Posts Tagged ‘European Commission’

Back to the Drawing Board for Greece

Monday, July 9th, 2012

International lenders and Greece will renegotiate the program on which the second financial bailout for Athens is based because the original has become outdated, according to a senior Eurozone official.  Greece received a €130-billion bailout in February from the European Union and the International Monetary Fund (IMF).  General elections in May and June delayed the bailout’s implementation.  The United States, the IMF’s largest member, supports discussions to review the Greek bailout program, but German Chancellor Angela Merkel countered that any relaxing of Greece’s reform promises is unacceptable.

“Anybody who would say that we need not, and cannot renegotiate the MoU (memo of understanding) is delusional, because he, or she, would be under the understanding that the whole program, the whole process, has remained completely on track ever since the weeks before the Greek first election,” the official said.  “Because the economic situation has changed, the situation of tax receipts has changed, the rhythm of implementation of the milestones has changed, the rhythm of privatization has changed — if we were not to change the MoU –it does not work.  We would be signing off on an illusion.  So we have to sit down with our Greek colleagues and say: this is where we should be in July, and this is where we are in July, and there is a delta.  Let’s find out what the delta is and then how to deal with the delta — that is a new MoU,” according to the official.

According to the official, representatives of the IMF, the European Central Bank and the European Commission will visit Greece as soon as a new government is in place to review the program’s implementation and prepare for negotiations.  “It is no secret, quite logical in fact, that due to the time passed without a functioning government in place that can take the required decisions, because of this, there have been significant delays,” the official said.  “The conclusion is that they have to engage in discussions on the memorandum of understanding and bring it back onto an even keel.”

Meanwhile at the G-20 summit in Mexico,  leaders of the world’s most powerful economies say they have produced a coordinated global plan for job creation, which it calls the top priority in fighting the effects of the European economic crisis.  The draft says “We are united in our resolve to promote growth and jobs.”

An editorial in the Australian Financial Review warns Europe not to misrepresent the issue. “The optimism that followed Greece’s election has proved to be short-lived as investors acknowledge the poll result doesn’t really change all that much in terms of Europe’s ongoing debt crisis.  Less than a day after Greece pulled back from installing anti-austerity parties in office, European bond markets were once again in meltdown on concerns that Spain, Italy, Portugal and Ireland may need more financial aid to prevent default.  The European Union’s financial ‘firewall’ is clearly not up to the task, with the yield on Spanish 10-year bonds soaring to a Euro-era high of 7.29 percent.  In Athens, talks are under way to form a pro-EU coalition government between the center-right New Democracy party and the socialist Pasok party, reducing the likelihood of a near-term Greek exit from the Eurozone.  Yet rather than insist that Athens stick to the tough conditions it agreed to as part of the EU’s €240 billion ($300 billion) rescue packages, there are signs that European leaders may again be preparing to fudge the issue.  German Chancellor Angela Merkel insists that Athens must stick to its austerity commitments and that there is no room for compromise.  But other European politicians are starting to talk about giving Greece more time to fix its problems.  This appears to confirm the Greeks will never live up to their austerity conditions and that the exercise was all about kicking the can further down the road.”

Devaluation would be the optimal way for Greece to jump start its economy.  Because that option is not on the table this time, achieving competitiveness is going to be much harder.  One of the bailout’s stipulations requires the government to cut pensions, slash the number of public servants and control costs – in other words, the “austerity” option.  Others prefer a program to stimulate growth and boost revenue, although one that would likely involve increased spending.  This is the “growth” option.  Angela Merkel favors austerity while French President Francois Hollande prefers the “growth” option.  In this debate, the Germans are in control because they are the ones that are going to cough up the money.  They have the ability to help because, contrary to most of Europe, they practice austerity and thrift.  If German taxpayers are going to have to pay higher taxes to save nations like Greece, they think their European brothers and sisters should share some of the pain.

