Posts Tagged ‘Italy’

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will renegotiate the program on which the second financial bailout for Athens is based because the original has become outdated, according to a senior Eurozone official.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.”

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.”

Fallout From European Credit Downgrades Still Underway

Monday, January 23rd, 2012

European leaders will this week try to deliver new fiscal rules and cut Greece’s onerous debt burden.  All this in the wake of Standard & Poor’s (S&P) Eurozone downgrades.

France was not the only Eurozone nation to feel the pain. Austria was cut to AA+ from AAA; Cyprus to BB+ from BBB; Italy to BBB+ from A; Malta to A- from A; Portugal to BB from BBB-; the Slovak Republic to A from A+; Slovenia to A+ from AA-; and Spain to A from AA-. S&P left the AAA ratings of Germany, Finland, Luxembourg and the Netherlands the same.

The European Central Bank (ECB) emerged unscathed.  The ratings agency said Eurozone monetary authorities “have been instrumental in averting a collapse of market confidence,” mostly thanks to the ECB launching new loan programs aimed at keeping the European banking system liquid while it works to resolve funding pressure brought on by the sovereign debt crisis.

The talks on Greece and budgets may serve as tougher tests of the tentative recovery in investor sentiment than S&P’s decision to cut the ratings of nine Eurozone nations, including France. If history repeats itself, fallout from the downgrades may be limited.  JPMorgan Chase research shows that 10-year yields for the nine sovereign nations that lost their AAA credit rating between 1998 and last year rose an average of two basis points the next week.

Policymakers worked doggedly to take back the initiative. German Chancellor Angela Merkel said S&P’s decision and criticism of “insufficient”  policy steps reinforced her view that leaders must try harder to resolve the two-year crisis. Germany is now alone in the Eurozone with a stable AAA credit rating. Reacting to Spain’s downgrade to A from AA-, Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy pledged spending cuts and to clean up the banking system, as well as a “clear, firm and forceful” commitment to the Euro’s future. French Finance Minister Francois Baroin said the reduction of France’s rating was “disappointing,” yet expected

The European Financial Stability Facility (EFSF), which is intended to fund rescue packages for the troubled nations of Greece, Ireland and Portugal, owes its AAA rating to guarantees from its sponsoring nations. “I was never of the opinion that the EFSF necessarily has to be AAA,” Merkel said.  Luxembourg Prime Minister Jean-Claude Junker said the EFSF’s shareholders will look at how to maintain the top rating of the fund, which plans to sell up to 1.5 billion Euros in six-month bills starting this week. In the meantime, Merkel and other European leaders want to move speedily toward setting up its permanent successor, the European Stability Mechanism, this year — one year ahead of the original plan.

Greece’s Prime Minister Lucas Papademos said that a deal will be hammered out. “Some further reflection is necessary on how to put all the elements together,” he said. “So as you know, there is a little pause in these discussions. But I’m confident that they will continue and we will reach an agreement that is mutually acceptable in time.”

Standard & Poor’s downgraded nine of the 17 Eurozone countries and said it would decide before too long whether to cut the Eurozone’s bailout fund, the EFSF, from AAA.  “A one-notch downgrade for France was completely priced in, so no negative surprise here, and quite logical after the United States got downgraded,” said David Thebault, head of quantitative sales trading at Global Equities.

Thanks to the downgrades, fears of a Greek default also increased after talks between private creditors and the government over proposed voluntary write downs on Greek government bonds appeared near collapse.  Greece appears to be close to default on its sovereign debt, eclipsing the news that France and other Eurozone members lost their triple-A credit ratings.  “At the start of this year, (we) took the view that things in the Eurozone had to get worse before they got better. With the S&P downgrade of nine Eurozone countries and worries about the progress of Greek debt restructuring talks, things just did get worse,” wrote economists at HSBC.

Additionally there are implications for Eurozone banks from the sovereign downgrades.

