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A Gravity Test for the Euro

CAMBRIDGE – Although I appreciate that exchange rates are never easy to explain or understand, I find today’s relatively robust value for the euro somewhat mysterious. Do the gnomes of currency markets seriously believe that the eurozone governments’ latest “comprehensive package” to save the euro will hold up for more than a few months?

The new plan relies on a questionable mix of dubious financial-engineering gimmicks and vague promises of modest Asian funding. Even the best part of the plan, the proposed (but not really agreed) 50% haircut for private-sector holders of Greek sovereign debt, is not sufficient to stabilize that country’s profound debt and growth problems.

So how is it that the euro is trading at a 40% premium to the US dollar, even as investors continue to view southern European government debt with great skepticism? I can think of one very good reason why the euro needs to fall, and six not-so-convincing reasons why it should remain stable or appreciate. Let’s begin with why the euro needs to fall.

Absent a clear path to a much tighter fiscal and political union, which can lead only through constitutional change, the current halfway house of the euro system appears increasingly untenable. It seems clear that the European Central Bank will be forced to buy far greater quantities of eurozone sovereign (junk) bonds. That may work in the short term, but if sovereign default risks materialize – as my research with Carmen Reinhart suggests is likely – the ECB will in turn have to be recapitalized. And, if the stronger northern eurozone countries are unwilling to digest this transfer – and political resistance runs high – the ECB may be forced to recapitalize itself through money creation. Either way, the threat of a profound financial crisis is high.