The Euro Crisis and its Aftermath (Jean Pisani-Ferry)

$_35Until 2013, Pisani-Ferry was the director of Bruegel, a think-tank.  In his book Jean Pisani-Ferry recalls the story of the euro from “the day it ceased being boring” and explores the underlying causes of the euro crisis.

The introduction of the euro was intended to create a forefront for more political and economic harmonisation among the adopting countries.  However, in the mid-2000s, it became gradually clear that national economies were diverging rather than converging.  Northern European economies like Germany were doing penance, running surpluses and accumulating savings, while countries in Southern Europe (incl. Ireland) went through a period of euphoria and saw consumption and debt rising.

After the introduction of the euro, these countries experienced a ‘golden decade’. They experienced a strong drop in interest rates, which reduced their debt burden and opened credit floodgates.  Resulting increases in wages and prices created higher inflation than in the northern countries.  Interest rates were the same across the Eurozone, but prices of nontradable goods and services such as houses and restaurant meals were not.  As a result, inflation rates were also not the same and the real cost of credit (the difference between the interest and the inflation rates) was much lower in the southern countries and Ireland.  In Spain, poor households bought houses they could hardly afford, helped by the now infamous cajas, the regional savings banks, creating their own version of the subprime crisis.

Then, on 16 October 2009 the euro stopped being boring.  That day, Greek prime minster George Papandreou confessed that Greek debt and deficit numbers were much worse than reported.  Investors suddenly realised that Greek debt was more risky than German debt and the spread between the two rose to 4%.  Greece revealed the incompleteness of the European construction and the strong disagreements about how to complete its architecture.

The negative feedback loop between banks and their sovereigns (countries) became apparent, the so-called ‘doom loop’.  Why is this relation problematic? Banks usually have large portfolios of debt issued by their countries.  At the same time, they depend on their sovereign for assistance in case things turn sour.  When investors doubt a country’s guarantee to save its banks, these banks can see their capital flows come to a sudden stop.

An example. The Spanish state was borrowing from the Spanish commercial banks which, in turn, borrowed from the Spanish central bank, which, in turn, borrowed from the ECB.  Meanwhile, private money flowing out from Spain was being deposited with German (or other northern European) banks, which, in turn, deposited it with the Bundesbank, which in turn lent it to the ECB.  The European system of central banks had become a sort of gigantic artificial heart that pumped back into southern Europe money flowing out from it in search of northern safety (p.145).

“Banks may be European (or global) in life, but they remain national in death.”

This explains why Ireland, with a debt-to-GDP ratio of only 25% got into problems. Its banking system was 8 times the size of its GDP.  Similarly, Spain’s problem was not a fiscal one, having low debt and running current account surpluses.  Its problem was that Spanish banks accumulated lots of loans that became non-performing when real estate prices plunged.  Add to this that the housing boom in Spain created a very unbalanced economy in which the non-tradable sector had expanded beyond reason at the cost of the tradable-goods sector.

Overall, debt levels and deficits in the Eurozone are much lower than those in the US or Japan.  What makes Eurozone debt vulnerable (less internal debt), faces a grim long-term demographic outlook (low fertility rates and not enough migration) and faces a lack of competitiveness (in the south).

Pisani-Ferry describes how Eurozone leaders throughout the crisis devised piecemeal solutions that were time and time again overtaken by reality.

The introduction of a common currency removed external devaluations as a way to inflate away debt and restore competitiveness as a tool from the toolbox. Milton Friedman compared devaluating a currency with daylight saving time.  It’s much easier to change time than to ask everyone to change their habits. In the same way, when a currency is overvalued, it is easier to devalue the exchange rate than to modify all wages and prices individually. By entering the Eurozone, member countries gave up this popular weapon, leaving them only the painful option of internal devaluation.

Much has been achieved since the outbreak of the euro crisis.  Under massive market pressure and by overcoming deep divisions, countries have agreed on new rules and created new institutions.  These solutions increased the power of the European institutions.  For example, the Commission received an ex-ante near-veto on national budget plans, including automatic sanctions for sinners. However, as economic prospects have improved, the political sentiment has clearly deteriorated.  Politics lag behind economics, which in turn, lag behind market developments.

On the other hand, solutions so far have only been found under the pressure of urgency and in an attempt to avoid the worst.  In Pisani-Ferry’s words, Europe has consistently displayed a strong sense of survival, but it has equally consistently failed to display a sense of common purpose (p.175).  The sense of survival comes from a realisation that a unified Europe is the only chance for Europe’s nations to remain significant actors in the world economy and to contribute to the shaping of global rules. The main challenge of European policy makers is to chart the road to continued relevance and to convince European citizens that it is the right road to take.

