'Run For Your Lives': Euro Zone Considers Solution of Last Resort

The ink on the most recent European Union summit agreement was hardly dry before it became clear that it was insufficient. With investors now increasingly wary of Italy, the consensus is growing that the European Central Bank -- and the IMF -- will have to play an even greater role. But will it be enough? By SPIEGEL Staff

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Giesecke & Devrient

When government heads from Germany and the US get together, protocol usually calls for as much pomp as possible: honor guards, hymns, flag parades and the like.

But the tone was decidedly more businesslike at the G-20 summit in Cannes last Thursday. German Chancellor Angela Merkel and US President Barack Obama, together with US Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner and German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble, met in a mundane conference room at the five-star Intercontinental Carlton Hotel. The group had serious issues to discuss.

Merkel reported on the results of a meeting held a day earlier -- during which she and French President Nicolas Sarkozy had told Greek Prime Minister Georgios Papandreou exactly what they thought about his (now cancelled) plans to hold a national referendum on the euro bailout package. Obama and Geithner, however, were not impressed. The euro crisis continues to worsen, the pair grumbled. It is time, they said, for Europe to finally take decisive action. The decisions taken at the European Union summit in late October were not enough, they complained.

In response, Merkel and Schäuble recited the long list of measures the Europeans had recently initiated. But in reality, they had little to offer in reply to Washington's analysis. The euro crisis, Obama warned, now threatens the global economy.

Too little, too late. That has been the global public's assessment of European efforts to rescue its currency -- for the last one and a half years. And there is every indication that it will remain that way, even after the most recent G-20 meeting. Indeed, concurrent to the meeting in Cannes, the euro zone experienced what was likely the most ridiculous week of events since the crisis began: a Greek referendum announced on Monday, a reversal on Thursday, a national unity coalition promised in Athens on Friday and Papandreou's resignation on Sunday. Things changed almost by the hour, it seemed. And there is still little reason for optimism.

Half-Hearted and Half-Baked

Greece will keep the euro for the time being -- that much is certain. But it also seems clear that this is neither a guarantee of economic health in Greece nor a secure future for the common currency. On the contrary, there were growing doubts on financial markets last week as to whether the resolutions reached at the late-October European summit would be sufficient.

At that meeting, European leaders leveraged their bailout fund to more than a trillion euros. But what was celebrated a week ago as a "tour de force" and a "breakthrough" is now viewed as half-hearted and half-baked. Hardly a politician or economic expert believes that Greece can be rehabilitated under the more current plan from Brussels. And now there are also growing concerns about Italy. Interest rates for Italian treasury bonds reached a new record high last week, and the managers of the European Financial Stability Facility (EFSF) were unwilling to risk tapping the global financial markets. The planned issue of a new EFSF bond was cancelled at the last minute.

Not surprisingly, the mood was grim among the leaders gathered on the French Riviera last week for the G-20 summit. The conclusion, after countless discussions about the crisis, was that much more radical measures are needed. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the European Central Bank (ECB) are to take over the management of the debt crisis in the future, and Germany's currency reserves are no longer off limits. Last week Germany's central bank, the Bundesbank, narrowly managed to prevent portions of those reserves from being used to fill the IMF coffers.

Can the "big bazooka" that US politicians, in particular, like to invoke actually save the euro? Many economists are skeptical, because it is primarily economic imbalances that are creating ever-widening rifts between countries in the European currency area. The economic divide between the north, with its strong export economies, and the south, with its high consumption, has grown even further. At the same time, citizens are losing confidence in Europe's ability to manage the crisis.

'Run For Your Lives'

"Run for your lives" is the new motto in Europe, and not just among banks and insurance companies, which are selling off southern European bonds as quickly as they can, but also among ordinary holders of savings accounts. Banks and regulatory agencies are noticing that anxious citizens throughout Europe are trying to bring their money to safety. The flight of capital from Italy, Spain and Greece is in full swing.

Since the beginning of the crisis, ordinary Greeks have withdrawn about €50 billion ($69 billion) from their accounts, or a fifth of total deposits. In May, when the first rumors about a possible withdrawal from the euro zone were making the rounds, the Greeks withdrew €1.5 billion from their accounts within 48 hours. And it is no longer just the rich who are moving their money to a safe place. A Greek nun recently closed her convent's bank account, telling the bank employee that she needed the €700,000 in the account for renovations. But when pressed by the bank employee, she finally admitted that she was worried about her order's assets.

Switzerland is a popular safe haven. The Greeks have reportedly deposited about €280 billion in Swiss banks. At the airport in Athens, passengers are often caught leaving the country with upwards of €100,000 in cash, well in excess of the €10,000 limit.

This capital flight has triggered a boom in the European real estate market, especially in Berlin and London, where wealthy Greeks are buying second homes. Knight Frank, a real estate firm, estimates that about €290 million from Greece was invested in London in 2010 alone.

Lack of Confidence

The Italians are also getting nervous. Figures compiled by the German Bundesbank and the Banca d'Italia, Italy's central bank, suggest that more than €80 billion in capital was moved out of Italy in August and September by Italians concerned about the growing risk of a government insolvency.

Unfortunately, investors' lack of confidence in southern European economies is only too warranted, as a still unpublished study by the Munich-based Ifo Institute for Economic Research shows. The study's authors examined changes in the prices of domestically produced goods and services in the Mediterranean countries before the crisis began. Their figures reveal how the countries systematically ruined their competitiveness.

According to the study, prices of goods produced in Greece went up by an average of 67 percent between 1995 and 2008, a record increase for the euro zone. The average price of domestically produced goods went up by 56 percent in Spain, 47 percent in Portugal and 41 percent in Italy. By contrast, prices went up in Germany by only 9 percent in the same period.

Wage and social policy was a key reason for the differences. While German workers had to make do with modest collective bargaining results and tough reforms, the Mediterranean countries were spending money hand over fist. As a result, the goods they produce are now much too expensive internationally.

The real reason why the common currency has come under so much pressure lies in these divergences. It also explains why the nighttime decisions reached at the last EU summit in Brussels do not offer a lasting solution for the euro crisis.

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