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Soros versus Sinn: The German Question

"Germany's Choice" by George Soros

FRANKFURT – The euro crisis has already transformed the European Union from a voluntary association of equal states into a creditor-debtor relationship from which there is no easy escape. The creditors stand to lose large sums should a member state exit the monetary union, yet debtors are subjected to policies that deepen their depression, aggravate their debt burden, and perpetuate their subordinate position. As a result, the crisis is now threatening to destroy the EU itself. That would be a tragedy of historic proportions, which only German leadership can prevent.

The causes of the crisis cannot be properly understood without recognizing the euro’s fatal flaw: By creating an independent central bank, member countries have become indebted in a currency that they do not control. At first, both the authorities and market participants treated all government bonds as if they were riskless, creating a perverse incentive for banks to load up on the weaker bonds. When the Greek crisis raised the specter of default, financial markets reacted with a vengeance, relegating all heavily indebted eurozone members to the status of a Third World country over-extended in a foreign currency. Subsequently, the heavily indebted member countries were treated as if they were solely responsible for their misfortunes, and the structural defect of the euro remained uncorrected.

Once this is understood, the solution practically suggests itself. It can be summed up in one word: Eurobonds.

If countries that abide by the EU’s new Fiscal Compact were allowed to convert their entire stock of government debt into Eurobonds, the positive impact would be little short of the miraculous. The danger of default would disappear, as would risk premiums. Banks’ balance sheets would receive an immediate boost, as would the heavily indebted countries’ budgets.

Italy, for example, would save up to 4% of its GDP; its budget would move into surplus; and fiscal stimulus would replace austerity. As a result, its economy would grow, and its debt ratio would fall. Most of the seemingly intractable problems would vanish into thin air. It would be like waking from a nightmare.

In accordance with the Fiscal Compact, member countries would be allowed to issue new Eurobonds only to replace maturing ones; after five years, the debts outstanding would be gradually reduced to 60% of GDP. If a member country ran up additional debts, it could borrow only in its own name. Admittedly, the Fiscal Compact needs some modifications to ensure that the penalties for noncompliance are automatic, prompt, and not too severe to be credible. A tighter Fiscal Compact would practically eliminate the risk of default.

Thus, Eurobonds would not ruin Germany’s credit rating. On the contrary, they would compare favorably with the bonds of the United States, the United Kingdom, and Japan.

To be sure, Eurobonds are not a panacea. The boost derived from Eurobonds may not be sufficient to ensure recovery; additional fiscal and/or monetary stimulus may be needed. But having such a problem would be a luxury. More troubling, Eurobonds would not eliminate divergences in competitiveness. Individual countries would still need to undertake structural reforms. The EU would also need a banking union to make credit available on equal terms in every country. (The Cyprus rescue made the need more acute by making the field even more uneven.) But Germany’s acceptance of Eurobonds would transform the atmosphere and facilitate the needed reforms.

Unfortunately, Germany remains adamantly opposed to Eurobonds. Since Chancellor Angela Merkel vetoed the idea, it has not been given any consideration. The German public does not recognize that agreeing to Eurobonds would be much less risky and costly than continuing to do only the minimum to preserve the euro.

Germany has the right to reject Eurobonds. But it has no right to prevent the heavily indebted countries from escaping their misery by banding together and issuing them. If Germany is opposed to Eurobonds, it should consider leaving the euro. Surprisingly, Eurobonds issued by a Germany-less eurozone would still compare favorably with those of the US, UK, and Japanese bonds.

The reason is simple. Because all of the accumulated debt is denominated in euros, it makes all the difference which country leaves the euro. If Germany left, the euro would depreciate. The debtor countries would regain their competitiveness. Their debt would diminish in real terms and, if they issued Eurobonds, the threat of default would disappear. Their debt would suddenly become sustainable.

At the same time, most of the burden of adjustment would fall on the countries that left the euro. Their exports would become less competitive, and they would encounter heavy competition from the rump eurozone in their home markets. They would also incur losses on their claims and investments denominated in euros.

By contrast, if Italy left the eurozone, its euro-denominated debt burden would become unsustainable and would have to be restructured, plunging the global financial system into chaos. So, if anyone must leave, it should be Germany, not Italy.

There is a strong case for Germany to decide whether to accept Eurobonds or leave the eurozone, but it is less obvious which of the two alternatives would be better for the country. Only the German electorate is qualified to decide.

If a referendum in Germany were held today, the supporters of a eurozone exit would win hands down. But more intensive consideration could change people’s mind. They would discover that the cost to Germany of authorizing Eurobonds has been greatly exaggerated, and the cost of leaving the euro understated.

