Today's twin pieces of news out of Germany - that the ECB's most prominent German, Juergen Stark, is resigning, and the unconfirmed report that the German government is preparing a contingency plan to support its banks in the event of a Greek default - had the effect of fanning the flames of fear running through world financial markets. How should we interpret this?
I'm not sure about how sensible it was, but I'm quite sure that today's reaction was completely unsurprising. Because market participants are afraid right now, and so any news has to be viewed through the lens of that uncertainty and fear.
The Stark Resignation
Europe has a couple of major problems right now. As we all know, there's the seemingly never-ending concern that Greece (and possibly other countries) may be insolvent and have to default on its government debt. But an equally serious problem, I think, is the widespread perception that there is no convincing leadership in Europe. European leaders just can't seem to agree on the big decisions that would have to be taken to firmly resolve the crisis one way or another, and so the policy responses have been seen to be nothing more than a series of delaying tactics. When you then get news about members of the ECB leadership resigning (note that Stark was the second to do so in recent months), the policy disarray looks even worse.
Stark was the most prominent German in the ECB’s leadership, and probably also one of the most hawkish of them. The Germans, and Stark in particular, were quite unhappy with the ECB’s decision to start buying the government bonds from Italy and Spain. They simply do not want to put the German taxpayers on the hook for any of that debt, even indirectly.
But the question now is what to make of this news, because you can really have two completely opposite interpretations about what this will mean for ECB policy going forward. Since the ECB leadership is losing one of the fiercest opponents of assistance to the weaker euro countries, maybe this means that the ECB will now actually provide more of it. On the other hand, it's equally possible to think that German cooperation with the ECB's policies has now been pushed to the limit, so this will mean the end of support for the eurozone periphery.
The point is that no one really knows... and when fear is the dominant emotion, people just imagine the worst, even if they don’t know quite what that is.
It reminds me a little of Kremlin-watching back during the Cold War, when people were trying to figure out what Soviet policy was going to be based on who appeared in the photos. It’s just that this time the Kremlin is in Frankfurt.
The German Contingency Plan
The other news today was that the German government may be preparing to recapitalize their banks in the event of a Greek debt default. I've argued before that there are numerous signs that people are losing confidence in the European banking system, and this news strikes right at the heart of that concern.
For months and months European governments have been working hard to reassure people that the European banking system is sound. And then comes this news that Germany is already working on figuring out how to strengthen their banks. Once again, you can read that two completely different ways.
You could take heart from this news, and take it as a sign that the German government has a plan, and will step in if things go wrong to make sure that their banks are safe. It was only two weeks ago that Christine Lagarde, head of the IMF, was urging Europe to take concrete action to strengthen the European banking sytem. Maybe this simply means that the Germans were listening, and are being prudent. If so, it's entirely reasonable to read this as good news.
But on the other hand, you could hear this news and think that maybe it means that the German government knows something we don’t know. Maybe it suggests that the German government thinks that Greece really is about to default. Or worse: maybe it suggests that the German government believes that the European banking system really is weak and vulnerable. In that case, this could be a very, very bad sign.
Given today's climate of fear in the financial markets, and given that no one really knows what’s going on behind the scenes, it shouldn't come as a shock that lots of people are going to jump to the scariest possible interpretation of the news. When fear dominates, the worst case scenario suddenly becomes the one everyone thinks about.