According to a Washington Post editorial, Germany and other creditworthy E.U. governments were right to tell Greeks before the election that they could not choose both the Euro and an end to austerity and reforms, as several populist parties were promising.  Yet now that voters favored parties that supported the last bailout package, it’s time for Angela Merkel and other austerity hawks to make their own bow to reality. For Greece to stabilize, some easing of the terms of EU loans will be needed, at a minimum; an extension of deadlines for meeting government spending and deficit targets may also be necessary.  Unless it can deliver such a relaxation, there is not much chance the new administration in Athens will be able to push through the huge reforms still needed to make the economy competitive, including privatizations, deregulation and public sector layoffs.

“In the end, a Greek slide into insolvency and an exit from the euro may still be unavoidable. That’s all the more reason why EU leaders must at last agree on decisive measures to shore up the rest of the currency zone, beginning with Spain and Italy.  Measures under discussion for a summit meeting next week, including euro-area bank regulation, are positive but not sufficient.  In the end, banks and governments must be provided with sufficient liquidity to restore confidence — something that will probably require the issuance of bonds backed by all Euro-area countries, or greatly increased lending by the European Central Bank.  As German officials invariably point out, bailout measures will be wasted unless they are accompanied by significant structural reforms by debtor nations.  But without monetary liquidity, and the chance for renewed growth, the Euro cannot be rescued.”

Is the Eurozone Sustainable?

Thursday, June 14th, 2012

Mario Draghi, president of the European Central Bank (ECB), has asked policymakers to focus their crisis support on solvent Eurozone banks.  “The ECB will continue lending to solvent banks and will keep the liquidity lines active and alive with solvent banks,” Draghi said.

World stock markets have lost roughly $4 trillion as European turmoil proliferated after inconclusive Greek elections and the danger of Spain’s finances being overwhelmed by its banking crisis.  The ECB has taken the lead in fighting the turmoil by infusing the banking system with more than one trillion Euros ($1.24 trillion), cutting its benchmark rate to a record low and purchasing government bonds.  When asked whether the ECB can tame financial turmoil and help cap widening bond spreads, Draghi said that “it’s not our duty, it’s not in our mandate” to “fill the vacuum left by the lack of action by national governments on the fiscal front,” on “the structural front, and on the governance front.”

Draghi favors using the permanent bailout fund, the European Stability Mechanism (ESM), to inject capital into banks.  “People are actually working on finding ways that the ESM could be used to recapitalize banks,” he said.  “ The issue is not so much the use of ESM money to recapitalize banks but whether this could be done directly without having to go to governments.”

Despite the ECB’s efforts, Draghi admits that the setup of the 17-country euro currency union may be unsustainable.  According to Draghi, the financial crisis proved the inadequacy of the financial and economic framework set up for the Eurozone.  “That configuration that we had with us by and large for ten years which was considered sustainable,  I should add, in a perhaps myopic way, has been shown to be unsustainable unless further steps are taken,” he said.

Draghi said the next step “is for our leaders to clarify what is the vision…what is the euro going to look like a certain number of years from now.  The sooner this has been specified, the better it is.”  In 1989, European Commission President Jacques Delors issued a breakthrough report that charted the initial path to the creation and launch of the Euro 10 years later and detailed goals. “The same thing should be done now,” Draghi said.  He compared Europe’s efforts to those of someone crossing a river in thick fog while struggling against a strong current.  “He or she continues fighting but does not see the other side because it is foggy.  What we are asking is, to dispel this fog,” he said.

“Can the ECB fill the vacuum of lack of action by national governments on fiscal growth? The answer is no,” Draghi told the European Parliament.

Ongoing discussions about closer Eurozone economic union have been revived by growing apprehension that Spain may need an international bailout.  June elections in Greece could see major wins by anti-bailout parties, possibly leading to the country’s departure from the Euro.  Asked about the potential for a bank run, Draghi said: “We will avoid bank runs from solvent banks.  Depositors’ money will be protected if we build this European guaranteed deposit fund.  This will assure that depositors will be protected.”

Germany is loath to risk more of its taxpayers’ money to prop up Eurozone partners and has rejected any joint deposit guarantee.  “The financial crisis has heightened risk aversion in a dramatic way,” Draghi said.  “I urge all governments to keep this in mind, because it is better to err by too much in the very beginning rather than by too little,” he said, referring to the failure of regulators to correctly assess the needs of failed Franco-Belgian bank Dexia and Spain’s Bankia.

