Let's begin with a look at what's happening in Europe. John Mauldin points out:
If it was just Europe and if the crisis could be contained there, then maybe we could focus on something else for a change. But Europe as a whole is critical to the world’s economy. A huge percentage of global lending is from euro-area banks, and they are all contracting their balance sheets. In a banking balance-sheet crisis, you reduce the debt you can, not the debt that is the most needed or reliable. And some of the debt will be to foreign entities. As an example, Austria is now requiring its banks to cover their Eastern European loans with local deposits. Which is of course problematical, as the size of those loans relative to the bank balance sheets and the Austrian economy is huge. According to BIS statistics, Austrian banks’ total exposure to the region equates to around 67% of the country’s GDP, not including the Vienna-based Bank Austria, which is technically Italian.
We could find similar results for other European (mostly Spanish), as well as Latin American banks. And as I note below, this will reach into China and throughout Asia.
And the US? I am constantly asked what my biggest worry is. What is the largest monster I think I hear in my closet of nightmares? And the answer has been the same for a long time: it is European banks.
Those who think this is all a non-event note (correctly) that US net exposure to European banks is not all that large, and that while it may not be a non-event, it’s not system-threatening. The problem is that little three-letter word net.
Gross exposure is huge, and we are starting to read that regulators and other authorities are becoming concerned. As well they should. The problem is that as a bank sells risk insurance, it can buy protection from another bank in Europe to hedge it. But who is the counterparty? How solvent are they? It was only a month before Dexia collapsed that authorities and markets assured us that the bank was fine, and then bang! it was nationalized.
That is the part we do not know enough about. If European banks are as bad as they appear to be, then that counterparty risk is large. Will sovereign nations step up and bail out US banks on the credit default swaps their banks sold? Care to wager your national economy on that concept selling in today’s political climate?
There's more at the link.
It seems that British minds, at least, are being concentrated on the potential risk to their citizens if the Eurozone goes pear-shaped. The Telegraph reports:
As the Italian government struggled to borrow and Spain considered seeking an international bail-out, British ministers privately warned that the break-up of the euro, once almost unthinkable, is now increasingly plausible.
Diplomats are preparing to help Britons abroad through a banking collapse and even riots arising from the debt crisis.
The Treasury confirmed earlier this month that contingency planning for a collapse is now under way.
A senior minister has now revealed the extent of the Government’s concern, saying that Britain is now planning on the basis that a euro collapse is now just a matter of time.
“It’s in our interests that they keep playing for time because that gives us more time to prepare,” the minister told the Daily Telegraph.
Recent Foreign and Commonwealth Office instructions to embassies and consulates request contingency planning for extreme scenarios including rioting and social unrest.
Greece has seen several outbreaks of civil disorder as its government struggles with its huge debts. British officials think similar scenes cannot be ruled out in other nations if the euro collapses.
Diplomats have also been told to prepare to help tens of thousands of British citizens in eurozone countries with the consequences of a financial collapse that would leave them unable to access bank accounts or even withdraw cash.
Fuelling the fears of financial markets for the euro, reports in Madrid yesterday suggested that the new Popular Party government could seek a bail-out from either the European Union rescue fund or the International Monetary Fund.
There are also growing fears for Italy, whose new government was forced to pay record interest rates on new bonds issued yesterday.
The yield on new six-month loans was 6.5 per cent, nearly double last month’s rate. And the yield on outstanding two-year loans was 7.8 per cent, well above the level considered unsustainable.
Italy’s new government will have to sell more than EURO 30 billion of new bonds by the end of January to refinance its debts. Analysts say there is no guarantee that investors will buy all of those bonds, which could force Italy to default.
The Italian government yesterday said that in talks with German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Nicolas Sarkozy, Prime Minister Mario Monti had agreed that an Italian collapse “would inevitably be the end of the euro.”
The EU treaties that created the euro and set its membership rules contain no provision for members to leave, meaning any break-up would be disorderly and potentially chaotic.
If eurozone governments defaulted on their debts, the European banks that hold many of their bonds would risk collapse.
Some analysts say the shock waves of such an event would risk the collapse of the entire financial system, leaving banks unable to return money to retail depositors and destroying companies dependent on bank credit.
Again, more at the link. Bold print is my emphasis.
The Telegraph article isn't far-fetched. In another essay, Jeremy Warner, one of that newspaper's associate editors, put it as bluntly as possible - and, in my opinion, accurately.
It's time to think what hitherto markets have regarded as unthinkable – that the euro really is on its last legs.
The defining moment was the fiasco over Wednesday's bund auction, reinforced on Thursday by the spectacle of German sovereign bond yields rising above those of the UK.
. . .
Up until the past few days, it has remained just about possible to go along with the idea that ultimately Germany would bow to pressure and do whatever might be required to save the single currency.
