European Central Bank

A commenter, A.N., objects to my argument that the big reason for the explosion in government bond yields in Spain was not its debt dynamics, which are remarkably like the UK’s, but because it does not have a lender of last resort, as the UK does.

He responds that the debt dynamics of France and Germany were just like Spain’s. But they were not similarly punished. In any case, the facts are clearly otherwise. These are the relevant data for the three mentioned countries. It is quite clear that Spanish debt dynamics are far worse than those of France and Germany. 

Roger Altman of Evercore partners is a friend of mine, a distinguished public servant and a respected financial expert. But his column “Blame bond markets, not politicians, for austerity” is, in my view, gravely mistaken. 

I recently looked at what happened to private financial balances inside the eurozone. Today’s post looks at what happened to the current account deficits. It fills out the broad story of the eurozone’s across-the-board shift into becoming a very large capital exporter. It is complementary to an excellent post by Gavyn Davies, who addresses the sources of the ongoing adjustment.

As it happens Michael Pettis, professor at Peking University, and author of the excellent book, The Great Rebalancing (Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2013) has a complementary post.

In this, he argues that Spain had no choice over what happened to it during the 2000-07 period, given the deliberate policies of Germany, which were aimed at generating a large current account surplus (“improving competitiveness” being the normal way of talking about this form of structural mercantilism). If one’s principal trading partner is seeking to generate a huge current account surplus and so exporting capital, he argues, then a country is effectively forced into running the counterpart deficits, whatever the consequences.

I agree with this analysis of what happened. Indeed, I have argued along these lines for several years, in trying to explain the roots of the eurozone crisis, which is a balance-of-payments cum financial crisis, of which fiscal deficits are a symptom, not, except in the case of Greece, a cause. 

Last week I wrote a column entitled The riddle of German self-interest. To my surprise, it received a lengthy response from a senior and highly respected official of the German finance ministry. I am very grateful for this reply, because it clarifies the German finance ministry’s position and raises a number of profound issues.

In the interests of clarifying these issues further, I comment below on some of the statements made in that letter. 

A statue holds up a symbol of the euro in front of the European Parliament building in Brussels. Getty Images

A statue holds up a symbol of the euro in front of the European Parliament building in Brussels. Getty Images

The previous two posts Part 2 and Part 1 tried to explain why the sovereign debt of eurozone countries seem to be far more fragile than that of countries with their own central banks.

This issue is a relatively new one, so far as I know. But it is extremely important.

One of the questions raised in the subsequent discussions is why the possibility of illiquidity-induced default (as in the Spanish sovereign debt market) should be any different in impact from the possibility of a devaluation and inflation (as in the gilt market).

I have three suggested answers.