Category Archives: economics

The night we waved goodbye to America… our last best hope on Earth

http://hitchensblog.mailonsunday.co.uk/2008/11/the-night-we-wa.html
This is Peter Hitchens’ Mail on Sunday column
Anyone would think we had just elected a hip, skinny and youthful replacement for God, with a plan to modernise Heaven and Hell – or that at the very least John Lennon had come back from the dead.
The swooning frenzy over the choice of Barack Obama as President of the United States must be one of the most absurd waves of self-deception and swirling fantasy ever to sweep through an advanced civilisation. At least Mandela-worship – its nearest equivalent – is focused on a man who actually did something.
I really don’t see how the Obama devotees can ever in future mock the Moonies, the Scientologists or people who claim to have been abducted in flying saucers. This is a cult like the one which grew up around Princess Diana, bereft of reason and hostile to facts.
It already has all the signs of such a thing. The newspapers which recorded Obama’s victory have become valuable relics. You may buy Obama picture books and Obama calendars and if there isn’t yet a children’s picture version of his story, there soon will be.

Proper books, recording his sordid associates, his cowardly voting record, his astonishingly militant commitment to unrestricted abortion and his blundering trip to Africa, are little-read and hard to find.

If you can believe that this undistinguished and conventionally Left-wing machine politician is a sort of secular saviour, then you can believe anything. He plainly doesn’t believe it himself. His cliche-stuffed, PC clunker of an acceptance speech suffered badly from nerves.  It was what you would expect from someone who knew he’d promised too much and that from now on the easy bit was over.

He needn’t worry too much. From now on, the rough boys and girls of America’s Democratic Party apparatus, many recycled from Bill Clinton’s stained and crumpled entourage, will crowd round him, to collect the rich spoils of his victory and also tell him what to do, which is what he is used to.
Just look at his sermon by the shores of Lake Michigan. He really did talk about a ‘new dawn’, and a ‘timeless creed’ (which was ‘yes, we can’). He proclaimed that ‘change has come’. He revealed that, despite having edited the Harvard Law Review, he doesn’t know what ‘enormity’ means. He reached depths of oratorical drivel never even plumbed by our own Mr Blair, burbling about putting our hands on the arc of history (or was it the ark of history?) and bending it once more toward the hope of a better day (Don’t try this at home).

I am not making this up. No wonder that awful old hack Jesse Jackson sobbed as he watched. How he must wish he, too, could get away with this sort of stuff.

And it was interesting how the President-elect failed to lift his admiring audience by repeated – but rather hesitant – invocations of the brainless slogan he was forced by his minders to adopt against his will – ‘Yes, we can’. They were supposed to thunder ‘Yes, we can!’ back at him, but they just wouldn’t join in.  No wonder. Yes we can what exactly? Go home and keep a close eye on the tax rate, is my advice. He’d have been better off bursting into ‘I’d like to teach the world to sing in perfect harmony’ which contains roughly the same message and might have attracted some valuable commercial sponsorship.

Perhaps, being a Chicago crowd, they knew some of the things that 52.5 per cent of America prefers not to know. They know Obama is the obedient servant of one of the most squalid and unshakeable political machines in America. They know that one of his alarmingly close associates, a state-subsidised slum landlord called Tony Rezko, has been convicted on fraud and corruption charges.

They also know the US is just as segregated as it was before Martin Luther King – in schools, streets, neighbourhoods, holidays, even in its TV-watching habits and its choice of fast-food joint. The difference is that it is now done by unspoken agreement rather than by law.

If Mr Obama’s election had threatened any of that, his feel-good white supporters would have scuttled off and voted for John McCain, or practically anyone. But it doesn’t. Mr Obama, thanks mainly to the now-departed grandmother he alternately praised as a saint and denounced as a racial bigot, has the huge advantages of an expensive private education. He did not have to grow up in the badlands of useless schools, shattered families and gangs which are the lot of so many young black men of his generation.

If the nonsensical claims made for this election were true, then every positive discrimination programme aimed at helping black people into jobs they otherwise wouldn’t get should be abandoned forthwith. Nothing of the kind will happen. On the contrary, there will probably be more of them.

And if those who voted for Obama were all proving their anti-racist nobility, that presumably means that those many millions who didn’t vote for him were proving themselves to be hopeless bigots. This is obviously untrue.
I was in Washington DC the night of the election. America’s beautiful capital has a sad secret. It is perhaps the most racially divided city in the world, with 15th Street – which runs due north from the White House – the unofficial frontier between black and white. But, like so much of America, it also now has a new division, and one which is in many ways much more important. I had attended an election-night party in a smart and liberal white area, but was staying the night less than a mile away on the edge of a suburb where Spanish is spoken as much as English, plus a smattering of tongues from such places as Ethiopia, Somalia and Afghanistan.

As I walked, I crossed another of Washington’s secret frontiers. There had been a few white people blowing car horns and shouting, as the result became clear. But among the Mexicans, Salvadorans and the other Third World nationalities, there was something like ecstasy.
They grasped the real significance of this moment. They knew it meant that America had finally switched sides in a global cultural war. Forget the Cold War, or even the Iraq War. The United States, having for the most part a deeply conservative people, had until now just about stood out against many of the mistakes which have ruined so much of the rest of the world.
Suspicious of welfare addiction, feeble justice and high taxes, totally committed to preserving its own national sovereignty, unabashedly Christian in a world part secular and part Muslim, suspicious of the Great Global Warming panic, it was unique.
These strengths had been fading for some time, mainly due to poorly controlled mass immigration and to the march of political correctness. They had also been weakened by the failure of America’s conservative party – the Republicans – to fight on the cultural and moral fronts.
They preferred to posture on the world stage. Scared of confronting Left-wing teachers and sexual revolutionaries at home, they could order soldiers to be brave on their behalf in far-off deserts. And now the US, like Britain before it, has begun the long slow descent into the Third World. How sad. Where now is our last best hope on Earth?

‘Progress’ slogan

Progress of redistribution is regression of liberty as these two ends are mutually exclusive. Or in other words, liberty and redistribution are negatively correlated in that an increase in one predicates a decrease in the other.

Liberals decry reality as a stereotype.

I was waiting in line with gaggles of youth to vote absentee in Arlington County and the following came to me:  Liberals decry, “Reality is a stereotype.”

US-BUSINESS Summary (Reuters)

Central banks poised to act

SINGAPORE/LONDON (Reuters) – Central banks are likely to launch new coordinated emergency action this week to calm panic in financial markets, which could be rocked further by data pointing to global recession. The U.S. Federal Reserve is expected to cut rates sharply following share selloffs and currency collapses in developed economies and the emerging markets of Asia and Latin America.

KeyCorp, Capital One to receive cash infusion: source

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – KeyCorp (KEY.N), Zions Bancorp (ZION.O) and Capital One Financial Corp (COF.N) are some of the banks that will receive cash under the U.S. government’s second round of capital infusions, a source familiar with the Treasury Department’s thinking said on Sunday. Four banks, including PNC Financial Services Group Inc (PNC.N), have already announced they are participating in the second round of capital injections.

 

http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2008/10/26/AR2008102600292.html

Politics – ’08 Election (Just Giving It Away)

The right’s response to 9/11 was Iraq. The left’s response to 9/11 is Barack Obama. Need I say more? The financial crisis is one of confidence; the solvent for our present malaise is merely increased due diligence on future initiatives (e.g., conservative capital budgeting decisions). The government should continue to guarantee lines of credit.

The next four years is goinng to be rough; we will be set back even further than we were in the sixties.

Barney Frank’s Bankrupt Ideas

By INVESTOR’S BUSINESS DAILY | Posted Monday, October 06, 2008 4:20 PM PT

Financial Rescue: Democrats created the mortgage crisis by forcing banks to give loans to people who couldn’t afford them. Now Obama and Biden want bankruptcy judges to bail out the same deadbeat homeowners. And once again, Barney Frank is helping.


Read More: Economy


 

It’s been said that history is a lie agreed upon. Democrats are trying to rewrite history by blaming the Bush administration for the current crisis and claiming that the rescue bill is necessary to save the economy from Republican mismanagement.