The trouble is that Germany has not been forced to choose. It can continue to do no more than the minimum to preserve the euro. This is clearly Merkel’s preferred choice, at least until after the next election.

Europe would be infinitely better off if Germany made a definitive choice between Eurobonds and a eurozone exit, regardless of the outcome; indeed, Germany would be better off as well. The situation is deteriorating, and, in the longer term, it is bound to become unsustainable. A disorderly disintegration resulting in mutual recriminations and unsettled claims would leave Europe worse off than it was when it embarked on the bold experiment of unification. Surely that is not in Germany’s interest.

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"Should Germany Exit the Euro?" by Hans-Werner Sinn

MUNICH – Last summer, the financier George Soros urged Germany to agree to the establishment of the European Stability Mechanism, calling on the country to “lead or leave.” Now he says that Germany should exit the euro if it continues to block the introduction of Eurobonds.

Soros is playing with fire. Leaving the eurozone is precisely what the newly founded “Alternative for Germany” party, which draws support from a wide swath of society, is demanding.

Crunch time is fast approaching. Cyprus is almost out of the euro, its banks’ collapse having been delayed by the European Central Bank’s provision of Emergency Liquidity Assistance, while euroskeptic parties led by Beppe Grillo and Silvio Berlusconi garnered a combined total of 55% of the popular vote in the latest Italian general election.

Moreover, the Greeks and Spaniards are unlikely to be able to bear the strain of economic austerity much longer, with youth unemployment inching toward 60%. The independence movement in Catalonia has gathered so much momentum that a leading Spanish general has vowed to send troops into Barcelona should the province hold a referendum on secession.

France, too, has competitiveness problems, and is unable to meet its commitments under the European Union’s Fiscal Compact. Portugal needs a new rescue program, and Slovenia could soon be asking for a rescue as well.

Many investors echo Soros. They want to cut and run – to unload their toxic paper onto intergovernmental rescuers, who should pay for it with the proceeds of Eurobond sales, and put their money in safer havens. The public already is being misused in an effort to mop up junk securities and support feeble banks, with taxpayer-funded institutions such as the ECB and the bailout programs having by now provided €1.2 trillion ($1.6 trillion) in international credit.

If Soros were right, and Germany had to choose between Eurobonds and the euro, many Germans would surely prefer to leave the euro. The new German political party would attract much more support, and sentiment might shift. The euro itself would be finished; after all, its primary task was to break the Bundesbank’s dominance in monetary policy.

But Soros is wrong. For starters, there is no legal basis for his demand. Article 125 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union expressly forbids the mutualization of debt.

Worst of all, Soros does not recognize the real nature of the eurozone’s problems. The ongoing financial crisis is merely a symptom of the monetary union’s underlying malady: its southern members’ loss of competitiveness.

The euro gave these countries access to cheap credit, which was used to finance wage increases that were not underpinned by productivity gains. This led to a price explosion and massive external deficits.

Maintaining these countries’ excessive prices and nominal incomes with artificially cheap credit guaranteed by other countries would only make the loss of competitiveness permanent. The entrenchment of debtor-creditor relationships between the states of the eurozone would fuel political tension – as occurred in the United States in its first decades.

In order to regain competitiveness, the southern countries will have to reduce their goods prices, while the northern countries will have to accept higher inflation. Eurobonds, however, would impede precisely this outcome, because relative prices in the north can be raised only when northern savers invest their capital at home instead of seeing it publicly escorted to the south by taxpayer-financed credit guarantees.

According to a study by Goldman Sachs, countries like Greece, Portugal, and Spain will have to become 20-30% cheaper, and German prices will have to rise by 20% relative to the eurozone average. To be sure, if Germany were to leave the common currency, the road back to competitiveness would be easier for the southern countries, since the rump euro would undergo devaluation; but the crisis countries’ fundamental problem would remain as long as the other competitive countries remain in the eurozone. Spain, for example, would still have to cut its prices by 22-24% relative to the new eurozone average.

From this perspective, the crisis countries would not be spared painful retrenchment as long as they remained in a monetary union that includes competitive countries. The only way to avoid it would be for them to exit the euro and devalue their new currencies. But, so far, they have not been willing to go this route.

Politically, it would be a big mistake for Germany to exit the euro, because that would reinstate the Rhine as the border between France and Germany. Franco-German reconciliation, the greatest success of the postwar period in Europe, would be in jeopardy.

