The Welfare-State Debt Game

As I have reported recently, the European crisis is still cooking. Despite five years of austerity, deficits have not gone away. They are so persistent, in fact, that the European Central Bank has been forced to create an unlimited bond buyback program for troubled welfare states: whatever amounts of Greek, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese or any other euro-denominated Treasury bond anyone wants to sell, the ECB promises to buy them without the buyer losing any money.

This program is not making the welfare-state debt crisis easier, but worsening it. Its ultimate consequence could be high and persistent inflation; in order to see why, let us begin with acknowledging another consequence, namely that you can now buy 100,000 euros worth of ten-year Greek Treasury bonds, get 10,290 euros in interest over a year and then be guaranteed to get your money back as if you had bought a Swiss Treasury bond at 1.09 percent. Two weeks ago I explained the potential consequences of this bond buyback program:

In short: there will come a point when the international bond market will test the ECB’s cash-for-bonds promise. Just to give an idea of how much money the ECB could be forced to print, here is a list of government debt by the most troubled euro zone countries: Government debt 2012

Italy 1,988 bn
Ireland 192 bn
France 1,833 bn
Spain 884 bn
Portugal 204 bn
TOTAL 5,101 bn

Greece, notably, does not report its government debt to Eurostat. Nevertheless, here alone we are talking about five trillion euros worth of government debt. If the ECB had to execute on its bonds buyback program for only ten percent of that, it would have to rapidly print 500 billion euros. To put this in perspective, according to the latest monetary statistical report from the ECB, M-1 money supply in the euro zone is 5.3 trillion euros. Of this, 884 billion euros is currency in circulation while the rest is overnight deposits. If the ECB had to print money to meet a run on the bonds in the countries listed above, it would find itself having to expand the M-1 money supply by up to ten percent in a very short time window (theoretically over night). This is to be compared to the 7.7 average annual growth rate of M-1 in May, June and July of 2013.

For all you statists out there, this means increasing growth in M-1 money supply from 7.7 percent to 17.7 percent. By comparison, the Federal Reserve has increased the U.S. M-1 money supply by an average of 11.5 percent per year over the past 12 months (measured month past year to month current year). The growth rate has dropped in recent months, though, falling to 9.1 percent in August.

A temporary boost in euro money supply to stave off a run-on-the-Treasury wave of bond sales would hurl the euro boat into very rocky waters for some time, but if the buyback program really works as intended, the relentless cash pumping by the ECB will eventually calm things down. The problem for the ECB – just as for the Federal Reserve – is that it is a lot harder to reduce money supply than to increase it. Basically, once the cash is out there in private hands, people are not voluntarily going to give it back to the government.

That is, if the buyback program works as intended. It is a very risky program, especially if it would be extended to other euro-zone countries as well. France alone has 1.8 trillion euros in debt, and even though they are technically not covered by the bond buyback program at this time, they could be the next link in the euro chain to come under stress. Their ridiculous tax policies of late will guarantee very weak GDP performance in the next couple of years. I would be very surprised, frankly, if the French economy manages to grow, on average, in 2013 and 2014.

With zero GDP growth, or worse, tax revenues will not grow as the French government intended. They are still wrestling with a deficit – their taxpayers simply cannot keep up with the cost of the welfare state – and with the new, socialist-imposed extra tax burden that deficit is going to be even more persistent.

Since president Hollande and his socialst cohorts in the French National Assembly have pledged to end austerity, they have opened the door for more government spending. This obviously adds insult to injury for an economy already under great stress. It is therefore increasingly likely that the ECB will have to extend its bond buyback program to cover frog-issued bonds as well.

Given the size of the French economy, and debt, this would put the buyback program to the test. Not immediately, but eventually. Today France is paying lower interest rates on its national debt than the United States, but the trend is upward. After almost two years of declining interest rate costs, early this year the trend shifted direction. Interest rates have been going up since February of this year, and the ten-year French Treasury bond now pays almost a half a percent more than it did this past spring.

When the Spanish government started having problems with selling its bonds, it had to increase the interest rate from four to six percent in less than a year. That is a 50-percent spike in the yield demanded by investors, and at the time back in 2011 it took both the ECB and the Spanish government by surprise. Let’s hope no one is surprised if France finds itself in a similar situation 12-18 months from now.

If the ECB thus finds itself saddled with the responsibility to – at least in theory – have cash ready for almost seven trillion euros worth of government debt, it will have to abandon its prime goal, namely price stability. While the United States has proven that you can increase money supply five, six even eight  times faster than GDP without causing high inflation, this does not mean that there is no inflation threat attached to money printing. However,

  • if the freshly printed money goes out to the private sector in the form of reckless lending – as in China – then there is an inflation price to pay (the Chinese are looking at six or more percent inflation this year); or
  • if the fresh new cash goes into the hands of entitlement recipients, thus feeding private consumption without a corresponding increase in private productive activity,

then high, persistent inflation is knocking on the door.

If the ECB starts buying back Treasury bonds en masse, the latter effect could kick in:

1. Troubled governments know that the ECB will guarantee their bonds, thus significantly reducing their incentives to shrink their deficits;

2. The ECB has attached austerity demands to the buyback program, but those demands have proven totally ineffective against government deficits, thus practically voiding those austerity demands of meaning;

3. Persistent, high and socially stressful unemployment has shifted the fiscal balance in troubled welfare states on a permanent basis, with fewer taxpayers and more entitlement takers; in order to maintain political and social stability national politicians will avoid more cuts in the welfare state;

4. As the welfare state’s spending programs remain and more people join them as a result of the economic crisis, government spending will rise while tax revenues are stalled or even decline.

By allowing an increasing share of the population to live on entitlements, Europe’s troubled welfare-state governments will create an imbalance between productive and improductive economic activity strong enough to drive up inflation.

Add to this the imported inflation that inevitably comes in from other countries when the ECB’s new, massive money supply eventually weakens the currency.

The involvement of the ECB in trying to keep Europe’s welfare states afloat is troubling for many reasons. The prospect of the bond buyback program bringing about inflation is not a very healthy one. But for every year that goes by without the EU doing anything to reform away its welfare states, the scenario outline here, which is somewhat speculative today, moves closer and closer to becoming reality.