The error most Americans make when trying to understand the European debt crisis is this: They fail to realize that the euro isn’t just a doomed currency, but a language unto itself.
Too often the great mishaps of our era can be ascribed to a failure to communicate -- from the lip-synching scandal that engulfed the German pop/dance act Milli Vanilli, to the time when Greece’s government started leaving all those extra zeros off the liabilities side of its balance sheet a decade ago. If only these deceptions had drawn proper scrutiny at the outset, much needless pain and suffering could have been avoided.
And yet, the more things change, as they say. It’s bad enough for average Americans that most European leaders speak English with heavy accents. What’s worse, even when we can make out the words they utter, it’s almost always impossible to figure out what these officials are really saying. That’s because they’re speaking in Euro-ese.
Fortunately, there is an answer to their endless riddles: a Euro-to-English dictionary, excerpts of which I have included below. (Click here to read about its close linguistic cousin: the Goldman Sachs dictionary.) To truly see the meaning of the seismic events rapidly reshaping Europe, you must know what the following 10 Euro terms of art mean in plain American English:
1. Finance ministry: A house of worship where government leaders go to pray for bailouts, economic miracles, panaceas and other forms of divine intervention.
How to use in a sentence: Officials at the Greek Finance Ministry said they remain hopeful the country will receive its next batch of rescue loans in time to avoid a cataclysmic default.
2. Coordinated: Chaotic, unfocused, brain-dead, paralyzed to the point of nonexistence; even in its best moments resembling a hopeless klutz.
Example: Finance ministers from the Group of 20 nations last week said they were “committed to a strong and coordinated international response to address the renewed challenges facing the global economy.”
3. Firewall: A partition made of fireproof material to prevent the spread of flames from one place to another. Of no use in containing a financial crisis, except as vague public-relations catnip for readers of news articles who can’t tell the difference between napalm and a 10-year bond.
Usage: U.S. Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, who is fluent in both Euro and Mandarin, last weekend urged euro-area nations “to create a firewall against further contagion.”
4. Contagion: A financially transmitted psychiatric condition, marked by intense fear of losing everything. Only known treatments in use at the moment are firewalls, rather than anything that actually works.
5. Peripheral country: A core, indispensable member of the European Union. Related word: Sovereign, meaning German or subservient to Germany.
Example: “Although some peripheral countries in Europe continue to experience acute pressure on their sovereign debts, the risk of a broader contagion throughout the area did not materialize,” Italy’s finance minister, Giulio Tremonti, said April 16, four months before Europe’s central bank rescued Italy via large, open-market purchases of Italian government bonds.
6. Stability mechanism: A wooden paddle ball, mainly used for contests between office workers to see how many times they can bounce the little rubber ball off the paddle without missing; also advertised as a cure-all device for comatose economies.
Usage: The European Stability Mechanism, due to take effect in 2013 as a permanent successor to the region’s current bailout fund, will have a “lasting, stabilizing, confidence-creating function,” German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble told reporters on Sept. 24.
7. TORRP: The much-awaited European version of TARP. Abbreviation derived from the second letter of each of the following countries’ names: Italy, Portugal, Ireland, Greece and Spain.
Rumored to stand for Troubled Obligation Relief Relief Program, providing relief from the relief. In fact, it stands for nothing in particular, like other government institutions. Unlike the U.S. Troubled Asset Relief Program, any TORRP money distributed to European banks is guaranteed never to be repaid.
8. Controlled default: The act of telling another country’s government that it’s OK to stiff most creditors, and then watching with morbid fascination to see if the global banking system falls apart. Originally an aviation term used to describe the final landing of the Hindenburg, which crashed all by itself without taking any other zeppelins with it.
9. Recapitalize: To transfer money from a country’s middle-class taxpayers to an insolvent bank -- in essence, a bribe to bondholders and senior management -- as a way of ensuring that the wealthy don’t rise up and oust the government.
Related term: Austerity. As in, an economic-stimulus program that involves doing exactly the same thing, except the money comes from the citizens of a different country, such as Greece, who are left to subsist on a diet of untreated water and surplus rice.
Usage: “More banks may need to be recapitalized,” European Union Competition Commissioner Joaquin Almunia said Sept. 20 at a press conference in Brussels. “That’s why it’s so important to solve the sovereign-debt crisis without a delay.”
10. Covered-bond purchase program: Forget it, way too complicated to explain here.
Just remember this. The EU and its member nations’ finance ministries are proceeding with their coordinated efforts to erect firewalls, and will never permit contagion to spread beyond the euro area’s peripheral countries. Remain calm. All is well. Everything is under control.
In addition to their plans to recapitalize Europe’s banks and revitalize the region’s economies, through TORRP and the European Stability Mechanism, there’s always the fallback option of a prepackaged, orderly, controlled default by Greece, even if Europe’s leaders aren’t ready to say so publicly yet. What’s important to keep in mind is that we’re all in this together, regardless of whether you can understand a word any of these people are saying.
(Jonathan Weil is a Bloomberg View columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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