Sunday, July 29, 2012

How the Financial Markets Enable the EU Sovereign Debt Crisis

Imagine Barack Obama or Mitt Romney saying, "If re-elected/elected President, I'm going to do everything I can to restore prosperity and full employment, and, believe me, it will be enough." The stock market's reaction would be neutral to negative, and a lot of people, perhaps most, would laugh and suggest the candidate try out as a joke writer for the Tonight Show.

Last week, the head of the European Central Bank, Mario Draghi, vowed to do everything he could to prevent the collapse of the Euro zone and added that "it will be enough." He offered no details on what he had in mind. The stock market rallied and Euro zone interest rates dipped. The next day, the leaders of Germany and France, Angela Merkel and Francois Hollande, rose from the chorus and shouted "Amen" (while also skimping on details). The stock market rose again, with the Dow Jones Industrial Average closing over 13,000, a threshold it hadn't crossed since May. In the last two trading days of the past week, the Dow rose almost 400 points (or 3.15%)--all because a few EU leaders swore on a stack of sovereign bonds that, by golly, they were going to something or other really good.

This follows a pattern that has persisted throughout the EU sovereign debt crisis. Storm clouds gather, interest rates rise, and stocks fall. European leaders, alarmed by the market action, issue rosy press releases, promising rose gardens while avoiding any detailed explanation of how salvation will be attained. Stocks rise while interest rates fall. Everyone is happy.

But, then, reality inserts itself. The baseline problem with the EU debt crisis is that the sovereign liabilities in questions are simply too great for the debtor nations to repay. The question is where the losses will fall--on creditors, citizens of debtor nations, taxpayers of wealthy EU nations, issuers of credit default swaps or other interested parties? The intractable tussling over this essential and, for some, existential, question forces examination of ugly details revealing that there are no easy answers. Bottom line: someone needs to give up a shipload of real wealth to pay off the debts. There are no volunteers. Stocks again fall and interest rates again rise.

But the EU's leadership has learned that the financial markets respond to talk therapy, and talk is cheap. If they talk interest rates down, even if only temporarily, they can stall on making the hard choices needed for true resolution. Politicians have never met a hard choice they wanted to make. So they yak their way to a brief respite, and fiddle until the markets waver again. Meanwhile, overall debt levels among EU nations keep rising while Europe slides into recession. There's something wrong with this picture. But, as long as the financial markets display an appetite for b.s., the EU's leaders will keep serving it up.

No comments: