Depression in Europe?

There seems to be growing optimism in the United States that the economic recovery is picking up steam. This is all fine and good, but I still believe that the major potential bump in the road for the United States is the economic and financial situation in Europe. (See my post of January 4, link).

Now we have the new austerity program passed by the Greek parliament and the unrest in the streets of Greece protesting the austerity program.

But, the new austerity program, at this point, does not end the concern over whether or not this new plan will be sufficient to end the Greek insolvency.

Greece is insolvent.

With the government’s new austerity program, however, Greece will get a new financial bailout. The question now becomes: will this new bailout program buy Greece enough time to get its ship in shape so that it can work its way out of its insolvency?

Some think not. For example, Wolfgang Münchau writes in the Financial Times, “My central expectation is that the program will happen. A period of calm will set in, but after a few months it will become clear the cuts in Greek wages and pensions have worsened the depression…. Before long, another round of haircuts will be beckoning.” (This from the article “Why Greece and Portugal ought to go bankrupt,” link).

There is another problem on the horizon, however, and that is the fact that a new Greek government will be be elected in April. The expected winner at this time is Antonis Samaras. The question is, what will this new government do after it assumes power?

Münchau argues: “I cannot see how this (the bailout) is going to work politically. For a new prime minister who contemplates a full term of four years, the temptation to pull the plug and blame the mess on his predecessors must be big. He will then have four years to rebuild the country from the rubble of a eurozone exit. It would be politically much riskier for him to stick to a program that he himself says does not work, and which will keep his country in a depression for the length of his mandate—possibly beyond.”

And this is exactly the dilemma a “turnaround” leader faces…do I struggle along with the things that were left me…or, do I clean house and start with as clean a slate as possible.

I have successfully completed three corporate turnarounds and to me there is no choice. The nice thing about being brought in to turnaround an organization is that you have a certain time period to blame everything on the previous management and clean house. If you don’t do the house cleaning right up front, however, you lose most of your leverage to change things. The decision is not difficult: you start with as clean a slate as possible. In the case of Greece, then, declare bankruptcy.

Greece is insolvent. “To rebuild itself, Greece needs a functioning economic infrastructure, a modern labor market, and a less tribal political system.” It also needs less corruption throughout its culture.

This is not the only set of problems that Greece…and Europe…faces. New data on the economies of Europe coming out this week are expected to be rather dismal. The forecasts for the fourth quarter GDP of the eurozone run from a 0.4 percent to a 0.6 percent contraction. These figures include the fact that even Germany seems to be in a decline. Industrial production figures for December are also to be released this week and some analysts see a decline in this measure of more than one percent. (link)

There is some feeling that the first quarter of 2012 may find growth in positive numbers, but not by much. Germany and others may experience some kind of recovery then, but the southern peripheral countries are not expected to start growing again for some time. And, with unemployment in excess of twenty percent in some of these countries and continued government austerity, 2012 prospects remain quite gloomy.

The next question, though, is where the pressure will be applied next. Münchau contends that Portugal is also bankrupt and should follow Greece in declaring bankruptcy. Will the international investors now turn their attention to Portugal? I wouldn’t be surprised.

Countries…businesses…individuals…do not resolve their financial difficulties until they resolve them. Continued bailouts only tend to postpone a final solution. They very seldom correct the insolvency that is causing the problem.

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About John Mason 79 Articles

Professional history: Banking--President and CEO of two publically traded financial institutions; Executive Vice President and CFO of another. Academic--Professor at Penn State University and at the Finance Department, Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania. Government--Special Assistant to Secretary George Romney at Department of Housing and Urban Development; Senior Economist in Federal Reserve System. Entrepreneurial--work in venture capital and other private equity; work with young entrepreneurs in urban environment.

Visit: Mase: Economics and Finance

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