Time for Plan B. The Spanish bank bailout didn't even work for one day.
Apparently, $125 billion billion doesn't buy much these days. Not even six hours of relief.
Over the weekend, Europe announced a bailout of Spain's ailing banks. It wasn't quite financial shock-and-awe, but €100 billion ($125 billion) seemed like an impressive enough sum to buy at least a few weeks -- or at worst a few days, right? -- of calm in the markets. It wasn't. If anything, things are getting worse faster in Europe. What's going on?
First, a quick recap. As Paul Krugman put it, Spain was Europe's Florida. It had a prodigious housing bubble. And now its cajas saving banks have a prodigious amount of bad real estate loans on their books. But the Spanish government can't afford to bail its banks out. It can't print euros, and it can't borrow euros, except at punitive rates. We have a word for this. That word is "broke".
But Spain resisted going to Germany for a bailout. Spain feared the austere terms Germany would likely impose as part of any deal. So Spain played a game of chicken. First, it tried to get the European Central Bank (ECB) to bail out its banks instead. Germany balked. Then, it threatened eurogeddon -- memorably saying that they would not be bullied because "Spain is not Uganda" -- if it didn't at least get better terms on its bailout.
At first, it looked like Spain had won. Europe announced that the €100 billion aid package for Spain's banks would come without any further conditionality. Translation: Spain would get the money without having to do any more austerity than it had already promised to do. But then things unraveled. And fast.
The chart below from Bloomberg shows Spain's 10-year borrowing costs. Remember, the point of the Spanish bank bailout is, in large part, to reduce yields on Spanish bonds to break up the doom loop between weak sovereigns and weak banks. About that....
After briefly retreating, Spanish borrowing costs surged above 6.5 percent. That's the market giving a vote of no-confidence for the bank bailout. But the bad news hasn't stopped there. The Spanish IBEX stock index gave away a 5.9 percent increase, and finished down on the day. Italian bonds got hammered too. So did the Italian FTSE MIB stock index.
Why did markets turn so quickly from gloom to doom? The short answer: Investors are worried the Spanish bank bailout might make things worse -- and with good reason. The devil is in the details, and the Europeans have been embarrassingly short on those. Here are the four big questions that remain to be answered.
1) What's the interest rate on the €100 billion loan to Spain?
This being Europe, the term "bailout" is a bit misleading. Germany isn't cutting a check for Spain. It's a loan. European officials have promised that the interest rate on this loan is well below what Spain can borrow in the markets -- it'd better be, or what would be the point? -- but they haven't said what that rate is. It's hard to judge how good a deal Spain is getting without knowing this.
2) How much will the bailout add to Spain's debt?
This being Europe, Spain's bank bailout has a slightly Byzantine structure. The bailout funds will go to Spain's so-called Fund for Orderly Recapitalization of Banks (FROB) -- a government agency that will then inject the money into struggling banks. The Spanish government, however, backstops the FROB.
But this being Europe, this financial legerdemain doesn't really matter. The Spanish government is ultimately on the hook, full stop. So the bank "bailout" will add roughly 10 percentage points to Spain's public debt-to-GDP ratio, assuming growth doesn't collapse further. That's a big assumption.
3) Will the bailout loan be senior to other debt?
This being Europe, there are two bailout funds. There's the soon-to-be defunct European Financial Stability Facility (EFSF) and the soon-to-be online European Stability Mechanism (ESM). Spoiler alert: They're supposed to increase ... stability. They haven't exactly succeeded.
This being Europe, it actually matters a great deal whether the EFSF or the ESM loans the money to Spain. The ESM is senior to all other creditors, after the IMF. The EFSF isn't. In plain English, an ESM loan increases the odds that private bondholders will take a loss if Spain ever restructures its debt. An EFSF loan doesn't. So private investors will demand higher interest rates on Spanish bonds to compensate for the higher risk of losses if the money comes from the ESM. That's precisely what happened on Monday after European officials announced that it would indeed be the ESM making the loans.
But this being Europe, they subsequently reversed themselves. They said that the money might come from the EFSF instead -- at least at first. In the long run, it's unclear how much this would even matter. In the short run, Spain is still on the hook as a partial guarantor of EFSF loans. Um, what? The EFSF works by issuing bonds backstopped by Europe's healthy economies. But Spain can't get out of its commitment as a guarantor because its government technically isn't getting bailed out. Its banks are. So Spain would be guaranteeing a loan it's taking out. That makes even less sense than you think.
