The Great Debate UK
from The Great Debate:
The European crisis is no longer a European crisis. It is now everyone's. Unless Monday’s G20 summit in Mexico coordinates a concerted global action plan right now, we face a global slowdown that will also have a deep impact on the U.S. presidential election and even on China’s transition to a new leadership. This is the last chance.
The standard, but often empty, language of summit communiqués will simply not do when the euro area is finally approaching its own day of reckoning. Whichever way the Greeks vote in Sunday's election, a chaotic exit from the euro is becoming more likely: Its tax revenues are collapsing, not rising as promised. Unable to regain access to markets, Portugal and Ireland will soon have to ask for their second IMF programs. Sadly Italy – and potentially even France – may soon follow Spain in needing finance as the European recession deepens. Even German banks, which are some of the most highly leveraged, are not immune from needing more capital.
At G8 and G20 summits, world leaders have tended to be mere spectators as Europe has gone from one failed intervention to another. Now they must move decisively as they did in 2009. They must not leave Mexico without agreeing to support a big European firewall to stop contagion. And they must construct a global growth initiative for East and West.
For four years now Europe's one-dimensional obsession with public debt meant it took its eyes off the seismic tremors in banking and quite failed to grasp the underlying structural problem: how to achieve growth within the current euro. In the four years since American and British banks recapitalized, added capital (around 4 percent more) and wrote off bad debts (an equivalent 4 percent write-off), Europe has vacillated. Its euro-area bank recap added only half a percent of new bank equity – and an even smaller write-off of toxic debts. Now, we must look for a bank recapitalization of anything between 200 billion and 500 billion euros.
The upcoming elections in Greece have gained added significance in recent weeks. It’s not just the Greek people choosing their next leader; it is also being presented as a referendum on euro membership. Either vote for a pro-bailout party and stay in the euro zone or vote anti-austerity and you’re out. But is the outcome of the vote really that clear cut? Although three quarters of Greeks want to remain in the euro zone, 80 percent want the terms of their second bailout to be re-negotiated. The elections might not be such a foregone conclusion after all.
It’s worth looking at the two potential “choices” currently being presented to the Greek people. If they choose a “pro-bailout” party that doesn’t mean that champagne corks will be popped in Berlin. Those in power in Athens need to answer to the electorate who will have given them a mandate to challenge Germany and its insistence on tough fiscal reform in return for bailout cash. So if Europe’s authorities think that the election of New Democracy (one of the parties who pledged to stick to fiscal reform post the election) is enough to keep Greece on the fiscal straight and narrow, think again.
from The Great Debate:
If the euro really is on the verge of collapse, as many pundits are now proclaiming, how come it is still so highly valued against other currencies, including the U.S. dollar?
That may sound like a crazy question, given the euro’s much-publicized decline over the past couple of weeks. It has been dropping as the possibility grows that Greece may seek to pull out of the 17-nation currency union following parliamentary elections there in mid-June. That scenario of a “Grexit” has spooked financial markets and pushed governments and business around Europe to draw up contingency plans.
The Law of Diminishing Returns states that a continuing push towards a given goal tends to decline in effectiveness after a certain amount of effort has been expended. If this weren't the case, Usain Bolt would be able to run the mile in less than 2-1/2 minutes.
From an economic standpoint, this law now seems to be fully in force in Greece. The latest jobs figures from the twice-bailed out euro zone country paint a bleak numerical picture of the impact of unrelenting austerity in ordinary Greeks, regardless of whether it was self-inflicted or not. To wit:
Last November, at the time of the Chancellor of the Exchequer’s Autumn Statement, the two men in charge of our fiscal and monetary policy together delivered the gloomiest peacetime message in our history. Those of us who have been pessimistic all along were totally outflanked.
The governor of the Bank of England was absolutely right to decry the sudden vogue for technocracy. As he says, the problems in Europe are not fundamentally about a shortage of liquidity, as many commentators suggest and as politicians are only too happy to agree. They are at root about solvency, about the ability and the willingness of countries like Greece to pay their debts, and as such they are political problems which require political solutions. It is simply wishful thinking to imagine that an economics PhD somehow provides access to the secret of how to balance the books of a society which has long been living beyond its means, as have the majority of euro zone members. If it is hard for a Government with a sound electoral mandate to deliver painful medicine, it is likely to be even harder for one with no mandate at all.
When the Greek crisis began, there was much talk of contagion as the greatest short-term risk. In my view, this worry is almost irrelevant because bondholders are in any case facing a haircut of over 70%, so the question of default or bailout is now merely a technical detail.
From a longer term perspective, there is also little reason for the Germans to panic over a Greek default, even if it ultimately leads to the disintegration of the euro zone. The line peddled by a number of commentators and politicians that Germany has “done very well out of the euro zone” begs the question of how well it would have done without the euro zone, a question to which I do not know the answer – but nor does anyone else.
The pictures from Athens at the weekend showed a city in turmoil: protests turned violent, buildings were alight and an anti-German feeling was clear for all to see. German flags have been burnt as Greek politicians have agreed to yet more austerity, which means reduced pensions, a 20% cut to the minimum wage and mass layoffs in the public sector.
Added to that the EU has demanded that Greek politicians from both sides of the political aisle sign a pledge to implement cuts regardless of the outcome of the general election scheduled for April. Thus, even if the Greek people vote for an alternative to cuts the troika will insist on them.
It used to be Greece that was the canary in the coal mine, these days it’s Hungary. The new year got off to a bad start for the Eastern European nation after it experienced a failed bond auction, causing its bond yields to surge.
This caused major jitters across global financial markets and once again a small, relatively unknown economy is dominating the headlines and causing a massive headache for the European authorities.
from The Great Debate:
By Carlo De Benedetti
The opinions expressed are his own.
In a magnificent book published a few years ago Cormac McCarthy imagines a man and a child, father and son, pushing a shopping cart containing what little they have left, along a back road somewhere in America. Ten years earlier the world was destroyed by a nameless catastrophe that turned it into a dark, cold place without life.
There is no history and there is no future. But there is an objective: to head south toward the sea. Mythical places, only vaguely perceived, where there might be salvation. The father is getting older and is ever more weary. But he has the child with him. And he has his objective. He wants to take him southward to the sea. Toward a future that may still be possible.
By Laurence Copeland. The opinions expressed are his own.
The short term solution to the problem of how to manage the euro zone crisis may now be right there in front of us. The central issue, as far as Germany is concerned at least, is how to reconcile bailing out the other member countries with keeping up the pressure on them to put their fiscal house in order. Quietly, without any official recognition of the fact, the ECB has taken charge of the situation and is now effectively running fiscal policy for most of the euro zone by simply buying enough Greek, Italian, Spanish and maybe French bonds to keep yields from going too high, but not buying so many as to reduce yields to anything like comfortable levels.
Moreover, treasury officials in every country will be only too well aware that what the ECB giveth, the ECB can take away. Any relaxation in austerity regimes can always be countered by an end to ECB purchases or even by ECB sales in the secondary market, driving yields back up in the space of a few minutes to 7%, 8% and beyond. In short, most of the euro zone members are now on a life support machine, and the on-off switch is in Frankfurt.