Euro zone nightmare: The turn of Germany?
Two different signs today that the euro zone's bulwark against catastrophe - Germany - may be in trouble itself.
First, Reuters on the "disastrous" German bond sale:
A "disastrous" German bond sale on Wednesday sparked fears that Europe's debt crisis was even beginning to threaten Berlin, with the leaders of the euro zone's two strongest economies still firmly at odds over a longer-term structural solution.
Financial markets were also unnerved by newspaper reports that Belgium may be pressing France for an expansion of a 90 billion euro ($120 billion) bailout of failed bank Dexia.
On top of this, a special report by Fitch Ratings suggested France had limited room left to absorb shocks to its finances like a new downturn in growth or support for banks without endangering its cherished AAA credit status.
After one of the least successful debt sales by Europe's powerhouse economy since the launch of the single currency, the euro fell and European shares sank to 7-week lows.
The Bundesbank was forced to retain almost half of a sale of 6 billion euros due to a shortage of bids by investors. The result pushed the cost of borrowing over 10 years for the bloc's paymaster above those for the United States for the first time since October.
"It is a complete and utter disaster," said Marc Ostwald, strategist at Monument Securities in London.
The premiums are not in crisis territory - yet. But Germany has other problems with its finances, including a poor GDP to debt ratio and an unwillingness to cut their budget deficit.
But it is debatable how much longer Germany can be seen as a refuge of stability and security. In reality, German government finances are not nearly in as good shape as the chancellor and the finance minister would have us believe. The way that certain important indices are developing suggests that Germany may not retain its position as a role model in the long term. Government debt as a percentage of GDP is already at more than 80 percent, which compared to other European Union countries is by no means exemplary, but in fact average at best.
When it comes to their debt-to-GDP ratios, even ailing countries like Spain are in better shape, with values significantly lower than 80 percent. Critics, irritated by Merkel's and Schäuble's overly confident rhetoric, are beginning to find fault with Europe's self-proclaimed model country. "I think that the level of German debt is troubling," says Luxembourg Prime Minister Jean-Claude Juncker, whose country has a debt-to-GDP ratio of just 20 percent.
Despite the nascent criticism, Merkel and Schäuble will be patting themselves on the back once again at this week's final debate on the 2012 federal budget in the Bundestag, the German parliament. They will point out that Germany is in much better shape than its partners in the euro zone, not to mention the United States. They will also praise conditions in the labor market, rising tax revenues and the declining budget deficit.
It is certainly true that Schäuble expects the German deficit to decline from 1.3 percent of GDP this year to less than 1 percent next year. But it's none of his doing. In fact, he wants to incur more debt next year than in 2011. It is only state and local governments that are slated to borrow less next year, thereby helping to reduce Germany's deficit. In contrast, Schäuble expects €26 billion ($35 billion) in net new borrowing in 2012, an increase of several billion euros over this year.
The debt "contagion" in Europe seems to have an unanticipated symptom that is affecting even the healthiest of economies; denial. France and Germany better sober up soon and come to a long term agreement on the fate of the euro or there will be nowhere left to hide when the hurricane makes landfall.