Be Afraid

20111001_LDP002_1 In the Economist:

IN DARK days, people naturally seek glimmers of hope. So it was that financial markets, long battered by the ever-worsening euro crisis, rallied early this week amid speculation that Europe’s leaders had been bullied by the rest of the world into at last putting together a “big plan” to save the single currency. Investors ventured out from safe-haven bonds into riskier assets. Stock prices jumped: those of embattled French banks soared by almost 20% in just two days.

But those hopes are likely to fade, for three reasons. First, for all the breathless headlines from the IMF/World Bank meetings in Washington, DC, Europe’s leaders are a long way from a deal on how to save the euro. The best that can be said is that they now have a plan to have a plan, probably by early November. Second, even if a catastrophe in Europe is avoided, the prospects for the world economy are darkening, as the rich world’s fiscal austerity intensifies and slowing emerging economies provide less of a cushion for global growth. Third, America’s politicians are, once again, threatening to wreck the recovery with irresponsible fiscal brinkmanship. Together, these developments point to a perilous period ahead.

Most of the blame for this should be heaped on the leaders of the euro zone, still the biggest immediate danger. The doom-laden lectures from the Americans and others in Washington last week did achieve something: Europe’s policymakers now recognise that more must be done. They are, at last, focusing on the right priorities: building a firewall around illiquid but solvent countries like Italy; bolstering Europe’s banks; and dealing far more decisively with Greece. The idea is to have a plan in place by the Cannes summit of the G20 in early November.

That, however, is a long time to wait—and the Europeans still disagree vehemently about how to do any of this.