Posts Tagged Eurozone
The Labour Party was congratulating itself yesterday on having joined with Tory rebels to defeat the Tory-led government by voting to cut the EU budget. In truth, this was sheer opportunism. While the two Eds (Miliband and Balls) may believe that supporting belt-tightening in Europe is good populist politics, in truth, Labour has shot itself in the foot.
Why? Because the vote was not about whether the British hate Europe—doubtless many do and will continue to rally round the Daily Mail. Rather, it’s a vote about the principle of adopting further deflationary policies.
By voting to cut the EU budget, Labour is aligning itself with budget cutters throughout the EU—in the main, centre-right parties. With euro-zone unemployment now above 11% (in some member-states above 25%!) and Europe headed for even deeper recession, any sensible progressive politician should be shouting out for co-ordinated fiscal expansion. What’s needed is the opposite of budget cutting—a far larger EU budget which could be used to reflate the economy and transfer resources towards the neediest regions.
Granted, under current arrangements, the EU budget is nearly useless as a vehicle for driving reflation. Bright economics-trained shadow ministers like Rachel Reeves and Chuka Umunna—even the Pro-EU Shadow Minister for Europe Emma Reynolds—understand this and know what needs to be done, but sadly are forced to toe the party line.
But whether it’s about Britain or about Europe as a whole, it’s time to repeat the message loud and clear—balls to deflationary policies in the midst of recession!
Nouriel Roubini famously described the long decline of the euro as a ‘slow motion train wreck’. Mind you, economists disagree on exactly when the wreck will happen. Professor Vincente Nabarro has argued that the euro will survive for as long as it serves the purposes of the German (and European) elite while, in the Financial Times, Wolfgang Münchau mischievously suggests the crisis could last another 20 years given Germany’s proclivity for muddling through. By contrast, Megan Green at RGE sees the confluence of crises in Greece, Spain, and Italy during September and October, 2012, as potentially lethal. But all agree that—sooner or later—it will happen.
In Greece, the coalition government will have to agree a package of measures with the troika to secure the latest tranche of bailout money. The problem is twofold: first, Mr Samaras has asked for an extra two years to impose further austerity measures required by the troika, a request which the Germans have already rejected. Secondly, the Greek Parliament must approve the measures, failing which another general election would almost certainly need to be called.
Even if one assumes that Greeks can be paper over their differences once again (or else that Greek default does not produce catastrophic contagion), Portugal is likely to remain locked out of the financial markets and thus forced into a second round of difficult negotiations with the troika. Because the ESM comes into existence in September—assuming the Germans Constitutional Court rules in its favour—Spain too will require negotiations with the new body both on bailing out its private banks and on sovereign bond purchases.
Elsewhere, the campaign in Italy for the April 2013 general election will begin in earnest and Mr Berlusconi can be expected to launch his political comeback on an anti-euro platform, having said quite plainly earlier this year that either Italy gets bailed out or it leaves the EZ. However one views Berlusconi, there should be no doubt about the seriousness of this threat. In September too, France’s President Hollande will advance a budget which is bound to be controversial, while at the same time the Dutch will hold a general election likely to lead to a euro-sceptic coalition.
The situation might not be so dangerous were it not for growing euro-scepticism in Germany. While a majority of Germans may still favour remaining in the euro, over a third of those questioned favour a return to the old currency, the highest percentage in the large EZ countries. Public opinion, moreover, is strongly against what is perceived as further German ‘aid’ to the Club-Med countries (which is reality is ‘aid’ to their own banking system). Spurred by such neo-liberal economists as Hans-Werner Sinn, centre-right German politicians continue to insist that: (a) neither commonly backed Eurobonds nor bank insurance are an option; (b) further ECB sovereign bond purchases are dangerous, and (c) there can be no bank recapitalisation without EZ banking union, and such banking union must be preceded by political union.
But the strong EZ banking union required is not what the German centre-right has in mind, and even were it to accede on this point, German actions (and inactions) to date mean that the chance of achieving political union is growing ever more remote. Nor can we expect much to change were the SPD to enter into a new grand coalition in late 2013. After all, it was the previous SPD-CDU coalition which embedded austerity into the German constitution in the form of the debt-brake law, and the then SPD Finance Minister Peer Steinbrük—now a strong candidate to lead the party into the 2013 election—famously dismissed the Keynesian notion of a pan-European economic stimulus package. Moreover, the ex-central banker, Thilo Sarazzin , whose 2012 book Europa braucht den Euro nicht (Europe doesn’t need the euro) has been a best-seller, is a well-known SPD member.
