Europe's debt shaded by cost of managing it
Afew thousand anti-austerity protesters milled around outside in freezing conditions in Brussels early on Friday our time as the president of Europe's peak body emerged from yet another sovereign debt summit to summarise how the crisis has changed, and what the biggest threat to Europe and the world's markets now is.
The European Council that Herman Van Rompuy heads counts the heads of the European Union nations as members and, after the first day of a two-day meeting, Van Rompuy made it as clear as someone in his position is ever likely to make it that Europe's most pressing problem now is not its sovereign debt mountain, but the price that has been paid to attack it.
The global market rally that began halfway through last year after European Central Bank president Mario Draghi said the ECB would, if necessary, step into the market to swamp bond market selling and keep yields on Spanish and Italian bonds below critical levels, is powered by a belief that Draghi has defused the crisis. In fact, he has only defused a market-initiated crisis.
Van Rompuy said the focus of the meeting was Europe's bleak economic prospects. There was "growing social distress", he said, and "mounting frustrations and even despair" on the street.
He said Europe's leaders still believed that there were four key tasks: to restore and maintain Europe's financial stability, rehabilitate public finances, fight unemployment, and to introduce reforms that can reignite Europe's long-term growth and competitiveness.
Growth and jobs were, however, "not things governments can buy or summon", Van Rompuy said. The four tasks had to be simultaneously addressed, and "the question is finding a good balance, setting priorities, making the right choices".
EU nations needed to introduce spending cuts and structural reforms "where it makes us fitter", he said, but they should not cut away economic muscle in crucial areas including education and innovation, and also launch "fast-acting and targeted measures to boost growth and employment, particularly for the youth".
This is already happening, to an extent. Spain's Prime Minister, Mariano Rajoy, this week unveiled a raft of initiatives worth €3.5 billion ($A4.3 billion) over four years including tax breaks for companies that employ young workers.
The question that is being debated increasingly actively inside the EU is whether enough is being done. Job queues in Spain and almost everywhere in Europe, with the exception of Germany, are dangerously high and still growing.
Data released this month showed that employment in the 17 nation euro area fell by 0.3 per cent in the December quarter and by 0.7 per cent in 2012. Employment in Spain fell by 4.5 per cent and the unemployment rate in Spain in January was 26.2 per cent: Spain's youth unemployment rate is 55 per cent.
Employment in Greece, Portugal, Italy, France Denmark, Belgium, the Netherlands and Finland also fell in 2012, and unemployment across the euro area climbed from 10.8 per cent to 11.9 per cent in the year to January. The unemployment rate in Greece is about 27 per cent. In France it is 10.6 per cent and in Italy is 11.7 per cent.
Germany does not directly face the problem of social and political unrest over unemployment. Its unemployment rate fell from 5.6 per cent to 5.3 per cent in the year to January. Its insistence on fiscal austerity for more indebted members of the European Union is coming under stronger attack after Italy's rejection of austerity policies at the polls last month.
Ahead of the latest summit, French President Francoise Hollande announced that France's budget this year would be for a deficit of about 3.7 per cent of gross domestic product, above a target of 3 per cent that it previously undertook to meet.
Germany's top banker, Bundesbank president Jens Weidmann, responded by saying that economic reform appeared to have "floundered" in France, but Hollande went into the summit arguing that the time to finesse Germany's "austerity first" strategy for Europe had arrived.
"We need flexibility," he said. "The only priority right now, aside from the budgetary commitments, is growth, too much rigidity would mean too much unemployment."
On his first stint on the rostrum after the first day of the summit, Van Rompuy seemed to be on the same page. Narrower credit market spreads and improved balance of payments numbers were "economically crucial", he said, but "are of little comfort to people who fear losing their job or struggle to find one ... unemployment, especially youth unemployment, was at the heart of our discussions".
Hollande could only agree and a draft communique circulating on the first day of the summit seemed to also be signalling a change, at least in the strength of pro-growth, pro-jobs rhetoric: it talked, as these communiques usually do, of an "appropriate mix" of fiscal measures but went on to specifically nominate "short-term targeted measures" to boost growth and jobs.
Summits come and summits go in Europe and, for the time being, Draghi's announcement in mid-2012 to do what it takes to defend Italian and Spanish sovereign bond yields is working.
Quite possibly the latest meeting will end with there being no obvious sign of an easing of the attack on debt and a heavier shift to growth-oriented policies.
The markets would for a time look for other leads, including moves to rescue Cyprus. That deal is small in financial terms at about €17 billion, but complicated by the role banks in Cyprus have played as a shelter for deposits from Russian oligarchs.
It's the political tension that rising unemployment in Europe is creating that is the crux for the markets this year, however.
An attack on the Spanish or Italian bond markets that tests Draghi's resolve could still happen if there is escalating social unrest about unemployment.
Somewhat paradoxically, it could also be mounted if the debt reduction drive were too heavily compromised.
It's a balancing act, as Van Rompuy observed. Investors will have to wait and see if the weights are shifting in light of Europe's failure to create jobs, as they should.