Bank of Italy governor Ignazio Visco said political inertia and bad economic decisions had put “the entire European edifice” at risk and only a clear path to political union could save the Euro.  “There are now growing doubts among international investors about governments’ cohesion in guiding the reform of European governance and even their ability to ensure the survival of the single currency,” Visco said.

EU Economic and Monetary Affairs Commissioner Olli Rehn said Europe needs tighter budget discipline and more integrated rescue funds to forestall the Euro’s breakup.  “We need a genuine stability culture and a much upgraded common capacity to contain common contagion,” he said.  “This is the case, at least if we want to avoid a disintegration of the euro zone and instead make the euro succeed.”

Eurodammerung?

Wednesday, May 23rd, 2012

Despite Germany’s strong manufacturing output in March, it was not enough to compensate for a slump across the rest of the Eurozone with declining production, a signal that an expected recession may not be as mild as policymakers hope.  Industrial production in the 17 Eurozone countries declined 0.3 percent in March when compared with February, according to the European Union’s (EU) statistics office Eurostat.  Economists had expected a 0.4 percent increase.

The figures stood in stark contrast with German data showing output in the Eurozone’s largest economy rose 1.3 percent in March, according to Eurostat, 2.8 percent when energy and construction are taken into account.  “With the debt crisis, rising unemployment and inflation, household demand is weak and globally economic conditions are sluggish, so that is making people very reluctant to spend and invest,” said Joost Beaumont, a senior economist at ABN Amro.

According to Eurostat, output declined 1.8 percent in Spain; in France — the Eurozone’s second largest economy after Germany — output fell 0.9 percent in March.  Many economists expect Eurostat to announce that the Eurozone went into its second recession in just three years at the end of March, with households suffering the effects of austerity programs designed to slash debt and deficits.

“Industrial production is a timely reminder that first-quarter GDP will likely show a contraction,” said Martin van Vliet, an economist at ING.  “With the fiscal squeeze unlikely to ease soon and the debt crisis flaring up again, any upturn in industrial activity later this year will likely be modest.”  European officials believe that the slump will be mild, with recovery in the 2nd half of this year.  The strong economic data seen in January has unexpectedly faded point to a deeper downturn, with the drag coming from a debt-laden south, particularly Greece, Spain and Italy.

Economists polled by Reuters estimated the Eurozone economy contracted 0.2 percent in the 1st quarter, after shrinking 0.3 percent in the 4th quarter of 2011.  “We suspect that a further slowdown in the service sector meant that the wider economy contracted by around 0.2 percent last quarter,” said Ben May, an economist at Capital Economics.  “What’s more, April’s disappointing survey data for both the industrial and service sectors suggest that the recession may continue beyond the first quarter.”

“It is evident that Eurozone manufacturers are currently finding life very difficult amid challenging conditions,” said Howard Archer at IHS Global Insight. “Domestic demand is being handicapped by tighter fiscal policy in many Eurozone countries, still squeezed consumer purchasing power, and rising unemployment.”  Eurozone governments have introduced broad austerity measures in order to cut debt, and these have undermined economic growth.

European watchers also expect to see Greece exit the Eurozone.  Writing for Forbes, Tim Worstall says that “As Paul Krugman points out, the odds on Greece leaving the Eurozone are shortening by the day.  In and of itself this shouldn’t be all that much of a problem for anyone. Greece is only two percent of Eurozone GDP and it will be a blessed relief for the Greeks themselves.  However, the thing about the unraveling of such political plans as the Euro is that once they do start to unravel they tend not to stop.”

The European Commission hopes Greece will remain part of the Eurozone but Athens must respect its obligations, the European Unions executive Commission said.  “We don’t want Greece to leave the Euro, quite the contrary – we are doing our utmost to support Greece,” European Commission spokeswoman Pia Ahrenkilde Hansen said.  Greece is likely to face new elections next month after three failed attempts to form a government that would support the terms of an EU/IMF bailout.  Opinion polls show most Greeks want to stay in the Eurozone, but oppose the harsh austerity imposed by the emergency lending program.  “We wish Greece will remain in the euro and we hope Greece will remain in the euro … but it must respect its commitments,” according to Ahrenkilde.  “The Commission position remains completely unchanged: we want Greece to be able to stay in the Euro.  This is the best thing for Greece, for the Greek people and for Europe as a whole,” she said.