 

More blarney from Barney.

Last Thursday on Fox News, when Bill O’Reilly tried to suggest that both parties might share the blame, House Finance Committee Chairman Frank, in a not atypical meltdown, disowned any responsibility for his lack of oversight over the last two years and his complicity before that.

Frank also claimed: “The fact is, it was 1994 that we passed a bill to tell the Fed to stop the subprime lending. We tried to get them to do it.” In other words, those rascally Republicans did it all when they took control of Congress that November.

The legislation he spoke of was the Homeowners Equity Protection Act. It was supposed to empower the Federal Reserve to set the rules on mortgages. Problem was, the Clinton administration had its own ideas of what the rules should be.

The Community Reinvestment Act, first passed in 1977 under Jimmy Carter, was intended to increase minority homeownership. It grew out of charges that banks were “redlining” entire inner-city neighborhoods as bad credit risks. Banks now were forced to perform outreach to these areas.

In the ’70s and ’80s, banks could show that they were trying to do that by advertising in minority newspapers and having representatives sit on the boards of local groups. In other words, they were rated on the effort made and not on the results achieved. Creditworthiness still mattered.

In 1995, as Howard Husock pointed out eight years ago in City Journal, “the Clinton Treasury Department’s 1995 regulations made getting a satisfactory CRA rating much harder. The new regulations de-emphasized subjective assessment measures in favor of strictly numerical ones. Bank examiners would use federal home-loan data, broken down by neighborhood, income group, and race, to rate banks on performance.”

Creditworthiness and due diligence no longer mattered. As a 1999 New York Times editorial observed: “Fannie Mae, the nation’s biggest underwriter of home mortgages, has been under increasing pressure from the Bill Clinton administration to expand mortgage loans among low- and moderate-income people and felt pressure to maintain its phenomenal growth in profits.”

On Frank’s and Clinton’s watch, the Community Reinvestment Act was changed to force the issuance of bad loans. Banks would be rated on the number of loans, not on their soundness. Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac were then encouraged to buy them up. It was all about affordable housing, even if the housing was unaffordable.

“From the perspective of many people, including me, this is another thrift industry growing up around us,” Peter Wallison, a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, said back in 1999. “If they fail, the government will have to step in and bail them out the way it stepped up and bailed out the thrift industry.”

That prediction came true, but it didn’t have to.

On Sept. 11, 2003, the Bush administration proposed to Congress a new agency under the Treasury Department to assume supervision of Fannie and Freddie. The new agency would have had the authority to set capital-reserve requirements, veto new lines of business and determine whether the two quasi-government lenders were adequately managing the risk of their ballooning portfolios.

When former Treasury Secretary John Snow pleaded for Frank to support Fannie and Freddie reform, Frank responded: “These two entities — Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac — are not facing any kind of financial crisis. The more people exaggerate these problems, the more pressure there is on these companies, the less we will see in terms of affordable housing.”

Democrats believe in affordable housing even if it’s at the expense of the vast majority who watch their credit, work hard and pay their mortgages on time. But for the deadbeats, particularly Democratic constituencies, they have ways to make affordable the housing you couldn’t afford. So first, they forced them into housing they couldn’t afford, and now they give them a financial mulligan.

In the vice presidential debate, Sen. Joe Biden said that “what we should be doing now — and Barack Obama and I support it — we should be allowing bankruptcy courts to be able to re-adjust not just the interest rate you’re paying on your mortgage to be able to stay in your home, but be able to adjust the principal that you owe, the principal you owe.”

To get this bill passed, Obama made a lot of phone calls — particularly to members of the Congressional Black Caucus, including caucus chief Rep. James Clyburn — assuring this would happen.

Those paying their mortgages on time don’t get that break.

Rep. Elijah Cummings said Obama told him that, if elected president, he would direct a Treasury Department official to work with homeowners in foreclosure to restructure their loans. Cummings said Obama also told him he’d seek changes in bankruptcy laws allowing judges to reduce what borrowers owe on their home loans.

Section 110 of the rescue legislation has the Orwellian title of “Assistance to Homeowners” — but only for the deadbeats.

