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Europe's Economic Predicament: the Broken Bismarckian Promise

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Message M. Nicolas Firzli

Europe's Economic Predicament: the Broken Bismarckian Promise

The World Pensions Council's M. Nicolas J. Firzli on how post financial crisis policy is shifting the state/private consensus across the European Union and irreparably damaging the European economy.

World Pensions Council
World Pensions Council
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During the six decades of generally positive macroeconomic conditions that followed the post WW2 Marshal Plan and Treaty of Paris, the European Union created an integrated legal-commercial bloc that eventually rivaled the United States in terms of economic dynamism while seemingly simultaneously preserving the progressive social model inherited from Germany's Bismarckian tradition and Britain's Liberal "welfare reforms".

And Germany and the UK were very much the twin engines of European economic growth throughout that period, with the highly innovative and lightly regulated City of London becoming progressively more important than Wall Street for the origination and trading of key asset classes, including fixed income instruments, currencies, derivatives and asset-backed securities.

But things changed abruptly after 2008: European and British policymakers must now confront a series of crises unfolding inauspiciously at the same time.

The unending Euro "debt crisis', the social unrest resulting from the harsh austerity measures imposed by the EU Commission and/or national governments, the newfound (and sometimes not thought out) regulatory zeal of EU lawmakers, with their sudden passion for "financial regulation" and "banking supervision" which comes after years of complacent laissez-faire.

But the most serious crisis is the least visible: Europe's growing pension predicament means that millions of European retirees now live in poverty, and, more dramatically, tens of millions of European workers are likely to retire in the next ten years with inadequate pension benefits that will leave them far below the poverty line, even in relatively rich member states such as the UK and Germany.

We have to remember that the European Union was established precisely to put an end to an "age of austerity' that lasted for more than five years after the Second World War.

The renewed social contract underwriting that European experiment was founded precisely on the dual promise of generous pension plans and modern infrastructures for all citizens. Tellingly, these basic promises are being broken across most of the European Union today.

Two weeks ago, HSBC Holdings plc, Europe's leading financial services company and the UK's largest private sector employer, announced abruptly its unilateral decision to terminate the bank's generous defined benefit (DB) pension fund from next year for all existing members, an unprecedented move for a firm of that size and likely to inspire other plan sponsors across the EU. 

By a cruel irony, a team of HSBC economists and actuarial experts published a special report the same week, showing that most UK workers are not preparing adequately for retirement, with 19% saving nothing at all!

The first age of austerity (1945-1949), often cited by David Cameron and George Osborne as a metaphor for Europe's current economic circumstances, was a short hiatus: the Marshall Plan and the Treaty of Paris (from which the EU was derived) rapidly restarted the European growth engine.

This is unlikely to happen this time around as the United States is unable ("Fiscal Cliff", "Debt Ceiling") and unwilling to "bankroll' the rest of the world, the European Union is divided against itself and exposed to severe demographic, macroeconomic and fiscal pressures and, more importantly, the energy and commodity producing nations of Latin America and the Arab world are no longer ruled by pliable "comprador" technocrats eager to please the West by adjusting supply to the economic cycle of Europe and America.

All this is happening at a time when the European Central Bank and the Bank of England are pursuing a particularly hazardous monetary policy (the "quantitative easing" series), in essence keeping interest rates at artificially low levels for an extended period of time.

This has a doubly negative impact for pension funds and pension beneficiaries: several consecutive years of lower returns for the fixed income asset class as a whole will further widen the pension funding gap in the medium-term, and, in parallel, rampant inflation will erode salaries in real terms (a fact recently recognized by the Office for National Statistics in the UK), forcing workers and pensioners alike to dip into their savings to pay for food and fuel.

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M. Nicolas J. Firzli is Director of the CEE Council, a Paris-based economic strategy think-tank.
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