The Great Debate UK

Hungary: The Greece of Eastern Europe

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By Kathleen Brooks. The opinions expressed are her own.

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.

But while there are many similarities, the reasons for the panic in Hungary’s debt markets are different from Greece’s problems. Athens borrowed too much and public spending spiralled out of control. However, Hungary’s problems were not based on the size of its budget deficit, which was a fairly manageable 4.2 percent of GDP at the end of 2010, but the amount of debt in its public and private sector that was denominated in foreign-currency.

While the post-Communist era in Hungary helped to modernise the state, its capital markets did not keep up to date. Borrowing costs were lower in the euro zone and other parts of Europe where banks were willing to lend relatively cheaply across the Eastern European bloc, especially to Hungary. While the Hungarian forint was strong it was fine to have liabilities in euro and Swiss franc, however, since the start of 2011 the forint has deteriorated at a rapid pace. Since August alone the forint has lost more than 17 percent of its value against the euro.

from The Great Debate:

The abyss and our last chance

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.

The euro is on life support, and the on-off switch is in Frankfurt

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.

Belgium: A role model for the rest of Europe?

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By Mark Hillary. The opinions expressed are his own.

In addition to the economic meltdown, there is another political story in Europe at present – Belgium.

I’m not referring to the recent release of Steven Spielberg’s ‘Adventures of Tintin’ movie – though it might be argued that Captain Haddock bears a passing resemblance to several much-missed British political figures, thanks to the trademark slur.

from Bethany McLean:

The euro zone’s self-inflicted killer

By Bethany McLean
The opinions expressed are her own.

There were a lot of things that were supposed to save Europe from potential financial Armageddon. Chief among them is the EFSF, or European Financial Stability Facility.

In the spring of 2010, European finance ministers announced the facility’s formation with great fanfare. In its inaugural report, Standard & Poor's described the EFSF as the “cornerstone of the EU’s strategy to restore financial stability to the euro zone  sovereign debt market.”  The facility itself said in an October 2011 date presentation that its mission is to “safeguard financial stability in Europe.”

Put the euro zone out of its misery

By Laurence Copeland. The author is a professor of finance at Cardiff University Business School. The opinions expressed are his own.

Let me make a wild guess – just a hunch, a vague feeling, the kind you get when you hear a football club chairman say “the manager has my full support”. My forecast is that the IMF monitors currently poring over the Italian government’s books will uncover a black hole somewhere, probably one big enough to swallow the euro zone, and the discovery will leave them as shocked as Captain Renault when he found there was gambling going on at Rick’s Bar in Casablanca.

from Hugo Dixon:

Chaotic catharsis

Chaos, drama and crisis are all Greek words. So is catharsis. Europe is perched between chaos and catharsis, as the political dramas in Athens and Rome reach crisis point. One path leads to destruction; the other rebirth. Though there are signs of hope, a few more missteps will lead down into the chasm.

The dramas in the two cradles of European civilization are similar and, in bizarre ways, linked. Last week's decision by George Papandreou to call a referendum on whether the Greeks were in favor of the country's latest bailout program set off a chain reaction that is bringing down not only his government but probably that of Silvio Berlusconi too.

Capitalism and democracy under threat from euro zone crisis

By Laurence Copeland. The author is a professor of finance at Cardiff University Business School. The opinions expressed are his own.

It takes quite a lot to make me feel sorry for politicians, especially the European variety, but I must say that Nicholas Sarkozy and particularly Angela Merkel have a right to be livid at the news that the Greek government now proposes to hold a referendum on whether they will agree to be given another gigantic dollop of aid. Having only reached agreement (of a very vague kind) at last week’s summit in the early hours of the morning, you can imagine how the French and German leaders must have felt when they discovered that their marathon negotiating sessions may all have been in vain. It seems the Greeks are now too wary of foreigners bearing gifts to accept their largesse without weeks or months of prior deliberation and debate.

from The Great Debate:

The perils of protectionism

By Gordon Brown
The views expressed are his own.

Next week's 2011 G20 meeting has the power to write a new chapter in the response to the economic downturn. But every day, as nations announce currency controls, capital controls, new tariffs and other protectionist measures, the G2O’s room for maneuver is being significantly narrowed. Already the cumulative impact of a wave of mercantilist measures is threatening to turn decades of globalization into reverse, returning us to the economic history of the 1930s, and condemning at least the western parts of the world to a decade of low growth and high unemployment.

Three years ago when the financial crisis first hit, the G2O communiqués were explicit in warning of the dangers of a new protectionism. Led by the head of the World Trade Organization (WTO), Pascal Lamy, we embarked on a forlorn attempt to use the crisis to deliver a world trade deal -- and were frustrated by an irresoluble dispute on agricultural imports between two countries, India and the USA. But now, in the absence of any co-ordinated global action, member countries have been retreating into their national silos -- and the trickle of protectionist announcements threatens to become a flood. Switzerland led costly action to protect its overvalued currency and has been followed by currency interventions in Japan (with perhaps more to come), India, Indonesia, and South Korea. Brazil, which had itself warned of currency wars, then imposed direct tariffs on manufactured imports -- a hefty car tax designed to protect its own native auto industry against emerging market imports. Other countries are now considering mimicking them. Capital controls are also now in vogue, and of course the U.S. Senate has just voted to label China a “currency manipulator.”

from The Great Debate:

How Europe can stave off a crisis

By Gordon Brown
The views expressed are his own.

It was said of European monarchs of a century ago that they learned nothing and forgot nothing.  For three years, as a Greek debt problem has morphed into a full blown euro area crisis, European leaders  have been behind the curve, consistently repeating the same mistake of doing too little too late. But when they meet on Sunday, the time for small measures is over. As the G20 found when it met in London at the height of the  2009 crisis, only a demonstration of policy intent that shows irresistible force will persuade the markets that leaders will do what it takes. An announcement on a new Greek package will not be enough. Nor will it be sufficient to recapitalize the banks. European leaders will have to announce a comprehensive -- around 2 trillion euro -- finance facility; set out a plan to fundamentally reform the euro; and work with the G20 to agree on a coordinated plan for growth.

For three years it has suited leaders across Europe to disguise Europe’s banking problems and, citing the blatant profligacy of Greece, they have defined the European problem as simply a public sector debt problem. And it has suited Europe’s leaders to call for austerity (and if that fails, more austerity) and forget how the inflexibility of the euro is itself dampening prospects for growth, keeping unemployment unacceptably high and weakening Europe’s competitive position in the world today. Indeed, Europe’s share of world output has now fallen to just 18 percent.  And it is a measure of how it is losing out in the growth markets of the future that just 7.5 percent of Europe’s exports go to the emerging markets that are responsible for 70 percent of the world’s growth.

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