Friday, March 26, 2010

Euro Zone Support Package Doesn' t Solve the Problem

The 'Helicopter Economics Investing Guide' is meant to help educate people on how to make profitable investing choices in the current economic environment. We have coined this term to describe the current monetary and fiscal policies of the U.S. government, which involve unprecedented money printing. This is the official blog of the New York Investing meetup.

After many press reports over the last two months about a possible bailout for Greece, euro zone leaders seem to have finally come up with a plan to handle the crisis. The plan however will only be used as a last resort, is limited to loans at market interest rates, and requires unanimous agreement from all member countries before aid can be granted. Euro zone countries would provide about two-thirds of the loan money and the IMF the remaining third. Given the restrictions, the support package is likely to have limited impact.

While no loan amount has been specified, unofficial sources indicated that 22 billion euros was the proposed amount. Greece has to borrow 20 billion euros in April and May alone. Greece has not had problems borrowing money so far, but has had to pay high interest rates to do so. The high rates are causing problems because more money has to go to debt service and this means less money for other government spending elsewhere. The country has already been plagued with riots because of its enactment of budget cuts and higher taxes. The euro zone support package though doesn't lower borrowing costs for Greece. It only assures that Greece will be able to continue to borrow in case no one else will lend to it. Essentially the euro zone, along with help from the IMF, has established a policy of acting as a lender of last resort for its sovereign entities.

Admittedly, the euro zone has to trod a very narrow path in the extent of its aid to member countries. If Greece were the only member in trouble the situation wouldn't be so delicate. The Credit Crisis has devastated Europe, just as it has the rest of the world. The more economically marginal countries have suffered the most. Greece is merely the canary in the coal mine. Ireland just released fourth quarter GDP figures indicating that its economy shrank at a 5.1% annualized rate. GDP contraction there in 2009 was the largest on record and that includes all the years of the Great Depression in the 1930s. Italy's GDP dropped 5.1% in 2009. Official figures indicate that Spain's economy was 3.6% smaller for the year. Portugal, which just had its debt rating downgraded by Fitch, claims that its GDP was down a mere 2.7% in 2009.

While all of these numbers are bad, they could actually be even worse. The media reported that Greece shocked markets and other EU nations when it admitted it falsified its statistics to make its budget deficit look much lower than it was, even though the numbers was obviously impossible. The original Greek government figures projected a budget deficit to GDP ratio of 3.75% for 2009 and below 3% (the euro zone target for members of the currency union) for 2010. Greece also claimed that its GDP would increase by 1.1% in the midst of the severe global downturn that was taking place last year (as of now it looks like GDP dropped 2.0%). While these fantasy figures were treated as reality at EU headquarters, the OECD didn't buy them. Long before the Greek government admitted to the truth, it estimated that the budget deficit to GDP ratio would be 6% in 2009. So far, it looks like it will actually be 12.7% - around 250% higher than initially claimed by the Greek government. If such outrageous fabrications could be accepted, would 50% or even 100% errors be discovered?  Greece is not the first country to lie about its economic statistics. Only the very naive would assume that there aren't many other countries doing the exact same thing. Moreover, Greece only got caught because it turned itself in.

Denial on the part of euro zone governing bodies is what has lead to the current crisis with Greece. In order to avoid future problems, the euro zone needs to assure the integrity of the numbers produced by its member countries, so no other major surprises will take place. There also needs to be a more formal mechanism to establish economic equilibrium among member nations as well. The potential trouble spots in the euro zone are characterized as relying excessively on consumer spending, having weak public finances, and relying on foreign capital to supplement low savings rates. Interestingly, this is also an excellent description of the United States.

Disclosure: None

NEXT: U.S. Consumer Spending: Not Inidcating Economic Recovery

Daryl Montgomery
Organizer,New York Investing meetup

This posting is editorial opinion. Like all other postings for this blog, there is no intention to endorse the purchase or sale of any security.

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