Yet the threat of a disaster does not always stop it from happening. The chances of the euro zone being smashed apart have risen alarmingly, thanks to financial panic, a rapidly weakening economic outlook and pigheaded brinkmanship. The odds of a safe landing are dwindling fast.
Wall Street Journal - Portugal suffered a double blow Thursday after Fitch Ratings downgraded its debt to junk, just as a nationwide strike shut public services due to growing discontent over austerity measures that are pushing the country into a deep recession.
Fitch, which matched Moody's Investors Service's move in July to place Portugal in junk territory, lowered its rating one notch, to BB+ from BBB-, and warned further downgrades were possible as a recession in the country will increase challenges for the government to comply with its austerity plans. It maintained a negative outlook.
Investors’ growing fears of a euro break-up have fed a run from the assets of weaker economies, a stampede that even strong actions by their governments cannot seem to stop. The latest example is Spain. Despite a sweeping election victory on November 20th for the People’s Party, committed to reform and austerity, the country’s borrowing costs have surged again. The government has just had to pay a 5.1% yield on three-month paper, more than twice as much as a month ago. Yields on ten-year bonds are above 6.5%. Italy’s new technocratic government under Mario Monti has not seen any relief either: ten-year yields remain well above 6%. Belgian and French borrowing costs are rising. And this week, an auction of German government Bunds flopped.
This cannot go on for much longer. Without a dramatic change of heart by the ECB and by European leaders, the single currency could break up within weeks. Any number of events, from the failure of a big bank to the collapse of a government to more dud bond auctions, could cause its demise. In the last week of January, Italy must refinance more than €30 billion ($40 billion) of bonds. If the markets balk, and the ECB refuses to blink, the world’s third-biggest sovereign borrower could be pushed into default.
The perils of brinkmanship
Can anything be done to avert disaster? The answer is still yes, but the scale of action needed is growing even as the time to act is running out. The only institution that can provide immediate relief is the ECB. As the lender of last resort, it must do more to save the banks by offering unlimited liquidity for longer duration against a broader range of collateral. Even if the ECB rejects this logic for governments—wrongly, in our view—large-scale bond-buying is surely now justified by the ECB’s own narrow interpretation of prudent central banking. That is because much looser monetary policy is necessary to stave off recession and deflation in the euro zone. If the ECB is to fulfil its mandate of price stability, it must prevent prices falling. That means cutting short-term rates and embarking on “quantitative easing” (buying government bonds) on a large scale. And since conditions are tightest in the peripheral economies, the ECB will have to buy their bonds disproportionately.
One promising idea, from Germany’s Council of Economic Experts, is to mutualise all euro-zone debt above 60% of each country’s GDP, and to set aside a tranche of tax revenue to pay it off over the next 25 years. Yet Germany, still fretful about turning a currency union into a transfer union in which it forever supports the weaker members, has dismissed the idea.
This attitude has to change, or the euro will break up. Fears of moral hazard mean less now that all peripheral-country governments are committed to austerity and reform. Debt mutualisation can be devised to stop short of a permanent transfer union. Mrs Merkel and the ECB cannot continue to threaten feckless economies with exclusion from the euro in one breath and reassure markets by promising the euro’s salvation with the next. Unless she chooses soon, Germany’s chancellor will find that the choice has been made for her.
So far, IMF bailouts have been rejected by Germany, even though IMF funds would spread out 50% of the debt payments to the rest of the world.
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