“The direct impact of further sovereign and bank downgrades on institutions in peripheral.  nations is perhaps neither here nor there given that they are already effectively shut out of wholesale funding markets due to pre-existing investor concerns over the ability of governments in these countries to stand behind their banks,’ said Michael Symonds, credit analyst at Daiwa Capital Markets.

Writing in the Sydney Morning Herald, Ha-Joon Chang says that “Even the most rational Europeans must now feel that Friday the 13th is an unlucky day after all.  On that day last week, the Greek debt restructuring negotiation broke down, with many bondholders refusing to join the voluntary 50 per cent ‘haircut’  – that is, debt write off – scheme, agreed to last summer. While the negotiations may resume, this has dramatically increased the chance of disorderly Greek default.  The Eurozone countries criticize S&P and other ratings agencies for unjustly downgrading their economies. France is particularly upset that it was downgraded while Britain has kept its AAA status, hinting at an Anglo-American conspiracy against France. But this does not wash, as one of the big three, Fitch Ratings, is 80 per cent owned by a French company.”

Italy Asks IMF to Oversee its Debt Reduction Efforts

Tuesday, November 29th, 2011

Italy’s Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi has asked for international oversight of his efforts to slash the eurozone’s second-largest debt, even as his unraveling coalition threatens efforts to build a wall against Europe’s debt crisis.  Berlusconi’s government asked the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to assess its debt-reduction progress, and turned down an offer of financial assistance.

“It hasn’t been imposed, it was requested,” Berlusconi said.  The IMF will carry out quarterly “certifications” of the euro region’s third-largest economy, he said, noting that the current sell-off of Italian debt is “a temporary trend” even as the nation’s borrowing costs soared to record highs.  Berlusconi is under mounting pressure as Italy tries to avoid yielding to the sovereign-debt crisis.

Italy’s 10-year borrowing costs are getting dangerously close to the seven percent level that forced Greece, Ireland and Portugal to ask for bailouts.  The yield on the nation’s benchmark 10-year bond surged to a euro-era record of 6.404 percent, the highest since the creation of the single currency.  “If the current Greek tragedy is not to turn into an Italian tragedy, with far more serious and far-reaching consequences for the eurozone, Berlusconi must resign immediately,” Marc Ostwald, a fixed-income strategist at Monument Securities Ltd., said.  Berlusconi may be “remembered as the architect of Italy’s descent into an economic inferno.”

IMF managing director Christine Lagarde hopes that quarterly monitoring will start by the end of November to verify that the reforms Berlusconi promised are implemented.  “It’s verification and certification if you will, of implementation of a program that Italy has committed to,” she said. “It’s one of the best ways to have an independent view…to verify that promised measures are actually implemented.”  She agreed that Italy doesn’t need IMF funding.  “The problem that is at stake — and that was clearly identified both by the Italian authorities and its partners — is a lack of credibility of the measures that are announced,” according to Lagarde.  “The typical instrument that we would use is a precautionary credit line.  Italy does not need the funding that is associated with such instruments so the next best instrument is fiscal monitoring, which is what we have identified.”

Lagarde isn’t certain that the proposed reforms are credible. “The problem that is at stake and that was clearly identified both by the Italian authorities and by its partners is a lack of credibility of the measures that were announced,” Lagarde said.  Additionally, the IMF will provide funds to stimulate Italy’s economy, although under strict conditions.

Will Berlusconi’s regime survive this crisis?  “Historically, technocrat governments in Italy have been able to pass pro-growth structural reforms, including politically difficult labor market reforms,” said Barclays Capital analyst Fabio Fois.  Governments such as those led by Carlo Azeglio Ciampi and Lamberto Dini – who had served as central bankers — in the early 1990s saved Italy from financial crises even worse than the present one.  “I think the political parties would have a big incentive to go through the painful policy adjustment now, before the next election due in 2013, so that whoever wins won’t have to do it later,” Fois said.

Berlusconi seemed almost nostalgic for the days when the lira was Italy’s currency. “You don’t get much in your supermarket trolley for €80 today, whereas you used to get a lot for 80,000 lire,” he said.

