The Great Debate UK
–Darren Williams is European Economist at AllianceBernstein. The opinions expressed are his own.–
Cyclical indicators have improved, but the economic and financial backdrop in the euro area remains fragile. The ECB has clearly learned from past mistakes and is keen to avoid a premature tightening of monetary conditions.
Recent survey data suggest that business conditions in the euro-area economy are starting to improve after a steep contraction at the end of 2012. In January, the composite Purchasing Managers’ Index (PMI) for manufacturing and services rose by over one point to 48.6, the highest reading for 10 months. This and other recent data are broadly consistent with our central forecast, which is for a stabilization of the euro area economy in the early part of 2013, followed by a modest recovery thereafter. But there are also a number of reasons for caution.
First, there is an unusually wide divergence in the PMI data between Germany, which appears to be recovering strongly, and France, which seems to be headed for deep recession. The unprecedented size of this gap suggests that the signal from survey data may not be as robust as usual. Second, recent unsettling political developments in Italy and Spain mean that we should not yet rule out a return of financial-market stress. Third, there is still no evidence that the improvement in financial conditions is feeding through to an increase in credit availability. Fourth, the appreciation of the euro represents an important headwind which, if extended, could choke off the nascent recovery.
from The Great Debate:
Four years ago world leaders, meeting in the G20 crisis session, agreed they would all work to move from recession to growth and prosperity. They agreed to a global growth compact to be delivered by combining national growth targets with coordinated global interventions. It didn’t happen. After the $1 trillion stimulus of 2009, fiscal consolidation became the established order of the day, and so year after year millions have continued to endure unemployment and lower living standards.
Only now are there signs that the long-overdue shift in national macro-economic policies may be taking place. The new Japanese government is backing up a "minimum inflation target" with a multi-billion-dollar stimulus designed to create 600,000 jobs. In what some call the “reverse Volcker moment,” Ben Bernanke has become the first head of a central bank for decades to announce he will target a 6 percent level of unemployment alongside his inflation objective. And the new governor of the Bank of England, Mark Carney, has told us that "when policy rates are stuck at the zero lower bound, there could not be a more favorable case for Nominal GDP targeting.” Side by side with this shift in policy, in every area but the Euro, there is also policy progress in China. It may look from the outside as if November’s Communist Party Congress simply re-announced their all-too-familiar but undelivered wish to re-balance the economy from exports to domestic consumption, but this time the promise has been accompanied by a time-specific commitment: to double average domestic income per head by 2020.
from Hugo Dixon:
Investors have been obsessed with the notion of “Grexit” - Greece’s exit from the euro. But “Brexit” - Britain’s exit from the European Union - is as likely if not more so. The country has never been at ease with its EU membership. It refused to join its predecessor, the European Economic Community, in 1957; it was then blocked twice from becoming a member by France’s Charles De Gaulle in 1960s; and shortly after it finally entered in 1973, it had a referendum on whether to stay.
The euro crisis has put further pressure on this difficult relationship. David Cameron’s Conservative Party, the governing coalition’s dominant group, delights in pointing out the flaws in the single currency. The party’s eurosceptics feel vindicated because they have long believed that monetary union was only possible with political union.
from The Great Debate:
(The views expressed by former British prime minister Gordon Brown are the author's own and not those of Reuters)
The good news is that Europe is no longer going the way of Greece. The sad news is that it is threatening to go the way of Japan.
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.
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.