It describes somebody called a “Federal property manager” who “holds, owns or controls mortgages, mortgage-backed securities, and other assets secured by residential real estate.”

Section 110 speaks of “modifications” that this manager can make to these mortgages including not only the reduction of interest rates but the reduction of loan principal.

Not only is Uncle Sam now the world’s largest landlord. He can also arbitrarily set the value of property and the amount owed on it at will, thus distorting the free market.

The vast majority of homeowners who pay their mortgages on time get the shaft. They’re the ones who’ll take up the others’ slack.

Why? And why is the Community Reinvestment Act still law?

 

The International Currency Crisis (by John Mauldin)

Many of us in the US are focused on our own woes. But this is a global credit crisis. In today’s Outside the Box, we take a look at the currency markets, which are in an historic upheaval and also look at what is going on in Europe. I suspect that Europe is in for a period of much distress, as the world begins to deleverage That is why one government after another will back the deposits of banks within their countries, for otherwise capital will flee to countries like Ireland and Germany which ARE guaranteeing the deposits for all banks in their borders. Many European banks are leveraged 50 to 1 (not a misprint). I suspect that more government will do like Belgium and the Netherlands and inject capital directly into their local banks deemed too big to fail.

I am going to give you three brief pieces which all look at a different part of the crisis, but looking at the crisis from a more international perspective. The first is from Dennis Gartman’s letter (www.thegartmanletter.com) with his views on the overnight currency markets. (Note: the yen has risen even more since he wrote!)

The second piece is a short note from my friends at GaveKal (www.gavekal.com) in which they ask can the euro survive and if so, what will it look like? Very provocative, but in line with my thoughts that the euro will one day be once again at par against the dollar.

The last piece is a column by Wolfgang Munchau writing in today’s Financial Times. Munchau argues that the fact that EU member nations managed to survive their first series of bank failures does not mean it can afford to take the risk of defaulting to continued improvisation. Munchau comes out squarely in favor of a coordinated, funded rescue program. Again, thought provoking, and as I noted in this week’s letter, something that the US could face within a few weeks as well.

Fascinating markets and times we live in. Let’s hope for a rally tomorrow.

John Mauldin, Editor
Outside the Box

First, from Dennis Gartman:

The dollar and the Japanese yen reign absolutely supreme as the world continues the rush to exit from the EUR in whatever form it now holds them. Stock markets around the world are imploding it seems, and as they do, “risk” in any form is being unwound, forcing the Yen/EUR cross to move several “Big Figures” in the shortest span of time we have seen in our years of trading. Only in the “Russian/Emerging Markets Panic” in August of several years ago have we seen movements such as these. We stand in awe and we stand in fear.

Thus to begin, we say here this morning, mincing no words whatsoever, we are more frightened now for the future of the global capital markets than we have been at any time in our thirty+ years of watching, commenting upon and taking part in them. We are fearful… and we mean this fully… that we have passed the tipping point; that things are now spinning out of control; that forces have been unleashed that cannot be stopped without some truly massive, truly strong-handed, governmental action including the closure of markets and limits upon bank withdrawals, et al. These are troubling times, and our fear is palpable and growing. Worse, these concerns are giving rise to the likelihood that the Left shall be in ascension, and that manifestly left-of-centre, interventionist government lies ahead here in the US and in Europe. Higher, rather than lower taxes will be the end result. Greater… indeed very much greater… intervention in the capital markets lies ahead. Trade and act accordingly.

To put things into proper perspective, it is reasonable to see the Yen/EUR cross move within a 1 Yen range, high to low in any twenty four hour period of time. Beyond that, the situation becomes uncommon. 1.5 Yen movements, although not rare, are unusual, and 2 yen movements in the cross as “Black Swans” indeed. Now, it seems the world is filled with black swans, looking about for the few white ones that remain, for the Yen/EUR cross, having closed near 144.50:1 on Friday afternoon… which was already rather weak for the cross was trading 156 only a bit more than a week ago…is this morning trading 140.50!