He insisted that Italy’s economy is generally prospering.  “The restaurants and vacation spots are always full, nobody thinks there is a crisis,” he said, noting that, considering its low household debt levels, Italy has Europe’s second-strongest economy, after Germany and was stronger than France or the U.K.  The country’s €1.9 trillion in public debt, the equivalent of nearly 120 percent of GDP, was a legacy problem, had not grown in the past 20 years, and had been consistently serviced, Berlusconi said.

Berlusconi admitted that his government “might have made a mistake” in assuming the public debt was sustainable without more aggressive fiscal and reform action.  When asked what he thought about frequent warnings from European Union partners that Italy demonstrate credibility with the promised reforms, Berlusconi said the criticism reflected prejudice about past Italian behavior.  “If we don’t enact the reforms Italy will be in trouble,” he said.  “But we will enact them.”

S&P Computer Error Briefly Downgrades France’s Credit Rating

Tuesday, November 22nd, 2011

Whoops!  Someone has a red face.  France’s credit ratings have not been downgraded by Standard & Poor’s (S&P) and apparently resulted from an accidental transmission of a message that it had downgraded the nation’s credit. S&P’s error roiled global equity, bond, currency and commodity markets when it sent and then corrected the erroneous message.

“As a result of a technical error, a message was automatically disseminated today to some subscribers of S&P’s Global Credit Portal suggesting that France’s credit rating had been changed,” S&P said.  “This is not the case: the ratings on Republic of France remain ‘AAA/A-1+’ with a stable outlook, and this incident is not related to any ratings surveillance activity.  We are investigating the cause of the error.”

Downgrading France’s credit rating would negatively impact the rating of the European Financial Stability Facility (EFSF), the bailout fund for struggling euro member countries that has funded rescue packages for Greece, Ireland and Portugal.  If the EFSF ends up paying higher interest on its bonds, it may not be able to provide as much funding for indebted nations.  “It was a mess,” said Lane Newman, the New York-based director of foreign exchange at ING Groep NV. “It calls into question the credibility of people who can have that sort of impact not really being careful.”

“It clearly raises issues about internal systems and controls,” said Christopher Whalen, managing director of Institutional Risk Analytics, a Torrance, CA-based bank- rating firm.  “The onus is on them to be careful and it’s troubling.  Whether you’re a broker dealer or a rating agency, everything you say has to be very carefully considered because of the weight that they carry.”

The incident is currently under investigation.  “This is a very serious incident,” said European Union (EU) Internal Market Commissioner Michel Barnier.  “This shows that we are in an extremely volatile situation, that markets are extremely tense, and therefore that players on these markets must be extremely rigorous and exercise a duty of responsibility.”  Barnier continues, “It is all the more important since these are not minor players on these markets, but actually one of the three major rating agencies and therefore an agency that has a particular responsibility. I do not wish to make a statement on the failure itself, which immediately was recognized by Standard & Poor’s.  The European authority for credit rating agencies, together with AMF, the French market authority, will have to look into this and draw conclusions from this incident.”

S&P’s error spooked investors already apprehensive over Europe’s debt crisis, feeding concerns that the continent’s debt problems had engulfed the region’s second-largest economy.  It contributed to the worst day for French government bonds since before the euro debuted in 1999.

The Globe and Mail’s David Berman wonders If the error was practice for the real thing. “Standard & Poor’s downgrade of France’s credit rating was apparently accidental – so consider the reaction to the panicky downgrade as a kind of dress rehearsal:  It lets you know how markets will react if and when an actual downgrade goes through.  The way things are going for Europe’s sovereign-debt crisis, an actual downgrade looks more than likely.  Just as Italy supplanted Greece as the eurozone’s biggest trouble spot, highlighted by the country’s surging bond yields, France has the makings of a troubled spot in-the-making.”

As MarketWatch’s Laura Mandaro sums it up, the computer did it.

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.”

