurisdiction of this tax, the impact will be even smaller in the long run as people adapt. The Euro nations’ governments *already* absorb and spend ~40% of GDP, so I doubt moving to 40.3% will have measurable impact. Certainly a bad idea, but luckily half-baked enough to have minimal impact.

    Someone also made a good point that stocks/bonds/etc that are considered “financial transactions” apart from “derivative contracts” are themselves derivatives of various liabilities and cash flows. Any typical position or trade involving a stock/bond could be made with a well-structured derivative in its place, and that 1 basis point fee is already higher than most participant’s transactions costs anyway. Almost no one will pay 10bps on anything. Imagine you want exposure to SocGen shares – I will instead offer an ETN (exchange traded note, a derivative with debt and equity properties) that pays the same return as the underlying, cutting your tax by 90%. Add in the large number of exempt markets, and this whole idea is incredibly marginal.

    The article seems to suggest two disparate positions, one being a well-intentioned attempt to raise tax revenue that would in fact destroy capital markets, and other the other hand a cynical political ploy that would likely do little and be difficult to implement. Why the 2nd is not the greatly favored explanation, I do not know. The banks hate it, the banks have incredible power, everything else the Euro-leadership does is seemingly pro-bank, thus, this has zero chance of happening.

    • You may have a point that I’m perhaps ‘overstating the case’ a bit; that the effects will only be marginal, such as things stand. However, what incensed me about it was that this is the kind of idea they come up with in the middle of a crisis, as though it were a panacea, when all it does is add to the burden of government on the economy.
      Moreover, as I mentioned, if the tax is indeed introduced, it won’t remain at 0.1%. This is how it always is with taxes and fees – first they are established at what seems to be a negligible percentage, which lowers resistance to the idea, and then they are invariably increased.

  • thomas:

    as always, a very good read, but this one:

    “Stupidity is a bit like the universe. There is simply too much of it for us to fully comprehend it.”

    Brilliant!

  • Floyd:

    IMHO, there is no credible prediction about the resolution of the euro crisis.
    Clearly, the PTB are pro fiscal union.
    Further, the powers seem to to get their way so far – albeit it seems as the populace becomes more restless and less accepting by the day.
    Will it come to a head before it is too late for the people?

    IMHO, it resembles a race condition, or game theory situation with triple digits number of agents. There cannot be a credible prediction.

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