Opinion

The Great Debate

from Nicholas Wapshott:

No, austerity did not work

There have been a lot of sighs of relief in Europe lately, where countries like Britain and Spain, long in recession, have finally started to grow. Not by much, nor for long. But such is the political imperative to suggest that all the misery of fiscally tight economic policies was worth the pain that there are tentative claims the worst is now over and, ipso facto, austerity worked.

Hold on a minute. Growth is good. Growth is what allows countries to pay down their national debt by increasing economic activity, putting the unemployed to work and making people prosperous enough to pay taxes. But gross domestic product growth alone is not enough to provide adequate sustained prosperity if it does not also lead to significant job growth.

Take Spain, which has just emerged from two years of recession by posting a third quarter growth rate of 0.1 percent. Technically the Spanish slump is over. But a glance at their job figures shows the country has a long way to go before it can genuinely say it has escaped the diminishing effects of austerity -- in the form of tight fiscal policies, public spending cuts and labor and entitlement reforms -- imposed indirectly by Germany through the European Union.

In Spain, unemployment remains stubbornly high at 26 percent; half of those age 25 and under are still without jobs. More than half those age 25 and under in Greece and Croatia are also unemployed. In Europe, only in Germany and Austria is youth unemployment under 10 percent. Greece and Spain lead the sorry list of European countries with more than 25 percent unemployed, and 13 more are enduring joblessness at more than 10 percent.

In Spain, where economic growth is occurring only in the export sector, there is little suggestion the economy has been genuinely fixed by this protracted austerity regime. As one analyst put it, “Domestic demand is still contracting and against that backdrop it's hard to see a strong and sustained recovery."

Will a minimum wage destroy German jobs?

Germany has once again become the world’s favorite whipping boy, roundly criticized over the past few days by the U.S. Treasury, a top International Monetary Fund official and the European Commission president, among others, for running record trade and current account surpluses that are supposedly detrimental to the European and global economy.

The arguments continue, with the Germans themselves saying that the surpluses are simply the happy result of the nation’s industrial competitiveness and don’t hurt anyone else. Lost in the debate, however, is what’s happening in Berlin right now. As Chancellor Angela Merkel seeks to form a new coalition government, she appears to be on the verge of throwing out some of the very policies that underpin the export boom of the past decade.

Most controversially, the new government to be formed is likely to introduce a minimum wage, a novelty for Germany, and a move that both symbolically and in reality would herald the end of the tough wage restraint that has characterized the past decade. A range of social policy changes, including a possible reduction in the retirement age, are also being discussed, as is higher government spending.

What Hollande can learn from Queen of Hearts

French President Francois Hollande’s predicament is, oddly enough, akin to one Alice faced in Lewis Carroll’s 19th century classic.

A year after taking power, Hollande is buffeted by the lowest popularity of any modern Gallic leader, a record number of jobless, a recession and shriveled business investment – while still needing to cut his budget deficit to hit European targets.

The protagonist of Alice in Wonderland, meanwhile, confused by her strange encounters down a rabbit hole, meets the Queen of Hearts, who tells her: “My dear, here we must run as fast as we can, just to stay in place. And if you wish to go anywhere, you must run twice as fast as that.”

from Nicholas Wapshott:

Austerity is a moral issue

Security worker opens the door of a government job center as people wait to enter in Marbella, Spain, December 2, 2011. REUTERS/Jon Nazca

In the nearly five years since the worst financial crash since the Great Depression, the remedy for the world’s economic doldrums has swung from full-on Keynesianism to unforgiving austerity and back.

The initial Keynesian response halted the collapse in economic activity. But it was soon met by borrowers’ remorse in the shape of paying down debt and raising taxes without delay. In the last year, full-throttle austerity has fallen out of favor with those charged with monitoring the world economy.

The dark flip side of European technocracy

How many countries will Germany need to bail out before it has erased the guilt of the Holocaust? That is the provocative question posed by Thilo Sarrazin, a publicity-hungry maverick whose 2010 book attacking immigration shattered Germany’s political consensus and sold more than 1 million copies. Last week he returned to the scene of the crime with a new book called Why Europe Doesn’t Need the Euro. In a much-quoted passage, he says supporters of eurobonds are driven “by that very German reflex according to which atonement for the holocaust and the world wars will never be complete until we have delivered our entire public interest, and even our money, into European hands.” This title has raced to the top of best-seller lists and sent jittery markets into panic. Sarrazin is a narcissist who is more interested in self-promotion than serious analysis. But his views on Europe – as well as the political class’s reaction to them – tell us a lot about how the euro’s political travails have come about, as well as how they are likely to unfold.

An opinion poll last week provides just the latest proof that Sarrazin has his finger on the national pulse: Over half of Germans think their country has suffered by joining the euro, while 79 percent reject eurobonds as a solution to the crisis. Sarrazin – a former regional politician and Bundesbank governor who was stripped of his official positions because of his views on immigration – is not a man to do things by halves. His book breaks not one but two German taboos by linking Holocaust guilt with questions about the sustainability of the euro. (It is designed to be a refutation of Angela Merkel’s argument that the breakup of the euro would lead to the breakup of the EU.) But although – or rather because – Sarrazin is so good at mirroring public opinion, the German political establishment is falling over itself to bury his arguments: Peer Steinbrueck, the former finance minister (and possible candidate for chancellor), described it as “bullshit”; while the current finance minister, Wolfgang Schaueble, described it as “appalling nonsense.”

