What Are We To Do by LIN SEE-YAN
Link between joint liability of debts and good behaviour is missing
AP Photo A beggar sits in Via Montenapoleone shopping street in downtown Milan, Italy, Tuesday, Dec.13, 2011. Further signs of stress emerged Tuesday to indicate that Europe’s most recent summit agreement to get the euro countries to bind their economies much closer together has only made limited progress in pulling the continent out of its debt crisis. While figures showed that Europe’s banks parked more money at the European Central Bank than they have at any other time this year, Italy’s borrowing rates in the markets ratcheted even higher and back towards the levels that forced Greece, Ireland and Portugal into seeking financial bailouts.
The euro “Merkozy” deal agreed last weekend targeting deeper euro-integration was a step in the right direction but did not offer the big bazooka that could really ease market tension. It’s only part of the solution Europe badly needed: it’s not even the solution markets are waiting for.
So far, wanting “more Europe” has come slowly, and grudgingly; but crucially, lacked proper leadership to deal with a truly systemic crisis. What’s paralyzing the euro-zone is a flaw buried deep within the monetary union’s structure what one writer identified as “the unresolved conflict between the needs of the euro and the independence of its members.” Put differently, the link between joint liability of debts and good behaviour is missing.
Looking back, all those wasted years of skirting the underlying problems, causing rising budget deficits and building massive debt exploded in late 2009 when Greece first toppled into crisis. The euro-zone tried to stanch the problem with a bailout in May ’10 to no avail because Greece is bankrupt; and did nothing to squelch contagion. By this summer, Ireland and Portugal had collapsed into bailouts as well; with Italy and Spain now at risk of default.
Leaders had pressured countries into gut-wrenching austerity and reform arrangements to stabilise their debt and cut deficits in the hope of rebuilding investor confidence. That strategy failed. Other agreements have also drifted. The 2nd Greece bailout in July came to naught, while the plan to boost the firepower of EFSF (European Financial Stability Facility) has since faltered.
Frustration is building. It culminated in last week’s summit, with high hopes to marshal the might of the entire euro-zone a US$13bil economy to provide an extinguisher powerful enough to put out the debt fire. But all it did was inject more painkillers; not a cure.
The new deal bears the hallmark of yet another in the series of half-measures that doesn’t address increasingly vulnerable banks; or go far enough to instil confidence in the euro-zone’s battered debt markets; and certainly didn’t convince S&P from putting the debt of 15 European economies, including Germany, on negative credit watch, and Moody from cutting the credit ratings on France’s top three banks. Sure, there has been progress but not enough to provide a defining resolution. Leaders are flirting with risk as Europe is going into recession. We have seen this movie before. The deal involves a promise by everyone to be a little more German about their spending and debt. The consensus now is that the 17-nation euro-zone bloc’s GDP growth will contract by up to 1% in 2012, sharply below this year’s already poor growth of 1%.
There was little in the deal to address the drastic loss of investor confidence. Euro-zone borrowing costs have resumed rising this week. Stock markets have retreated after an initial relief rally as optimism faded. The euro had since sunk below US$1.30, some 12% from its peak in May. The new “comprehensive” set of measures making-up the euro-zone’s “fiscal compact” failed to calm markets; it included the following:-
- Constitutional amendment to balance the fiscal budget. The European Union’s (EU) Court of Justice would verify that each country had a compliant debt brake in its laws, but with no oversight from Brussels.
- The new “stability union” will adopt a “golden rule” to ensure structural deficits (i.e. adjusted for boom and bust of economic cycles) below 0.5% of GDP. For breaching the 3% of GDP deficit limit, nations will suffer “automatic consequences,” unless member states vote to block them.
- The 500-billion-euro European Stability Mechanism (ESM) to replace the existing bailout fund (EFSF) will be set up in March ’12 (instead of 2013).
- A 200-billion-euro contribution to the IMF (International Monetary Fund) for on-lending to enhance the firepower of ESM to help Europe.
- No more “hair-cuts” for private holders of dodgy euro-zone sovereign debts.
- New treaty to change EU’s foundational pacts. With UK’s rejection, 17 euro countries and up to 9 of 10 EU nations not using the euro will form a separate pact outside the EU structure.
Prior to the summit, ECB took two decisive steps to shore up the euro-zone: cutting interest rate to a record low of 1% to soften the looming recession, and crucially extending longer-term liquidity to Europe’s cash-starved banks. Reserve ratios were also lowered. But ECB managed to avoid mounting pressure to buy more troubled states’ bonds.
As I see it, on the moral hazard side, there is no multi-trillion bail-out funds and no promise by ECB to become lender of last resort to monetise everyone’s debt, at least for now. However, the use of the European Court of Justice as final arbiter of rectitude is far from persuasive. Much of the new deal is reflective of the failed “stability and growth pact” that was around when the euro was launched, and which both Germany and France breached shortly thereafter.
Such rules will inevitably be broken because when it comes to fundamental rights to tax and spend, governments will always follow the dictates of national electorates rather than Brussels. No court has the political legitimacy to confront Italian or French unions when there is social unrest in the streets over budget cuts; the court won’t have the stomach to enforce its decisions. When German rectitude faces Italian or Spanish politics, we know who will get the upper hand.
Yet, for me, the irony is that EU had already agreed less than three months ago to rules that do much of what the new deal is now seeking to accomplish. They did so without having to endure the ordeal of changing EU treaties. The “six pack” arrangements were approved after nearly a year of tortuous negotiations. In broad strokes, they would have already established the framework of a more integrated EU.
