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Europe’s Not-So-Cunning Rescue Plan

Irwin M. Stelzer

I am pleased to announce that I will be buying 1 trillion of bonds issued by euro-zone governments. Well, not buying them—guaranteeing that anyone with the courage to do so won’t suffer the first tranche of losses should things turn out less well than trumpeted by the team of Angela Merkel and Nicolas Sarkozy. I suppose I should mention that I don’t actually have 1 trillion ($1.37 trillion). But fear not: I plan to make a deal with the Chinese. In return for their financial support I will promise never, ever to take tea with the Dalai Lama, to stop complaining about their currency manipulation, and to abase myself in any other way they deem appropriate.

That position of servitude creates a small problem. Jean-Claude Juncker, president of the Euro Group, has announced that Europe will not make political concessions in return for investment in the bailout fund because “we do not assume we have to give China something back.” His view is echoed by German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble. But this presents no problem for me: In the tried and true tradition of euro-zone pronouncements, I will simply announce that my arrangement with the Chinese involves only decent reciprocity, and can’t be defined as political concessions as the term is used by Messrs. Juncker and Schäuble.

One more hurdle. Chinese President Hu Jintao is unenthusiastic, as he is making clear on his current visit to Europe with a 160-person trade delegation intent on learning more about European green technology. When Mr. Sarkozy’s beggar-in-chief, Klaus Regling, head of the new bailout fund, flew to Beijing to propose that China chip in a mere 100 billion from currency reserves equal to over 3 trillion, he was told by Vice Finance Minister Zhu Guangyao not even to put a possible role for China on the agenda of the G-20 meeting Thursday and Friday in Cannes.

If necessary, I might raise some cash by creating special investment vehicles (the very instruments Europeans railed against Americans for creating) to borrow money to lend to already deeply indebted countries. Just how more borrowing can solve the problem of excessive borrowing remains unexplained, as does how Greece can avoid default when the write-downs agreed by the banks will leave Greek debt at 120% of GDP in 2020. Greeks may be angry, but they aren’t stupid. Seeing default as inevitable—and assuming the government doesn’t fall first—they just might use the referendum called by their prime minister to tell Merkel, Sarkozy & Co. to take their austerity program and well, move it to Paris.

Doubt any of this and consider the reaction of the markets. After a bout of euphoria, bond investors realized they had been taken on a tour of the financial equivalent of a Potemkin village. The bailout fund, the European Financial Stability Facility, neither shocked nor awed the markets: no one knows where the 1 trillion is to come from. No surprise, then, that yields on Italian and Spanish bonds rose despite continued purchases by the European Central Bank. The bond vigilantes just don’t believe that Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, faced with a fractious parliament, can deliver the reforms he has promised, and drove the yield on Italian five-year paper to its highest level since the euro was born in 1999.

Nor do any serious observers believe that the plan to recapitalize Europe’s banks to strengthen them against haircuts such as the 50% reduction in the value of sovereign debt “voluntarily” agreed by euro-zone banks is more than smoke and mirrors. The banks have announced they can meet the new capital requirements by trimming dividends and bonuses, asset sales, and by internal balance-sheet shuffling. No capital-raising necessary. The banks are helped, of course, by the fact that European regulators have set the goal at 106 billion, rather than the 200 billion-300 billion many analysts suggest the banks need.

More important than the financial shell game being played by euro-zone politicians is the statement by Simon Henry, chief financial officer of Royal Dutch Shell PLC, and by the reaction of the rating agencies. Mr. Henry says his company is less concerned about the sturm und drang associated with the so-far fruitless hunt for real money to bail out troubled countries and banks than about the Europe’s competitiveness. The problem of excessive debt, he argues, “can only be addressed by underlying economic growth, and we do not see the European Union creating the conditions for that, in fact quite the opposite.”

He is, of course, more than a little annoyed at France’s decision to ban hydraulic fracturing to extract shale gas and, he might have added, thwarting a longer-term plan to bring down energy costs and reduce reliance on Vladimir Putin’s Russia.

Lurking in the wings are the rating companies, their sights now set firmly on France, which hasn’t had a balanced budget in more than 30 years.

One day after the euro-zone summit, Mr. Sarkozy lowered the official forecast of his country’s 2012 growth to 1% from an already-measly 1.75%. With a disapproval rating of 69%, and trailing François Hollande, the Socialist candidate, by 20 points in the polls, Mr. Sarkozy is desperate to retain France’s triple-A credit rating. But by agreeing to participate in guarantees for weaker nations’ debt, Mr. Sarkozy has almost certainly has invited a downgrade.

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