We have one last chance to save global economy, warns Geithner
Published 26/09/2011 | 08:50
EUROPE, the G20, and the global authorities have one last chance to contain the EMU debt crisis with a nuclear solution or abdicate responsibility and watch as the world slides into depression, endangering the benign but fragile order that has taken shape over the last three decades.
The threat of cascading default, bank runs, and catastrophic risk must be taken off the table," said US Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner over the weekend.
"Sovereign and banking stresses in Europe are the most serious risk now confronting the world economy. Decisions cannot wait until the crisis gets more severe."
Euroland's dysfunctional arrangements are no longer a local affair. As the European Central Bank's Jean-Claude Trichet said in Washington, EMU is at the epicentre of a global sovereign debt crisis that risks engulfing all, and is more intractable than 2008 because governments themselves are now crippled.
China, India, Brazil and the world's rising powers will not escape lightly this time if leaders let events spiral out of control. European banks have lent $3.4 trillion to emerging markets (BIS data), or three quarters of external loans to these countries.
The International Monetary Fund warned last week that emerging markets face the risk of "sharp reversals" or even a "sudden stop" if there is further spill-over from Europe. This comes at a time when Asia and parts of Latin America are already in the topping phase of a credit boom, one of epic proportions in China where loans have doubled to almost 200pc of GDP over the last five years.
Warning signs have been flashing red for the last three weeks. Shares of China's top property developer Greentown have crashed by a third this month. The currencies of Indonesia, Brazil, Korea, South Africa, and Hungary have all buckled, and central banks have begun intervening to stop the slide. "A continued flight from risk raises the growing possibility of investor capitulation in emerging markets," said Neil Mellor from BNY Mellon.
The reserve powers would be well advised to pull out all the stops to save Europe and its banking system. Together they hold $10 trillion in foreign bonds. If they agreed to rotate just 4pc of these holdings ($400bn) into Spanish, Italian, and Belgian debt over the next two years, they could offer a soothing balm. None has yet risen to the challenge. It is `sauve qui peut', with no evidence of G20 leadership in sight.
Once again, the US has had to take charge. The multi-trillion package now taking shape for Euroland was largely concocted in Washington, in cahoots with the European Commission, and is being imposed on Germany by the full force of American diplomacy.
It is an ugly and twisted set of proposals, devised to accommodate Berlin's refusal to accept fiscal union, Eurobonds, and an EU treasury. But at least it is big.
The EU's €440bn bail-out fund (EFSF) will be "leveraged" from €440bn to €2 trillion to cope with Italy and Spain. The fund will assume an "equity" stake of 20pc or so in holdings of EMU debt, supported by loans of 80pc from the European Central Bank.
Commercial banks that cannot raise money from Mid-East wealth funds will be seized by the state, partly or fully, or be recapitalized by the EFSF. This should leave them strong enough to absorb a 50pc default imposed on Greece, and potential knock-on defaults in Portugal and Ireland.
Or at least, that is the idea. We will see how the Bundestag reacts this week. It has not even voted on the July deal to boost the powers of the EFSF, itself a furiously contested plan that may provoke a 30-strong rebellion within Chancellor Angela Merkel's own coalition. German lawmakers now learn that implicit liabilities may be five times as big.
"We should not think of leveraging a public pot of funds as a free lunch," said
Ireland's central bank governor Patrick Honohan. Indeed not. The details of this financial engineering have a familiar ring to those who remember the `CDOs' and other instruments of structured disguise before the subprime debacle. The bill comes due.
We will see too whether France is willing to swallow national pride and confront its own financial elite. Christian Noyer, the Bank of France's governor, denied on Sunday that French officials were mulling a capital injection of up to €15bn to beef up banks.
"There is no plan, and we don't need one. The banks are very solid. None of them is hiding any toxic assets," he said.
What is the point of uttering such rubbish? The markets know this is untrue, and so does the IMF. It is an almost surreal refusal to recognize that investors are - for good reasons - terrified about French bank exposure to Italian sovereign debt. Mr Noyer encapsulates the mixture of stubborness and amour propre now threatening the world with disaster, and which is so like the French reflex as everything collapsed in mid-1931. Funny how they never change.
Even if the €2 trillion "Geithner Plan" does get off the ground, it can do no more than buy time - not to be sneezed at, for sure. The root of the euro crisis is a 30pc intra-EMU currency misalignment between North and South. That structural flaw cannot be solved with debt guarantees or bank rescues.
Nor can this gap in competitiveness be bridged by austerity alone, by pushing Club Med deeper into debt-deflation and perma-slump. Such a strategy must slowly eat away at Italian and Spanish society, undercutting the whole purpose of the EU Project. It would ultimately risk trapping them in a debt spiral aswell, leading to collosal losses for Germany in the end.