Without a fundamental shift in the German position—not just on the above issues but on domestic demand reflation and trade imbalances–the euro seems doomed. Since there is no sign of such a shift, Europe sits on its hands awaiting the inevitable economic shock. One source has put the cost to Germany in the first year alone as a 10 per cent collapse in GDP. Perhaps this is the sort of price which, sooner or later, all of us will pay as a result of accepting the deep flaws in the initial structure of the common currency.
While the punters speculate on the outcome of the Greek election on 17 June, in truth ‘Grexit’ is already happening. Because of massive withdrawals from the Greek banking system, the country is on emergency life support from the ECB. First, following the inconclusive May elections, the ‘troika’ decided that it would postpone the €48bn recapitalisation payment until after the June election. Then, a fortnight ago, the ECB stopped accepting collateral from the Central Bank of Greece (BoG) for several of Greece’s major banks. This collateral is required for weekly refinance operations required to keep the country’s private banks liquid.
In consequence, the central bank has had to seek €100bn from the ECB’s Emergency Liquidity Assistance (ELA), whih is slowly being chanelled to four major private banks. The difference between money received through the ‘normal’ ECB refinancing channel and the ELA is that, in the former case, the loan from the BoG to the private Greek banks is guaranteed by all ECB members while in the latter case it is guaranteed by the Greek state. In the words of one commentator, ‘think of what this means about keeping your money in your local bank?’ Or in the words of another:
“Essentially, ELA represents the ECB passing the risk back to the sovereign. That could be the trigger for potential default … ”
Some think that Greece’s departure may be a good thing. The arguments are familiar enough: first, Merkel and her allies want Greece out ‘pour encourager les autres’. Secondly, a numbrer of prominent economists (eg, Nouriel Roubini) believe Greece will benefit from leaving now rather than later. With Greece gone, a deal can probably be done between Merkel and Hollande over Eurobonds or (minimally at least) ‘project bonds’. The latter would be construed as a victory for the anti-austerity camp. Until recently, that is certainly what I had thought.
As Martin Wolf and others have noted, Greece’s disorderly departure will in all likelihood shatter faith in the Eurozone forever. Given the slow motion bank run in Spain, a Greek bank run will almost certainly trigger massive flight from the single currency. We shall not return to the comfortable prosperity of post-war Europe soon or even later—in all probability, that world has now died.
At the moment, the Euro Area is stagnating, unemployment is rising and the entire banking system is dangerously fragile—in Nouriel Roubini’s phrase, we are watching a slow motion train wreck. But if the opinion polls are right, François Hollande will very soon be President of the French Republic and economic policy in the Euro Area (EA) could become decisively more progressive. ‘Austerity’ could be ditched and Europe could go for growth and jobs.
Hollande can talk the talk, but can he ‘walk the walk’? Whether genuine change is possible depends on a number of factors difficult to evaluate; eg, how markets will react, how Hollande manages the relationship with Germany in the coming months, whether the German SPD can form a government after the 2013 general election and, crucially, whether social-democrats in the EU scrap the current economic orthodoxy. Let us consider each in turn, bearing in mind the speculative nature of any such discussion.
How will markets react to a progressive government in France? The knee-jerk reaction is to invoke Mitterrand’s experience in 1981-3 when financial turbulence forced the social-democratic left to change course within two years and into ‘cohabitation’ within five. And, yes, it must be added that financial markets are far more powerful today. Nevertheless, there are important differences. First, the once-powerful French Communist party (PCF) is no longer of any significance, so there is no red revolution to fear. It is easily forgotten, too, that Mitterrand’s policy failed largely because of rising inflation which rocketed in 1983; inflation is no longer a serious threat today.
An even more important difference is that, with every passing day, politicians and financial ‘experts’ are becoming aware that fiscal austerity leads to a dead end. Far from leading to budget balance, deep expenditure cuts leads back to recession which makes things worse—as we see in Greece, Portugal and Ireland and will soon see in Spain too. Hollande’s message is simple: in a recession, fiscal rectitude is achieved through state-led growth—it is higher national income that generates higher savings, not the other way ‘round. Even the IMF appears to agree.
