Opinion

The Great Debate

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.

This opposition, in combination with an unsure political climate, means that euro zone authorities will probably continue to try to buttress, enlarge and formalize the bailout mechanism while trying to maintain the fiction that something approaching normality reigns in European money and bank funding markets.

Why would QE be used to fight the break-up of the euro zone, now being widely discussed as the crisis spreads to ever larger member states?

from MacroScope:

Europe’s over-achievers and their fall from grace

Ireland's fall from grace has been rapid and far worse than that of its counterparts, even Greece. But life in the euro zone has still been one of profound growth, as it has for most of the other peripheral economies.

Take a look first at the progress of  PIGS (Portugal, Ireland, Greece and Spain) GDP since 2007 when the global financial crisis took hold. In straight comparisons (ie, rebased to the  same point) Ireland is far and away the biggest loser. Portugal is basically where it was.

Scary

But now take the rebasing back to roughly the time that the euro zone came together.  First, it shows that Ireland's fall is from a very high place. The decade has still been one of profound improvement in cumulative GDP even with the last few years' misery. But it is front loaded.

from MacroScope:

What are the risks to growth?

Mike Dicks, chief economist and blogger at Barclays Wealth, has identified what he sees as the three biggest problems facing the global economy, and conveniently found that they are linked with three separate regions.

First, there is the risk that U.S., t consumers won't increase spending. Dicks notes that the increase in U.S. consumption has been "extremely moderate" and far less than after previous recessions. His firm has lowered is U.S. GDP forecast for 2011 to 2.7 percent from a bit over 3 percent.

Next comes the euro zone. While the wealth manager is not looking for any immediate collapse in EMU, Dicks reckons that without the ability to devalue, Greece and other struggling countries won't see any great improvement in competitiveness. Germany, in the meantime, has sped up plans to cut its own deficit.  It leaves the Barclays Wealth's euro zone GDP forecast at just 1 percent for next year.

Of banks and euro zone default taboo

If ever you doubted that the euro zone bailout was in fact a bailout of banks, French and German banks in particular, look no further than the latest report from the Bank for International Settlements.

The trillion-dollar package of loans, backstops and emergency measures announced by the European Union, International Monetary Fund and European Central Bank in May was advertised on the basis that it would create breathing room for ailing southern European nations to impose fiscal discipline and establish a credible path to stability.

In the case of Greece, it is hard to see how it could dig its way out of its hole courtesy of a policy of austerity which was going to kick off a swingeing and long-lasting recession.

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.

Government debt’s Minsky-ish moment

If government debt is the new subprime, it may just turn out that Greece is a Florida condo while the United States is a single-family house in a nice mid-Western suburb, the kind of place that fell 15 rather than 50 percent.

In considering the Greek, or European, sovereign debt crisis, the common line of argument, which is true if incomplete, is that the U.S. is far more different than similar; it possesses its own currency, which just happens to be the world’s primary reserve unit, its economy is stronger and more flexible and its institutions better developed and more credible.

All true, but there is a funny feeling that investors, prompted by Greece but also having looked at better credits like the U.S., are doing a fundamental reevaluation of the risks of lending to governments. This may end at Greece, it may end at Portugal, it may end at Britain, but it is not over yet.

from MacroScope:

Political economy and the euro

The reality of  'political economy'  is something that irritates many economists -- the "purists", if you like. The political element is impossible to model;  it often flies in the face of  textbook economics;  and democratic decision-making and backroom horse trading can be notoriously difficult to predict and painfully slow.  And political economy is all pervasive in 2010 -- Barack Obama's proposals to rein in the banks is rooted in public outrage; reading China's monetary and currency policies is like Kremlinology; capital curbs being introduced in Brazil and elsewhere aim to prevent market overshoot; and British budgetary policies are becoming the political football ahead of this spring's UK election. The list is long, the outcomes uncertain, the market risk high.

But nowhere is this more apparent than in well-worn arguments over the validity and future of Europe's single currency -- the new milennium's posterchild for political economy.

For many, the euro simply should never have happened --  it thumbed a nose at the belief that all things good come from free financial markets; it removed monetary safety valves for member countries out of sync with their bigger neighbours and put the cart before the horse with monetary union ahead of fiscal policy integration. But the sheer political determination to finish the European's single market project, stop beggar-thy-neighbour currency devaluations and face down erratic currency trading meant the  currency was born and has thrived for 11 years.

Europe borrows from Peter to lend to Peter

jamessaft1(James Saft is a Reuters columnist. The opinions expressed are his own)

Europe’s experiment in borrowing from Peter to pay Peter argues for a slow economic recovery with a low ceiling.

Data released by the European Central Bank on Monday showed that the supply in money is growing at best haltingly and that loan growth to euro zone households and businesses is at its lowest since records began.

Annual loan growth to the private sector slowed to 1.5 percent in June from 1.8 percent in May while the broader measure of money supply growth hit 3.5 percent.

Betting on the unthinkable in the euro zone

James Saft Great Debate — James Saft is a Reuters columnist. The opinions expressed are his own –

Some crises bring partners closer together. Some, as investors in the euro zone are likely to discover this year, drive them further apart.

Look for rising tensions about fiscal and monetary policy among the bloc’s 16 member nations, and for a bigger penalty to be imposed on the euro and some euro zone assets against the possibility of a breakup or a secession from the currency group.

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