Posts Tagged ‘European Union’

Want to Feel Better About the Economy? Take a Look at the Rest of the World

Monday, September 10th, 2012

There is no doubt that America needs to get its economic mojo back: in the 2nd quarter its GDP grew at an annualized rate of 1.7 percent, according to revised figures published on August 29th.  That growth number is down from two percent in the 1st quarter and 4.1 percent in late 2011. But, anyone ready to ascribe that number to mismanagement or competition from emerging economies should consider the state of much of the developed world.

Europe remains the cautionary tale with GDP shrinking by 0.2 percent (an annualized decline of 0.7 percent) in the 2nd quarter. The Greeks are on the verge of quitting the common currency and Spain is looking for a bigger bailout.  According to the Economist, the research firm Markit is predicting a further fall in GDP in the 3rd quarter.

Finland’s economy shrank by 1.1% in the second quarter. The country had been one of the euro zone’s best performers, but the crisis is now starting to take its toll on exports, which account for 40% of Finnish GDP. In July the finance minister said Finland would “not hang itself to the euro at any cost”.

The Japanese economy is feeling the European gloom with exports to the European Union falling by a steep 25 percent in the year to July.  The only reason their economy grew by 3.5 percent over the last 12 months is because of all the reconstruction work after the tsunami and earthquake.

Even the high-flier BRIC countries (Brazil, Russia, India and China) are sputtering.  Brazil’s fall from grace has been particularly marked:  Brazil’s economy grew at an annualized pace of only 1.64 percent in the April-June period. It is forecasted to grow 1.9 percent this year, less than the 2.15 percent in the U.S. and 2.5 percent expected in Japan. One bright spot – Brazil scored the rare coup of winning the bid for the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Summer Olympics, leading to $38.1 billion in foreign direct investment this year.

Flagging imports suggest that China’s slowdown will prove to be more severe than previously expected.  The country’s exporters are also having a hard time.  In August, new export orders for manufacturers were at their weakest since March 2009, according to Markit.

So, while the campaign rhetoric heats up, with each side blaming the other, it is important to see the bigger picture. A big part of our weak job numbers was that U.S. factory activity shrank for a third straight month in August — because of factors outside our control.  Weak demand from China (our 3rd largest market) hits our farmers, IT firms and chemical companies. When Europe contracts, that makes our manufacturing free fall because they buy 20 percent of our exports.  In the end, we need to place our woes in context and recognize that the recession is indeed world-wide.

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.”

Germany Catches Cold

Monday, June 25th, 2012

In a sign that no Eurozone nation is completely immune to the shocks of the European debt crisis, ratings agency Moody’s Investor Services has cut the credit ratings of six banks in Germany.  The largest bank to be downgraded is Commerzbank, Germany’s second-biggest lender, which was cut to A3 from A2.

“Today’s rating actions are driven by the increased risk of further shocks emanating from the euro area debt crisis,” Moody’s said. The downgrade shows that Moody’s thinks Germany could be hit if the Euro crisis becomes a catastrophe.  “It brings the crisis in Southern Europe and Ireland closer to home in Germany,” said BBC Berlin correspondent Stephen Evans.

The other affected banks DekaBank, DZ Bank, Landesbank Baden-Wuerttemberg, Landesbank Hessen-Thueringen and Norddeutsche Landesbank.  In addition to its rating cut, Commerzbank was placed on negative outlook, meaning Moody’s is considering an additional cut.  According to Moody’s that is because of the bank’s exposure to the Eurozone periphery and its concentration of loans to single sectors and borrowers.  Moody’s deferred a decision on the rating of Germany’s biggest bank, Deutsche Bank.

The downgrades are a result of Moody’s concern about the “increased risk of further shocks emanating from the euro area debt crisis, in combination with the banks’ limited loss-absorption capacity”.  Moody’s believes that German banks are likely to find themselves under less pressure than many European peers as personal and corporate debt levels are more modest than elsewhere.  The agency noted that the downgrades are less harsh than it had originally said they could be.  “Moody’s recognizes the steps Germany banks have taken to address past asset quality challenges,” the ratings agency said.

