Europe’s Lost-and-Found Decade

BRUSSELS – Sentiment in European financial markets has turned. For the moment, the possibility of a Greek exit from the eurozone is off the table. If interest-rate spreads on Spanish and Italian government bonds are any guide, bondholders are no longer betting on a eurozone breakup. European stocks even rose in the week following last month’s inconclusive Italian elections.

Investors evidently believe that Europe’s leaders will do just enough to hold their monetary union together. But, at the same time, it is unlikely that Europe’s economy will follow the pattern of emerging-market crises and rise, phoenix-like, from the ashes. Rather, the most likely scenario appears to be a Japanese-style lost decade of slow or no growth.

The first obstacle to a “phoenix miracle” is that governments remain in austerity mode. Yes, there are whispers that the pace of fiscal consolidation could be slowed; indeed, France has already been given more time to hit its deficit target. But this looks a lot like Japan, where the fiscal tap was tentatively opened and closed. Japanese consumers knew that increases in public spending were temporary, so they did not change their spending habits, rendering the policy ineffectual.

The European Central Bank, for its part, is reluctant to do anything to jump-start growth. Like the Bank of Japan in the 1990’s, it interprets its mandate narrowly. It remains a noncombatant in the global currency wars. But, with the BOJ joining the US Federal Reserve and the Bank of England in easing monetary policy, there will be upward pressure on the euro. And a strong euro is the last thing that a weak Europe needs.