Opinion

The Great Debate

How Europe can stave off a crisis

By Gordon Brown
The views expressed are his own.

It was said of European monarchs of a century ago that they learned nothing and forgot nothing.  For three years, as a Greek debt problem has morphed into a full blown euro area crisis, European leaders  have been behind the curve, consistently repeating the same mistake of doing too little too late. But when they meet on Sunday, the time for small measures is over. As the G20 found when it met in London at the height of the  2009 crisis, only a demonstration of policy intent that shows irresistible force will persuade the markets that leaders will do what it takes. An announcement on a new Greek package will not be enough. Nor will it be sufficient to recapitalize the banks. European leaders will have to announce a comprehensive — around 2 trillion euro — finance facility; set out a plan to fundamentally reform the euro; and work with the G20 to agree on a coordinated plan for growth.

For three years it has suited leaders across Europe to disguise Europe’s banking problems and, citing the blatant profligacy of Greece, they have defined the European problem as simply a public sector debt problem. And it has suited Europe’s leaders to call for austerity (and if that fails, more austerity) and forget how the inflexibility of the euro is itself dampening prospects for growth, keeping unemployment unacceptably high and weakening Europe’s competitive position in the world today. Indeed, Europe’s share of world output has now fallen to just 18 percent.  And it is a measure of how it is losing out in the growth markets of the future that just 7.5 percent of Europe’s exports go to the emerging markets that are responsible for 70 percent of the world’s growth.

When I attended the first ever meeting of the euro group of leaders in October 2008 there was astonishment when I reported that Europe’s banks had bought half America’s subprime mortgages and there was incredulity when I said that European banks were far more at risk than U.S. banks because they were far more highly leveraged. Since 2008, as American banks have tackled their toxic assets, they have written off 4 percent of their loans and raised the equivalent of another 4 percent in new equity.  But euro area banks have written off just 1 percent of their loans, and have raised their capital base by only 0.7 percent, leaving them highly vulnerable even before their exposure to sovereign debt has become a central issue.  Their vulnerability is increased because they have always been far more dependent for their funding on the short term and confidence-dependent wholesale markets, and  countries within the euro zone are able to do far less in the face of capital flight than, say, Britain.

Of course in 2008, governments could fund the rescue of indebted banks; in 2011, indebted governments are finding that more difficult. For they know that even after they recapitalize the banks, they have still to deal with the even bigger financial problem of funding the borrowing needs of the most at-risk countries: Greece, Ireland, Spain Portugal and Italy, which could cost as much as $2 trillion in the years to 2014.

It is thus clear that the 400 billion euro rescue fund, the European stability fund, is wholly inadequate to address this profound failure across the European financial system, and that without a mechanism for fiscal coordination the euro cannot easily survive. A few days ago, U.S. Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner said that “the critical imperative is to ensure that the governments and the financial systems under pressure have access to a more powerful financial backstop.”

Europe’s Lehman moment

By Jeffry A. Frieden
The opinions expressed are his own.

Europe is in the midst of its variant of the great debt crisis that hit the United States in 2008. Fears abound that if things go wrong, the continent will face its own “Lehman moment” – a recurrence of the sheer panic that hit American and world markets after the collapse of Lehman Brothers in October 2008. How did Europe arrive at this dire strait? What are its options? What is likely to happen?

Europe is retracing steps Americans took a couple of years ago. Between 2001 and 2007 the United States went on a consumption spree, and financed it by borrowing trillions of dollars from abroad. Some of the money went to cover a Federal fiscal deficit that developed after the Bush tax cuts of 2001 and 2003; much of it went to fund a boom in the country’s housing market. Eventually the boom became a bubble and the bubble burst; when it did, it brought down the nation’s major financial institutions – and very nearly the rest of the world economy. The United States is now left to pick up the pieces in the aftermath of its own debt crisis.

Europe’s debtors went through much the same kind of borrowing cycle. For a decade, a group of countries on the edge of the Euro zone borrowed massively from Northern European banks and investors. In Spain, Portugal, and Ireland, most of the borrowed money flooded into the overheated housing market. “At the height of the building boom,” Menzie Chinn and I write in our new book, Lost Decades: The Making of America’s Debt Crisis and the Long Recovery:

from Ian Bremmer:

Slaughtering the PIIGS

By Ian Bremmer
The opinions expressed are his own.

Nobody likes to be called PIIGS. For years, Europe’s so-called peripheral countries -- Portugal, Italy, Ireland, Greece and Spain -- have complained about this acronym, but the euro zone’s sovereign debt problems have only entrenched it further. Yet, it’s time to acknowledge that the PIIGS have a point. They don’t deserve to be lumped together. Their actions and their circumstances have sharply diverged over the past three years.

Some of the PIIGS, let’s call them peripherals, have accepted the need for painful austerity measures. Spain’s government beat its deficit reduction targets last year. That’s a result that should impress outsiders, including powerhouse Germany, where lawmakers have worked hard to persuade voters that profligate countries won’t be bailed out until they have proven they can mend their spendthrift ways. Protests against the belt-tightening have been limited and surprisingly peaceful given Spain 21% unemployment rate.

The conservative People’s Party, which has already pledged its commitment to both austerity and the euro zone, looks headed for a win in Spain’s November elections. That’s in part because Socialist Prime Minister Jose Luis Zapatero has pushed hard to implement so many of the plans called for by Germany and European institutions over the objections of his party’s political base, including a plan to amend Spain’s constitution to legally require both the central government and autonomous communities to meet deficit targets that go beyond the levels set by the EU.

Five ways to correct the Greek debt crisis

By Mohamed El-Erian
This piece is the English version of the one that appeared in Handelsblatt. The opinions expressed are his own.

Not a day goes by without a flood of comments on Greece and its debt problems. They seem to come from everywhere. Some are later denied while others are left to stand, accompanied by a continuous string of worrisome data. In the process, even greater disorder is gaining hold of the country’s debt markets, with credit spreads exploding in an ever more alarming fashion.

There is a risk that all this could serve to confuse rather than illuminate the key issues that should be on the radar screen of many, whether they are policymakers or normal citizens. I can think of five such issues.

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 The Great Debate UK:

Not much stress, not much test

-Laurence Copeland is professor of finance at Cardiff University Business School. The opinions expressed are his own.-

Back in the 1950’s, when most women stayed at home while their menfolk went out to work, a favourite trick of life insurance salesmen was to walk into the prospect’s home at dinner time and ask the wife:

“Mrs Smith, have you ever thought what would happen if your husband keeled over and had a heart attack right now?”

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.

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.

Embrace reality, not fight speculation

Stock up on canned goods, the authorities appear to be opening a new front in the War Against Speculation; this time taking aim at the people who might profit from Greece and its European partners’ woes.

Just days after the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission voted new limits on short selling, Germany is investigating the credit default swap trading of speculators to try to prevent them from profiting from any bailout of Greece.

“It would be bad if it were to emerge after a rescue that the money had gone into the pockets of speculators,” a source with knowledge of the efforts told Reuters.

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