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German Dummkoepfe

Is this going to be a new running theme? Vanity Fair runs a long essay under the headline "It's the Economy, Dummkopf!"

With Greece and Ireland in economic shreds, while Portugal, Spain, and perhaps even Italy head south, only one nation can save Europe from financial Armageddon: a highly reluctant Germany. The ironies-like the fact that bankers from Düsseldorf were the ultimate patsies in Wall Street's con game-pile up quickly as Michael Lewis investigates German attitudes toward money, excrement, and the country's Nazi past, all of which help explain its peculiar new status.

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Germany to Benefit from Lower US Credit Rating

"Standard & Poor's warning the United States could lose its AAA rating may ultimately bring investment to Germany, reduce interest rates on its bonds and help the country lower its own debt," writes Deutsche Welle:

"Standard & Poor's reassessed US sovereign debt and decided to put it on negative watch for the first time, meaning there is one-in-three chance the ratings agency will downgrade the country's hitherto cast-iron AAA credit rating in the next two years. "Germany wins in this equation because it gets a dividend through stability," said Clemens Fuest, a member of the German finance ministry's technical advisory committee. "Interest rates will be pressed down as a result." Germany maintains a secure AAA rating, pays less for a 10-year bond than the United States, and has a constitutionally-mandated 'debt brake.' In Europe, German bonds, known as bunds, have long been the benchmark for investors. (...)

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Europe's Indispensable Nation

Germany is Europe's "indispensable nation," in charge of "the unipolar moment within the eurozone," and it is to the EU what the United States is to NATO. That's how European and US think tankers compare Germany with the US:

David Rothkopf in Foreign Policy (via atlantic-community.org):

To the extent the EU, NATO, or the G20 have an effective future, Germany will be central to setting the parameters of the agenda. For some, the notion that so many issues important to the future of the world depends on the international engagement of a benevolent Germany will seem more than a little ironic. So too will the fact that Germany has become Europe's indispensible nation. But these are among the game-changing facts of the 21st century. Germany is not just the wallet of Europe, it also must necessarily be Europe's spine and its heart.

The European Council on Foreign Relations makes another comparison with the US. Financial Times:

"Rarely has Germany been as important in Europe - or as isolated - as it is today," say Ulrike Guérot and Mark Leonard in a new pamphlet for the European Council on Foreign Relations. "There has been a kind of 'unipolar moment' within the eurozone: no solution to the crisis was possible without Germany, or against Germany."

Constanze Stelzenmueller wrote in another Financial Times article about Germany: "In economic terms, it is to the European Union what America is to NATO: the superpower that gets to call the shots."

Germany should lead? No thanks. Most Germans rather want their country to be a bigger version of Switzerland. We prefer to just sell our cars, machines and tools around the world, play soccer, watch Tatort, and attend to our Gartenzwerge (lawn gnomes).

NYT Criticizes German Leadership

The New York Times (via ACUS) describes a joint proposal from German Chancellor Merkel and French President Sarkozy to the EU leaders as a "German diktat." That's the first weird assessment in this Germany bashing editorial. Here are three more:

Mrs. Merkel wants all 17 countries that use the euro to fall in line with German ideas of fiscal austerity in return for limited additional financial support for countries in trouble. She expects them to run deficits no higher than Germany's (3.5 percent of G.D.P.), allow retirement no earlier than Germany (age 67), and raise or lower their tax rates as required to match Germany's.

a) Has the NYT forgotten what the EU agreed on two decades ago? According to the Maastricht Treaty of 1992 deficits should be below 3 percent and debt below 60 percent of GDP. Most countries broke the rules. For some this caused more serious economic problems than for others. Now Germany is asked to help them.

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Blaming Each Others Financial Policies

From a Washington Post editorial:

ABOUT TWO weeks ago, Germany's finance minister described U.S. economic policy as "clueless." We don't want to sound childish, but after yet another bailout for an insolvent European country - about $137 billion for Ireland - we are inclined to ask: If the United States is clueless, what does that make Germany? The de facto leader of the crisis-ridden, 16-nation eurozone, Berlin has not performed its role brilliantly over the past year.

A good defense of German policy against US criticism of its "export-led growth model" can be found on Atlantic Community: Stop Lecturing and Do Your Homework, America!

Thomas Kleine-Brockhoff: America's argument about the Chinese currency manipulation may be valid but it is also a distraction. It is America's own lack of competitiveness that is hurting the US more than anything. America will be able to revive the credibility of its global economic leadership only when it stops blaming its democratic peers and instead starts doing its homework.

