This is what you have to do! U.S. politicians are lecturing their European colleagues on how they should solve the financial crisis. This is visibly annoying many of those in power in Europe and producing division in addition to the atmospheric disturbance. An economic war is developing between old and formerly very closely-allied economic power blocs.
When it comes to money, a Presidential Medal of Freedom isn't worth much. Angela Merkel had to experience this with Barack Obama, who awarded her the Medal of Freedom with much hoopla in the summer. To the complete surprise of the chancellor, the U.S. president rudely cast blame on the Europeans during a visit to the Internet firm LinkedIn in Mountain View, Calif., at the end of September. During the debt and financial crisis, their actions were not as quick “as they need to be” he needled — they had not “fully dealt with all the challenges that their banking system faced.” The crisis had become intensified by the acute problems in Greece: “That is scaring the world.”
In her circle of intimates, Merkel asked herself afterward whether that was really necessary, this lecture from the American province. Just the day before, the chancellor, as so often, had spoken with Obama on the telephone. He said no word of an upcoming general reckoning with Europe. The attack from Mountain View set the tone.
It was the beginning of a loud conflict, a skirmish over the correct economic policy that is increasingly occupying Europe and the United States. More or less openly, an economic war is developing between two old economic power blocs, whose wellbeing has long since been dependent on emerging countries like China, India and Brazil. The discord also played a role in the meeting of finance ministers of the G20 nations in Paris over the weekend. The rosy picture of the transatlantic bridge, cultivated for years, is beginning to show serious cracks.
Dissent prevails on important questions. The Europeans, for example, would like to introduce a financial transaction tax. It should be levied on sales of financial firms, to dampen their desire to speculate and supply money to national budgets. The U.S. government balks, just like Great Britain. The banks of Wall Street should be protected. “It’s not acceptable that especially those outside the euro region, who are time and again pushing us to take broad-based action to manage the debt crisis, are at the same time flatly refusing to impose a financial transactions tax,” Merkel fought back against her telephone friend. “I think this is not okay.”
A lot is not okay here. The chancellor is especially annoyed that the Americans' idea to save the banks is in great demand at present and is now also being promoted in Paris: the forced recapitalization of banks. The U.S. government had success with this in the financial crisis of 2008 (the TARP program).
All banks have to incorporate the government, which contributed billions of dollars, as a joint-holder and pay it off again later. That is now supposed to work in Europe wherever possible. Many banks there hold halfway bad government bonds from countries like Greece, Italy, Belgium or Spain, which have lived beyond their means and amassed high debt. U.S. Secretary of the Treasury Timothy Geithner praised the forced benefit as a model for export.
The American Triad
Obama’s former economic adviser Austan Goolsbee says the U.S. had made a request to Europe because they were in the same situation: “It is much better and less expensive to tackle the problem quickly instead of waiting until everyone panics.” The G20 ministers are now demanding an extra capital subsidy of up to 2.5 percent for large, system-relevant banks.
More banking capital, a debt reduction for Greece as well as a euro aid package of over €2 trillion: With this triad, the U.S. wants to see its friend/foe Europe recover. For weeks, Obama and his people have been speaking out disparagingly about the existing — moderate — plans. Secretary Geithner recommends large economic stimulus packages and thinks little of consolidation and economizing, as German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble currently praises it.
“America is leading us around by the nose,” complains a German top banker. The mood is being systematically set by Washington. He speaks of the “euro bashing” and of campaigns. In the stock markets, large investors on Wall Street are banking on falling prices of European government bonds and problems in large banks. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) is also playing a strange role.
At the forefront recently is the Frenchwoman Christine Lagarde, of all people, to date the most important fellow campaigner of President Nicholas Sarkozy. Already at the beginning of her IMF service, she openly criticized a capital gap of €200 billion in Europe’s banks. She had probably read in her speech what had been written for her, complains Germany's top banker. Now the IMF, heavily influenced by the U.S., is supposed to more and more play the fire company in Europe, as became clear at the G20 meeting in Palais de Chaillot. France’s banks can hope for no support here, much to the chagrin of Minister Schäuble and Federal Bank President Jens Weidmann.
Many European managers and politicians fail to understand that only Europe is constantly being talked about in public. In fact, the U.S., the country of origin for the finance crisis in 2008, is in an even tighter fix. The total debts are as high as the economic output. U.S. products are so little in demand worldwide that a giant deficit in foreign trade occurs year after year. The unemployment rate stands at 9 percent; the ratings agency Standard and Poor’s has already downgraded the U.S. Because Obama needs to be re-elected next year, those in the periphery of the chancellery say he can divert attention from his own problems wonderfully with euro criticism.
So the ball is now in the court of the Europeans. They must deliver at the E.U. summit this coming weekend. They need a counterattack against America. Says optimist Schäuble, “We will solve the problems in the eurozone.”