Feb 06 2012
Figure 1 Euro-US Dollar exchange rate 1999-2011
Years before the crisis, in a perspicacious paper by Arestis and Sawyer (2001), the two authors predicted that the divergence in employment and standards of living amongst EMU members, the internal trade imbalances, and the multipronged institutional setting of the Stability and Growth Pact (SGP) would increase the financial fragility of the Eurozone and “exacerbate tendencies towards financial crisis”.
Figure 2 Current account imbalances within the EMU in 2009
Congruently with their observations, the SGP was ratified in 1997 with the explicit intent to enforce fiscal discipline, but it was hardly ever implemented. The disregard of the SGP adds support to the view that it was only a shrewd political tactic by the German government to overcome the German public’s reticence of giving up the Deutsche Mark in favour of the euro. This constituted a strategic choice of ‘Germanising the Euro’ (Hoekstra et al., 2008) with the actual provisions to be left inert after enactment. The SGP’s idiosyncrasy was further reinforced when the excessive deficit procedure (EDP) of the SGP was suspended in November 2003 and the European government bond yields barely moved to reflect the laxer rules and increased risk. The bond market’s apathy hinted at an implicit economic pact between European governments and sovereign bond holders. As long as the economic rationale of fiscal sustainability remained intact, investors would leave ample wiggle room to member states to pursue growth without imposing extra costs to their debt issuance. The hiatus of market discipline would prove disastrous in the long run as the fiduciary trust was breached and exploited by national governments. Leblond (2006) cogently predicted that if member states did not consolidate their finances during the boom years, the interest rates on their long-term debts would soar during the bust. The bust was precipitated in 2008 by the US credit crunch and subprime lending crisis.
Figure 3 Bond yields barely moved until 2008
Furthermore, the softening of the dissuasive enforcement arm of the SGP on March 20, 2005 institutionalized moral hazard (Fourçans & Warin, 2007). The ensuing infraction of the rules by fiscally delinquent states without suffering the consequences created a dangerous path whereby countries were less inclined to abide by the SGP and imprudent national governments further ignored the foregoing implicit pact with investors.
Another flaw in the design of the EMU can be identified in the informal working methods of the Eurogroup, the meeting of euro area finance ministers. The absence of a central authority at the supranational level to coordinate national economic policies should have informed the Eurogroup so as to make its Recommendations legally binding for member states. Instead the emphasis was put on consensus building and was followed by overreliance on “the voluntary commitment of individual member states to commonly agreed policy objectives” (Puetter, 2004).
As a result, asymmetries in the economic behavior of member states persist even today. Mayes & Virén back in 2004 examined these asymmetries and reached the conclusion that in the long run they could lead to the creation of unsustainable debt to GDP ratios. What could have mitigated this effect was the corresponding asymmetry of the enforcement rules of the EDP. Alas, by 2005, EDP was already defunct.
The aforementioned misplaced faith of the markets in the efficacy of the SGP as a defacto risk pooling mechanism amongst member states was reflected in the minimal spreads between peripheral countries’ ten-year sovereign bond yields and the benchmark German Bunds rate. The perceived minimal risk was underscored by the credit rating agencies’ willingness to weigh the risk of these bonds to zero. The devastating effect was that banks were incautiously encouraged to invest in sovereign bonds and bounteously lend European governments money. Consequently, the banking sector became inextricably intertwined with regional governments and banks’ balance sheets were loaded with paper previously deemed of high–risk, now ostensibly assigned to zero risk rating. The banks’ real risk exposure foreboded a banking crisis when credit rating disparities would recrudesce and expectations of sovereign default risk would rise (Risk, 2010).
With national economic policies still misaligned and the absence of a central authority reviewing and controlling spending policies, it is no wonder that eventually the ECB was forced to enact a bond-buying program in the form of ‘temporary’ lending facilities in order to ensure the solvency of the banks in the EU (Walker et al., 2010). This course of action was buttressed by the previous experience of the Icelandic financial crisis where the government’s ineffectiveness in bailing out its major commercial banks led to their eventual demise, which had the domino effect of a currency crisis and a still ongoing sovereign debt crisis (Olivares-Caminal, 2010).
