The Accidental Empire

NEW YORK – It is now clear that the main cause of the euro crisis is the member states’ surrender of their right to print money to the European Central Bank. They did not understand just what that surrender entailed – and neither did the European authorities.

When the euro was introduced, regulators allowed banks to buy unlimited amounts of government bonds without setting aside any equity capital, and the ECB discounted all eurozone government bonds on equal terms. Commercial banks found it advantageous to accumulate weaker countries’ bonds to earn a few extra basis points, which caused interest rates to converge across the eurozone. Germany, struggling with the burdens of reunification, undertook structural reforms and became more competitive. Other countries enjoyed housing and consumption booms on the back of cheap credit, making them less competitive.

Then came the crash of 2008. Governments had to bail out their banks. Some of them found themselves in the position of a developing country that had become heavily indebted in a currency that it did not control. Reflecting the divergence in economic performance, Europe became divided into creditor and debtor countries.

When financial markets discovered that supposedly riskless government bonds might be forced into default, they raised risk premiums dramatically. This rendered potentially insolvent commercial banks, whose balance sheets were loaded with such bonds, giving rise to Europe’s twin sovereign-debt and banking crisis.