'You can't solve a debt problem with more debt'
When it comes to the euro crisis, sometimes, the simplest of notions carries wisdom far beyond the complex ideas of geniuses.
John Mauldin writing at Business Insider:
As I keep pointing out, there are no easy choices left. Some countries must choose between difficult and very bad, and others are faced with either disaster or calamity. Greece simply gets to choose what it wants to be the cause of a depression. Long and slow or fast and deep? Choose wisely.
Dear Paul Krugman: We cannot grow our way out of our deficit crisis. This is from a paper quoted by Mauldin at length:
The best option for improving woeful debt-to-GDP ratios is to grow GDP fast. Historically, this has rarely been achieved, although it can be done-for example, in the U.K. after the Napoleonic Wars and in Indonesia after the 1997/1998 Asia crisis (although Indonesian debt levels were nowhere near contemporary highs in the West). Attacking today's debt mountain would require reforming labor markets or investing more in capital stock. Neither is happening.
Politicians are unwilling to interfere in labor markets given today's elevated levels of unemployment. Moreover, empirical evidence shows that the initial impact of such reforms is negative, as job insecurity breeds lower consumption.
Companies can afford to invest significantly more, as they are highly profitable. The share of U.S. corporate profits in relation to U.S. GDP is at an all-time high of 13 percent (as are cash holdings), yet corporate real net investment (that is, investment less depreciation) in capital stock in the third quarter of 2011 was back to 1975 levels. But companies are reluctant to invest while demand is sluggish, while existing capacities are sufficient, and while the outlook for the world economy remains highly uncertain.
The aging of Western societies will be a further drag on economic growth. By 2020, the workforce in Western Europe will shrink 2.4 percent, with that of Germany shrinking 4.2 percent.
The inability to grow out of the problem is bad news for debtors. Look at Italy, for example: Italian government debt is 120 percent of GDP. The current interest rate for new issues of ten-year bonds is 7 percent-up from 4.7 percent in April 2011. If Italy had to pay 6 percent interest on its outstanding debt, such a high rate would materially increase the primary surplus (that is, the current account surplus before interest expense) that Italy would need to run in order to stabilize its debt level. If we assume that Italy's economy grows at a nominal rate of 2 percent per year, the government would need to run a primary surplus of 4.8 percent of GDP (calculated as 6 percent interest incurred on its debt minus 2 percent nominal growth multiplied by 120 percent debt to GDP) just to stabilize debt-to-GDP levels; the latest forecasts show only a 0.5 percent surplus for 2011. Any effort to increase the primary surplus through austerity and tax increases runs the risk of creating a downward spiral. When investors start doubting the ability of the debtor to serve its obligations, interest rates rise even further, leading to a vicious circle of austerity, lower growth, and rising interest rates.
The bottom line is painfully simple; there is too much debt and no good options to reduce it. The pain involved in cutting budgets is far preferable to the pain of default - which may happen anyway, but at least with austerity, you have a chance of avoiding it.
The current scenarios for Europe in 2012 are horrible. Even the EU takeover of national budgets - if the member states agree to that power grab - is not likely to save Greece and perhaps even Italy.
The best we can do in America is try and insulate ourselves as much as possible from the economic disaster that could hit Europe sometime this year.