This article was sent to me by my friend Richard. It is sobering to say the least, and a good example of how delicate the balance is between the nation states of the world. If only the church had been using such sober musings and analysis as calls to prayer in earlier times......
By Ambrose Evans-Pritchard
Last Updated: 2:05AM GMT 15 Feb 2009
Failure to save East Europe will lead to worldwide meltdown
The unfolding debt drama in Russia, Ukraine, and the EU states of
Eastern Europe has reached acute danger point.
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If mishandled by the world policy establishment, this debacle is big
enough to shatter the fragile banking systems of Western Europe and
set off round two of our financial Götterdämmerung.
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
"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. The Vienna press said Bank
Austria and its Italian owner Unicredit face a "monetary Stalingrad"
in the East.
Mr Pröll tried to drum up support for his rescue package from EU
finance ministers in Brussels last week. The idea was scotched by
Germany's Peer Steinbrück. Not our problem, he said. We'll see about
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.
Not even Russia can easily cover the $500bn dollar debts of its
oligarchs while oil remains near $33 a barrel. The budget is based on
Urals crude at $95. Russia has bled 36pc of its foreign reserves since
August defending the rouble.
"This is the largest run on a currency in history," said Mr Jen.
In Poland, 60pc of mortgages are in Swiss francs. The zloty has just
halved against the franc. Hungary, the Balkans, the Baltics, and
Ukraine are all suffering variants of this story. As an act of
collective folly – by lenders and borrowers – it matches America's sub-
prime debacle. There is a crucial difference, however. European banks
are on the hook for both. US banks are not.
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).
Spain is up to its neck in Latin America, which has belatedly joined
the slump (Mexico's car output fell 51pc in January, and Brazil lost
650,000 jobs in one month). Britain and Switzerland are up to their
necks in Asia.
Whether it takes months, or just weeks, the world is going to discover
that Europe's financial system is sunk, and that there is no EU
Federal Reserve yet ready to act as a lender of last resort or to
flood the markets with emergency stimulus.
Under a "Taylor Rule" analysis, the European Central Bank already
needs to cut rates to zero and then purchase bonds and Pfandbriefe on
a huge scale. It is constrained by geopolitics – a German-Dutch veto –
and the Maastricht Treaty.
But I digress. It is East Europe that is blowing up right now. Erik
Berglof, EBRD's chief economist, told me the region may need €400bn in
help to cover loans and prop up the credit system.
Europe's governments are making matters worse. Some are pressuring
their banks to pull back, undercutting subsidiaries in East Europe.
Athens has ordered Greek banks to pull out of the Balkans.
The sums needed are beyond the limits of the IMF, which has already
bailed out Hungary, Ukraine, Latvia, Belarus, Iceland, and Pakistan –
and Turkey next – and is fast exhausting its own $200bn (€155bn)
reserve. We are nearing the point where the IMF may have to print
money for the world, using arcane powers to issue Special Drawing
Its $16bn rescue of Ukraine has unravelled. The country – facing a
12pc contraction in GDP after the collapse of steel prices – is
hurtling towards default, leaving Unicredit, Raffeisen and ING in the
lurch. Pakistan wants another $7.6bn. Latvia's central bank governor
has declared his economy "clinically dead" after it shrank 10.5pc in
the fourth quarter. Protesters have smashed the treasury and stormed
"This is much worse than the East Asia crisis in the 1990s," said Lars
Christensen, at Danske Bank.
"There are accidents waiting to happen across the region, but the EU
institutions don't have any framework for dealing with this. The day
they decide not to save one of these one countries will be the trigger
for a massive crisis with contagion spreading into the EU."
Europe is already in deeper trouble than the ECB or EU leaders ever
expected. Germany contracted at an annual rate of 8.4pc in the fourth
If Deutsche Bank is correct, the economy will have shrunk by nearly
9pc before the end of this year. This is the sort of level that stokes
The implications are obvious. Berlin is not going to rescue Ireland,
Spain, Greece and Portugal as the collapse of their credit bubbles
leads to rising defaults, or rescue Italy by accepting plans for EU
"union bonds" should the debt markets take fright at the rocketing
trajectory of Italy's public debt (hitting 112pc of GDP next year,
just revised up from 101pc – big change), or rescue Austria from its
So we watch and wait as the lethal brush fires move closer.
If one spark jumps across the eurozone line, we will have global
systemic crisis within days. Are the firemen ready?