How to revive confidence? The big problem lies in economic growth, or the lack of it. Most Europeans still believe in the direct linkage between spending and economic growth. So, the balanced budget requirement will work only with tax increases eternally matching higher spending. This implies a “long-term austerity gap.” As of now, Europe needs major spending cuts and fiscal reform. But politicians outside Germany are hoping ECB will eventually come to the rescue. At present, the ECB stands firm and won’t play ball. So the political pressure mounts.
The new deal simply means continued austerity in the euro-zone’s periphery without any offsetting impact of devaluation or stimulus at the core. Unemployment already at 10.3% will continue to rise, placing pressure on households (and youths in Spain, youth unemployment approaches 50%), governments and banks. Anti-European sentiment will continue to grow, and populist parties will prosper. Violence and social unrest will prevail.
Unfortunately, the new deal has no place for institutional changes to avert such a scenario. I am afraid if such changes are politically not possible, then the euro is doomed. It’s a matter of time. As post ’08 record shows, the biggest deficit in Europe these days is in ideas to spur growth and in the lack of political will to enact them. Already, in France, its Socialist Party presidential candidate is picking up on this undue emphasis on austerity; stressing Europe’s need for growth to get out of the crisis: “if there is no growth, none of the objectives will be reached.” Alas, Europe’s present leadership seems to have no stomach for this option. So I am afraid we are stuck with more summit sequels and the certainty of more uncertainty. Investors’ confidence will not return.
Looks like the euro-zone firewall still looks inadequate. As of now, plans to leverage the EFSF are mired in technical details. The combined size of EFSF and ESM is capped at an insufficient 500 billion euro. An infusion of 200 billion euro through the IMF is not game changing. Even so this measure is controversial.
ECB has indicated that earmarking is illegal. Moreover, IMF’s shareholders aren’t uniformly keen about directing cash to rich Europe. The US has parliamentary problems; so do Germany, Austria, Czech, Poland and Ireland, not to mention Holland and Finland. Pressure by S&P to downgrade and by Moody’s, including denying the likes of France AAA rating, has been priced-in to some markets. Nevertheless, there is still potential to shake prices. Further definite downgrades will take another leg down. Moreover, euro-zone is facing significant risk of a recession next year and a credit crunch. Another shock may be needed to get European politicians to all read from the same page.
Already, euro-zone also faces imminent acute funding problems. Member states need to repay over US$1.2 trillion of debt in 2012, mostly due in first half-year. In addition, European banks, heavily dependent on state largesse, have US$665bil of debt coming due by June ’12.
On Germany’s insistence, ECB won’t be allowed to unleash US-style quantitative easing or heavily buy up bonds or even issue euro-zone bonds which I consider critical. Many believe Germany will eventually relent. Its Chancellor has political problems. So, euro-zone’s big test still lies ahead. One thing is clear. The market is weighing in. So long as Spanish/Italian bonds cost more than 6%, the crisis is not fixed; confidence has not yet returned. The refinancing calendar of Europe’s sovereigns is onerous. Pressure will continue to be daunting as long as ECB is not lender of last resort.
The real problem is Europe’s banks remain locked-out of traditional funding markets, leaving them reliant on ECB which is playing it cool. Faced with funding freeze, banks will shrink their balance sheets and strangle growth by not lending. The situation is serious. Euro-zone banks can’t raise cash and won’t lend to each other because of counter-party risk. On top of it all, last week’s “stress tests” suggested Europe’s banks are short of 115 billion euro (up from 106 billion euro in October). No one knows who is really solvent anymore.
For Asia, the growing uncertainty is killing. The series of sequels following each European summit leaves a trail of deals, but not the cure. Investors are growing more nervous in the face of rising risk of recession. As the economic outlook for Europe worsens, Asia’s exporters will experience and expect continued weakening demand. Most exposed will be trading hubs like South Korea, Hong Kong, Taiwan & Singapore. In 2010, Korea’s exports were equal to 45% of GDP, with Europe as its second largest importer. But regional powerhouses, China, Japan and India, are also taking a hit. China is most exposed. Exports accounted for 36% of GDP in 2010 and Europe is its biggest destination (19%). So far, their huge domestic market has shielded them from Europe’s lack of growth, more than their smaller neighbours.
Export focus also matters. European slowdown is already affecting services exports from Hong Kong and Singapore. More cautious consumers in Europe undermine demand for Korean and Taiwanese consumer electronics. China’s dominance at the lower end of the value chain is largely immune to shifts in the economic cycle. But what’s worrisome is the continuing kick-the-can-down-the-road attitude of Europeans which works to prolong the crisis, and translates into reduced investment and employment in manufacturing capacity. The longer the crisis is left unresolved, the worse the impact on Asia.
Lord Keynes wrote in 1921: “about these matters the prospect of a European War, the price of copper 20 years hence there is no scientific basis on which to form any calculable probability whatever. We simply do not know.” And Keynes is right. While the euro enjoys widespread support, spending more money to save it doesn’t.
Germans resent seeing their hard earned cash diverted to rescue Greeks, perceived to be irresponsible. Recent polls show that more than 50% of Germans reject euro-bonds, and 59% oppose further bailouts. We are now stuck with the classic dilemma with austerity politics bringing no growth and no framework for common financing, continuing political intransigence has left politicians with the option to continue kicking-the-can-down-the-road. Like Keynes, we just don’t know how and how far euro-zone politicians will go towards assuming joint liability for debts (euro bonds). At some point, Europeans have to make the fateful choice between national sovereignty and the euro’s well being. Time is of the essence for a real breakthrough. In his recent book, Harvard’s psychologist Steven Pinker argues that mankind is becoming steadily less warlike and predicted that “today we may be living in the most peaceable era in human history.” For now, Pinker offers comfort that we won’t go to war over it he is right.
> Former banker, Dr Lin is a Harvard educated economist and a British Chartered Scientist who now spends time writing, teaching & promoting the public interest. Feedback is most welcome; email: email@example.com