Opinion

The Great Debate

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:

One Spanish worker of every seven was employed in housing construction. Half a million new homes were being built every year—roughly equal to all the new homes in Italy, France, and Germany combined—in a country with about 16 million households. The amount of housing loans outstanding skyrocketed from $180 billion in 2000 to $860 billion in 2007. Over the ten years to 2007, housing prices tripled,second only to Ireland among developed countries; by then, the average house in Madrid cost an unheard-of $400,000. (pp. 49-50)

Greece was a different story. It borrowed, as we write, “mostly to finance a continual budget deficit and an American-style consumption boom.”

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.

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.

Watch banks for clues on Greece

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

As odd as it sounds, concerns about the effects of a euro zone sovereign crisis on Europe’s still poorly capitalized banks may prove to be the tipping point that leads to a swifter bailout of Greece.

While discussion of contagion may seem very 2008, the problems with Greece, which faces a huge fiscal deficit, are becoming tougher for euro zone authorities to leave uninsured.

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.

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