Tuesday, October 8, 2013

8/10/2013: German Voters Go For Status Quo... Redux: Sunday Times September 29, 2013

This is an unedited version of my Sunday Times column from September 29, 2013.


By any measure, last Sunday's German elections highlighted a resounding failure of the country electorate to connect with reality. Despite returning a number of historical outcomes, the voters reaffirmed the passive-conservative leadership mandate exercised by Angela Merkel since 2009. As the result, German policies are now likely to drift even farther away from the immediate needs of the euro area periphery, risking a renewal of the euro area crisis and a slowdown in the already less-than ambitious speed of European reforms. None of this is good news for Ireland.

The historical nature of the 2013 German elections is highlighted by the fact that Angela Merkel became the first euro area leader to be reelected as the head of state since the beginning of the Great Recession. And she has done it twice: first some 12 months into the crisis in 2009 and now 5 years from its onset. Ms. Merkel won the highest number of votes for her CDU/CSU party in 23 years. And she became the first German leader since the golden days of Konrad Adenauer back in 1961 to personally dominate the elections, instead of standing in the shadow of her party. Individually, all of these are rare events in modern German history. Taken together, they are probably unprecedented.

But herein lies the problem for all of us living outside Germany. The elections of 2013 have produced a strong mandate for doing nothing new when it comes to either the euro area or the larger Union reforms. The Chancellor re-elect retook the Bundeskanzleramt on a mandate of being a 'safe pair of hands'. The campaign her party waged focused on such important topics as charging foreign drivers for using autobahns. Instead of debating the core issues faced by the EU, and the role of Germany in this mess, voters largely engaged in navel-gazing. Satisfied with their relatively well-performing economy and receding immediate danger to the euro, they endorsed the leadership devoid of ideas, alternative views and aspirations. Not surprisingly, philosopher Jurgen Habermas declared the 2013 general election campaign a "collective failure" of the elites.

This means that the German elections left the core problems of the euro crisis unaddressed, raising the specter of renewed uncertainty about the future of the common currency area. This concern became immediately visible this week.

On Monday, ECB's Mario Draghi rushed to compensate for the policy paralysis signaled out of Germany by stating that the ECB is ready to deploy a new round of quantitative easing in the form of the third Long-Term Refinancing Operations (LTRO3). To remind you, the first two rounds of LTROs were the ECB’s ‘pre-nuclear option’ response to strategic threats to the euro area economy in late 2010-early 2011. The ‘nuclear option’ was the subsequent announcement of the stand-by quantitative easing programme, known as Outright Monetary Transactions (OMT). Mr. Draghi mentioning the prospect of renewing the LTRO scheme suggests that the ECB expects no change in euro area policies in the aftermath of last week’s elections.

Acknowledging this, Draghi also tried to push aside the pesky issue of the Greek Bailout 3.0. And in a direct reflection of the Berlin’s preferences, Draghi also downplayed the possibility of the ESM being licensed to provide financing cover for future bank failures.

Mr Draghi’s precautionary moves were timed perfectly. Following the elections, sovereign yields on all peripheral countries’ bonds rose relative to German bunds. Credit default swaps – insurance contracts underwriting sovereign bonds – also crept up. The markets are not buying the ‘return to status quo’ story as good news. This was contrasted by the domestic news which saw the German economic sentiment, as measured by the CESIfo index of economic conditions rise for the third month in a row. This marks fifteenth consecutive quarter of the CESIfo index reading above historical average. In contrast, euro area economic conditions index has been stuck below its historical average levels for eight quarters in a row through this September.

Since 2009 elections, Chancellor Merkel held back from directly leading the euro area and instead opted repeatedly to wait for an escalation of the crises before responding with un-prepared, often ad hoc and wrong-footed solutions. Best examples of this approach to leadership are the EU's failures in Cyprus and Greece. Both are directly linked to Ms. Merkel’s prevarication in the face of escalating crises. All were driven by swings in domestic public opinion, rather than by any cohesive principles.

For Ireland, this mode of leadership spells lack of progress on key issues.

Gauging German public opinion there is currently zero appetite to shift away from the pre-elections status quo in which the Irish crisis is seen as largely self-induced and peripheral to German interests. This means that Germany is likely to continue supporting Irish debt sustainability rhetorically, while opposing practical resolution of the debt overhang. This week, Ms. Merkel gave another loud endorsement to Irish Government policies during the crisis. As she did so, the Irish Government – usually not known for its skeptical pragmatism – was actively pushing the timeline for banking debts problem resolution out into the later months of 2014. My gut feeling is that we can expect this timeline to stretch beyond 2015. Instead of allowing restructuring of our banking debts, Berlin will nod approvingly to a precautionary line of credit for Ireland via set-aside stand-by facility at the ESM. This credit will be provided on current ESM funding terms, some 1 percent below the cost of IMF funding and with longer maturities. Which is the good news.

