Opinion

The Great Debate

from Breakingviews:

Europe slides towards the next Minsky Moment

By Neil Unmack

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

There’s little doubt that markets think the euro crisis is over. Bond yields have fallen below pre-crisis levels for most of the countries formerly known as peripherals; the grab for southern European assets is a crowded trade. Could this be the prelude to the next Minsky moment?

The last crisis fit perfectly the pattern described by the American economist Hyman Minsky. Investors’ exaggerated belief in stability leads them to price assets for perfection - for example no defaults by euro zone sovereigns. Then some imperfection arrives - a serious possibility of default - and there is a violent outbreak of instability - the euro crisis.

The excessive euro-confidence lasted for about a decade, from 1998 to 2008, although the crisis took a further two years to properly get going. During most of that time, investors demanded a mere 0.2 percentage points higher interest rate on Portuguese than on comparable German debt, down from over 5 percentage points in 1995. At the height of the crisis in 2012, the spread was 15 percentage points.

Confidence is certainly returning. Investors now demand a smaller premium to hold bonds sold by companies in the periphery over those in the northern European “core” than they did before the 2008 financial crisis, according to Credit Suisse. Banks in Spain are trading at a bigger premium to book value than their U.S. peers, according to Starmine. And the interest rates paid by the formerly problem case governments of Spain, Portugal and Italy are at record lows.

A path through Europe’s minefield

By George Soros
The opinions expressed are his own.

Earlier this week, a group of almost 100 prominent Europeans delivered an open letter to the leaders of all 17 eurozone countries. The letter said, in so many words, what the leaders of Europe now appear to have understood: they cannot go on “kicking the can down the road.” And, just as importantly, they now understand that it is not enough to ensure that governments can finance their debt at reasonable interest rates; they must also address the weakness of Europe’s banking system.

Indeed, Europe’s banking and sovereign-debt problems are mutually self-reinforcing. The decline in government bond prices has exposed the banks’ undercapitalization, while the prospect that governments will have to finance banks’ recapitalization has driven up risk premiums on government bonds. Facing the prospect of having to raise additional capital at a time when their shares are selling at a fraction of book value, banks have a powerful incentive to reduce their balance sheets by withdrawing credit lines and shrinking their loan portfolios.

Europe’s leaders are now contemplating what to do, and their next move will have fateful consequences, either calming the markets or driving them to new extremes. All agree that Greece needs an orderly restructuring, because a disorderly default could cause a eurozone meltdown. But, when it comes to the banks, I am afraid that the eurozone’s leaders are contemplating some inappropriate steps.

How to prevent a depression

By Nouriel Roubini
The opinions expressed are his own.

AMSTERDAM – The latest economic data suggests that recession is returning to most advanced economies, with financial markets now reaching levels of stress unseen since the collapse of Lehman Brothers in 2008. The risks of an economic and financial crisis even worse than the previous one – now involving not just the private sector, but also near-insolvent sovereigns – are significant. So, what can be done to minimize the fallout of another economic contraction and prevent a deeper depression and financial meltdown?

First, we must accept that austerity measures, necessary to avoid a fiscal train wreck, have recessionary effects on output. So, if countries in the eurozone’s periphery are forced to undertake fiscal austerity, countries able to provide short-term stimulus should do so and postpone their own austerity efforts. These countries include the United States, the United Kingdom, Germany, the core of the eurozone, and Japan. Infrastructure banks that finance needed public infrastructure should be created as well.

Second, while monetary policy has limited impact when the problems are excessive debt and insolvency rather than illiquidity, credit easing, rather than just quantitative easing, can be helpful. The European Central Bank should reverse its mistaken decision to hike interest rates. More monetary and credit easing is also required for the US Federal Reserve, the Bank of Japan, the Bank of England, and the Swiss National Bank. Inflation will soon be the last problem that central banks will fear, as renewed slack in goods, labor, real estate, and commodity markets feeds disinflationary pressures.

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.

There is some similarity between the euro crisis and the subprime crisis that caused the crash of 2008. In each case a supposedly riskless asset—collateralized debt obligations (CDOs), based largely on mortgages, in 2008, and European government bonds now—lost some or all of their value.

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