Thursday, May 31, 2012

Europe must prepare an emergency plan

by Robert Zoellick

Financial Times

May 31, 2012

Eurozone leaders may be nearing a “break the glass” moment: when one smashes the pane protecting the emergency fire alarm. While those living in the eurozone building, especially those on the executive floors, will not want to hear an alarm, they had best read the instructions. Events in Greece could trigger financial fright in Spain, Italy, and across the eurozone, pushing Europe into a danger zone.

The summer of 2012 offers an eerie echo of 2008. Markets are signalling anxieties about a major asset class. In this round, eurozone sovereign debt has replaced mortgages as the risky investment. Banks are under stress. Depositors have not yet begun to run, but they are starting to jog. The European Central Bank, like the US Federal Reserve in 2008, has sought to reassure markets by providing generous liquidity, but collateral quality is declining as the better pickings on bank balance sheets are used up.

We cannot predict the outcome of the Greek election, nor whether a new Greek government will simply drive a harder bargain for more subsidies, rather than seek to leave the eurozone. Greece’s eurozone partners are frustrated, although they still seem willing to offer considerable aid to avoid a crisis precipitated by a Greek exit from the euro – if Greece’s leaders and public commit to a viable programme.

If Greece leaves the eurozone, the contagion is impossible to predict, just as Lehman had unexpected consequences. A Greek exit would trigger a hit to confidence in other sovereign euro assets. Eurozone leaders need to be ready. There will not be time for meetings of finance ministers to discuss the outlook and debate the politics of incrementalism. In panicked markets, investors flee to safe assets, sparking other flames.


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