The Long Memory of “The Sick Man of Europe”

Wolf Richter

It’s astounding just how distorted the coverage of Germany’s role in some grand Eurozone bailout scheme has been—well, at least in the English-speaking mainstream media. Time after time, we’re confronted with the inanest headlines and reports that place German politicians, and particularly Chancellor Angela Merkel, on some kind of invisible verge where they will suddenly, and under tremendous international pressure, come to their senses and ... blink.

And by blinking, Germany would agree to, guarantee, and fund all the panaceas regularly trotted out by those that need them, particularly Spain, Italy, and now loudest of all, due to its shaky megabanks, France. The lasted blast came from the Wall Street Journal where Berlin Blinks on Shared Debt. Others regurgitated it, including MarketWatch. Yet, it contradicted everything that either German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble or Chancellor Merkel had ever been quoted saying in the German press. And indeed, not much later, a spokesman at the Ministry of Finance made it clear, once again: “This is not true,” he said.

In addition to Eurobonds, the basket of panaceas includes other forms of “mutualization” of debt, a Eurozone-wide banking union with the power to bail out banks with taxpayer or ECB funds, a similarly endowed modified version of the still non-existing ESM bailout fund, and an ECB that can buy even the crappiest sovereign bonds of the most bankrupt Eurozone countries to keep them afloat another day (similar to the Fed and its purchases of treasuries and other securities).

But the 17-member Eurozone isn’t a country. It’s but a monetary union within a 27-member free-trade block. And any mutualization of debt would simply transfer financial responsibility from those who spend to those who end up having to pay for it, without any kind of reciprocal control. Even in the US, California can’t shuffle off its pile of debt and its never-ending deficits—though it’s supposed to have a balanced budget—to the Federal Government and its taxpayers. So why should Spain be able to shuffle off its debt to taxpayers in other countries?

That’s how it’s seen in Germany—where Eurobonds are despised by 79% of the people. The ESM, which continues to be pushed by Merkel, has been running the gauntlet ranging from street demonstrations to the Federal Constitutional Court, where it is currently hung up. It should have been ratified by July 1, and while it is likely to get through the process with some delay, any steps beyond it, such as Eurobonds, are considered unconstitutional.

But as if all these reasons still weren’t good enough, George Dorgan—a portfolio manager based in Switzerland—has put his finger on another powerful reason:

The first full-blown bailout Germany undertook, namely the integration of East Germany (only 17 million people), caused the German debt to nearly triple from €430 billion in 1989 to €1,200 billion in 1999, a decade during which even the US managed to reduce its debt for a couple of years. Germany greatly underestimated the integration costs. It led the country into a long phase of slow growth till 2006; and still now the west pays subsidies to the east. Spain, Italy, Portugal, Ireland, Cyprus, and Greece might be better developed than the former communist GDR. But they count over 100 million people and might need even more time to adjust than the 20 years the former Eastern Germans needed.

Merkel hails from former East Germany and experienced firsthand how difficult the adjustment has been for East Germans—and how expensive for West Germans. Reunification wasn’t only funded by debt that will be around for generations, but also by a special income tax, the Solidaritätszuschlag—lovingly called Soli—introduced in 1991. And it’s still around as well. As George points out, the entire period until 2006 was tough on Germany—by then “the sick man of Europe.” That's what it took to bail out a country of 17 million people, raise the standard of living, and make its industries competitive in a globalized economy.

Bailing out in this manner the growing stable of Eurozone countries will be beyond the feasible. As with East Germany, costs will be underestimated, but will then balloon for years or decades. Merkel knows that. Hence her limits on how far Germany would be willing to go.

But the beleaguered Chancellor just can’t catch a break. She has already committed hundreds of billions of taxpayer euros to propping up collapsing countries. In return, she wants them to live within their means and restructure their economies so that the bailouts wouldn’t have to continue for years. For that, she got tossed into the Axis of Evil. And then the Swiss Minister of Defense spoke up. Read..... “You Can Lose Freedom Only Once.”

“These hordes of Eurocrats should be summarily fired and their agencies totally abolished,” said Doug Casey during a pungent interview. Governments in the EU “are all bankrupt,” and Europeans “will be indentured servants of the Chinese.” Europe is like a skydiver, and if they pull the bailout ripcord, “they’ll find there’s no chute… just a bunch of dirty laundry their economists packed as a joke.” Read.... A Eurocrash Is Baked in the Cake.