Walker's World: Euro for sale

By MARTIN WALKER, UPI Editor Emeritus  |  Oct. 31, 2011 at 6:07 AM
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NEW YORK, Oct. 31 (UPI) -- Welcome to the new euro, a wholly owned subsidiary of China, Inc.

That, at least, is the implication of the embarrassingly hasty arrival in Beijing of Klaus Regling, the chief of the European Financial Stability Facility. The ink was still drying on the late-night agreement between European leaders as he boarded the plane for the middle kingdom, seeking to learn just how much of China's $3.2 trillion reserves might be tempted to invest in the great euro bailout.

"The foreign exchange reserves of China go up every month, therefore there is a need for investment," Regling told the assembled media as he arrived for talks with officials from China's central bank and finance ministry.

"I am happy that EFSF bonds have been considered to be in that category in the past, and therefore I am optimistic that we will have also a longer-term relationship because we will continue to provide safe, attractive investment opportunities."

The first point to note is that if the future stability of the euro depends on the support of the wily Communist Party technocrats who run the Chinese economy, it is in more trouble than even the markets suspect.

The second interesting implication is that even the European authorities suspect that their own so-called comprehensive solution might not be enough to fix the euro problem, despite the 50 percent haircut inflicted on private holders of Greek bonds and the vaunted "trillion-euro-bazooka" that was supposed to cow the markets into acquiescence.

It did no such thing. Within 36 hours of the deal, the markets were requiring Italy to pay more than 6 percent interest on its latest sale of bonds. Since Italy has to finance $425 billion in debt next year, a new Italian crisis may confidently be predicted for next year.

Veteran investor George Soros reckons the crisis will come even sooner, saying that the deal "will be good for any time from one day to three months."

"Unfortunately it is not the last crisis because the fundamental issues have not been settled," he added. "It is clear that the amount of debt that Greece has accumulated and is accumulating is untenable and the country is effectively insolvent."

It was soon clear that the European leaders were themselves aware of the limits of the deal they had so slowly and painfully negotiated. The leaders of the two main European Union institutions, EU President Herman Van Rompuy and European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso, sent a joint letter to the other leaders attending next month's Group of 20 summit in France saying that joint action was needed to" contribute to the swift resolution of the crisis."

"Whilst we in Europe will play our part, this cannot alone ensure global recovery and rebalanced growth. There is a continued need for joint action by all G20 partners in a spirit of common responsibility and common purpose," their letter said.

Which brings the question back to China and whether Beijing will invest Chinese savings into the bailout when the European countries came up with no more cash of their own. The official Chinese news agency Xinhua was cool.

"Amid such an unprecedented crisis in Europe, China can neither take up the role as a savior to the Europeans, nor provide a 'cure' for the European malaise," Xinhua said. "Obviously, it is up to the European countries themselves to tackle their financial problems. But China can do within its capacity to help as a friend."

Europe is China's biggest export market, so the country has its own incentive to help the European economy back to health. But China takes a hard-nosed view of its own interests and it is likely to seek European diplomatic and political support in return for any financial help. China would like Europe's backing to help it resist demands from the United States and Brazil at the G20 summit for China to revalue its currency. It would also like to see the Europeans drop their long-standing embargo on arms exports to China and to back Chinese positions at the G20.

As Xinhua put it, "It is advisable that at the summit European leaders take heed of the voices of emerging economies, whose remarkable contribution to world economic recovery and growth deserves better understanding and reciprocal treatment."

Is this a price Europe is prepared to pay? More to the point, can Europe afford not to?

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