Financial Crisis Spreads Throughout Europe

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Guests

Zanny Minton Beddoes, economics editor, The Economist
Steven Erlanger, Paris bureau chief, New York Times

Europe's debt crisis already pushed Greece to the edge of insolvency. Italy, Spain, Portugal and Ireland all face their own challenges and immense pressures to chop benefits and increase revenues. Guests explain what's driving the meltdown, how bad it could get and how it might affect the U.S.

NEAL CONAN, host:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. Im Neal Conan in Washington.

With the euro at a four-year low and several European governments at or near the economic precipice, financial markets around the world rollercoaster, alternating between roaring ups, like today, and dizzying drops, like last week.

The problem is debt. Greece appears worst off, but Ireland, Portugal, Spain and Italy aren't far behind. Governments are slashing wages and pensions of public employees, raising taxes and the retirement age.

As you can imagine, a lot of people are unhappy about this. Many question whether the euro can survive. Almost everyone wonders whether a golden age in Europe is coming to an end.

In this country, there's concern about the volatility of the markets and whether Europe's crisis may smother our economic recovery in its crib. If you have questions about how Europe is handling the crisis, how it affects you, give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. Thats at npr.org. Go -and you can go to npr.org, click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Later, why the art heist in Paris is no "Thomas Crown Affair" and the economic rationale for stealing paintings you can't sell.

But first, the crisis in Europe, and we begin with Zanny Minton Beddoes, economics editor at The Economist, who joins us from that magazine's studio here in Washington. Thanks for being with us today.

Ms. ZANNY MINTON BEDDOES (Economics Editor, The Economist): My pleasure, Neal.

CONAN: And is this an economic crisis or a political crisis, fundamentally?

Ms. BEDDOES: I think it began as an economic crisis, and it's becoming a political crisis. It really is both, and you put it very well in your introduction. I think there is a big fear that several governments within the euro zone are bust, Greece being the main one, and the crisis began there.

And it really began earlier this year when it became clear that the Greeks had been fudging their figures and that their deficit was actually a lot bigger than initially thought, and that got investors very worried about Greece's ability to actually pay its debts, and that then spawned a fear of financial consequences because a lot of European banks hold government debt.

So when you start worrying about whether the Greeks and then the Irish, Spanish, the Portuguese will actually be able to pay their debts, you start worrying about the health of the European banking system, and that then spawned a demand for austerity, for kind of belt-tightening in those countries, and that's what we've seen most dramatically in Greece, where the Europeans and the IMF together have planned and demanded a very, very tough program of austerity, as you say - pension cuts, salary cuts, very, very tough stuff - tax increases.

And I think that then spawned a concern both about whether European governments have the political capacity to push that austerity through and secondly whether it's actually going to be enough, because in the end these currencies are all these countries are all tied together in a single currency, and they won't be able to pay their debts unless they're able to grow, and if they in order to grow, they need to really tackle fundamental structural changes.

They need to deregulate their labor markets. They need to do a whole load of things to make their economies more competitive. And doing all of that in the time of a recession is going to be very, very tough.

CONAN: And indeed we've already seen, well, some of the demonstrations in Greece got violent, and there's calls for a general strike in Spain if that country pushes through its austerity measures. There will be likely similar kinds of demands in France if that country proposes to raise the retirement age over 60.

Ms. BEDDOES: Absolutely, and I think it's worth remembering that these southern-tier countries particularly have had a pretty golden age in the last 10 years of the euro because they were basically able to borrow extremely cheaply because their debt was seen to be relatively similar to that of Germany.

Markets didn't really differentiate very much between euro area debt, and so they've been on an absolute binge. Spain has had a huge, huge boom, huge housing boom that (unintelligible) to bust, and suddenly, you know, in the light of this bust, they have to have fiscal austerity, and there's it's just not clear how they're going to grow.

And so if they're not going to grow, then how are they going to be able to pay these debts that have accumulated? And that's the sort of real kind of underlying worry hanging over people, which makes people wonder how on earth this currency union is going to survive.

