WASHINGTON, DC – While some observers argue that the key lesson of the eurozone’s baptism by fire is that greater fiscal and banking integration are needed to sustain the currency union, many economists pointed this out even before the euro’s introduction in 1999. The real lessons of the euro crisis lie elsewhere – and they are genuinely new and surprising.
The received wisdom about currency unions was that their optimality could be assessed on two grounds. First, were the regions to be united similar or dissimilar in terms of their economies’ vulnerability to external shocks? The more similar the regions, the more optimal the resulting currency area, because policy responses could be applied uniformly across its entire territory.
If economic structures were dissimilar, then the second criterion became critical: Were arrangements in place to adjust to asymmetric shocks? The two key arrangements that most economists emphasized were fiscal transfers, which could cushion shocks in badly affected regions, and labor mobility, which would allow workers from such regions to move to less affected ones.
The irony here is that the impetus toward currency union was partly a result of the recognition of asymmetries. Thus, in the aftermath of the sterling and lira devaluations of the early 1990’s, with their resulting adverse trade shocks to France and Germany, the lesson that was drawn was that a single currency was needed to prevent such disparate shocks from recurring.