Friday, August 29, 2014
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L'euro, l'Europe et l'étalon-or

ROME –On entend dire de plus en plus fréquemment que l'euro va suivre le même chemin que l'étalon-or dans les années 1930. Et de plus en plus, le raisonnement qui sous-tend cette idée paraît convaincant. Pour autant, cette prédiction est-elle justifiée ?

Après le crash boursier de 1929, l'Europe a encaissé un énorme choc déflationniste. La production s'est effondrée et le chômage a explosé. Incapables de s'entendre sur des mesures de relance, les pays européens ont agi unilatéralement. Chacun de son coté, ils ont abandonné l'étalon-or et dévalué leur monnaie. En desserrant le crédit de cette manière, l'une après l'autre ils se sont relevés de la Grande dépression.

Aujourd'hui l'Europe est frappée à nouveau par un choc déflationniste. Cette fois-ci c'est l'euro qui constitue une contrainte quant aux mesures de relance. Les pays de la zone euro ne peuvent ni dévaluer leur monnaie nationale ni faciliter le crédit, car ils ont délégué la politique monétaire à la Banque centrale européenne (BCE). Et comme le chômage atteint également des sommets,  ils n'auront d'autre alternative que d'abandonner unilatéralement l'euro, nous disent les prophètes de mauvais augures.

J'ai écrit le livre sur l'Europe et l'étalon-or. Littéralement. Dans Golden Fetters: The Gold Standard and the Great Depression  publié en 1992, j'écrivais que le moteur déflationniste qu'est l'étalon-or a été l'une des principales causes de la dépression des années 1930 et que son abandon a permis la reprise. Pour autant les choses ne se passeront pas obligatoirement de la même manière cette fois-ci. Quatre différences me conduisent à penser que peut-être - seulement peut-être - l'euro survivra :

- Il est plus facile de mettre en place la politique monétaire appropriée avec une banque centrale unique. Sous le régime de l'étalon-or, il aurait été possible aux banques centrales de relancer les différentes économies si elles avaient agi ensemble. Néanmoins c'est plus facile à dire qu'à faire, car elles n'ont pas le même langage et voient les perspectives économiques sous des angles différents. Par contre si la BCE adoptait des mesures fortes, elle pourrait relancer toute la zone euro et chaque pays n'aurait pas à agir unilatéralement. Elle en a la capacité, mais en a-t-elle la volonté.

- Même en tenant compte des récentes coupes dans la protection sociale, les chômeurs reçoivent une aide plus importante que dans les années 1930, ce qui diminue la pression populiste en faveur de l'abandon de l'euro. La question clé reste d'évaluer cette diminution et de savoir si le centre politique peut résister.

- Les conditions d'une action commune sont plus faciles à réunir aujourd'hui. En 1931 la France a refusé d'aider à lutter contre la crise financière en Europe centrale, parce qu'elle estimait que l'Allemagne se réarmait en violation du Traité de Versailles signé à la fin de la Première guerre mondiale. Les tensions politiques entre la France et l'Allemagne peuvent croître dans les mois et les années à venir après l'élection de François Hollande à la présidence française, mais elles n'atteindront sûrement pas ce niveau. Par ailleurs les pays européens sont prêts à aller loin pour sauver l'euro, car ils craignent que son effondrement ne mette en danger le marché unique. La situation était différente lorsque l'étalon-or a été abandonné en 1931, car les taxes douanières avaient déjà été augmentées, il n'y avait donc pas de marché unique à protéger.

- Enfin, l'abandon de l'étalon-or a été moins perturbateur que ne le serait l'abandon de l'euro. Revenir à des devises nationales prendrait des semaines dans le meilleur des cas, alors qu'en 1931 la Grande-Bretagne a abandonné l'étalon-or durant un week-end, quand les Bourses étaient fermées. A ce moment-là chaque pays disposait de sa propre devise et pouvait décider à tout moment d'arrêter de la défendre. Les dépôts bancaires, de même que la plupart des autres titres de dette publics ou privés, étaient libellés dans la devise nationale de chaque pays.

