I went to Geneva one last time before leaving Europe for the holidays. I took the remarkably quiet Swiss train to the central station and then walked downtown. It was a stormy evening and strong wind was blowing down the Boulevard Mont Blanc.
It was getting late, but the traffic was still heavy with screaming Ferraris and booming Bentleys, stopping and going.
A Romani woman was sitting on the sidewalk beside the entrance to the Kempinski Hotel, in the warm lights and under a brightly lit display of expensive Panerai watches. When I came closer, I realized that she was quite young, in her twenties still. She was wrapped up in warm blankets and looking at me with eyes black and deep like a diamond mine.
“Un dollar pour dire votre avenir,” she said. A dollar to tell your future.
I stopped, surprised. “How did you know that I am not from here? I don’t think I ever saw you here before.”
Her dark eyes closed for a moment. “Le plus important dans la vie est invisible,” she said with a strange accent, difficult to place. The most important in life is invisible.
Then she extended her left hand, smooth and delicate, with an ancient tattoo that was disappearing under the sleeve. I gave her a ten-dollar bill, and she took it and hid it under the blanket.
“So what is in my future?” I asked. “Now I need something back from you.”
She was quiet for a long while, looking at the dark waters across the street, and I started losing interest in the answer. The woman’s piercing black eyes were now remote, as if in a different world.
I started walking away when she said it. “Ta vie va encore changer.” Your life is about to change again.
Strangely, given the time and place, it didn’t surprise me.
“No, that’s over. I settled down here for good.”
“C’est ce que vous pensez,” she said. That’s what you think.
I was walking away when she spoke again. “Attention à vous, Mister Generous.” Be careful.
“Just tonight, or all the time?”
The voice was now very faint and far behind me, lost in the blowing wind and the traffic noise of the city. And I wasn’t even sure what it was that she said at the end.
And she said, “Tous les deux.” Both.
The next day I took a flight from Frankfurt and landed in Toronto on a crisp, sunny afternoon. As I was leaving Europe, it felt like it’s the 1848 Spring of Nations again. There are now millions of people across the continent who want to re-establish the ideals of nationhood, of national sovereignty and popular democracy, against what might be viewed as the neo-monarchical structures of 21st-century technocracy. The sustained gilets jaune revolts in France capture this mood well. In recent weeks protesters in Belgium have tried to storm the European Commission – an event, which got little media coverage – while yellow vests in the Netherlands have called for a referendum on EU membership and in Italy they have gathered to express support for their Eurosceptic government. Interesting times, these.
At the airport in Toronto, I was waiting for my luggage at the carousel when my phone rang and a voice from far away made me a proposition that will be difficult to refuse.
“This witchy woman,” I thought about the lady in Geneva, “how did she know?”
Later, it took almost an hour drive from the airport, and there I was. The warm and comfortable house set against rolling hills of the Oak Ridges moraine on the north edge of Toronto looked better than ever.
I was home for Christmas.
I was sitting comfortably in a slick new A350 flying across the world with a speed exceeding 1000 km/h at times, reading material that I downloaded in the airport lounge. It was mostly about the sad Brexit saga, which highlights the lack of leadership in a once great country. The so-called “exit negotiations” have turned into a spectacle of public humiliation for Britain.
Nelson would have been furious. Churchill would have snowballed into a spitting rage. Thatcher would have coiled to launch a counter attack.
Those were the days.
Today, premier Theresa May is making conscious efforts, the paper says, traveling to Brussels for talks but looking like a tortured person. Perhaps Britain should hire Donald Trump to run the negotiations; he would give the unelected bureaucrats in Brussels a run for the money. And fast.
It is not difficult to see that the EU needs Britain more than the Britain needs the EU. It’s a big market, biggest one for German cars in Europe, for example. It has the strongest and most battle hardened military, with natural ties to the US and the biggest financial center in Europe. It will do fine making decisions on its own.
It is ironic, that the EU, built on the promise of universal liberal values, is teetering on the verge of collapse due to the difficulties of integration. And maybe this is the last moment for Britain to leave the union before economic issues really explode. They have been “papered over” by the European Central Bank purchases of government and corporate paper. The ECB now owns 40% of investment grade debt in Europe including that of stock listed corporations, so basically they are the market.
With the Federal Reserve unwinding the Quantitative Easing and rising interest rates how long will the ECB be able to do the opposite? The giant sucking sound you hear is the capital flight from Europe. For the ECB the problem is that if they stop, or even slow down the purchases, where will the bid come from? This is the reason why it is illegal to short government bonds in Europe.
What many don’t realize is that the European Central Bank can actually go bankrupt. In contrast to the US Fed, they can’t create elastic money as needed because Germany would never allow it. They have limits set by political powers. If there is no longer a political will to create more money, then watch out below. Central banks are not all created equal, but they all share the same flaw that feeds separatist movements worldwide. They were created with the good intention to micromanage, but morphed into something really counterproductive. My home country Canada is a good example.
The separatist movements in the province of Alberta claim that the Bank of Canada manages the economy in response to stock market trends and real estate speculation in Toronto and Vancouver, but the commodity producers in central Canada are on the opposite side of the economic cycle. High commodity prices are bad for stocks and vice versa. There is lots of merit to that - in the US they call it the Houston-New York arbitrage, meaning that high oil prices are good for Texans but bad for Wall Street stock peddlers. The Federal Reserve System was originally set up in 12 regional branches, each managing interest levels independently. This set up is long gone and doesn’t exist anywhere in the developed world.
Among the options for the Brexit resolution next year is a repeat of the vote, which will be a mockery of the democratic process. Angry reactions from the Brits may be damaging.