Doubtless there will be capital flight from France as a result of higher taxes on the rich, but it is unlikely to be massive. Young middle-class French people migrate not because of high taxes but because there are too few jobs, and the extra income from higher taxes on the rich—and from clamping down on tax dodges—can be used to create jobs. Unlike the early 1980s, the French today are far more aware of the inequities of neoliberalism and the time-bomb of unemployment. But if Hollande wants jobs and growth, his proposed ‘stimulus’ will need to be far more than 1% of French GDP.
Hollande’s most difficult task upon coming to power will be calming the Germans while renegotiating the so-called Stability Treaty. There are two issues here. First, Angela Merkel, by openly backing Sarkozy, has declared war on the Hollande camp, presumably because she believes that by so doing she can preserve her own brittle CDU-FDP coalition government. But even assuming she can remain in power until the German general election deadline of September 2013, her popularity is on the wane and numerous polls suggest the most likely electoral outcome to be either an SPD-Green coalition or else a ‘grand coalition’ without Merkel.
The second—and crucial— issue is that of the Stability Treaty. This Treaty requires countries wishing to borrow from the European Stability Mechanism (ESM) to adopt a German-style ‘debt brake’ law limiting their structural fiscal deficit to 0.5% of GDP. As shown in detail elsewhere , the debt brake law is only possible in Germany because of the country’s current account surplus—it is economic nonsense to think such a law can resolve the problem of deficit countries. (This is not a matter of Keynesian economics but follows from simple National Accounting identities.)
Although many EA governments are in the process of ratifying it, the Treaty is deeply unpopular—-and not just in Greece, Portugal and Ireland. In Italy, Signor Monti has made it clear that he thinks it foolish and that jointly-backed Eurobonds constitute a better solution. Belgium’s Guy Verhofstatd agrees and even Sr Barroso appears to support this position. In demanding that the Treaty be changed, François Hollande would have the support not just of the EA periphery but of some of its major players and many of its economic experts. One should bear in mind that the poll indications for Italian Parliamentary elections to be held next spring suggest a centre-left coalition will emerge. Whether the Germans and their Dutch and Austrian allies could long hold out against a majority of the larger EA economies is doubtful.
In short, the victory of François Hollande on the 6th of May might well mark a turning point for the economic future not just of France, but of the EU and of Europe as a whole. While the chain of events outlined above is necessarily speculative, what is certain is that the coming 15 months will see fascinating changes take place. After all, two centuries ago France’s revolution embedded the Enlightenment values of liberté, égalité, fraternité which inform the European centre-left today, values which today’s Europe disregards at its peril. Without a growth strategy, the euro—and the European project—is doomed.
Does the Greek Parliament’s latest vote in favour of further cuts—despite the 40 deputies who defied the whips and were forced to resign—mean that the Greek crisis is resolved? Of course it doesn’t. For one thing, the troika (ECB, IMF and EU) will not approve the €130bn ‘bailout package’ next Wednesday unless Antonis Samaras, leader of the New Democrats, agrees to sign. Samaras has made it clear he will not do so until after the April elections because he knows that if he signs now, his party is toast.
For another, even with Parliamentary endorsement of nearly €4bn in cuts for 2012, it is hard to see how the government of Mr Papademos—or whoever succeeds him after the elections—can deliver. And of course, there must be a serious question about whether Ms Merkel and her Eurozone (EZ) allies want Greece to stay in the euro. As the Dutch PM, Marc Rutte, is reported to have said last week, the EZ is now strong enough to weather Greece’s departure—eurospeak for ‘get out’.
Recall what the troika is demanding for 2012 alone:
- a 22 per cent cut in the monthly minimum wage to €586;
- layoffs for 15,000 of civil servants;
- an end to dozens of job guarantee provisions;
- a 20 per cent cut in its government work force by 2015;
- spending cuts of more than €3 billion;
- further cuts to retiree pension benefits.
These demands come as the country faces its fifth consecutive year of recession, and recent OECD figures showing GDP to have fallen by nearly 15% since January 2009 with unemployment standing at 18.7%. As Helena Smith reports in The Guardian, ‘Greece can’t take any more’. Even with the latest cuts and bailout, it is optimistic to forecast that the country’s debt/GDP ratio will be 120% in 2020. According to the FT’s Wolfgang Münchau: “[a] 120% debt-to-GDP ratio by 2020? That’s 9 years of strikes in Greece,” and that is not sustainable.
