France Is Heading For The Biggest Economic Train Wreck In Europe

“The emotional side of me tends to imagine France, like the princess in the fairy stories or the Madonna in the frescoes, as dedicated to an exalted and exceptional destiny. Instinctively I have the feeling that Providence has created her either for complete successes or for exemplary misfortunes. Our country, as it is, surrounded by the others as they are, must aim high and hold itself straight, on pain of mortal danger. In short, to my mind, France cannot be France without greatness.

– Charles de Gaulle, from his memoirs

Recently there have been a spate of horrific train wrecks in the news. Almost inevitably we find out there was human error involved. Almost four years ago I began writing about the coming train wreck that was Europe and specifically Greece. It was clear from the numbers that Greece would have to default, and I thought at the time that Portugal would not be too far behind. Spain and Italy clearly needed massive restructuring. Part of the problem I highlighted was the significant imbalance between exports and imports in all of the above countries.

In the Eurozone there was no mechanism by which exchange rates could be used to balance the labor-cost differentials between the peripheral countries and those of the northern tier. And then there’s France. I’ve been writing in this space for some time that France has the potential to become the next Greece. I’ve spent a good deal of time this past month reviewing the European situation, and I’m more convinced than ever that France is on its way to becoming the most significant economic train wreck in Europe within the next few years.

France: On the Edge of the Periphery

I think I need first to acknowledge that the market clearly doesn’t agree with me. The market for French OATS (Obligations Assimilables du Trésor), their longer-term bonds, sees no risk. The following chart is a comparison of interest rates for much of the developed world, which I reproduce for those who are interested in comparative details. Notice that French rates are lower than those of the US, Canada, and the UK. Now I understand that interest rates are a function of monetary policy, inflation expectations, and the demand for money, which are all related to economic growth, but still….

France’s neighbors, Italy and Spain, have rates that are roughly double France’s. But as we will see, the underlying economics are not that much different for the three countries, and you can make a good case that France’s trajectory may be the worst.

“No: France Is Not Bankrupt” – Really?

We will start with a remarkable example of both hubris and economic ignorance published earlier this year in Le Monde. Under the headline “No: France Is Not Bankrupt,” Bruno Moschetto, a professor of economics at the University of Paris I and HEC, made the following case. He apparently wrote this with a straight face. If you are not alone, please try not to giggle out loud and annoy people around you. (Hat tip to my good friend Mike Shedlock.)

No, France is not bankrupt …. The claim is untrue economically and financially. France is not and will not bankrupt because it would then be in a state of insolvency.

A state cannot be bankrupt, in its own currency, to foreigners and residents, since the latter would be invited to meet its debt by an immediate increase in taxation.

In abstract, the state is its citizens, and the citizens are the guarantors of obligations of the state. In the final analysis, “The state is us.” To be in a state of suspension of payments, a state would have to be indebted in a foreign currency, unable to deal with foreign currency liabilities in that currency….

…Fourth and finally, you clearly haven’t done your homework on economic crises. The fact that your interest rates are low and that your loans routinely get rolled over simply says that you have not yet come to your own Bang! moment. Every country that falls into crisis is able to get financing at low rates right up until the moment it can’t. It is all about investor confidence, and I readily admit that right now you have it. But through its policies the current government is doing everything it possibly can to destroy the confidence of the bond market as rapidly as it can. And France is particularly dependent upon non-French sources for the financing of its debt.

Let’s look at few facts, Prof. Moschetto:

1. Your country is in recession and has been for almost two years. Even the government is beginning to acknowledge that growth is and will be flat. Standard & Poor’s thinks your growth rate may be as low as -1.5%. Jean-Michel Six of Standard & Poor’s recently noted, “The current account deficit is growing month after month, and this means it is depending more and more on the rest of the world to finance its growth. In my view, France has got just one more year to sort itself out.”

