Germany

Fiscal austerity, a concept which German Chancellor Merkel says meant nothing to her before the crisis, may have passed its heyday in the eurozone. This week, the European Commission has published its country-specific recommendations, containing fiscal plans for member states that are subject to excessive deficit procedures. These plans, which will form the basis for political discussion at the next Summit on 27-28 June, allow for greater flexibility in reaching budget targets for several countries, including France, Spain, the Netherlands and Portugal.

Furthermore, there have been rumblings in the German press suggesting that Berlin is beginning to recognise that fiscal consolidation without economic growth could prove to be a Pyrrhic victory. If true, this could mark the beginning of a new approach in the eurozone, helping the weakest region in the global economy to recover from a recession that has already dragged on far too long. So how real is the prospect of change? Read more

When David Marsh wrote his definitive biography of the Bundesbank in 1993, he chose the following sub title: “The Bank That Rules Europe“. Feared and revered in equal measure, the Bundesbank was the model on which the ECB was built. Imitation was not, however, the sincerest form of flattery for Germany’s central bank. The arrival of the ECB removed most of its direct authority over monetary policy, leaving it with only one out of 23 votes on the governing council of the new central bank.

Recently, the Bundesbank’s President Jens Weidmann has been in a minority of one on the question of whether to launch the ECB’s new programme of Outright Monetary Transactions, to which he is fundamentally opposed. He views the proposed purchases of government debt in the troubled eurozone economies as a thinly disguised monetary bail-out of profligate governments, something which the Bundesbank had believed from the very beginning to be outside the intention of the treaties. Read more

Today’s decision from the German Constitutional Court in Karlsruhe is a major victory for Angela Merkel and for Germany’s preferred approach to handling the eurozone crisis. The court has approved the ratification of the ESM treaty, with only minor conditions attached.

It looks like a comprehensive defeat for those trying to mobilise political opinion inside Germany to block the treaty. As a result, the ESM and the fiscal compact can now be safely launched, and any immediate obstacle to Mario Draghi’s bond buying plan at the ECB has disappeared. What has emerged from this messy process is, in effect, an ESM leveraged by the ECB, something which seemed impossible this spring.

This represents a very large building block in the rescue strategy which the eurozone has gradually pieced together in the last three months.

The acute phase of the crisis peaked in mid June with the Greek election, which reduced the probability of a disorderly Greek exit.

Then, the eurozone summit in late June announced a roadmap for the long term reform of the eurozone. Mr Draghi was a co-author of the plan, and in retrospect it was a very important step, not least because he deemed it to be so.

These steps did not immediately settle the markets, and at times during July it seemed that the capital outflow from Spain would reach unmanageable proportions. However, at that point, Mr Draghi crucially said that the ECB considered it to be within its mandate to eliminate “convertibility risks” in the eurozone,  and that statement basically turned the crisis around. Since then, for example, Spanish equities have risen by 30 per cent. Read more

Amid all the focus on the UK’s decision to use its veto, it is important not to miss the main economic outcome of the summit, which is that the agreement heralds a new era in European policymaking. The German approach to fiscal policy will now be writ large across the eurozone. This raises three key questions:

  1. How different will this prove to be in practice from the old status quo?
  2. Is it a good idea from an economic point of view?
  3. Does it allow the European Central Bank in future to play the same role in the eurozone as the Federal Reserve and the Bank of England have been playing in the US and the UK?

My initial take on the deal is that it will be sufficient to dampen the acute phase of the crisis, but that the absence of a clear long-term strategy for growth means that there could still be a long period of chronic problems ahead. Read more

ECB headquarters in Frankfurt. Bloomberg

ECB headquarters in Frankfurt. Bloomberg

(Updated with comments, below) For those of us trying to follow the progression of the eurozone’s leaders towards their critical summit on Friday, it has been a fascinating but somewhat bewildering week. However, the critical point is that, so far, the game still seems to be taking place on a playing field mainly of the Germans’ choosing, so the inevitable concessions and bargains which are reached at the summit will still leave the final outcome lying well within their preferred territory. (See an earlier blog.)