World Bank Head Predicts No “Double-Dip” Recession

Wednesday, September 28th, 2011

World Bank President Robert Zoellick believes the world will not slide into a double-dip recession. Zoellick was in Singapore, attending an economic conference amid plummeting world stock prices and worries over a slowdown in U.S. economic growth.  Zoellick believes the United States and the world will avoid a “double-dip” recession, but admitted that growth is likely to remain sluggish and prospects are uncertain.  Zoellick said the world is entering a “dangerous period,” noting that the United States could reassure markets with steps to put the brakes on increasing its debt, rather than making deep cuts in spending.

Zoellick’s comments add pressure on European officials who are trying to contain a sovereign debt crisis that threatens Italy, whose government bonds in euros have declined a record 11 consecutive days.  Finland has fostered division among policy makers by looking for collateral for loans to Greece, the first of the three euro-region nations to receive bailouts so far.  American and European economies are stalling and feeble global growth are impacting Asia, Singapore’s Minister of Finance Tharman Shanmugaratnam said.  Growth in the U.S. and Europe may be just one percent.

“We’re already at stall speed in the U.S. and Europe, which means we’re now more likely than not to see a recession,” Shanmugaratnam said.  Companies are holding back spending and consumers globally lack confidence.  Zoellick tamped down the likelihood of a “double-dip” global recession in comments to reporters in Singapore today.   Still, “we are now seeing a particularly sensitive time in the euro zone,” the World Bank chief said.  “A number of issues are converging.”

“These things are very hard to predict because if you have events trigger uncertainty in Europe, that will flow back to the U.S.,” Zoellick said.  The eurozone’s performance “depends on the political decisions moving forward,” he said.  The euro will survive in the next five years, although the question over membership of the common currency is one that Europeans must answer.  “Sometimes people hope that you can muddle through by providing financing and liquidity, in the case of Europe, from the European Financial Stability Facility or the European Central Bank,” Zoellick said.  “They now recognize that’s not going to happen and instead what you see is with some of the weaker economies, that the austerity policies are pushing them into slower and slower growth and so this could be a downward spiral.”

According to Zoellick, recent European Central Bank government bond purchases have given temporary monetary liquidity to markets.  “The policies that have been pursued by the EU up to now can buy time, but parliaments and the public have to come to terms with fundamental questions,” Zoellick said.  One direction is to deepen the fiscal union.”

“They’ve tried to pump money into it, they’ve tried in the past month.  The ECB bought a lot of bonds.  But, I think dealing with these problems through liquidity measures will not be sufficient,” Zoellick said.  “Christine Lagarde of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and I from a different position at the World Bank have been trying to prod people to recognize some of these questions.”  Lagarde, who told the Federal Reserve’s annual conference that European banks need urgent capitalization, angered some European policymakers and politicians with her opinions.

“People should not underestimate the European response, but Europeans should not be fooled that that type of response will deal with the fundamental questions that still need to be addressed,” Zoellick said.  The markets have been hoping for additional monetary stimulus from the Federal Reserve to relieve global growth concerns, but Zoellick said that monetary policy alone won’t do the job.  Rather, he said, the real solution to Europe’s crisis must be found to deal with the crisis.  “This one is really even beyond the finance ministers’ pay grade.  These are going to be the decisions that have to be made by the heads of government and supported by their parliaments,” he said.

American markets analyst Peter Kenny of Knight Capital said “We have a eurozone that is an apoplectic frenzy of just trying to right the ship.  If you can find some stabilizing influence in the eurozone to give the global markets some confidence, I’d be shocked.”  Parliaments in Germany and France currently debating the extent of their countries’ contribution to the European Financial Stability Facility, the fund set up to bail out any eurozone nations struggling with their debt obligations.

Richard Jeffrey, chief investment officer at Cazenove Capital Management, said that “Money that the key worry for the markets was the health of the world economy.  “If the world economy is slowing down or perhaps even moving into recession – I think that is less likely, but that is what people fear – then that has negative implications for the financial system and the banking sector.  The debt problems in the peripheral European economies rumble on, of course, but again their debt problems are helped if there is growth.  If there isn’t growth in the economies, then their debt problems become more difficult to support, so this is all interlinked.”

