Thursday, November 24, 2011

The Euro: Beware of falling masonry

Economist
November 26, 2011

The crisis in the euro area is turning into a panic and dragging the zone into recession. The risk that the currency disintegrates within weeks is alarmingly high.

First Greece; then Ireland and Portugal; then Italy and Spain. Month by month, the crisis in the euro area has crept from the vulnerable periphery of the currency zone towards its core, helped by denial, misdiagnosis and procrastination by the euro-zone’s policymakers. Recently Belgian and French government bonds have been in the financial markets’ bad books. Investors are even sniffy about German bonds: an auction of ten-year Bunds on November 23rd shifted only €3.6 billion-worth ($4.8 billion) of the €6 billion-worth on offer.

Worse, there are signs that the euro zone’s economy is heading for recession, if it is not there already. Industrial orders in the euro zone fell by 6.4% in September, the steepest decline since the dark days of December 2008. A closely watched index of euro-zone sentiment, based on surveys of purchasing managers in manufacturing and services, is also signalling contraction, with a reading of 47.2: anything below 50 suggests activity is shrinking. The European Commission’s index of consumer confidence fell in November for the fifth month in a row.
Now an even bigger calamity is looking likelier. The intensifying financial pressure raises the chances of a disorderly default by a government, a run of retail deposits on banks short of cash, or a revolt against austerity that would mark the start of the break-up of the euro zone.

The German government can probably shrug off a failed auction: it likes to price its bonds as richly as it can, and occasionally cannot sell all it would like, even in untroubled times. Still, the timing is awful, and other governments are not so lucky: the contrast between Germany’s borrowing costs and those of other euro-zone sovereigns is stark (see chart 1). European banks are dumping the bonds of the least creditworthy, and other assets, in an attempt to conserve capital and improve cashflow as a full-blown funding crisis looms. Governments are promising ever more severe budget cuts in the hope of pacifying bond markets. The direct result of these scrambles is a credit crunch and a squeeze on aggregate demand that is forcing Europe into recession. Add the indirect effects on the confidence of consumers and businesses, and the downturn will be deep.

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