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Eurozone budget deficits rise nearly tenfold to counter pandemic

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Eurozone governments plan to go deeper into the red than ever before this year, racking up budget deficits of close to €1tn as they splash out on emergency measures to counter the coronavirus crisis.

Draft budget plans published by member states on the European Commission website indicate the 19-country bloc will slide to an aggregate fiscal deficit of €976bn, equal to 8.9 per cent of gross domestic product this year, according to Financial Times calculations.

That means this year’s budget deficits would be almost 10 times higher than both last year’s levels and the commission’s forecasts for this year. Governments estimated their deficits would stay high even when their economies rebound in 2021, when they expect an aggregate shortfall of just under €700bn, or 6 per cent of GDP.

Chart showing Eurozone's 2020 budget deficit as a % of GPD

The previous peak in eurozone deficits came in early 2010, according to the European Central Bank, when budget shortfalls rose to 6.6 per cent of GDP. That led to levels of public indebtedness which unsettled investors and sowed the seeds of the subsequent eurozone sovereign debt crisis.

However, there have so far been few signs of alarm from investors or policymakers about the surge in government spending and debt levels. Borrowing costs of peripheral eurozone countries, such as Italy and Greece, fell to record lows last week, driven down by the ECB’s massive bond-buying programme.

“It is clear that both fiscal support and monetary policy support have to remain in place for as long as necessary and ‘cliff effects’ must be avoided,” Christine Lagarde, president of the ECB, said on Sunday. “Otherwise, we risk hysteresis in the labour market, an unnecessary loss of viable businesses and greater inequality.”

The more relaxed attitude towards fiscal extravagance was summed up at last week’s annual meetings of the IMF and World Bank, where senior officials have shifted from calling for austerity to urging countries to throw caution to the wind by borrowing heavily to tackle the fallout from the pandemic.

“First you worry about fighting the war, then you figure out how to pay for it,” said Carmen Reinhart, chief economist at the World Bank.

Marco Valli, chief European economist at UniCredit, said: “Governments have no choice but to keep spending all that’s needed to support their economies and reduce . . . long-term damage.”

The IMF last week predicted euro area government debt, having surged by more than 15 percentage points from last year’s pre-Covid level, would top 100 per cent of GDP this year and hover at a similar level in 2021. Globally, the IMF estimates governments have increased spending or cut taxes by $11.7tn so far this year, equal to 12 per cent of GDP.

Chart showing Eurozone's charge in real GDP in 2020

The consequent strains on public finances prompted EU leaders in July to sign up to an unprecedented €750bn joint borrowing programme, conducted by the commission, to help the hardest-hit member states pay for the economic damage being done by the pandemic. 

Negotiators from the German EU presidency and the European parliament have in recent weeks been attempting to thrash out a deal on the expanded EU budget. But talks have stalled, sparking concerns about a delay to the rollout of the recovery fund next year.

With coronavirus cases surging again across Europe, prompting a new wave of government restrictions that have raised the threat of a double-dip recession, there is no appetite among EU ministers to enact a fiscal clampdown or seek to reverse the debt surge. But ministers will at some point have to begin debating how to handle the EU’s currently suspended fiscal rules. 

Early in the crisis, the commission took the unusual step of suspending the stability and growth pact, rules designed to ensure EU countries pursue sound public finances, as it sought to put in place maximum support for economic activity. Valdis Dombrovskis, the commission executive vice-president overseeing the economy, over the summer told the FT the restrictions would not be reimposed until 2022 at the earliest.

The crisis, which plunged the eurozone into a record postwar recession this year, has underlined the deep divide in the public finances of euro area members. By 2025, Germany’s gross debt as a share of GDP will be no more than half the levels in France, Italy and Spain, according to IMF forecasts.



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Armenia’s prime minister claims military is plotting a coup

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Armenia’s prime minister has claimed the country’s military is plotting a “coup,” and taken to the streets with his supporters after senior army figures in the former Soviet republic called on him to resign.

Nikol Pashinyan has faced months of protests demanding he step down after the defeat of Armenian forces in a six-week war with neighbouring Azerbaijan that ended in November.

The army weighed in on Thursday, calling on the prime minister to quit after he fired the first deputy chief of staff for criticising him.

A letter to the prime minister signed by 40 senior officers warned Pashinyan not to use force against demonstrators, but did not say whether the army would act to remove him from power.

“The current government’s ineffective management and serious mistakes in foreign policy have put the country on the brink of collapse,” the officers wrote on Facebook.

Pashinyan later fired the chief of the general staff, Onik Gasparyan, ordered police to secure government buildings in Yerevan and told his supporters in the capital’s Republic Square to avoid violent clashes.

Demonstrators at an opposition rally in Yerevan demand the resignation of Nikol Pashinyan. They cheered as a fighter jet flew overhead © Artem Mikryukov/Reuters

Describing the situation as “manageable” the prime minister denied he was planning to flee the country and said the army’s statement was an “emotional reaction” to a dispute over the defeat in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.

“We have no enemies in Armenia. I am calling for calm,” Pashinyan said, according to Russian news agency Interfax. “Of course, the situation is tense, but we need dialogue, not confrontation.”

He later took to the streets with several thousand supporters and a megaphone — an echo of the 2018 “velvet revolution” that swept him to power following a march across the country that galvanised popular support. A few thousand opposition supporters gathered at a different square and cheered as a fighter jet flew overhead.

Pashinyan has fought off calls for his resignation since signing a Moscow-brokered peace deal in November that cemented territorial gains for Azerbaijan in Nagorno-Karabakh. The mountainous enclave in the South Caucasus is internationally recognised as part of Azerbaijan, but is populated by ethnic Armenians who seized control after a war that broke out in the dying days of the Soviet Union.

Azerbaijan, a mostly Muslim country and a close ally of Turkey, launched an offensive in September with the aim of retaking the entire enclave. Armenia’s army was ill prepared for oil-rich Azerbaijan’s modern drone fleet and significant backing from Ankara.

More than 3,300 Armenian soldiers died in the conflict, with a further 9,000 wounded. Thousands of civilians were displaced, including some who set their own homes on fire as they fled land now under control of Azerbaijan.

Russia, the traditional regional power broker and Armenia’s most important ally, remained neutral even as several previous ceasefires failed and has deployed 2,000 peacekeepers to secure the region.

Pashinyan admitted the terms were “unbelievably painful for me and my people” but argued the concessions were necessary to prevent further losses.

The devastating defeat sparked fury among Armenians who stormed the country’s parliament and attacked its speaker, demanding the prime minister’s resignation.

Pashinyan backtracked on a pledge to step down after snap elections earlier this month and remained in office in the face of opposition from Armenia’s ceremonial president, three parliamentary opposition parties, and key church leaders.

The Kremlin said on Thursday it was “following events in Armenia with caution” but considered them “exclusively Armenia’s internal matter”.

Dmitry Peskov, President Vladimir Putin’s spokesman, told reporters Russia was “calling on everyone to be calm” and said “the situation should remain within constitutional limits,” according to Interfax.



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German accounting watchdog chief to step down in wake of Wirecard

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The head of Germany’s accounting watchdog is to step down following mounting political pressure over corporate governance shortcomings exposed by the Wirecard fraud.

Edgar Ernst, the president of the Financial Reporting Enforcement Panel (FREP), said on Wednesday he would depart by the end of this year. He is the third head of a regulatory body to lose his job in the wake of one of Germany’s biggest postwar accounting scandals.

The collapse of Wirecard, which last summer filed for insolvency after uncovering a €1.9bn cash hole, triggered an earthquake in Germany’s financial and political establishment.

Felix Hufeld, president of BaFin, the financial regulatory authority, and his deputy Elisabeth Roegele were pushed out by the German government in January for failing to act on early red flags suggesting misconduct at Wirecard. Ralf Bose, the head of Germany’s auditors supervisor Apas, was fired after disclosing he traded Wirecard shares while this authority was investigating the company’s auditor, EY. The German government is also working to revamp the country’s accounting supervision and financial oversight.

Meanwhile, criminal prosecutors in Frankfurt are evaluating a potential criminal investigation into BaFin’s inner workings and on Wednesday asked the market authority to hand over comprehensive documents, the prosecutors office told the FT, confirming an earlier report by Handelsblatt. The potential scope of any investigation as well as the individuals who might be targeted is still unclear. BaFin declined to comment.

Ernst came under pressure as the parliamentary inquiry commission uncovered that he joined the supervisory board of German wholesaler Metro AG in an apparent violation of internal governance rules, which from 2016 banned FREP staff from taking on new supervisory board roles.

Last week, the former chief financial officer of Deutsche Post filed a legal opinion to parliament defending his move. He argued that his employment contract was older than the 2016 ban on board seats and hence trumped the tightened governance regulations.

The German government had subsequently threatened to ditch the private-sector body which currently has quasi-official powers.

In a statement published on Wednesday evening, FREP said that Ernst wants to open the door for a “fresh start” that would be untainted by the discussions around his supervisory board mandates. “FREP is losing a well-versed expert in capital markets,” the body said.



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Putin and Lukashenko’s ski fun shows cold shoulder to EU

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As news of new EU sanctions against Russia began to leak out of a meeting of bloc foreign ministers on Monday afternoon, Vladimir Putin and his Belarusian counterpart Alexander Lukashenko were discussing a different challenge to the Russian president.

“You can try to compete with Vladimir Vladimirovich,” Lukashenko, in ski gear, said to his son, Nikolai. “But you probably won’t catch up,” he added, with a smile to Putin as the Russian leader pushed off down the slope.

Putin and Lukashenko are the men behind Europe’s two repressive crackdowns over the past six months, who have both jailed or exiled their most prominent opponents and seen their security forces violently assault and detain thousands of peaceful protesters.

But in a summit in the snow-covered mountains of Sochi, on Russia’s southern coast, they revelled in their twosome of leaders shunned and sanctioned by Brussels, in a calibrated message to the EU that the cold-shoulder was mutual.

For foreign policy experts there were few details to digest, despite the complex negotiations going on behind the scenes as the two post-Soviet states seek to recalibrate their future relationship.

Putin is keen to deepen integration on Moscow’s terms. Lukashenko is desperate for Russian investment and trade co-operation but is loath to relinquish sovereignty. Yet in place of diplomatic negotiations and policy pronouncements, photographs and video footage of the two leaders enjoying each other’s company were in full display.

At the outset, Putin, in jeans and an open-collar shirt and blazer, greeted his guest with a handshake and a hug. “Even our appearance, clothes and so on, suggest that these are serious negotiations in ordinary clothes,” Lukashenko quipped. “It suggests that we are close people.”

Pleasantries exchanged, it was time for the salopettes and ski boots, and a shared chairlift to the summit. Putin, pushing off confidently, set off down the gentle slope, Lukashenko in his wake.

After a short ride on snowmobiles back to their chalets, discussions continued over more than six hours — and what appeared to be three different sized wine glasses.

“The optics for the international audience is that they have been able to maintain their positions and nothing can be done against them,” said Maryia Rohava, a research fellow at Oslo university specialising in post-Soviet relations.

“Now we’re talking not just about sanctions against Belarus but also against Russia,” she added. “And it seems like they look at that like, ‘Well, we don’t care . . . We’re just enjoying our winter break like autocrats do.’”

To be sure, the fun on the slopes was not wholly without power games. Putin was clear to underscore he was the senior partner, from wrongfooting his guest at the top of the ski lift to releasing photographs of their meeting showing Lukashenko scribbling notes as his host spoke.

But the mood music was in sharp contrast to Lukashenko’s last visit to Russia in September. Then, with protests raging and the Belarusian leader’s position looking shaky, Putin reprimanded his guest for mishandling the unrest and risking the toppling of an ageing post-Soviet regime that could weaken his own.

Then, in a businesslike and cold atmosphere, Lukashenko pleaded with Putin that “a friend is in trouble” and was granted a $1.5bn loan from Moscow — but not before his host remarked that Belarusian people should be given a chance to “sort this situation out”.

The absence of such language on Monday also sent a subtle signal to other illiberal regimes, particularly those on the outer rim of Europe who, like Belarus in the past, find themselves lured towards Brussels by economic opportunities but repelled by the reforms and democratic standards demanded in exchange.

The message to the likes of Georgia, Moldova, Armenia and Turkey is that Putin, whose relations with the EU are at rock bottom, is always ready to talk.



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