NEW YORK – Whether the eurozone is viable or not remains an open question. But what if a breakup can only be postponed, not avoided? If so, delaying the inevitable would merely make the endgame worse – much worse.
Germany increasingly recognizes that if the adjustment needed to restore growth, competitiveness, and debt sustainability in the eurozone’s periphery comes through austerity and internal devaluation rather than debt restructuring and exit (leading to the reintroduction of sharply depreciated national currencies), the cost will most likely be trillions of euros. Indeed, sufficient official financing will be needed to allow cross-border and even domestic investors to exit. As investors reduce their exposure to the eurozone periphery’s sovereigns, banks, and corporations, both flow and stock imbalances will need to be financed. The adjustment process will take many years, and, until policy credibility is fully restored, capital flight will continue, requiring massive amounts of official finance.
Until recently, such official finance came from fiscal authorities (the European Financial Stability Facility, soon to be the European Stability Mechanism) and the International Monetary Fund. But, increasingly, official financing is coming from the European Central Bank – first with bond purchases, and then with liquidity support to banks and the resulting buildup of balances within the eurozone’s Target2 payment system. With political constraints in Germany and elsewhere preventing further strengthening of fiscally-based firewalls, the ECB now plans to provide another round of large-scale financing to Spain and Italy (with more bond purchases).
Thus, Germany and the eurozone core have increasingly outsourced official financing of the eurozone’s distressed members to the ECB. If Italy and Spain are illiquid but solvent, and large-scale financing provides enough time for austerity and economic reforms to restore debt sustainability, competitiveness, and growth, the current strategy will work and the eurozone will survive.