Debt Crises and Market Turmoil Is The World Going Bankrupt?
Europe and the US are hopelessly over-indebted. The crisis that started in the US real estate sector in 2007 has devastated state finances on both sides of the Atlantic and is threatening to wreck the euro and trigger a second global downturn. The world lacks the political leadership needed to end the turmoil.
The fear is back, in the stock exchanges and in the capitals of the industrial nations. There are growing signs everywhere of a new financial crisis, and the political leaders of the West are looking helpless and out of their depth.
The United States is struggling with an enormous budget deficit. And the euro zone's central bankers and government leaders can't find a strategy to end the permanent malaise of their single currency. The White House has achieved little more than to buy some time with a new debt compromise reached after theatrical political squabbling between Democrats and Republicans. Last Friday night, rating agency Standard & Poor's lowered its rating for the US from AAA to AA+.
Muddling through, postponing, playing down -- the motto of the crisis managers on both sides of the Atlantic has sent alarm bells ringing in stock markets. Britain's Economist magazine is warning of a double-dip recession in the US, a second downturn just three years after the last one. Many economists have been pointing out that last week's panic resembled the fear that swept financial markets after the collapse of US investment bank Lehman Brothers in September 2008.
Then as now, banks stopped lending each money. Then as now, banks' cash deposits at the central bank doubled within days. The European Central Bank reacted by assuring banks of unlimited liquidity in the coming months. It was an emergency measure that led to short-term relief but sparked anxious questions among bankers and stock market players. How long can the central bank keep up its market-soothing liquidity operations before it finally loses its credibility, the most important asset of a central bank? Is the financial crisis about to escalate? And will the world then be bankrupt?
It was less than three years ago that the global economy inched towards the abyss after the US real estate bubble burst. In order to save their over-indebted banks and insurance companies, Western governments borrowed huge sums of money themselves. They nationalized banks and implemented vast stimulus programs, while central banks flooded the economy with cheap money.
As former German Finance Minister Peer Steinbrück put it, "fire was fought with fire."
That helped to prevent a global economic crisis of the kind that brought the world to a standstill in the 1930s. But it also set ablaze the headquarters of the world's economic fire-fighters. Who will save the saviors? That question was already being asked back in 2008, and it has gained urgency now that government debt mountains are higher than ever.
Crisis Management Obstructed by Politics
The scale of new borrowing is less of a problem than the inability of governments to find a credible strategy for reducing their debts. In the US, the government and opposition have been locked in a dispute over whether the deficit should be removed through tax hikes or cuts in social spending. In Europe, the solvent governments of the northern countries are refusing to underwrite the debt of the struggling Mediterranean countries.
The West faces a dual crisis that has engulfed its most important political leaders. President Barack Obama has failed to mend a gaping rift in US society and to outmaneuver the conservative Tea Party rebels. In Europe, it has become more evident with each European Union summit that German Chancellor Angela Merkel, rather than being in control of the crisis, is being driven along by it.
The West hasn't been this weak since World War II, and never before has a crisis paralyzed Europe, America and Japan at the same time. The problems of the leading industrial nations aren't just sapping the political influence of the so-called Free World, they are also threatening the global economy.
There are growing fears in the US that the debt woes could drive up inflation to new record levels. In Europe, the future of the single currency is at risk.
Merkel can't avoid the key decision much longer: either the euro zone will be converted into a close fiscal union with financial transfers and commonly issued Eurobonds, or Europe's most indebted nations will have to leave the currency union -- with unforeseeable consequences for the remaining members.
The longer the Western debt crises smolder on, the darker the outlook for the global economy. Because the US economy is collapsing, American consumers are buying fewer goods from China and India. And because investors are piling out of euro and dollar investments, supposed islands of stability are starting to look shaky as well. In recent weeks, the Swiss franc and the Brazilian real have appreciated so strongly that exporters in those countries have been virtually unable to sell their products abroad.
Global Downtrend Feared
And so the world is at risk of sliding into a downward spiral. The debt crises are weakening economic growth, and the declining momentum in turn is making it even harder to escape the debt crisis.
