Euro election fever
We will return on Monday knowing whether the Greeks have elected a pro-bailout government and probably to find socialist Francois Hollande – the man leading the growth strategy charge – as the new French president.
An Hollande victory could cause some jitters given his rhetoric about the world of finance. But we’ve looked at this pretty forensically and there may not be much to scare the horses. Yes he is making growth a priority (but even the IMF is saying that’s a good idea) yet his only fiscal shift is to aim to balance the budget a year later than incumbent Nicolas Sarkozy would. Contrary to some reports, he is not intent on ripping up the EU’s fiscal pact and of course the bond market will only allow so much leeway.
The heavyweight Economist magazine may have labelled socialist Hollande “dangerous” but the reality is likely to be that he will rule from the centre and his demands for a dash for growth — and a change to the ECB’s mandate to aid it — will be tempered. Spain has shown everybody that too much fiscal loosening will be pounced upon by the bond market and while there is a lot of talk about a growth strategy for Europe, what we’ve heard so far amounts to tinkering.
While an Hollande victory looks priced in, Greece still has some power to shock the euro zone.
If the two main Greek parties – PASOK and New Democracy – fail to win enough votes to govern together, they may have to turn to a fringe anti-bailout party which would put a big question mark over Athens’ ability to stick with the austerity terms demanded by its international lenders. However, the threat of contagion, while still alive, has shrunk. With creditors already having taken a massive haircut, most non-Greek banks completely out or at least having written down anything they hold, a 500 billion euros rescue fund shortly to be in place and the IMF raising an extra $430 billion of its own, the power Greece has to start a domino effect in the euro zone is diminished. The caveat to that is, if it has to be cut some slack by the EU and IMF, Portugal and Ireland would presumably demand the same and then the whole austerity edifice starts to look wobbly again.
Despite the much vaunted growth strategy, the focus remains on structural reforms (which will take years to bear fruit) plus reconfiguring of some EU funds and a beefed up European Investment Bank. It will help, or at least can’t hurt, but what’s being discussed so far does not look like anything like a game changer, breaking the spiral of debt-cutting deepening economic downturns which in turn will make it yet harder to cut debt.
And those who really count — Merkel and Draghi at the top of the list — insist the austerity drive must not be dimmed. The markets would probably respond well to growth measures which did not undermine debt reduction. But that’s some trick.
On top of the Greek and French elections there is a state election in Germany and local polls in Italy which will show how much damage has been done to the traditional parties while technocrat Mario Monti runs the country. Low turnout could indicate growing dissatisfaction with austerity.