Opinion

The Great Debate

Europe is under siege from both the left and right

eu combo

Elections will begin on Thursday across the 28 European Union member states to elect national representatives to the European Parliament, which regulates trade, borders and some elements of foreign policy. Though this is a continent-wide election, voters historically use it to send a message to their own nation’s governing party. With the meteoric rise of anti-European populism on the political left and right, however, things promise to buck that trend this time.

This was not how things were supposed to be. Five years ago, at a meeting of the European Union’s heads of state and government in Lisbon, Portugal, European leaders signed a treaty that foresaw these elections as defining the political direction of the European Union. This week’s elections are supposed to mark a turning point, as competing progressive, liberal, green and conservative visions of Europe’s future vied for popular support.

Instead, Europe is in a mess — and the future of the European Union seems in doubt.

eu elections -- parliamentEuropean Parliament political groups have decided to use the Lisbon Treaty for a power grab, interpreting a vague commitment about political direction as their right to nominate and impose candidates for president of the European Commission. Yet the real winners in this week’s election are likely to be the anti-European populists now calling for a dissolution of Europe.

Across Europe, mainstream political parties on both the center-right and the center-left have been hemorrhaging support. This began with the 2008 global financial crisis and continued through the euro sovereign-debt crisis that followed. European rules and the bailout conditions of European partners forced many nations to adopt austerity policies, which prolonged the economic crisis.

from Breakingviews:

Russia puts gas-hungry China in a bear hug

By Ethan Bilby
The author is a Reuters Breakingviews columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.

Russia has signed a long-awaited gas pipeline deal with China, and it leaves the People’s Republic in a bear hug. Russia gets a new market outside the increasingly frosty European Union. Oil major PetroChina gets to balance out some losses from low regulated prices at home. But the optics of the deal shred Beijing’s pretensions to political neutrality.

Russia could use a friend. EU countries have been planning to diversify supply away from dependence on Russia, which provides a third of their energy needs – especially after a dispute in 2009 saw gas cut off. Annexing Ukraine’s southern Crimea region has raised the temperature further. New pipelines from places like Azerbaijan are designed to limit Moscow’s leverage.

A good deal for Greece, its creditors, and Europe

Amid all the doom and gloom about Greece in the last few weeks, it is easy to overlook an important piece of good news: the debt exchange offer published by Greece on Friday with endorsement by its main private and official creditors. If implemented, this would be a major achievement and an important step toward overcoming the euro zone crisis, almost regardless of what happens next.

Under the offer, bondholders would receive 15 percent of the face value of their bonds in the form of short-term European Financial Stability Facility (EFSF) bonds, plus a set of new Greek sovereign bonds maturing between 2023 and 2042, with a 31.5 percent face value.

This agreement is a very good deal for Greece. The combination of the cut in face values, lower coupons and (in most cases) longer maturity implies a debt reduction of about 60 percent in present value terms (evaluated at a 5 percent discount rate). Assuming high participation (about €200 billion in bonds), this translates into savings of about €120 billion, or 54 percent of Greece’s 2011 GDP. This is very large. By comparison, the Argentine exchange of January 2005, the previous high-water mark, generated present value of debt relief of only about 29 percent of GDP, because although the per-dollar debt reduction was higher, the volume exchanged was much smaller.

from James Saft:

Waiting for Europe’s QE to sail

The good news is that the European Central Bank will probably start a massive additional round of quantitative easing to fight the break-up of the euro zone.

The bad news is that they will, as ever, only choose the right policy, as Winston Churchill said of the Americans, after exhausting all of the alternatives.

Global share markets rallied furiously on Wednesday, fed by hopes that the ECB would increase its bond-buying efforts, a possibility raised by its chief Jean-Claude Trichet in an appearance before the European Parliament. Trichet faces stern opposition inside the ECB from fellow central bankers, notably German Axel Weber, who believe that policy should be normalized rather than loosened.

from James Saft:

Pension savers get the boot

From Dublin to Paris to Budapest to inside those brown UPS trucks delivering holiday packages, it has been a tough few weeks for savers and retirees.

