Europe’s clear and present danger to U.S. economy

Jason Lange contributed to this post.

Suddenly the shoe is on the other foot. The financial crisis of 2007-2008 had its roots in the U.S. banking system and then spread to Europe. Now, it’s Europe’s political debacle that threatens economic growth in the United States.

A recent raft of better U.S. economic data, including a steep drop in weekly jobless claims reported on Thursday, have pointed to a swifter recovery. But such signals seem a bit futile when there’s a risk of another major global financial meltdown lurking.

Yet just what is the likely impact of the euro zone’s morass on the United States? Economists at Goldman Sachs ran some figures through their models, and the results were not pretty: overall, Europe’s crisis is likely to shave a full percentage point off U.S. economic growth.  In a world where economists have come to expect the “new normal” for U.S. growth to be around 2.5 percent, that could mean the difference between a decent recovery and one that is highly fragile and vulnerable to shocks.

Goldman’s analysis focuses on so-called counterparty risk – the exposure of U.S. financial institutions to European lenders.

Euro area banks–including both the head office and the US subsidiaries–currently hold about $1.8 trillion in claims on US counterparties, or 3.3% of total US debt outstanding. If they were to cut their lending to US residents by 25%–an admittedly arbitrary number but roughly equal to the peak pace seen in the 2008-2009 financial crisis–this would imply a 0.8% hit to US debt outstanding. Prior research suggests that such a hit could shave 0.4 percentage points off US growth, all else equal.

What the euro crisis is not

With Southern Europe getting so much of the blame for the continent’s financial crisis, it is refreshing to see someone highlight the other side of the coin. That’s just what Joshua Rosner, managing director of Graham Fisher & Co., did in testimony on Thursday. Asked to discuss the potential risk to U.S. taxpayers of the ongoing political battle over a frayed monetary union, Fisher began his remarks by debunking the reigning narratives being used to describe the crisis:

To fully assess the risks to the United States and our proper role in the euro zone  crisis it must first be clear what the crisis is and is not. It is not a bailout of the populations of the weaker European economies such as Greece, Ireland, Portugal, Italy, Spain, Hungary or Belgium. After all, the populations of those countries are being forced to give up portions of their sovereignty in the name of austerity toward a fiscal union.

Rather, I would contend, it is a bailout of banks in the core countries of Europe, of their stockholders and creditors who, failing to gain sufficient access capital markets, would need to be recapitalized by their host country governments. It is a transfer of losses from banks and corporations onto the backs of ordinary people without requiring any recognition of losses by those banks whose risk management and lending practices created the problem. It is as much a tale of over lending as it is of over borrowing and, just as nobody should feel undue sympathy for those who miscalculated the amount of debt they could service, nobody should feel for those who miscalculated their lending risks.

Contagion strikes Europe’s core

Any lingering illusion that the European crisis could be contained to so-called peripheral countries with high debt levels was shattered on Wednesday. German government bonds, which had thus far been seen as a safe-haven, slumped sharply after investors shunned the country’s auction of new 10-year debt.

Germany drew significantly less bids than the amount on offer for its Bunds, with investors deterred by very low yields. There is a growing view the euro zone powerhouse will pay a high price whatever the outcome of the regional debt crisis. If the crisis spirals out of control, some fear that it could reach a magnitude that would hit Germany as well by sending it into a deep recession. On the other hand, any solution to the crisis is likely to involve a higher fiscal bill for Germany.

Marc Ostwald at Monument Securities in London describe the auction as “a complete and utter disaster.” He continued:

from Anooja Debnath:

When it comes to recessions, 40 is the new 50

If it were about age, 40-somethings would cringe. But it seems a dead certainty that 40 now means 50 -- or even higher -- when it comes to predicting the chances of a recession taking place.

Going by past Reuters polls of economists, every time the probability hits 40 percent, the recession's already started or is perilously close to doing so.

After the brief recovery period from the Great Recession, Reuters once again started surveying economists several months ago on the chances of developed economies stumbling back into the muck.

Euro zone crisis: It’s Germany’s fault

The reigning narrative of Europe’s financial turmoil is that profligate European states, agglomerated all too offensively by a swine-referenced acronym, are forcing the continent’s wealthy, prudent northern countries to come to their rescue. Not so, according to two policy experts who spoke this week at a conference on the euro zone crisis at the University of Austin’s Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs.

They argue that labor reforms in Germany prevented the wages of manufacturing workers from rising after monetary union had been completed, making the country more competitive at the expense of its southern peers. Joerg Bibow, a professor of economics at Skidmore College, gives his view of events:

Germany’s wage trends have been the most important cause of the euro zone crisis. Those wage trends created an asymmetric shock that destabilized Europe.

