THE MUSINGS OF A TRADITIONAL SOUTHERN DEMOCRAT
- Name: Sid Cottingham
- Location: Douglas, Coffee Co., The Other Georgia, United States
Sid in his law office where he sits when meeting with clients. Observant eyes will notice the statuette of one of Sid's favorite Democrats.
Sunday, June 03, 2012
From The New York Times:
Less than four years ago, with the world’s financial system in danger of collapsing, major countries managed to come together on a coordinated course that averted a global depression.
Central banks pumped vast amounts of cash into economies, and banks were bailed out, with vows that they would be subject to stronger regulation.
By early 2009, financial markets had bottomed out and begun strong recoveries. Economies were slower to follow; by last year, slow growth seemed to be the global pattern, spurring hope that the crisis had passed.
But within the last few weeks, much of that hope seems to have faded.
In Europe, the crisis has grown worse, not better, and the disputes among European leaders have intensified as much of the Continent appears to have drifted into a new recession. In China, growth remains robust by Western standards. But concern is rising over the possible end of a property boom that had been fueled in part by local government borrowing and spending.
In the United States, which had been an oasis of relative calm with a growing economy and rising employment, job growth in May, reported Friday, was a puny 69,000. To make the outlook even gloomier, earlier numbers were revised lower. That capped a series of three disappointing monthly reports.
Moreover, there seems to be little willingness — or perhaps lit-tle ability — for the major countries to act together again. Squabbles have grown, some countries are in fiscal distress, and others face daunting domestic problems. The European situation is the most pressing. Banks are under pressure in many countries, for a combination of reasons. They did not raise as much capital as they might have when markets were more buoyant last year. In some cases, they appear to have been slow to recognize their real estate loan losses.
But the most important factor may be that national governments are weak — in every way possible. There is no doubt that some countries could not afford to bail out their banks again; some, in fact, now rely on those same banks for loans to keep the governments functioning at a time when private investors are unsure about their creditworthiness. The president of the European Central Bank, Mario Draghi, suggested last week some type of common European deposit insurance and bank regulation, but there seems to be no consensus.
Nearly every major government in Europe has been thrown out by unhappy voters when an election rolled around, the latest being France. It is not a matter of left versus right. The only major leader to have been re-elected since 2008 is Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany, but recent state elections there have been won by the opposing party, and even the German economy seems to be losing strength.
The most worrying electoral situation is in Greece, which seems to be mired in permanent recession and unable to comply with the rigid demands for austerity made by its European partners. With one election ending in deadlock among a variety of parties, it will try again on June 17. Many fear that the result could be a disorderly exit for Greece from the euro zone. Others think it could lead to the end of the euro altogether.
For governments that need to borrow money, this is either the best or the worst time ever. It is hard to believe just how low rates are for Germany and the United States. The yield on two-year United States Treasury notes is about one quarter of 1 percent. But comparable German notes this week were yielding one one-hundredth of a percent. At that rate, the government could borrow a million euros and pay 100 euros a year in interest.
But other countries have difficulty borrowing money at all, and pay far higher interest rates to get what money they can. It is not that anyone thinks the yields available on German and United States government bonds are attractive. It is that those bonds are deemed safe by fearful investors.
If throwing cash at the problem was the solution to the last crisis, now many deem that the cause of the current problems. Greece spent its way into its predicament while failing to collect the taxes it was owed and hiding the problem from the rest of Europe. But Spain was running budget surpluses before its own real estate bubble burst, leaving the government reeling. Yet all the troubled countries are being told — largely by Germany — to adhere to rigid austerity. With a common currency, it is hard to see how some of the countries can return to international competitiveness.
In the United States, the ease of borrowing has not made it politically easier to increase the pace of spending. Instead, there is the possibility of “Taxmageddon,” the threat that the unwillingness of politicians to compromise could lead to a combination of big automatic spending cuts and tax increases in 2013 that could devastate economic growth. All this is taking place in the midst of an election campaign that is widely expected to be the nastiest ever.
Moreover, the consensus that financial regulation should be strengthened and standardized has evaporated. In Europe and the United States, banks say that institutions across the Atlantic have unfair advantages, and regulators complain that the other continent has not taken the needed steps.
In the United States, a major push by the banks to weaken rules may or may not have been badly damaged by the multibillion-dollar trading loss suffered recently by JPMorgan Chase. But many in Congress, primarily but not exclusively Republicans, have gone back to the old belief that it was excessive government regulation that created the problem.
The widespread pessimism could dissipate as rapidly as it accumulated. Some surprisingly good economic news in the United States and China would help. More important would be for Europe’s leaders to reach agreement on a course of action that offered hope for recovery in the most stricken areas of the Continent while assuring that the common financial system would have the support of common institutions if needed. Europe has previously managed to cobble together something when disaster appeared to loom, and perhaps it could do so again.
Germany — the country that would have to pick up most of the bill to rescue its neighbors — could decide that not spending the money created greater dangers. The United States could find ways to help out despite fiscal pressures and Congressional hostility to foreign aid. A new consensus on common bank regulation could emerge. But, for now at least, the outlook is far darker than it seemed to be only a couple of months ago.