Is Greece’s problem high labour costs? Nouriel Roubini’s influential think-tank RGE estimates that as far as labour costs are concerned, the view that Greek wages rose too much during the good years is pure myth. In fact, over the period 2005/08, Greek wages rose less quickly than the average for the EZ.
Further cuts mean further recession, and it should be perfectly obvious by now that Greece cannot pay down its sovereign debt as long as the economy is shrinking. As I (and many others) have explained elsewhere, the debt/GDP ratio can only fall where the rate of interest on the debt is less than the rate of GDP growth. Just as Osborne’s cuts are jeopardising the future of the UK economy, so Merkel’s cuts are sinking a (far weaker) Greece.
Unlike some of my colleagues on the left, I have always been pro-euro. But the suffering imposed on Greece now makes me ashamed of being European.
Europe is obsessed with the growing stock of public sector debt; fiscal austerity has become the watchword of our time. Little does it seem to matter that fiscal austerity means reducing aggregate demand, thus leading to economic stagnation and recession throughout the EU as all the main forecasts are now suggesting.1 Even the credit rating agencies are worried, as S&P’s downgrading of France and eight other countries shows. Whether it’s Angela Merkel or David Cameron speaking, public debt is denounced as deplorable, and all are told to get used to hard times. As Larry Elliot puts it: “The notion that economic pain is the only route to pleasure was once the preserve of the British public school-educated elite, now it’s European economic policy”.2
In Britain, immediately after the general election, the Tory-led coalition decreed that in light of the large government current deficit, harsh cuts were necessary to win the confidence of the financial markets. But although the current deficit was high, the stock of debt (typically measured by the debt/GDP ratio) was relatively low and of long maturity, the real interest rate on debt was zero (and at times negative) and, crucially, Britain had its own Central Bank and could devalue. As Harriet Harman argued in June 2010, Osborne’s cuts were ideologically motivated. The aim was to shrink the public sector, and the LibDems—fearing a new general election—chose to go along with the policy.
In the Eurozone (EZ), where a balance of payments crisis at the periphery has turned into a sovereign debt crisis, the German public has been sold the idea that if only all EZ countries could be like Germany and adhere to strict fiscal discipline, all would be well. The ultra-orthodox Stability and Growth Pact (SGP) has now been repackaged under the heading of ‘economic governance’ under which Germany and its allies will vet members’ fiscal policies and impose punitive fines on those failing to observe the deflationary budget rules to be adopted. Never mind the fact that indebtedness in countries like Spain and Ireland was mainly private, or that the draconian fiscal measures imposed on Greece have, far from reducing public indebtedness, increased it.
Is debt always a bad thing? In the private sector, obviously not since corporations regularly borrow money for expenditure they don’t want to meet out of retained earnings, while most households aim to hold long-term mortgages. Public debt instruments like gilts in the UK or bunds in Germany are much sought after by the private sector, mainly because such instruments are thought to act as an excellent hedge against risk. Remember, too, that when a pension fund buys a government bond, it is held as an asset which produces a future cash stream which benefits the private sector. So ‘public debt’ is not a burden passed on from one generation to the next. The stock of public debt is only a problem when its servicing (ie, payment of interest) is unaffordable; ie, in times of recession when growth is zero or negative and/or interest rates demanded by the financial market are soaring.
The question is when is debt sustainable? Sustainability means keeping the ratio of debt to GDP stable in the longer term. If GDP at the start of the year is €1,000bn and the government’s total stock of debt is €600bn, then the debt ratio is 60%; the fiscal deficit is the extra borrowing that the government makes in a year – so it adds to the stock of debt.3 But although the stock of debt may be rising, as long as GDP is rising proportionately, the debt/GDP ratio can be kept constant or may even be falling.
