PARIS When the United States wants to talk to Europe about the euro zone debt crisis, what number does it dial?
The two top interlocutors are the International Monetary Fund in Washington and the European Central Bank in Frankfurt, far outstripping the politicians officially in charge of running the 17-nation single currency area.
Economist Jean Pisani-Ferry has discovered the answer to Henry Kissinger's apocryphal question ("When I want to talk to Europe, what number do I call?") by examining the published agenda and telephone records of U.S. Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner.
Between January 2010, after the crisis erupted in Greece, and June 2012, the last month for which records have been released, Geithner had 114 meetings and telephone calls with the heads of the IMF, Dominique Strauss-Kahn and his successor Christine Lagarde, and their deputies.
Over the same period he had 58 contacts with the president of the European Central Bank, first Jean-Claude Trichet then Mario Draghi since November 2011.
National finance ministers of the big EU member states came next, with 36 contacts with Wolfgang Schaeuble in Germany, 32 with the French finance minister (three incumbents over the period), 19 with non-euro Britain's Chancellor of the Exchequer, and a handful of calls with counterparts in Spain, Italy, Greece, Ireland and Portugal.
Yet Geithner spoke only 12 times to European Economic and Monetary Affairs Commissioner Olli Rehn and a mere once to Jean-Claude Juncker, the chairman of euro zone finance ministers who was once touted as "Mr Euro", the records showed.
"Mr Euro is first and foremost the ECB president," Pisani-Ferry wrote in a blog post (here).
He noted that Geithner's diary does not specify the topics of the meetings and phone calls, so there is no certainty that all or most of the contacts focused on the euro zone crisis.
However, given the degree of publicly stated U.S. concern about the risks to the world economy from the euro zone crisis, "what else could have justified 58 contacts in 30 months between Tim Geithner and the ECB's successive presidents?", he asked.
Pisani-Ferry drew three conclusion from Geithner's records:
* they reveal the extent of U.S. involvement in trying to manage the European crisis, with a total of 168 contacts with European policymakers during the period
* "the ECB emerges on top of all European institutions, far ahead of the European Commission and even further ahead of the Eurogroup"
* within Europe, there were many more contacts with the German and French finance ministers than with the European Commission or the chairman of the Eurogroup, indicating the driving role of major national capitals in the crisis. (Writing by Paul Taylor; Editing by Greg Mahlich)