The Group of Seven nations agreed to coordinate their response to Europe’s turmoil, which has tipped at least eight of the 17 Eurozone economies into recession and damped demand for foreign goods. Policy makers at the European Central Bank meeting today face increasing pressure to lower rates and introduce more liquidity support for banks.  Moody’s decision is “a bit harsh” given the strength of the German banking system and economy, said Sandy Mehta, chief executive officer of Value Investment Principals Ltd., a Hong Kong-based investment advisory company.  “But given the events in Europe, unless the authorities and the powers that be are more decisive and take firmer action, then you do have the risk that the economic problems will engulf Germany as well.”

The rating actions were driven by “the increased risk of further shocks emanating from the euro area debt crisis, in combination with the banks’ limited loss-absorption capacity,” Moody’s said.  “We wanted to identify vulnerabilities from further potential shocks from the euro area debt crisis and how this would affect investor confidence in institutions across Europe,” said Moody’s Managing Director for banking, Carola Schuler.  Moody’s agency was especially apprehensive about a potential decline in the value of banks’ portfolios of international commercial real estate, global ship financing, as well as a backlog of structured credit products, she said. “German banks have limited capacity to absorb losses out of earnings and that raises the potential that capital could diminish in a stress scenario.”  Moody’s action was anticipated.

According to Forbes, “This latest downgrade could be used by European politicians to put pressure on Angela Merkel and other policymakers.  Germany is staunchly opposed to the idea of Eurobonds, which Spanish and Italian politicians believe is one of the ways out of this mess.  Moody’s downgrade is but another sign of the extent of financial interconnectedness in the European Union, which highlights the dangers of contagion.  While some have argued that Germany would be better off leaving the monetary union, its financial sector remains in close contact to the broader European economy, making it difficult for Merkel and the rest to give up.  According to Moody’s, German banks’ major headwind is the continuation of the European sovereign debt crisis.  These banks are sitting on assets that will see their quality erode as markets tank, an effect that will be exacerbated if the global economy begins to cool at a faster pace too.”

Writing on the 247wallstreet.com website, Douglas A. McIntyre says that “Germany is assumed to be the home market of some of Europe’s most stable banks because of the relative stability of its economy.  Moody’s has undermined that view as it cut ratings of seven banks there, including Commerzbank, the second largest firm in the country.  The move was the result of worry over exposure to debt issued by some nations in the region that are now in financial trouble.  And the banks Moody’s singled out have less than adequate balance sheet to handle a major shock to the region’s credit system.”

Spain Asks the Eurozone for a Bank Bailout

Wednesday, June 20th, 2012

Spain asked the Eurozone for a bailout of up to €100-billion to rescue its banks.  This is just a short-term fix for the troubled Eurozone because it doesn’t address the underlying problems in the monetary union.  The earlier bailouts of Greece, Ireland and Portugal didn’t resolve the problems either.  “The Spanish banking bailout is big enough for some shock and awe (€100-billion vs. talk of €40-billion) but details are murky,” said Kit Juckes, the chief of foreign exchange at Société Générale.

Still unanswered are who shares the burden, and just how much will Spain be limited in terms of talks over its debt troubles.  It’s crucial to keep in mind that in Spain, it’s currently a banking crisis.  “And where is the growth coming from to make the problems go away?” Juckes said.  “The Spanish bailout doesn’t solve Europe’s woes…but maybe it allows the rest of the world to focus on something else.”  There are many other questions, said Adam Cole of RBC in London.  Which bailout will fund the rescue?  How much will the final rescue total?  What will the ratings agencies do?  What terms will be attached to the funds?  “The International Monetary Fund’s (IMF) report concluded Spanish banks would need at least €37-billion,” Cole said, noting that the maximum of €100-billion is perceived as credible.  In terms of the ratings agencies, Cole said that “the loans will add directly to the Spanish government’s liabilities and so increase the debt-to-GDP ratio by around 10 per cent, leaving further downgrades likely.”

Spain’s bailout plan is seen as a robust answer to critics who accused European Union (EU) leaders of reacting too slowly, too late and with the least possible amount of cash while the crisis is spinning out of control.  “This is a very clear signal to the markets, to the public, that the Eurozone is ready to take determined action,” Olli Rehn, the EU’s top economic official, said.  “This is pre-emptive action.”

