Are the ratings agencies doing us a favour?

At every stage of this crisis, action has been forced on politicians by the markets.

James Carville, Bill Clinton's pugnacious chief of staff, once said that, if he were to be re-incarnated, he would like to come back as "the bond market because then you can threaten anyone". With Europe's capitals still reeling from the decision by Standard & Poor's to downgrade the credit rating of nine eurozone countries, he might consider reincarnation as a rating agency instead.

In the European Parliament last week, German conservative Elmar Brok accused S&P of having "declared a currency war against us" and was widely applauded. Many rightly question the legitimacy of the power wielded by the big three rating agencies -- S&P, Moody's and Fitch -- which can effectively hold countries to ransom particularly as they were responsible for awarding AAA ratings to the asset backed securities made up of sub-prime mortgage loans which caused the 2008-9 crisis. Such is the herd behaviour of financial markets that a decision to downgrade a country's rating is taken as gospel truth, with the result that a nation's borrowing costs go up, putting a further squeeze on their public finances.

S&P's bombshell was merely the latest overreaction by the markets to the sovereign debt crisis -- Spain and Cyprus suffered a two notch hit despite having, like France, a far better debt and deficit situation than the UK - but it scarcely came as a surprise. Although there was cautious optimism early in the month when Spain and Italy managed successful bond auctions with the interest rate falling to its lowest level since last summer, rumours about a mass downgrade by the ratings agency were doing the rounds before Christmas.

But while "Black Friday" moved the condition of the eurozone -- as well as the rest of the EU including the UK -- from serious to critical, the political symbolism of S&P's move was as important as its implications for Europe's economies.

This is because while it is right to question the illegitimate power of the rating agencies, and their role in creating and then deepening the current crisis, it is the failure of Europe's supine political leaders that has ceded control over economic policy from democratically elected governments to rating agencies and the bond markets. For all their protestations about US rating agencies declaring war on the euro the reality is that Brok's boss, Angela Merkel's pursuit of a masochistic and fundamentally unworkable monetary policy is, in large part, responsible for S&P's decision.

In fact -- though it pains me to say it -- the rating agencies are actually doing us a favour. At every stage of this crisis action has been forced on politicians. For example, in early 2010 Merkel and most other EU leaders promised that there would never be an EU bail-out fund. Then market pressure meant that, in May 2010, the European Financial Stability Facility was created. Then they said that there would never be a permanent bail-out fund. In spring 2011 the EU treaties were amended to set up the European Stability Mechanism. Apparently there would never be a hair-cut on Greek debt. The December EU summit offered a 50 per cent right-down of Greek debt which is now being concluded between the Greeks and bond-holders. We have gradually edged towards sensible crisis-resolution not thanks to politicians but because of the financial markets.

Moreover, before we rush to condemn the markets, we should also remember that the departure (finally) of Italy's oft-disgraced but indefatigable leader Silvio Berlusconi was brought about not by one of his many scandals but because yields on Italian debt were spiralling out of control. To misquote the Sun: It was the bond market wot done it.

We are, of course, treading on very dangerous ground when unaccountable markets or neighbouring governments are able to force out elected governments but is there some truth to the idea that the debt crisis is too important to be left to politicians?

Last October Luxembourg's Prime Minister Jean Claude-Juncker came out with the phrase that defines the political response to the crisis thus far. "We all know what to do, we just don't know how to get re-elected after we've done it," he said. It's a remark that is both infuriating, but accurate. I suspect that even Merkel and Sarkozy know that their beloved fiscal compact treaty, with its rigid budget discipline, is at best a diversion and at worst a complete waste of time. The prospect of either of them admitting this before their respective elections is extremely remote. The real solution for the euro area -- which will inevitably involve a large dose of money-printing by the ECB and common Eurobonds alongside stricter rules on budgetary discipline, and possibly the exit of several countries -- seems to be too frightening a prospect for politicians to dare mention it.

