Stage Three for the Euro Crisis?

BERKELEY – The first two components of the euro crisis – a banking crisis that resulted from excessive leverage in both the public and private sectors, followed by a sharp fall in confidence in eurozone governments – have been addressed successfully, or at least partly so. But that leaves the third, longest-term, and most dangerous factor underlying the crisis: the structural imbalance between the eurozone’s north and south.

First, the good news: The fear that Europe’s banks could collapse, with panicked investors’ flight to safety producing a European Great Depression, now seems to have passed. Likewise, the fear, fueled entirely by the European Union’s dysfunctional politics, that eurozone governments might default – thereby causing the same dire consequences – has begun to dissipate.

Whether Europe would avoid a deep depression hinged on whether it dealt properly with these two aspects of the crisis. But whether Europe as a whole avoids lost decades of economic growth still hangs in the balance, and depends on whether southern European governments can rapidly restore competitiveness.

The process by which southern Europe became uncompetitive in the first place was driven by market price signals – by the incentives those signals created for entrepreneurs, and by how entrepreneurs’ individually rational responses played out in macroeconomic terms. Northern Europeans with money to invest were willing to lend on extraordinarily easy terms to those in the south who wanted to spend, and ample pre-2007 spending made employers there willing to raise wages rapidly.