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The Crisis & the Euro

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Shawn Thew/EPA/Corbis
Angela Merkel and Barack Obama at a NATO summit, Baden-Baden, Germany, April 2009

Another structural flaw in the euro is that it guards only against the danger of inflation and ignores the possibility of deflation. In this respect the task assigned to the European Central Bank is asymmetric. This is due to Germany’s fear of inflation. When Germany agreed to substitute the euro for the Deutschmark it insisted on strong safeguards to maintain the value of the currency. The Maastricht Treaty contained a clause that expressly prohibited bailouts and that ban has been reaffirmed by the German constitutional court. It is this clause that has made the current situation so difficult to deal with.

And this brings me to the gravest defect in the euro’s design: it does not allow for error. It expects member states to abide by the Maastricht criteria—which state that the budget deficit must not exceed 3 percent and total government debt 60 percent of GDP—without establishing an adequate enforcement mechanism. And now that several countries are far away from the Maastricht criteria, there is neither an adjustment mechanism nor an exit mechanism. Now these countries are expected to return to the Maastricht criteria even if such a move sets in motion a deflationary spiral. This is in direct conflict with the lessons learned from the Great Depression of the 1930s, and is liable to push Europe into a period of prolonged stagnation or worse. That will, in turn, generate discontent and social unrest. It is difficult to predict how the anger and frustration will express itself.

The wide range of possibilities will weigh heavily on the financial markets. They will have to discount the prospects of deflation and inflation, default and disintegration. Financial markets dislike uncertainty. Meanwhile, xenophobic and nationalistic extremism are already on the rise in countries such as Belgium, the Netherlands, and Italy. In a worst-case scenario, such political trends could undermine democracy and paralyze or even destroy the European Union.

If that were to happen, Germany would have to bear a major share of the responsibility because as the strongest and most creditworthy country it calls the shots. By insisting on pro-cyclical policies, Germany is endangering the European Union. I realize that this is a grave accusation but I am afraid it is justified.

To be sure, Germany cannot be blamed for wanting a strong currency and a balanced budget. But it can be blamed for imposing its predilection on other countries that have different needs and preferences—like Procrustes, who forced other people to lie in his bed and stretched them or cut off their legs to make them fit. The Procrustes bed being inflicted on the eurozone is called deflation.

Unfortunately Germany does not realize what it is doing. It has no desire to impose its will on Europe; all it wants to do is to maintain its competitiveness and avoid becoming the deep pocket for the rest of Europe. But as the strongest and most creditworthy country, it is in the driver’s seat. As a result Germany objectively determines the financial and macroeconomic policies of the eurozone without being subjectively aware of it. When all the member countries try to be like Germany they are bound to send the eurozone into a deflationary spiral. That is the effect of the policies pursued by Germany and—since Germany is in the driver’s seat—these are the policies imposed on the eurozone.

The German public does not understand why it should be blamed for the troubles of the eurozone. After all, it is the most successful economy in Europe, fully capable of competing in world markets. The troubles of the eurozone feel like a burden weighing Germany down. It is difficult to see what would change this perception because the troubles of the eurozone are depressing the euro and, being the most competitive of the countries in the eurozone, Germany benefits the most. As a result Germany is likely to feel the least pain of all the member states.

The error in the German attitude can best be brought home by engaging in a thought experiment. The most ardent instigators of that attitude would prefer that Germany leave the euro rather than modify its position. Let us consider where that would lead.

The Deutschmark would go through the roof and the euro would fall through the floor. This would indeed help the adjustment process of the other countries but Germany would find out how painful it can be to have an overvalued currency. Its trade balance would turn negative and there would be widespread unemployment. German banks would suffer severe exchange rate losses and require large injections of public funds. But the government would find it politically more acceptable to rescue German banks than Greece or Spain. And there would be other compensations: pensioners could retire to Spain and live like kings, helping Spanish real estate to recover.

Let me emphasize that this scenario is totally hypothetical because it is extremely unlikely that Germany would be allowed to leave the euro and to do so in a friendly manner. Germany’s exit would be destabilizing financially, economically, and above all politically. The collapse of the single market would be difficult to avoid. The purpose of this thought experiment is to convince Germany to change its ways without going through the actual experience that its current policies hold in store.

What would be the right policy for Germany to pursue? It cannot be expected to underwrite other countries’ deficits indefinitely. So some tightening of fiscal policies is inevitable. But some way has to be found to allow the countries in crisis to grow their way out of their difficulties. The countries concerned have to do most of the heavy lifting by introducing structural reforms but they do need some outside help to allow them to stimulate their economies. By cutting its budget deficit and resisting a rise in wages to compensate for the decline in the purchasing power of the euro, Germany is actually making it more difficult for the other countries to regain competitiveness.

