The Great Debate UK
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.
The trouble is that this game gets more dangerous at each stage. In the present case, it is reported that three out of four German voters is opposed to supporting Greece and co., and they’ve not even started paying for it yet. Moreover, it is not as though the largesse is going to create a reservoir of gratitude alongside the Mediterranean – far from it. Judging by reactions in Greece, the outcome will be a legacy of bitterness for decades to come.
It is important to realise that arguments about the cost of saving the euro zone are ultimately sterile, because under current conditions there is no limit to the commitment that the Germans are being asked to make – a point which is not lost on people in Germany. The €440bn additional funding for the EFSF sanctioned by the Bundestag is simply a first instalment, sufficient to cover the cost of propping up the bond markets on the assumption that it will prevent contagion from the Greek imbroglio – which, of course, there already is aplenty. It is several months too late to stop the panic spreading beyond the original porcine four – Portugal, Ireland, Greece and Spain – to engulf Italy and even to some extent France. Back-of-the-envelope calculations (which is as much as it is worth doing) suggest that the amount needed could be of the order of €2 trillion or more, equivalent to about 80 percent of Germany’s national income.
Once again German Chancellor Angela Merkel has had to dig deep to ensure that the euro zone can limp along for a little longer without any single nation defaulting.
And this story changes day by day. No sooner has Germany rescued the euro, Greece apologises and says they can’t meet the deficit targets – no more savings can possibly be achieved through austerity.
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.
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.
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.
The UK, USA, the PIIGS (Ireland and Italy are together in the same stye), France is in poor fiscal shape – OK, Germany is ostensibly living within its means, but it looks a lot less solvent when you remember that it has underwritten the rest of the euro zone (in large part, to protect its own irresponsible banks). In any case, as I have argued in previous blogs, this or a future German Government is likely to cave in to the pressure from its own electorate and from inflationist economists at home and abroad to join the party and spend, spend, spend. Only Australia and Canada, riding high on the commodities price boom, and a handful of small countries, look stable.
Where will it all end?
With inflation, almost certainly, but beyond that, it is hard to say. However, there is one prediction I would offer for the medium to long term outcome, and it applies not only to the euro zone, but to Britain and America too – in fact to the whole of the comfortable, complacent industrialised world – and it is this.
Whenever I see photos of Chancellor Merkel these days, I’m reminded of the lugubrious features of the creature in the Restaurant at the End of the World, as it recommended to guests which part of its own anatomy they should eat. The details of the “Deal to Save the Euro” are still mysterious and have been given a misleading spin in the official releases, but one or two points seem clear.
First, the package is a compromise – a little bit of default (as required by a reality check) plus assistance to Greece which looks very generous but is still not enough to give it a realistic chance of paying its remaining debts. So the can has been kicked further down the same road yet again.
Have you ever wanted to write a major speech for Pope Benedict to deliver? What would you say? How much leeway would you have if you were chosen to be the papal ghostwriter?
Having just got back from a couple of days in Hannover, I couldn’t help but be struck by the dominance of the local news agenda by two topics – and the almost complete absence of a third. Taking the British media at face value, I might have expected a city in near-panic, with people nervously scanning menus for safe dishes to order and maybe antiseptic handwashing facilities being hurriedly installed in public places. In fact, the town looked exactly as I remembered it from my last visit a few years ago, with E.coli rarely mentioned either in conversation or on the 24-hour TV news channels.
In fact, apart from endless replays of the goals from Tuesday night’s football (Germany versus Azerbaijan, a real clash of the Titans that must have been!), the news was all about the remote risk of a meltdown in the country’s nuclear power plants, and the anything-but-remote risk of meltdown in what is left of the Greek economy.
-Laurence Copeland is a professor of finance at Cardiff University Business School and a co-author of “Verdict on the Crash” published by the Institute of Economic Affairs. The opinions expressed are his own.-
The Governor of the ECB, Jean-Claude Trichet has raised interest rates by 0.25 percentage points – and quite right too. For us in the UK, blaming rising prices on temporary disturbances in the world’s commodity markets is a figleaf to hide the fact that we are actually embarking on a partial default-by-inflation. For Europe, it is a different story. For one thing, the Germany-Austria-Netherlands bloc is, if not booming, at least chugging along at a highly respectable rate, and as the ECB Governor said today in response to a question about the impact of the rate rise on Portugal, his job is to set interest rates for the Eurozone as a whole, not just for the benefit of one of its smallest and weakest members.