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.

The euro zone marriage is over

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.

Another week, another E.U. bailout agreement

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By Mark Hillary. The opinions expressed are his own.

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.

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 Felix Salmon:

Europe’s lethal uncertainty

As markets plunge again today, ostensibly on existential worries about the eurozone, you might want a plain-English explanation of what the root of the problem is. And John Lanchester is a great place to turn for such things:

On 16 August, Nicolas Sarkozy and Angela Merkel had an emergency meeting to decide what to do about the Eurozone crisis. After it, they gave a press conference at which they spoke in platitudes about the need for Europe to improve its ‘economic governance’, avoiding all specifics. They precisely and explicitly ruled out the only two things which would have helped: the creation of ‘eurobonds’, i.e. debts backed by the full economic weight of all the countries inside the eurozone; and the extension of the €440 billion European Financial Stability Facility. It’s easy to see why they did this, and their reasons are entirely to do with the domestic unpopularity of giving more aid to the indebted and severely struggling ‘Club Med’ countries of Southern Europe. Unfortunately, Merkel and Sarkozy’s inaction is a recipe for certain disaster. Everybody and his cat knows that the eurobond is the only way out of the crisis for the eurozone in the medium term; as for the necessary size of the short-term bailout facility, Gordon Brown’s guesstimate was €2 trillion. That ‘could have convinced the markets that Europe meant business’. Huge, sustained and manifestly undeflectable government intervention on that scale is the only thing which will cause the speculators and hedge-funders and ‘hot money’ types to back off. Instead, nothing.

A make-or-break month for the euro zone

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.

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.

from Breakingviews:

Greek rescue: pig in a poke

By Hugo Dixon
The author is a Reuters Breakingviews columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.

A deal was better than a disaster. But last week's planned rescue of Greece has the astonishing by-product of increasing its debts. It also lets private creditors off lightly while making taxpayers elsewhere in the euro zone pay through the nose. It doesn't even mark the end of the crisis.

from Felix Salmon:

The curious Greek bond price chart

greekgovt.jpg

Many thanks to Van Tsui and Scott Barber for putting this chart together for me. We're all used to seeing yield curves -- charts which show the yield, for any given credit, at various points along the maturity spectrum. This chart is different: it's a price curve. It just shows the price at which Greek bonds are trading, plotted according to their maturity.

And it's really odd.

To understand just how odd this chart is, it's important to realize that in the Greek bond exchange, there's only one menu of options for anybody holding a Greek bond. It doesn't matter if your bond is maturing in six months or if it's maturing in 26 years, the instruments you're given the choice of swapping into are all exactly the same.

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