Economic Outlook: The chairmen

By ANTHONY HALL, United Press International  |  April 8, 2010 at 8:11 AM
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Investors expect the Bank of England and the European Central Bank to keep interest rates intact Thursday, but will still focus on what bankers have to say.

Of specific concern are comments related to the debt problem in Greece, which has hit a series of false summits in recent months, as European leaders pledged support, then backed away from those pledges, then assembled a plan that included use of the International Monetary Fund. After another round of calming headlines, Greece balked, fearful the IMF would impose austerity measures above and beyond what Greek leaders believed were acceptable.

The ECB issues an early statement on its interest rate decision, then holds a press conference in the afternoon. Bank President Jean-Claude Trichet could, at that point, shed some light on the Greek question.

Central bank leaders past and present dove into the debt issue in the United States this week, with former Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker saying a value added tax -- which works like a sales tax and is common in Europe -- was gaining some support in the United States. At the New York Historical Society, Volcker said, "If at the end of the day we need to raise taxes, we should raise taxes," which sounds like something King Solomon might have said with a yawn.

But the White House quickly responded, with a White House official saying, "The president is not proposing to cut the deficit at the expense of middle-class families."

Not long after, Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke in a speech in Dallas approached the debt issue, saying there were "difficult" choices ahead "and it is always easier to put them off until they cannot be put off anymore."

"But unless we as a nation demonstrate a strong commitment to fiscal responsibility, in the longer run we will have neither financial stability nor healthy economic growth," Bernanke said.

Issues of what the country can afford or not afford is usually left to politicians, while bankers push buttons on calculators, then tell the politicians what they have done right or wrong.

That's about what former Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan said Wednesday testifying before the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission in Washington.

Greenspan said: "Congress would have clamped down on us," had the Fed interfered with the housing market that was proving profitable for bankers -- until the market crashed -- and seemed to fulfill the understood political promise of putting every American who wants one into a home of their own.

Greenspan said the Fed issued warnings of market problems in 1999 and 2001, but after that the debate gets personal -- a bit of tit for tat. Were the warnings not loud enough or was the audience not willing to listen? Greenspan, after all, said banks have been under-capitalized for 40 to 50 years.

In international markets Thursday, the Nikkei 225 in Japan dropped 1.1 percent, while the Shanghai composite index fell 0.94 percent. In Hong Kong, the Hang Seng index lost 0.28 percent while the Sensex in India dropped 1.42 percent.

In Australia, the S&P/ASX 200 slid 0.46 percent.

In midday trading in Europe, the FTSE 100 in Britain was off 1.07 percent, while the DAX 30 in Germany lost 1.06 percent. The CAC 40 in France fell 1.55 percent, while the pan-European DJ Stoxx 50 fell 1.08 percent.

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