European Central Bank (ECB) policymakers Luc Coene and Patrick Honohan voiced the possibility that Greece might leave the currency bloc and reached the conclusion that it will not be fatal for the Eurozone.  According to Luxembourg’s Finance Minister Luc Frieden “If Greece needs help from outside, the conditions have to be met.  All political parties in Greece know that.”  There are powerful incentives for keeping Greece stable, one of which is that the ECB and Eurozone governments are major holders of Greek government debt.  A hard default could mean heavy losses for them; if the ECB needed recapitalizing as a result, that debt would fall on its members’ governments, with Germany first in line.  “If Greece moves towards exiting the Euro…the EU would then need to enlarge its bailout funds and prepare other emergency measures,” said Charles Grant, director of the Centre for European Reform think-tank.

Meanwhile, Britain’s Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg warned euro skeptics to avoid gloating over the state of the Eurozone as Greece tries to assemble a workable government.  According to Clegg, “We as a country depend massively on the prosperity of the Eurozone for our own prosperity, which is why I can never understand people who engage in schadenfreude – handwringing satisfaction that things are going wrong in the euro.  We have an overwhelming interest – whatever your views are on Brussels and the EU – in seeing a healthy Eurozone.  That’s why I very much hope, buffeted by these latest scares and crises in Greece and elsewhere, that the Eurozone moves as fast as possible to a sustainable solution because if the Eurozone is not growing and the Eurozone is not prosperous it will be much more difficult for the United Kingdom economy to gather momentum.”

Rising Unemployment Could Push Eurozone Into a Double-Dip Recession

Wednesday, April 18th, 2012

Europe’s unemployment has soared to 10.8 percent, the highest rate in more than 14 years as companies from Spain to Italy eliminated jobs to weather the region’s crisis, according to the European Union’s (EU) statistics office.  That’s the highest since June 1997, before the Euro was introduced.  European companies are cutting costs and eliminating jobs after draconian austerity measures slashed consumer demand and pushed economies from Greece to Ireland into recession.

According to Eurostat, the number of unemployed totaled 17.1 million, nearly 1.5 million higher than in 2011.  The figures stand in marked contrast to the United States, which has seen solid increases in employment over the past few months.  “It looks odds-on that Eurozone GDP contracted again in the first quarter of 2012….thereby moving into recession,” said Howard Archer, chief European economist at IHS Global Insight.  “And the prospects for the second quarter of 2012 currently hardly look rosy.”

The North-South divide is evident, with the nations reporting the lowest unemployment rates being Austria with 4.2 percent; the Netherlands at 4.9 percent; Luxembourg at 5.2 percent; and Germany at 5.7 percent.  Unemployment is highest among young people, with 20 percent of those under 25 looking for work in the Eurozone, primarily in the southern nations.  The European Commission, the EU’s executive arm, defended the debt-fighting strategy, insisting that reforms undertaken by governments are crucial and will ultimately bear fruit.  “We must combat the crisis in all its fronts,” Amadeu Altafaj, the commission’s economic affairs spokesman, said, stressing that growth policies are part of the strategy.

According to Markit, a financing information company, Germany and France, the Eurozone’s two powerhouse economies, saw manufacturing activity levels deteriorate.  France fared the worst with activity at a 33-month low of 46.7 on a scale where anything below 50 indicates a contracting economy.  Only Austria and Ireland saw their output increase.

Spain, whose government recently announced new austerity measures, had the Eurozone’s highest unemployment rate at 23.6 percent; youth unemployment — those under 25 years of age — was 50.5 percent.  Greece, Portugal and Ireland — the three countries that have received bailouts — had unemployment rates of 21 percent, 15 percent and 14.7 percent respectively.