Europe sobers up after Italian auction

After a hopeful couple of weeks and the ”euphoria” caused by an agreement to tackle the euro zone debt crisis, financial markets got a reality check from Italy’s sale of 7.94 billion euros of government bonds. The debt met lower demand than at previous auctions, forcing the country to pay the highest premium since joining the single currency to sell 10-year debt.

The results suggest markets did not think the euro zone rescue deal — which includes an agreement on the write-down of Greek debt, recapitalisation of European banks and leveraging of the euro zone rescue fund – went far enough to restore investor appetite for Italian debt.

Italian yields rose as high as 6.03 percent near levels not seen since early August, when the European Central Bank first began purchasing Italian and Spanish bonds in the secondary market to bring funding costs down to more affordable levels. Brian Barry, analyst at Evolution Securities, says that move alone speaks volumes:

Germany in catch-22 as debt insurance costs hit record

So much for Germany being insulated from the euro zone’s troubled periphery. German credit default swaps are already beginning to price in the country’s worst nightmare: that it will have to pay a hefty bill for a deepening euro zone debt crisis.

The cost of insuring 5-year German debt against default rose more than 50 percent over the past month to a record high of 118 basis points.  French CDS rose  around 11 percent over the same period to 189 basis points, according to Markit data. The rise indicates investors are beginning to associate greater risk to holding German debt, even as the triple-A rated bond continues to benefit from safe-haven flows. German Bund futures saw their biggest quarterly rise between July and September since the launch of the euro.

The problem is Germany, the largest sovereign contributor to bailout funds already agreed for Greece, Portugal and Ireland, is expected to pay a high price for any solution to the debt crisis or, given its banks’ high exposure to peripheral debt, for any failure to resolve it.

Money supply spike as a fear gauge

“Inflation is always and everywhere a monetary phenomenon.” That insight of Milton Friedman’s underpins the general perception of a rising money supply as associated with a booming economy. So why, as Europe teeters and the United States struggles, have U.S. monetary aggregates like M1 and M2 been spiking sharply in the last two months? According to Paul Ashworth, chief economist at Capital Economics, it is a knee-jerk reaction to fear, which has driven investors away from European securities and into dollar-denominated deposits:

The surge in M2 over the past couple of months is very similar to the one seen after the collapse of Lehman Brothers three years ago.  … The shift clearly reflects renewed concerns about the health of banks in light of their exposure to euro-zone sovereign debt. In particular, investors are withdrawing their money from accounts at foreign banks.

Dramatic ending to Greek tragedy

Greece is in the danger zone. Even as the country’s finance minister sought to reassure his euro zone counterparts at a meeting in Poland, Greek credit default swaps were pricing in a more than 90 percent chance of default, according to Reuters calculations of Markit data. Economists in a Reuters poll see a 65 percent chance of that happening, probably within a year.

Such fears recently sent jitters across financial markets, prompting some words of comfort from German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Nicolas Sarkozy that they are determined to keep Greece in the euro zone. But speculation is growing that Greece will default, and that it will be a messy ordeal. Here are some of the potential dangers if it occurs:

* Greece may be seen as setting a precedent for Portugal and Ireland, analysts said. Yields on peripheral euro zone debt could surge rapidly, making funding costs increasingly unsustainable as yields on Italian and Spanish 10-year bonds surge back towards 7 percent. The ECB could have to intervene more aggressively in the secondary bond market to the detriment of its balance sheet.

Italy under fire as debt crisis heats up

It’s been a rough week for the euro zone and Italy is feeling the pain.

Despite regular purchases of Italian bonds by the European Central Bank since August — a policy aimed at keeping funding costs affordable — yields on benchmark 10-year Italian government bonds rose as high as 5.6 percent this week. Before the ECB started intervening in the secondary market, yields surged above 6 percent. Beyond 7 percent, funding costs are perceived to be unsustainable.

This raises questions over the effectiveness of ECB policy – doubts heightened  by the shock news that the central bank’s chief economist Juergen Stark would leave the institution early because of disagreements over the bank’s bond-buying policy.

The news highlights the rift inside the central bank over the handling of the worsening debt crisis. It drew a dramatic close  to a week of uncertainty: a debt swap meant to help Greece avoid default hung in balance;  a row over collateral for Greek bailout loans remained unresolved; and national parliaments had yet to ratify increased powers for the euro zone’s rescue fund.