The euro, curiously durable despite two years of crisis, begins to slide

Through two years of crisis, the embattled euro has stayed comparatively strong against the dollar, falling as Europe lurched from one difficulty to another but always rebounding.

But in recent weeks, the currency has begun a downward slide that some analysts see as longer lasting, reflecting the region’s worsening economic conditions.

A corrosive dynamic could be taking hold with European governments adopting austerity measures, banks scaling back credit to meet new regulatory demands and households and companies hunkering down for a possible recession.

“Euroland’s credit crunch and resulting depression have already begun,” High Frequency Economics analyst Carl Weinberg wrote in a paper. He noted that the hundreds of billions of dollars being injected into the European financial system by central banks is not showing up in the economy.

“In normal times, banks are keen to lend any excess reserves,” Weinberg wrote. “In present times, that ain’t happening: reserves are soaring, lending is not.” He suggested that the region was falling into a full-fledged “liquidity trap” where the widespread desire to hold onto cash and cut spending leaves everyone poorer.

Case in point: The European Central Bank last month provided $600 billion in three-year loans to banks — with more to come in February in whatever amount banks request.

But the money is not being recycled into loans. Companies are under pressure to strengthen their financial standing and mistrustful of one another. So the money is being stashed back at the ECB in the form of record levels of deposits held at the central bank.

In the case of the euro, currency analysts say its strength against the dollar for much of the last year had to do with doubts about the U.S. and world economies. With growth at risk of faltering on a broad scale, the euro retained some of its standing as a safe haven — dropping at various points, but always bouncing back into the vicinity of $1.40.

With its fall to below $1.28 this week, currency analysts wonder whether a new trend has set in.

Compared with recent months, the U.S. economy now shows signs of strengthening, with Friday’s jobs report pushing the unemployment rate to the lowest level in three years.

The news from Europe, by contrast, has been the economic version of death by a thousand cuts: poor retail spending reports from Germany; faltering confidence; missed deficit-reduction targets in Spain; unresolved debt restructuring talks in Greece; accumulating evidence that European banks, pushed by regulators to improve their balance sheets, are scaling back their operations.

The fallout is being felt outside the euro zone, adding to economic problems in places such as Hungary. That country’s currency has fallen sharply in recent days, amid domestic political turmoil and the weakening European economy, and borrowing costs for the Hungarian government have skyrocketed. Its credit rating was downgraded on Friday by the Fitch Ratings service, and the country may need emergency help from the International Monetary Fund.

European banks could sell stock or take other steps to raise new capital as a way of improving financial health. But the climate is dismal. Italian bank Unicredit, hoping to raise some $10 billion in new funds, this week cut the offering price of a new stock issue by more than 40 percent compared with the stock’s market price in an acknowledgment of how difficult it may be for European banks to meet new capital targets set by regulators.

“Last year, the discussion was that, sure, the European fundamentals looked grim, but it was not that good in the U.S.,” said Koon Chow, a currency strategist at Barclays Capital. Now, “people are treating the euro with trepidation — that this is the year you see the euro go down, and countries that are close to it will follow, while other countries are doing better.”

European banks may help prop up the euro as they try to bolster their balance sheets by bringing home funds invested abroad. But Chow and others say Europe’s crisis is pushing money out of the region, as well. The risk that the currency region may break apart looms large, and has caused major investors, such as U.S. money market funds, to steadily reduce how much they have at risk in Europe. That lowers their demand for euros and lowers the value of the currency.

By contrast, Fitch reported in a study last month, money market funds have been boosting their holdings of U.S. Treasury securities.

A lower value for the euro can be self-correcting to some extent, by making European goods cheaper, boosting the region’s exports and helping restore economic growth. Indeed, one of the forces keeping countries such as Greece from bouncing back more quickly is their inability to devalue a domestically issued currency: For them, an even sharper fall in the euro may be a good thing.

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