Daily Telegraph: Will Germany deliver on the Faustian bargain that created monetary union?

DAILY TELEGRAPH
Monday 23.2.08

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.

⁂ European Central Bank capitulating in face of crisis

Two similar articles from newspapers on the political Right and Left forwarded for your information by Anthony Coughlan:

TELEGRAPH
Tuesday 24.2.09

ECB faces mutiny from national bank governors as recession deepens
- The European Central Bank is capitulating.

By Ambrose Evans-Pritchard

For months the ECB held sternly to the high ground of orthodoxy as the US, Japanese, British, Canadian, Swiss and Swedish central banks slashed rates towards zero and embraced quantitative easing, but a confluence of fast-moving events is now forcing it to move.

The credit default swaps that measure bankruptcy risk on the debts of Ireland, Austria and a clutch of Latin Bloc states have vaulted to dangerous levels. In the case of Ireland, the slump is spilling on to the streets. Some 120,000 marched through Dublin over the weekend to protest austerity measures.

The slow fuse on Eastern Europe’s banking crisis has detonated, leaving Austrian, Belgian, Italian and other West European banks with $1.5 trillion (£1 trillion) in exposure.

It is happening just as industrial output collapses in the eurozone’s core states. Germany’s economy contracted at 8.4pc annualised in the fourth quarter. ECB president Jean-Claude Trichet said on Monday that “a process of negative feedback” has set in where the banks and the real economy are pulling each other down in a self-reinforcing spiral. Eurozone credit is contracting. Banks are rationing credit as deleveraging gathers pace.

Rob Carnell, global strategist at ING, said the ECB has been painfully slow to acknowledge the global deflation tsunami sweeping across Europe.

“It seems divorced from reality. It is clearly nonsense to talk about inflation now: it has been negative on average for six months. The eurozone purchasing managers’ index has fallen twice as fast as in the US, so the ECB should be acting even faster than the Fed,” he said.

Mr Trichet said the ECB has increased its balance sheet by ¤600bn (£525bn) since the Lehman collapse in September. The bank is providing “unlimited liquidity” in exchange for a wide range of collateral, including mortgage bonds issued for the sole purpose of extracting ECB funds.

But the ECB’s leading voices have adamantly refused to contemplate going to the next stage: buying bonds and other assets with “printed money”. They see that as the Primrose path to hell. This week the tone has abruptly changed, suggesting that a majority of the 16 national bank governors on the ECB council are having second thoughts.

The apparent ring-leader is Cypriot member Anastasios Orphanides, a former Fed official and a world authority on deflation traps. He said on Monday that the ECB may have to go beyond “zero-bound” rates and revealed that an “internal discussion” was under way.

Italy’s Mario Draghi is in the “activist-easing” camp. “The experience in the US in the 1930s and Japan in the 1990s suggests that it is necessary to fight, in the early phases of the crisis, the tendency for real interest rates to rise,” he said.

Finland’s Erkki Liikanen is of the same opinion. “We are facing the worst financial crisis in our time. It is important not to exclude, ex ante, any measures.”

Julian Callow from Barclays Capital said 10 ECB governors are now doves.

This amounts to a mutiny against the Bundesbank-dominated executive in Frankurt. It is no great surprise. They have to answer to their democracies. The plot is thickening.


The Euro, an Illusory Shield against the Crisis ?

L’Humanite, Paris , Thursday 19 February 2009,

by Isabelle Metral (Translated)

Most political leaders of euro-zone countries make it sound as though the single currency has shown its capacity to play a protective role as the financial crisis sweeps across the Old Continent. So much so that today, even the staunchest of the Euro-sceptics (the British, Icelanders, Swedes, or Danes) are supposed to have suddenly realized the advantages of joining the euro…

The claim was made by Joaquin Almunia, European commissioner for economic and monetary affairs, on Tuesday last.

The EU leader’s statement actually betrays a growing concern in the face of signals showing increasing divergences between the different regions or countries of the euro zone. These divergences might eventually lead some countries to consider opting out of the single currency.

The crisis shows up the very serious defects in the original conception of the euro.

Entirely obsessed as they were with the stability criteria put forward by financial markets, those that championed its creation in 1999 were aiming first at a “strong euro” in the hope of luring as much capital as possible to the European market.

Hence the curb on public spending (with the Maastricht treaty), the pressure on wages through the deregulation of labour markets that diminished labour’s negotiating power. “The euro has brought war over exchange rates to an end, but it has exacerbated competition over prices,” rightly claimed Jean-Paul Fitoussi, president of the Observatoire français des conjonctures économiques

Today, the deepening crisis and the effect of the competition between states that sink deeper and deeper into debt have the additional effect – a refinement on the earlier stages – of bringing the pressure of competition to bear on the States’ capacity to meet their debts (in treasury bonds).

Indeed, if euro zone countries are united by the single currency and the European Central Bank, the rates at which they get loans, and the conditions attached to them, vary from one country to the next. Before the crisis, the spreads remained quite limited. But with the plunge into recession, and the gigantic assistance granted by the various states through bank bail-outs or economic stimulus plans, this is no longer true.

Spain and Ireland, for instance, which until a short time ago, were still praised as models of economic success by pro-marketers in Brussels and elsewhere, are now going through a period of fierce turbulence. As a result, they are at a disadvantage on financial markets and find it difficult to raise money.

Sovereign loans in the euro- one consequently tend to be widely spread. The risk premiums demanded from the frailest countries are soaring, unlike those demanded of Germany, which is still considered an exemplary borrower. The benchmark rate for German (Bund) loans over 10 years last Monday stood at 2.98%, much lower than that of France (3.50%), or of Spain (4.13%) or, above all, of Greece (5.47%).

The over-rated credit rating agencies were not slow in down-grading Madrid and Athens. Downgrading a state amounts to casting suspicion on its ability to pay back its debts as settled, in the best conditions.

In such circumstances, some countries that are strangled by the service of an increasingly heavy debt might be tempted simply to leave the euro ship. To ease the stranglehold, they might try devaluing their restored national currency as a last resource, in order to boost their exports.

This prospect has made the fortune of the managers of the Intrade site where, for the last few months, it has been possible to bet on one or several of the sixteen euro-zone countries opting out of the euro. The contract expires at the end of 2010.

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