U.S. Treasury Secretary Jacob J. Lew said a U.S. recovery is “inextricably linked” to Europe’s ability to generate growth, after global finance officials urged euro-area policy makers to ease off austerity measures.
Speaking yesterday during a visit to Greece, where the European debt crisis began in 2009, Lew cited the country’s “tough road” of economic hardship. He arrived from Moscow, where he was among Group of 20 finance ministers advising Europeans to move away from its course of German-inspired budget-cutting, which has been blamed for Greece’s record unemployment and a sixth year of recession, and toward growth.
“Engagement with Europe remains at the top of my agenda, because U.S. jobs and growth are inextricably linked to Europe achieving growth and prosperity,” Lew said at the Acropolis Museum in Athens, according to a Treasury statement. Expansion and job creation will be a “key focus for the road ahead.”
As the global economy teeters on sluggish growth in the U.S. and slowing momentum in China, European leaders have come under pressure to scrap their adherence to budget discipline and pull the 17-member euro area out of recession. G-20 nations meeting in the Russian capital last week pledged to be flexible in reining in deficits so as not to forestall expansion.
The euro climbed 0.6 percent against the U.S. dollar last week, rising to $1.3143. European government bonds advanced as Federal Reserve Chairman Ben S. Bernanke quelled concern that a reduction of U.S. stimulus was imminent, boosting demand for fixed-income assets around the world.
In the first visit by a U.S. treasury secretary since the crisis began — and on his third visit to Europe since taking the post in February — Lew met with Greek Prime Minister Antonis Samaras and Finance Minister Yannis Stournaras to discuss economic recovery and job creation.
Greece “has gone a long way in the last 12 months,” Samaras said after the meeting, according to an e-mailed statement from his office.
German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble also visited Athens last week on his first such trip, warning the country that there are no “shortcuts” to austerity — even as he opened the possibility of further debt relief.
As Greece stumbles in fulfilling budget targets and raising tax revenues, the country’s woes have become a showcase in the debate over fiscal austerity. At 27.4 percent, unemployment is more than double the level at which it stood when Greece began receiving bailout payments in 2010. The economy has shrunk 22 percent since 2008.
Greek lawmakers last week passed a bill that put thousands of state workers on notice for possible dismissal, a requirement set out by the troika of international lenders — the International Monetary Fund, the European Commission and the European Central Bank — to receive more bailout funding.
To keep Greece afloat, euro-area finance ministers last year agreed to trim bailout-loan rates, suspend interest payments and offer more to repay. A private-sector writedown cut outstanding debt by about 100 billion euros ($131 billion).
The G-20 meeting in Russia exposed divisions among the world’s richest nations over the pace and consequences of scaling back budget deficits. Lew in May pressured European policy makers to reconsider the pace of deficit reduction.
Lael Brainard, the Treasury’s undersecretary for international affairs, said on July 15 that Europe risks prolonged stagnation unless policy makers focus on spurring consumer demand. Commenting at a conference in Washington, Brainard listed Europe among economic laggards that “aren’t doing enough to bolster domestic demand.”
Friction over austerity measures also helped scupper a “national salvation” agreement in Portugal last week, as the opposition Socialist Party refused to agree to the government’s plan for 4.7 billion euros in spending cuts. The measures are required to complete a euro-area bailout plan.
The cuts were “one of the important obstacles” to a deal, Socialist Party leader Antonio Jose Seguro said in Lisbon on July 19 after six days of talks.