With unemployment rising at a time of austerity, consumers have stopped spending and that holds back the Eurozone economy despite signs of life elsewhere.  “Soaring unemployment is clearly adding to the pressure on household incomes from aggressive fiscal tightening in the region’s periphery,” said Jennifer McKeown, senior European economist at Capital Economics.  She fears that the situation will worsen and that even in Germany, where unemployment held steady at 5.7 percent, “survey measures of hiring point to a downturn to come.”

The numbers are likely to worsen even more. “We expect it to go higher, to reach 11 percent by the end of the year,” said Raphael Brun-Aguerre, an economist at JP Morgan in London.  “You have public sector job cuts, income going down, weak consumption.  The economic growth outlook is negative and is going to worsen unemployment.”

Writing for the Value Walk website, Matt Rego says that “By the looks of it, Europe could be heading for a recession very soon.  If the GDP contracts this 1st quarter of 2012, they will most likely be in a double dip.  Those are some pretty scary numbers and forecasts because they would send economic aftershocks around the world.  If Europe goes into a double dip and U.S. corporate margins do peak, we could be looking at trouble.  If you are a ‘super bull’ right now, I would reconsider because we are walking the line for both factors coming true and there really is nothing we can do, the damage is done.  Could we have seen all of the year’s gains in the beginning of this year?  Probably not but this European recession scare would certainly trigger a correction in the U.S. markets.  Bottom line, get some protection for your portfolio.  Buy stocks that aren’t influenced by economic times and buy protection for stocks that would react harshly to a double dip.”

Is Hard-Hit Ireland Resolving It’s Economic Crisis?

Wednesday, February 8th, 2012

Ireland was one of the nations that was hardest hit by the Eurozone crisis, but now it’s being seen as leading stricken nations in their efforts to turn their economies around.  International Monetary Fund (IMF) and European Union (EU) officials are impressed by its austerity measures, imposed after the massive 2010 bailout.  For the average Irish person, however, the gain is hard to see.  Public services have been slashed, and housing prices have declined 60 percent.  Approximately 1,000 young Irish people emigrate every week, and there’s extensive cynicism whether economic medicine being taken by the once-mighty Celtic Tiger actually works.

Ireland’s unemployment is currently upwards of 14 percent.  At the start of Ireland’s second year of austerity, there have been tax rises, wage freezes, layoffs and more.  This is being supervised by the so-called Troika, the European Commission (EC), the European Central Bank (ECB) and the IMF.  These entities bailed out Ireland after the property bubble burst and its banks collapsed.

Larry Elliott, economics editor of The Guardian, describes Ireland as “the Icarus economy.  It was the low-tax, Celtic tiger model that became the European home for US multinationals in the hi-tech sectors of pharma and IT.  Ireland was open, export-driven and growing fast, but flew too close to the sun and crashed back to earth.  The final humiliation came when it had to seek a bailout a year ago.  In a colossal property bubble, debt as a share of household income doubled, the balance of payments sank deeper and deeper into the red, the government finances become over-reliant on stamp duty from the sale of houses and the banks leveraged up to the eyeballs.

During the time running up to the bubble bursting, Elliott says that “A series of emergency packages and austerity budgets followed as the government sought to balance the books during a recession in which national output sank by 20 percent.  In November 2010, the Irish government asked for external support from the EU and the IMF.  Again, it had little choice in the matter.  The terms of the bailout were tough and there has been no let-up in the austerity.  The finance minister, Michael Noonan, plans to put up the top rate of VAT by two points to 23 percent.  At least 100,000 homeowners are in negative equity, and welfare payments (with the exception of pensions) have been slashed.  In recent quarters there have been signs of life in the Irish economy, but the boost has come entirely from the export sector, which has benefited from the increased competitiveness prompted by cost-cutting.  The best that can be said for its domestic economy is that the decline appears to have bottomed out.  At least for now.

