On Thursday, rumors that Greece would have a government goosed the stock markets in Europe. While everybody was out to lunch in Frankfurt, the DAX ran up 110 points. In Athens, the ATHEX, which appears to be on a multi-year trajectory toward zero, jumped 4.2%. But on Friday, when it became clear that the rumor was just a rumor, the index resumed its downward trajectory. And Greeks went to bed without a new government.
Originally, François Hollande planned on visiting Germany on May 16, the day after becoming President of France, to meet with Chancellor Angela Merkel for some barbed-wire fence-mending. But now he pushed it up to May 15, the earliest second possible. At midnight, President Nicolas Sarkozy will hand him the keys to the Élysée Palace, while Merkel will be putting on lipstick for her dinner with him. And the flip-flopping has already started.
There are certainly some topics that Japan can lecture France on, for example standing in line. In Japan, a line is a display of communal discipline. In France, a line is something to be worked actively. Japan can also lecture France on designing and making cars and electronics. But the topic that Japan—fiscally the most undisciplined country in the developed world—can’t include in its sermon to France is fiscal discipline. And yet….
Europe greeted with excitement—or exasperation—the arrival of the “President of Growth,” François Hollande. And outgoing President Nicolas Sarkozy confirmed that he’d quit politics. He complained about journalists dogging him. “I’m spied on,” he said (ironically). “I hope they will leave me alone.” But that’s precisely what they won’t do because, on May 15, he’ll lose his immunity that has protected him against a ton of malodorous allegations.
“There are certain misconceptions that worry me: for instance, the misconception that whatever happens, we are not going to leave the euro,” said Evangelos Venizelos, former Finance Minister and president of the socialist Pasok party. But outraged Greeks are searching for alternatives, and on Sunday, they’ll get to vent their anger at the political elite.
Fighting back: Jérôme Kerviel, the meek-looking French guy who became famous in January 2008 as the junior trader who lost €4.9 billion at French mega-bank Société Générale. Accused of a litany of shenanigans, he was condemned to five years in prison, though he claimed that his bosses had known about and had tolerated his activities. He just couldn’t prove it…. until now.
“Over the past months, we experienced a worrisome trend toward re-nationalization and ‘summitization,’” said Martin Schulz, President of the European Parliament. Government leaders were becoming “more arrogant” and were attempting “to create a fiscal union outside the control of parliament.” His complaints went to the heart of democracy at the European level. And so, he said, the collapse of the EU was a “realistic scenario.”
Greek banks just reported €28.2 billion in losses for the year 2011. Almost 13% of GDP! But no worries. €25 billion in rescue funds were lined up as part of Greece’s bailout package. The banks, not the Greeks themselves, are getting bailed out. But, “solidarity of the union has its limits,” said even soft-spoken Jens Weidmann, President of the Bundesbank. “That’s why we linked the aid to conditions….”
“There is no more risk that the euro will implode,” declared French President Sarkozy two days before the first round of the election. “The crisis is finished,” he said a few weeks ago. Thanks to his leadership. However, François Hollande, the socialist challenger and likely winner, has a prescription for fixing the very crisis Sarkozy declared finished—an ambitious plan that might lead to the break-up of the Eurozone.
Germans work longer hours and retire later than many of their brethren in Europe, and after many years of shrinking real wages, they don’t even get paid that much anymore. But it succeeded, at least temporarily, and the dour mood of yore has been superseded by exuberance about their superior economic model. And what do Germans get for their hard work? Well, probably a lot—but the one thing they’re not getting is extra time to live.