The prevailing view was that the German Chancellor didn't really mean what she was saying, or was only saying it to placate German voters. When finally she came to peer over the precipice, she would retreat from her hard line position and compromise. Self interest alone would force Germany to act.
But there comes a point in every crisis where the consensus suddenly shatters. That's what has just occurred, and with good reason. In recent days, it has become plain as a pike staff that the lady's not for turning.
This has caused remaining international confidence in the euro to evaporate, and even German bunds to lose their "risk free" status. The crisis is no longer confined to the sinners of the south. Suddenly, no-one wants to hold euro denominated assets of any variety, and that includes what had previously been thought the eurozone safe haven of German bunds.
Investors have gone on strike. The Americans are getting their money out as fast as they decently can. British banks have stopped lending to all but their safest eurozone counterparts, and even those have been denied access to dollar funding. The UK hardly has anything to boast of; it's got its own legion of problems, many of them not so dissimilar to those of the eurozone periphery.
. . .
What we are witnessing is awesome stuff – the death throes of a currency. And not just any old currency either, but what when it was launched was confidently expected to take its place alongside the dollar as one of the world's major reserve currencies. That promise today looks to be in ruins.
Contingency planning is in progress throughout Europe. From the UK Treasury on Whitehall to the architectural monstrosity of the Bundesbank in Frankfurt, everyone is desperately trying to figure out precisely how bad the consequences might be.
What they are preparing for is the biggest mass default in history. There's no orderly way of doing this. European finance and trade is too far integrated to allow for an easy unwinding of contracts. It's going to be anarchy.
. . .
Europe's political elite, as ever several steps behind the reality, still regards the prospect as unimaginable.
They need to wake up fast; it's happening before their very eyes.
More at the link; and, again, bold print is my emphasis. At this point, I don't know whether the euro can survive until the New Year. If it does, it's unlikely to endure in its present form beyond the first quarter of 2012.
As for the Far East, the signs of economic contraction in China are becoming clearer by the day. Let's begin with goods shipped to Europe and the USA for this Christmas season. Reuters reports:
Global container ship operators, hammered by high costs, oversupply and flagging demand, are cutting shipping capacity to shore up freight rates depressed by a sluggish global economy.
Many container carriers have been losing money since the third quarter as freight rates fell sharply, mainly due to a supply glut, industry experts said at a regional logistics and maritime conference here on Friday.
. . .
The shipping industry is a barometer for the global economy as it accounts for more than 80 percent of international trade volume.
Maersk Line, a unit of Danish shipping and oil group AP Moller-Maersk AS and the world's largest container ship operator by volume, is considering idling some of its ships, especially those on Asia-Europe routes.
. . .
Tung Chee Chen, chairman of Orient Overseas (International) Ltd, said on Friday that his company had cut Asia-Europe route capacity by 20 percent.
. . .
"The outlook will eventually depend on Europe's situation, and whether the debt crisis can be resolved," Tung said. "But in light of today's situation, next year will not be promising."
More at the link. Note that these ships should be on the high seas right now, loaded to capacity with goods to satisfy the Christmas shopping rush. The fact that they're not, and haven't been for some time, is an ominous sign for retailers. They'll doubtless try to put the best possible 'spin' on it, and assure customers (whom they're desperately trying to attract) that their goods are selling like hot cakes; but there aren't nearly as many of those goods this year as there were in the past, and it's doubtful whether even the reduced inventories ordered for this holiday season will sell out in full.
The shrinking market for Chinese exports is symptomatic of deeper ills. John Mauldin again:
There are signs of problems developing, and they demand study. Here is just one note (of a dozen) that came across my desk in the last two days. This is from Andy Lees of UBS:
“We saw today that 80% of Chinese construction firms say developers are now behind on payments (late cash flow), and that consequently land purchases are already 42% down y/y (slowing local authority cash flow). We also heard that pricing controls means that utility companies no longer have the cash flow to afford vital imports. Q3 corporate cash flow was down 27%.
. . .
“I am being told that European banks are now starting to shrink their foreign loan books to meet domestic needs, with Mexico, Brazil and China all big losers. With China now saying they may run a full-year trade deficit next year, and with them unable to afford to import vital coal and other resources without either suffering domestic inflation or without selling its FX reserves, it may now well be time to consider some sort of puts on the yuan. In fact the only reason perhaps not to is that India may collapse first, reducing the competition for coal and giving China a little more breathing room.
China is not a problem in the short term. But there have to be adjustments to keep that status of “not a problem.” The situation bears watching and becoming familiar with, as I am on the record that Japan is the next in line to suffer a real world-shaking crisis. And China, which does not adjust in advance, can suffer contagion effects from Japan. The world is so connected.
Again, more at the link.
As I've said before, friends, the crunch is coming. The light at the end of this economic tunnel really is an oncoming train. Get ready as best you can, and hang on tight - it's going to be a wild ride.