europe

Mario Draghi (DANIEL ROLAND/AFP/Getty Images)

  © Daniel Roland/AFP/Getty

Mario Draghi’s remarkable speech at Jackson Hole has raised expectations that ECB purchases of sovereign debt will be soon announced by the governing council, if not this Thursday, then perhaps by the end of the year. In all the excitement about QE, the importance of Mr Draghi’s remarks about fiscal policy have gained less attention in the markets.

Mr Draghi’s speech broke new ground for an ECB president, and this could herald a significant change in the stance of fiscal policy in the entire euro area. Unusually, fiscal policy could be as interesting for markets as monetary policy in the months ahead.

Traditionally, ECB presidents have always argued in favour of fiscal austerity, and have of course refused to countenance any form of monetisation of budget deficits. The stance on monetisation changed a few months ago, and now even the Bundesbank accepts that QE is within the terms of the treaties.

But the Germanic approach to the fiscal stance (ie the level of budget deficits, as opposed to how they are financed), is only now being seriously questioned by the ECB for the first time. Not surprisingly, this is reported to have triggered consternation in Germany, and approval in France.

Mr Draghi’s new views on fiscal policy stem from a change in his underlying analysis of the economic problem facing the euro area. This has led the ECB president to throw his weight behind a fiscal plan which is slowly emerging from the European Commission, in conjunction with France and Italy. Now that the ECB has gone public on this, the pressure on Germany to give ground has increased markedly. The debate on this subject within Germany itself is clearly becoming crucial. 

Martin Wolf’s column on Wednesday and his subsequent blogpost have once again focused attention on the importance of trade flows in the eurozone. Martin’s argument is that the German strategy of fiscal austerity and internal reform to fix the imbalances needs to change. I would like to ask a different question, which is what happens in the likely event that it does not change?

Investors, ever more optimistic that the worst of the euro crisis is over, are asking whether the German strategy might actually work. Largely unnoticed by some, eurozone trade imbalances have in fact improved dramatically in recent years. But this has happened mainly for the wrong reasons, ie recession in the south rather than any large narrowing in the competitiveness gap. The eurozone is engaged in a race between the gradual pace of internal devaluation and the mercurial nature of democratic politics. It is still not obvious how this race will end.

When the euro was launched in 1999, its supporters believed that the balance of payments crises which had plagued its weaker members for decades would become a relic of the past. The crisis revealed this view to be entirely complacent. The current account imbalances which were generated by the peripheral economies during the boom of the 2000s soon became impossible to finance after the crash. It was only the growth of so-called “Target2″ imbalances on the ECB’s balance sheet which provided the official financing which held the system together. No Target2, no euro.

However, some of the contingent credits which the Bundesbank has acquired against the rest of the ECB in the course of this process might become worthless under certain break-up scenarios, and this has become a political hot potato inside Germany. The solution, many in Germany believe, is to foster an improvement in the balance of payments positions of the troubled economies so that no further rise in the Target2 imbalances will be needed. 

The eurozone is reluctant to admit formally that it is changing its austerity strategy, but in fact it is searching in every corner of national budgets to alleviate the squeeze on its troubled economies, and rightly so.

Recently, member states which have missed their budget targets (and that has been most of them) have been given more time to reach their objectives, implying less fiscal tightening in the near term. It is not all plain sailing, as Portugal’s latest tribulations demonstrate, but the eurozone has recognised that it should not be piling even more short term fiscal contraction on declining economies. It is reported today that the troika will suggest that the average duration of official loans to Ireland and Portugal should be extended by seven years at a meeting of EU finance ministers on April 12-13. 

In typical European fashion, a summit deal which seemed out of reach at midnight last night was triumphantly unveiled at 4am. The deal does not, and was not intended to, have any effect on the core problems facing the eurozone. There is still an urgent need to restore growth to economies which are hamstrung by uncompetitive business sectors, and continuous fiscal tightening. Recession still looms, especially in the southern economies.

What the deal is intended to provide is adequate medium term financing for sovereigns and banks which have been facing urgent liquidity problems. On that, it is notable that the summit has not really raised any new money, apart from an increase in the private sector’s write-down of Greek debt by some €80bn.

All of the remaining “new” money, including €106bn to recapitalise the banks and over €800bn to be added to the firepower of the EFSF through leverage, has yet to be raised from the private sector, from sovereign lenders outside the eurozone, and conceivably from the ECB.

There is no guarantee that this can be done. The eventual out-turn of this summit will depend on whether this missing €1,000bn can actually be raised.