Slovenia joined the Eurozone in 2007, went on a borrowing binge that blind bond buyers eagerly made possible, dousing some of its two million people with riches, creating a real estate bubble that has since burst, and driving up its external debt by 110%. And in October, it may go bankrupt, admitted Prime Minister Janez Jansa. Because borrowing binges can last only so long if you can’t print your own money. The sixth Eurozone country, of seventeen, to need a bailout. But it’s just a speck, compared to Spain, which will strain the bailout funds, and Italy, which is too large to get bailed out. The other option is the European Central Bank. Its printing press—the one it is not supposed to have—could easily bail out the once blind but now seeing bondholders. As in all bailouts, workers and taxpayers would get a haircut. And in Germany, the debate itself may tear up the Eurozone—just as its economy is tanking.
New car sales in Germany had been holding up well through June—a miracle in face of the fiasco playing out in the Eurozone’s auto industry. But they caved in July; and instead of miraculously recovering in August, they caved again: down 4.7% from August 2011 and down 8.6% from July. Ominously, sales of medium-heavy and heavy trucks, a thermometer of the business investment climate, fell off a cliff: -18.8% for trucks over 12 metric tons, -15.1% for trucks over 20 tons, and -9.4% for tractors (now down 5% for the year!).
Retail sales, which had been on a roll through May, stalled in June, and skidded in July. Early indications are even worse for August: retailers’ negative sentiment worsened for the fourth month in a row. They suffered from a nasty margin squeeze, given the dual pressures of wholesale price inflation that “increased sharply,” and heavy discounting, as Germans struggle to make ends meet.
And manufacturing, the vaunted engine of the German economy, after a rout in July, was hit by another “deterioration in business conditions” in August. It recorded the fifth month in a row of job losses. And export orders plummeted at the “steepest rate since April 2009.”
Alas, 2009 brings up horrid memories. In the first quarter that year, GDP plunged 3.8% from the fourth quarter of 2008, when it had already plunged 2.1% from the third quarter. Annualized, those two quarters added up to a double-digit collapse in GDP, the worst in the history of the Federal Republic. The German economy, which lives and dies by its exports, was saved not by hard-working Germans or smart managers or a superior system, but by the drunken stimulus frenzy in the US and China. German companies and their suppliers sucked with all their might on a wide variety of programs, from green-energy boondoggles to the cash-for-clunkers fiasco.
But now, without such foreign deus ex machina, Germany’s ability to bail out the Eurozone is more than ever in doubt. So, the ECB’s latest machinations hit fertile ground when they were leaked after ECB President Mario Draghi outlined them to the European Parliament late Monday: buy up Spanish and Italian debt with maturities of up to three years—up from the six to 12 months proposed at his last press conference. It worked. Italian and Spanish yields on two-year debt dropped below 2.8%, down from over 7.5% and 6.9% respectively this summer. Central-bank market manipulation at is best. Crisis solved. In phantasy land. Until reality sets in.
Namely a rift in Germany. Chancellor Angela Merkel and a slew of other politicians support it more or less tacitly. But the Bundesbank is having conniptions; printing money to fund government deficits violates EU treaties that limit the ECB to the single mandate of price stability. It just can’t find, not even between the lines, any traces of a hidden second mandate, such as funding government deficits. Bundesbank President Jens Weidmann—”I cannot see how you can ensure the stability of a monetary union by violating its legal provisions,” he’d said last November—has hardened his attacks on bond buying programs. With broad public support in Germany. And Merkel, who wants to hang on to her job more than anything else, will tread carefully. Yet, if Germany skids into a deep export-driven recession, all bets are off.