Article: Europe on Brink of Currency Crisis Meltdown

Ok, this answers my question from a few weeks ago about “what about the ROW (‘rest of world’) subprime mess? Where is it?? It’s not mortgages, it’s this (see article). And it’s [probably] going to make USA subprime look like a walk in the park:

Europe on the brink of currency crisis meltdown
The crisis in Hungary recalls the heady days of the UK’s expulsion from the ERM.

By Ambrose Evans-Pritchard
2008-10-26
telegraph.co.uk

The financial crisis spreading like wildfire across the former Soviet bloc threatens to set off a second and more dangerous banking crisis in Western Europe, tipping the whole Continent into a fully-fledged economic slump.

Currency pegs are being tested to destruction on the fringes of Europe’s monetary union in a traumatic upheaval that recalls the collapse of the Exchange Rate Mechanism in 1992.

“This is the biggest currency crisis the world has ever seen,” said Neil Mellor, a strategist at Bank of New York Mellon.

Experts fear the mayhem may soon trigger a chain reaction within the eurozone itself. The risk is a surge in capital flight from Austria – the country, as it happens, that set off the global banking collapse of May 1931 when Credit-Anstalt went down – and from a string of Club Med countries that rely on foreign funding to cover huge current account deficits.

The latest data from the Bank for International Settlements shows that Western European banks hold almost all the exposure to the emerging market bubble, now busting with spectacular effect.

They account for three-quarters of the total $4.7 trillion £2.96 trillion) in cross-border bank loans to Eastern Europe, Latin America and emerging Asia extended during the global credit boom – a sum that vastly exceeds the scale of both the US sub-prime and Alt-A debacles.

Europe has already had its first foretaste of what this may mean. Iceland’s demise has left them nursing likely losses of $74bn (£47bn). The Germans have lost $22bn.

Stephen Jen, currency chief at Morgan Stanley, says the emerging market crash is a vastly underestimated risk. It threatens to become “the second epicentre of the global financial crisis”, this time unfolding in Europe rather than America.

Austria’s bank exposure to emerging markets is equal to 85pc of GDP – with a heavy concentration in Hungary, Ukraine, and Serbia – all now queuing up (with Belarus) for rescue packages from the International Monetary Fund.

Exposure is 50pc of GDP for Switzerland, 25pc for Sweden, 24pc for the UK, and 23pc for Spain. The US figure is just 4pc. America is the staid old lady in this drama.

Amazingly, Spanish banks alone have lent $316bn to Latin America, almost twice the lending by all US banks combined ($172bn) to what was once the US backyard. Hence the growing doubts about the health of Spain’s financial system – already under stress from its own property crash – as Argentina spirals towards another default, and Brazil’s currency, bonds and stocks all go into freefall.

Broadly speaking, the US and Japan sat out the emerging market credit boom. The lending spree has been a European play – often using dollar balance sheets, adding another ugly twist as global “deleveraging” causes the dollar to rocket. Nowhere has this been more extreme than in the ex-Soviet bloc.

The region has borrowed $1.6 trillion in dollars, euros, and Swiss francs. A few dare-devil homeowners in Hungary and Latvia took out mortgages in Japanese yen. They have just suffered a 40pc rise in their debt since July. Nobody warned them what happens when the Japanese carry trade goes into brutal reverse, as it does when the cycle turns.

The IMF’s experts drafted a report two years ago – Asia 1996 and Eastern Europe 2006 – Déjà vu all over again? – warning that the region exhibited the most dangerous excesses in the world.

Inexplicably, the text was never published, though underground copies circulated. Little was done to cool credit growth, or to halt the fatal reliance on foreign capital. Last week, the silent authors had their moment of vindication as Eastern Europe went haywire.

Hungary stunned the markets by raising rates 3pc to 11.5pc in a last-ditch attempt to defend the forint’s currency peg in the ERM.

It is just blood in the water for hedge funds sharks, eyeing a long line of currency kills. “The economy is not strong enough to take it, so you know it is unsustainable,” said Simon Derrick, currency strategist at the Bank of New York Mellon.

