The Great Debate UK

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.

When I attended the first ever meeting of the euro group of leaders in October 2008 there was astonishment when I reported that Europe's banks had bought half America’s subprime mortgages and there was incredulity when I said that European banks were far more at risk than U.S. banks because they were far more highly leveraged. Since 2008, as American banks have tackled their toxic assets, they have written off 4 percent of their loans and raised the equivalent of another 4 percent in new equity.  But euro area banks have written off just 1 percent of their loans, and have raised their capital base by only 0.7 percent, leaving them highly vulnerable even before their exposure to sovereign debt has become a central issue.  Their vulnerability is increased because they have always been far more dependent for their funding on the short term and confidence-dependent wholesale markets, and  countries within the euro zone are able to do far less in the face of capital flight than, say, Britain.

Of course in 2008, governments could fund the rescue of indebted banks; in 2011, indebted governments are finding that more difficult. For they know that even after they recapitalize the banks, they have still to deal with the even bigger financial problem of funding the borrowing needs of the most at-risk countries: Greece, Ireland, Spain Portugal and Italy, which could cost as much as $2 trillion in the years to 2014.

Salvation through inflation: The British way out

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By Laurence Copeland. The opinions expressed are his own.

Accusing policymakers of acting out of sheer desperation is a pretty standard jibe by critics trying to put them off their stride.

Unfortunately, the latest round of QE came wrapped in comments from the Governor of the Bank of England which amounted, more or less, to saying: “Look! I’m staying calm – but it’s taking a hell of an effort, believe me!”

The euro zone marriage is over

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By Laurence Copeland. The opinions expressed are his own.

Under the Arc de Triomphe, tourists can gaze up at the engraved list of Napoleon’s great victories: Austerlitz, Jena, Wagram… Perhaps a similar triumphal arch should be built in Brussels to commemorate the string of victories won by a tiny band of heroic Eurocrats over the mass of their combined electorates: Rome, Maastricht, Lisbon, Wroclaw, and now Berlin, where, to nobody’s surprise, the integrationists in the Bundestag have easily seen off the opposition to their plan to bolster the EFSF. Cue the now-familiar backslapping in Europe after each of their knife-edge victories over the forces of democracy.

The starting point for these Eurocrats/integrationists is that the popular will is simply an obstacle on the road to the ultimate destination of a United States of Europe. Whenever they encounter one of these inconvenient roadblocks, they fume, argue among themselves about the merits of alternative routes until they finally swerve triumphantly round the obstacle, congratulating each other for their ingenuity and skill.

Has Ireland de-coupled from the periphery?

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By Kathleen Brooks. The opinions expressed are her own.

Ireland is on a wave. After a bad patch and a massive loss of confidence eventually it looks like it has turned a corner and we can start to believe that there may be brighter times ahead. Of course, I could be talking about the Irish rugby team who had a stunning win over Australia at the rugby World Cup in New Zealand. But the economy isn’t doing too badly either.

Data last week showed that the economy grew by a respectable 1.6 percent in the second quarter, after expanding by an even better 1.9 percent in the first three months of this year. This beats the dismal growth rates in the UK and the euro zone, which both came in at 0.2 percent in the three months to June.

from The Great Debate:

Europe’s Lehman moment

By Jeffry A. Frieden
The opinions expressed are his own.

Europe is in the midst of its variant of the great debt crisis that hit the United States in 2008. Fears abound that if things go wrong, the continent will face its own “Lehman moment” – a recurrence of the sheer panic that hit American and world markets after the collapse of Lehman Brothers in October 2008. How did Europe arrive at this dire strait? What are its options? What is likely to happen?

Europe is retracing steps Americans took a couple of years ago. Between 2001 and 2007 the United States went on a consumption spree, and financed it by borrowing trillions of dollars from abroad. Some of the money went to cover a Federal fiscal deficit that developed after the Bush tax cuts of 2001 and 2003; much of it went to fund a boom in the country’s housing market. Eventually the boom became a bubble and the bubble burst; when it did, it brought down the nation’s major financial institutions – and very nearly the rest of the world economy. The United States is now left to pick up the pieces in the aftermath of its own debt crisis.

from The Great Debate:

Does the euro have a future?

By George Soros
The opinions expressed are his own.

The euro crisis is a direct consequence of the crash of 2008. When Lehman Brothers failed, the entire financial system started to collapse and had to be put on artificial life support. This took the form of substituting the sovereign credit of governments for the bank and other credit that had collapsed. At a memorable meeting of European finance ministers in November 2008, they guaranteed that no other financial institutions that are important to the workings of the financial system would be allowed to fail, and their example was followed by the United States.

Angela Merkel then declared that the guarantee should be exercised by each European state individually, not by the European Union or the eurozone acting as a whole. This sowed the seeds of the euro crisis because it revealed and activated a hidden weakness in the construction of the euro: the lack of a common treasury. The crisis itself erupted more than a year later, in 2010.

A make-or-break month for the euro zone

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By Kathleen Brooks. The opinions expressed are her own.

For over a year now people have been calling for the collapse of the euro zone. Either one of the bailed out nations would leave, or the more fiscally sound northern European states would form their own version of a union. Regardless of what the outcome would be, the harsh reality was that the Eurozone’s massive floor -  allowing countries like Greece to borrow for nearly a decade at German-style interest rates without some limit on spending or enforcement of fiscal rules – meant that it could not survive.

But after 18 months of stop gap solutions, emergency weekend summits and hastily constructed bailout plans it feels more and more like September may be the swan song for the currency bloc.

Germany at the crossroads

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By Laurence Copeland. The opinions expressed are his own.

Baby-boomers like me, who grew up in the shadow of World War II, have to acknowledge with gratitude that the Germany which again dominates Europe is in most respects a model democracy – multiracial, prosperous and contented. However, there is one worrying aspect of the German mentality which seems to have survived intact from its unhappy history, and it is an aspect which is likely to be tested to the full in the coming weeks and months.

From the moment when the Maastricht Treaty was dreamed up in the early 1990s to the inception of the euro zone in 1998, Germany had any number of opportunities to kill the project off and indeed, time and again, policymakers in Bonn or Berlin or Frankfurt voiced their reservations in public. The Bundesbank, in particular, with its overwhelming prestige, spoke out forcefully against what it saw as the dangers of premature monetary union.

What message is the CDS market sending us?

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By Laurence Copeland. The opinions expressed are his own.

Not many people seem to have noticed, but something almost unthinkable has happened in the Credit Default Swap (CDS) market recently. It is now one point cheaper to insure against a default by Her Majesty’s Government than by the Federal Republic of Germany. Given that only a few months ago, Markit was quoting twice as much to insure against a default on gilts as on bunds, this is a major change – but what is it telling us?

The message is unclear, but my guess is it is not quite the one which Britain’s Chancellor, quite reasonably from his point of view, would have us believe. Yes, the market has faith in our ability and willingness to repay – but that is far from the whole story.

Could Europe be on the cusp of a Lehman moment?

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By Kathleen Brooks. The opinions expressed are her own.

The euro zone debt crisis has now spread from the sovereigns – after the ECB came in and purchased Italian and Spanish debt – to the banking sector. Although the EU authorities put in place a short-selling ban, which has another week to run, the banking sector is back at the pre-ban levels or in some cases even lower.

Europe’s banks are by and large less capitalised than their U.S. peers. They are also exposed to Europe’s sovereign debt and European loan books. Even if a member state manages to avoid a default, growth is now slowing and we could be in line for another recession that would most likely increase bad debts and further erode banks’ profits.

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