Unfortunately, the EU bank stress test exercise that was carried out in July of 2010 did not take into account realistic write-downs on the bonds of debt-laden countries like Greece or Ireland. Consequently, the credibility of its positive outcome was undermined and its calming effect on the markets short-lived (Krause, 2010). World-renowned international financier George Soros in a 2010 op-ed in the Financial Times highlighted the importance of bank recapitalization before any haircuts on sovereign debts are administered in order for those to be smoothly absorbed (Soros, 2010).
The impact of the Euro crisis has been multitudinous. Some experts fear that it could rival the 2008 credit crisis that erupted after the bankruptcy of Lehman Brothers on September 15, 2008 (American Banker, 2010). By reducing economic activity in Europe, U.S exports to Europe will be hurt (Rick, 2010). This could force U.S companies to keep their payrolls low in fear of another recession. The static job market and enduring high unemployment levels could bode ill for the U.S recovery and create a Euro contagion (Hudgins, 2010). An inkling of this was hinted when the German government declined to bail out the Opel division of General Motors in Europe after guaranteeing a loan package to Greece, thus spelling trouble for the US car manufacturer’s turnaround efforts (Cremer et al., 2010). Moreover, an after-effect of the euro crisis is that countries in Central and Eastern Europe (CEE) have grown hesitant to the prospect of euro adoption after the sobering realization that it is not a panacea for economic security and prosperity (Kandell, 2010). The CEE countries’ wavering was exemplified by Poland which announced on May 6, 2010 its intention to defer plans of joining the euro to a later date than originally scheduled. This on the other hand can be correlated with Poland’s growing fiscal deficit and the contrasting need for tougher fiscal rules for new members to follow in order to gain admission, especially after the painful experience with Greece’s accession to the EMU (Emerging Markets Monitor, 2010).
On the investor side, the increased volatility the euro crisis has spawned in the credit markets has offered speculators the opportunity to make substantial profits by utilizing derivative instruments like foreign exchange options (Cofnas, 2010). In addition, the distressed debt instruments of countries like Greece have aroused the interest of fund managers due to their hefty rates of return and were oversubscribed, but the auctions had to come to a halt because Greece could not withstand the onerously high interest rates (Total Securitization & Credit Investment, 2010).
The solution to the crisis may at the end lie within its origins. What created the crisis was a sustained loss of competitiveness brought about by bloated states that were profligate in creating welfare dependencies (Sanders, 2010). In response, sweeping structural reforms are needed such as reducing red tape, eliminating industry subsidies and lowering barriers to entry in professions such as law (Coy et al., 2010). A greater integration in the euro zone should also exert a grip on national governments that spend beyond their means and jeopardize economic sustainability. These behaviours can be attributed to the statist philosophy that seems to permeate Europe and puts emphasis on the state whilst denigrating free markets. By contrast in the US, belief in the general efficacy of free markets has promoted growth and prevented economic stagnation (Stephens, 2010).
Figure 4 Unit labour costs above Germany's after Euro’s introduction
The yawning trade imbalances within the Eurozone should also be moderated. Germany has been accused of benefiting from these discrepancies by relying on an export model that used peripheral countries as buyers, while boosting its industrial productivity and controlling spending (Neuger, 2010). Of course this is not a zero-sum game and the solution for weaker countries is not for Germany to abandon fiscal rigour and limit its output, but for them to boost their productivity and curb unit labour costs. This can only happen by implementing much-needed liberalization reforms. Another issue is the obscurantism concerning public finances in certain countries like Greece. This should be brought to bear by increased transparency and inspection from third parties (Economist, 2010). What Europe might ultimately need is a populist movement that instead of more debt and more entitlements demands smaller and less-intrusive government.
In conclusion, the Euro crisis may indeed prove to be a seminal moment for Europe. A proper response could have such reverberating effects to the structure of European societies that could reestablish their modern social contracts and ground them on healthier foundations. Economic liberalization could curb public spending and dependence on state largess, while fiscal conservatism could shatter the tyranny of thought that afflicts the current beneficiaries who form the political majority in these counties - from retirees to government workers to university students. Maybe then we would have governments in Europe that advocate fiscal accountability and private enterprise for sustainable growth and real unlevered economic prosperity.
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