Thursday, March 3, 2011

Meanwhile Back in Europe

Europe has been relatively quiet recently, except for occasional bursts of news coming from or about German Chancellor Angela Merkel. The euro has been relatively strong: it has risen a little over 7% against the U. S. Dollar since the beginning of the year. Relative interest rate spreads on sovereign debt in the eurozone have remained relatively steady.

However, there still remains a lot of work to do in Europe and with all the disagreements among the leaders as well as everything else happening in the world the bailouts and other financial relationships are just not getting done. Let’s just say one shouldn’t get too comfortable in this quiet.

Something concrete for the near term: the European banks are starting their second round of stress tests this weekend. This second round is supposed to be “sufficiently stringent” this time.
We’ll see! They sure weren’t very “stringent” the first time around.

The question is whether or not confidence in the European banking and financial system can be returned so that other matters can be dealt with.

Beyond that, meetings will continue among the leaders of the European nations. Whether or not they can craft a bailout plan is still up in the air. In addition, the process for how the nations are to conduct their fiscal affairs also needs to be decided upon. Problems will still linger until they achieve some more coordination in budget-setting…hard for sovereign nations to give up.

But, speaking of sovereign nations, the problem of sovereign debt still overhangs the financial

Kenneth Rogoff, who co-authored the book “This Time is Different”, stated in Berlin yesterday that Greece and Ireland will need to restructure their debts. (See

Rogoff also added that Spain and Portugal may be forced to do the same thing.

Bondholders, he argued, may have to take losses as large as 40 percent of their holdings of this sovereign debt.

“If Spain were to have a restructuring of central government debt, I don’t think it would end there” said Rogoff, “Spain is just too big.” Other countries facing a restructuring might then include Belgium and more.

But, this is not all!

Europe is facing more inflation. For one, the United Nations announced that world food prices rose to a record level in February and may exceed this level over the next few months. Furthermore, the turmoil in the Middle East is not easing price pressures as the pressure on oil prices increases.

The new element in this latter situation is that Asian countries like China and India now have the wherewithal to hedge against the unrest in the Middle East by shoring up their oil reserves. Even as these oil importing countries add to world demand as their economies grow they also have the financial resources to stockpile reserves in a way that presents a new dynamic to global markets.

And, the money is there for this process to continue worldwide: “What can best be described as ‘the unintended consequences of quantitative easing’ (on the part of the Federal Reserve in the United States) have played a major role. With many emerging nations addicted to their dollar currency pegs, easy US monetary policy finds its way into every nook and cranny of the global economy.” This written by Stephen King, group chief economist at HSBC in “Central Banks Risk Wrecking Recovery” (

These “unintended consequences” will continue to plague commodity markets worldwide. Nations and investors have the dollars or the access to dollars to keep these prices rising and this access will not go away soon.

So what about an increase in interest rates?

Well, for the twenty-second month the European Central Bank (ECB) held its main interest rate steady at 1%. Jean-Claude Trichet, ECB president, stated that inflation was a worry and although the rate was held at the current level for the time being, it certainly could rise in April.

Inflation in the eurozone was 2.4% in February, above the target limit of the ECB which is 2.0%.

Rising interest rates can only put more pressure on the governments in Europe, just as rising inflation rates can increase calls from Germany for greater government discipline in fiscal affairs.

“Back in Europe” things are still unsettled. As to the undercurrents going on above look out for the following:

First, the bank stress tests will show little or nothing and will give financial markets very little additional confidence in the European banking system;

Second, no agreements will be reached within the European Union until some of the nations within the EU restructure their debt and the pain of the fiscal situation will then become very obvious;

Third, this restructuring of debt and the continued increase in inflation will put Merkel and Germany in an even stronger position to get a more conservative process of fiscal oversight included in any package that the EU agrees upon;

Fourth, the ECB will hold off an increase in its main interest rate for as long as it can so that a rise in the rate will not serve as a cause of the debt restructuring and will allow the leaders in the EU to craft a new relationship in as orderly fashion as possible.

Inflation will continue to rise in Europe and in the rest of the world and this will put central banks under greater and greater pressure to begin to combat the inflation. Politically, this is still going to be very hard because of the mediocre economic recovery now taking place and the political unrest being caused by governmental restructurings. But, that is another story.

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