CONAN: And there was supposed to be an effort to put together a fund of $750 million excuse me, billion euros to give everybody confidence that Germany, above all, would stand behind Greece and make sure that these payments were made and that there's nothing to worry about.

Ms. BEDDOES: Well, that's true, and that fund hasn't actually been put together yet, but the questions that Germans have, I think, are part of the real problem here, because Germany, as you say, is the kind of paymaster, basically.

It's going to be the country that will be forced, one way or the other, to bail these other ones out, and there's huge political opposition to doing that in Germany. Germans don't want to have what is often called there a transfer union. They don't want to be paying off since they're very frugal people, they don't want to be paying off what they see as these profligate Southern Europeans.

On the other hand, unless Germany itself changes and becomes more of a country that relies less on exporting to everybody else and has a bit more domestic demand at home, it's going to be difficult to see how the union continues.

CONAN: And there are seemingly growing frictions between France and Germany on this, and they are the two most important countries in the euro zone.

Ms. BEDDOES: That's absolutely right because they both have very different visions of what the economic union really is about. I mean, the Germans essentially have an idea that they when they they were quite skeptical about the euro, at least the German public was, and they were convinced that it was an okay thing to do because they thought it would essentially the deutsche mark in drag.

They thought basically it would be, you know, the same thing that they'd always had, it just would just be called the euro.

The French have a very different view. They want to have kind of much greater economic integration, but by that they also mean a sort of French model of greater political interference and political harmonization.

And these two very different visions, the German kind of disciplinarian vision, everybody needs to be more like them and be more thrifty, and the French vision of much greater fiscal integration, are still competing. And it's not clear which of those visions is going to be prevail, and because of that, I think there's a lot of tension within Europe, and that's turned into thats one of the reasons why the Europeans have found it so difficult to cope with this crisis.

CONAN: And then you have Britain outside the euro zone. They still use the pound, and I'm assuming that all of those who were in favor of hanging onto the pound are feeling patting themselves on the back.

Ms. BEDDOES: Absolutely. They're thanking their lucky stars they're not part of it. But they're not winning themselves any friends within Europe, within the rest of the European Union, because they conspicuously failed to take part in this stabilization fund. They said they wouldn't contribute to it.

So there's a sort of general sense of anger towards the Brits in continental Europe, and the British have their own problems. There's a Britain has a huge budget deficit. It has a rapidly increasing public debt, and, you know, a debt crisis in the U.K. can't be ruled out.

And as you know, the new coalition government in the U.K. is itself planning a very austere program of spending cuts and tax increases. So austerity is the name of the game in Europe right now.

CONAN: So is this the end of that whole social model of government, well, providing universal health care, the government providing benefits, long unemployment benefits, the government taking care of a whole lot of things that it don't take care of in this country?

Ms. BEDDOES: Well, I don't think any European would say that it was going to put their entire social model at risk, but certainly the bits of it that are unsustainable are going to have to be changed, and you know, the Greeks are no longer going to be able to retire at 50 and have very generous retirement benefits.

Certainly the excesses of the social model are going to have to be trimmed, and Europe has much worse demographics, by and large, than, say, a country like the U.S., and the U.S. has its own fiscal problems and is going to have to adjust itself.

But in Europe, because it's a population that's aging much more quickly, these problems are coming to the fore much faster.

CONAN: And that demographic problem, obviously as you look down the road, it's not getting any better. This is just going to get worse and worse and worse.

Ms. BEDDOES: It is going to get worse, and the really particular problem that the euro zone has is that these countries are all tied into a single currency, and that makes it much harder for any individual country to steal a march on others by devaluing its currency.

That's a traditional recipe. If you get into difficulties, if you're an emerging economy, you tighten your belt, but you also let your currency depreciate so you become more competitive very quickly.

And the Europeans, at least the countries in the euro zone, can't do that, and that's really the main reason that people are particularly worried about them, in addition to the size of their debts.

CONAN: Though there has been speculation, maybe we could cut Greece out of the euro zone, at least for some time.

Ms. BEDDOES: Yeah, it's quite I don't think there's any way of booting them out, actually, under the sort of euro - the rules of the euro zone, but more importantly, you know, the euro zone is a political project. It's sort of inconceivable to me that they would do that.

I think it's often people outside of Europe who say, well, obviously, you know, the Greeks should leave, or obviously they should be booted out. These are, these are very, very hard decisions to do, and I can't, I literally can't sort of envisage it happening in the short term.

Things would have to get a lot, lot worse to go there because the European project, you know, it has defined post-war, you know, Europe's self-image. And so it's not just a question of adjusting an exchange rate. It's something much more fundamental.

CONAN: We have an email question from Chris(ph) in Minnesota. Let's look and take in the lesson of Europe, which has the largest welfare state in the world, as we take the road to government control of health care and regulation of every aspect of life. Let's not be disappointed when the devil wants his due and someone has to pay for our life of government being our caretaker.

Well, a warning can you make a distinction? Can you tell us the difference between what the social model is in Europe and what it is here?

Ms. BEDDOES: Well, the social at its broadest and simplest, the Europeans have a much more generous welfare state, as you said. They provide greater unemployment benefits for longer. They also organize their health care system in a different way. They have higher tax rates. They also have much more reliance on VAT, on consumption taxes.

So they actually have a different structure of the tax system that relies less, relatively less, on income taxes. But they have a bigger state, basically, than the U.S., and they so the government raises more money and spends more money.

It's broader social welfare, but I think it's important to be clear that the U.S.'s government finances are not particularly better than those in Europe. In fact, U.S. government debt, as a share of GDP, and a share of the economy, is higher than that of the euro zone as a whole. It's lower than that of Greece, but it's if you take all the euro zone countries together, America actually has a higher debt ratio than they do.

So it's not as though things are great here. The U.S. has two very, very, big advantages. One is that its demographic outlook is much better, which means that its growth potential is better.

And secondly, the dollar is the world's reserve currency, and so people, you know, it has what De Gaulle once called an exorbitant privilege. It's able to issue debt in its own currency, and when and people, a lot of people around the world want to hold debt, and in fact when things get dicey, when people start worrying, they pile into U.S. Treasuries, as they are now, and so Treasury yields come down.

CONAN: And do you think is going to, as this crisis evolves, that its going to have a dramatic impact here?

Ms. BEDDOES: I don't think it is in the short term. In fact, paradoxically in the short term it is making it easier, cheaper, for the U.S. to borrow and thereby kind of removing any pressure for the U.S. to address its own fiscal problems.

And I actually think in the short term, for the reasons I just gave, that America has more room to run a deficit for longer than virtually any other country.

But in the medium to long term, because of entitlements, because of rising health care costs, the U.S. has a fiscal problem, and the U.S. has to deal with it. And so kind of paradoxically, the European crisis I think is giving America more noose around its neck, if you will, more time but more time to create a bigger problem down the road.

CONAN: Zanny Minton Beddoes, thank you very much for your time today. We appreciate it.

Ms. BEDDOES: You're very welcome.

CONAN: Zanny Minton Beddoes, economics editor at The Economist and joined us from a studio at that magazine's offices here in Washington, D.C. More about the growing debt problems in just a moment and how it might affect us here. If you'd like to join us, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. We'll go to Paris next. Steven Erlanger of the New York Times will join us. This is NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. Im Neal Conan in Washington. Governments in Europe impose drastic austerity measures to rein in bloated deficits and pull back from the financial precipice. Today, emergency measures in Spain to cut civil servants' salaries passed parliament by one vote. They could face a general strike.

Those kinds of changes are likely in other European countries, as well, as the generous social model with long vacations, early retirements, lots of welfare benefits gradually disappear. And a brief look at Wall Street in recent weeks. We'll tell you that what happens overseas has clear ramifications for us here in the U.S.

If you have questions about how Europe is handling its crisis and how that affects you, give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation at our website. Thats at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Joining us now is Steven Erlanger, New York Times Paris bureau chief, who's been writing about Europe's financial troubles for that paper, and he joins us on the line from Paris. Steve, nice to have you on the program again.

Mr. STEVEN ERLANGER (Paris Bureau Chief, New York Times): Hey, Neal, how are you?

CONAN: I'm well, thanks.