Consider the following example. Suppose the real rate of interest on debt is 2% (say 5% nominal but with inflation at 3%, so 5 – 3 = 2). That means government must pay €12bn per annum of interest in real terms. But as long as real GDP, too, is rising—say at 2% per year—there’s no problem since real GDP at the year’s end will be €1020bn. Even if the government were to pay none of the interest, the end-of-year debt/GDP ratio would be 612/1020 or 60%; ie, the debt ratio remains unchanged. By contrast, if real GDP growth is zero, the ratio would be 612/1000 = 61.2; ie, the debt ratio rises only slightly. The rule is that as long as the real economy is growing by at least as much as the real rate of interest on debt, the debt/GDP ratio doesn’t rise. Moreover, this holds true irrespective of whether the debt ratio is 60% or 600%.
But there’s a catch. In a modern economy, the public sector accounts for about half the economy. If a country panics about its debt ratio and cuts back sharply on public sector spending, this reduces aggregate demand and may lead to stagnation or even recession. When a country stops growing, financial markets decide that its debt ratio may rise and so become more cautious about lending and demand a higher bond yield (ie, interest rate). The gloomy prophecy of growing public indebtedness becomes self-fulfilling.
This is exactly the sort of ‘debt trap’ which faces much of the EU and other rich countries. The way out cannot be greater austerity. What works for a single household or firm doesn’t work for the economy as a whole. A household can tighten its belt by spending less, saving more, and thus ‘balancing the books’, but an economy cannot. If everybody saves more, national income falls. Of course, Germany and some Nordic countries can balance the government books because an export surplus offsets domestic private saving. But the Club-Med countries cannot match them. When no EZ country can devalue, to ask each EZ country to balance the books by running an export surplus is empirically and logically impossible. Even if all could devalue, what would follow is 1930s-style competitive devaluation.
The way out of the ‘debt trap’ is the same as the way out of recession: if the private sector won’t invest, the public sector must become investor of the last resort. It doesn’t matter whether new investment is financed by more government borrowing, quantitative easing or redistribution (some combination of the three would be optimal). What matters is growth.
 See Joe Weisenthal http://articles.businessinsider.com/2011-11-10/markets/30380618_1_fiscal-consolidation-economic-growth-slow-growth
3 See Paul Segal http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2010/sep/03/government-debt-growth-unemployment
As the Euro Area (EA) dithers about bailing out Greece in the short term and continues to argue about how to expand the European Financial Stability Facility (EFSF), the sovereign debt crisis is turning into a full-blown banking crisis. Shares in Dexia, the Franco-Belgian banking group, are down 72% on their 52-week high—closely followed by other pillars of western finance such as Bank of America (-66%), RBS (-57%) and Deutsche Bank (-50%).  In effect, financial markets have seen the wiring on the wall and have been pulling out of bank shares—both banks that hold euro sovereign debt assets and those that hold shares in other banks that do. This means that the asset side of banks’ balance sheets are contracting and that insolvency looms.
True, the gloom lightened briefly when both Angela Merkel and EU President J-M Barroso announced they favoured a pan-European recapitalisation programme—causing EU bank shares to rally for a time. Governments are trying to pour cash into the banks—in the UK, Mervin King has announced an extra £75bn of quantitative easing (QE), allegedly to help industry get more and cheaper credit, but in reality to ward off a new credit crunch along the lines of what happened after Lehman’s collapsed in 2008. In his words, we face the ‘worst financial crisis ever’.
However, the recapitalisation of Europe’s banks faces a serious credibility gap. First, Dexia was one of the banks to pass the European Banking Authority’s (EBA) ‘stress tests’ with flying colours. Secondly, one result of these tests was a serious underestimation of the degree of recapitalisation required. In consequence, a new round of tests will be required adding further to delays. Perhaps more importantly, there is growing pressure from investors to make banks ‘mark to market’; ie, report the current market value of their assets. Adoption of such a rule combined with current market volatility would doubtless lead to a large number of banks failing the stress tests.
And of course, the prospect of a Greek default looms larger by the day. The problem is not so much that a Greek default is unaffordable; doubtless, were the country to default on its own, it would take some banks down—starting with its own banks. The real danger is that of contagion. We know that Spain and Italy are ‘too big to fail’, and the markets have already begun to mark down commercial banks with exposure to them, not just in Spain and Italy but in France and even the UK. Whatever one may think about financial markets, their analysts are not fools; what they are telling us is that a Greek default will trigger widespread contagion.