Instead of waiting for Spain to complete stress tests on its banks later, Eurozone officials agreed to move before the market turmoil that Greece’s upcoming elections may produce.  Rather than undershooting estimates of Spanish bank needs, they have been generous: the International Monetary Fund estimated a requirement of at least €40 billion, but the Eurozone agreed to provide at least €100 billion.  “We deliberately wanted to ensure there is some additional safety margin,” Rehn said.  “This is the first time Europe is willing and able to deal confidently and overwhelmingly with (such) a large contingency,” said an unidentified Eurozone diplomat.  “And all through a straightforward telephone conference.  No all-nighters, no devising new instruments in a panic, and no penny-pinching haggling over money.”

The bad news is that Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy’s request for a bailout for Spain’s banks may undermine his political authority and credibility in financial markets.  “The emperor’s clothes are tattered,” Simon Maughan, financial strategist at Olivetree Securities Ltd., said. “Unless he uses this money to attack the regions and control the failed cajas, what threads he has left will be stripped off him.”  Rajoy has to persuade the Spanish people to accept austerity, and convince bond investors the cuts will deliver the deficit goals he has pledged.  if he fails, he may have to return for a larger rescue, potentially draining the Eurozone’s financial ammunition.

“Clearly his domestic credibility will have been hampered by this U-turn but at least he is partially recognizing the depth of the problem,” said Stuart Thomson, a fixed income fund manager at Ignis Asset Management, who predicts another bailout, this time for the government itself, within the next year and a  half.  “This bailout is predicated on a return to growth next year and we don’t think that’s possible.”

Protestors demanded to know why billions would prop up broken Spanish banks, instead of helping people who are suffering financially.  According to Moody Analytic’s Mark Zandi, the reason why Spain is in so much trouble may sound familiar to Americans.  “Spain had a bigger housing boom and bust than we had here in the United States and that means a lot of bad mortgage loans bad real estate loans that undermined the capital positions of the banks.  They are broke, they need help from the European Union,” Zandi said.  “The Spanish must be very humiliated by having to take the aid.  For them to actually have to go to the European Union for help like this, I’m sure was very difficult.”  But the pain runs deep with 25 percent of Spaniards is out of work; among the young, unemployment is upward of 50 percent.

Prime Minister Rajoy warned that Spain’s economy, Europe’s fourth-largest, will get worse before it gets better.  ‘‘This year is going to be a bad one,’’ he said.  ‘‘By no means is this a solution,’’ said Adam Parker, of Morgan Stanley.  Spain’s aid ‘‘could be a near-term positive from a trading standpoint, but you haven’t solved anything in the long term.’’

European leaders must prove to the world that they are making a credible effort to repair flaws in the Eurozone that allowed the problems in Greece to threaten the world economy.  If Greek voters elect a government that is willing to live up to the terms of its €130 billion bailout by meeting its payments and narrows its enormous budget gap, strong doubts remain whether new leadership can fulfill those obligations.  A significant amount of private money has already fled Greece, while its deeply depressed economy and dwindling tax revenues threaten to put the country deeper in the hole.  ‘‘Even in case of a new government, I doubt whether the institutional framework in Greece can guarantee the program,’’ said Jurgen Stark, a former member of the European Central Bank’s executive board.  ‘‘Who has the competence to implement the program?  That is the key point.’’

Catalina Parada is an International, Marketing Consultant and Alter NOW’s Madrid correspondent.  She can be reached at catalinaparada@hotmail.com.

Basel III Compliance Requires 29 Biggest Banks to Raise $556 Billion

Wednesday, June 6th, 2012

The world’s largest banks need to raise as much as $566 billion of common equity to meet Basel III rules on capital to be implemented by 2019, cutting shareholder returns, according to analysts at Fitch Ratings.  The 29 global banks that regulators believe are too big to fail need new capital that equals nearly 23 percent of the lenders’ current $2.5 trillion of aggregate common equity, according to the report.  The median lender could meet the requirements with three years of retained earnings, according to Fitch.

Basel III is the latest version of a global regulatory standard on bank adequacy, stress testing and market liquidity risk, requires banks to hold 4.5 percent of common equity, an increase from the two percent under Basel II.  The higher standard is an attempt to prevent a repeat of the 2008 financial crisis.

