December 14, 2017

Europe Looks to Merkel of Germany to Revive Economy

BERLIN — Even as the United States economy displays unanticipated resilience, with a healthy jobs report released on Friday, the outlook for Europe’s economy grows ever dimmer. As it does, the pressure builds on Europe’s most powerful leader, Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany, and her economic team to find a way to get the Continent growing again.

But this puts Ms. Merkel in a bind, as she has to answer to German voters in September when the country holds parliamentary elections. While the European economy may be deteriorating at an alarming rate, the electorate here is still enamored of her as the Iron Chancellor, advocating the austerity policies that are rapidly falling into disfavor elsewhere, among economists as well as the public.

Her response, in recent months, has been to try a delicate balancing act, quietly easing up on crisis-stricken states, giving them more time to narrow their budget deficits, while showing no outward signs of weakness that her political rivals can pounce upon.

But this stance may become increasingly untenable, if the United States’s more stimulative economic policies begin to bear fruit and Europe continues to struggle, as seems to be the case. The European Commission said Friday that the economy of its member nations would shrink by 0.1 percent this year, while the countries that use the euro would contract even more sharply, by 0.4 percent.

And there are signs that the contagion from the south is migrating north and beginning to drag down Germany’s export-driven economy, which is expected to grow by a meager 0.4 percent this year, adding another potential source of voter discontent to Ms. Merkel’s concerns.

So the question now is not just whether Ms. Merkel will further relax her insistence on strict austerity but how far she thinks she can go in an election year, or perhaps how far she needs to go to prop up her own economy. Few experts expect any drastic departures.

“In the end, she’s this sort of Prussian-Protestant determined person,” said Stefan Kornelius, an editor at the Süddeutsche Zeitung and the author of a new book about Ms. Merkel. “She’s not ideological, but she’s truly convinced about the rightfulness of her course.”

But the constant questions about austerity are taking their toll on Ms. Merkel, who has begun to bridle in public when people ask about spending cuts.

“I think budget consolidation is now interestingly labeled with the word austerity, which is otherwise not used in Germany,” Ms. Merkel said this week at a news conference with the new Italian prime minister, Enrico Letta. “In Germany we didn’t even know this word before the crisis.”

Aware of the shifting dynamics in Europe, Ms. Merkel has chosen instead to emphasize the need for structural reforms to the labor markets of struggling countries over slashed spending. And she is not insisting on strict adherence to budget-cutting goals. That may help in the long run but can do little to immediately pull economies out of free fall.

“Her overarching goal right now is to get re-elected, and she won’t get re-elected if she spends German money on French and Italian problems without getting anything in return,” Mr. Kornelius said.

Ms. Merkel is forced to navigate dissension within her own conservative ranks at the slightest wavering from the disciplined German line, and a new party on the right, the Alternative for Germany, pressing for the more extreme step of a breakup of the euro.

To critics, Europe is facing an undeniable economic crisis and Germany is making decisions based on politics. “They are prevaricating all the time and allowing short-term domestic considerations to determine euro-zone policy,” said Charles Grant, director of the Center for European Reform, London.

Critics contend that fiscally solid countries like Germany have already gotten plenty in return and that the narrative of parsimonious Northern Europeans bled dry by profligate southerners is a false one. They have pointed to studies quantifying how Germany has been able to save billions of dollars because lower interest rates for perceived safe havens have made borrowing money dramatically cheaper.

Chris Cottrell contributed reporting.

Article source: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/05/04/world/europe/europe-looks-to-merkel-of-germany-to-revive-economy.html?partner=rss&emc=rss

News Analysis: For Obama, Housing Policy Presents Second-Term Headaches

A house for sale in the Pacific Palisades area of Los Angeles. The top limit of government-backed loans is a big question.Michael Nelson/European Pressphoto AgencyA house for sale in the Pacific Palisades area of Los Angeles. The top limit of government-backed loans is a big question.

A second-term president may be just the person to tackle America’s housing problems.

When President Obama first came into office, home prices were crashing, foreclosures were soaring and the previous Bush administration had just initiated the bailout of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the government-backed entities that agree to repay mortgages if the original borrower defaults.

With the market in shambles in 2009, the Obama administration pursued a tentative housing policy, for the most part avoiding big moves that might have further weakened the housing market or banks. Eventually, there were some bolder initiatives, like the national mortgage settlement with big banks as well as the Treasury Department’s aid programs for homeowners.

But as President Obama’s first administration comes to an end, the government is still deeply embedded in the mortgage market. In the third quarter, various government entities backstopped 92 percent of all new residential mortgages, according to Inside Mortgage Finance, a publication that focuses on the home loan industry.