Meanwhile, EA Parliaments dither about just how the EFSF’s limited capital can be stretched to meet the bill. Since the €440bn available cannot be miraculously turned into the €2tn required for ‘shock and awe’ to be sure of succeeding, the latest twist involves turning the EFSF from a lending institution into a insurance company, in effect selling credit default swaps (CDSs) to those most in need of insurance. These would be structured into equity, mezzanine and senior layers just like their Wall Street cousins, thus enabling €440bn to be hugely leveraged.
But as more than one commentator has pointed out, there are several problems here. First, one is using over-leveraged instruments to deal with the problem of over-leverage. Second, there is no ‘lender of the last resort’—if the scheme goes wrong, governments cannot bailout the losers since it is governments who hold the equity tranches. In principle, the ECB could perform this role—but the Germans are resolute in their opposition to the ECB acting as a Central Bank for governments.  For that matter, tiny Slovakia is threatening to upset the EFSF applecart unless collateral is provided for its pledged assistance.
An obvious way out of this nightmare would be to forgive Greece at least half its debt (which the markets believe is in any case unpayable) while further reducing the interest on its loan, lengthening its debt maturity profile and aiding the country to become more competitive. Cynics might say this has been obvious from the start, and that it is now too late. If a European financial crisis does not happen next week, it will occur as part of a disorderly default in December when the pain finally becomes too much for Greeks to bear. It is then that we shall all feel the pain of a full-blown financial crisis, most probably followed by more years of economic recession.
 See D Blanchflower ‘As bankshares tumble ..’ New Statesman, 10 Oct 2011.
 See http://on.ft.com/qi7ZIw
Despite Wimbledon week, the main centre court contest that many economists are watching is that between the German government and the ECB. An abbreviated summary of the action so far is as follows. The German Finance Minister, Herr Schäuble, initially appeared to gain the advantage by admitting that the Greek situation is so perilous that they should be allowed in effect to default—the phrase he used was ‘voluntary restructuring’. Monsieur Trichet then fought back hard arguing that a Greek default would be catastrophic and implying that eurozone governments (not the ECB) should continue lending. The ECB even threatened to stop accepting Greek Eurobonds as collateral for its continued lending to the Greek central bank, a move that would effectively pull the plug on the Greek banking system. Who will prevail?
On the face of it, Herr Schäuble has a strong case, albeit rendered more palatable to his critics by such sweeteners as having Greece sell off public assets, voluntarily ‘reprofile’ its sovereign debt and so forth. The real case for default, though, is that the retrenchment medicine is not working and risks killing the patient. Instead of extracting a vengeful levy entirely from ordinary Greeks, German and French banks should be made to pay their fair share—a ‘haircut’ variously estimated as between 35% and 70% of the bonds they hold. Indeed, given the dramatic turn of events in Athens in recent days, default now looks almost certain.
But here is the rub. A default—however sugar-coated—is still a default. The ECB argument is that if Greece is allowed to do so, other highly indebted members will follow suit and, as contagion spreads, the markets will cease buying members’ sovereign debt altogether. The ECB would be left to bail out not just the small peripheral economies, but probably Spain and Italy too. That would spell the end of the euro. That is partly why Jean-Claude Trichet will be replaced in October by another tough conservative, Italy’s Mario Draghi who famously prefaced an interview with the Financial Times by the phrase “The euro is not in question.”
On the face of it, then, the first set of the match will almost certainly end in a nail-biting tie break. But whoever wins, the match will be far from over. To borrow Wolfgang Münchau’s phrase, the existing union is too weak to function properly, but too strong to blow up. Assuming the eurozone does not blow up, how might it be strengthened?
The central pillar of a new economic architecture for the eurozone would be the creation of a Treasury Secretary with a secretariat; ie, an embryonic Eurozone Treasury (Ministry of Finance). Indeed, the idea was floated earlier in June by Monsieur Trichet himself who added that such a Ministry would also carry out “all the typical responsibilities of the executive branches as regards the union’s integrated financial sector, so as to accompany the full integration of financial services, and third, the representation of the union confederation in international financial institutions.”. The key points to retain are, first, that such a Ministry would have real power (ie, it could override national bickering in the Council); and secondly, that the Eurozone would have a single banking system.
