Glee and fear in Europe

Times Staff Writers

It’s a rare day when finance officials, leftist intellectuals and ordinary salespeople can agree on something. But the economic meltdown that wrought its wrath from Rome to Madrid to Berlin this week brought Europeans together in a harsh chorus of condemnation of the excess and disarray on Wall Street.

The finance minister of Italy’s conservative and pro-U.S. government warned of nothing less than a systemic breakdown. Giulio Tremonti excoriated the “voracious selfishness” of speculators and “stupid sluggishness” of regulators. And he singled out Alan Greenspan, the former chairman of the U.S. Federal Reserve, with startling scorn.

“Greenspan was considered a master,” Tremonti declared. “Now we must ask ourselves whether he is not, after [Osama] bin Laden, the man who hurt America the most. . . . It is clear that what is happening is a disease. It is not the failure of a bank, but the failure of a system. Until a few days ago, very few were willing to realize the intensity and the dramatic nature of the crisis.”

In an interview Thursday in the Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera, Tremonti drew a comparison to corruption-ridden Albania in 1997, when a nationwide pyramid scheme cost hundreds of thousands of people their savings and ignited anarchic civil conflict.


“The system is collapsing, exactly like the Albanian pyramids collapsed,” Tremonti said. “The idea is gaining ground that the way out of the crisis is mainly with large public investments. . . . The return of rules is accompanied by a return of the public sector.”

On the other end of the political spectrum, among leftists who have long predicted calamity for what they call the “savage neoliberal capitalism” of Wall Street, there were gleeful allusions to the stock market crash of 1929.

“Between the dread of a world in the midst of collapsing and the shiver of pleasure that finally something serious is happening to the kingdom of liberalism, how to orient oneself?” Eric Aeschimann wrote Thursday in the newspaper Liberation, a voice of French intellectuals whose disdain for capitalism persists in the 21st century.

Expressing nostalgia for “the good old days when bankers jumped out of windows,” Aeschimann condemned as “extortion” the rescue of U.S. corporate giants by the very state that free-marketeers resent.

But fear accompanied gloating. The crisis threatens to worsen woes -- inflation, unemployment, weak growth -- of regional powerhouses including Britain, Spain and Italy. Joaquin Almunia, an ideologically moderate Spanish Socialist who is the European Union’s economic commissioner, offered a simple analysis.

“It has been a problem of greed,” he told El Pais newspaper. “In Europe it can’t be said that we did nothing, European banks bought toxic products. . . . Nobody knows when this will end.”

Anxiety was acute here in London. Britain’s FTSE 100 stock index swung wildly this week, dropping about 8% between Monday and Thursday, then rocketing nearly 9% on Friday.

Among the European economies, it is Britain’s that most resembles America’s in its vulnerability. The big news of the week drove that home: an announced $22-billion rescue-takeover of the wobbling HBOS bank by Lloyd’s TSB.


In ordinary times, regulators would have opposed the merger of the giants as anti-competitive. But beleaguered Prime Minister Gordon Brown, whose economic expertise is one of the last arrows in his political quiver, pushed for the deal.

“The financial tsunami that has engulfed Wall Street since the weekend hit these shores yesterday,” the Daily Telegraph declared in an editorial Thursday. “It swept away the country’s biggest mortgage provider -- and with it, much of the [financial sector’s] regulatory machinery. . . . The government has prevented a banking collapse that would have had unimaginable consequences for the economy.”

But a more optimistic school of thought saw the week’s events as an inevitable period of reconfiguration from which the markets -- and U.S. economic dominance -- will emerge reasonably unscathed.

This analysis gained ground with the strong recovery of European markets Friday.


In addition to the FTSE, France’s CAC 40 rose more than 9% and Russia’s RTS index jumped 22% after trading resumed after a two-day suspension.

“This time next year we’ll be seeing things back to normal,” said Eamonn Butler, director of the Adam Smith Institute, a think tank here. “The last thing we need is to slap more rules on the system. . . . From time to time, businesses fail and the worst thing a government can do is to bail them out because that just passes the cost on to the taxpayer and creates a moral hazard.”

The spectacle across the ocean has left a lasting impression on many Europeans. Hanna Evers of Berlin, a cellphone retailer interviewed in the shopping district of Wilmersdorfer Street, said she was angry about the amount of money that had been “burned” in recent days.

“And I’m furious when I see the pictures of Americans who thought they were on the sunny side of life and now have lost their homes and have to live in their cars,” Evers said. “I definitely do not feel sorry for the bankers who lost their jobs in the last couple of days. I can’t believe that a country like the U.S.A. could have been so careless on a money issue!”


“I was taught that the U.S.A. is the motherland of moneymaking,” she added. “And now all I can see is a herd of headless chickens running around on Wall Street.”


Rotella reported from Madrid and Stobart from London.

Special correspondents Maria De Cristofaro in Rome and Christian Retzlaff in Berlin contributed to this report.