So what should Germany do? It needs to recognize three guiding principles.

First, the current crisis is more a banking crisis than a fiscal one. The continental European banking system was never properly cleansed after the crash of 2008. Bad assets have not been marked-to-market—i.e., valued according to current market price— but are being held to maturity. When markets started to doubt the creditworthiness of sovereign debt, it was really the solvency of the banking system that was brought into question because the banks were loaded with the bonds of the weaker countries and these are now selling below par—the price at which they were issued. The banks have difficulties in obtaining short-term financing. The interbank market—i.e., for borrowing and lending between banks—and the commercial paper market have dried up and banks have turned to the ECB both for short-term financing and for depositing their excess cash. They are in no position to buy government bonds. That is the main reason why risk premiums on government bonds have widened, setting up a vicious circle.

The crisis has now forced the authorities to disclose the results of their stress tests of banks, which assess the extent to which their resources are sufficient to meet their obligations. We cannot judge how serious the situation is until the results are published, presumably before the end of July. It is clear however that the banks are greatly overleveraged and need to be recapitalized on a compulsory basis. That ought to be the first task of the European Financial Stabilization Fund, and it will go a long way to clear the air. It may be seen, for instance, that Spain does not have a fiscal crisis at all. Recent market moves point in that direction. Germany’s role may also be seen in a very different light if, in recapitalizing its -Landesbanken, it becomes a bigger user of the stabilization fund than contributor to it.

Second, a tightening of fiscal policy must be offset by a loosening of monetary policy. Specifically, the ECB could buy Spanish treasury bills, an action that would significantly reduce the punitive interest rates, set by the German-inspired European Financial Stabilization Fund, that Spain now must pay on its bonds. This would allow Spain to meet its budget reduction targets with less pain. But that is not possible without a change of heart by Germany.

Third, this is the time to put idle resources to work by investing in education and infrastructure. For instance, Europe needs a better gas pipeline system, and the connection between Spain and France is one of the bottlenecks. The European Investment Bank ought to be able to find other investment opportunities as well, such as expanding broadband coverage or creating a smart electricity grid.

It is impossible to be more concrete at the moment but there are grounds for optimism. When the solvency situation of the banks has been clarified and they have been properly recapitalized, it should be possible to devise a growth strategy for Europe. And when the European economy has regained its balance the time will be ripe to correct the structural deficiencies of the euro. Make no mistake about it: the fact that the Maastricht criteria were so flagrantly violated shows that the euro does have deficiencies that need to be corrected.

As I said at the beginning, what is needed is a delicate, two-phase maneuver, similar to the one the authorities undertook after the failure of Lehman Brothers. First help Europe to grow its way out of its difficulties and then revise and strengthen the structure of the euro. This cannot be done without German leadership. I hope Germany will once again live up to the responsibilities. After all, it has done so in the past.

Postscript

Germany went into the G-20 meeting in Toronto on June 26–27 largely isolated. Before the meeting, President Obama publicly pleaded with Angela Merkel to change her policies. At the meeting the tables were turned. Canada’s Stephen Harper as the host and David Cameron, the newly elected Conservative prime minister of the UK, lined up behind Merkel, leaving Obama isolated. Supporting Merkel’s approach, the G-20 endorsed a halving of budget deficits by 2013 as the target. This has extended the threat of a deflationary spiral to the global economy, making the experience of the 1930s even more relevant than it was when I gave much of the preceding text as a speech at Humboldt University.

The political leaders claim to take their cue from the financial markets but they are misreading the signals. Sovereign risk premiums have widened in Europe because of the situation of the banks; but yields on the government bonds of the US, Japan, and Germany are at or near all-time lows, yield curves are flattening, and commodity prices are declining—all foreshadowing deflation. Equity markets have also come under pressure but that is because of the lack of clear leadership. The range of uncertainties is unusually wide: markets need to discount inflation, default, and disintegration, all at the same time. No wonder that equity prices are falling.

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John Kolesidis/Reuters
Greeks protesting austerity measures, Athens, June 29, 2010

The world’s leaders urgently need to learn that they have to lead markets and not seek to follow them. Of course, they also need to get their policies right and forge a consensus—a difficult trifecta. Right now the G-20 nations are converging around the wrong policy.

—July 8, 2010

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