We have long said that this cross relationship is the barometer of the relative health of the global capital markets, for over the course of the past several years as risk was embraced Mr. and Mrs. Watanabe would sell their Yen holdings and “swap” them for investments abroad that might return them more money. At the same time, foreign non-Japanese investors were very willing to borrow in Yen terms, take that low cost capital outside of Japan and invest elsewhere. This was the “Carry Trade” and it was one of the driving forced in the global capital market. Hedge funds around the world employed the “carry,” borrowing cheap Yen and investing into anything, anywhere around the world where the returns were larger. Once confidence began to ebb, however, and once the losses on the carry trade itself began to wane, the pressure upon those exposed grew.

Now, not only are those who borrowed Yen and bought EURs, or Aussie dollars, or Russian Rubles, or gold, or equities anywhere around the world, or debt securities of almost any kind, finding that they are losing money on the “cross” itself, they are losing more and vast sums on the investments they made. It is horror story writ large and getting larger.

Is there any fundamental investment reason to be bullish of the Japanese Yen? No there is not. The demographics of Japan are horrid as her population ages and begins to actually decline. We have written often of this demographic time-bomb that is exploding consistently over time in Japan. The country’s population is imploding and it continues to do so despite government policies aimed at changing that trend. However, once demographics as consequential as what is happening to Japan become entrenched, time… and very, very long periods of time,… decades certainly; centuries perhaps… are needed to reverse the course.

Thus, the only thing driving Yen higher is the panic liquidation of the “carry trade.” This unwinding has been going on for several months, having begun in earnest in July when the cross touched 170:1 ever-so-briefly. It took years to build the trade up as Yen was borrowed and the EUR bought since the turn of the Millennium. It may take months yet to unwind these years of accumulation. The process is not pretty. The damage wrought is enormous. The panic lies still ahead.

Moving on, the unwinding of the long EUR/short Yen cross is being made all the more dramatic as investors find reason to shun the EUR and investments in Europe generally as confusion regarding the EUR’s future has leaped dramatically to centre stage. As we pointed out last week, Dr. Milton Friedman once said regarding the EUR… in which he tended to have very little confidence…that he doubted it would last through its first real recession. His fears are being put to test today. The world is testing the very mettle of the European confederation experiment, and investors the world wide are watching to see just how well the officials in Brussels and Frankfurt can resolve their large and growing differences.

When the economic weather is mild, the “boat” that is a unified Europe runs pleasantly upon the water. The passengers may be a bit unruly, and they may argue amongst themselves, but their arguments rarely will tip the boat for at least the waters are calm. However, when the waters around the boat are riled, the least bit of unruly activity amongst the passengers is amplified and made serious. When the waters are riled, what would have passed for mere annoyance during periods of quiet become life-threatening instead. We are at that point.

The unravelling began last week when Ireland, fearful of a run on its capital markets, touched off by the frightening weakness of her stock market last Monday, moved to guarantee all deposits within the Irish banking system. The other nations of Europe, then fearful that capital would logically rush to Ireland to seek protection, said that Ireland’s decision was at best unwise, perhaps un-European and unconstitutional, and simply downright wrong. They protested. Frankfurt and Paris led the way. Mr. Trichet said that Ireland’s unilateral decision was wrong and that all decisions of this matter should be a pan-European decision, not a parochial one. Confusion, as we have always, said, breeds contempt, and with that confusion the EUR came under assault.

Matters have gotten worse… and indeed much, much worse over the weekend, for Germany, having taken Ireland to task only last week, moved to follow Ireland’s lead as Chancellor Merkel moved to guarantee all deposits in Germany. She really had no choice. Acting to stem these swift changes in the European banking landscape, the EU’s Competition Commissioner, Ms. Neelie Kroes, said that blanket guarantees on bank deposits by individual countries within the European Union shall be considered “discriminatory.” Mr. Kroes made her comments on Dutch television over the weekend.

Ms.Kroes said that Ireland is moving to change its deposit insurance plan so that it will conform with European rules, although we have not seen in what ways Dublin is moving… or even if Dublin IS moving at all. Were we Dublin, we’d not change, for our first responsibility is to the depositors in Ireland’s banks and to the Irish capital markets, not to depositors on the Continent. Ms. Kroes said that on television that

We are now in close contact. My people were in Dublin on Friday and Saturday and returned with reports that changes will be made…. A guarantee without limits is not allowed … [but we expect] that it will be brought into a form for which we can together state that it is in line with the treaty.

