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Is Eurozone's Debt Crisis Over?

Jan 23, 2013
Originally published on January 23, 2013 8:13 am

Transcript

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

It's MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

And I'm Renee Montagne.

Some European leaders have been sounding downright upbeat in recent days about the state of their economy, which makes this morning's speech by Britain's prime minister all the more dramatic.

INSKEEP: David Cameron proposed renegotiating Britain's relationship to the European Union. He wants to move toward more of a trade union, rather than a European government. Then he wants to give Britons a vote on whether they would leave the European Union or stay in.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

PRIME MINISTER DAVID CAMERON: More of the same will not see the European Union keeping pace with the new powerhouse economies. More of the same would just produce more of the same: less competitiveness, less growth, fewer jobs.

INSKEEP: Now, the British prime minister says he doesn't want to - as he put it - pull up the drawbridge. He stressed his ultimate goal here is reform, returning the European Union's focus to free trade, while cutting down the size and amount of bureaucracy governing European members.

MONTAGNE: The British prime minister's speech comes as the World Economic Forum gets underway in Davos, Switzerland. That annual meeting is where the world's rich and powerful people talk about global economic issues. And this year, Europe and its debt problems is at the top of the agenda. Unlike Britain's prime minister, European leaders are optimistic about the future of Europe. Some have even declared the debt crisis over.

We reached Zanny Minton Beddoes of The Economist magazine in Davos. Welcome to the program.

ZANNY MINTON BEDDOES: Good morning, Renee.

MONTAGNE: What exactly do they mean, European leaders, those who have said this? What do they mean by the crisis is over?

(LAUGHTER)

BEDDOES: Well, I think there's a little bit of wishful thinking to think that the whole thing is over. But there is definitely a much greater sense of optimism about Europe this year, compared to last year. For much of 2012, there was a very real fear that the single currency was imminently going to fracture, that its collapse was a real possibility. And that fear has basically gone.

Financial markets have improved dramatically. Bond yield in the peripheral economies have come down very dramatically. There's been a very big turnaround as this sort of sense of catastrophe has lifted. European politicians, however, tend to go too far, and then, as you say, some of them have since declared crisis over.

I think a fairer assessment is that the acute phase of the crisis is over. The eurozone is out of the emergency room, if you will, but I think there's still a long way to go before it's a healthy patient again.

MONTAGNE: Well, of course, we over here in the U.S., we continue to hear terrible stories about Greece. We did a story the other day about people having switched to burning precious forest because they can't afford heating oil. They cut down the wood, things like that - unemployment unimaginably high in Spain. What is actually happening in what you might call a real economy?

BEDDOES: Well, it's you're absolutely right, Renee. It's pretty grim. In those peripheral economies - Greece, Spain, Portugal, Italy - the economies are in deep recession. Some even in what I think you should call a depression. And the gap between the optimism and improvement in financial markets and the still very grim reality in the real economy I think is both enormously wide and ultimately unsustainable.

It's true that financial markets are feeling more confident. The fear of immediate collapse has gone. But in the real economy, things are still very, very grim. And that's not going to be sustainable, because firstly, for regular people, they face more austerity that's going to hit the economy. And the improvement in financial conditions hasn't really translated into making it easier for firms to get access to credit.

So it's not clear where growth is going to come from in these peripheral economies. And if they remain stagnant - and stagnant, as you say, with unimaginably high unemployment levels - I think it's a political time bomb. So the notion that Europe has licked this crisis is enormously premature. Until Europe figures out how to get its economies growing again, there's still going to be a shadow hanging over it.

MONTAGNE: Given all that, what is the prognosis for the EU and for Europe?

BEDDOES: Well, my short-term prognosis is that I think there isn't going to be a financial crisis fear of the sort that we had last year, in the short-term, for two reasons. Firstly, I think European politicians did show, during 2012, that they were determined to prevent the breakup of the single currency. And certainly, until the German election - which is in the fall of this year - the most important country in Europe is determined to have quiet, and not to have a sort of return of the fear of catastrophe that we had last year.

And secondly, the European Central Bank, led by Mario Draghi, has basically said it will act as a sort of lender of last resort. It would, if necessary, buy the bonds of these countries if they had to. And that's provided the sort of tools for a kind of jerry-rigged backstop to the single currency.

So I think in the short term, that means fracture, collapse is off the table. But because we don't yet have the institutional basis for the euro going forward, or, indeed, any clarity about how these countries are going to grow again, I'm still, you know, much less optimistic about the medium term. So I think for the next few months, it's going to be okay.

It's going to be stagnate and grim and tough, but there isn't going to be a sort of fear of collapse again. But over the sort of two, three, four, five-year horizon, it really depends on whether this recipe of austerity and structural reforms works, and I suspect there has to be a lot more loosening of austerity for it to do so.

MONTAGNE: Zanny Minton Beddoes is economics editor of The Economist magazine, speaking to us from Davos, Switzerland. Thanks very much.

BEDDOES: My pleasure, Renee. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.