Opinion

The Great Debate

from Nicholas Wapshott:

European leaders show their weakness

 

The European Union, at the forefront of the hostilities between Russia and the West, is in a bind.

It has belatedly adopted Ukraine as one of its own. Yet the EU economy is so frail,  thanks to its beggar-thy-neighbor economic policies, that it is reluctant to use financial and trade sanctions to punish Russia for occupying Crimea and threatening to occupy the eastern part of Ukraine.

Even if the EU appeases Russian President Vladimir Putin’s territorial expansionism and allows Crimea to be annexed, it is going to pay a heavy political and economic price. Had German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who drives the European enlargement project, and the International Monetary Fund been more clear about wanting Ukraine to eventually join the European Union, and more generous in their dealings with the nascent democracy there, they would have saved the Ukrainian people a lot of suffering, the world a deal of agony -- and the EU a lot of money.

In February 2013, EU negotiators offered Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich a hard bargain: If Ukraine wished to sign a free trade agreement that would be a prelude to joining the EU and receive $805 million in immediate aid, it must quickly improve its justice system and make structural changes to the economy.

What the EU negotiators did not tell Yanukovich was that it was prepared to offer a further $26 billion once Ukraine put its house in order.

Greek bailout sham

Driven by its bailout loan terms, the Greek Parliament recently voted to lay off 25,000 more public employees. The public has responded with demonstrations while striking public sector workers try to disrupt air and rail travel, law enforcement and medical care.

How did Greece get to this point, where creditors dictate what jobs the government should cut as a condition for continued bailout loans, and where its outraged citizens take to the streets? What are the chances that Conservative Prime Minister Antonis Samaras’ newest plans to fire or cut salaries of thousands of government employees will work?

The fact is that Greece’s fortunes have been deteriorating since its entry into the Economic and Monetary Union and the ascension of corrupt politicians, who don’t care about the country’s future. Essentially, they have sold much of Greece’s wealth at bargain-basement prices and used the nation as collateral.

Why the EU is right on Cyprus

The reaction to this weekend’s European Union bailout deal for Cyprus has gone from initial shock to rather predictable condemnation. “Europe botches another rescue,” ran the headline on an editorial in the Financial Times. “It’s as if the Europeans are holding up a neon sign, written in Greek and Italian, saying ‘time to stage a run on your banks,’ ” Paul Krugman, the economist and New York Times columnist wrote on his blog.

As widely reported, the deal has an important claw-back component: a one-time tax on the deposits of everyone who has a bank account in Cyprus ‑ Cypriots and foreigners alike ‑ aimed at raising 5.8 billion euros of the total rescue package of 17 billion euros. It’s always possible that the hyper-alarmist scenario of a pan-European bank run actually takes place, although by Monday afternoon, even jittery stock markets across Europe were starting to grow calmer, as EU officials insisted that the Cyprus deal was exceptional.

In fact, there are two compelling reasons why the EU actually has gotten this one right. The first is that Cyprus for years ranked highly on international lists of opaque tax havens, as it reinvented itself in the 1990s as the offshore banking center of choice for Russians. Under growing international pressure, and in order to join the EU in 2004, Cyprus eventually abolished its offshore tax regime and put in place a residence-based one with some clear oversight.

Without coordinated leadership, Europe will falter

There is an increasing probability that financial markets will respond negatively to the unfolding economic and political drama unfolding across Europe. So far, the European Central Bank has pumped out cash and calmed the nerves of investors, but it needs to do more. A cut in interest rates by the ECB is crucial to contribute to a revival of growth across the euro zone. On its own, however, that is not enough. Europe’s political authorities need to counter the increasingly widespread perception that they lack the will to confront the zone’s economic ailments and promote a clear path to growth – austerity policies alone will not work.

The situation has become far more serious now that the crisis has moved from the zone’s periphery to its major economies: Spain shows no signs of emerging from prolonged negative growth, Italy is now facing mounting difficulties and France is sliding into recession.

Overall, looking across the euro zone, the jobless data best illustrates the pain of this crisis. The latest statistics from Eurostat show unemployment across the 17-nation euro zone at 11.9percent; 19 million people are out of work. The rates in Greece and Spain are 27 percent and 26.2 percent, respectively, and in both countries the rate for youth unemployment exceeds 55 percent. In Portugal and in Ireland, where major efforts are being made to overcome acute difficulties, the jobless rates are, nevertheless, 17.6 percent and 14.7 percent, respectively. The rate in Cyprus has shot up from 9.9 percent to 14.7 percent over the last year. In Italy, the rate is over 11.5 percent, while in France it now stands at 10.6 percent.

Stubborn national politics drag down the global economy

Four years ago world leaders, meeting in the G20 crisis session, agreed they would all work to move from recession to growth and prosperity.  They agreed to a global growth compact to be delivered by combining national growth targets with coordinated global interventions. It didn’t happen. After the $1 trillion stimulus of 2009, fiscal consolidation became the established order of the day, and so year after year millions have continued to endure unemployment and lower living standards.

