Eastern Europe is about to Blow
February 17, 2000
Eastern Europe is about to blow. If it does, it could take much of the EU with it. It's an emergency situation but there are no easy solutions. The IMF doesn't have the resources for a bailout of this size and the recession is spreading faster than relief efforts can be organized. Finance ministers and central bankers are running in circles trying to put out one fire after another. Its only a matter of time before they are overtaken by events. If one country is allowed to default, the dominoes could begin to tumble through the whole region. This could trigger dramatic changes in the political landscape. The rise of fascism is no longer out of the question.
The UK Telegraph's economics editor Edmund Conway sums it up like this:
"A 'second wave' of countries will fall victim to the economic crisis and face being bailed out by the International Monetary Fund, its chief warned at the G7 summit in Rome....But with some countries' economies effectively dwarfed by the size of their banking sector and its financial liabilities, there are fears they could fall victim to balance of payments and currency crises, much as Iceland did before receiving emergency assistance from the IMF last year." (UK Telegraph)
Foreign capital is fleeing at an alarming rate; nearly two-thirds gone in matter of months. Deflation is pushing down asset prices, increasing unemployment, and compounding the debt-burden of financial institutions. It's the same everywhere. The economies are being hollowed out and stripped of capital. Ukraine is teetering on the brink of bankruptcy. Poland, Latvia, Lithuania, Hungary have all slipped into a low-grade depression. The countries that followed Washington's economic regimen have suffered the most. They bet that debt-fueled growth and exports would lead to prosperity. That dream has been shattered. They haven't developed their consumer markets, so demand is weak. Capital is scarce and businesses are being forced to deleverage to avoid default. All of Eastern Europe has gotten a margin call. They need extra funds to cover the falling value of their equity. They need a lifeline from the IMF or their economies will continue to crumble.
The UK Telegraph's economics correspondent Ambrose Evans-Pritchard has written a series of articles about Eastern Europe. In "Failure to save East Europe will lead to Worldwide meltdown" he says:
"Austria's finance minister Josef Pröll made frantic efforts last week to put together a €150bn rescue for the ex-Soviet bloc. Well he might. His banks have lent €230bn to the region, equal to 70pc of Austria's GDP.
"A failure rate of 10pc would lead to the collapse of the Austrian financial sector," reported Der Standard in Vienna. Unfortunately, that is about to happen.
The European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) says bad debts will top 10pc and may reach 20pc....
Stephen Jen, currency chief at Morgan Stanley, said Eastern Europe has borrowed $1.7 trillion abroad, much on short-term maturities. It must repay - or roll over - $400bn this year, equal to a third of the region's GDP. Good luck. The credit window has slammed shut.
Almost all East bloc debts are owed to West Europe, especially Austrian, Swedish, Greek, Italian, and Belgian banks. En plus, Europeans account for an astonishing 74pc of the entire $4.9 trillion portfolio of loans to emerging markets. They are five times more exposed to this latest bust than American or Japanese banks, and they are 50pc more leveraged (IMF data). (Ambrose Evans-Pritchard UK Telegraph)
An economic crisis is quickly turning into a political crisis. Riots have broken out in capitals across Eastern Europe. Mr. Geithner had better be paying attention. The prospects for political upheaval are growing. Public anxiety can spill out onto the streets at a moments notice. Governments must act quickly and with resolve. These countries need hard currency and guarantees of support. If they don't get help, the simmering public fury will turn into something much more lethal.
UK Telegraph's economics correspondent Ambrose Evans-Pritchard:
"Global banks have so far written down half the $2,200bn losses estimated by the IMF. On top of this, EU banks have $1,600bn of exposure to Eastern Europe -- increasingly viewed as Europe's subprime debacle, and EU corporate debts are 95pc of GDP compared to 50pc in the US, a mounting concern as default rates surge.
"It is essential that government support through asset relief should not be on a scale that raises concern about over-indebtedness or financing problems. Such considerations are particularly important in the current context of widening budget deficits, rising public debt levels and challenges in sovereign bond issuance." (UK Telegraph)
It's the same wherever banks merged their commercial and investment branches. Debt has skyrocketed to unsustainable levels destabilizing the entire economy. The banks have been operating like hedge funds, concealing their activities on off-balance sheets operations and maximizing their leverage through opaque debt-instruments. Now the global economy is caught in the downdraft of a collapsing speculative bubble. East Europe has been hit hard, but it's just the first of many bowling pins that will fall. All of Europe has been infected by the same virus which originated on Wall Street. Monday's New York Times summarizes developments in the EU:
"Europe sank even deeper into recession than the United States in the closing months of last year, according to figures published Friday...The economy of the 16 countries sharing the euro currency declined by 1.5 percent in the fourth quarter, (an annualized drop of roughly 6 percent) according to the European Union's statistics office. That is even worse than the 1 percent decline in the United States economy during that period, compared with the previous quarter.
"Today's data wipes out any illusion that the euro zone is getting off lightly in this global downturn," said Jörg Radeke, an economist at the Center for Economics and Business Research in London. ("Europe Slump Deeper than Expected" New york Times)
The "liquidationists" would like to see governments cut off the flow of funds to ailing financial institutions and let them fail by themselves. It's Darwinian madness, like waiting out a heart attack on the kitchen floor instead of rushing to the hospital for emergency care. The global economy is decelerating at the fastest pace on record. 40 percent of global wealth has been wiped out. The banking system is insolvent, unemployment is soaring, tax revenues are falling, the markets are in shock, housing is crashing, deficits are soaring, and consumer confidence is at its lowest point in history. This is no time to cling to half-baked ideology. The global economy is undergoing a massive system-wide contraction which could spin out of control and plunge us into another world war. Political leaders need to grasp the urgency of the moment and keep the vehicle from careening into the ditch.