Moves by the Irish, French and Hungarian governments, and by the famous delivery company, showed that in the post-crisis world retirees, present and future, will be paying much of the price and taking on more of the risk.

This goes beyond merely cutting back on pension benefits, rising to actual appropriation of supposedly long-term retirement assets to help fund short term emergencies.

from The Great Debate UK:

How will the Eurozone crisis end?

-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. -

Back in 1997, when I wrote about the prospects for the forthcoming European Monetary Union, I said I expected something like the Greek crisis to end with a wave of bailouts of ClubMed countries, and I followed the situation through to what seemed its logical conclusion.

I guessed that Germany and the other surplus countries would realise they were caught in a can’t-beat-‘em-may-as-well-join-‘em trap. On balance, I think I stand by that forecast today.

Euro woes increase risk of trade wars

Europe won’t just be exporting deflation to the rest of the world, it will export serious trade tensions as well: first between the United States and China, and, possibly, eventually between Europe and the United States.

The austerity required to get Greece and other weak euro zone nations’ budgets in shape will exert a powerful deflationary force, as many countries which formerly imported more than they exported will be forced to cut back.

As well, the euro has dropped very sharply. Germany’s quixotic campaign against speculators — banning naked short selling against government debt and government credit default swaps — gave the euro its latest shove downward, but the trend has been strong for months. The euro is now about 15 percent below where it started the year against the dollar, making U.S. exports less competitive and adding to pressure on the United States to be the world’s foie gras goose: being force-fed everyone else’s exports while its own unemployment rate remains high.

Euro zone medicine not working on banks

Fear of lending to banks is rising again in Europe, as even a 750 billion euro zone rescue package proves not enough to stem fears that the banking system will prove the weak link when southern European nations can’t meet their obligations.

Strikingly many European and British banks are now being forced to pay more to borrow money in the interbank markets than before the joint European Union, International Monetary Fund and European Central Bank package was announced two weekends ago.

That deal, which should insulate highly indebted countries such as Greece, Spain and Portugal from funding pressure for the next two years or so, was effective in driving down the extra interest those countries had to pay to borrow as compared to Germany. Tellingly, it was less effective, even counter-productive, in restoring calm to the markets in which banks fund their short-term borrowing needs.

Europe shambles as Greek fire spreads

Europe desperately needs to get out in front of its solvency problem, Greek edition; not because it is right, not even because it will work in the long term, but to stem rapid and costly contagion through financial markets to other weak links in the euro zone, not least to banks.

Whether euro zone institutions will have the agility and resolve to quickly put in place out-sized measures for Greece is doubtful.

That Greece on Wednesday was paying more than 20 percent, or about double the rate of Hugo Chavez’s Venezuela, to borrow money for two years showed that investors were expecting either a default or very large burden sharing by existing creditors, and possibly a, by definition, disorderly exit from the euro by Greece. Spain joined the list of sovereign downgrades, as Standard & Poor’s cut its rating a notch to AA, a day after the debt rating agency slashed Greece to junk status and cut Portugal to AA.

Greece an ideal Goldman client; profitable, culpable

Goldman Sachs has a lot to be thankful for – huge bonuses, massive taxpayer subsidies, unrivalled political influence – but in Greece they have finally found nirvana: a highly profitable business partner who can also credibly serve as the villain in the piece.

Goldman is widely reported to have arranged a swap transaction for Greece early in the last decade structured in such a way as to provide the country with $1 billion upfront in exchange for higher payments much later.

That later bit is key – it helped to mask over-borrowing by Greece from the euro zone’s budget watchdogs in Brussels, not to mention from Greek taxpayers and the buyers of Greek debt, all of whom have a right to fully understand the risks of a country incurring liabilities which perhaps it may struggle to repay.

  •