Austerity and Regulation vs. Stimulus: The Latest Transatlantic Squabble

Ahead of the G-20 summit we are witnessing rising German-American disagreements. Germany wants to reform the financial markets and deal with the debt crisis, while US academics and the president prefers economic stimulus plans and criticize the teutonic export champion. Spiegel International:

Krugman is far from alone with his concerns about German and European austerity packages. Last week, US President Barack Obama sent a letter to other G-20 countries in which he fired a not-so-subtle shot across Berlin's bow. "I am concerned about weak private sector demand and continued heavy reliance on exports by some countries with already large external surpluses," he wrote in a clear reference to Germany. He also warned against reversing economic stimulus policies too soon. "We worked exceptionally hard to restore growth," he wrote. "We cannot let it falter or lose strength now."

Germany and France were hoping that the G-20 summit would focus on measures aimed at reforming global financial markets. In particular, Merkel would like to see an international tax on financial transactions as well as a mandatory bank levy, which would go towards a fund to be used to bail out banks in future crises. But opposition to both proposals has been stiff. And the US, in particular, is hoping to use the G-20 to push for more economic stimulus rather than less, given ongoing high unemployment at home.

Personally, I am not sure, if the US and Europe really need and can afford more stimulus plans right now. They make the long-term debt crisis worse. Besides, tax cuts do not lead to more consumer spending, when citizens are smart enough to realize that the economy and government finances are in trouble and consider tax cuts for what they are: desperate measures to stimulate growth. In those cases citizens use the tax cuts to save more money to prepare for the worst. Of course, stimulus is more than tax cuts.

ENDNOTE: I am sorry for the lack of blogging. In the last six weeks, I learned quite a lot of stuff the hard way: First, a new bike with strong front wheel breaks is not necessarily a good thing. Second, I cannot fly. Third, a broken elbow joint requires two surgeries, the second one kept three doctors over four hours busy. Fourth, doctors and nurses are nicer and more caring than I thought. Even the hospital food was good. Our health care system is still okay. Fifth, even if only the elbow is broken, fingers don't work (typing etc.) very well. Regaining full flexibility apparently takes months. Sixth, one can get quite a lot done with just one functioning arm. Now "I'm a graduate of pain." Yeah.

The Euro Comes of Age

Sixteen months ago, I began to grow worried about Greece's debt problems and its implications for the euro. At the time, I wrote,
The euro area has yet to demonstrate its cohesiveness when confronted with the growing economic divergence of its member states and even the specter of a sovereign debt default....Leaders will have to act together to show their commitment to preserving the single monetary policy in the euro area.
Yesterday, EU leaders rose to the challenge and solidified the euro's position in world monetary affairs. The announced $1 trillion package does more than provide indebted countries with a source of funds during periods of crisis; it demonstrates the commitment of leaders to the concept of European integration. In so doing, European officials have significantly increased the credibility of the EU in the eyes of their American counterparts and taken the first step towards some degree of fiscal integration.

A few details of the announced aid package are particularly noteworthy:

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Anxiously Waiting on a Trojan Horse

Guest post by Joe Joe Noory is an Architect, investor, and independent observer of news and opinion:

Somewhere between the emotional populism of wanting to burden the higher performing European states with guilt over resisting to bail out the Greek government, and the risk investors are being offered to take are the hard truths of bailing out of the broke Greek government by investing in their bonds: they might not just default on ?8,5 billion in obligations to bond purchasers due on 19 May, but run the risk of never being paid back for future bond offerings (of perhaps two years or less), much in the way depositors in an uninsured failed bank will never see a red pfennig of their invested savings on a default.

Ifo's Hand-Werner Sinn indicated that very same sentiment on Wednesday morning, according to this wire piece:

The warning came as a new poll showed nearly two-thirds of Germans were opposed to helping Greece, with a majority believing that membership of the EU brought more disadvantages than advantages. Asked on MDR radio if Berlin would ever get its money back, Sinn, who heads the Ifo institute and is one of the top economic advisers to the government, said: "To tell you the truth, no."
Greece "will not be in a position to carry out the necessary budgetary rigour" and will eventually have "to ask for Germany to waive the debt," he said.
He warned that bailing out Greece could set a precedent for other euro area countries labouring under high debt and public deficits. "It would be understandable if the Italians or the Spanish put pressure on us to pay up now because it is an important precedent for them," said Sinn.

Before you react, take the statement for what it is: a warning. It isn't a characterization of the ur-Greek citizen, or a nationalistic reflection, or a cultural issue, but a warning that the discipline to raise revenue and cut budgets in face of the street protests and strikes of civil servants and dependants on entitlements. It isn't a characterization of what they did, but a warning of future events, one which prices them and tells us what something is really worth, just as watching those who short an equity or commodity does.

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