Europe runs aground

Europe’s economic issues are epitomized by a killer ship captain.

European Union leaders Sarkozy, Merkel 311 (R) (photo credit: REUTERS/Thierry Roge)
European Union leaders Sarkozy, Merkel 311 (R)
(photo credit: REUTERS/Thierry Roge)

Tragic images of the Costa Concordia, the 1,000 foot-long cruise ship with over 4000 passengers and crew on board that hit a rocky reef off the coast of Italy and quickly founder in 50 foot water, have been filling television and computer screens around the world. Like the Titanic sinking one hundred years ago, horrible scenes of fear and desperation have been reported, as individuals tried to reach safety and protect their loved one while the ship capsized. At 114,000 tons, the Costa Concordia is the biggest ship ever built in Italy and is valued at over 500 million dollars.

Captain Francesco Schettino has been charged with manslaughter, as a result of his inaction and delay. He faces up to 15 years in prison, having allegedly given the evacuation order 70 minutes after the ship first suffered the 160 foot gash in its hull.

As the causality lists from the Costa Concordia are being compiled, Europe itself is struggling to keep its head above water. Several European countries face huge debt problems, and despite renewed efforts by the European Central Bank to intervene in the financial markets and uphold the Euro, fears are still mounting.

This week, Standard and Poor’s stripped France of its prized AAA rating, which it has held since 1975. This is a significant blow to a famously proud country that is at the center of rescue efforts for the Euro.  But France was not singled out maliciously. Eight other Euro-zone countries were also downgraded, with Italy facing a precipitous drop of two notches to BBB+. S&P then went on to downgrade the Euro-zone’s rescue fund, the European Financial Stability Facility, for which France is responsible for 20 percent of the funding.

Not all Euro-zone countries, however, were tarnished with the same brush.

Frugal countries such as Germany and Netherlands survived the week with their AAA ratings intact.  Britain has also maintained its credit rating under the deficit-cutting “austerity policies” put in place by the Coalition government that took over from the discredited Labor government of former British prime minister Gordon Brown.

The Euro-zone will work as a monetary union if members feel that there are valid reasons to stay within the union long term, and that members who do not play by the rules will be brought into line, whether by way of the stick or the carrot.

Unfortunately, in 2012, European countries will need to raise approximately one trillion dollars in order to refinance their existing debt and address their lingering budget deficits. Without the money to pay off their debts as they come due, these governments have no choice but to keep issue more bonds, and more bonds, and more bonds.

Week by week, month by month, these governments must go back into the financial markets and raise billions in new debt financing.  Should investors become spooked, the interest rates they will demand could spike up dramatically.  With each rise in borrowing costs, the likelihood of default rises.

In the case of Greece and Portugal, the situation has become so difficult that the European Financial Stability Facility was established in order to provide a “co-signer” for them!

Despite over 600 billion dollars in loans made by the European Central Bank to provide liquidity to the banking system, surprisingly little money has flowed into European government bonds.  Investors are turning their backs on what, at least on paper, are easy profits to be made by borrowing at one percent from the ECB and then lending that same money on to Spain or Italy, thereby collecting 4-6 percent as the middle man. Instead, banks prefer to sit on the money, uncertain what the future will bring.

As the great and the good from the EU and the ECB meet this week in Athens with the International Monetary Fund to assess Greece’s progress in reforming its grossly distended budget, fears are mounting that a Greek default may ultimately be inevitable. Systemic budget imbalances and bloated public debt means that many countries now face the prospects of long-term economic malaise.

Interestingly, although a legion of valid criticisms could be made about the operation of the EU, and the anti-democratic effect of the faceless bureaucrats who reside in Brussels and ply their trade far away from voters’ eyes, the debt problem faced by European countries is largely of their own making.

The example set by the fiscally prudent states, such as Germany and the Netherlands, show that austerity and a balance budget are not impossible in the EU. They are simply a policy choice that political leaders must have the courage to pursue. Voters can and will back them if the benefits of prudence are clearly explained.

Reports have surfaced that Captain Schettino manually overrode the pre-programmed course of the Costa Concordia, in order to conduct an unauthorized “sail by” of his head waiter’s family home. The consequence of this decision were devastating and humiliating, regardless of the sentimentality and good wishes that originally motivated it.

The owners of the vessel have quickly blamed the accident on the “significant human error” of Schettino. To the extent that European political leaders continue to live outside their means, and indulge in the vanity of propping up excessive government spending with costly public borrowings, this “significant human error” may soon have its own devastating and humiliating consequences.

The writer is a commentator who divides his time between the United Kingdom and Southern California. He has appeared on CNN, CNBC, BBC and Sky News, and has been featured in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, the Financial Times and the Economist.