Italian bank UniCredit has predicted a "synchronous downtrend in the US, Latin America, Asia and Europe." A downtrend that would also engulf the economy that has so far been getting through the crisis better than most others: Germany.
If the vicious cycle is to be broken, the governments in Europe and the US must take action now, united and coordinated. No less than the world's economic stability is at stake. But so far, that particular risk doesn't seem to feature prominently in the concerns of the world's crisis managers.
Jean-Claude Juncker, Luxembourg's prime minister and president of the euro group of euro-zone finance ministers, is a veteran of EU policymaking. After the July 21 special EU summit in Brussels, he declared that the euro crisis had been sorted out, and that the second Greek bailout agreed to that day was "the last package." The triumph lasted barely 14 days. The crisis started worsening again last week. Financial markets have set their sights on Spain and Italy, two economies that are too big to be dismissed as peripheral problems like Greece, Ireland or Portugal.
The risk premiums on the government debt of the two countries rose to risky levels last week. Italian and Spanish bond yields were four percentage points above comparable German debt, seen as the benchmark of stability.
That makes borrowing more expensive, and governments simply can't afford such rates in times like these. When Ireland's interest rates reached similar levels last autumn, its neighbours urged the country to seek a bailout from the 440 billion ($625 billion) EU emergency rescue fund, the European Financial Stability Facility (EFSF).
Pledges Don't Calm Markets for Long
But Italy and Spain are too big. It has once again become clear that the euro was launched as a fair-weather currency. And that the euro zone's rescue mechanisms, despite all the additions and improvements, remain little more than inadequate, stopgap measures.
Once again, government leaders are falling behind the financial markets and economic realities in a race that will determine the fate of the euro. It is particularly worrying that their announcements and pledges appear to have an ever decreasing shelf-life.
Last year, when they rushed to the aid of Greece and set up a rescue fund for the high-debt nations on the edge of the currency bloc, they managed to calm markets for a few months. But since then, the breathing space following EU announcements has been whittled down to weeks, even days.
Europe's rescue efforts are not just behind the curve. The measures they end up taking turn out to be insufficient. "Too late and too little," said former EU Commissioner Günter Verheugen, referring to the failure of EU leaders to secure a long-term solution for their ailing currency.
Merkel opposes increasing the volume of the rescue fund. "Every increase would only be an invitation to speculators to go on finding out how much more the euro zone is ready to give," said one German government expert.
Berlin Officials Say EU Fund Can't Save Italy -- Even if It's Trebled
Officials in Berlin say the fund could cope with a bailout of Spain but wouldn't be able to handle Italy even if its resources were trebled. Worse, that assessment also applies to the permanent European Stability Mechanism (ESM) that is due to replace the EFSF in 2013. This admission is unlikely to strengthen confidence in the euro.
"You can't bail out an economy like Italy," said one high-ranking government official. The financial requirement would be too huge. Italy's EU partners couldn't even provide a guarantee for the country's government debt, currently totalling 1.8 trillion, as some economists have proposed.
The alternative is simple: Eurobonds. But at present, German officials are only mentioning that possibility in whispers. The common issuance of government debt is still a taboo in top government circles -- for the time being.
The German government fears that such bonds would entail major disadvantages for Europe's largest economy. The yield on them would be higher than on current German sovereign bonds, because the euro zone as a whole wouldn't be as creditworthy as Germany is on its own. If the interest rates on Eurobonds were just one percentage point higher than German government bonds, it would cost the German government an additional 20 billion per year in the medium term.
That is why Merkel and Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble are insisting that Italy find its own way out of the crisis by cutting government spending and enacting reform. But Berlin is under pressure, not just from the other EU member states, but from Washington. The US is pushing Germany to agree to Eurobonds. Obama is calculating that if Europe gets to grips with its crisis, his own fight to cut US debts will become easier.
- Part 1: Is The World Going Bankrupt?
- Part 2: US At Risk of Double-Dip Recession