Interview from Barron's:
How do you expect Europe to fare?
Europe is probably the most interesting case of a deleveraging in recorded history. Normally, a country will find out what's best for itself. In other words, a central bank will make monetary decisions for the country and a treasury will set fiscal policy for the country. They might make mistakes along the way, but they can be adjusted, and eventually there is a policy for the country. There is a very big problem in Europe because there isn't a good agreement about who should bear what kind of risks, and there isn't a decision-making process to produce that kind of an agreement.0
We were very close to a debt collapse in Europe, and then the European Central Bank began the LTROs [long-term refinancing operations]. The ECB said it would lend euro-zone banks as much money as they wanted at a 1% interest rate for three years. The banks then could buy government bonds with significantly higher yields, which would also produce a lot more demand for those assets and ease the pressure in countries like Spain and Italy. Essentially, the ECB and the individual banks took on a whole lot of credit exposure. The banks have something like 20 trillion euros ($25.38 trillion) worth of assets and less than one trillion euros of capital. They are very leveraged.
Also, the countries themselves have debt problems and they need to roll over existing debts and borrow more. The banks are now overleveraged and can't expand their balance sheets. And the governments don't have enough buyers of their debt. Demand has fallen not just because of bad expectations, although everybody should have bad expectations, but because the buyers themselves have less money to spend on that debt. So the ECB action created a temporary surge in buying of those bonds and it relieved the crisis for the moment, but that's still not good enough. They can keep doing that, but each central bank in each country wants to know what happens if the debtors can't pay, who is going to bear what part of the burden?
Have the French and Greek elections changed the outlook?
They are the latest steps in a long drama that is not in and of itself much more important than most of the other steps. It's normal that the pendulum swings to produce these sorts of changes, and it is to be expected that tensions will increase and agreements will be harder to come by. This will add to the risks over the next year.
So what is the solution to this? How will the European debt crisis be resolved?
What is happening in Europe now is essentially the same, almost totally analogous, to what happened in the U.S. in 1789. It is an interesting comparison.
Yes. In 1776, the colonies declared independence from Great Britain. We didn't have a country. We had independent states that had a treaty with each other, called the Articles of Confederation, and it was similar to the Maastricht Treaty that created the European Union and the euro currency. The independent states had debt problems and they had tariffs with each other. It wasn't until 13 years later, 1789, that those states started to form a central government, largely because of their debt problems. There was a constitutional convention, and we formed a country and we chose a president. We formed a treasury and imposed central taxation. That gave us the ability to produce revenue for the country and restructure our debts. There was the ability to have taxation and to issue bonds and to borrow. Europe does not have an ability to borrow. It doesn't have central taxation, that's material, and it doesn't have a treasury. It is a collection of countries operating for their own individual needs.
Europe is approaching a decision point. It will have to decide whether it wants to create a sufficient central government that has more than a treaty, that has the ability to collect taxes from the whole and the ability to issue debt that obligates the whole, or whether it does not. That is the crux of this issue. The question is how much pain is it going to cause in Europe, and does the pain cause a collapse before it causes the choices? When a debtor can't print money and depreciate its currency, it will go into a self-reinforcing terrible economic situation. The deleveraging in Spain is just beginning, and they already have nearly 25% unemployment. They need relief.