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Highlights are in yellow. Problem is it needs a fiscal response, and this all has nothing to do with interest rates.

Banking crash hits Europe as ECB loses traction


by Ambrose Evans-Pritchard

(Telegraph) Analysts say German finance minister Peer Steinbrueck may have spoken too soon when he crowed last week that the US would lose its status as a superpower as a result of this crisis. He told Der Spiegel yesterday that we are “all staring into the abyss.”

Germany — over-leveraged to Asian demand for machine tools, and Mid-East and Russian demand for luxury cars — is perhaps in equally deep trouble, though of a different kind.

The combined crises at both Fortis and Dexia have sent tremors through Belgium, which is already traumatized by political civil war between the Flemings and Walloons. Fortis is Belgium’s the biggest private employer.

It is unclear whether the country has the resources to bail out two banks with liabilities that dwarf the economy if the crisis deepens, although a joint intervention by the Netherlands and Luxembourg to rescue Fortis has helped Belgium share the risk. Together the three states put E11.2 billion to buy Fortis stock.

This tripartite model is unlikely to work so well in others parts of Europe, since Benelux already operates as a closely linked team. The EU lacks a single treasury to take charge in a fast-moving crisis, leaving a patchwork of regulators and conflicting agendas.

Carsten Brzenski, chief economist at ING in Brussels, said the global crisis was now engulfing Europe with devastating speed.

We are at imminent risk of a credit crunch. Key markets are not functioning properly. The Europeans thought the sub-prime crisis was just American rubbish that the US should clean up itself, but now they are finding out that it is their rubbish too,” he said.

Data from the International Monetary Fund shows that European banks hold 75 percent as much exposure to toxic US housing debt as US banks themselves. Moreover they have mounting bad debts from the British, Spanish, French, Dutch, Scandinavian, and East European housing markets, where property bubbles reached even more extreme levels that in the US.

The interest spread between Italian 10-year bonds and German Bunds have ballooned to 92 basis points, the highest since the launch of the euro. Bond traders warn that the spreads are starting to reflect a serious risk of European Monetary Union breakup and could spiral out of control in a self-feeding effect.

As the eurozone slides into recession, the ECB is coming under intense criticism for keeping monetary policy too tight. The decision to raise rates into the teeth of the crisis in July has been slammed as overkill by the political leaders in France, Spain, and Italy.

Mr Sarkozy has called an emergency meeting of the EU’s big five powers next week to fashion a response to the crisis.

Half of the ECB’s shadow council have called for a rate cut this week, insisting that the German-led bloc of ECB governors have overstated the inflation risk caused by the oil spike earlier this year.

Jacques Cailloux, Europe economist at RBS, said the hawks had won a Pyrrhic victory by imposing their hardline monetary edicts on Europe. “They have won a battle but lost the war. The July decision will hardly go down in history books as a great policy decision,” he said.


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