Mr. ERLANGER: Good.

CONAN: There in France, President Sarkozy promises to overhaul the pension system and, well, raise the retirement age. Are people up in arms?

Mr. ERLANGER: Well, they're not happy. Today, Thursday, was a general strike. It wasn't too important, but it's an indication. It's kind of a warning sign from the unions.

Francois Mitterrand, who was, you know, one of the last socialist presidents, maybe the last one, changed the pension age, dropped it to 60 in something like 1983, and it's become almost a kind of religious edict. But Sarkozy knows that he needs to change it. It's not popular, but for him, it's a very important reform going into the next presidential election.

CONAN: And this must be particularly galling, especially for socialist governments such as in Spain.

Mr. ERLANGER: Well, it's very difficult, you know, I mean the whole basic center-left model of European life, which has been cradle-to-grave protection, is suddenly up in the air. I mean, it's not going to end, but it's going to have to be reformed, partly because of deficits but also because of very much of an aging population.

The baby boom, you know, everybody's getting old, and the number of workers who are supporting the number of pensioners is dropping quite rapidly.

CONAN: And as people look out in the future, they know that these changes have to come, but it's difficult to say cut my benefit, cut my pension, cut my salary.

Mr. ERLANGER: It's very, very difficult, I mean, you know, because people were led to believe it would all go along fine, unlike in the United States, where, you know, we supposedly pay into our own Social Security account, which is something of a fiction.

Here, current workers pay for current pensioners. So when, you know, the number of workers drops - and by 2050 it will drop in Europe to, like, 1.3 workers to every pensioner - there's just not going to be enough money in the system. So people have to since they're living longer, they have to work longer and pay longer.

CONAN: And has to what degree has political leadership flubbed in this crisis? We hear about tensions between particularly France and Germany.

Mr. ERLANGER: Well, there are serious tensions, in fact. I mean, there have been a series of crises. I mean, the big crisis has been over Greece, but then as the markets have been very nervous about the other countries of the Southern Mediterranean, which the Germans like to call Club Med, it's particularly Portugal and Spain, the European Union has tried to put in a big bulwark of loan guarantees.

But they did so so slowly and in such a chaotic fashion that it ended up costing them a great deal more. And people are still very skeptical that the Europeans have the crisis mechanism in place and the mechanisms in place to actually get this done. It's a very tense time, actually.

CONAN: Let's get some callers in on the conversation. Steve Erlanger of The New York Times is with us from Paris, 800-989-8255. Email is talk@npr.org. Nick's(ph) on the line calling from St. Louis.

NICK (Caller): Hi, Steve, how are you?

Mr. ERLANGER: Hi.

NICK: I just had a question. I spent a semester studying abroad in Vienna, Austria, which is known to be one of the richest countries in the EU or is the most well-off and were just named one of the countries with the highest standard of living.

But while I was there, I had a few classmates, when I was studying, from Eastern Europe, especially from Bulgaria, Lithuania, who were kind of in the process of becoming part of the EU. I just didn't know the status of, like, kind of like what the EU's, like, kind of position is on Eastern European countries who are now trying to get in and switching over their currency, especially places like Czechoslovakia, Czech Republic and Bulgaria and countries like that.

Mr. ERLANGER: Well, one of the things to understand is the European Union currently is 27 countries, though it may be 28 soon with Croatia. But the countries that use the euro, the single currency, are 16 countries, and we sort of refer to them as the euro zone.

And really the countries of the sort of newer members in Eastern Europe of the European Union are not yet part of the euro zone. The one most prepared to come in is Estonia, sort of little Estonia, but the Czechs have stayed out, and everybody else isn't really quite ready. The Poles have been trying to get ready, but in fact, I think now they think they'd better wait a while and see what happens to the euro before they try to jump.

Part of the problem is the restrictions or the qualifications, to use a better word, to get into the euro are very severe, the kinds of requirements that the countries already in the euro zone have been breaking in terms of especially the amount of government deficits per year.

So I think it's a period of wait and see. The euro zone has a lot of trouble dealing with the Greek problem, and Portugal and Spain are still up in the air. Everyone's kind of hopeful. So new members, I think, you know, it's not going to be tomorrow.