The antics of Thilo Sarrazin are a product of the constrained, elitist nature of German politics where – after the experience of National Socialism – many topics are declared outside the realm of political competition. As a result, all mainstream parties are in favor of Europe, the euro and the Atlantic alliance, and against war, inflation and nationalism. The result is a restricted political sphere where politicians have often been able to act against public opinion without fear of challenge – including the decision to replace the über-popular Deutschmark with the strikingly unpopular euro. But those who dare cross the threshold of political correctness – as Sarrazin has repeatedly done – tap into a vast reservoir of pent-up popular frustration. And because the establishment cartel turns them into outcasts rather than arguing with their views, this reservoir continues to grow.

from Summit Notebook:

Does Germany need Europe?

Jim O'Neill, the new Goldman Sachs Asset Management chairman who is famous for coining the term BRICs for the world's new emerging economic giants, reckons he knows why Germany might not be rushing to bail out all the euro zone debt that is under pressure. Europe is not as important to Berlin as it was.

Speaking at the Reuters 2011 Investment Outlook Summit being held in London and New York, O'Neill pointed out that in the not very distant future Germany will have more trade with China than it does with France.

"It's a different global environment. That's why maybe Germany (ties)  itself to a rules-based game with the rest of Europe because economically it doesn't mean so much to them now. What goes on in China is more important than what goes on in France and that's puts a different economic (spin) on the situation for the Germans."

from MacroScope:

Will China make the world green?

Workers remove mine slag at an aluminium plant in Zibo, Shandong province December 6, 2008. REUTERS/Stringer

Joschka Fischer was never one to mince words when he was Germany's foreign minister in the late '90s and early noughts. So it is not overly surprising that he has painted a picture in a new post of a world with only two powers -- the United States and China -- and an ineffective and divided Europe on the sidelines.

More controversial, however, is his view that China will not only grow into the world's most important market over the coming years, but will determine what the world produces and consumes -- and that that will be green.

Fischer, who was leader of  Germany's Green Party, reckons that due to its sheer size and needed GDP growth, China will have to pursue a green economy. Without that, he writes in his Project Syndicate post, China will quickly reach limits to growth with disastrous ecological and, as a result, political consequences.

Islamophobia and a German central banker

How do you reconcile the traditions of many Muslim immigrants with the freedoms and values of 21st century Western Europe?

It’s a question that has led to periodic outbursts of vigorous debate from France to Holland and Switzerland. In Germany, the discussion has been relatively subdued. Until now.

Why? A passage in a book considered so unsettling that its author, Thilo Sarrazin, was forced to resign from the board of Germany’s central bank this month, provides part of the answer.

from The Great Debate UK:

Greece loses a major incentive to stay within EMU

cr_mega_503_JaneFoley-150x150-Jane Foley is research director of Forex.com. The opinions expressed are her own.-

Germany’s Finance Ministry this week denied a report in Le Monde that Germany, France and other countries were working on a package to rescue Greece. It seems that for now the official line from the grandfathers of European Monetary Union is that Greece can sort out its own budget deficit. The official line from the Greek government is much the same; it continues to maintain that it doesn’t need a bailout.

The problem with this is that this lacks credibility. The blowing out of the yield spreads on Greek government bonds over bunds and the price of credit default swaps are evidence of that. In the months after EMU, the 5 year Greek-bund spread was less than 200 bps. This week it was over 400 bps. Unless the impact of bond yields can be contained Greece loses a major incentive to stay within EMU.

from The Great Debate UK:

Getting to grips with the post-Cold War security threat

johnreid -John Reid, formerly the UK Defence Secretary and Home Secretary, is MP for Airdrie and Shotts, and Chairman of the Institute for Security and Resilience Studies at University College, London. The opinions expressed are his own. -

The fall of the Berlin Wall, on November 9, 1989, was one of history’s truly epochal moments. During what became a revolutionary wave sweeping across the former Eastern Bloc countries, the announcement by the then-East German Government that its citizens could visit West Germany set in train a series of events that led, ultimately, to the demise of the Soviet Union itself.

Twenty years on, what is most striking to me are the massive, enduring ramifications of the events of November 1989. Only several decades ago, the Cold War meant that the borders of the Eastern Bloc were largely inviolate; extremist religious groups and ethnic tensions were suppressed, there was no internet (at least as we know it today) and travel between East and West was difficult. The two great Glaciers of the Cold War produced a frozen hinterland characterised by immobility.

Today’s world is a vastly different place. When one of the great Glaciers - the former Soviet Union – melted it helped unleash a potential torrent of security problems. We now live in an era characterised by huge mobility and instability, in which issues such as mass migration, international crime and international terrorism have a much higher prominence.

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