Mr. Obama’s economic team has consistently said it wants the housing market to work without significant government support. But it has taken few actual steps to advance that idea.

“I think Obama is absolutely committed to reducing the government’s role,” said Thomas Lawler, a former chief economist at Fannie Mae and founder of Lawler Economic and Housing Consulting, an industry analysis firm. “But no one’s yet found a format to do that.”

Housing policy is hard to tackle because so many people have benefited from the status quo. The entire real estate system — the banks, the agents, the home buyers — all depend on a market that provides fixed-rate, 30-year mortgages that can be easily refinanced when interest rates drop. That sort of loan is rare outside of the United States. And any effort to overhaul housing and the mortgage market could eventually reduce the amount of such mortgages in the country, angering many and creating a political firestorm.

In other words, the best person to fundamentally change how housing works may be a president who won’t be running for office again.

Most immediately, the housing market has to be strong enough to deal with a government pullback. Some analysts think it’s ready. “I think the housing recovery is far enough along that they can start winding down Fannie and Freddie,” said Phillip L. Swagel at the University of Maryland’s School of Public Policy, who served as assistant secretary for economic policy under Treasury Secretary Henry M. Paulson Jr.

The administration can take smaller steps first. Mr. Lawler, the housing economist, thinks the government could start to reduce the maximum amount that it will guarantee for Fannie and Freddie loans. In some areas, like parts of the Northeast and California, it is as high as $625,000. Before the financial crisis, it was essentially capped at $417,000.

The big question is whether the private sector — banks and investors that buy bonds backed with mortgages — will pick up the slack when the government eases out of the market. If they don’t, the supply of mortgages could fall and house prices could weaken.

Banks say their appetite depends on how new rules for mortgages turn out. In setting such regulations, some tough choices have to be made.

The new rules will effectively map the riskiness of various types of mortgages. In determining that, regulators will look at the features of the loans and the borrowers’ income. Banks say they are unlikely to hold loans deemed risky, and their lobbyists are pressing for legal protection on the safer ones, called qualified mortgages.

The temptation will be to make the definition of what constitutes a qualified mortgage as broad as possible, to ensure that the banks lend to a wide range of borrowers. But regulators concerned with the health of the banks won’t want a system that incentivizes institutions to make potentially risky loans.

One set of qualified mortgage regulations, being written by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, could be completed as early as January. Other regulators, like the Federal Reserve, are expected to take longer in finishing their mortgage rules.

Resolving the conflict between mortgage availability and bank strength may depend on the person who replaces Timothy F. Geithner as Treasury secretary. Mr. Geithner is stepping down at the end of Mr. Obama’s first term.

The Obama administration faces other daunting decisions.

One is how to deal with the considerable number of troubled mortgages still in the financial system. Banks might be reluctant to make new loans until they have a better idea of the losses on the old loans. “If you don’t ever deal with these problems, you may never get to where you want to go,” said Mr. Lawler, the housing economist.

To help tackle that issue, the new administration might decide to make its mortgage relief programs more aggressive. It might even aim for more loan modifications, writing down the value of the mortgages to make them easier to pay. The Federal Housing Finance Agency, the regulator that oversees Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, has effectively blocked such write-downs on the vast amount of loans those entities have guaranteed.

A new Obama administration may move to change the agency’s stance on write-downs, perhaps by replacing its acting director, Edward DeMarco. If that happened, it would be a sign that the White House had a taste for more radical housing actions. The agency declined to comment.

Then there’s what to do with the Federal Housing Administration, another government entity that has backstopped a huge amount of mortgages since the financial crisis. The housing administration was set up to focus on lower-income borrowers, and it backs loans that have very low down payments. Its share of the market has grown since the crisis. The F.H.A. accounted for 13 percent of the market in the third quarter, according to Inside Mortgage Finance.

The new administration has to decide whether it wants the F.H.A. to continue doing as much business. The risk is that a big pullback by the F.H.A. could reduce the availability of mortgages to lower-income borrowers. Banks almost certainly won’t want to write loans with minuscule down payments since they are considered riskier.

Ultimately, housing policy comes down to one question: Which borrowers should get the most subsidies?

Right now, the government largess encompasses a wide swath of borrowers. But most analysts believe government support should be focused on lower-income borrowers.

“We will know that the Obama administration is serious about housing finance reform when it comes up with a proposal for affordable housing,” said Mr. Swagel, the University of Maryland professor.

A version of this article appeared in print on 11/09/2012, on page B1 of the NewYork edition with the headline: Obama Faces Tough Choices on Housing in 2nd Term.

Article source: http://dealbook.nytimes.com/2012/11/08/for-obama-housing-policy-presents-second-term-headaches/?partner=rss&emc=rss