NICK: Yeah.

CONAN: Nick, thanks very much, appreciate it.

NICK: Thank you so much.

CONAN: Bye-bye. Let's go next to Jen(ph). Jen's with us from Ypsilanti.

JEN (Caller): Hi. I know that in many European countries, just as in the U.S. we have, for example, we have a large population of migrant and immigrant laborers from Latin America. In Europe, they have many migrant and immigrant, you know, laborers from nearby countries such as Turkey and Morocco. And I'm wondering if just as in this country it seems that the economic crisis is kind of exacerbated anti-immigrant sentiment, you know, for example, we have the Arizona laws.

Is there a real danger now of exacerbation of the racial and ethnic tensions that were kind of already existing, you know, like a rise in right-wing extremism or laws targeting Muslim religious practices? And on the flip side, is there also a danger now of, you know, civil unrest because of the numbers of, you know, migrant laborers or immigrant populations who are already in economically depressed circumstances but who are going to, you know, be even in more dire straits with the economic, you know, crisis that's occurring?

Mr. ERLANGER: Sure. No, I think you're absolutely right. There is a danger. There's always been a kind of right-wing fringe may be too patronizing. But there are nationalist parties in many countries. Some of them are turning against Islam as a threat.

But a lot of it is a cover for worries about immigration and illegal immigration. And in economic difficult times, these are always very handy buttons to press.

In France, you have the National Front. There will be an election in The Netherlands I think June 9th, and people think that the anti-immigrant party will do well there. There is the fringe, and it is troublesome.

There's another kind of immigration, too, however, in Europe, which is the workers who are coming from East European countries who are now members of the European Union who are allowed to work in other European countries. And there's some resentment against them, too, because they're, you know, more likely to work for less money.

And then you find kind of odd phenomenon like in Spain, which has been importing a lot of agricultural labor from other countries, and now the Spanish economy is in trouble, and unemployment is going up. And Spanish workers who used to work in agriculture want their jobs back, but they're competing with immigrants who will work for less money. So there is the potential for this kind of, you know, difficulty and upset.

In terms of violence, we haven't seen too much of it yet, though the Greeks are very angry at what they have to do to get their country back into financial shape. I don't think this has much to do with immigration. It just has to do with anger at the IMF and everyone else for the cuts that the Greek government has to do.

CONAN: Jen, thank you.

JEN: Thanks.

CONAN: Here's an email from Bailey(ph) in Ann Arbor: It seems as though each of these crises are building upon one another in something of a ripple effect to create an extremely volatile global economy. If this is the case, is it feasible that we can stop the crisis, or are more global massive crises inevitable? Is the world economy too big to not fail?

Mr. ERLANGER: The problem is it's I mean, it sounds like a clich´┐Ż, but you know, it is all kind of interconnected. The world is hardly flat, but banks tend to loan to one another. And the problem is when one country gets into trouble, you kind of look at who that country owes the most money to...

CONAN: Exposure is the...

Mr. ERLANGER: ...and very often, it's banks in other countries. And the problem is if there's a big banking crisis, it's going to affect American banks too. The big worry which is why President Obama and Geithner and others got involved with the European crisis was that they were afraid that it would slop over and cut off a very weak American recovery. And so it's very hard to separate, I think, the West in the way that we used to. The ocean doesn't seem to matter much anymore.

CONAN: The U.S. banks have a few or little exposure, as they would put it in Greece, but they sure have a lot of exposure in the banks that do have exposure in Greece.

Mr. ERLANGER: Well, that's absolutely right. And they also have exposure, you know, with French banks, who are exposed in Greece. And Austrian banks are exposed in Romania and so on and so on. So, I mean, it's all - I mean, it's not like everybody is vulnerable in quite the same way.

But one of the reasons, for instance, people thought the French and Germans finally did get together to put together this Greek package is that French and German banks are very, very exposed in Greece. Sometimes they own Greek banks. Sometimes they just hold a lot of Greek loans, Greek paper. And so, to some degree, saving Greece is also a way to save French and German banks.