4) Will the bank bailout come with new strings attached?
This being Europe, it's not too surprising that the initial headlines that Spain was getting this money unconditionally might not be true. On Monday, German officials said that the so-called Troika of the EC, ECB, and IMF would "supervise" the bailout -- which is eurospeak for imposing more austere austerity. Still, it's unclear what this means. It's possible the Germans were talking about a previously announced agreement where European officials will reform Spain's sclerotic financial sector. But it's also possible that they were talking about further spending cuts and tax hikes.
This being Europe, it's almost impossible to say. But it's another reason for markets to worry. Troika reforms in Greece, Portugal and Ireland have knee-capped growth. And a country that can't print its own money can't pay back its debts when it's not growing. It creates self-fulfilling doubts about its solvency. It's just another reason for investors to push up the yields on Spanish debt.
There's a simple way to tell if the Spanish bank bailout is working. Look at Spanish borrowing costs. If they're falling, it's working. If they're not, it's not. By that metric, the 48-hour old bailout is already a clear failure.
It's easy to understand why. The bailout will increase Spain's debt. It will make Spanish debt riskier for private investors. And it might make it harder for Spain to pay back its debts. It kicks the can at the expense of zombifying Spain's economy.
Here's the worst part. It's not even clear that the Eurocrats understand the mistakes they're making. If they did, they wouldn't keep repeating them, from Greece to Ireland to Portugal, and now Spain. They're running out of time. So are we.
In an interview, the U.S. president ties his legacy to a pact with Tehran, argues ISIS is not winning, warns Saudi Arabia not to pursue a nuclear-weapons program, and anguishes about Israel.
On Tuesday afternoon, as President Obama was bringing an occasionally contentious but often illuminating hour-long conversation about the Middle East to an end, I brought up a persistent worry. “A majority of American Jews want to support the Iran deal,” I said, “but a lot of people are anxiety-ridden about this, as am I.” Like many Jews—and also, by the way, many non-Jews—I believe that it is prudent to keep nuclear weapons out of the hands of anti-Semitic regimes. Obama, who earlier in the discussion had explicitly labeled the supreme leader of Iran, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, an anti-Semite, responded with an argument I had not heard him make before.
“Look, 20 years from now, I’m still going to be around, God willing. If Iran has a nuclear weapon, it’s my name on this,” he said, referring to the apparently almost-finished nuclear agreement between Iran and a group of world powers led by the United States. “I think it’s fair to say that in addition to our profound national-security interests, I have a personal interest in locking this down.”
New research confirms what they say about nice guys.
Smile at the customer. Bake cookies for your colleagues. Sing your subordinates’ praises. Share credit. Listen. Empathize. Don’t drive the last dollar out of a deal. Leave the last doughnut for someone else.
Sneer at the customer. Keep your colleagues on edge. Claim credit. Speak first. Put your feet on the table. Withhold approval. Instill fear. Interrupt. Ask for more. And by all means, take that last doughnut. You deserve it.
Follow one of those paths, the success literature tells us, and you’ll go far. Follow the other, and you’ll die powerless and broke. The only question is, which is which?
Of all the issues that preoccupy the modern mind—Nature or nurture? Is there life in outer space? Why can’t America field a decent soccer team?—it’s hard to think of one that has attracted so much water-cooler philosophizing yet so little scientific inquiry. Does it pay to be nice? Or is there an advantage to being a jerk?
The Islamic State is no mere collection of psychopaths. It is a religious group with carefully considered beliefs, among them that it is a key agent of the coming apocalypse. Here’s what that means for its strategy—and for how to stop it.
What is the Islamic State?
Where did it come from, and what are its intentions? The simplicity of these questions can be deceiving, and few Western leaders seem to know the answers. In December, The New York Times published confidential comments by Major General Michael K. Nagata, the Special Operations commander for the United States in the Middle East, admitting that he had hardly begun figuring out the Islamic State’s appeal. “We have not defeated the idea,” he said. “We do not even understand the idea.” In the past year, President Obama has referred to the Islamic State, variously, as “not Islamic” and as al-Qaeda’s “jayvee team,” statements that reflected confusion about the group, and may have contributed to significant strategic errors.
After years of offshore production, General Electric is moving much of its far-flung appliance-manufacturing operations back home. It is not alone. An exploration of the startling, sustainable, just-getting-started return of industry to the United States.