Another pillar would be fiscal-financial. Like its US counterpart, a Eurozone Treasury would need to be able to emit E-bonds jointly guaranteed by all members. Not only would this enable the eurozone to supersede the now-discredited system of relying on national Eurobonds, it would greatly strengthen the euro as a reserve currency since euro-assets would be far more desirable (and available) to hold. Additionally, a Euro-Treasury might start by improved ‘co-ordination’ of member-states’ fiscal policy, but it would soon need to raise significant amounts of revenue. A useful mechanism would be to follow up on a suggestion by Spain a decade ago that a tax on member-states (ie, a share of their VAT receipts) be levied progressively in proportion to their per capita income.
The third pillar would be political. The eurozone cannot survive unless its citizens benefit from its existence. And here is where serious political courage is needed—the courage to set up a Eurozone unemployment benefit scheme, and/or for that matter, a Eurozone pension scheme. Initially such schemes would complement the national schemes already in place, but as they grew in size, they would come to play the same macroeconomic stabilisation and redistributive functions as the US Treasury.
How do these proposals relate to the current contest between the Germans and the ECB? The answer is straightforward. Although the Greeks, the Irish and other countries at risk will doubtless be offered further loans, at the end of the day what we are witnessing is a slow-motion default. Why? Because ‘internal devaluation’ and the fiscal straightjacket imposed upon the weakest members means they can never repay. Ultimately, Germany, France et al will have to bail out their own banks. If slow-motion default leads to another major financial crisis, we shall all pay.
In truth, Eurozone member-states already live in a ‘transfer union’, and the sooner members realise it and adopt a common macro-economic framework, the better. The practical details may take a long time, but one thing is certain: the gruelling match on centre-court is far from over.
 See ‘Interview with Mario Draghi: Action on the addicts’ http://www.ft.com/cms/s/0/af24be36-03ca-11e0-8c3f-00144feabdc0.html#ixzz1PAShPhkq
 See Wolfgang Münchau ‘Ingredients of a European political union’ Financial Times, June 5 2011.
Five years ago I wrote a book supporting the euro, but saying inter alia that Eurozone governance was fatally flawed and that a European Treasury was needed. Although not taken very seriously at the time, this view has today gained wide currency. Like it or not, a US-style Treasury is needed to guarantee states’ financial system and to effect fiscal transfers within the Eurozone. Yes, the Eurozone is a ‘transfer union’ and the sooner the rich countries face up to this reality the better. The alternative could be collapse of the euro, followed by financial chaos.
Intra Euro debt: Claims between national central banks (£bn)
source: M Wolf, ‘Intolerable choices for the Eurozone’ FT, 31 May 2011.
In a series of excellent pieces in the Financial Times, Martin Wolf has spelled out a compelling case for fundamental reform. The eurozone, Wolf reminds us, started life as a reincarnation of the gold standard. Eurozone member states were meant to finance a trade deficit by borrowing abroad; ie, by emitting their own central bank bonds. If markets were unwilling to buy these, a member-state would have no option but to find the money internally by means of a squeezing labour costs, or what is euphemistically termed ‘internal devaluation’.
There are two problems here. One is that squeezing wages may have an unacceptably high political cost. While it is true that cutting aggregate demand sufficiently will balance the books at some (very much) lower level of national income, the patient may stop breathing as a result. (For example, Ireland has now experienced four years of recession and the young are emigrating in droves.)
The second problem is the banking system. Since private credit died up after 2008, the ECB (and the Bundesbank) have acted de facto as the Eurozone’s lender of the last resort, both in buying the sovereign debt of the periphery’s Central Banks and helping Europe’s large private banks to do so. Indeed, the accompanying figure illustrates the unnerving symmetry between Germany’s position as chief central bank creditor and the growing indebtedness of the Eurozone periphery—unnerving because the Germans are indirectly financing the periphery through the banking system rather than through explicit fiscal transfers. Although this has helped peripheral states to weather the storm, what happens if peripheral countries default?
Many commentators (including myself) believe that some form of default is now inevitable—but default could have dire consequences too. The insolvency of periphery governments would almost certainly threaten the solvency of debtor country central banks, leading to large losses for creditor country central banks (eg, Germany), which national taxpayers would need to shoulder. Doubtless this is a major reason for Signor Smaghi’s implacable opposition to default. And in the absence of support from the ECB and other creditor central banks, the threat of default by Greece or Ireland would hasten contagion and paralysis. Banks would not want to rink continued lending to any potential defaulter, credit would seize up and, ultimately, the existing financial transfer mechanism would collapse.
