The Maginot Line, named after the French Minister of War AndrÃ© Maginot, was a military defensive construct consisting of a deep line of concrete fortifications, tank obstacles, artillery casements, machine gun posts, and other defenses, which France constructed along its borders with Germany and Italy, during the interwar period between WWI and WWII.
Military experts extolled the Maginot Line as a work of genius, believing at that time that it rendered France impregnable against invasion from Germany. In the event, while the fortifications successfully acted to dissuade direct attack, they were completely ineffective from a strategic military standpoint. This obvious defect was laid bare at the beginning of WWII when the German Blitzkrieg easily outflanked the Maginot Line by moving through the Ardennes forest and Holland, completely sweeping past the heavily defended fortifications and conquering France in less than six weeks. Although constructed at huge public expense and using the best minds and materials available at the time, the Maginot Line has heretofore become emblematic of any plan or announced remedial strategy that people hope will prove effective but instead fails miserably.
When Lehman Brothers was sent to the knackerâ€™s yard by its street rivals at Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley following closed door sessions with Government officials during the summer of 2008, the Best Minds on Wall Street and Constitution Avenue thought that they were protected from the fallout of a mega credit event by their risk management models and counterparty legal arrangements that included margin requirements, collateral postings and mark-to-market protocols. In fact with all major counterparty banks in place and able to continue functioning as market participants, the effect of the mega crash could have been contained, minimized and worked out. Before Dick Fuld and his management team was sent to the proverbial gibbet, the preponderance of derivatives contracts and exotic securities positions could have been settled out in a reasonably orderly fashion over time. However, with Lehman out of the way, the â€œnettingâ€ of derivatives and other exposures between institutions could no longer take place and someone had to step in to buy up the toxic waste that resulted from the abrupt halt to the â€œpass the hot potato gameâ€. With Lehman out of the loop, the toxic waste had to end up on â€œsomeoneâ€™sâ€ book.
The consequential effects of the secondary detonations in the securities and derivatives markets in the US following the demise of Lehman unleashed a wave of re-rating of sovereign risk which fell primarily onto the Europeans, who more than a decade ago had abandoned their treaty-bound commitments to fiscal probity and restraint in order to consummate a flawed monetary union riddled with institutional shortcomings and massive governance problems. â€œSomeoneâ€ had to prop up Government Finance in the Euro-zone in order to give the pretence that things were still manageable or all of the banks there would have gone down the gurgler.
The â€œsomeone with the hot potatoâ€ in the US is the Fed which since the event has been mainly concerned with somehow papering over the losses, minimizing them, and possibly inflating them away. In Europe, the â€œsomeoneâ€ is the ECB which has under the prodding of its client institutions been stretching out the remediation process in order to dragoon the taxpayers of the various Euro-zone countries to shoulder the load of bailing out greedy banks and their profligate government clients.
The story of the Global Financial Crash is far from over. Nothing has been solved; and as we have repeatedly stated in our interactions with the public through speaking engagements, or on TV, or in the press, the policies that have been implemented so far have simply narrowed the degrees of freedom for future policy steps while at the same time increasing the likelihood of negative unexpected consequences being visited on markets (potentially with a heretofore unseen ferocity).
There are therefore still a few more chapters to play out in this unfolding narrative.
The present chapter opened around three weeks ago when, after a sleepy summer where nothing much happened, ECB President Draghi announced that he was going to do â€œwhatever it takesâ€ to save the Euro-zone and support the bond markets of all the deadbeat Euro-countries through central bank purchases of bonds (something that only a year ago had been definitively ruled out). At the time, most pundits fell into line and proclaimed that this â€œbrilliantâ€ move had effectively ended the crisis and all risk assets rallied sharply.