“Around a third of Ireland’s exports go to Britain, which is heading for stagnation, a third go to the eurozone, which is almost certainly heading for recession, and a third go to the United States, which will suffer contamination effects from the crisis in Europe.  That’s the bad news.  The good news is that the supply side of the Irish economy is sound.  Much attention is paid to Ireland’s low level of corporation tax, which has certainly acted as a magnet for inward investment, but that is not the only reason the big multinationals have arrived.  There is a young, skilled workforce and Dublin does not have London’s hang-up about using industrial policy to invest capital in growth sectors.  Ireland had a dysfunctional banking system, but most of the multinationals — which account for 80 percent of the country’s exports — don’t rely on domestic banks for their funding.  The problem is that you can’t run a successful economy on exports alone, no matter how competitive they might be.”

In fact, Ireland’s prime minister, Enda Kenny, recently called for even deeper budget cuts.  Kenny outlined savings of up to €3.8 billion needed to slash its national debt under the terms of 2010’s EU/International Monetary Fund bailout.  Kenny appealed for understanding from the Irish people and stressed that the nation may have to endure a further two or three harsh budgets to put the country’s finances in order. He said on Saturday that the Republic “was in the region of €18 billion out of line”.

“It is the same old story with Ireland in our view — doing good work and will continue to do so,” Brian Devine, economist at NCB Stockbrokers in Dublin said.  “But the country is still extremely vulnerable given the level of the deficit.”  The anticipated adjustments total approximately eight percent of Ireland’s economy, and follow spending cuts and tax rises of more than €20 billion since the economy began to decline in 2008.

And how are the Irish people dealing with austerity? “We’re squeezed to the pips,” said Tommy Larkin, a 35-year-old mechanic changing tires and oil on the double in northside Dublin.  “I never had to watch my money in the good times, but that’s all I do with my money now.”

Wages for middle-class families have been cut around 15 percent, while the nearly 15 percent unemployed have seen welfare and other aid payments cut.  The government recently imposed a new household tax, and is planning new water charges next.  Driving a car can mean an annual fee of anything from $205 to $3,045, while recent fuel-tax increase haves taken gas upwards of $7.25 per gallon.

A Tale of Two Countries: Germany and Spain

Monday, January 23rd, 2012

Germany’s unemployment declined more than predicted in December as car and machinery exports boomed and one of the mildest winters on record helped construction jobs. The number of jobless people declined a seasonally adjusted 22,000 to 2.89 million, according to the Nuremberg-based Federal Labor Agency.  Economists had forecast a decline of 10,000.  The adjusted jobless rate fell to just 6.8 percent.  German firms are working virtually nonstop to fulfill orders for exports and investment goods.  As a result, the nation has defied a debt crisis that the European Commission fears will unleash a recession throughout the Eurozone.  The Munich-based IFO Institute’s measure of business confidence also rose unexpectedly in December.  Polls show that the majority of Germans see their jobs as secure even as Europe’s biggest economy slows.  Forward-looking indicators including IFO’s underscore that the German jobs motor is fundamentally intact, said Johannes Mayr, a senior economist at Bayerische Landesbank in Munich.

Except for an unexpected 6,000 increase in October, German unemployment has declined in every month since June 2009. The average jobless total in unadjusted terms for 2011 was well below the three million mark, Labor Agency head Frank-Juergen Weise said.  “German unemployment mastered the dual impact of the debt crisis and weakening economic growth in 2011 but these risks remain, accompanying us as we enter the new year, Weise said.

Both the jobless total and the jobless rate were at their lowest level since unification in 1991, noted German Economy Minister Philipp Roesler. “2011 can be described as the most successful since German unification for working people,” Roesler said.  “Demand for labor remains very high, despite the current economic risks.  Overall, the upturn in employment should continue, albeit at a slower rate.  The labor market remains one of the main pillars of our economy,” the minister said.

The national statistics office Destatis reported that the number of employed people in Germany hit a new record of 41.04 million in 2011, with more than 500,000 jobs created.  It was the first time the number of people working in Germany has risen above 41 million, Destatis said.  The nation’s population is approximately 82 million.

