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Why I am not optimistic about Europe

I was on RT last Friday talking about the European sovereign debt crisis with Liz Wahl. The video is below but i have a few thoughts to add here as well.

I am not at all optimistic about the euro zone in terms of policy makers fashioning a solution to the problem. The euro leaders have the diagnosis all wrong. They keep harping on government debt and deficits as if that’s the problem. And this has caused them to go all in for austerity without a backup plan. The reality is that the sovereign debt crisis in Europe is not about government debt; it’s about private debt and intra-euro zone imbalances.

Look at Spain, for example. The government’s budget was in surplus throughout most of the 2000s. In fact, Germany, which is a AAA-rated country had a fiscal record significantly worse than Spain’s over the decade leading up to crisis. Yet Spain is now facing crisis. And it’s been almost two years since I wrote how Spain is the perfect example of a country that never should have joined the euro zone. The evidence is right in front of our noses. Yet euro area leaders still don’t get it.

Quoting from a post last week on Wolfgang Münchau and his analysis of the euro crisis, here’s why we see the debt and deficit fixation:

it’s because the government deficit story is an easier narrative to tell and simpler to attack within the existing institutional limitations of Euroland. That makes some sense politically, but it tells me that this crisis will continue to get worse.

So what is going to happen is that the periphery will swallow the bitter austerity pill only to find it doesn’t help. They will then all be forced one by one into the Greek death spiral. Portugal, for example, is seeing its CDS spreads rise alarmingly high – as if they will soon move into Greek territory. Spain and Italy are where the rubber will meet the road.

We do know that the Europeans won’t let Spain and Italy default. That much is now clear. So I think we will have to see another crisis which threatens either of those two nations before we get a more definitive policy response. This will probably occur sometime this year. Remember, we’ve been here before.

Meanwhile, as I say in the video below, the ratings downgrades are meaningless. Traders of European countries’ sovereign debt have long been signalling they see credit deterioration everywhere outside of Germany. And that means, politically that Germany will be asked to pony up. They will balk. But when the next crisis in Europe comes – and that will be Portugal in all probability – we’ll just have to see what the politics are. I think the ECB and Germany will step in with support as they have done before. But they will need to see another crisis before they are willing to do so. There is always the potential for policy errors depending on the political situation.

Bottom line: I am pessimistic about Europe right now. But I am always hopeful that policy makers eventually get it right when evidence of policy failure mounts.

I will be on CNBC this afternoon at 2PM talking about the FOMC meeting and other stuff like the euro zone. Tune in. If you miss it, I will post the video at some point later.

RT video below

About 

Edward Harrison is the founder of Credit Writedowns and a former career diplomat, investment banker and technology executive with over twenty years of business experience. He is also a regular economic and financial commentator on BBC World News, CNBC Television, Business News Network, CBC, Fox Television and RT Television. He speaks six languages and reads another five, skills he uses to provide a more global perspective. Edward holds an MBA in Finance from Columbia University and a BA in Economics from Dartmouth College. Edward also writes a premium financial newsletter. Sign up here for a free trial.

5 Comments

  1. Alexzander says:

    I guess the reason I am not optimistic about Europe is that all of this drama distracts the Eurozone from doing anything constructive to really encourage growth.  Its like watching a once-wealthy guy fight it out with his creditors and mostly win.  It still does not change the fact that he is busted broke and should get back to efforts that build wealth, not play games with creditors.  

    Five years more of this and what will Europe have?  Five years of supreme effort to simply stay where they are.  Sad really. 

    • Right, I agree that it’s about growth. More and more, euro leaders are saying this. Rajoy, Monti, Lagarde are all screaming growth as has S&P. So I am hoping this will sink in as the present path fails.

      Clearly, they should cut the cord on Greek debt, recap the banks, give the rest of the periphery slack while Germany increases (business) spending. Europe desperately needs growth from somewhere and if it isn’t Germany, who is it going to be.

      • edward you are of course correct. But, do not forget that in the current German “zeitgeist” this is all a morality play of virtuous thrift vs. profligate southern spendthrifts. I could see Germany allowing the ECB to bail out the periphery in some fashion, but culturally it is difficult to see the entire society (as implied by increase business spending) making the count of adjustments needed for rebalancing.

  2. Christophe Vivet says:

    It is true that the real problem behind the EZ crisis is due to imbalances between the various nations, and it is in term of current account that theses imbalances have materialized.
    But regarding solutions to fix the crisis, the connection does exist with the fiscal balance.
    The constraint applied on domestic demand by austerity policy reduces the gap between savings generated domesticaly and the total financing needs of an economy. This gap being the current account balance, which is what we want to fix to solve the imbalances inside the EZ.
    Obviously, during the initial fall of the economy’s growth rate, the fiscal deficit might not improve much, and may even get worse. But this is the flip side to an increase of the private sector’s net savings.
    But still, what is really important for the EZ is the improvement in current account balance of the periphery, which will provide in a second phase new financing margins for the public or the private sector, depending the one that needs to deleverage.
    Also, higher yields are crucial for the rebalancing. Of course they must stay inside a manageable range. But higher yields versus nominal growth is what allows a structural increase of the domestic savings relatively to financing needs.
    With Germany being in the inverse situation than the one of the periphery, and France in the middle, that’s just the unwind of what prevailed during the 2000s.
    A rebalancing of the EZ is indeed taking place…