Romania raised its overnight lending to 900pc to stem capital flight, recalling the near-crazed gestures by Scandinavia’s central banks in the final days of the 1992 ERM crisis – political moves that turned the Nordic banking crisis into a disaster.

Russia too is in the eye of the storm, despite its energy wealth – or because of it. The cost of insuring Russian sovereign debt through credit default swaps (CDS) surged to 1,200 basis points last week, higher than Iceland’s debt before Götterdammerung struck Reykjavik.

The markets no longer believe that the spending structure of the Russian state is viable as oil threatens to plunge below $60 a barrel. The foreign debt of the oligarchs ($530bn) has surpassed the country’s foreign reserves. Some $47bn has to be repaid over the next two months.

Traders are paying close attention as contagion moves from the periphery of the eurozone into the core. They are tracking the yield spreads between Italian and German 10-year bonds, the stress barometer of monetary union.

The spreads reached a post-EMU high of 93 last week. Nobody knows where the snapping point is, but anything above 100 would be viewed as a red alarm. The market took careful note on Friday that Portugal’s biggest banks, Millenium, BPI, and Banco Espirito Santo are preparing to take up the state’s emergency credit guarantees.

Hans Redeker, currency chief at BNP Paribas, says there is an imminent danger that East Europe’s currency pegs will be smashed unless the EU authorities wake up to the full gravity of the threat, and that in turn will trigger a dangerous crisis for EMU itself.

“The system is paralysed, and it is starting to look like Black Wednesday in 1992. I’m afraid this is going to have a very deflationary effect on the economy of Western Europe. It is almost guaranteed that euroland money supply is about to implode,” he said.

A grain of comfort for British readers: UK banks have almost no exposure to the ex-Communist bloc, except in Poland – one of the less vulnerable states.

The threat to Britain lies in emerging Asia, where banks have lent $329bn, almost as much as the Americans and Japanese combined. Whether you realise it or not, your pension fund is sunk in Vietnamese bonds and loans to Indian steel magnates. Didn’t they tell you?

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7 thoughts on “Article: Europe on Brink of Currency Crisis Meltdown

  1. From http://www.rgemonitor.com/10009

    Latest data from the Bank for International Settlements shows that Western European banks hold almost all the exposure to the emerging market bubble. Their greatest exposure is to Eastern Europe, though they have the larger exposure than US and Japanese banks to Asia and Latam also. This might mean that the EUR and GBP could be vulnerable to weakness in emerging markets

    European banks account for three-quarters of the total $4.7 trillion in cross-border bank loans to Eastern Europe, Latin America and emerging Asia extended during the global credit boom – a sum that vastly exceeds the scale of both the US sub-prime and Alt-A debacles

    Despite its relatively modest size of GDP, Eastern European countries, together account for US$1.6 trillion of bank lending from G10 banks, while Asia and Latam account for only US$1.5 trillion and US$1.0 trillion, respectively but European banks hold the largest exposure to all EM regions, including 73% of all bank loans to China and 77% of all bank loans to India, meaning that the UK is probably much more vulnerable to banking woes in Asia than Japan is – unlike in the Asian financial crisis (MS)

    Cross-border bank lending by European and UK banks to EM accounts for 21% and 24% of the respective GDPs, compared to 4% for the US and 5% for Japanese banks -(MS)

  2. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/finance/comment/ambroseevans_pritchard/3269669/IMF-may-need-to-print-money-as-crisis-spreads.html

    The International Monetary Fund may soon lack the money to bail out an ever growing list of countries crumbling across Eastern Europe, Latin America, Africa, and parts of Asia, raising concerns that it will have to tap taxpayers in Western countries for a capital infusion or resort to the nuclear option of printing its own money….

    [T]he IMF, led by Dominique Strauss-Kahn, has the power to raise money on the capital markets by issuing `AAA’ bonds under its own name. It has never resorted to this option, preferring to tap members states for deposits.

    The nuclear option is to print money by issuing Special Drawing Rights, in effect acting as if it were the world’s central bank. This was done briefly after the fall of the Soviet Union but has never been used as systematic tool of policy to head off a global financial crisis.