Thus, the only remaining option, as unpleasant as it may be for some countries, is to tighten budget constraints in the eurozone. After years of easy money, a way back to reality must be found. If a country is bankrupt, it must let its creditors know that it cannot repay its debts. And speculators must take responsibility for their decisions, and stop clamoring for taxpayer money whenever their investments turn bad.

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George Soros responds:

Hans-Werner Sinn has deliberately distorted and obfuscated my argument. I was arguing that the current state of integration within the eurozone is inadequate: the euro will work only if the bulk of the national debts are financed by Eurobonds and the banking system is regulated by institutions that create a level playing field within the eurozone.

Allowing the bulk of outstanding national debts to be converted into Eurobonds would work wonders. It would greatly facilitate the creation of an effective banking union, and it would allow member states to undertake their own structural reforms in a more benign environment. Countries that fail to implement the necessary reforms would become permanent pockets of poverty and dependency, much like Italy’s Mezzogiorno region today.

If Germany and other creditor countries are unwilling to accept the contingent liabilities that Eurobonds entail, as they are today, they should step aside, leave the euro by amicable agreement, and allow the rest of the eurozone to issue Eurobonds. The bonds would compare favorably with the government bonds of countries like the United States, the United Kingdom, and Japan, because the euro would depreciate, the shrunken eurozone would become competitive even with Germany, and its debt burden would fall as its economy grew.

But Germany would be ill-advised to leave the euro. The liabilities that it would incur by agreeing to Eurobonds are contingent on a default – the probability of which would be eliminated by the introduction of Eurobonds. Germany would actually benefit from the so-called periphery countries’ recovery. By contrast, were Germany to leave the eurozone, it would suffer from an overvalued currency and from losses on its euro-denominated assets.

Whether Germany agrees to Eurobonds or leaves the euro, either choice would be infinitely preferable to the current state of affairs. The current arrangements allow Germany to pursue its narrowly conceived national interests but are pushing the eurozone as a whole into a long-lasting depression that will affect Germany as well.

Germany is advocating a reduction in budget deficits while pursuing an orthodox monetary policy whose sole objective is to control inflation. This causes GDPs to fall and debt ratios to rise, hurting the heavily indebted countries, which pay high risk premiums, more than countries with better credit ratings, because it renders the former countries’ debt unsustainable. From time to time, they need to be rescued, and Germany always does what it must – but only that and no more – to save the euro; as soon as the crisis abates, German leaders start to whittle down the promises they have made. So the austerity policy championed by Germany perpetuates the crisis that puts Germany in charge of policy.

Japan has adhered to the monetary doctrine advocated by Germany, and it has experienced 25 years of stagnation, despite engaging in occasional fiscal stimulus. It has now changed sides and embraced quantitative easing on an unprecedented scale. Europe is entering on a course from which Japan is desperate to escape. And, while Japan is a country with a long, unified history, and thus could survive a quarter-century of stagnation, the European Union is an incomplete association of sovereign states that is unlikely to withstand a similar experience.

There is no escaping the conclusion that current policies are ill-conceived. They do not even serve Germany’s narrow national self-interest, because the results are politically and humanly intolerable; eventually they will not be tolerated. There is a real danger that the euro will destroy the EU and leave Europe seething with resentments and unsettled claims. The danger may not be imminent, but the later it happens the worse the consequences. That is not in Germany’s interest.

Sinn sidesteps this argument by claiming that there is no legal basis for compelling Germany to choose between agreeing to Eurobonds or leaving the euro. He suggests that, if anybody ought to leave the euro, it is the Mediterranean countries, which should devalue their currencies. That is a recipe for disaster. They would have to default on their debts, precipitating global financial turmoil that may be beyond the capacity of authorities to contain.

The heavily indebted countries must channel the rising their citizens’ discontent into a more constructive channel by coming together and calling on Germany to make the choice. The newly formed Italian government is well placed to lead such an effort. As I have shown, Italy would be infinitely better off whatever Germany decides. And, if Germany fails to respond, it would have to bear the responsibility for the consequences.

I am sure that Germany does not want to be responsible for the collapse of the European Union. It did not seek to dominate Europe and is unwilling to accept the responsibilities and contingent liabilities that go with such a position. That is one of the reasons for the current crisis. But willy-nilly Germany has been thrust into a position of leadership. All of Europe would benefit if Germany assumed the role of a benevolent leader that takes into account not only its narrow self-interest, but also the interests of the rest of Europe – a role similar to that played by the US in the global financial system after World War II, and by Germany itself prior to its reunification.

