Europe’s Short Vacation

NEW YORK – Since last November, the European Central Bank, under its new president, Mario Draghi, has reduced its policy rates and undertaken two injections of more than €1 trillion of liquidity into the eurozone banking system. This led to a temporary reduction in the financial strains confronting the debt endangered countries on the eurozone’s periphery (Greece, Spain, Portugal, Italy, and Ireland), sharply lowered the risk of a liquidity run in the eurozone banking system, and cut financing costs for Italy and Spain from their unsustainable levels of last fall.

At the same time, a technical default by Greece was avoided, and the country implemented a successful – if coercive – restructuring of its public debt. A new fiscal compact – and new governments in Greece, Italy, and Spain – spurred hope of credible commitment to austerity and structural reform. And the decision to combine the eurozone’s new bailout fund (the European Stability Mechanism) with the old one (the European Financial Stability Facility) significantly increased the size of the eurozone’s firewall.

But the ensuing honeymoon with the markets turned out to be brief. Interest-rate spreads for Italy and Spain are widening again, while borrowing costs for Portugal and Greece remained high all along. And, inevitably, the recession on the eurozone’s periphery is deepening and moving to the core, namely France and Germany. Indeed, the recession will worsen throughout this year, for many reasons.

First, front-loaded fiscal austerity – however necessary – is accelerating the contraction, as higher taxes and lower government spending and transfer payments reduce disposable income and aggregate demand. Moreover, as the recession deepens, resulting in even wider fiscal deficits, another round of austerity will be needed. And now, thanks to the fiscal compact, even the eurozone’s core will be forced into front-loaded recessionary austerity.