Aujourd'hui actifs et passifs sont tous libellés en euros. Réintroduire les devises nationales pour dévaluer sans toucher à la valeur en euro des autres instruments financiers déséquilibrerait les comptes et conduirait à un désordre financier faramineux. L'alternative - convertir ces instruments financiers en devises nationales - plongerait les pays qui suivraient cette voie dans des litiges interminables.

Toutes ces différences font que l'euro ne suivra peut-être pas la voie de l'étalon-or. Mais une cinquième différence pointe dans une autre direction. Dans les années 1930, chaque pays agissait de son coté car ils n'étaient pas d'accord quant au diagnostic de la crise. Chacun avait sa propre explication, et partant son propre remède qu'il appliquait unilatéralement.

Aujourd'hui un accord sur le diagnostic facilite une réponse commune. Malheureusement il semble de plus en plus que le remède sur lequel les pays européens se sont mis d'accord, l'austérité, soit fatal au malade. On parle maintenant d'en modifier le dosage, mais les discussions n'ont pas encore fait place à l'action.

Les choses évolueront-elles autrement que dans les années 1930 ? La plus grande coopération qui est aujourd'hui possible est de bon augure pour l'euro. Mais en fin de compte tout dépendra de la politique sur laquelle les pays européens se mettront d'accord.

Traduit de l’anglais par Patrice Horovitz

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  1. Portrait of Christopher T. Mahoney

    CommentedChristopher T. Mahoney

    At present, all of the jawboning is about the need for debt mutualization, not reflation. Debt mutualization is a debt solution to a monetary problem. Piling debt upon debt while the eurozone's NGDP stagnates is a prescription for a continental depression. If the ECB would just throw off its Bundesbank mentality and target 5% NGDP growth, catastrophe would be avoided. But the ECB won't do that, and therefore the outcome will be another depression.

  2. CommentedNichol Brummer

    Haven't germans started to make noises about allowing some kind of European bonds used for investment in assets with a safe income stream, like solar energy, in sunny countries? Though limited, it would be something.

    In fact: why don't the 'core' countries already do this kind of thing on their own account, now they can lend at extremely low interest rates? They don't because they don't think it is their responsibility to invest in other countries. Why are 'core-country banks' not doing it? Or are they? Is this a kind of negative bubble that governments or the EU should step into?

  3. CommentedCharles Dover

    If the Gold Standard is a bad idea, then let European banks sell their gold reserves to those who wish to buy them (China and other net importers of gold) to make themselves whole again. In a world where gold, oil, and corn are at record highs, would not cost-push inflation eventually accomplish the required leveling of deflation? And, would allowing a second tier of national currencies to be slowly introduced in an orderly manner be as bad as the opponents of the "Free Silver" movement in 19th Century America thought it would be?

  4. CommentedH Gerken

    The 1929 crisis was caused by Wall Street and the 2008 US financial crisis sent the tsunami to Europe. so its first and foremost two times regulatory failure on the US side exported to the rest of the world. It is destructive US capitalism that needs to internalise the costs it causes to peace and stability in the world. So instead of singing the growth song gbet your garden in order as we get ours in order.

  5. Portrait of Christopher T. Mahoney

    CommentedChristopher T. Mahoney

    "The alternative – converting those other instruments into the new national currency – would tie up the offending country in litigation for years."
    True, but that is much cheaper than trying to pay back in hard money. The Latin Americans have shown that the costs of default are manageable.

      CommentedGary Marshall

      Hello Christopher,

      Did you ask the people of those nations that must suffer for their Government's profligacy?

      GM

  6. CommentedStéphane Genilloud

    The euro is deflationary in the same way the gold standard was, but the euro does not replicate the gold standard, it replicates gold itself.
    Under the gold standard, national economies had national currencies pegged to gold. In the eurozone, national economies use a common currency, in the same way as they did with gold before the 20th century.
    When those economies progressively issued bank notes (with a promise to repay in gold) in the 18th and 19th centuries, they created their own currencies. Gold (and other metals) remained in use until the gold standard was abandoned in the 30's.
    The difference between the euro and gold is that the ECB can increase the supply of euros at will, while no one ever had the power to create gold out of nothing. But if the ECB does not make enough use of its power, that difference is of little use for troubled European economies. Those might then choose to issue notes (called maybe IOUs, maybe pesetas) and recreate their own currencies in order to relieve their liquidity problem.
    Provided they do it parsimoniously and remain clear about their intentions, it might not trigger panic, not require capital controls. Existing contracts could remain denominated in euros, and euros would continue to circulate.
    There are certainly plenty of open questions, necessary conditions, and drawbacks. But that's true for alternative solutions as well.

