Europe’s Debt Wish

CAMBRIDGE – Eurozone leaders continue to debate how best to reinvigorate economic growth, with French and Italian leaders now arguing that the eurozone’s rigid “fiscal compact” should be loosened. Meanwhile, the leaders of the eurozone’s northern member countries continue to push for more serious implementation of structural reform.

Ideally, both sides will get their way, but it is difficult to see an endgame that does not involve significant debt restructuring or rescheduling. The inability of Europe’s politicians to contemplate this scenario is placing a huge burden on the European Central Bank.

Although there are many explanations for the eurozone’s lagging recovery, it is clear that the overhang of both public and private debt looms large. The gross debts of households and financial institutions are higher today as a share of national income than they were before the financial crisis. Nonfinancial corporate debt has fallen only slightly. And government debt, of course, has risen sharply, owing to bank bailouts and a sharp, recession-fueled decline in tax revenues.

Yes, Europe is also wrestling with an aging population. Southern eurozone countries such as Italy and Spain have suffered from rising competition with China in textiles and light manufacturing industries. But just as the pre-crisis credit boom masked underlying structural problems, post-crisis credit constraints have greatly amplified the downturn.