Fitch Ratings Reaffirms U.S. Creditworthiness as AAA

Thursday, September 1st, 2011

Former Federal Reserve chairman Alan Greenspan says that Italy is the root of most of Europe’s economic problems, as well as our own.  In a recent appearance on “Meet the Press”, “It depends on Europe, not the United States,” Greenspan said. “The United States was actually doing relatively well, sluggish but going forward until Italy ran into trouble.”  According to Greenspan, 50 percent of American corporations have offices in Europe, and the continent “has been a very important driving force in the overall earnings of U.S. corporations.”  Greenspan also noted that S&P’s downgrade “hit a nerve”.  The ratings agency said it was reducing the AAA rating to AA+ not only because of the country’s debt load, but because it doesn’t believe that Congress can resolve the country’s debt problems.  Mark Zandi, chief economist at Moody’s Analytics, agrees, noting that “There’s a lot of fear and misunderstanding and confusion, and that all could come out in the stock and bond markets.  I don’t think it takes much to unnerve investors given the current environment.  I think anything could drive investors to sell given how fragile sentiment is.”

At the same time, Greenspan downplayed the risk of a double-dip recession in the United States, noting that the economy is in better shape than its European peers.  With all of this bickering going on, the economy is slowing down,” Greenspan said.  “You can see it in all the data.  I don’t see a double-dip, but I do see it slowing down.”  Europe, which purchases 25 percent of American exports and is home to the operations of many American companies, could determine the course of the U.S. economy’s recovery, according to Greenspan.  European leaders are working to control a sovereign-debt crisis, which has spread to Italy, the euro zone’s third-largest economy, and is causing chaos in global financial markets.

“When Italy first showed signs of weakness and started selling its bonds — the yield is now over six percent, which is an unsustainable level — it created a massive problem in Europe because Italy is a very large country, cannot be easily bailed out and indeed cannot be bailed out.  This is not an issue of credit rating. The United States can pay any debt it has because we can always print money to do that.  There is zero probability of default,” Greenspan said.

In the meantime, Fitch Ratings delivered some good news to the U.S. economy when it reaffirmed its AAA credit rating and said it did not anticipate downgrading the nation’s debt in the near future.  The firm said the outlook for the rating is stable because the recent deal to raise the debt ceiling and cut the budget deficit proved that the nation’s political leaders are willing to do what’s necessary to cut the nation’s growing debt.  The debt-ceiling deal “was a significant positive development that provided a substantive and necessary increase in the federal debt ceiling.  It also signaled that there is the political commitment to place U.S. public finances on a sustainable path consistent with the U.S. sovereign rating remaining ‘AAA’,” Fitch said.  Fitch’s outlook is the most positive on the U.S. of the primary credit rating agencies.  Standard & Poor’s downgraded long-term debt to AA+ after concluding that the planned $2.1 trillion to $2.4 trillion budget cuts over the next 10 years are not large enough to stabilize the nation’s rising debt.  Moody’s Investor Services also retained the nation’s AAA rating, but changed its outlook to negative.  This means that there’s a possibility of a downgrade.

“The key pillars of the U.S.’s exceptional creditworthiness remains intact: its pivotal role in the global financial system and the flexible, diversified and wealthy economy that provides its revenue base.  Monetary and exchange-rate flexibility further enhances the capacity of the economy to absorb and adjust to ‘shocks,’ Fitch said.

“I think they’re looking at a broader perspective than S&P in the global aspects,” Steve Goldman, Weeden & Company market strategist said of Fitch’s decision. “It’s giving a sigh of relief to investors here.”

