Wednesday, March 16, 2011

For Mr. Trichet, the New Rules are "Insufficient"

The European sovereign debt unpleasantness continues.

Muddle, muddle, muddle…

The European finance ministers want automatic sanctions against EU countries that violate the debt levels assigned to the countries…

That is, unless a country has enough allies to be able to avoid the sanctions if they break the rules.

Jean-Claude Trichet, president of the European Central Bank, states that the new rules put into place on Tuesday are “insufficient.”

The next step in the application of these rules involves the approval of the European Parliament. The feeling is that this body, given the position taken by Mr. Trichet, will push for tougher rules.

We’ll see.

Meanwhile, back at the ranch, Moody’s Investors Service downgraded Portugal’s long-term government bond rating.

And, the finance minister of Greece, George Papaconstantinou, indicated that Greece might need additional aid beyond what was in its initial bailout which came in 2010.

Interest rate spreads on European government debt over German government debt rose again yesterday after spreads had fallen on Monday after reports from the weekend meeting of the finance ministers was released.

Financial markets just don’t seem to be convinced that the problems that exist within the eurozone are being faced. Government officials seem to want to return to a previous world and will try any band aid they can construct in order to get things “back to the past”.

At least two governments within the European Union are going to have to write down the value of their debt. Maybe there might be two more that will have to do the same thing.

Then, these nations are going to have to severely limit their future budget deficits.

After this, some of the peripheral nations are going to have to bring their economies into the 21st century. This is going to be the hardest part of this exercise.

The point here is that just getting government budgets back into greater balance is not going to do resolve all the issues of the European Union. One of the fault lines that Raghu Rajan writes about in his award winning book “Fault Lines: How Hidden Fractures Still Threaten the World Economy,” is the one that exists between those eurozone countries that are growing rapidly and those whose growth is lagging behind because they are still trapped in the 20th century.

So, in addition to just the fiscal issue, there are structural issues that some nations are going to have to deal with, and, given the protests and riots we have already experienced, it is obvious that such changes are going to be painful. But, the future of the European Union, as it now stands, depends upon this effort.

How can the European Union hold together when these social, as well as economic, issues that are so divisive must be dealt with? If the budget constraints are held to, the governments that face the greatest amount of change are not going to have the “deep pockets” needed to resolve the social unrest that might result. How can the needed change take place without a lot of economic “safety nets” in place, especially in Europe?

In my view, Europe has a long way to go and the sovereign debt problem is just a bump along the road. But, since the “people” issues connected with making these peripheral countries competitive in the 21st century are so important, the debt of these troubled countries should be written down so that the governments of these countries can get their fiscal houses in order.
Then, these governments can deal with the “safety net” issues that they will be facing.

Trichet is correct, what has been done is “insufficient”, but there is much more to the situation than that.

No comments: