samedi 22 mai 2010

L'avenir de l'euro vu par les Anglais

La situation de l'euro ne m'inquiète pas. La crise de la dette de la Grèce, un pays qui représente 2 % de l'économie européenne ne peut pas mettre en danger notre monnaie. La dette des autres pays faibles de l'Union est une farce à côté, par exemple de celle du Japon. En revanche, ils sont davantage exposés à la débandade des investisseurs étrangers alors que la dette japonaise est principalement détenue par des nationaux.

Cette crise a eu des conséquences heureuses. La banque centrale européenne a enfin commencé à agir comme une véritable banque centrale, en achetant la dette des Etats, et les gouvernements ont pu grâce à l'impact de crise sur les opinions publiques, adopter des plans de réduction de l'emprise de l'Etat sur l'économie.

Les marchés n'agissent pas avec rationalité. Ils tentent d'anticiper les mouvements à court terme des devises en se basant sur des rumeurs auprès desquelles leur ingorance et leurs préjugés jouent un rôle de multiplicateur.

La baisse vertigineuse de l'euro ces derniers jours (avant sa récente remontée) se compare à sa hausse tout aussi vertigineuse. Elle ne repose pas sur des fondements dans l'économie réelle mais principalement sur les décisions des gestionnaires de capitaux.

Ces mouvements de l'euro trouvent des échos apocalyptiques dans la presse anglophone où l'on trouve des articles qui annoncent la mort de l'euro et l'éclatement de l'Union européenne.

Depuis des années, ils prédisent la mort de l'euro et la fin de l'Union européenne. Voir ici un blog eurosceptique typique. Le fait qu'année après année leurs prédictions ne se réalisent pas ne refroidit en rien leur ardeur.

Les commentaires des lecteurs sont souvent mensongers ou, soyons gentils, mal informés. Ils reflètent néanmoins les opinions de la partie la plus europhobe de l'électorat anglais :
I have a cousin living and working in Germany, and his customers are now paying in USD$$$$. («J'ai un cousin qui vit et travaille en Allemagne. Ses client le payent désormais en dollars ! »)
A ces obseravtions, des lecteurs, probablement continentaux répliquent :
If the Euro is halfway down the tubes, can anyone please explain why the exchange rate against the pound is getting worse by the day. (« Si l'euro est en pleine déconfiture, quelqu'un peut-il m'expliquer pourquoi la livre dégringole ? »).
Le correspondant à Bruxelles de l'hebdomadaire libéral The Economist tente d'expliquer l'attitude de la presse anglaise à l'égard de l'euro.

Are the British press egging on a euro crash?

TO BERLIN, with a gaggle of EU correspondents invited to meet members of the German government. As we were shuttling between cavernous marble ministries yesterday, the BBC telephoned. It was the Today programme, a flagship morning news show on Radio 4. Today is a serious programme, but this time they had an unserious-sounding request. They wanted a two and a half minute essay about how the break-up of the euro would sound. It could begin with a sort of news item, the European Central Bank saying markets were closed to euro trading or something, suggested the BBC producer on the line. Then, you know, all the various stages to the collapse of the single currency.

I fear I was so startled by this "War of the Worlds" request that it took a minute to realise what they wanted, and to say no. No, because I do not think the euro is about to break up any minute now. No, because there is enough noise out there about Anglo-Saxon newspapers talking down the euro without dragging The Economist into a spoof about the death of the single currency. And no because—at the risk of sounding pompous—the whole idea felt unworthy of the BBC.

They found someone else, it seems, and here is their effort, complete with Hammer House of Horror sound effects.

I have written here that I do not believe there is an Anglo-Saxon conspiracy to talk down the euro (and frankly, with the German and French governments squabbling publicly again about how to save the eurozone, who needs an Anglo-Saxon conspiracy?)

But I do think the British media is handling this crisis with unusual complacency, tinged with a certain glee. Angela Merkel is all over the British newspapers this morning, after making some not very startling comments about the euro being in danger, as she tried to persuade members of her parliament to back the €440 billion eurozone bailout fund.

The Times gives the story more welly than most, with news items, columns and an editorial discussing how a break-up of the euro would look. Here is how the main editorial begins:

Angela Merkel, the German Chancellor, declared yesterday that “the euro is in danger”. She is surely right. It seems increasingly likely that the currency bloc will fracture or shrink, losing at least one of its sixteen members, although the gargantuan €750 billion international rescue this month has bought it time.