Germany disagrees with Ms. Kroes and Brussels, apparently, for a spokesperson for Germany’s Finance Ministry, Mr. Torsten Albig said over the weekend that “The state guarantees private deposits in Germany” while a second spokesman said the guarantee was and can be unlimited. Now that Ireland has moved in this fashion, and now that Germany has followed, Greece has said that it shall also. Others will follow, overwhelming Brussel’s ability to protest Ireland’s and Germany’s decisions, and thus forcing Ireland to take other actions to continue to draw capital to her. Ireland’s Finance Minister, Mr. Brian Lenihan, openly defended his government’s plan to guarantee the deposits and debts of six Irish-owned banks for the next two years and pointed to the panic felt by investors over Irish financial stocks this week. We can find no fault whatsoever with Mr. Lenihan’s position. Were we he, we’d do precisely the same thing… perhaps even a bit faster.

And from my friends at Gavekal:

Was it just ten days ago that Peer Steinbruck railed at the US for the banking crisis and mentioned that, because of the pneumonia in the US, Europe may well have to endure a cold? Ten days later, a cold seems like wishful thinking. Instead, it looks as if the US pneumonia is inflicting a serious case of tuberculosis across Europe!

In the past ten days, not only have we seen European governments forced to offer blanket guarantees for depositors in banks (e.g., Ireland, Greece…) but we have also witnessed a number of banks coming hat in hands to their respective governments (Hypo Real Estate, Glitnir, Fortis, Dexia, Bradford & Bingley…). Which of course begs the question of what the respective European governments can do? Some (Finland, Holland…) with overall low government debt and small budget deficits, can afford bank bail-outs. For others, whose economies may already be in a recession (e.g., Italy, Spain, Ireland…), financing large-scale bailouts may be more of a challenge. Which brings us back to a long-standing GaveKal theme, namely how the (no) Growth and Stagnation pact (see The European Divergence Trade)  hampers EU governments from taking necessary action in the face of a banking crisis. Worse yet, in Europe, investors simply have no idea who the lender of last resort is, or if there is one. And, as we are finding out, this question is no longer a rhetorical question. After all, if the numbers bandied about by Der Spiegel of a necessary €100bn to recapitalize Hypo Real Estate (and that is just one bank!) are even close to the mark, where will the money come from? As we see it, there are two possible options:

  • The first option is that the ECB prints money aggressively to finance a European-wide bank bailout. This could prove rather inflationary for the Old Continent as wages there tend to be very sticky. It would also entail an absolute collapse in the Euro.The second option would be for the ECB to tell the various European governments that the banking mess is their own problem, and that they have to deal with it. This would most likely entail a continued divergence in the yields at which European governments borrow (currently standing at post-Euro introduction record highs).
  • And this brings us back to a long- standing GaveKal theme: for the Euro to survive, either a) it will have to be a structurally weak currency or b) some of the weakest links (i.e.: Portugal? Italy? Greece? Spain?…) may end up being forced out. The path of least resistance is, of course, for the Euro to a structurally weak currency.

Which seems to be where we are heading. Indeed, despite the baffling decision by the ECB to maintain rates unchanged last Thursday, the Euro has been in a serious freefall against the US$, CHF, Yen, etc… Of course, this weakness could also be a sign that the ECB, with its stubborn unwillingness to adjust monetary policy in the face of rapidly changing events, has seriously undermined investor confidence in the Euro area. After all, 48 hours after the ECB board met, the rescue plans for both Hypo RE and Fortis were struggling. Surely, the ECB had to know that two major banks were in dire straits? Or was the ECB board drinking the same Kool-Aid as Peer Steinbruck?

However one cuts it, it is hard to escape the conclusion that Europe is not only experiencing its own credit crunch, but will experience a nasty recession. This recession will put most European government budgets into serious deficits; foreign investors may thus start to question the logic of owning the debt of governments whose balance sheets and income statements keep on deteriorating, and whose currency is free-falling? Milton Friedman once said that the Euro would likely not survive its first major “bump in the road”. We will soon find out. The great “European Divergence Trade” is no longer about theory; it is happening before our very eyes.