Italian Debt Crisis Rattles Europe’s Third Biggest Economy

Monday, July 25th, 2011

Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi said he would speed the passage of a 40 billion-Euro ($56 billion) deficit-cutting plan to stop a market selloff that threatens Europe’s single currency.  The “crisis prompts us to speed up” approval of the budget cuts, Berlusconi said since Italian stocks lost nearly 7.5 percent over two sessions and bond yields soared to the highest in 10 years.  Referring to the austerity plan, Berlusconi vowed “to bolster its content and draw up additional measures aimed at balancing the budget by 2014.  The crisis in confidence that has battered financial markets and hit Italy in recent days is a threat for everyone in the Eurozone, the most concrete element of European unity,” Berlusconi said.  He noted that Italy’s banks are “solid” and his government and opposition parties are determined to defend Europe’s third largest economy.  Italy has the world’s 7th largest economy and the Eurozone’s third largest.

The initial signs that Italy was in trouble emerged last week, when investors began dumping Italian bonds and selling off the stocks of banks such as UniCredit that are heavily exposed to Italian debt.  That accelerated  three days after Berlusconi drove worries about Rome’s commitment to the passage of the proposed budget cuts by snarking about finance minister Giulio Tremonti.  ”I think Italy is in a much better position than Greece still, but clearly the Europeans now need to make sure that Italy doesn’t go,” said Jonathan Tepper, partner at Variant Perception, a London research firm.  ”That would be bad, and not just for the Europeans.”

Berlusconi said that the plunge in the country’s stocks and bonds in recent days is a threat for the unity of Europe and the Eurozone.  “The crisis in confidence that has battered financial markets and hit Italy in recent days is a threat for everyone and that effects the single currency, the most concrete element of European unity,” he said, noting that his government and opposition parties are determined to defend Italy and that he is supported by his European Union allies.

“Berlusconi and Co. must back down and give (Finance Minister Giulio) Tremonti full support immediately,” said Marc Ostwald, a fixed-income strategist at Monument Securities Ltd. in London.  Of all Eurozone nations that are sensitive “to rising debt servicing costs, Italy tops the list, so it can’t afford for this colossal rise in long-term rates to be anything other than very short-term.”

Roben Farzad of Bloomberg Business Week said on National Public Radio’s “All Things Considered”,  “Profligacy.  Look, I mean, the Euro was great.  The Eurozone was great when it all worked out and had this single currency and you can partake in cheaper labor and people going across the borders easily and lower cost of capital for everyone.  But when times are bad, i.e., this great global recession of ours, suddenly you have a dynamic where the haves and the have-nots are exposed for what they are.  And the smaller countries, the more peripheral countries, turns out that they really borrowed beyond their means.  But Italy is the perennial sick man of Europe.  It’s a slow growing economy.  It’s not monolithic.  The south tends to be poor.  The north is wealthier and more industrious and has the majority of the finance and the capital and whatnot.  The problem is, when times are good and risk is perceived as being overrated, you have the international debt capital markets being very easy with loaning money to countries.  And slow-growing countries like Italy and Japan, if you look at their last 20 years, they tend to over-borrow in order to make ends meet.  Believe it or not, Italy is the third most leveraged country in the planet.”

James Walston offers this analysis in the Telegraph.  According to Walston,  “For those of us not versed in the dark arts of accounting or international finance, there is little more solid than money; I have it or I don’t, I can borrow it or lend it and measure it down to the last penny.  But confidence is an altogether different commodity, far more abstract and difficult to gauge.  Italy is trying to persuade us that the world should have confidence in both its political and its financial stability.  It will not be easy.  The ratings agencies’ evaluation of a country’s creditworthiness are one measure of stability; another is investor confidence in the bond markets about Italy’s solvency.  On both scores, the omens are getting worse for Italy day by day.  Until recently, Italy had avoided the worst of the world and European crises.  There was no housing bubble, as Italian banks demand copper-bottomed collateral before they will lend the ordinary house buyer a cent.  There were almost no toxic assets, as banks are amazingly conservative in their investment policies.”

