Unemployment is a staggering problem in Eurozone countries that are at the core of the debt crisis. Spain’s jobless rate jumped to 22.8%. Among 16-24 year-olds, it’s an unimaginable 51.4%. In Greece, youth unemployment reached 46.6%. In Portugal, it’s 30.7%, in Italy 30.1%. But highly educated young people are leaving in massive numbers—with harsh long-term consequences for their heavily indebted countries.
Apparently, Charles Plosser, president of the Philadelphia Fed, failed to check with his handlers when he said that the Fed might have to raise interest rates later this year—from practically zero to almost zero, I guess—though just last Thursday, the Fed had announced the extension of its zero-interest-rate policy through late 2014. The umpteenth extension since 2009. Now, the economy is addicted to free money, and the damage is severe.
Tokyo, April 1996. I sit on my tatami, Japanese textbook in my lap. Mr. Song is starting his morning routine—cooking rice, chopping veggies, and frying meat. Mr. Kim emerges from the toilet and turns on the TV. But before he sits down to watch it, which he does every morning to improve his listening comprehension, he makes one step toward my tatami and stops at the edge.
Hope is pervading the media that an agreement might be reached between Greece and private sector investors on a debt swap, maybe even this weekend, though everyone is hobnobbing at the World Economic Forum in Davos where all sorts of things have already been said and leaked between drinks. But now a horrible sign has appeared: German individual investors are gobbling up Greek sovereign bonds.
In her speech at the World Economic Forum, Chancellor Angela Merkel warned that Germany might be overwhelmed by its efforts to bail out the Eurozone. Germany must not make promises that it can’t keep, she said. It doesn't make sense to demand a doubling or tripling of Germany's contribution. "How long will that remain credible?" she asked. That reluctance has made Germany a favorite punching bag. And yet the numbers are staggering.
We finally have statistical proof that CEOs are ... a confusing bunch. PWC’s survey shows that CEOs in 60 countries are exhibiting signs of gloom about the economy but not their own companies. German CEOs, facing the Eurozone debt crisis on a daily basis, aren’t feeling the pain, according to Ifo’s indices. The Empire State Manufacturing Survey points at spiking optimism. And all three show patterns of false hope.
"The case of Greece is hopeless," Otmar Issing said today. He should know. He was a member of the Executive Board of the Bundesbank and of the Governing Council of the ECB. Another substantive voice in an increasingly loud chorus. But it’s legally impossible to kick Greece out of the Eurozone. So he suggested a procedure—a procedure that has been happening all along.
Treasury Secretary “Hank” Paulson was the trailblazer with his proposal for TARP in September 2008. He went to the Congress with a list of demands—unlimited powers to hand unlimited amounts of taxpayer money to whomever—and threatened that the whole world would collapse if his demands weren’t met. It worked. So Greek prime ministers imitated him. And now Christine Lagarde, managing director at the IMF, tried it too.
Tokyo, April 1996. I scour the alleys of the entertainment quarter of Takadanobaba for love hotels but still don’t know what to look for. Instead, I find a business hotel for the underlings of Japan Inc. It’s modern and impeccable. The rate is reasonable, and so I book a room for tonight. I’m elated, having accomplished something on my own. I’ll spend the night with Izumi. The logistics are in place.
There still are some economic numbers that aren’t seasonally adjusted or manipulated with fancy statistical footwork by governmental, quasi-governmental, or non-governmental number mongers. And they give us the true picture of the worldwide economy: beer, wine, mood, and San Francisco real estate—with more predictive power than is allowed by law.
Two central bank governors in Europe have gotten into hot water recently: Philipp Hildebrand, as chairman of the Swiss National Bank; and Ewald Nowotny, governor of the Austrian National Bank and member of the ECB’s governing council. Hildebrand resigned after he tried to brush off an insider-trading scandal that is still making headlines; Nowotny is clinging to his jobs though he is tangled up in a bribery, kickback, and money-laundering scandal. But finally a major politician called for his resignation.
The Costa Concordia was launched on September 2, 2005, with a mishap that back then didn't mean anything: the champagne bottle thrown against its hull didn't break. But on January 13, at 10 pm, the mega cruise ship hit a reef near the small island of Giglio, off the coast of the Tuscany. So far, 11 bodies have been found and 23 people are still missing.
Satellite image by Digital Globe
Supercar enthusiasts went into a tizzy when Honda announced that it would bring its Acura NSX back to life. Design and manufacturing would be shifted from Japan to Ohio. And much of the production would be exported. It won’t add much volume to Honda’s production, but it will be a technology showcase. And a precursor that the math of manufacturing in America is changing.
“The fact that we profit massively from the euro doesn’t mean we have to accept every political horse-trade to save the common currency,” said Anton Börner, president of Germany's Association of Exporters—a swipe at the Italian prime minister who’d demanded that Germany dig deeper into its pockets to reduce the debt burden of other countries, such as, well, Italy. When the German industrial elite talks about exiting the Eurozone....
After they were downgraded in early August, US government bonds gained upward momentum and yields fell. Japan, which has danced the downgrade tango for years, is contemplating the next step, from AA- to A+, yet 10-year Japanese Government Bonds are yielding below 1%. Downgrades of sovereign bonds of developed countries make good headlines, but the impact on bond markets has been nil. With one exception: the Eurozone.
Tokyo, April 1996. Our fingers laced together, we mosey from the Imperial Palace through Hibiya Park to Ginza’s shopping avenues. She picks a café on the second floor, and we settle into Viennese-coffeehouse armchairs by a floor-to-ceiling window. I’m the only male in the place. On the menu, only the prices are legible.
On January 9, I posted The Systemic Nature of Medicare Fraud—“the kind of Medicare fraud that makes your skin crawl.” On January 10, I received an email from the Chief of Staff at Alvarado Hospital. He strongly objected to this sentence: “Its Alvarado Hospital Medical Center in San Diego already appears to be under investigation.” And it kicked off a learning process.
Consumer optimism has been rising from the morose multi-year low in August and has reached levels not seen since, well, May. It whipped hope into a froth. Rising confidence would pump up consumer spending, which would pump up everything else. But the inexplicable American consumer, the toughest creature out there that no one has been able to subdue yet, had other plans.
Austerity measures are taking their daily toll on Greece. Suicides and attempted suicides have jumped by 22.5%. Unemployment rose to 18.2%. Pharmacies are having difficulties obtaining medications. More cuts are coming. If there is no agreement with the bailout Troika, Greece will default in March. But now, even the Troika is in disarray.
150 factory workers in China threatened to jump off the roof of an iPhone factory unless they received a raise. Similar stories are accumulating. To make ends meet, desperate workers sometimes take drastic measures. These anecdotes underscore a major trend in China: skyrocketing cost of labor. But in the US, it’s the opposite—and now part of the official White House strategy.