For those with short memories or not enough years under their belts, the title of this post is a variant of the “it’s the economy, stupid” theme that won the presidency for Bill Clinton in 1992.
From the FT’s Martin Wolf:
The summit on Friday is a huge moment. What we have heard from Mr Sarkozy and Ms Merkel does not create confidence. The problem is that Germany – the eurozone’s hegemon – has a plan, but that plan is also something of a blunder. The good news is that eurozone opposition will prevent its full application. The bad news is that nothing better seems to be on offer.
The German faith is that fiscal malfeasance is the origin of the crisis. It has good reason to believe this. If it accepted the truth, it would have to admit that it played a large part in the unhappy outcome.
It’s not fiscal deficits:
Take a look at the average fiscal deficits of 12 significant (or at least revealing) eurozone members from 1999 to 2007, inclusive. Every country, except Greece, fell below the famous 3 per cent of gross domestic product limit. Focusing on this criterion would have missed all today’s crisis-hit members, except Greece. Moreover, the four worst exemplars, after Greece, were Italy and then France, Germany and Austria. Meanwhile, Ireland, Estonia, Spain and Belgium had good performances over these years. After the crisis, the picture changed, with huge (and unexpected) deteriorations in the fiscal positions of Ireland, Portugal and Spain (though not Italy). In all, however, fiscal deficits were useless as indicators of looming crises.
It’s not public debt, Reinhart and Rogoff not withstanding:
Now consider public debt. Relying on that criterion would have picked up Greece, Italy, Belgium and Portugal. But Estonia, Ireland and Spain had vastly better public debt positions than Germany. Indeed, on the basis of its deficit and debt performance, pre-crisis Germany even looked vulnerable. Again, after the crisis, the picture transformed swiftly. Ireland’s story is amazing: in just five years it will suffer a 93 percentage point jump in the ratio of its net public debt to GDP.
It’s a balance of payments crisis:
Now consider average current account deficits over 1999-2007. On this measure, the most vulnerable countries were Estonia, Portugal, Greece, Spain, Ireland and Italy. So we have a useful indicator, at last. This, then, is a balance of payments crisis. In 2008, private financing of external imbalances suffered “sudden stops”: private credit was cut off. Ever since, official sources have been engaged as financiers. The European System of Central Banks has played a huge role as lender of last resort to the banks, as Hans-Werner Sinn of Munich’s Ifo Institute argues.
There’s no solution unless Germany recognizes the nature of the crisis:
If the most powerful country in the eurozone refuses to recognise the nature of the crisis, the eurozone has no chance of either remedying it or preventing a recurrence. Yes, the ECB might paper over the cracks. In the short run, such intervention is even indispensable, since time is needed for external adjustments. Ultimately, however, external adjustment is crucial. That is far more important than fiscal austerity.
If Germany doesn’t, fiscal austerity (as I’ve been arguing for months) will make matters worse:
In the absence of external adjustment, the fiscal cuts imposed on fragile members will just cause prolonged and deep recessions. Once the role of external adjustment is recognised, the core issue becomes not fiscal austerity but needed shifts in competitiveness. If one rules out exits, this requires a buoyant eurozone economy, higher inflation and vigorous credit expansion in surplus countries. All of this now seems inconceivable. That is why markets are right to be so cautious.
The failure to recognise that a currency union is vulnerable to balance of payments crises, in the absence of fiscal and financial integration, makes a recurrence almost certain. Worse, focusing on fiscal austerity guarantees that the response to crises will be fiercely pro-cyclical, as we see so clearly.
Maybe, the porridge agreed in Paris will allow the ECB to act. Maybe, that will also bring a period of peace, though I doubt it. Yet the eurozone is still looking for effective longer-term remedies. I am not sorry that Germany failed to obtain yet more automatic and harsher fiscal disciplines, since that demand is built on a failure to recognise what actually went wrong. This is, at its bottom, a balance of payments crisis. Resolving payments crises inside a large, closed economy requires huge adjustments, on both sides. That is truth. All else is commentary.
A few words of my own:
- Wake up, Germany. Get over your moralizing and your Weimar hyperflation complex before you destroy the European Project and, with it, the world economy.
- Will market participants be smart enough to realize that a Summit agreement that doesn’t address the balance of payments crisis isn’t a solution to the eurozone’s malaise? We’ll see in a few days.