The conflict in the Eurozone has simmered for weeks. On one side: Chancellor Angela Merkel who is protecting her oeuvre. On the other: François Hollande who is running against President Sarkozy. But now, Merkel raised the stakes by roping in 3 powerful allies and lining them up against Hollande—a desperate and risky gamble to keep Sarkozy in power.
In France, new vehicle registrations are plunging: -17.8% in December, -20.7% in January, -20.2% in February. French automakers suffered the most. PSA Peugeot Citroën -29.2% and Renault -28.5%. The German auto industry is still basking in last year’s glow of record worldwide sales and profits, and record bonuses for their beaming employees. But so far this year, they have been stagnating. And it’s just the beginning.
In Germany, the top personal income tax rate is 45%. People in religious organizations pay an additional “church tax.” Other taxes are piled on top. And when the hapless taxpayer spends money, a 19% value added tax comes due. Hence, tax fraud is a national sport. Yet, 160 Ministry of Finance employees are supposed to fix the Greek tax collection system—which will endear the already reviled Germans even more to the Greeks.
One of the hardest things to get in this world is a truthful, or at least a somewhat realistic, or at the very least a not totally fabricated unemployment number. Every country has its own bureaucratic madness in pursuing obfuscation. And Germany is no exception. Official unemployment dropped to a two-decade low in January, but a recreational dive into the Federal Labor Agency’s monthly report reveals another story.
In Greece, three-quarters of the independent doctors, lawyers, and engineers declare taxable income below the existential minimum. Tax fraud amounts to €20 billion per year (8.5% of GDP). And tax dodgers owe €63 billion in unpaid taxes (27% of GDP). The country is bankrupt and has been kept afloat by the Troika (EU, ECB, and IMF), of which Germany is by far the largest contributor. But there is a plan. And it’s not an endless bailout.
The EU filed a laundry list of complaints against Chinese dumping, from shoes to fasteners. Take ceramics. Household ceramics got hit last week; in 2011, building ceramics; in 2010, ceramic tiles—led to a punitive tax of 69.7%. Now, it has another target: Chinese steel. But the industry is the bully on the block. And it flexed its pumped-up muscles—and put at stake the very manna that European officials have been praying for.
Bailout queen Dexia, the mega-bank that was bailed out twice in three years, turns into a nightmare for the tiny Kingdom of Belgium, which guaranteed a pile of debt, nationalized local subsidiaries, and bailed out the rest of the financial sector. Exposure: €162 billion—41% of GDP! And now Dexia announces monumental losses. But finally there is resistance.
Germans are euphoric these days—compared to the dour mood that prevailed for nearly two decades when real wages declined in a stagnating economy with high unemployment. This new optimism is joyriding the powerful German export machine and appears to be impervious to the nightmarish scenarios playing out at the periphery of the Eurozone. And now, Germans have something else to be euphoric about: a housing bubble.
Europe returned from its begging expedition to Beijing. Well, they called it a summit, one more in a series. They were trying to lure China into plowing part of its hard-earned foreign exchange trillions into the European bailout fund, the EFSF, and they made that dreadfully convoluted and opaque creature smell like a rose. Even a small amount would have been something. Anything really.
The Eurozone debt crisis has frayed a lot of nerves, particularly among Greek politicians, whose country is on the verge of bankruptcy, and German politicians, who no longer trust Greek politicians—they’d willfully misrepresented deficits and debt in order to accede to the Eurozone and had continued to do so up to insolvency. But now a far bigger confrontation at the very core of the Eurozone is shaping up. And it may bring epic changes.