After they were downgraded in early August, US government bonds gained upward momentum and yields fell. Japan, which has danced the downgrade tango for years, is contemplating the next step, from AA- to A+, yet 10-year Japanese Government Bonds are yielding below 1%. Downgrades of sovereign bonds of developed countries make good headlines, but the impact on bond markets has been nil. With one exception: the Eurozone.
Austerity measures are taking their daily toll on Greece. Suicides and attempted suicides have jumped by 22.5%. Unemployment rose to 18.2%. Pharmacies are having difficulties obtaining medications. More cuts are coming. If there is no agreement with the bailout Troika, Greece will default in March. But now, even the Troika is in disarray.
Christine Lagarde, managing director of the IMF, told the South African Business Day that the Eurozone might avoid a recession in 2012, an inexplicable bout of optimism in light of some ugly trends. Germany, economic superstar with unemployment at a 20-year low and exports at an all-time high, produces 34% of the Eurozone’s GDP—and it has smacked into a wall.
During the financial crisis, Germany’s export orders fell off a cliff. GDP plunged 2.1% in the 4th quarter of 2008 and a horrid 3.8% in the 1st quarter of 2009. The worst quarters in the history of the Federal Republic. But the recovery was enormous. So it’s natural that the German media would gloat over the “German success recipe.” But now the first shadows have appeared.
Just how bad is the real economy in Greece after five years of recession, countless strikes, and 17.7% unemployment? Registrations of vehicles plunged 30% in 2011, after having plunged 37% in 2010. They’re now at the lowest level in over 20 years. Troika inspectors are on their way … to demand yet more cuts. And the Prime Minister puts the nuclear option on the table.
In late 2001, German banks sold Euro Starter Kits—sealed pouches with €10.23 in coins. One of many steps in the arduous process of weaning Germans from their D-Mark. I bought one and still have it. It’s in the back of a drawer, next to a D-Mark coin. And that coin is part of a vast phenomenon: 13.3 billion in missing Deutschmarks. But now people see a reason to hang on to them.
“We’re experiencing the beginning of the repercussions of the financial crisis,” said Michel-Edouard Leclerc, CEO of the second largest retailer in France. He has never seen so much “rational behavior among consumers” and so much “fear of getting screwed.” Until now, the crisis has touched mostly the financial world, but in 2012, it will hit the real economy. “It’s always the people who end up paying,” he said.
Dexia, the Franco-Belgian mega-bank that was bailed out in 2008 and re-collapsed in October, dwarfs Belgium’s economy. To keep it afloat, Belgium spent and guaranteed phenomenal amounts at a huge risk to the country. Yet there have been no legal consequences for those responsible. Until now….
Governments and companies around the world have been preparing for a collapse of the Eurozone—simple prudence requires them to do that. Theoretical exercises for a hypothetical scenario, they call it. But recently, these theoretical exercises have taken on practical overtones. And even the public is now encouraged to prepare for the demise of the euro.
Sarkozy will be the only French president since World War II with two recessions under his belt, if current forecasts are correct. Recessions are rare in France: between the war and the financial crisis, there were two. Against this backdrop, Sarkozy faces a tough reelection campaign. And front runner François Hollande has vowed to oppose the German dictate on how to save the Eurozone. So it might all unravel.