Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Euro crisis

Euro crisis was misjudged by most market participants and even the authorities as a fiscal crisis. It was the prevalent opinion in 2010 and 2011. The dominant theme emerging now is that it has more characteristics of a balance of payment crisis rather than a fiscal one.

After the advent of the common currency, Germany became highly competitive compared to the peripheral nations. Germany was the major exporter of goods to rest of the Europe and it enjoyed a period of low unemployment and high growth coupled with low and stable inflation. Trade surpluses surged and prosperity increased. Policymakers couldn't have hoped for better outcome.

Peripheral countries had a period of high deficits financed by external debt. Loose monetary policy created a credit fueled real asset bubbles most notably housing in Spain. Wages increased while competitiveness declined compared to core Europe.  When the credit crisis hit, value of the collateral on bank balance sheets collapsed. Both banks and governments were in a precarious situation at the same time nursing an over leveraged balance sheet. Bank needed to bailed out causing accelerated increase in debt to GDP ratios. With sovereigns being unable to print their own currency, much needed liquidation of debt through monetization and inflation could not happen.

 The current situation in Europe is certainly not a stable state. The Fiscal and structural imbalances need to be fixed. It is very difficult to predict the dynamics of the situation, because that depends on how the politicians act. Politicians try to move in the direction of the consensus to limit collateral damage. There is tremendous activity in European countries towards manufacturing of consent on some articles while politicians are busy preparing there own road maps, which in itself is not a simple exercise.

But somethings can be deduced regarding the final outcome of the situation with more clarity than the dynamics. At this time, there seem to be two possibilities.

 First is the path of political disintegration which leads to breakup of the Euro. Peripheral countries have a reason to resent German stubbornness with austerity. But first major step in this direction will probably come from Germany because of its creditor status. Just like in the Soviet disintegration where the process of disintegration was started by the disenchanted beneficiary, Russia. This will lead to separate currency blocs or a situation similar to pre Euro era, but with heightened acrimony between nations. Trade will not be as free as it is today. Target 2 imbalances would have to be restructured to be settled in a future date. Peripheral countries will have capital controls before the breakup to prevent the flight of capital. The new Lira, Peseta and Franc would devalue after the issue while the Deutschmark and Guilder will appreciate in value. Germany will lose its competitiveness and suffer a recession while peripheral countries will re surge.

The second solution is the path that leads to political integration in Europe. Some sort of compromise is reached regarding the structural reforms and the fiscal compact. If the problem has to be addressed at its root  it should lead to a competitive periphery compared to Germany.  In a common currency framework this can happen through relative inflation in Germany compared to the periphery. Since peripheral deflation is not an option, we can only expect stable prices in the periphery and 4 to 5% inflation in Germany(despite the Bundesbank mandate). Wage inflation in turn will lead to real asset inflation.

Consequently, I am pretty bullish on German real assets- real estate, commercial property, inflation linkers etc for the next decade. In both the cases above- the asset classes stand to gain - either through re denomination or inflation. The risk to the view is how well the imminent German recession is managed.

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