Sunday 4 December 2016

The euro is destined to fail - unless Germany takes over

One member, one vote just won't work - because we're talking economic clout and not democratic representation. So we either introduce an oversight body led by Germany or the euro is on the road to oblivion

Peter Casey

Published 09/08/2015 | 02:30

The euro sculpture in front of the European Central Bank headquarters in Frankfurt, Germany
The euro sculpture in front of the European Central Bank headquarters in Frankfurt, Germany
Germany's euro coin

The euro will turn 17 on New Year's Day 2016 and it's high time to admit that the future for our troublesome teenager is neither long nor bright.

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Harsh as it may sound, the euro is destined to fail - it is in the currency's genes.

The fatal flaw was introduced into the euro pedigree with the best of intentions, but the lack of an overarching body to call halt to misbehaving banks will ultimately lead to the death of the currency.

Survival will only be achieved by creating such a body, which would ultimately be controlled by Germany.

A European union was a post-World War II dream, and by the 1960s, the idea of a common currency emerged as the core of such a union.

By the 1990s, emotions ran high as nations signed on to the Maastricht Treaty.

At the time, Francois Mitterrand was president of France and Helmut Kohl was chancellor of Germany - and both had been affected deeply by World War II.

An infantry sergeant in the French army at the outbreak of the war, Mitterrand was captured by the Germans in June 1940 and twice attempted to escape before, aided by some friendly Germans, he finally made it back to France on foot before working with the Resistance.

The entire experience persuaded him that right-wing concepts of nationalism were the engines of inevitable war and had to be transformed.

Younger than Mitterrand, Helmut Kohl was just a boy when his older brother was killed in combat. In 1945, at 15, he was drafted and probably would likely have met the same fate as his brother, who was killed as a teenage soldier - had the war not ended soon after his induction.

Kohl recognised that his salvation from the lethal effects of fanatical nationalism was due solely to what he called the "mercy of late birth."

Both the Frenchman and the German rose to prominence in their countries, determined to create the conditions that would prevent repeating what they and their generation had (barely) lived through.

Both the EU and euro were born of such determination. But there was also a more pragmatic reason for the creation of the common currency.

Mitterrand, Kohl, and many others eyed with awe and envy the juggernaut of the US economy. They became convinced that only through a unified currency could Europe ever compete with the might of the United States of America.

Unfortunately, while the emotions behind the creation of the euro ran deep, the understanding of how the US banking system actually works - the systemic foundation of its continued success - was remarkably shallow.

As with any other national currency, US monetary policy is determined by government authority - the Department of the Treasury, in this case.

But the authority that ensures US banks behave themselves rests with two other organisations.

The Office of the Comptroller of Currency (an independent bureau within the Treasury Department) charters, regulates, and supervises some 2,000 national banks.

The Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) supervises a far larger group of banks - more than 6,600 institutions operating under state charters and not direct members of the Federal Reserve System.

Both these bodies have the power to close down banks that are misbehaving. And while the depositors are protected up to $250,000, the bondholders and shareholders stand to lose everything.

If you ask any American who owns the Federal Reserve, they will automatically say the government.

In fact, this central bank of the United States - ultimately responsible for the fate and stability of US dollar - is made up of 12 separate regional Federal Reserve Banks across the nation, each with private shareholders.

Although shareholders are not allowed to sell their shares, they are paid a dividend of 6pc.

The largest of the regional banks is the New York Federal Reserve, whose major shareholders are Citibank, Chase Manhattan, Morgan Guaranty Trust, Chemical Bank, National Bank of North America, and the Bank of New York.

Before the acute phase of the financial crisis of 2008 was stabilised, the FDIC closed down or sold off more than 500 banks.

This sort of discipline is unfortunate if, like me, you owned shares in Washington Mutual - but it is essential if you are to have a banking system and a currency that people will have confidence in.

That is why the US Treasury can raise as much money as they want by issuing T-bills. Indeed, for a while they were charging you 0.5pc to actually invest in a 10-year note.

After the Lehman Brothers collapse and the subsequent market free fall, the Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson summoned the CEOs of the top ten banks to his office and forced them to recapitalise their balance sheets by accepting government money in return for warrants in their organisations.

Some of the banks, such as Goldman Sachs, did not need the money that was allocated under the Emergency Economic Stabilisation Act, later known as Troubled Asset Relief Programme (TARP).

However, they were forced to take it - not by law, but by the threat of an FDIC audit that Paulson implied would be less than friendly.

The freefall was arrested, and the US government eventually realised a $15.3bn profit on the TARP programme.

Under the Federal Reserve system, shareholders in the regional Federal Reserve banks and the FDIC work together quite cosily.

When Bear Stearns went into meltdown early in 2008, the FDIC forced the firm to sell itself to JP Morgan for a proposed $2 a share.

This was ultimately upped to $10, but Bear Stearn's 52-week high was $133.

The New York Federal Reserve Bank obligingly loaned JP Morgan the purchase money. JP Morgan CEO Jamie Dimon sat on the board of the New York Federal Reserve.

There is no way that the US scenario - which really did happen - could ever happen in the eurozone.

The European system has no body with the authority to shut down banks behaving badly.

Such an institution would have to be under the control of the European Central Bank, which, of course, is very much influenced by the Deutsche Bundesbank, which is also headquartered in Frankfurt.

Germany is by far the strongest economy in Europe and is going to remain so for the foreseeable future.

If we are all happy to be controlled by that country, then we should all stay in the euro and agree to the implementation of the EU equivalent of the FDIC - essentially controlled by Germany.

Can you imagine the riots that we will have when the European FDIC, essentially Germany, goes in and closes down a French or Italian bank?

Whether we liked it or not, Ireland was forced to pay 100pc to the bondholders in the Irish banks as part of the bailout. The majority of those bondholders were German.

If, however, we want to have more control over our own destinies and live in a more stable Europe, we need not to build our future around a currency which has no solid foundation.

In the case of Greece, we've just kicked the can down the road.

And it will not be long before that can circles back to Greece. And will not be much longer than that, before Greece is joined in crisis by another country and then another.

Peter Casey is CEO of Claddagh Resources, chairman of Online Interviews @caseypeterj

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