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Hans-Werner Sinn responds:

Germany will not accept Eurobonds. The exclusion of debt mutualisation schemes was its main condition for giving up the deutschmark and signing the Maastricht Treaty (article 125 TFEU). Moreover, the German Supreme Court has indicated that Germany will require a referendum before Eurobonds can be introduced.

The Bundestag does not have the right to make that decision, because it would change the constitutional basis of the Federal Republic of Germany. And even if a referendum on Eurobonds were held, it it would never find a majority, unless it is coupled with the foundation of a common European state, which is strongly objected to by France. Angela Merkel, who will in all likelihood be re-elected in September, has said that Eurobonds will not come in her lifetime. George Soros should know all that. By suggesting that Germany choose between Eurobonds or leaving the euro, he effectively advocates the euro's destruction.

Even if Germany exits the euro, the competitiveness problems of some of the eurozone’s southern countries vis-à-vis the economically stronger countries in the north would still be substantial, and they still would have to undergo a process of real devaluation via austerity. George Soros dodges the competitiveness problem by concentrating on the financial side of the crisis. But calming markets by offering public guarantees for investors will not solve the competitiveness problem. On the contrary, it will strengthen the euro and thus exacerbate the competitiveness problems of the south.

In all likelihood, however, Germany’s exit would also trigger the exit of the countries of the former deutschmark bloc (the Netherlands, Austria, Finland and perhaps Belgium). When France proposed in 1993 that Germany leave the EMS, a forerunner of the euro, the Netherlands and Belgium immediately declared that they would also be leaving, and France withdrew its demand. Thus, should Germany be forced to exit, the result would be northern and southern euro blocs, the only question being which bloc France would choose to belong to.

That said, Soros’s suggestion that a sub-group of euro countries could issue joint Eurobonds if they wished to do so is good. Every country should be free to organise a two-speed eurozone if it so wishes. Whether that would improve the credit ratings of the jointly issued bonds is another matter.

His accusation that Germany is imposing austerity is unfair. Austerity is imposed by the markets, not by those countries providing the funds to mitigate the crisis. By now the overall sum of credit via intergovernmental rescue operations and the ECB has reached €1.185 trillion (€707 billion in GIPSIC Target liabilities minus GIPSIC claims from under-proportional banknote issuance, €349 billion in intergovernmental rescue funds, including those from the IMF, and €128 billion in GIPSIC government bond purchases by non-GIPSIC national central banks; seewww.cesifo.org not counting the unlimited guarantees the ECB has given to the states of southern Europe through its OMT programme at the expense, and to the risk, of the taxpayers of Europe’s still-sound economies.

Should the euro break up and the GIPSIC countries default, Germany alone would lose about €545 billion euros, nearly half of the aggregate sum mentioned, since the Bundesbank has carried out most of the net payments on behalf of the GIPSIC countries that are reflected in the Target balances. Germany has the biggest exposure by far among the countries rescuing the eurozone’s crisis-stricken countries, and thus helps to mitigate austerity more than any other country.

George Soros underestimates the risks that debt mutualisation would pose for the future of the eurozone. When Alexander Hamilton, the first US finance minister, mutualised state debts in 1791, he thought this would cement the new American nation. But the mutualisation of debt gave rise to huge moral hazard effects, inducing the states to borrow excessively. A credit bubble emerged that burst in 1838 and drove most of the US states into bankruptcy. Nothing but animosity and strife resulted.

The euro crisis arose because investors have mispriced the risks of investing in southern Europe. This was the reason for the inflationary credit bubble that deprived a number of countries of their competitiveness. Eurobonds are a way of perpetuating this mispricing, keeping the markets from correcting their mistakes. Eurobonds would imply lingering soft budget constraints and huge political moral hazard effects that would destroy the European model.

Soros says countries that fail to implement the necessary reforms after the introduction of Eurobonds would become permanent pockets of poverty and dependency, much like Italy’s Mezzogiorno region today. Indeed, this is what will happen. There will be quite a number of countries of this sort, given the cheap financing available. They will become like the Mezzogiorno, or like East Germany for that matter, and will permanently suffer from the so-called “Dutch Disease,” with chronic unemployment and underperformance but an acceptable living standard.

Soros says that Germany will suffer from exiting the eurozone, because of the revaluation of the deutschmark. This is not true. First, Germany is currently undervalued and would benefit from a limited appreciation via the terms-of-trade effect. The advantage of imports becoming cheaper more than outweighs the losses in export revenue.