One of the ways to deal with a debt crisis is to grow your way out of it. You are not doing that. The number of new industrial plants created by foreigners fell 25% last year, and new job creation fell 53%. Ernst & Young said France’s anti-market body language had become almost “repulsive” to outside investors, and a series of bitter labor disputes has not helped (source: The Telegraph). French industrial output is still falling, and both your manufacturing and service PMIs are among the worst in Europe—far worse even than those of Italy and Spain, both of which are clearly in financial disarray. The following PMI chart is from March, but August was still in negative territory (chart courtesy of Josh Ayers of Paradarch Advisors).

2. Your debt growth is unsustainable. France is currently enjoying the lowest effective borrowing rates it has had for 30 years, allowing the interest you pay to fall even as the total debt rises. Both interest payments and interest as a percentage of GDP are at all-time lows.

Here is a summary analysis from just about the best research team around, at Bridgewater:

France is approaching the point in its debt expansion phase in which debt service costs will rise faster than incomes causing a squeeze. The below charts convey that in brief. They show France’s debts rising relative to incomes while interest rates fell so that debt service expenses fell relatively despite the greater debts. When debt service expenses fall relative to income, that leaves more money for spending which is stimulative for the economy. Both the risk-free rate and credit spreads have fallen just about as far as possible. As a result, the net relief in debt service payments that has come from the interest rate decline will be removed. If interest rates rise, particularly if both the risk-free rate and the credit spreads rise, the debt service bill will have to increase more.

That means that either (a) debt service expenses will increase as a share of income, thus squeezing consumption and lowering economic growth (b) there will be an acceleration of indebtedness in order to pay for both the increased debt service requirements and increased consumption growth (which is a sure sign of an unsustainable bubble) or (c) incomes from some other sources have to rise. Since income growth is a function of productivity growth and competitiveness in global markets, and France is not doing much to improve productivity and competitiveness, we do not expect incomes to benefit from changes in these. That means that debt and debt service growth will either accelerate until the debt bubble pops or debt growth and economic growth will slow which will be painful. Since painful slower growth is not an option, it is more likely that debt and debt service growth will accelerate until the bubble pops. That will have important implications for the whole Eurozone.

France is getting close to the end of its ability to play games with its debt. Though France moved a lot of its debt to off-balance-sheet accounts for its social programs, the total debt is growing so much that the rating agencies will have to start taking notice.

3. The level of French debt is at postwar highs and is beginning to approach that of the peripheral countries. Note in the chart below from Bridgewater that in Germany total nonfinancial debt has been decreasing the past few years, the debt of peripheral Europe in the aggregate has gone roughly flat, but France’s debt is increasing dramatically. At the pace France is accumulating new debt, it will not be long before your financial situation looks quite similar to that of your peripheral neighbors.

4. Your fiscal deficit this year is likely to be well north of 4%, far above the level specified in your commitments to the Eurozone. The budget watchdog of France, the Cour des Comptes, is calling for much deeper budget cuts than Mr. Hollande is proposing. The unions and government employees, as well as much of Mr. Hollande’s party, are in very vocal rebellion. France deeply needs labor reforms to make itself more competitive, but there is simply no political will or ability to do so.

Your social budget (entitlement spending) is currently 35% of your total GDP. From my friend and macro-maven Josh Ayers’ colorful research letter, intriguingly called Sex Drugs and Debt, comes the following analysis:

Established in 1945, the French pay-as-you-go social welfare system is completely unfunded. The scheme (their word, not mine) has grown to preposterous proportions. As seen in Chart 5, French welfare spending now outstrips the rest of the world by a considerable margin.

5. France is in a profound economic funk, and this is not the stuff from which significant recoveries are made. Consumer confidence in your country, Professor, was at a 40-year low in June. A recent study by the Pew Foundation said French support for the European Project has crashed from 60% to 40% over the past year. Just 22% now think EU economic integration is positive.

The French unemployment level is at a 15-year high of 11.2% and has risen for 26 consecutive months. French youth unemployment stands at 25.7%. The IMF recently issued a report which suggests that the proposed economic reforms of Mr. Hollande do not go deep enough and will not cut unemployment from double-digit levels by the end of the decade.