The options for the eurozone are narrowing. Either default will result in weaker countries leaving the eurozone—a lengthening list as contagion and financial collapse spreads—or the eurozone must undergo radical reform. This means tearing up the current system under which Greece and its banking system depend on selling sovereign bonds to the market and establishing in its place a Eurozone Treasury which would, like its US counterpart, guarantee the integrity of the Eurozone’s financial system as a whole. Needless to say, other key reforms would be necessary (true e-bonds, smaller trade imbalances) which I shall not dwell on here.
All this boils down to a single basic point: Europe already has a central bank ‘transfer union’, but it is under growing threat. Either Europeans bite the bullet and accept the need for true fiscal union and economic governance, or they can stand aside and watch the Eurozone disintegrate. Just as in the case of climate change, it’s too late to think that we can merely wish for the best and ‘muddle through’.
1 See George Irvin, Regaining Europe; an economic agenda for the 21st century, London: Federal Trust, 2007.
3 See http://ftalphaville.ft.com/blog/2011/05/10/564346/roubinis-guide-to-a-greek-debt-restructuring/.
Suppose that my rich neighbour down the road mortgaged his mansion up to the hilt to bet on the horses, ran up millions in debt and asked me, an ordinary punter, to pay off his debts plus interest. Suppose that foolishly I accepted, and while I struggled to pay it off while barely able to feed my family and pay off the mortgage, my super-rich neighbour acquired an even bigger mansion. To make matters worse, he used all sorts of clever dodges in the Caymans to pay negligible taxes, while if I failed to pay mine I knew I’d be sent to prison.
It may sound like total madness, but that’s pretty well what’s happening to a growing number of Europeans (including Brits) today.
How did we get here? In Britain, the 2008 credit crunch produced a massive recession which played havoc with government finances. In Ireland the government took over the entire debt of its banking system, while in Greece, the rich paid minimal taxes and successive governments, unwilling to challenge them, indulged in creative accounting. That’s somewhat simplified, but it’s the essence of the story.
Everywhere in Europe, voters are being told that decent pensions and universal welfare provision are no longer affordable and that we must all tighten our belts. Governments can no longer borrow because the credit rating agencies might downgrade their bonds. First it was Greece and Ireland, today it is Portugal, and tomorrow perhaps Spain, then Italy, and then … who knows?
But ordinary punters are starting to wake up. Instead of enduring years of economic depression, the Greeks and the Irish will probably have to default, as will the Portuguese if their economy reacts the same way to belt-tightening. And what if Spain has to be bailed out, still less defaults? That would spell a major hit for banks in Germany, France, the UK (and elsewhere), all of which could easily add up to another major financial crisis.
Are we really so vulnerable? The answer is indeed yes—-because so little has been done to address the underlying causes of the 2008 crisis.
While the recent Basle Three agreement requires banks to carry a slightly higher cash cushion, nothing has been done to re-establish the division between investment banking and commercial high-street banking, a division which disappeared with the repeal in the US of Glass–Steagall in 1999. Except for a temporary ban on naked short sales in Germany, the derivatives trade remains mainly unregulated. Credit default swaps (a form of insurance on risky financial products) are still sold over-the-counter rather than through an official market, the US President having failed to follow up his 2009 promise to re-regulate these.
Meanwhile, the trillions poured into the big banks since 2008, instead of going to cash-starved small business or being used to build infrastructure and to create jobs, have largely helped fuel a new stock market bubble. The extraordinary rise in the value of companies such as Facebook and Zynga provides a worrying parallel with the dotcom bubble of 2000.
Tax dodging is now a major growth industry—witness the latest GE scandal. As for making the bankers pay by introducing some form of Tobin tax, there’s been much talk but little action.
Perhaps most galling of all is the injustice of using Keynesian economics to justify the need for state intervention in banking bailouts while claiming today that the profligate state caused the problem, as politicians now argue in London, Brussels and Frankfurt. How long will sensible people go on accepting this nonsense before venting their anger on our ruling classes?
(An earlier version of this piece first appeared at http://www.social-europe.eu/2011/04/the-big-bailout-scam)
5 See Ha-Joon Chang, ‘The revival—and the retreat—of the state?’ Red Pepper, Apr/May 2011.