European Central Bank Governing Council member Mario Draghi urged the Italian government to move ahead with further measures to re-balance the budget by 2014.  “The substance of future measures aimed at balancing the budget by 2014 should be defined as rapidly as possible,” he said.  “This is what markets are looking at above all today.”  Additionally, Draghi criticized the European policy response to Italy’s debt crisis, saying policymakers must “bring certainty to the process by which sovereign debt crises are managed” with clearly defined objectives and instruments.  International Monetary Fund economists have urged “decisive implementation” by Italy to cut its enormous public debt, pointing out that its austerity plan is based on buoyant forecasts with measures weighted toward the future.

United States in Third Place in Developing Clean Energy Sources

Wednesday, April 20th, 2011

The United States has fallen to third place – behind China and Germany – in the development of clean energy sources, according to a new report from the Pew Charitable Trusts. Investment in global clean energy expanded significantly in 2010 to $243 billion, a 30 percent increase over 2009.  China, Germany, Italy and India were among the nations that were most successful at attracting private investments.  China solidified its position as the world’s clean energy leader.  Its 2010 investment record of $54.4 billion in 2010 represents a 39 percent increase over 2009.  Germany ranked second in the

G-20, up from third last year, after experiencing a 100 percent increase in investment to $41.2 billion.  The United States’ 2010 investment totaled just $34 billion, a 51 percent increase over the previous year.

“The United States’ position as a leading destination for clean energy investment is declining because its policy framework is weak and uncertain,” said Phyllis Cuttino, director of Pew’s Clean Energy Program.  She said that the U.S. could lag behind even more as competitors adopt renewable energy standards and incentives for investing in solar, wind and other forms of clean energy.  “We are at risk of losing even more financing to countries like China, Germany and India, which have adopted strong policies such as renewable energy standards, carbon reduction targets and/or incentives for investment and production,” Cuttino said.

“The United States remains the global leader in clean energy innovation, receiving 75 percent of all venture capital investment in the sector, a total of $6 billion in 2010, but the U.S. has not been creating demand for deployment of clean energy.  As a result it is losing out on opportunities to attract investment, create manufacturing capabilities and spur job growth.  For example, worldwide, China is now the leading manufacturer of wind turbines and solar panels,” says Michael Liebreich, CEO of Bloomberg New Energy Finance.

China’s goal is to install 20,000 megawatts of solar energy by 2020; the European Union intends to generate 20 percent of its power from renewable sources over the same timeframe.  In the United States, 30 states have policies requiring utilities to buy more electricity from renewable sources.  Although the federal government has incentives in place to cut project costs, there’s no nationwide mandate for clean energy.

The website believes it doesn’t really matter who leads the world in alternative energy creation – as long as global effort continue.  According to Douglas McIntyre, “Most of the data does not matter much.  The fact that China invests such a large amount in clean energy does not mean it will not sell products based on that technology to U.S. firms.  China will export manufactured wind and solar infrastructure just as it does everything else.  Green technology is hardly a strategic asset.  The Chinese are as anxious to make money from their investment as U.S. companies.  If any proof is needed, many Chinese and US alternative energy firms are listed on stock exchanges.  Green is a business as much as it is a movement.”

Unfortunately, McIntyre says, solar and wind energy are not as powerful a source as many believe.  Solar energy doesn’t work at night unless the user has a storage device such as a battery; cloudy weather can make the technology unreliable.  Solar technologies are also quite costly and need significant land to collect the sun’s energy at useful rates.  Wind energy is intermittent in most areas.  Additionally, wind turbines typically are not connected to the American power grid, making the energy it produces difficult to deliver effectively to places where it could replace coal-powered electricity.

McIntyre notes that “America has a nearly inexhaustible supply of coal.  Nuclear energy projects may be delayed by the effects of the Japan earthquake, but its growth in the U.S. is inevitable because the country needs to produce more energy within its borders.  Investment in solar and wind energy may be up, particularly in China.  That does not matter much if the two sources do not work as well as others that are currently available.”

Click here to read a discussion about nuclear power by Amy Goodman of Democracy Now.