France has seen a chronic erosion of labor competitiveness against Germany under monetary union due to higher wage deals. Pay has jumped 53pc in France and 35pc in Germany since 1999. French hourly wage costs are now 5pc higher at €36.40, even though German productivity is better.  The IMF said the new twist is that France has begun to lose ground to Italy and Spain as they shake up their systems or cut wages. The chief worry is “a steady loss of market share, both globally and relative to peers.” (The Telegraph)

6. Foreign holdings of French debt are 50% higher than those for Italy and four times higher than those for Spain. As investors became concerned about Spanish and Italian debt, they rotated into over $1 trillion of French government debt on the assumption that the French debt was safer. The simple fact is that France can’t print its own currency, so it is therefore dependent upon the kindness of strangers. Bridgewater estimates that if France were judged solely on its fundamentals, its spread to Germany should be about 3.5% rather than the current 50 basis points. If that kind of differential were realized by the marketplace, France would have no hope, under the current regime, of getting its deficit under 3%, let alone below nominal GDP growth, which is the more important number.

7. Like the peripheral Eurozone countries, France has started to run a significant trade deficit. Without going into the math, in very general terms, you cannot reduce your debt and run a trade deficit the same time. That has been one of the key problems in Greece, Portugal, Spain, and Italy. Restructuring a trade deficit is painful in that it requires either a downward currency adjustment or a reduction in labor costs (or an increase in labor productivity). When currency devaluations are not possible, the adjustment is typically borne on the shoulders of workers in the form of reduced wages and layoffs. That of course means lower tax revenues and larger deficits, coming at a time when they are the most difficult to handle. France has simply become uncompetitive. New businesses are not being created, and existing businesses are leaving. Admittedly, Brussels has not been helping, with the imposition of a slew of new mandates that are increasing costs relative to the rest of the world. Google “French chicken crisis” and “French egg protests” to see why exports are down. French poultry exports have fallen from €1.2 billion to less than €200 million in about 10 years.

8. French government spending is already at 56% of GDP, and debt-to-GDP is over 90%. At what point will the market begin to worry about a debt trap? How much more can you tax? And do you really want to raise taxes with the economy as weak as it is? You can’t print money without the agreement of Germany and the rest of the European Union. Cutting spending by 4 to 5% over the next few years will result in a far more serious recession than what you’ve been experiencing. (Just ask Greece or Spain.)

When I look at your options in France, Professor, I see nothing but bad choices. Perhaps you can talk Germany into writing a check to cover your deficits, but I for one wouldn’t hold my breath. Ask Cyprus how that went. The only way you’re going to get the rest of Europe to write checks is to agree to give up your budgetary sovereignty. (And they in turn will have to give up theirs in a massive fiscal experiment—more on that below.) Given the mood of the French public as expressed in the polls, how likely is it that France will agree to such terms? But then, if you don’t want to deal with enforced austerity, what choice do you have? Foreign creditors are not going to continue to extend loans to France simply because it is France.

I say all this with a heavy heart, because I really do love France. I love the French countryside and the history and the art and Paris. My numerous experiences in France have always been pleasant and have created many enjoyable memories. But the reality is what it is. You’ve run up debts, and now payment is due.

So What Is the Catalyst for a French Crisis?

So why does France enjoy such low interest rates? The simplistic answer is that the market simply doesn’t see the risk. But then again it didn’t see the risk in Greece or Italy or Spain prior to their crises, either. I think the catalyst could come during the latter part of this year or in the first half of 2014. There are two events that might serve. First, something has to be done very soon about Portugal. The Portuguese are going to need another infusion of capital. Their economy is upside down; their debt relative to GDP is still growing faster than income; and the simple fact is that they need to default on part of their debt. Call it debt forgiveness or apply whatever euphemism you want, it will be default. Otherwise, Portugal will slowly suffocate under the massive interest payments required to service its debt.