International banking regulators meeting under the sponsorship of the Bank for International Settlements in Basel are seeking to implement rules to prevent taxpayers being forced to rescue failing banks.  In addition to boosting capital requirements, they are instituting rules on leverage ratios and funding to ensure lenders can withstand future crises.  “There’s a shortfall and we wanted to see what covering that implies,” according to Martin Hansen, a Fitch analyst.  The Basel III rules “create incentives to reduce expenses further and to increase pricing pressure on borrowers and customers where feasible,” he said.  The banks global systemically important financial institutions must hold a special capital surcharge of between one and 2.5 percent of assets weighted by risk.

The banks are likely to reduce their holdings of more volatile, lower-rated assets, potentially increasing borrowing costs for weaker companies and reducing the availability of credit.  The borrowers’ securities would become harder to trade, forcing companies borrow from less regulated lenders such as private equity firms and hedge funds, according to a Fitch report, called “Basel III: Return and Deleveraging Pressures.”  “If banks decide to originate risk and then pass it on to outsiders then it adds to the stability of the banking system,” Hansen said.  “Risk hasn’t been reduced, though — it’s been moved from one part of the system to another.”  The median return on equity of the 29 lenders was 7.3 percent last year and averaged 11 percent between 2005 and 2011.  That is expected to decline to 8.5 to nine percent as the banks make up the capital shortfall, according to Hansen.

Since it is impossible for regulators to perfectly align capital requirements with risk exposure, some banks might seek to increase return on equity through riskier activities that maximize yield on a given unit of Basel III capital, including new forms of regulatory arbitrage,’ Hansen said.

James Moss, another Fitch analyst, said the banks, which have a collective $47 trillion in assets, will have to look at the full spectrum of ways to meet the new capital requirements.  “This is a very dynamic time for banking so the strategic side of bank planning is going to get a lot of attention over the coming years,” he said.  “Basel III creates a trade-off for financial institutions between declining return on equity, which might reduce their ability to attract capital, versus stronger capitalization and lower risk premiums, which benefits investors.”

Our overall objective remains to strengthen the resilience of the banking sector in the European Union while ensuring that banks continue to finance economic activity and growth,” said Michel Barnier, EU Internal Markets Commissioner.  “The final compromise must contribute to financial stability, the necessary basis for growth and employment.”

Bonn Climate Change Summit Has Its Own Storm Clouds

Monday, June 4th, 2012

Disagreement emerged early during the latest round of international climate change talks in Bonn, with the European Union (EU) and developing countries clashing over the future of the Kyoto protocol.  Under the terms of last year’s Durban Platform, the EU had agreed to sign an extension of the Kyoto protocol before it lapses at the end of this year in return for an agreement from all nations that a new binding treaty will be completed by 2015 and enacted by 2020.

Climate negotiators want to build on the progress achieved in Durban last year, like the agreement on a second commitment period for the Kyoto Protocol, a treaty which limits the emissions of most developed countries but which expires at the end of this year.  The length of the second commitment period is one of the issues under discussion in Bonn.  Unfortunately, Kyoto plays an progressively more marginal role in the climate-change issue because it doesn’t include the biggest emitters of carbon dioxide and other gases that contribute to global warming.  The United States exited Kyoto, claiming it was unfair because it didn’t impose any emissions reductions on fast-growing developing nations such as China and India.  Canada also said it would withdraw from the treaty last year.

Last year’s United Nations (U.N.) climate talks in Durban supported a package of measures which would ultimately force the world’s polluters to take legally binding action to slow the pace of global warming.  Delegates agreed on the “Durban Platform for Enhanced Action” – a process that would apply to all parties under the U.N.’s climate convention.  A clear timetable and targets have not yet been set.  “Parties need to think between now and Doha how they want to organize their work between now and 2015 and how they will move towards that legal agreement,” Christiana Figueres, executive secretary of the U.N.’s Framework Convention on Climate Change, said.  “My hope is they will establish milestones along the way so they are able to measure their progress.”

Figueres cited new research that predicts that the Earth’s temperature could rise by as much as five degrees Celsius (41 degrees Fahrenheit) from pre-industrial levels on current pledges.  “We still have a gap remaining between intent and effort,” Figueres said.

Additional issues discussed in Bonn and at a larger climate change conference in Qatar later this year include implementing an extension to the Kyoto Protocol; how long that will last; how to raise ambition on emissions cut pledges, as well as raising long-term financing to help vulnerable countries adapt to the harmful effects of climate change.