Second, the Bundesbank can always prevent an excessive revaluation by selling deutschmarks and buying foreign assets, following the successful Swiss example of last year. Germany would be far better off than now because real foreign assets would replace the Target claims it holds under the present system. Such assets would be safer and generate a higher return. That said, I reemphasise that in my judgment Germany should not exit the euro, because of the political value of the euro as a European integration project and because of its potentially beneficial implications for trade should the current crisis be resolved.

Soros claims that the exit of southern countries would exacerbate their external debt problems, leading them to default on their debt. This is also not true. While exiting and devaluing the new currency would increase their debt-to-GDP ratio, remaining in the euro and cutting prices to enact a real devaluation would do exactly the same. Except for producing inflation in the eurozone, a depreciation, whether external or internal via price cuts, is the only possibility for an uncompetitive country to regain competitiveness and generate a structural current account surplus, which is the only possibility for orderly debt redemption.

Seen this way, a temporary increase in the debt-to-GDP ratio is unavoidable if a country wants to repay its debt and attain a sustainable foreign debt position. In my opinion we should tolerate more inflation in the northern euro countries to help make the eurozone south competitive. But if we try to escort the northern savings via Eurobonds to the south, exactly the opposite will happen. We would destroy the German building boom, which is beginning to lead to higher wage demands and that has the potential for inflating the country.

On another point Soros raises, I do not see why Italy should exit the eurozone, and why it would be “infinitely better off” if Germany exited. Italy has a very low level of foreign debt and a highly competitive economy in the country’s north. According to the study by Goldman Sachs that I cited, it only needs to depreciate against the eurozone average by 10% or less. Italy’s problems are manageable.

If it was true that Germany would suffer after its own exit, Italy would suffer too, because Italy and Germany are extremely closely interlinked via supply chains. The two countries are complements rather than competitors.

George Soros points to Japan’s unsuccessful attempts to solve its problems by monetary austerity of the German kind, and warns against repeating that experiment. Japan clearly did not choose austerity after its banks collapsed in 1997. The BoJ has kept the rate of interest at close to zero since then, while the government debt-to-GDP ratio has increased from 99% (1996) to 237% (2012) because of permanent Keynesian deficit spending. Apart from that, the ineffectiveness of austerity in a country with a flexible exchange rate does not apply to the situation of a country in a currency union. While the flexible exchange rate would sterilise all attempts at increasing competitiveness via deflation, price cuts in a currency union do work wonders, as the Irish example has shown. Ireland has cut its prices relative to the rest of the eurozone by 15% since 2006, and it succeeded in saving its economy.

One final word. George Soros said I “distorted and obfuscated” his argument. If that was the case, I apologise, for the public discourse would make no sense if the antagonist’s view were purposefully distorted. But I still do not see where, and in what sense, that could have been the case.

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George Soros responds:

Hans-Werner Sinn’s response confirms my fear that the euro will eventually destroy the European Union. The longer it takes, the greater the political damage and the human suffering – and it may take a long time. Given that the way the euro is currently managed puts the “peripheral” countries at a serious competitive disadvantage in terms of their access to capital, they are condemned to a lasting depression and a continuing decline in their competitive position.

As Sinn says, Germany will not accept Eurobonds. The German Supreme Court has indicated that Germany will require a referendum before Eurobonds can be introduced, and it is currently considering whether the European Central Bank has exceeded its powers. The Bundesbank has submitted a brief that criticizes the legitimacy of some of the ECB’s recent actions. It argues that, under the German constitution, the ECB is prohibited from making any decisions that impose potential liabilities on German taxpayers, because it is not subject to German parliamentary control.

A decision in favor of the Bundesbank would put the periphery position in an even more dire position. It is bound to strengthen anti-European sentiment. If current policies persist, they are bound to lead to the disorderly disintegration of the EU. Surely that is not what Germany wants.

I do not agree with all of Sinn’s arguments, but there is no point in getting bogged down in the details. The point is that the current state of affairs is intolerable. Sinn claims that the root cause of the euro crisis is that the Mediterranean countries are not competitive. If he represents German public opinion correctly, a mutually agreed breakup of the eurozone into two currency blocs would be preferable to preserving the status quo.

The division of the euro into two blocs would cause serious dislocations. Germany assuming the role of a benign hegemon would benefit everyone, but that seems to be unattainable. The division of the euro could save the EU, provided that the periphery retains possession of the euro. Given that their debt is denominated in euros, this would enable them to avoid a default that would destabilize the global financial system. And France, in its current competitive position, would be better suited to act as the eurozone’s leader, rather than to remain a passenger in a car driven by Germany.

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