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Saturday, 14 January 2012

Rating the Eurozone - Again!

One of the most depressing items in the British press this past week was a full-page advert from 'the Actuarial profession' announcing the huge number of people who have qualified by examination to join the ranks of those who have ruined private pensions and now threaten the future viability of general insurance. Actuaries can also find employment in Rating Agencies, those widely-despised institutions that did so much harm to the global financial system when they allowed their greed for fees to outrun even vestigial common sense.

Despite the bad publicity that they have received - and largely thanks to actuaries' nostalgic determination to give undue weight to Agency ratings [because there is no alternative to what they used to purport to do] - the Agencies continue to publish ratings; and often this has an impact that is disproportionate to its validity. But in some cases Agencies, desperate to rehabilitate their reputation and to rebuild their revenues, explain a rating change in terms that display insight and good observation of reality. Yesterday's downgrading of nine countries' sovereign debt was a fair commentary on the state of those economies in the context of the eurozone.

Cyprus is in some ways a Greek dependency and though its economic situation, notably the state debt as a percentage of Gross National Product, is less stressed than that of Greece the interdependency of the two economies [and especially of Cypriot banks with Greek banks] makes the smaller country's finances very weak because Greece is chronically weak. So it is appropriate that Cyprus joins Italy, Portugal and Spain in being down-rated by two notches on the Standard and Poor's scale. This downgrade, the most recent of a significant series, reduces Portuguese state bonds to 'junk' status. Italy, Spain and Portugal have recently had new governments which are pledged to enforce whatever packages of restrictive measures are necessary to secure continuing support from the eurozone and from the IMF [the International Monetary Fund]. It is utterly impossible to predict how far the populations of these countries will tolerate the high taxation and the worsening standard of living that will have to continue for an indefinite future period if the deficits are to be eliminated.

Slovakia, Slovenia, Ireland and Austria join France in having their state debt de-rated by one grade. Austria and the two states that were parts of Hungary for centuries before 1919, Slovenia and Slovakia,  have deep economic ties with Hungary which is outside the eurozone and has recently conducted policies that are on [and sometimes beyond] the boundaries of democratic acceptability. Austrian Banks, in particular, have lent heavily to Hungarian banks - borrowing that was largely used to fuel a housing bubble - and the chances of repayment in full have become negligible. So downgrading those three countries' state credit ratings is entirely reasonable. Ireland is managing the macroeconomics of crisis very well, but the depression is becoming more intense, emigration is rising and the banks [which are mostly state-owned] are having to accept larger and larger losses on bad loans that were made in the years when Ireland claimed the nickname of The Celtic Tiger.

France is the greatest casualty of the downgrading, and the most appropriate. President Sarkozy has tried hard to persuade Chancellor Merkel to use Germany's accumulated reserves to support the debts of all the governments whose countries are in the eurozone. Aware that German voters deplore the idea of covering feckless southern peoples for their foolish economic management, and for lying abut the liabilities that they have accumulated, Markel has tried to cap the commitment that Germany would make to bail-out funds. At the same time, Germany and France have led the eurozone [as such] in demanding that the most indebted states in the system must adopt strict austerity. Looking at this scene, Standard and Poor's analysts have built forward projections for what might be the economic future for each eurozone country: and the result is that the countries that are being compelled to restrict their state spending while maximising taxation cannot be expected to grow their national economies fast enough to begin to generate earnings that will enable them both to carry on servicing their debts and to invest in new industries, in high technology and in innovative business structures. The more successfully the austerity measures bite into the economic system, the less resilient and dynamic the economies of the chronic debtor states will be.

The only means open to a Rating Agency to issue a practical warning in support of such an observation is to downgrade their rating of the debt issued by the countries concerned. That makes it more expensive for them to borrow money, so it reduces the chances of the government adopting Keynesian methods to revitalise the economy. It makes a self-fulfilling prophesy of the Agency analysis: and the predicted negative outcome has a high probability of eventuation. Lower [or negative] growth in much of Europe will further imperil the collective viability of the eurozone: and it could possibly undermine the European Union as such. The very policies that are being imposed on eurozone countries in the cause of responsibility and stability may well cause greater chaos, despair and socio-economic dissolution than has yet been imagined. In this context, S&P's small adjustment to sovereign debt ratings may well be a harbinger of a very nasty future. In earlier centuries Europeans of all traditions accepted the validity of cautionary tales like the Prodigal Son, of axioms like 'waste  not, want not' and of adages such as 'you will reap what you have sown'. In the last third of the twentieth century clever fools thought that they could defy both traditional morality and simple arithmetic. They were wrong, and the price that future generations might have to pay for that folly remains beyond computation.

In short-term practical affairs, what will be the impact of Standard and Poor's downgrading of all those countries' state debts?

For the British, it is a hopeful sign that the Agencies continue to shrug off demands from some downgraded eurozone states for Britain's debt also to be downgraded; but that happy state will not continue unless the maintenance of austerity in state spending by the UK is balanced by economic growth and a marked reduction in the balance of payments deficit. Positive growth of the UK economy has to be seen by the middle of 2013 - at the latest - or downgrading will be inescapable.

Meanwhile, the eviction of Greece from the euro is unavoidable: the key question is, whether France and Germany choose to continue supporting Greek governments until the whole eurozone collapses, or whether Greece will be expelled [or allowed to slink away] soon, enabling the rest of the system to avoid a general implosion. If Greece is put out of the system quickly, the euro can probably survive as the common currency in sixteen enfeebled countries; but even then the subsequent three years will be a precarious period. Standard and Poor's may have the French spitting venom in their direction just now, but they gain brownie points for being of sound judgement on his point, this time round.

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