The last month of data flow from Europe is nothing short of depressing. It seems that the history of the Eurocrisis can be summed up as a repeated effort to snatch failure from the jaws of defeat. The Euro and the policy framework that supports it is now clearly inconsistent with anything but sustained recession.
Consider a handful of recent reports. First, unemployment continues to reach new highs. From Bloomberg:
Unemployment in the 17-nation euro area was 12 percent in February and the January figure was revised up to the same level from 11.9 percent estimated earlier, the European Union’s statistics office in Luxembourg said today...The European Commission predicts unemployment rates of 12.2 percent this year and 12.1 percent in 2014. ECB President Mario Draghi said on March 7 that “it is of particular importance at this juncture to address the current high long-term and youth unemployment.”
I don't think that 12.2 percent forecast will hold. Greece remains a complete disaster. Via Aljazeera:
Greece's unemployment rate reached a new record of 27.2 percent in January, new data has showed, reflecting the depth of the country's recession after years of austerity imposed under its international bailout.
The latest figure rose from a revised 25.7 percent in December, the country's statistics service ELSTAT said on Thursday...Unemployment among youth aged between 15 and 24 stood at 59.3 percent in January, up from 51 percent in the same month in 2012.
Meanwhile, the Troika continues to demand further job cuts in return for a drip feed of bailouts that have arguably done little other than ensure Greece remains in recession:
An inspection team of international lenders has finished its review of Greece's reform progress, paving the way for another 10 billion euros aid payment, a source with knowledge of the talks said on Saturday....Under Greece's current bailout plan agreed in November, Athens must overall cut 150,000 public sector jobs from 2010 to 2015, about a fifth of the total, through hiring curbs, retirements and dismissals.
As a consequence, the stage is being set for another political crisis in Greece. Ekathimeri reports:
The head of the main leftist opposition SYRIZA, Alexis Tsipras, called on Saturday for the shaky coalition government to step down and pave the way for new elections, claiming that this was “the only way out” for a country seemingly condemned to endless austerity...
...“The situation has reached the absolute limit,” the leftist leader told supporters. “At this moment, there is no other way out for the country than the resignation of the government and the staging of new elections so a new administration can emerge with the mandate and support of the majority of society to implement an alternative plan to exit the crisis.” Tsipras admitted that his plan entailed risks but was preferable to “certain failure.”
Is the price of staying in the Euro finally now too high? Meanwhile, Ambrose Evans-Pritchard reminds us that both Cyprus have gone from bad to worse:
On cue, Angela Merkel's Christian Democrat base in the Bundestag has warned that there can be no increase in the EU-IMF rescue package for Cyprus.
The Cypriot people alone must carry the extra cost of up to €5.5bn beyond what was already agreed in the €17.5bn deal in March.
"Should that not be possible, the assent of the German Bundestag next week is out of the question," said Christian von Stetten, a key member of the finance committee.
And Evans-Pritchard repeats a point that cannot be repeated enough:
If the eurozone refuses to offer any further help, there must surely be a greater temptation to withdraw from the euro and default on sovereign debt in a classic restructuring deal with the IMF.
That is what the IMF is there to do. Such restructurings have been done countless times across the world over the last 50 years. It is traumatic, but countries usually recover after a couple of years.
Currency depreciation is a critical element of traditional IMF restructurings. The inability of troubled Eurozone economies to depreciate remains a key impediment to their return to growth; there is simply no cushion to offset the never-ending austerity. Speaking of never-ending austerity, Evans-Pritchard reviews the situation in Portugal:
So Cyprus is very far from being solved, and so is Portugal. A fresh Troika leak, this time to the Pink Sheet, has confirmed what anybody following Portugal already suspected. The country is stuck in a debt-compound trap. The economic slump is proving much deeper than forecast. The deficit has been rising not falling, in spite of austerity cuts.
And, increasing, it is not just periphery. From Reuters:
Manufacturing across Europe's major economies endured another month of mostly deep decline in March, dragging down even former bright spots, surveys showed on Tuesday....
Factories in Germany and Ireland, the relative stars of February's PMIs, fell back into decline last month. Everywhere else, the industrial rot extended.
Spanish manufacturing declined at its fastest pace since October, which followed news the government will revise its economic forecasts for 2013 to show a 1 percent contraction, from a 0.5 percent decline previously.
In France, factory activity retreated for a 13th month and car registrations there dived 16.4 percent in March, further underlining the malaise sweeping through the euro zone's second-biggest economy.
"The euro zone's March manufacturing PMIs ... (banishes) the recovery scenario projected by the European Central Bank further beyond the realm of likely probabilities," said Lena Komileva from G+ Economics in London.
The ongoing deterioration in Europe is evident to everyone except European policymakers. Clive Crook wonders at European Commission President Jose Barroso's outlook:
Barroso's optimism on Europe's economic recovery, if you can call it a recovery, was harder to understand. This week the IMF's Christine Lagarde talked of a three-speed world: "countries that are doing well, those that are on the mend, and those that still have some distance to travel.” (In other words, fast growth in many emerging economies, slow growth in the U.S., and no growth in Europe.) The euro area's economy is still shrinking. Yet Barroso still thinks (or says he thinks) that policy has been mostly well-judged and the union will emerge stronger from its ordeal.
He noted early on that Europe's public debts still aren't high by U.S or Japanese standards. True -- and that's the point. The EU is insisting on austerity in its weakest economies even though, in the aggregate, its fiscal problem is manageable. The failure to create effective burden-sharing arrangements -- some form of limited fiscal union to work alongside its monetary union -- has been the euro area's biggest error, not counting the creation of the euro itself. And the consequences are crushing countries such as Spain and Barroso's own Portugal.
Note that fiscal union is not the same as an austerity union. The former allows for internal transfer of the type Crook describes. The latter is simply a joint commitment to austerity. But austerity is the only policy possible within the European framework. Calculated Risk caught German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schauble wallowing in self-delusion:
"Nobody in Europe sees this contradiction between fiscal policy consolidation and growth,” Schauble said. “We have a growth-friendly process of consolidation, and we have sustainable growth, however you want to word it.”
With no depreciation for crisis-stricken economies, no fiscal stimulus, and tight credit conditions through half of Europe as banking consolidates within national boundaries, what exactly is the road forward for Europe? I just don't see it.
Bottom Line: How high does unemployment need to rise, how much output needs to be lost, how much poverty must be endured before European policymakers realize that the framework supporting the Euro politcally is an economic failure?