Only now are there signs that the long-overdue shift in national macro-economic policies may be taking place. The new Japanese government is backing up a “minimum inflation target” with a multi-billion-dollar stimulus designed to create 600,000 jobs. In what some call the “reverse Volcker moment,” Ben Bernanke has become the first head of a central bank for decades to announce he will target a 6 percent level of unemployment alongside his inflation objective. And the new governor of the Bank of England, Mark Carney, has told us that “when policy rates are stuck at the zero lower bound, there could not be a more favorable case for Nominal GDP targeting.” Side by side with this shift in policy, in every area but the Euro, there is also policy progress in China. It may look from the outside as if November’s Communist Party Congress simply re-announced their all-too-familiar but undelivered wish to re-balance the economy from exports to domestic consumption, but this time the promise has been accompanied by a time-specific commitment: to double average domestic income per head by 2020.

The intellectual case for change is obvious. A chronic shortage of demand has developed for two reasons. First, as the IMF announced at the end of 2012, the adverse impact of fiscal consolidation on employment and demand has been greater than many people expected. Secondly, the effectiveness of quantitative easing has almost certainly started to wane. As former BBC chief Gavyn Davies has put it, “the supply potential of the economy is in danger of becoming dependent on, or ‘endogenous to,’ the weakness of domestic demand. …With demand constrained in this way for such a lengthy period of time, supply potential is beginning to downsize to fit the low level of demand.” It is a new equilibrium that can be reversed only by boosting demand.

Europe risks going the way of Japan

(The views expressed by former British prime minister Gordon Brown are the author’s own and not those of Reuters)

The good news is that Europe is no longer going the way of Greece. The sad news is that it is threatening to go the way of Japan.

After years of hesitation punctuated by panic, Europe has finally accepted the compelling logic that a single currency needs a lender of last resort. Pro-euro voters in the Netherlands have clearly been impressed as the President of the European Central Bank (ECB), Mario Draghi, braved the scowl of the ever-cautious Bundesbank and led his ECB directors to a pledge of unlimited – if conditional – short-dated bond-buying to avert another currency crisis.

Decisive euro action is needed at the G20 summit

The European crisis is no longer a European crisis. It is now everyone’s. Unless Monday’s G20 summit in Mexico coordinates a concerted global action plan right now, we face a global slowdown that will also have a deep impact on the U.S. presidential election and even on China’s transition to a new leadership. This is the last chance.

The standard, but often empty, language of summit communiqués will simply not do when the euro area is finally approaching its own day of reckoning. Whichever way the Greeks vote in Sunday’s election, a chaotic exit from the euro is becoming more likely: Its tax revenues are collapsing, not rising as promised. Unable to regain access to markets, Portugal and Ireland will soon have to ask for their second IMF programs. Sadly Italy – and potentially even France – may soon follow Spain in needing finance as the European recession deepens. Even German banks, which are some of the most highly leveraged, are not immune from needing more capital.

At G8 and G20 summits, world leaders have tended to be mere spectators as Europe has gone from one failed intervention to another. Now they must move decisively as they did in 2009. They must not leave Mexico without agreeing to support a big European firewall to stop contagion. And they must construct a global growth initiative for East and West.

Why isn’t the euro falling even further?

If the euro really is on the verge of collapse, as many pundits are now proclaiming, how come it is still so highly valued against other currencies, including the U.S. dollar?

That may sound like a crazy question, given the euro’s much-publicized decline over the past couple of weeks. It has been dropping as the possibility grows that Greece may seek to pull out of the 17-nation currency union following parliamentary elections there in mid-June. That scenario of a “Grexit” has spooked financial markets and pushed governments and business around Europe to draw up contingency plans.

Yet looked at from a longer perspective than last week, the euro is in fact still pretty expensive. On foreign exchange markets, one euro today buys about $1.25. That’s more than 6 percent above the $1.17 rate in January 1999, when the euro was first introduced as an accounting currency. Back then, it got off to a weaker start even than Facebook’s IPO and quickly fell below parity to the dollar. On Jan. 1, 2002, when euro notes and coins were introduced into general circulation, one euro bought just 90 U.S. cents. It then dropped to a low point of 86 cents in March of that year. That’s 30 percent below where it is today. This chart from the ECB website shows the full picture since the euro’s introduction:

What happens if Hollande wins?

His political allies wrote him off as a lightweight, “a pedal-boat captain in a storm” as one memorably put it. European leaders, including Germany’s Angela Merkel, have gone out of their way to avoid him, and the markets have been unimpressed by his declaration, to the City of London, that “I am not dangerous.”

Yet with opinion polls in France unanimously predicting that François Hollande will be elected president on Sunday, this is a good time to be asking just how bad his presidency really would be for France, for Europe and for the markets.

If he does win, will he be able to inspire confidence and rebuild and renovate the fragile economy, with its heavy debt, stagnant growth and rising unemployment? Or will he preside over its rapid descent into Greek- or Spanish-style chaos, as Nicolas Sarkozy, the incumbent at the Elysée Palace, keeps warning?

from MacroScope:

The Law of Diminishing Greeks

The Law of Diminishing Returns  states that a continuing push towards a given goal tends to  decline in effectiveness after a certain amount of effort has been expended. If this weren't the case, Usain Bolt would be able to run the mile in  less than 2-1/2 minutes.

From an economic standpoint, this law now seems to be fully in force in Greece. The latest jobs figures from the twice-bailed out euro zone country paint a bleak numerical picture of the impact of unrelenting austerity in ordinary Greeks, regardless of whether it was self-inflicted or not. To wit:

More than one in five Greeks is unemployed.

There are more young people without a job than with one.

The record 1.08 million people  without work in January was a  47 percent tumble  in a year.

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