By Paul de Grauwe, Professor of international economics, University of Leuven, member of the Group of Economic Policy Analysis, advising the EU Commission President Manuel Barroso, and former member of the Belgian parliament. Cross-posted from VoxEU.
The Eurozone crisis plays on to a familiar tune. Finance ministers meet on the weekend only for markets to dismiss their efforts the following Monday. This column argues that Europe’s leaders have lost touch, that the ECB has the firepower but is not prepared to use it, and that the outcome of all this is depressingly clear: Defeat by the financial markets.
Imagine an army going to war. It has overwhelming firepower. The generals, however, announce that they actually hate the whole thing and that they will limit the shooting as much as possible. Some of the generals are so upset by the prospect of going to war that they resign from the army. The remaining generals then tell the enemy that the shooting will only be temporary, and that the army will go home as soon as possible. What is the likely outcome of this war? You guessed it. Utter defeat by the enemy.The ECB has been behaving like the generals. When it announced its programme of government bond buying it made it known to the financial markets (the enemy) that it thoroughly dislikes it and that it will discontinue it as soon as possible. Some members of the Governing Council of the ECB resigned in disgust at the prospect of having to buy bad bonds. Like the army, the ECB has overwhelming (in fact unlimited) firepower but it made it clear that it is not prepared to use the full strength of its money-creating capacity. What is the likely outcome of such a programme? You guessed it. Defeat by the financial markets.
When failure is too painful to contemplate, any halting motion in something resembling the right direction will be hailed as success.
Eurozone leaders had a session well into the night and announced a sketchy deal that dealt with one major stumbling block, which was getting a deep enough “voluntary” haircut on Greek debt. Government officials regarded it as key that any debt restructuring be voluntary, since no one wanted to trigger payouts on credit default swaps written on Greek debt (a default or forced restructuring would be deemed a credit event and allow CDS holders to cash in their insurance policies, and that could trigger a bigger rout). The banks were unwilling to accept the 60% haircut sought by the Eurocrats, but agreed to a 50% reduction.
The only other seemingly new developments were a commitment by the ECB to “maintain” its bond buying program and confirmation that the various bailouts would be funded by the gimmick of leveraging the EFSF to a much larger size.The Financial Times said that Merkel and Sarkozy said the amount could not be calculated now, but analysts estimated that it would be bigger than €1 trillion, while Bloomberg reported €1.4 trillion. Banks are also required to increase their capital levels to 9% or face the prospect of unpleasant government-assisted recapitalization.