Fund managers in London, reckoning that the chances are rising that Greece, Portugal or even Germany will leave the currency, are speculating on how, exactly, a country could do that. Lawyers in Athens have been musing on the possibility of a return to the drachma. Those around George Papandreou, the Greek Prime Minister, say that a return to the old currency is not yet a likelihood, but nor do they dismiss it as an impossibility. The notion of any country leaving the euro was supposed to be unthinkable; now, it is actively being considered across Europe.

As a news judgement call, I think that is wrong at best, and wilfully misleading at worst.

Here is how the same editorial ends:

The euro was always more of a political romance than an economic project. The turmoil of its disintegration would be immense. But the value of shoring up the club dwindles if it may be in the best interests of some members to leave. A threat to the euro is not a threat to Europe, after all. EU members should not confuse defence of the euro with the interests of a successful union of 27 countries with shared values and trade.

As an editorial judgement, I think that verges on the criminally irresponsible. Have these people thought about the degree of economic misery and political turmoil that would be caused by the collapse of the world's second largest currency?

So what is going on? Is there a plot? No, I still think not, though my alternative explanations are not much more edifying. I think two things are up.

Firsly, there is a dangerous mood of vindication in the air, that is worth unpacking a bit. It is obvious enough that someone who always thought the euro was a flawed project will feel slightly vindicated by what is going on. But why such glee, or insouciance? Here are some thoughts.

This crisis is a personally painful experience for Europeans who live in the eurozone, and whose life savings are in the single currency: including the ministers, officials, diplomats and journalists whom I meet every day at work. A French colleague said to me at a recent all-night summit he had had a "ball of fear" in his stomach for days. "You are British, you cannot understand," he said to me, matter-of-factly. It is personally humiliating to many of my colleagues that Barack Obama had to call various EU leaders to tell them to rally round and shore up the euro. I don't feel the same emotion about such calls.

This is also an old domestic political fight in Britain. Those who opposed Britain joining the euro are pleased that their old domestic foes who wanted to join the euro, from Tony Blair to Peter Mandelson, Kenneth Clarke or Nick Clegg, are now firmly on the defensive.

I think there is also a tinge of not schadenfreude, but grim satisfaction in the air at seeing old cynicisms confirmed. By which I mean, at the time of the euro's creation, a lot of sceptics were effectively arguing that human nature was too selfish and national interests too strong for such a currency union to work. The thrifty Germans would never pay for profligate southerners, was their prediction.

And the pro-euro camp retorted: no, you sceptics are nationalists whose selfishness blinds you to the political will of Europeans to build something new and idealistic. Nobody likes being told they are unusually selfish and mean, so now, there is perhaps a certain grim sense among sceptics that they were right, and that all humans are ultimately fallen, and the French, Germans, Dutch and the rest have not, in fact, arrived at a new level of selfless Euro-nirvana.

Secondly, I think the British media just likes a good smash, and is always impatient to get to the big drama at the end of a story. Part of this is structural: the British media market is savagely competitive, compared to the sleepy, rather elitist newspaper markets in places like France, say. I just checked the numbers out of curiosity: there are seven British daily newspapers with bigger circulations than the largest French daily newspaper.

By chance I was in Taiwan some years ago during a big earthquake that killed a lot of people. It was a horrible, sad story, brightened only by the remarkable generosity and kindness of the ordinary Taiwanese around me. I was working for a daily newspaper at the time, and I remember a certain morning when the death toll was from memory around 2,000: a horribly big number by any standards.

Yet I woke after another night of visiting morgues, interviewing newly bereaved parents and aftershocks, to find my newspaper had run my reports under the headline: Up to 7,000 feared dead in Taiwan quake. Where did you get 7,000 from, I asked my desk? Oh, we added the death toll to the 5,000 reported missing on one of the wires, I was told. What they really meant was, they needed a much bigger number than the one printed in the previous day's paper to keep readers' interest: so they jumped ahead of reality and just went straight for the biggest disaster they could think of.

I think something like that is going on with the euro crisis. The British media do not actively want the euro to collapse, any more than my desk wanted 7,000 Taiwanese to be dead. But they want to be first with the biggest, most dramatic story. And if that means reporting the news before it happens, so be it.

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