But Europe's political leaders need to decide, and quickly, if they have the balls to take the difficult and unpopular decisions that are necessary if the euro is to survive and the European economy to recover. If they choose inertia then the rating agencies and bond markets will continue to decide for them. And as for those who worry about Juncker's dictum, the demise of Berlusconi should carry a salutary warning: the markets don't care if you won the last election, if you can't govern, you're a goner.

Ben Fox is chairman of GMB Brussels and political adviser to the Socialist vice-president of economic and monetary affairs.

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Why Angela Merkel's comments about the UK and US shouldn't be given too much weight

The Chancellor's comments are aimed at a domestic and European audience, and she won't be abandoning Anglo-German relationships just yet.

Angela Merkel’s latest remarks do not seem well-judged but should not be given undue significance. Speaking as part of a rally in Munich for her sister party, the CSU, the German Chancellor claimed “we Europeans must really take our own fate into our hands”.

The comments should be read in the context of September's German elections and Merkel’s determination to restrain the fortune of her main political rival, Martin Schulz – obviously a strong Europhile and a committed Trump critic. Sigmar Gabriel - previously seen as a candidate to lead the left-wing SPD - has for some time been pressing for Germany and Europe to have “enough self-confidence” to stand up to Trump. He called for a “self-confident position, not just on behalf of us Germans but all Europeans”. Merkel is in part responding to this pressure.

Her words were well received by her audience. The beer hall crowd erupted into sustained applause. But taking an implicit pop at Donald Trump is hardly likely to be a divisive tactic at such a gathering. Criticising the UK post-Brexit and the US under Trump is the sort of virtue signalling guaranteed to ensure a good clap.

It’s not clear that the comments represent that much of a new departure, as she herself has since claimed. She said something similar earlier this year. In January, after the publication of Donald Trump’s interview with The Times and Bild, she said that “we Europeans have our fate in our own hands”.

At one level what Merkel said is something of a truism: in two year’s time Britain will no longer be directly deciding the fate of the EU. In future no British Prime Minister will attend the European Council, and British MEPs will leave the Parliament at the next round of European elections in 2019. Yet Merkel’s words “we Europeans”, conflate Europe and the EU, something she has previously rejected. Back in July last year, at a joint press conference with Theresa May, she said: “the UK after all remains part of Europe, if not of the Union”.

At the same press conference, Merkel also confirmed that the EU and the UK would need to continue to work together. At that time she even used the first person plural to include Britain, saying “we have certain missions also to fulfil with the rest of the world” – there the ‘we’ meant Britain and the EU, now the 'we' excludes Britain.

Her comments surely also mark a frustration born of difficulties at the G7 summit over climate change, but Britain and Germany agreed at the meeting in Sicily on the Paris Accord. More broadly, the next few months will be crucial for determining the future relationship between Britain and the EU. There will be many difficult negotiations ahead.

Merkel is widely expected to remain the German Chancellor after this autumn’s election. As the single most powerful individual in the EU27, she is the most crucial person in determining future relations between the UK and the EU. Indeed, to some extent, it was her intransigence during Cameron’s ‘renegotiation’ which precipitated Brexit itself. She also needs to watch with care growing irritation across the EU at the (perceived) extent of German influence and control over the institutions and direction of the European project. Recent reports in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung which suggested a Merkel plan for Jens Weidmann of the Bundesbank to succeed Mario Draghi at the ECB have not gone down well across southern Europe. For those critics, the hands controlling the fate of Europe are Merkel’s.

Brexit remains a crucial challenge for the EU. How the issue is handled will shape the future of the Union. Many across Europe’s capitals are worried that Brussels risks driving Britain further away than Brexit will require; they are worried lest the Channel becomes metaphorically wider and Britain turns its back on the continent. On the UK side, Theresa May has accepted the EU, and particularly Merkel’s, insistence, that there can be no cherry picking, and therefore she has committed to leaving the single market as well as the EU. May has offered a “deep and special” partnership and a comprehensive free trading arrangement. Merkel should welcome Britain’s clarity. She must work with new French President Emmanuel Macron and others to lead the EU towards a new relationship with Britain – a close partnership which protects free trade, security and the other forms of cooperation which benefit all Europeans.

Henry Newman is the director of Open Europe. He tweets @henrynewman.

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