In exchange for this token gesture we will be required to strictly adhere to fiscal adjustment targets for 2015. We will be further subjected to a new multi-annual fiscal programme stretching into 2018-2020 to be supervised by the EU Commission. ECB – by proxy, the German government – will be watching from the shadows.

Meanwhile, as Mr. Draghi statement this week indicates, Germany will block ESM from having any powers in dealing with future banking crises. Our retrospective banks debt deal will then have to wait until a new funding facility, most likely administered by the ECB, comes into place. Pencil that for sometime in 2016. Pushing legacy debts incurred by the Exchequer as the result of rescuing our banks into the hands of the ECB is likely to cost us. Frankfurt can, and potentially will, demand something in return for this. One thing the ECB can ask for is accelerated sales of the Central Bank-held Government bonds (the fallout from the Promissory Notes deal done earlier this year).  The ECB already has the power to do so. It also has a direct incentive: the bonds are set against our banks borrowings from the euro system. Of course, this will mean that we will be trading one debt for another, as accelerated sales of bonds will erode the temporary fiscal ‘savings’ achieved by the Promo Notes restructuring.

But the cost of the EU/German ‘assistance’ for Ireland will most likely extend further than bonds sales acceleration and new fiscal targets setting. German political agenda is well-anchored to continued saber-rattling on the need for corporate tax harmonization across the EU. With the 2009-2011 Franco-German tax harmonisation initiative all but dead, the focus in the next two-three years will shift toward advancing the consolidated common corporate tax base (CCCTB) proposals that suit German interests more than any other form of tax coordination. Based on her record to-date, Ms. Merkel is a fan of the CCCTB as are all of her potential coalition partners and the German voters.

German elections are also promising to create less certainty as to the structural reforms in the European Union space. Last Sunday’s results produced strong votes for the anti-euro party, Alternative fuer Deutschland (AfD). The party also did well in the previously held local elections. The new Merkel-led coalition will have to show caution when facing any prospect of further harmonisation and consolidation of power in Brussels.

When it comes to structural reforms, German public prefers for euro area to focus on specific hard fiscal targets and on replicating Germany's own structural reforms of the 1990s. While such reforms can be beneficent to the euro area peripheral states, for Ireland they offer only marginal gains. German reforms of the 1990s have focused on two core policy pillars: increasing flexibility of the labour markets and decreasing the burden of the welfare state. These came at a cost of continued consolidation of German economy around larger enterprises and suppression of domestic demand and household investment.

Ireland today requires some reforms in the social welfare system. But we also need to break up our dominant market players in the domestic sectors and to increase our households’ spending and investment.

In short, in the wake of the German elections, there is preciously little that Ireland can expect in terms of the European support for our recovery. Europe, with German blessing, will most likely lend us a hand to help us out of the 'safe' boat of the Troika programme. Thereafter, swimming in the turbulent waters of the Eurozone crisis will be up to us. Let's hope Budget 2014 provides generously for flotation vests.





BOX-OUT:

Marking the fifth anniversary of the Banking Guarantee of September 2008, there are plenty of stocktaking exercises going around. Yet, for all the ‘Fail’ marks being rightly handed out to the Guarantee, all signs in the streets suggest we have learned next to nothing from our past errors. This week offers at least two such examples. Firstly, the crisis showed that a non-transparent system of monitoring and managing financial risks will result in the connected-few gaming the entire system. This week, Minister Noonan intervened in the process of winding down the IBRC, bending the rules that normally apply to company liquidations. Granting anonymity to the funders of the toxic banks comes as a priority in this country. Unintended consequence of this is that it also perpetuates the cronyist relationship between the financial services and the state – exactly the outcome we should have learned to avoid. Secondly, we know that principles-based regulations require swift, robust and unambiguous enforcement. Also this week, the Central Bank effectively shut the door on any further investigations into Anglo dealings with the regulators that could have arisen from the infamous Anglo Tapes. Five years in, there are zero prosecutions, and scores of closed investigations. To paraphrase Bon Jovi’s famous refrain: the less we learn, the more things stay the same…

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