The treaty currently being negotiated would require all nations to curb warming.  Identifying those requirements is the primary challenge, which is why negotiators are focusing on solving incremental, less contentious issues before moving on.  “First and foremost we have to ensure that there is no backtracking on what was agreed in Durban,” said Christian Pilgaard Zinglersen, a Danish official representing the European Union.  Climate activists warned that potentially disastrous consequences of global warming, including floods and droughts and rising sea levels, will be impossible to prevent unless the pace of negotiations accelerates.  “If you look at the science, we’re spending time we don’t have,” said Tove Ryding, Greenpeace’s climate policy coordinator.

We have all the means at our disposal to close the gap, and the long-term objectives of governments remain attainable,” Figueres said.  “But this depends on stronger emissions reduction efforts, led by industrialized countries.  A sufficient level of ambition to support developing country action, concrete and transparent implementation, today, tomorrow and into the foreseeable future, is the answer.  Progress here in Bonn can give countries the confidence they need to push ahead with national climate policies.  In turn, many countries are beginning to adopt ambitious climate change legislation, which is sending good signals to the international negotiations.  All of this can give society and businesses confidence to act faster themselves.”

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.”

Is Greece Headed Towards a Third Bailout?

Monday, April 23rd, 2012

Lucas Papademos, Greece’s prime minister, said that his crisis-plagued country could require a third bailout just weeks after it secured a second round of rescue funds after much discussion in Brussels. Athens may have received the biggest bailout in history but another lifeline could not be ruled out, according to Papademos.  To date, the European Union (EU) and International Monetary Fund (IMF) have committed a total €240 billion to the nearly bankrupt nation.  “Some form of financial assistance might be necessary but we have to work intensely to avoid such an event,” Papademos said, noting that additional spending cuts are inevitable.  Whatever government emerges after the upcoming general election, it is vital that is it prepared for the measures.  “In 2013 – 2014, a reduction in state spending of about €12 billion is required under the new economic program,” Papademos said.  “Every effort must be made to limit wasteful spending and not to further burden salaries of civil servants.”

Greece’s new government will have “about 60 days” to enact long-overdue structural reforms and agree on ways of reining in public debt before officials make a decisive inspection tour in June.  “It is very important that there is no let up in the pace of reforms after elections,” said a senior Papademos aide.  The chiefs of both the EU and IMF missions to Greece said while progress is being made in meeting deficit-reducing targets, a lot of work remains to be done.  “There are still many measures to be taken, painful ones too.  I believe we’ll be able to see in the second half of the year in which direction we’re going, whether we’re on the right path or not,” said Matthias Mors, head EU monitor.

Papademos reiterated that Greece will do everything necessary to remain in the Eurozone, saying the cost of an exit would be “devastating.  More than 70 percent of the Greek people support the country’s continuing participation in the euro area,” he said.  “They realize, despite the sacrifices made, that the long-term benefits from remaining in the Eurozone outweigh the short-term costs.  Greece will do everything possible to make a third adjustment program unnecessary,” Papademos said.  “Having said that, markets may not be accessible by Greece even if it has implemented fully all measures agreed on.  It cannot be excluded that some financial support may be necessary, but we must try hard to avoid such an outcome.”

Private investors in Greek debt wrote down the value of their investment by 53.5 percent, or risk losing everything in a possible default.  Public-sector jobs are being slashed, workers ‘ wages are being frozen, welfare payments are being slashed, and taxes are being raised.  Greece’s official unemployment rate is currently more than 20 percent.  If Greece does default, it could start a domino effect that would drag down other ailing European economies — possibly plunging the Eurozone into recession.

According to Papademos, “The real economy is still weak, and high unemployment is likely to persist in the near future.  The challenging period ahead of us needs to be addressed with great care.  If we do things right, implementing all measures agreed upon in a timely, effective and equitable manner, and if we explain our policy objectives and strategy convincingly, public support will be sustained.  An improvement in confidence would have a positive multiplier effect on economic activity and employment.”

When asked if Greece might return to its old currency, Papademos said “The consequences would be devastating.  A return to the drachma would cause high inflation, unstable exchange rate, and a loss of real value of bank deposits.  Real incomes would drop sharply, the banking system would be severely destabilized, there would be many bankruptcies, and unemployment would increase.  A return to the drachma would increase social inequalities, favoring those who have money abroad.”

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.