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Scapegoating les Anglo-Saxons

EU poobahs take aim at Wall Street and the City.

Jun 21, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 38 • By ANDREW STUTTAFORD
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When America’s flimsier corporate colossi threaten to collapse, they tend to follow a wearyingly familiar script. Quarterly reports “disappoint,” the media begin to stir, and questionable financial dealings come to light. The CEO then emerges from his bunker to announce that all would be well but for the (vicious/ill-informed) press, (greedy/destructive) short-sellers, or both. Then all hell breaks loose. That’s how it was with Enron. That’s how it was with Lehman Brothers. 

Scapegoating les Anglo-Saxons

Who, us?

And that, more or less, is how it’s going with the euro. A dangerous gamble with other people’s money, irresponsibly operated, and dishonestly sold, the European single currency has been showing signs of severe stress, and leading EU officials have been doing just what the Ken Lays of this world do: dodge. 

There have been the “all is wells” from the likes of José Manuel Barroso, president of the EU commission—the man who boasted in February that the euro was “a protective shield” against the crisis. There have been the attacks on the press—often with an interesting twist. Spain’s transport minister, José Blanco, for instance: “None of what is happening including editorials in some foreign media with their apocalyptic commentaries, is happening by chance, or innocently. It is the result of certain special interests.” Just who were those unnamed “special interests”? (Clue: Europeans traditionally believed that they wore Stetsons or bowler hats.) The Spanish prime minister reportedly ordered his country’s National Intelligence Center—the Inquisition no longer being available—to investigate. An alternative theory was conjured up at around the same time by Jürgen Stark, the European Central Bank’s chief economist. Asked by Der Spiegel whether he suspected that the “Anglo-American” media were “behind the attacks” on the euro, Stark replied that “much of what they are printing reads as if they were trying to deflect attention away from the problems in their own backyards.” That’s a nice try, but it’s also an answer of staggering disingenuousness. Can Stark really have been unaware of the long-running media furor in Britain and the United States over their domestic deficit disasters? 

To be fair, the head of the ECB, Jean-Claude Trichet, did warn in May that “one should be wary” of talk of Anglo-Saxon conspiracies, but by then plenty of farfetched plots had been dreamt up. Were those “apocalyptic commentaries,” for example, an ideological assault by diehard euroskeptics or were they, perhaps, part of a dastardly scheme to preserve the U.S. dollar’s position as the ultimate reserve currency? As conspiracy theories go, neither was bad, but such theories play even better when seasoned with a “speculator” or two. Maybe, the Anglo-Saxon media were in cahoots with Anglo-Saxon plutocrats looking to make a sleazy buck out of a sickly euro. By talking up the crisis, were these hacks simultaneously peddling a sexy story and filling the coffers of Wall Street and the City of London? Quelle horreur.

That there might actually be a crisis to talk about was only grudgingly conceded, and its true cause remained the stuff of denial. Far easier to blame the sons and daughters of Gordon Gekko. It was in this vein that Ireland’s minister of state for finance, Martin Mansergh, claimed last month to have gotten to the bottom of the market’s distaste for the euro: “If you had lots of separate currencies that would be more profits for the financial sector.” Let no one say that blarney is dead.

Wiser blamesayers have avoided conspiracy theories and stuck to abuse. Anders Borg, finance minister in Sweden’s (vaguely) right-of-center, (not so vaguely) Europhile government, grabbed headlines in May comparing market players to a “wolf pack.” The jibe might have had more weight had it not come from someone who had, just a few months before, sternly intoned that there was “no legal basis” for an EU bailout of Greece, exactly the sort of ill-starred comment that is now food for the wolf pack.

As zoological insults go, however, Borg’s lupine sneer was one of the best since the moment in 2005 when Franz Müntefering, then chairman of Germany’s Social Democratic party, compared foreign hedge funds and private equity groups to “locusts.” Yes, those investors had been buyers rather than sellers back then, but they had been the wrong sorts of buyers (short-term, asset-strippers, foreign). 

To his credit, Müntefering spoke out when the times were good. Many of those now criticizing “speculators” held their peace when those wicked markets were betting on the “convergence plays” that kept interest rates down (and pushed asset prices up) in the countries now known as the PIIGS (Portugal, Ireland, Italy, Greece, and Spain). 

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