And from Wolfgang Munchau in today’s Financial Times:

This has been a week of self-congratulation in Europe. We have saved a handful of banks. We have, in effect, started to cut interest rates. We even had a summit of European leaders that produced warm words of solidarity. It looks as though the Europeans have reached substantive agreement that no systemically important bank should ever be allowed to fail….The rescue of Fortis and Dexia last week, two large, but not too large, cross-border European banks, should be seen as a sign that our emergency procedures are working. Look, they say, we met quickly and decided what needed to be decided. It was fast and unbureaucratic. We do not need a European rescue fund, let alone any new institutional set-up to deal with this, they say. We can do it ourselves.

I agree that the few ad hoc rescues have worked. But do not fool yourself. They worked because they were the first wave of rescues and because they involved banks such as Fortis – of just the right size, based in just the right small- to medium-sized country where political leaders are sufficiently rational not to hold each other to ransom as midnight approaches on Sunday.

But what if this had been a bank with a name of a large European country, or an acronym that refers to a large European city, banks that are simultaneously too big to fail and too big to save? I shudder to think what would happen when Silvio Berlusconi, Angela Merkel, Lech Kaczynski and the next Austrian leader have to meet to discuss the future of a large cross-border European bank.

What worked for banking rescues numbers one to five may not work for rescues number six to 50 – the estimated number of systemically important banks in Europe. And that number does not include some banks we have already rescued, which politicians judged to be important for their domestic banking system, like Germany’s IKB Bank, but with no European relevance whatsoever. We have been squandering money.

Nor does it include the likes of Hypo Real Estate, which is not even a bank at all….

The Europeans are of course right in their overall ambition not to allow systemically important banks to fail. They are also right in their scepticism about their ability to distinguish between illiquidity and insolvency during an emergency. But I fear we are still well short of a strategy. We might be lucky, and scrape through what could well become the most dangerous month of the crisis so far. If, for example, the credit default swap market were to blow up in the next couple of weeks – a non-trivial probability – we have no plan.

Nicolas Sarkozy, the French president, was therefore right when he appeared to back a €300bn rescue fund. Regular readers of this column will probably recall my somewhat constrained enthusiasm for his economic policies. But this had the makings of a good plan. He ended up distancing himself from it, when it became clear that Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, would not support it. But he was right and she was wrong. Of course, a European plan should not have been a copy of the bail-out that was finally adopted by Congress on Friday. The US plan failed to address the problem of an undercapitalised banking sector. That issue is even more important in Europe where many banks have an extremely weak capital base, with leverage ratios of 50 or more.

Europe does therefore not need any bail-out plan, but a plan that specifically addresses the capitalisation problem. Concretely, three things are needed: the first and most important is money. A sum of €300bn will not cover the EU in a worst-case scenario, but it is a sensible number to start with; secondly, you need a semi-permanent crisis committee empowered to take decisions; and finally you need a strategy to apply symmetrically and based on clear rules about when to recapitalise, and when not.

If you pursue a strategy of taking purely national decisions, you run the risk that at least one government will hit its own financial ceiling before this crisis is over, or that decisions have negative spillovers on the banking systems of other countries. Moreover, you end up with a beggar-thy-neighbour regulatory race, as we saw last week when Ireland and Greece unilaterally issued blanket guarantees for large parts of their banking sector. Last night, Germany was preparing a full deposit guarantee for its own banking system. Last but not least is the risk of violent political setback against a process that lacks transparency.

For Europe, this is more than just a banking crisis. Unlike in the US, it could develop into a monetary regime crisis. A systemic banking crisis is one of those few conceivable shocks with the potential to destroy Europe’s monetary union. The enthusiasm for creating a single currency was unfortunately never matched by an equal enthusiasm to provide the correspondingly effective institutions to handle financial crises. Most of the time, it does not matter. But it matters now. For that reason alone, the case for a European rescue plan is overwhelming.