For much of the past decade, General Electric’s storied Appliance Park, in Louisville, Kentucky, appeared less like a monument to American manufacturing prowess than a memorial to it.
The very scale of the place seemed to underscore its irrelevance. Six factory buildings, each one the size of a large suburban shopping mall, line up neatly in a row. The parking lot in front of them measures a mile long and has its own traffic lights, built to control the chaos that once accompanied shift change. But in 2011, Appliance Park employed not even a tenth of the people it did in its heyday. The vast majority of the lot’s spaces were empty; the traffic lights looked forlorn.
In 1951, when General Electric designed the industrial park, the company’s ambition was as big as the place itself; GE didn’t build an appliance factory so much as an appliance city. Five of the six factory buildings were part of the original plan, and early on Appliance Park had a dedicated power plant, its own fire department, and the first computer ever used in a factory. The facility was so large that it got its own ZIP code (40225). It was the headquarters for GE’s appliance division, as well as the place where just about all of the appliances were made.
Advocates say that a guaranteed basic income can lead to more creative, fulfilling work. The question is how to fund it.
Scott Santens has been thinking a lot about fish lately. Specifically, he’s been reflecting on the aphorism, “If you give a man a fish, he eats for a day. If you teach a man to fish, he eats for life.” What Santens wants to know is this: “If you build a robot to fish, do all men starve, or do all men eat?”
Santens is 37 years old, and he’s a leader in the basic income movement—a worldwide network of thousands of advocates (26,000 on Reddit alone) who believe that governments should provide every citizen with a monthly stipend big enough to cover life’s basic necessities. The idea of a basic income has been around for decades, and it once drew support from leaders as different as Martin Luther King Jr. and Richard Nixon. But rather than waiting for governments to act, Santens has started crowdfunding his own basic income of $1,000 per month. He’s nearly halfway to his his goal.
A settlement between five big financial companies and the federal government shows traders blithely and openly discussing their misdeeds.
Were they greedy, or were they just foolish?
It’s one of the big questions from the 2008 economic crisis that remains open to debate. Did the world’s banking system nearly collapse because financiers were grabbing money wherever they could, no matter the costs, or was it because bankers failed to understand the risks caused by a housing bubble and credit crunch?
In at least one case, there’s a ready answer: They were both greedy and foolish.
An agreement between five banks and the federal government, announced Wednesday, forces five banks to pay a combined $5.6 billion and plead guilty to rigging markets. Four banks—Barclays, Citigroup, JPMorgan Chase, and the Royal Bank of Scotland—pled guilty to antitrust violations. UBS received immunity in the antitrust case, but will plead guilty to manipulating the London Interbank Offer Rate, or LIBOR, a benchmark interest measure. (An earlier federal agreement with UBS was rejected by a federal judge as too lenient.)
Even for people with generous insurance plans, a trip to an in-network doctor can result in thousands of dollars in unexpected charges. Can anything be done?
It shouldn’t take a Harvard expert in health policy to understand a doctor’s bill. But sometimes, it does. In August of last year, Liz was a medical student whose doctor found a lump on her tonsils. Her primary-care physician referred her to an in-network ear-nose-and-throat specialist.
Liz, who asked to go by her first name, expected the usual $20 copay. Instead, she was charged $219.90—wrongly, in her view—for separate physician and facility fees. Under the terms of her plan, Liz says, she should not have been responsible for those charges. After a polite letter to her (“Thank you for your recent grievance...”), Anthem Blue Cross upheld the charges.
A few months later, Liz convinced Anthem to wipe much of the bill. But here’s the thing: By that time, she was studying health policy as a master’s student at Harvard. “It took me hours of going over the insurance policy and hours of arguing with the insurance company over that insurance pamphlet,” she said. (Later, Liz realized she had been doubly insured that month—her Harvard insurance had already kicked in—and she got the other plan to take care of the remainder of the balance.)
After viewing news photographs from China for years, one of my favorite visual themes is "large crowds in formation."
After viewing news photographs from China for years, one of my favorite visual themes is "large crowd formations." Whether the subject is military parades or world-record attempts, mass exercises or enormous performances, the images are frequently remarkable. The masses of people can look beautiful or intimidating, projecting a sense of strength and abundance. Individuals can become pixels in a huge painting, or points on a grid, or echoes of each other in identical uniforms or costumes. I've gathered some of these images below, taken around China over the past several years. (Note: a few of these images can create a dizzying effect when viewed while scrolling, which is fun, but could be surprising.)