What is basically under discussion is a tightening in the fiscal rules which will apply to, and indeed within, the member states, in exchange for a provision of a limited amount of liquidity to allow these countries to reach the point at which they can regain market access for their sovereign debt. With eurobonds now effectively ruled out, any permanent transfers of resources within the enhanced fiscal union are strictly limited in size and scope. However, if the settlement is to prove durable, Germany will need to give some ground in the coming hours. Angela Merkel, the German chancellor who is nothing if not an arch pragmatist, undoubtedly realises that. So where will the bargains be struck? Read more

The leaders of the eurozone have finally reached crunch time. This is the week in which Angela Merkel’s “grand bargain” is due to reach fulfilment at the European summit. On one side of the bargain, the eurozone will be required to accept Germany’s demand for “fiscal union”. On the other side, Germany will agree to the provision of funds to help indebted countries to remain liquid while they reduce government deficits and debt ratios, and thereby regain market access. These provisions of liquidity will come from the EFSF, which will transform into the ESM in 2013, and potentially from the ECB.

Given that fiscal union will play such a central role in this bargain, it is surprising that its exact contents have received such little examination, at least in the financial markets. What might it include, and to what extent is it desirable? Read more

It has suddenly become respectable to ask the question: what would happen if the euro broke up? Last week’s rise in German bond yields signals that a euro break-up is being taken more seriously by investors. I am told that London law firms are allocating large amounts of time to examining the validity, following a break-up, of cross-border contracts written in euros. And, to judge from my own inbox, asset managers are beginning to ask about the economics of how it could occur. Read more

Mario Draghi

Mario Draghi — Getty Images

In Mario Draghi’s first meeting as the new president of the ECB on Thursday, he already faces a decision which could determine the eventual fate of the euro. This is not a decision about whether to cut short term interest rates. They will be cut, decisively, before the year end. Nor is it a decision about the maintenance of non-standard measures to inject liquidity into the eurozone’s banking sector. These measures will be maintained and increased.

Instead, his historic decision will be whether to use the balance sheet of the central bank to purchase the troubled debt of countries like Italy and Spain, and thus effect a large transfer of resources between the member states of the eurozone – a transfer which the political leaders of the zone have so far been unable to undertake. It is becoming increasingly clear that, among European institutions, only the ECB has the constitutional authority and the financial muscle to undertake such a transfer. But is it appropriate territory for a central bank to enter? That is President Draghi’s dilemma. Read more

Euro symbol at the European Central Bank

Euro symbol by the European Central Bank headquarters. Image by Getty.

When the idea of leveraging the European Financial Stability Facility to increase its firepower was touted as the solution to the European sovereign debt crisis at the International Monetary Fund meetings last weekend, markets rallied sharply. They saw this (rightly) as the first sign of a policy initiative which might actually be large enough to get ahead of the deteriorating crisis. But I commented here on Sunday that there was no real indication that Germany was ready to embrace the scheme and, sure enough, Wolfgang Schäuble, finance minister, yesterday described the approach as “a silly idea” which “makes no sense”.

Germany’s public opposition to increasing the size of the EFSF may be partly tactical, given tomorrow’s key vote on the fund in the Bundestag. But it is also based on a crucial sticking point. The strong economies fear that increasing the size of the fund would result  in them losing their own triple A status and they have consistently given a greater weight to these costs than to the less certain, but potentially much larger, costs of a euro breakdown. Read more

A couple of months ago, financial markets realised that the developed economies were slowing sharply, while the policy response from central banks and finance ministries was slow, or confused, or in some cases, like the debt ceiling debacle in Washington, directly damaging. Since then, some policy makers have woken up and smelled the coffee. There have been significant policy shifts in the US, and at the ECB. But there has been no progress whatsoever in the eurozone sovereign debt crisis. Last week, that became by far the most urgent problem facing the global economy. Read more