“Overall, labor market conditions will remain markedly healthier in Germany than in most other countries in Europe in the months ahead,” said IHS Global Insight’s Timo Klein. At present, Germany is confronting a shortage of skilled labor.  Leading economists anticipate that Germany’s economic growth will slow in 2012, in line with other major Eurozone economies, which may put a squeeze on wages and jobs.  But, unemployment at a record low for the last 20 years, is a position that most countries envy and a sign of the way Germany has rebuilt itself since the Wall was torn down.

“Germany’s manufacturing and export-driven economy finished the year strongly — piling on another 22,000 jobs in December,” said Anthony Cheung of market analysts RANsquawk.  “Behind the strong performance lie some adept moves by Germany’s exporters.  As their Eurozone markets weakened, they have been very good at moving their focus elsewhere.  German carmakers have more than compensated by dramatically growing sales to developing markets.”

This is one reason why companies are not shedding significant staff, even if the economy hits a downturn, said Berenberg Bank’s Holger Schmieding.

Germany’s labor market strength means that domestic demand will “remain a pillar of support” to the eurozone “under very challenging circumstances otherwise,” Schmieding said.  The Eurozone badly needs this help.  For example, Spain again published dire labor market data with the jobless rate rising by nearly 2,000 in December when compared with November.  Eurostat’s most recent data showed October unemployment in Spain at 22.8 percent, by far the Eurozone’s highest.

Spain represents an entirely different scenario.  During 2011, unemployment in Spain soared 7.9 percent, totaling an astonishing 322,286 individuals.  Nearly one-third of all the Eurozone’s unemployed are Spanish; approximately 50 percent of young Spaniards are out of work.  The tough austerity measures outlined by the new prime minister, Mariano Rajoy, are likely to push Spain’s jobless rate even higher.  These include €8.9 billion in spending cuts and tax increases to cut Spain’s borrowing which should total €16.5 billion in 2012.  Spain closed out 2011 with a deficit of 8 percent of its GDP, significantly higher than the six percent reported at the end of 2010.  “This is the beginning of the beginning,” said Deputy Prime Minister Saenz de Santamaria, noting that Spain is facing “an extraordinary, unexpected situation, which will force us to take extraordinary and unexpected measures.”  She stressed that the wealthiest will be increasingly taxed for at least two years, resulting in expected budgetary gains of €6 billion.

These numbers represent a new 15-year high in Spain’s unemployment rate “The figures for the number of registered unemployed for the month of December confirm the deterioration of the economic situation during the second half of the year,” according to Spain’s labor ministry.  Once the Eurozone’s job creation engine, Spain has struggled to find jobs for the millions thrown out of work since the 2008 property bubble collapse.

The bad news fueled fears that Spain, the Eurozone’s fourth-largest economy, was slipping back into recession after the economy posted zero growth in the 3rd quarter of 2011.  Prime Minister Rajoy’s new government has promised to fight unemployment and fix the country’s finances as its top priorities.  Rajoy plans to present a major labor market reform which will alter hiring laws and Spain’s collective bargaining system to encourage companies to hire workers.

Spain’s secretary of state for employment, Engracia Hidalgo, said the successive labor reforms carried out by the previous government “never made the labor market more dynamic and flexible.”  Spain  lets the jobless receive unemployment benefits for a maximum of two years.  Prime Minister Rajoy’s government extended a monthly payment of 400 euros ($520) for people whose benefits have run out.  Otherwise, the payments would have expired in February.

A Long Night in Brussels Ends With a Greece Debt Deal

Tuesday, November 1st, 2011

The midnight oil burned in Brussels as European finance ministers, heads of state, bankers and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) try to reach an agreement to restructure Greek debt.  In the deal, private banks and insurers would accept 50 percent losses on their Greek debt holdings in the latest bid to reduce Athens’ immense debt load to sustainable levels.  Although it required more than eight hours of negotiations that did not end until 4 a.m., the deal also anticipates a recapitalization of hard-hit European banks and a leveraging of the bloc’s rescue fund, the European Financial Stability Facility (EFSF), to give it €1 trillion ($1.4 trillion).

