If Der Spiegel is correct, the German finance ministry is drafting rescue plans to prevent default on the edges of the eurozone leading to a full-blown collapse of Europe’s monetary system.
By Ambrose Evans-Pritchard
This is an entirely appropriate policy in economic terms. One dreads to think what would happen if the world’s twin reserve currency were to disintegrate at this stage.
But what about the solemn pledge to voters by Germany’s political elites – promiscuously given over the years – that monetary union would never leave them on the hook for the debts of half Europe?
The vast imbalances that have been allowed to build up under the seductive protection of EMU leave German taxpayers facing bail-out liabilities that exceed the cost of reparations after the First World War in proportional terms.
The political ground has not been prepared for this. EMU was foisted on the German people without a referendum, in the face of deep public scepticism and scathing criticisms by the professoriat. This failure to secure a mandate for such a revolutionary undertaking is coming back to haunt them.
Berlin is at last having to deliver on the Faustian bargain made by Germany’s political class when it swapped the D-Mark for French acquiescence in reunification. It must either go the whole way towards EMU fiscal union and take responsibility for Italy’s public debt (111pc of GDP by next year), Austria’s loans to Eastern Europe (70pc of GDP), the adventures of Ireland’s ‘Canary Dwarf’ (€400bn or so in liabilities), and Spain’s housing collapse (1m unsold homes), or jeopardize its half-century investment in the political order of post-war Europe. Letting EMU fail at this stage would have far higher costs than never having launched the project in the first place.
The alleged bail-out options include “bilateral bonds” where big brother countries agree to shoulder the credit risk for siblings, (who vouches for Italy and Spain?), or some form of EU bond.
For now, the bail-out talk has cowed speculators. The euro has rallied after weeks of sharp descent against the dollar. Credit default swaps (CDS) on Irish debt have fallen back below the red alert level of 400 basis points. But it has not been lost on the markets that Germany’s own CDS spreads have risen to a record 86. Are traders starting to ask whether Berlin is in a fit state to rescue anybody?
The German economy contracted at an 8.4pc annual rate in the fourth quarter as exports to Eastern Europe, Club Med, and the Anglo-sphere collapsed.
Last week chief economist Jurgen Stark attempted to head off the bail-out plans, reminding Berlin last week that rescues are prohibited by EU law. This is not strictly true – Article 100.2 allows aid in “exceptional circumstances” – but it gives powerful cover to anybody wishing to oppose the Steinbruck policy.
But whatever the legal theory, the political reality is that 700,000 Germans are going to lose their jobs this year as unemployment rises to 4.3m (IFO Institute). Voters are not going to look kindly on any party seen to divert German savings to Ireland or Club Med.
Architects of EMU were well aware that a one-size-fits-all monetary policy for vastly disparate nations would create serious tensions over time. They gambled that this would work to their advantage. The EU would be forced to create new machinery to safeguard its investment in the euro. It would be a “beneficial crisis”, bringing about the great leap forward to full union.
We are about to find out if they were right.