Europe’s economic situation is viewed with far less concern than was the case six, 12 or 18 months ago. Policymakers in Europe far prefer engaging the United States on a possible trade and investment agreement to more discussion on financial stability and growth. However, misplaced confidence can be dangerous if it reduces pressure for necessary policy adjustments.
There is a striking difference between financial crises in memory and as they actually play out. In memory, they are a concatenation of disasters. As they play out, the norm is moments of panic separated by lengthy stretches of apparent calm. It was eight months from the Korean crisis to the Russian default in 1998; six months from Bear Stearns’s demise to Lehman Brothers’ fall in 2008.
Is Europe out of the woods? Certainly a number of key credit spreads, particularly in Spain and Italy, have narrowed substantially. But the interpretation of improved market conditions is far from clear. Restrictions limit pessimistic investors’ ability to short European debt. Regulations enable local banks to treat government debt as risk-free, and they can fund it at the European Central Bank (ECB) on better-than-market terms. The suspicion exists that, if necessary, the ECB would come in strongly and bail out bondholders. Remissions sometimes are followed by cures and sometimes by relapses.
A worrisome recent indicator in much of Europe is the substantial tendency of stock and bond prices to move together. When sentiment improves in healthy countries, stock prices rise and bond prices fall as risk premiums decline and interest rates rise. In unhealthy economies, however, as in much of Europe today, bonds are seen as risk assets, so they are moving, like stocks, in response to changes in sentiment.
Perhaps it should not be surprising that Europe still looks to be in serious trouble. Growth has been dismal; the euro-zone gross domestic product has been below its 2007 level for six years, and little growth is forecast this year. For every Ireland, where there is a sense that a corner is being turned, there is a France, where questions increasingly arise about the political and economic sustainability of policy.