  7. CommentedPaul A. Myers

    Excellent paper. Thought-provoking.

    At any point in time, paper assets (and liabilities) have some "real" value which is equal to the "real" future value these assets can be exchanged into, the realizable value. It may be hard to measure this value at the present time because open markets have not been allowed to fully function (the pooh bahs say sovereign debt bonds are worth 100).

    Why does a paper asset have to be converted from euros into drachmas to be depreciated? In fact, all across Europe we have paper assets whose real value is considerably less than the nominal stated value.

    Why don't we set up mechanisms to "discover" these values and then a path of adjustment to move towards these values? Without going back to drachmas, pesos, lira, and francs. And try to make the path of adjustment the least disruptive as possible. Exiting a currency and devaluing a new currency unit is just a method of adjustment. Why not choose a less painful way? Don't devalue the future obligation, just partially default on it.

    A managed path of adjustment towards true realizable values would most likely cost much less than the cost of a crisis-driven adjustment process.

    If the tide goes out on administered prices, most likely we are going to see a lot of ministry of finance and central bank officials not wearing any clothes. But we probably already know that, too. We are not where we are by the intellectual agility of the elite.

    At the end, voters will have to buy into the costs of managed adjustment or risk the higher costs of crisis-driven adjustment. There will be the siren calls of many, many demagogues telling people that someone else can be made to pay. But across all of Europe that is a negative sum game of potentially ruinous proportions.

    One must remember that in a world governed by hard-edged economics there is little justice but mistakes are mercilessly punished.

  8. CommentedJohn A Werneken

    Why is it to be assumed that unemployment and declining asset prices are bad? Perhaps quite a few houses should never have been built nor purchased at the prices they went for. Perhaps quite a few people are paid far more than they produce, especially in health care, education, and other abysmal sectors of the economy. Perhaps desperation would induce some beneficial changes.

  9. CommentedZsolt Hermann

    Although I do not have sound economical knowledge I would like to note one thing:
    The Euro is not the problem. We are not in a financial or economical crisis, we are in a system crisis.
    Economics, financial relationships are simply the external expressions of how humans relate to each other.
    It was true before, but today when we evolved into a closed, finite, integral, interdependent system it is truer than ever.
    Today each and every tiny change resonates all through the system, and since our present socio- economic system, this constant growth, expansive, exploitative machinery is totally excessive and unnatural, we are continually injecting negative influence into this interconnected, natural, living system.
    Thus the reactions we get are increasingly more negative and aggressive since our negative input comes back as a boomerang but multiple times reinforced by the systemic reaction.
    We will never solve our problems on the financial or economical, not even on the political level.
    We have to start from the foundations, how we relate to each other, how a human being connects, relates to another human being.

  10. CommentedJoe Bongiovanni

    Many excellent points.

    Ultimately, it will be better if the European central bankers move together to solve their present deflationary problem, but that does require an acknowledgement by the ECB of the nature of the problem.
    Listening to Chief Economist Praet last month at the Levy-Minsky conference, it is clear that today their policy options consist of choosing how much more of the same.

    The major determinant of a beneficial outcome will be a candid pondering of the options available, those that are meant to overcome the potential disruptions you offer in your fourth point on why the EMU will continue.

    So to me the question becomes, in the face of the posture being presented by the EMU countries and their central bankers, is anyone in the back room actually working on an exit strategy that will shorten the 3 week currency normalization time period in order to effect the most orderly transition possible?

    Agreement on the ultimate cause of the Euro crisis requires, I am afraid, the most hugest Pogo moment for our modern monetary internationalists.

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