CONAN: And as you - you talked about some of the political tensions in this. A lot of the blame seems to be going to the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, who as you said, may have responded with too little too late. Even so, lost an election that cost her control of the upper house of parliament.

Mr. ERLANGER: Yeah, it's been a very difficult time for her. I mean, she won reelection not too long, and everything looked good. But she was in coalition suddenly with the free Democrats, which is a very, in European terms, neoliberal party. In other words, it's not much of a statist party. It doesn't believe in, you know, sending German money abroad very much. And suddenly, there was this crisis which kind of devolved upon Germany as the largest economy in the European Union and the largest population in the European Union to kind of step up to its old role as the paymaster and bankroller of everyone else's problems. And the Germans have changed.

I mean, Germany spent a lot of money absorbing East Germany. You know, poverty is rising Germany. And Germans thought when they went into the Euro, the whole deal was that they weren't going to have to bailout weaker economies.

So for Merkel, doing the right thing in European terms was exactly the wrong thing in domestic political terms. So she hesitated and suffered in the end in both directions.

CONAN: We're talking with Steven Erlanger, the New York Times Paris bureau chief.

You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

Let's get Michael(ph) on the line, Michael with us from Sacramento.

MICHAEL (Caller): Yeah. Average American citizens should look at very closely what's happening to average citizens in Greece and Europe because that's whats in store for us. There's been a lot of talk about the coziness with the oil industry recently in government and the coziness between the banking industry and government has precipitated this financial crisis. And average citizens are going to be asked to -for austerity to pay the bill.

Mr. ERLANGER: Well, the hope in Europe at least is that this $1 trillion loan guarantee is so big that it will scare off the markets and won't have to be used. I mean, there are big structural problems in Europe that go deep because you have a single currency among 16 nations that have their own treasuries and their own budgets and no fiscal coordination. So you have these imbalances.

You know, in that sense, it's different from United States where, you know, there are states but there's one central government with its own budget. The states generally in the United States are required to have relatively balanced budgets so they don't add to the federal deficit. That's obviously not true inside Europe. So, you know, the situations are a bit different. I mean, it's very, very hard to get a handle on how fragile this recovery is from the recession that began in 2008. And I think that's what really worries everybody, particularly worries President Obama.

CONAN: Michael, thank you. There have always been both centrifugal and centripetal forces in Europe. A lot of people now are saying, look, this just demonstrates the need for centralized agencies that can respond much more quickly, much more agilely as the U.S. Treasury did when the crisis - when banking crisis was here. There are also people who are saying, look, this just points the need that we shouldn't have this close association where one weak member - Greece and some others, Portugal, Spain, Italy, maybe Ireland - can drag the rest of us down.

Mr. ERLANGER: Well, it's true. I mean, this is the big debate of Europe. I mean, Europe just went through great struggles to pass a treaty called the Lisbon Treaty, which was supposed to make governing the European Union a bit smoother, particularly as it had grown to 27 nations. And they made the Irish vote twice in order to pass it. But the thing about the Lisbon Treaty is it completely left fiscal and economic authority alone. Those are reserved to the individual states. And yet, this is exactly the crisis we have so that the Lisbon Treaty doesnt even speak to the problem. And Europe has no real crisis management system.

It wasnt even very clear who could call a meeting of all the finance ministers to try to deal with this crisis. You had 16 different countries with different parliaments, different domestic politics. And you have really in Europe, the French and Germans normally kind of run things if they can agree on something, everyone goes along. But in this case, the French and Germans have very different views about, you know, how the euro should be managed.

For the Germans, the euro is really the descendant of the Deutsche Mark and it needs to be very tightly controlled and there should be very little inflation. And for the French, the euro is more of a political currency aiming at a united Europe. And the French are always much more easy going about government debt. So...

CONAN: Steve...

Mr. ERLANGER: ...you had a real conflict of understanding about what the rule should be. Thats not really worked out yet.

CONAN: Steven Erlanger of the New York Times, there in Paris. Thanks very much for your time today.

Mr. ERLANGER: Thanks, Neal.

CONAN: When we come back, well be talking about the great art heist in Paris last week.

TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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