Wednesday, August 27, 2014

A Summit to the Death

OXFORD – As many feared and most expected, the just-concluded European summit left much to be desired. Once again, Europe’s national leaders showed themselves to be in denial about what underlies the eurozone’s economic, banking, and sovereign-debt crises, and thus hopelessly unable to resolve them.

One lesson that the world has learned since the financial crisis of 2008 is that a contractionary fiscal policy means what it says: contraction. Since 2010, a Europe-wide experiment has conclusively falsified the idea that fiscal contractions are expansionary. August 2011 saw the largest monthly decrease in eurozone industrial production since September 2009, German exports fell sharply in October, and is predicting declines in eurozone GDP for late 2011 and early 2012.

A second, related lesson is that it is difficult to cut nominal wages, and that they are certainly not flexible enough to eliminate unemployment. That is true even in a country as flexible, small, and open as Ireland, where unemployment increased last month to 14.5%, emigration notwithstanding, and where tax revenues in November ran 1.6% below target as a result. If the nineteenth-century “internal devaluation” strategy to promote growth by cutting domestic wages and prices is proving so difficult in Ireland, how does the EU expect it to work across the entire eurozone periphery?

The world nowadays looks very much like the theoretical world that economists have traditionally used to examine the costs and benefits of monetary unions. The eurozone members’ loss of ability to devalue their exchange rates is a major cost. Governments’ efforts to promote wage cuts, or to engineer them by driving their countries into recession, cannot substitute for exchange-rate devaluation. Placing the entire burden of adjustment on deficit countries is a recipe for disaster.

In such a world, fiscal union is an essential counterpart to monetary union. If the gumbo industry goes into decline, driving the US state of Louisiana into a recession, residents will pay fewer federal taxes and receive more fiscal transfers. These financial flows are a natural counter-cyclical mechanism that helps local and regional economies to weather bad times. In a hypothetical European fiscal union, there would certainly be transfers from Germany to the periphery in 2011, but a properly designed setup would have ensured flows to Germany in the 1990’s, as it struggled to cope with the costs of reunification with East Germany.

With this in mind, the most obvious point about the recent summit is that the “fiscal stability union” that it proposed is nothing of the sort. Rather than creating an inter-regional insurance mechanism involving counter-cyclical transfers, the version on offer would constitutionalize pro-cyclical adjustment in recession-hit countries, with no countervailing measures to boost demand elsewhere in the eurozone. Describing this as a “fiscal union,” as some have done, constitutes a near-Orwellian abuse of language.

Many will argue that such arrangements are needed to save the eurozone, but what is needed to save the eurozone in the immediate future is a European Central Bank that acts like a proper monetary authority. True, Germany is insisting on a “fiscal stability union” as a condition of allowing the ECB to do even the minimum needed to keep the euro afloat; but this is a political argument, not an economic one. Economically, the proposal would make an already terrible institutional design worse.

What is needed to save the eurozone in the medium term is a central bank mandated to target more than just inflation – for example, unemployment, financial stability, and the survival of the single currency. A common framework for regulating the financial system is also required, as is a common banking-resolution framework that serves the interests of taxpayers and government bondholders, rather than those of banks and their creditors. This will require a minimal fiscal union; a full-scale fiscal union would be better still. Yet none of this was on the summit’s agenda.

An immediate breakup of the eurozone would be a catastrophe, which is why the European Council agreed to a “fiscal stability union” in exchange for some movement by the ECB. This may indeed prevent collapse in the short run – though that is far from certain. Treaty negotiations outside the EU framework, and the ratification procedures that will follow, are a recipe for even more uncertainty when Europe needs it least.

In the slightly longer run, such a deal, assuming that it goes ahead, will mean continued austerity on the eurozone periphery, without the offsetting impact of devaluation or stimulus at the core. Unemployment will continue to rise, placing pressure on households, governments, and banks. We will hear much more about the relative merits of technocracy and democracy. Anti-European sentiment will continue to grow, and populist parties will prosper. Violence is not out of the question.

This summit should have proposed institutional changes to avert such a scenario. But if such changes are politically impossible, and the euro is doomed, then a speedy death is preferable to a prolonged and painful demise. A eurozone collapse in the immediate future would be widely perceived as a catastrophe, which should at least serve as a source of hope for the future. But if it collapses after several years of perverse macroeconomic policies required by countries’ treaty obligations, the end, when it comes, will be regarded not as a calamity, but as a liberation.

And that really would be worse.

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