Significant work remains to be done to assure that the rescue works as envisioned.  Several aspects of the deal, including the technicalities of boosting the EFSF and providing Greek debt relief, could take weeks to firm up; the plan to rebuild confidence after two years of crisis could unravel over the details.  “I see the main risk is that we are left waiting too long again for the implementation of these agreements,” European Central Bank (ECB) policymaker Ewald Nowotny said.  “Speed is very important here.”  According to Greek Prime Minister George Papandreou, “The debt is absolutely sustainable now.  Greece can settle its accounts from the past now, once and for all.”

European Union (EU) President Herman Van Rompuy said that the deal will slash Greece’s debt to 120 percent of its GDP by 2020.  Under current conditions, it would have soared to 180 percent.  Achieving this will require that banks assume 50 percent losses on their Greek bond holdings — a hard-to-swallow pact that negotiators now must sell to individual bondholders.  According to Van Rompuy, the eurozone and IMF — which have both propped up Greece with loans since May of 2010 — will give the country another €100 billion ($140 billion).  That’s slightly less than amount agreed in July, primarily because the banks now must pick up more of the slack.  “These are exceptional measures for exceptional times.  Europe must never find itself in this situation again,” European Commission President Jose Manuel Barros said.

While some question whether Greece will be able to meet its debt obligations by the drop-dead date, the fact that leaders were able to finally put concrete numbers to what had previously been little more than vague promises represents an important step forward.  “It’s great news that we’ve got an agreement,” said Deutsche Bank economist Gilles Moec.  “When Europe puts its heads together, they do actually begin to cooperate.”

Greece, whose crippling debt load has in principle been cut in half in the deal that Papandreou says marks “a new day for Europe and for Greece,” emerges as the biggest winner.  Although the necessary austerity measures will be tough for the Greek people to live with, the new plan has set the country on a sustainable debt trajectory, according to Moec.  “At least the deal gives Greece a fighting chance.  It’s not great, it would be much better if we could get the debt below 100 percent…but it’s doable.”

Germany, which had been the driving force behind compelling the banks to take a bigger “haircut” or write down on Greek debt, is another winner.  “If you look at the vote in German parliament outlining what Germany was going to ask for at the summit, and then you see the results of the summit, it’s basically identical,” Moec said.  German Chancellor Angela Merkel believes that the deal is a victory for Europe in general.  “Everybody was aware that the whole world was looking at this meeting,” she said.  “I think that tonight we Europeans have taken the right measures.”

Writing for Reuters, Global Economics Correspondent Alan Wheatley sees some reason for skepticism.Greece, however, has become something of a sideshow.  Investors long ago judged that it was not just illiquid, but insolvent.  Much more critical is what the eurozone could do to prevent the debt rot from spreading to bigger, systemically important but stagnant economies, notably Italy.  Markets will have to wait for details as to how the EFSF will be scaled up; whether the likes of China will top up the bailout fund; and how operationally it will enhance the credit of member states’ new bonds.  But some analysts are skeptical.  Economists at Royal Bank of Scotland said they expected markets to re-price sovereign debt across the euro area given the size of the losses imposed on Greece.  Expressed as the ‘net present value’ of the bonds, the proposed loss will be close to 70 percent, much more than the 40 percent hit that banks had volunteered to take, RBS said.  What’s more, the EFSF will be too small to offer help to any country that might need it for any length of time.  And a promise by governments to help banks regain access to long-term bond market funding implies they will have to assume extra contingent liabilities, thus adding to their debt burdens.”

Time’s Bruce Crumley is more hopeful. According to Crumley, “Let’s hope that upbeat attitude persists, but let’s not be stunned if it doesn’t.  Because let’s be honest about another reality of Thursday’s development: it was only the most recent play by governments in a global confidence game that’s certain to shift and surge again before it’s all over.  That’s not ‘confidence game’ in the usual, illicit ‘con’ sense.  Instead it more literally describes attempts by EU leaders to inspire confidence and calm in financial markets so they’ll cease the doubt-inspired dumping of bonds, and bets against iffy sovereign debt that severely complicates efforts by eurozone officials to overcome current crisis.  To that end, the relatively timid action taken earlier by European leaders was subsumed by the far more dramatic measures adopted  — an emphatic upward ratcheting designed to prove their determination to tackle the evolving catastrophe once and for all.”