Since then, reality has set in. In fact, Draghi can no more proclaim to have unlimited resources to solve Euro-Crisis that he can claim to be able to solve world hunger. As we have said repeatedly in the past the democratic fact is that voters in the affluent Euro-core are not going to go for what these solutions imply. Moreover as the ECB expands its balance sheet â€œwithout limitâ€ the credit quality declines and the risk profile of the ECB shareholders correspondingly increases. The expansion at Europeâ€™s Central Bank is off-set with a deterioration of the national credit quality of the nations so that the entire construct sets itself up for the possibility of being further downgraded. We pointed this obvious flaw in this strategy out on the air around a year ago.
To complicate matters further, most securities analysts have been paring back earnings forecasts and published data has turned rather negative. In fact over 80% of the world’s manufacturing capacity is now in contraction.
On this side of the pond we were treated to Dr Bernanke going â€œAll-inâ€ with his open-ended commitment to print money through QE3 (an event that we have been predicting since QE1 was announced ). Without belaboring all of the issues, we have with Mr Bernankeâ€™s implied claims that he knows better that the markets what interest rates should be and how capital and lending flows need to be directed at a particular point in time; let us just examine a small example of his fatal conceit that we have drawn from the speech he gave yesterday in Indianapolis.
â€œThe securities that the Fed purchases in the conduct of monetary policy are held in our portfolio and earn interest. â€¦â€¦. Ultimately, the securities held by the Fed will mature or will be sold back into the market. So the odds are high that the purchase programs that the Fed has undertaken in support of the recovery will end up reducing, not increasing, the federal debt, both through the interest earnings we send the Treasury and because a stronger economy tends to lead to higher tax revenues and reduced government spending.(Page 7)â€
While Dr Bernanke so glibly proclaims that â€œthe securities held by the Fed will mature or will be sold back into the marketâ€ as if this operation was some kind of benign voodoo magic with no real-world consequence, we would ask the good Doctor what will happen to the issuing institutions whose securities are â€œmaturingâ€ on the Fedâ€™s books? Wonâ€™t these notes have to be re-financed to support asset positions or ongoing activities at the borrowing institution? Who will conveniently show up to buy this re-issued paper in the amounts that the Fed has so done in the past, and, more importantly, at what price?
This is debt management 101.
In deference to the esteemed Fed Chairman, we will only ask one more question that flows from this fantastical description of his policy: If this is the magic bullet, and printing money actually reduces debt painlessly as you so describe, then why have we ever bothered with trying to do things any other way?
Now, after having read his speech yesterday and having managed to regain cognitive equilibrium, we offer on sober reflection that the ECB and Fed policy announcements boil down to acts of desperation that are now, so shortly after being introduced, becoming obvious to the markets. Market participants know that all they have to do is wait for the cracks to appear before pouncing and bleeding the central bank players for significant trading profits.
The bottom line thus is that all Draghi and Bernanke did with their â€œBig Bazookaâ€ announcements is buy some time, much in the same way that the French Military planners bought some time in constructing the Maginot Line before the German Military planners found a way to beat it. The only question is, “How much time have they bought?” Our expectation is that within a few short months, the ECB and Fed policies will again fail to prove equal to the task. Unfortunately the two biggest central bank players in the world have gone â€œAll-inâ€ on a policy which amounts to an ill-advised high stakes game of poker with the markets. There can be no retreat now.
This is the worst position a gambler can be in because it exposes their strategy to significant event risks and unanticipated outcomes.
The next card that is dealt could in fact blow the hand that they are jointly holding completely out of the water.
Postscript: A little known fact is that the Maginot Line and the Federal Reserve Building in Washington DC were both completed in the same year: 1937, during a period in history when failed financial policies and regional hostilities were driving the world towards catastrophe. In the just two short years following, there ensued an outbreak of general hostilities that led to WWII which brought with it global privation, outbreaks of disease, the directed mass extermination of ethnic groups, the mentally challenged and LGB populations; the first detonation of nuclear devices over heavily populated areas, the forced resettlement of hundreds of millions of people and the death of tens of millions.