  3. You gotta believe that the Asian countries that hold all the foreign currency reserves and budget surpluses will not want to see their trading partners collapse? If the United States can bail out its investment banks and large financial institutions, then perhaps the Asians will find creative ways to keep their debtor nations as solvent trading partners.

    Of course, they could just start consuming more of their own output and let the rest of us suffer our profligate ways.

  4. October 31, 2008
    Op-Ed Columnist
    When Consumers Capitulate
    By PAUL KRUGMAN
    The long-feared capitulation of American consumers has arrived. According to Thursday’s G.D.P. report, real consumer spending fell at an annual rate of 3.1 percent in the third quarter; real spending on durable goods (stuff like cars and TVs) fell at an annual rate of 14 percent.

    To appreciate the significance of these numbers, you need to know that American consumers almost never cut spending. Consumer demand kept rising right through the 2001 recession; the last time it fell even for a single quarter was in 1991, and there hasn’t been a decline this steep since 1980, when the economy was suffering from a severe recession combined with double-digit inflation.

    Also, these numbers are from the third quarter — the months of July, August, and September. So these data are basically telling us what happened before confidence collapsed after the fall of Lehman Brothers in mid-September, not to mention before the Dow plunged below 10,000. Nor do the data show the full effects of the sharp cutback in the availability of consumer credit, which is still under way.

    So this looks like the beginning of a very big change in consumer behavior. And it couldn’t have come at a worse time.

    It’s true that American consumers have long been living beyond their means. In the mid-1980s Americans saved about 10 percent of their income. Lately, however, the savings rate has generally been below 2 percent — sometimes it has even been negative — and consumer debt has risen to 98 percent of G.D.P., twice its level a quarter-century ago.

    Some economists told us not to worry because Americans were offsetting their growing debt with the ever-rising values of their homes and stock portfolios. Somehow, though, we’re not hearing that argument much lately.

    Sooner or later, then, consumers were going to have to pull in their belts. But the timing of the new sobriety is deeply unfortunate. One is tempted to echo St. Augustine’s plea: “Grant me chastity and continence, but not yet.” For consumers are cutting back just as the U.S. economy has fallen into a liquidity trap — a situation in which the Federal Reserve has lost its grip on the economy.

    Some background: one of the high points of the semester, if you’re a teacher of introductory macroeconomics, comes when you explain how individual virtue can be public vice, how attempts by consumers to do the right thing by saving more can leave everyone worse off. The point is that if consumers cut their spending, and nothing else takes the place of that spending, the economy will slide into a recession, reducing everyone’s income.

    In fact, consumers’ income may actually fall more than their spending, so that their attempt to save more backfires — a possibility known as the paradox of thrift.

    At this point, however, the instructor hastens to explain that virtue isn’t really vice: in practice, if consumers were to cut back, the Fed would respond by slashing interest rates, which would help the economy avoid recession and lead to a rise in investment. So virtue is virtue after all, unless for some reason the Fed can’t offset the fall in consumer spending.

    I’ll bet you can guess what’s coming next.

    For the fact is that we are in a liquidity trap right now: Fed policy has lost most of its traction. It’s true that Ben Bernanke hasn’t yet reduced interest rates all the way to zero, as the Japanese did in the 1990s. But it’s hard to believe that cutting the federal funds rate from 1 percent to nothing would have much positive effect on the economy. In particular, the financial crisis has made Fed policy largely irrelevant for much of the private sector: The Fed has been steadily cutting away, yet mortgage rates and the interest rates many businesses pay are higher than they were early this year.

    The capitulation of the American consumer, then, is coming at a particularly bad time. But it’s no use whining. What we need is a policy response.

    The ongoing efforts to bail out the financial system, even if they work, won’t do more than slightly mitigate the problem. Maybe some consumers will be able to keep their credit cards, but as we’ve seen, Americans were overextended even before banks started cutting them off.

    No, what the economy needs now is something to take the place of retrenching consumers. That means a major fiscal stimulus. And this time the stimulus should take the form of actual government spending rather than rebate checks that consumers probably wouldn’t spend.

    Let’s hope, then, that Congress gets to work on a package to rescue the economy as soon as the election is behind us. And let’s also hope that the lame-duck Bush administration doesn’t get in the way.

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