The euro will survive…for at least another year.
So proclaimed Jean-Claude Juncker, the Luxembourg prime minister and head of the euro group of countries, who announced Monday night that doubters of the currency’s future would be proven wrong in a year’s time.
Reforming the management of economic policy, primarily in the eurozone but also in the European Union as a whole, is without question one of Europe’s highest priorities. Few steps would do more to raise the EU’s credibility with the US, China and the rest of the world than concerted action to improve European economic performance and make the euro area function more efficiently as a unit. Much of this comes under the heading of “economic governance”. But the difficulty is that it is not always easy to figure out which Europeans are in charge of the process.
On Monday Herman Van Rompuy, the EU’s full-time president, chaired the latest meeting of a task force on economic governance that he was chosen last March to lead. The task force, consisting largely of EU finance ministers, came up with various sensible ideas on tightening sanctions (financial and non-financial) on countries that break European fiscal rules. Task force members also want to strengthen the monitoring of macroeconomic imbalances, such as the gap between large current account surpluses in Germany and deficits in southern Europe.
Financial commentators, like financial markets, move in herds. Is the herd wrong about Greece?
The herd takes the view that Greece will sooner or later have to restructure its debt. According to herd thinking, the €110bn rescue plan arranged for Greece by its eurozone partners and the International Monetary Fund merely buys some time for the Greek government – and for its European bank creditors. The herd predicts a “haircut”, or loss, for Greek bondholders of 30 to 50 per cent of the face value of their bonds. All this is likely to happen towards the end of 2011 or in early 2012, says the herd.
The euro has fallen by almost 20 per cent against the dollar since last November, and the general view in Europe is that this is good news – indeed, one of the few pieces of good economic news to have come Europe’s way recently. The argument goes as follows: euro weakness = more European exports = higher European economic growth.
Unfortunately, the real world is not as simple as that. Inside the 16-nation eurozone, not every country benefits equally from the euro’s decline on foreign exchange markets. As Carsten Brzeski of ING bank explains, what matters is not so much bilateral exchange rates as real effective exchange rates. These take into account relative price developments and trade patterns, and their message for the eurozone is far from reassuring.
There is a gulf separating Germany from France on how to cure the eurozone’s ills, and it does not bode well.
Germany identifies the eurozone’s chief problems as excessive budget deficits, weak fiscal rules and a general culture of over-spending in the region’s weaker countries. The remedy, say the Germans, lies in austerity measures, tougher punishments for rule-breakers and better housekeeping. Germany is so sure that it has got the answer right that it is introducing a €80bn programme of tax increases and spending cuts – not because the German economy desperately needs such measures, but because the government in Berlin wants to set an example to other eurozone states.
France knows the eurozone has a fiscal problem, but it disagrees with the German view that immediate and drastic austerity measures are essential. The French contend that, if budget hawks win the day, Europe’s fragile economic recovery will fade away and there may even be another recession (as Paul Krugman notes, an example often cited in support of this argument is the “Roosevelt recession” of 1937, when President Franklin D. Roosevelt, having just about dragged the US economy out of the Great Depression, inadvertently caused another economic downturn with a premature attempt to balance the budget).
The European Union is nothing if not addicted to targets. Promises to achieve particular goals by specific dates are part and parcel of the EU’s daily business. Sometimes the objectives are met, sometimes they are not met, and sometimes it’s hard to tell either way. European monetary union, for example, was launched in 1999, but only after a two-year delay because a majority of member-states didn’t meet the criteria earlier in the decade (did Greece ever meet them?).
The European Union’s fiscal rulebook, known as the stability and growth pact, has fallen into such discredit since the euro’s launch in 1999 that almost any change is likely to be an improvement. But are the reforms that EU finance ministers agreed in Luxembourg on Monday good enough? I have my doubts.
There are many flaws in the stability pact, but the essential problem is enforcement. How can outsiders compel a government, with sovereign control of its budget, to observe fiscal discipline? The pact contains a provision for imposing fines on countries that run up high budget deficits and ignore recommendations from other member-states and the European Commission to take corrective measures. Predictably, however, no country has ever paid a fine or has even been asked to pay a fine throughout the euro’s 11-year history. Governments have shrunk from punishing other governments because they know that the tables may one day be turned on themselves.
In any case, it has always seemed potty to slap fines on a country with a large deficit. The penalties would simply exacerbate the country’s budgetary difficulties. No wonder Romano Prodi, the former Commission president, once called the stability pact “stupid”.
Speaking with one voice. Singing from the same song sheet. Communicating clearly with financial markets. Avoiding needless disputes with governments. These are essential attributes of high-level policymakers at a modern central bank. So what are we to make of an extraordinary speech given last Friday in the Moroccan city of Rabat by Lorenzo Bini Smaghi, an executive board member of the European Central Bank?
To put it bluntly, Bini Smaghi told the German government that it had screwed up Europe’s response to the Greek debt crisis. Germany’s ineptitude meant that the final price of the emergency rescue package ended up being far higher than necessary, he complained.
For anyone wondering why Europe’s leaders are so determined to avoid a restructuring of Greek sovereign debt, I recommend a remarkable piece of research published on Monday by Jacques Cailloux, the Royal Bank of Scotland’s chief European economist, and his colleagues. (Unfortunately, it seems not to be easily available on the internet, so I’m providing links to news stories that refer to the report.)
The RBS economists estimate that the total amount of debt issued by public and private sector institutions in Greece, Portugal and Spain that is held by financial institutions outside these three countries is roughly €2,000bn. This is a staggeringly large figure, equivalent to about 22 per cent of the eurozone’s gross domestic product. It is far higher than previous published estimates. It indicates that, if a Greek or Portuguese or Spanish debt default were allowed to take place, the global financial system could suffer terrible damage.
I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry when I heard the news on Tuesday that the German authorities were to impose a temporary ban on certain types of transactions – known as “naked short-selling” – in eurozone government securities. Laugh, because it seems more than a coincidence that the announcement was made just before parliament in Berlin was due to open a debate on authorising Germany’s contribution to the €750bn international rescue plan for the eurozone. The ban looks like a piece of raw meat thrown to legislators who labour under the delusion that the eurozone’s debt crisis is all the fault of “speculators” and are eager for revenge.
Cry, because the German announcement underlines how the eurozone’s leaders, after finally appearing to get on top of events with the financial stabilisation plan unveiled on May 10, are once again misjudging the dynamics of the crisis. To cite another example, Italy’s central bank has just decreed that Italian banks will not be required to adjust their capital ratios if eurozone government bonds in their portfolios fall in value. What this will mean in terms of the credibility of financial data published by the banks, I hate to think.