The problem is that any haircut on the debt would put Portuguese banks (which are the largest holder of Portuguese debt) into insolvency. The only guarantor of Portuguese banks under the current structure is the Portuguese government, which means that in order to take a haircut on the debt it already owes to creditors, the government would have to borrow more money to give to the banks. They would be taking two steps backward for every step forward.

Everyone was told, and the market obviously believes, that Greece was “one-off” and that no other country would need to take a haircut on its debt. If Portugal does, then the contagion factor that Europe was worried about with Greece will really come into play. If Germany and the other core countries allow Portugal to default in some manner, what does that say about their willingness to fund even larger sums for Italy and Spain? What will France do? Will it support further austerity for Portugal, or will the French argue for generalized European taxpayer support of Portugal (thereby implying that France should be able to access the same funding at some point in the future)?

Portugal has plunged itself into what can only be called severe austerity and is suffering economically for it. How much more can the Portuguese be asked to endure? The answer could be, quite a lot more, unless Germany and others want to write a rather large check. Italy, Spain, and France will be watching

And then there are the European bank stress tests that are scheduled for early 2014. These have been postponed so that the ECB can do its own analysis, but the time for them is fast approaching. Regulators want to have a uniform methodology across the Eurozone for calculating bad loans, which will keep banks from using “local practices” to hide bad debts. Further, it is not yet clear how the new bank stress tests will treat sovereign debt. Heretofore, sovereign debt in Europe has been considered risk-free, and banks have levered up as much as 40 to 1 on sovereign debt. Portuguese banks, for instance, don’t have to reserve against the purchase of Portuguese debt, and neither do Italian or Spanish banks when they purchase their own country’s debt. Any modest restructuring of national debt will result in massive bank insolvencies, not just in the peripheral countries but throughout Europe.

The bank stress tests that were administered a few years ago were a joke, and everybody knows it. It was all wink, wink and nod, nod and figure out how to finesse the obvious. In order to sustain any credibility, the next round of stress tests will have to be far more serious. How the new regulatory regime of the ECB deals with sovereign debt will to a great extent tell the world how serious they are about stress testing. After Greece, and after looking at the ongoing problems of Portugal and Spain (and especially Spanish banks), who can say with a straight face that there is absolutely no risk in sovereign debt? But if there is some risk, then there must be reserves against it.

At some point the market will no longer be content with happy talk: it will demand action. That action is going to be difficult to produce, given the internal politics of France. The decisions France makes, along with those of Germany, will determine the future of the euro experiment. And the situation is not as simple as asking whether France will get its fiscal house in order or whether Germany will write a check.

Indulge me for a moment as I offer a very speculative but interesting scenario. German exporters would like to see a weaker euro, but Germany does not want to allow the European Central Bank to print money. However, German leaders recognize that at some point, if the Eurozone is to maintain a currency union, it must also have a fiscal union. A breakup of the Eurozone would be disastrously expensive for everyone but especially for Germany. There will be a live-or-die effort by all parties to maintain the euro. If Germany and the other fiscally sound members of the European Union can persuade the peripheral countries to adopt rules that require fiscal restraint in return for mutualization of debt, then that would allow the ECB to monetize deficits in the interim—and thus potentially weaken the euro.

This scenario would require members of the Eurozone to give up a great deal of their fiscal autonomy to Brussels. This will become the central question with regard to the existence of the euro within a few years. In an odd sort of way, the Eurozone is going to enter into its own internal currency war as the peripheral nations continue to have debt problems.

The situation will be exacerbated by the fiscal crisis that will soon engulf France. It will come precisely at the moment when Germany will be asked to allow the ECB to accommodate the French bond market, as it has done for Italy and Spain, and when France will in turn be asked to enter into a period of austerity, as both Italy and Spain have done (very painfully). It is at that moment that the ultimate survival of the euro will be decided.

Full article: France Is Heading For The Biggest Economic Train Wreck In Europe (Business Insider)

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