Shelving Austerity for Growth Poses Big Risks in Europe

The pendulum doesn’t normally swing this fast.

In a matter of a few short months, Europe has swung from a continent burdened by debt and consumed by the idea of austerity as a means of sharply reducing the cost of government to a continent sill laden by debt but now consumed by growth.

Voters on Sunday made clear in elections in France, Greece and Germany that they’ve had enough austerity. No more layoffs, no more pay cuts, no more scaled-back benefits.

Instead, the French voters who threw out incumbent President Nicolas Sarkozy in favor of Socialist Francoise Hollande and the Greek and German voters who supported anti-austerity parties in national and local elections are seeking something far more nebulous than mandated budget cuts: sustainable economic growth.

“The problem is, while we are now looking at ‘growth’ as a solution, that’s highly likely to disappoint,” said Peter Tchir, a founder of TF Market Advisors in Connecticut.

Tchir said austerity measures drafted and approved in recent months for debt-addled European nations, usually as part of a bailout agreement with the International Monetary Fund, the European Union and the European Central Bank, “attempted to be good for the economy.”

Tchir is skeptical that shifting that strategy 180 degrees virtually overnight will benefit Europe or global markets.

“There are no magic bullets,” he said. “Growth will fail and we are back to having too much debt.”

Global stock markets took a dim view of the European about-face. European markets fell and the S&P 500, Dow Jones Industrial average and Nasdaq stock market were all lower in mid-day trading.


Dan Greenhaus, chief global strategist at BTIG, explained why the European elections left investors skittish. In Greece, he noted, the political parties that fared surprisingly well with voters in parliamentary elections reject outright the austerity proposals demanded as part of a bailout deal negotiated for Greece in February. Local elections in Germany revealed similar anti-austerity sentiments.

“Ripples of uncertainty now emanate from the eurozone,” Greenhaus said.

The big question facing the newly elected leaders – especially Hollande in France – is can they leverage their victories in their home countries against the economic might of German Chancellor Angela Merkel, widely regarded as both the architect and prime motivator of Europe’s austerity movement.

Germany is the largest and healthiest economy in Europe. As such, Germany has had the final say over every bailout negotiated by the IMF, EU and ECB. Until Sunday, the German electorate was widely viewed to support austerity measures across Europe in lieu of footing the bill for ever-larger bailouts. The results in a small northern precinct of Germany in which    Merkel’s conservative party lost power show there is discontent for austerity even among Merkel’s citizens.

As countries have adopted the austerity measures championed by Merkel and ECB President Mario Draghi there has been rising opposition not only among a battered electorate but also among economists who fear that cutting back government spending will rush Europe headlong into another recession.

Already eight of the 17 countries that comprise the single-currency eurozone have fallen back into recession and unemployment across the EU stood at 10.9% in March, the highest ever.

Meanwhile, France’s Sarkozy rode shotgun to Merkel for two years as she steered Europe away from borrowing to pay for governments overburdened by massive pension obligations and overly generous public employee benefits. Now Sarkozy is gone, replaced by the first Socialist to lead France in 17 years.

It’s uncertain how (or if) the Socialist Hollande plans to get along with Merkel. In campaign speeches he has promised to promote growth in part by extracting greater sacrifices from  France’s wealthiest citizens and by reining in corporate tax loopholes.

Some analysts believe those proposals will harm rather than help France’s growth prospects.

Also uncertain is whether newly empowered political parties in Greece will actually reject outright austerity proposals agreed to earlier this year by now-ousted leaders who were desperate to avoid a messy Greek default.

One thing is certain: Merkel and her ruling party aren’t backing away from austerity. According to numerous media reports, Merkel responded to Sunday’s Greek election results by calling on new leaders to support austerity.

The deal reached in February called for Greek leaders to impose another round of fiscal cutbacks in exchange for $172 billion in bailout funds ahead of a March deadline when billions of Greek sovereign debt was due.

The cutbacks, like every round of cutbacks before them, set off days of often violent protests in the streets of Athens. So the election results could hardly have come as a surprise to European leaders.

Choosing growth versus austerity also risks alienating international investors. European markets calmed considerably after the Greek bailout was negotiated in February and the European debt crisis fell away from financial headlines.

Investors were soothed  -- temporarily at least -- at the idea of debt-addled European nations like Greece, Portugal, Italy and Spain scaling back on spending and getting their financial houses in order. That mood stands to be dramatically altered by Sunday’s elections if international investors are scared away from investing in European sovereign bonds should the austerity strategy be replaced by a return to spending in search of growth.