Saturday, December 17, 2011

Economy follows wherever our moods take us

To anyone but the economists and financiers, getting to the bottom of what the problem is in Europe is hellishly complicated. The more you read the more confused you get. But you can boil it down to the combination of the availability of credit and what Keynes called ''animal spirits''.

To anyone but the economists and financiers, getting to the bottom of what the problem is in Europe is hellishly complicated. The more you read the more confused you get. But you can boil it down to the combination of the availability of credit and what Keynes called ''animal spirits''.

Animal spirits refer to the tendency of the human animal to go through alternating waves of excessive optimism and excessive pessimism. Because we're a highly social animal, we tend to all be optimistic or pessimistic together. Animal spirits are contagious.

In principle, the availability of credit is a wonderful thing, allowing families to buy a home long before they could pay cash for it and businesses to expand beyond their owners' savings.

Taken separately, the existence of credit and animal spirits isn't a big problem. Taken in combination, however, they can be lethal. Animal spirits - also known as ''confidence'' and ''expectations'' - are the main factor causing the economy to speed up and slow down, speed up and slow down again.

Add the availability of credit - which, once availed of, becomes debt - and the amplitude of the ups and downs is greatly increased to produce the business cycle of boom and bust.

The potentially toxic combination of credit and confidence can be a problem for households, businesses, banks or governments. The risk is they borrow too much while everyone's confident the present up-and-up will last forever, then get into trouble when the mood switches and everyone fears the end is nigh.

In Europe's case the main problem is with excessive borrowing by governments. As Ric Battellino, retiring deputy governor of the Reserve Bank, explained this week, government debt in the euro area has been growing faster than gross domestic product for the past 40 years.

The 17 countries' combined net public debt at the start of the global financial crisis equalled about 45 per cent of GDP. Since then it's jumped a third to 60 per cent. If those net figures don't impress you (most of those you see are gross, taking no account of the countries' financial assets), note that these euro-wide averages include Greece with a net debt of about 130 per cent of GDP and Italy with about 100 per cent.

The trouble with debt, of course, is it has to be ''serviced''. You have to pay the interest as it falls due and sometimes also repay part of the principle. Businesses and governments tend not to repay their borrowings but just roll them over (renew them)when they come to the end of their term.

You pay interest out of current income. This is rarely much of a problem while everyone's optimistic and your income keeps growing. But when the mood swings to pessimism and the economy turns down - or when the economy turns down and the mood swings to pessimism; it's often hard to be sure which causes which - it can get a lot harder to keep up your interest payments when your income isn't growing as fast or is falling.

The trouble with interest payments, of course, is they're not optional. Many households and firms have to cut back their other spending to make sure they can make their interest payments. When too many of them have to do that, the economy takes another lurch down, taking confidence with it.

Governments, on the other hand, tend merely to run bigger budget deficits. But when you're borrowing just to meet your interest payments, your debt and your interest payments grow rapidly.

And you find you've got another problem. The very people who lent to you so happily during the optimistic phase now turn on you. They say you're a hopeless money-manager, they worry about whether they'll get their money back, they'll only lend you more money at a much higher interest rate and may even press you to repay some principal.

Whereas during the optimistic phase they probably didn't charge you an interest rate high enough to adequately reflect their risk that you wouldn't be able to repay them, in the pessimistic phase - when you're at your most vulnerable - they probably charge you more than needed to cover that risk.

It's all terribly illogical, unfair and, worse, counterproductive. The people who shouldn't have lent you so much blame you, not themselves. They go from being too optimistic, to too pessimistic; too easy to too tough. And by doing so they threaten not only your survival, but their own.

Great system, eh? It's one of the great weaknesses of the generally highly beneficial capitalist system. It occurs because the humans who inhabit the system are emotional, herd animals, contrary to economists' happy assumptions that we're all rational and markets never get it wrong. It occurs when, as until recently, economists, regulators and politicians start believing their own bulldust.

All this helps explain why the governments of the euro area, having borrowed far more than they should have over many years, are now in so much trouble. Some, of course, have borrowed a lot more than others. These are the ones in the most trouble. But since they're all yoked together in the euro, they're all in trouble together.

Once the worst case - Greece - focused their attention, the financial markets began turning one by one on the other bad cases, as markets do. Trouble is contagious. Even the strong countries - Germany and France - are sus because their strength may not be sufficient to prop up all the others.

In the modern world, countries aren't allowed to go bankrupt. They always get bailed out, usually by the International Monetary Fund. In the case of the euro area, much of the bailing out will probably be done by the European Central Bank.

But salvation for sinners always comes with hefty punishment attached, to make sure they learn their lesson. Punishment comes in the form of ''austerity'' - big cuts in government spending and increases in taxes - which initially make things worse rather than better.

At present we're going through a drawn-out period of uncertainty while all the politicians involved argue about taking their medicine. I'm confident they'll eventually get their act together but, even if they do, Europe is in for an unpleasant decade.