Archive for December, 2010
Let me make it clear that I strongly support the euro; I’m a Brit who believes in European integration and who has little time for Euro-sceptics. But I can also see the writing on the wall. The euro—and with it the whole EU integration project—is in grave danger. It is entirely possible that in five years’ time, travelling from Paris to Berlin and thence to Madrid or Rome will entail queuing to change money and struggling through customs posts once again.
Why should the euro be in danger? After all, the Eurozone taken together is in quite good shape, considering the fact that we’ve been though the worst recession since the 1930s. The 16 euro-states’ budget deficit in 2010 as a percentage of GDP is 6.9% (versus 10.2% for the USA); the ratio of public debt to GDP is 84%, far lower than the US figure of 94%. So what’s the problem?
The problem is the peculiar architecture of economic governance. Since tax receipts fall and spending rises in a recession, government deficits necessarily swell and must be financed by borrowing. Because the Eurozone has no federal treasury and cannot emit federal bonds, smaller member states whose domestic bond markets are too narrow must go to the international market to sell their own Eurobonds.
In normal times, member-states’ government bonds are considered a safe bet by the market. But as past financial crises show clearly, bond markets tend to be driven by the herd instinct; ie, once the rumour circulates that one country’s bonds are at risk, everyone joins in. This is commonly known as ‘contagion’, and there’s lots of it about today. Witness the fact that not just Greece, Ireland, Portugal and Spain are under threat, but in the past week Belgium and Italy have been added to the list.
The joint European/IMF bailout plan agreed earlier this year provided some €750bn (€860bn if Greece is included) in potential relief to afflicted countries—with plenty of nasty strings attached, one must add. The plan covers the period 2010-14, but the combined borrowing requirement over 2011-14 of Italy, Spain, Portugal, Greece and Ireland totals nearly €650bn and is growing. Add to this Belgium’s public debt of about €350bn, and the total is €1tr, far larger than the bailout package. The size of the package is unlikely to increase because of political resistance and possible required changes to the Lisbon treaty; per contra, what is likely to increase is the troubled states’ borrowing requirements. The financial markets have already done their sums, the main reason they are betting against the longer-term success of the rescue.
What are the options? First, Chancellor Merkel and President Sarkozy recently agreed on a sovereign debt default mechanism for troubled Eurozone countries thus forcing bondholders to share the bailout pain. Doubtless such a scheme will appeal to taxpayers and sacked public-sector workers alike, but as Paul De Grauwe has noted forcefully, legitimating sovereign debt restructuring makes speculative runs more likely, not less so; ie, the new mechanism increases potential turbulence.
Of course, it is not just the troubled states that are being rescued; it is the major banks holding troubled Eurobonds that are in danger. Everybody knows—except apparently the German electorate—that when Germany ‘bails out’ Greece, the main beneficiaries are German banks (just as the main beneficiary of the recent UK ‘bailout’ for Ireland will be RBS). As ever, these are deemed to be ‘too big to fail’. To ensure their solvency, the European Central Bank (ECB) has been lending them money at a typical rate of 1 percent, money which is then on-lent to Greece or whomever in the form of bond purchases yielding 5 percent or more.
The problem here (quite apart from the big commercial banks making huge profits) is that the resources of the ECB are finite. It simply cannot conjure up another trillion euros if required. Of course it could do so by engaging in Quantitative Easing (QE)—a form of monetisation—but politicians think this will lead to inflation.
And here lies another trap. Although core inflation in the Eurozone remains very low, once energy and food are added back into the measure the rate goes up. In the next few years, food and energy inflation (both largely imported) are likely to accelerate. And if the ECB prints money, politicians—most of whom still believe in the simple ‘quantity theory of money’—will take the blame.
Finally, there is the fundamentalist solution preached by the deficit hawks: make all the ClubMed countries (including those not bordering the Mediterranean) cut their spending and balance their budgets! But there are two problems here. First, budget balancing might be feasible for one country when the world economy is buoyant, but in a world where the OECD economies are stagnating, asking many countries to balance their budget is not feasible. As a recent IMF study shows, ‘expansionary fiscal contraction’ is not the answer.
So what is the answer? The answer is twofold: first, the ECB, not member states, should be able to issue Eurobonds, an idea which has recently gained limited traction. Secondly and more important, in the long term there must be a Eurozone Federal Treasury, akin to the US Federal Treasury. As the President of the ECB, Jean-Claude Trichet, said in the summer “Nous sommes une fédération monetaire. Nous avons maintenant besoin l’équivalent d’une fédération budgetaire” (Le Monde, June 1st). He repeated this warning to a European Parliamentary Committee on 30 November.
To date, Europe’s political class has been unwilling to listen. They argue, inter alia, that Germany’ constitutional court would never cede fiscal sovereignty. Indeed, the tradeoff between monetary and fiscal sovereignty was at the heart of the Maastricht Compromise of 1992. It is most certainly not in Germany’s interest to allow the euro to flounder. Let’s hope Europhiles wake up before it’s too late.
 See FT Alphaville 23 Nov 2010; http://optionalpha.com/european-national-debt-2010-as-a-percentage-of-gdp-9001.html
 See P De Grauwe ‘A mechanism of self-destruction in the Eurozone’ 9 November 21010; http://www.ceps.eu/book/mechanism-self-destruction-eurozone
 See http://www.social-europe.eu/2010/11/expansionary-fiscal-contraction-and-the-emperor%E2%80%99s-clothes/
 See G. Montani, ‘European Economic Governance and fiscal sovereignty’; http://www.thenewfederalist.eu/European-Economic-Government-and-Fiscal-Sovereignty