This is not the time of the year when Europe is at its best weather-wise.
Today the evening is cold, rainy and the wind is picking up.
The political events out there have developed a new dynamic too – it’s not just the Italian budget debacle anymore. After president Macron made financial concessions to the yellow-jacketed protesters, the French budget deficit is projected to look no better than the Italian one.
Even in Germany, chancellor Merkel had to blink and allow for the shotgun wedding of Commerzbank and the troubled Deutsche Bank. Let’s stop on the latter for a moment, because it’s an interesting story on its own.
Deutsche Bank is in crisis and everyone has known that – its stock lost more than half its value in 2018 alone. This biggest European bank is in the news a lot and never in a good way - the list of criminal charges against it reads like a crime novel and the bank spends a fortune in fines and settlement.
Its derivative exposure is huge, and it is hard to quantify what is the real net bottom line, but it could well be more than 10 times the Gross Domestic Product of all Germany.
It doesn’t help the situation that the bank’s leadership is a revolving a door - it went through four CEO’s in as many years to the point that is not clear who is actually running that place.
While all this is not unusual among world biggest banks (just look at HSBC, Wells Fargo, or, for a real eye opener, at Goldman Sachs), DB seems to suffer the most. It could be that their derivatives exposure is the source of this downfall, but for a different reason than most think.
These derivatives are delicate credit instruments held in tens of trillions of dollars by major banks around the world, but it’s never clear who is on the other side of the trade. There must be a big player backing it up and it must be default free, at least for a moment. And there is only one player that fits that definition – the US Treasury, more specifically it’s Exchange Stabilization Fund.
So, how this is causing Deutsche Bank trouble? It appears that through its derivative exposure Deutsche Bank helped manipulate interest rates and propped the US dollar.
Throw in the mix the rising tensions between Germany and the US, and the bank’s situation looks terrible politically.
Enter BaFin, the German fiercely independent financial supervisory authority that appears to be calling the shots at Deutsche Bank for a while now. Specifically, it is forcing them to liquidate exposure to dollar credit swaps.
In May of this year the bank stunned the markets by suffering a staggering one-day loss that was almost 12 x VaR (value at risk), or 12 times what DB's risk officers have estimated it might lose on a typical day. And these guys are not incompetent. The only explanation is that they were forced by BaFin to close some positions in the marketplace.
The US Fed isn’t, of course, taking it on the chin with his hands down, they’re punching back like mad, prosecuting DB, damaging them publicly and forcing the bank out of lucrative markets like precious metal trading.
In a related example of the US and Germany exchanging punches, the VW concern recently built an engine plant in Russia, in Kaluga. Clearly against US interest, who want to put Russia in an economic penalty box.
The plant opened on Sept. 4th, 2015, after it took three years to finish.
On September 18th, 2015 the US Environmental Protection Agency served a Notice of Violation (NOV) to Volkswagen for emission problems and the rest is history.
And all this could be a coincidence, of course. Or my mind wandering on a cold December night.
In the movie “The Counselor” Brad Pitt says this about some serious people he deals with south of the border: “you know, they heard about coincidences, they just never saw one.”
Could be a good advice.
The title comes from a song by Gary Moore that was a hit in 1979, but was really based on the jazz standard “Blue Bossa” by Kenny Dorham, an American jazz trumpeter who never received the attention or fame he deserved.
This happens a lot in life but it’s hard to know in the real time what's important, to be fair.
The austerity measures of the EU are having a profound impact in Europe. The proof is in the news - in Paris on December 1st there was a major civil uprising, the worst France has seen in decades. Jeanne d’Hauteserre, the mayor of Paris’ 8th district, near the Arc de Triomphe told the press: “We are in a state of insurrection, I’ve never seen anything like it.” We can easily be witnessing the start of the next French Revolution and there is no solution in sight.
Still, president Macron is unrepentant and unyielding. He said he would not change his policy because of the protests of “thugs”.
By making this statement he follows the French history of misunderstanding major events, which is no different from what Marie Antoinette did.
She said back in the days of Revolution “Let them eat cake”.
It’s is not clear what she really meant – eat cake instead of bread, or crumbles from the crust of the pâté, but her words inspired a revolution nevertheless.
It is simply a wrong thing to tell people in the heat of the battle.
Revolutions always and everywhere start because of excessive oppression or excessive taxation, but those in power do their best not to understand it. To be fair, it’s very difficult to make a person understand something if her/his salary depends on them not understanding it.
And revolutions take time to clean up after - Vienna conference was called to clean up the mess in Europe after Napoleon, who was a product of the French Revolution. Another upheaval of this kind happened in Russia and it took almost a century to contain.
A brutal world war too.
Still, I have this respect for Napoleon Bonaparte, and I can’t finish without saying something about him.
He was a guy’s guy. During his wars he was right there in trenches with his soldiers, dirty with mud and smelling of gunpowder. You don’t get this type of behavior from Pentagon officials these days and it makes a huge difference.
He married Josephine de Beauharnais known as Rose, a name that he disliked. He called her "Joséphine" instead. I like that too. He divorced her eventually, so he could remarry in search of an heir. But he showed his dedication to her for the rest of his life. After they split, Napoleon was never the same - he developed health problems, gained weight. During the battle of Waterloo stomach pains paralyzed him. And then he lost everything, tough for a guy who never knew when to quit, when to stop, or when to say die.
Living his last days on the far island must have been a torture and I think he just wanted to be back with her. I think she did too because he was a unique man and they made a unique couple.
All his life standing on the ledge showing the wind how to fly. Both of them.
This is the thing about the revolutionaries – you can’t help but have a respect.
Tom Kubiak is the author of The Traveler