Economic Outlook: A good miss

By ANTHONY HALL, United Press International  |  Jan. 31, 2012 at 10:00 AM
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European Union leaders in Brussels agreed to new fiscal discipline measures Monday with only two holdout nations turning the proposals down.

Britain and the Czech Republic decided not to join with 25 other European Union countries that adopted the tougher rules in a summit that was as anti-climatic as a flashlight in broad daylight.

The nations, seemingly on the same page, also agreed to work on the issue of jobs in a declaration that had little teeth, if any. The pledge to create jobs was quickly described as an empty gesture by "a number of politicians and analysts," The New York Times reported.

The seven-hour meeting also avoided the topic of Greece, making it, essentially, seven hours that some well-paid and famous politicians will not be able to retrieve, try as they might.

Jobs and Greece is exactly what the leaders of Europe should be tackling. A new set of fiscal ideals bound to put the squeeze on countries currently struggling might be called progress, but it appears meaningless at the moment. It's like declaring every country in Europe should have a trade surplus. Sounds terrific, but it just isn't helpful right now.

In golf, they call this a good miss. The arching chip shot that is supposed to define a dramatic parabola does no such thing. Instead, it skates along through the grass, smacks a tree, careens off a golf cart and then lands on the green. Everyone says, "Hey, good miss."

All eyes turn to German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who represents the largest European economy and who has been able to push the concept of austerity across the continent for the past two years. Here, the tide may be shifting. The nod towards jobs may just be a gesture at this point, but it may find some strategic stimulus spending in the medium term.

For now, Merkel said it was time for the European Union, the International Monetary Fund and the European Central Bank to report on where Greece stands. After that, the leaders of Europe can respond.

Presumably, that means Merkel is confident the so-called troika will make the right call. Greece, currently, is struggling to find an agreement with creditors that will be tough enough to signal to the troika that Greece deserves the next loan disbursement. As usual, there is a simple explanation: German taxpayers remain reluctant to bail out Greece, which they see as over-spending and over-indulgent. With this in mind, German politicians are charged with placating German taxpayers and the international community.

The international community wants Germany to start writing checks. They have to settle for fiscal discipline. That's like going to the fanciest steakhouse in town, ordering meat loaf and then skipping dessert.

On international markets Tuesday, the Nikkei 225 index in Japan gained 0.11 percent, while the Shanghai composite index in China rose 0.33 percent. The Hang Seng index in Hong Kong rose 1.14 percent, while the Sensex in India added 1.96 percent.

The S&P/ASX 200 in Australia fell 0.23 percent.

In midday trading in Europe, the FTSE 100 index in Britain added 0.8 percent, while the DAX 30 in Germany gained 1.08 percent. The CAC 40 in France gained 1.54 percent, while the Stoxx Europe 600 added 1.02 percent.

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