So far, solutions for the Eurozone crisis (financial firewall, fiscal treaty, building blocks of banking union) have much of an adhocracy.  Decisions on policy moves were not taken on the ground whether they would improve outcomes, but whether they were needed to avert disaster, like house owners only contemplating repairs when the house is about to collapse.

For Pisani-Ferry, a sustainable solution to deal with all the following aspects:

  1. The ECB’s inflation mandate of an average inflation rate across the Eurozone close to 2% implies a higher inflation rate in Northern Europe for several years.  During the first 12 years of the Euro, inflation rates were higher in Southern Europe.  The correction process has started for wages, but prices lag behind in the South because of the high cost of credit and the fact that many sectors are not open to competition.  A side effect of low interest rates is that non-functioning firms still get access to cheap credit, preventing the process of creative destruction, which would reduce supply, allowing others to raise prices, resulting in inflation.
  2. The EU’s budget comprises 1% of its total GDP and negotiated (and fixed) for periods of 7 years. This leaves little room for flexibility.
  3. For the dollar, US Treasuries are the safe assets.  For the Eurozone, 10-year German government bonds (‘Bunds’) are the de facto safe assets. This is an advantage (‘rent’) for Germany, as it can borrow money at lower rates than other countries. Because of this privilege, Germany should take up special responsibilities such as acting as an insurer for the whole Eurozone or sharing this rent with other countries through issuing Eurobonds.
  4. Gradual acknowledgement of reality of unsustainability of Greek debt, acceptance of debt restructuring and design of systematic way of dealing with debt crises.
  5. Acceptance of ECB as a lender of last resort.
  6. Strengthen the democratic character of the EU.  Germans, for example, are particularly underrepresented in the parliament in comparison to citizens from smaller countries.
  7. Governance reform.  The most important one.

“The euro area is not equipped with a government, but with a series of partial powers.  The ECB has decision-making capacity in its important, but limited domain (it makes full use of it).  The Commission has been given a defined mandate of oversight of national policies (it generally fulfils it) and a broader mission to chart a way through the policy challenges (it sometimes fulfil it and sometimes forgets it). Berlin exercises leadership (or not).  Paris tries to balance it (effectually or not).  Bratislava or Helsinki insists on specific points that are close to their hearts (and generally push through a minor concession).  Rome matters when the prime minister has stature (not always the case).  And the president of the Eurogroup chairs the meetings of finance ministers (and does little more).  Europe’s governance is reminiscent of Blaise Pascal’s definition of the universe: a sphere, the centre of which is everywhere…” But unlike Pascal’s universe, few observers, if any, see the hand of God in its design” (pp.165-166)

Currency unification has led European states to an unknown territory in which national borders are less defined as they used to be.  The euro has created a community of fate.  The EU and the Euro zone need a common vision on their future.

Basically, there are two models for the Eurozone:

  • An agglomeration model that accepts concentration of activities in certain areas, for example manufacturing in northern Europe.  This model comes with mobility of labour, portable social rights, acceptance of national current account deficits and surpluses and a full banking union.
  • A rebalancing model that focuses on limiting differences among countries.  This comes with attempts to southern re-industrialisation. This is the logic of the Structural Funds.

The agglomeration model is economically more efficient.  Not every country is good at everything and the agglomeration model stimulates countries to specialise.  However, this model is likely to lead to wider (but not necessarily permanent) disparities in GDP/person and would require euro-area-wide taxation and transfer systems. Also, the agglomeration model requires a stronger political community, something which still needs to materialize, if it ever will.

A permanent solution for the Eurozone’s travails would need to answer fundamental questions about the union:

  1. Are countries and their citizens prepared to embrace a degree of labour, product and capital market integration that is needed for a monetary union to function?  Current discussions about the scaling back the Schengen union and the rise of extreme right suggest not.
  2. Are countries and their citizens ready for a fundamental redefinition of the fiscal framework that would create a predictable regime for state insolvency and introduce a degree of risk-sharing through the partial mutualisation of sovereign liabilities?
  3. Is the euro area willing to accept a degree of contingent redistribution across countries or even individuals in order to help smooth adjustment within a monetary union, for example through a common budget or through contingent transfer mechanisms?
  4. Is the euro area for institutional reform that would equip it with effective decision-making capacities (and budget) within it fields of competence?

In a democracy, power should be limited, but not weak (Tommasso Padoa-Schioppa)

Pisani-Ferry’s book tremendously helps to put the Euro crisis into perspective.  It enables the reader to understand the causes and the responses. In my case, it helped to change my opinion that the crisis was not so much (only) a consequence of southern (mainly Greek) profligacy, but a result of economic imbalances resulting from an incomplete monetary and fiscal union.