Germany's Finance Capital Eyes Brussels Summit

In Frankfurt, Germany's financial capital, all eyes are on the debt crisis meeting in Brussels. Frankfurt is home to Europe's leading stock exchange and some of the largest banks and investment firms on the continent. More recently it's also home to street demonstrators sharply critical of the current state of capitalism. The two worlds have yet to meet.

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One place keeping an eye on the summit is Frankfurt, Germany's financial capital. Frankfurt is home to Europe's leading stock exchange and some of the continent's largest banks and investment firms. More recently, it is also home to street demonstrators who are sharply critical of the current state of capitalism.

The two worlds have yet to meet, as NPR's Eric Westervelt reports from Frankfurt.

ERIC WESTERVELT, BYLINE: Like inside some well-provisioned fish bowl, the smartly dressed attending an event at the Frankfurt Opera nosh on hors d'oeuvres and peer through large picture windows at Occupy Frankfurt protesters, camped out just across the street in Opera Park. The protesters are queuing up for a dinner of bread and soup.

One large banner in the park reads, you're speculating with our lives; while another sign reads, bankers into plowshares. Two volunteers tear apart old wooden pallets to burn in a metal barrel to ward off the evening chill. Protesters here are not camped out next to the stock exchange. Rather they're underneath a giant symbol of the euro, lit up in multi-colors like some arcade ride near the entrance to the European Central Bank.

The ECB, says 29 year old protester Mohammed Yildiz, represents the convergence of money, politics, people and the idea of a united Europe.


MOHAMMED YILDIZ: (German language spoken)

WESTERVELT: We want to change the system but that doesn't have to mean socialism, Yildiz says, adding, all of us here want reform regardless of whether we're conservative, left, or somewhere in the middle.

Yildiz is a 29 year old landscape designer and father of two infants, a boy and a girl, who cling to their mother near the soup counter. Yildiz's says his lengthy German-government subsidized paternity leave has afforded him the time to come down and join the protest. He's convinced the euro crisis and larger structural problems in Western economies are poised to spark an economic depression across Europe and beyond.

YILDIZ: (German language spoken)

WESTERVELT: We'll all be losers in the end, he says. We know that. We're in this together. As soon as they start printing money, he adds, and inflation goes up, we'll all lose out.

Parts of this city often seem impenetrable. Call it Fortress Frankfurt. Gleaming high rise bank headquarters, investment houses and exchange floors all seem to hum efficiently and whisper go away, we're making money. A mere ten minute walk from the protesters under the euro sign is the German stock exchange, a relatively quiet electronic trading floor.

For nearly two years, the 17 eurozone nations have stumbled through this crisis from one ineffectual half solution to the next. So it's understandable that many traders here are skeptical European leaders can come up with a long-term fix this time. On the floor of the German stock exchange, veteran equity trader Michael Foeller with the firm ICF, says there's no time left for political dithering.

MICHAEL FOELLER: The situation is harder than when we had the Lehman crisis, because the politikan(ph), the politikan they makes the rules and the regulations and they failed.

WESTERVELT: But downplaying concerns that further austerity might strangle growth, Foeller believes the big fix is really for indebted eurozone countries to get their deficits under control.

FOELLER: We had so many wakeup calls. But finally, the wakeup call should be to make a balanced budget. This is the wakeup call for the politikan and they have to do that, and really fast.

WESTERVELT: Foeller has not met with any of the protesters camped out just down the street. But he's sympathetic to some of their criticisms. Financial derivatives and other exotic trading schemes, he says, have led to abuses, excesses, and a dangerously short-term mentality.

FOELLER: It's not a gambling show. You should invest and not gamble. And I'm sure there are bankers out, they can't even say what they trade. And this is a point, as we had three years ago, with Lehman, with all these credit default swaps.

WESTERVELT: But Foeller is short on answers about how to fix it. He's against a financial transactions tax and other proposed remedies. Many of the protesters down the street are also vague when asked about solutions. But as one protester here put it, let's talk it through, let's open a dialogue. So far, it's an invitation few traders or bankers here have taken up.

Eric Westervelt, NPR News, Frankfurt.


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