Sunday, March 25, 2012

Europe’s bailout bazooka is proving to be a toy gun

by Wolfgang Münchau

Financial Times

March 25, 2012

Welcome back to the crisis. And it’s set to get worse once the markets discover that the eurozone is about to fudge the increase in the European rescue umbrella. The argument I am hearing is a wonderful example of circular logic: we don’t need a bigger umbrella because market pressure has eased.

Well, the market pressure has gone up again recently. Investors are concerned about Spain. Over the weekend, Angela Merkel was preparing for one of her celebrated U-turns, by letting out a trial balloon in the German press that she would, after all, be ready to accept an increase in the rescue operation.

As I understand it, she is ready to offer only a partial merger and only for a transitional period. Specifically, the Germans are proposing to tack on the existing commitments of the EFSF – the programmes for Greece, Ireland and Portugal – to the ESM. That would get us to a ballpark of €700bn. The trouble is that you cannot just add these numbers. Once the old programmes expire, they are gone. Any new money will have to come from the ESM. Over time, the ceiling will revert to €500bn. This deal would, at most, give a small, temporary increase in the ceiling.

Still, it would raise Germany’s maximum risk temporarily from €211bn to about €280bn. This presents a huge political problem for the chancellor because it would require a vote by the Bundestag, which had previously agreed that the total liability of €211bn must not be broken. The €211bn figure has taken on symbolism in the German debate. Ms Merkel and other politicians have pledged many times not to break it. It is not clear she would get the support for such an increase. The CSU, the Bavarian wing of her party, is opposed. After Sunday’s election in the Saarland, her coalition is facing an even bigger test in North-Rhine-Westphalia, which holds early elections in May. Remember, elections there messed up the first Greek programme.


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