Will the tsunami devastating the global financial system undermine the stability of the euro? Its advocates say not. Doomsday scenarios of a partial break-up of the Eurozone have, as yet, failed to materialise. They argue that, over 10 years, the Eurozone has become a haven of peace and stability giving the second world economy a stable currency. In January, the Eurozone acquired its 16th member, Slovakia. And even the Eurosceptics (Denmark, Sweden and the United Kingdom) who snubbed the launch of the single currency in 1999 are having second thoughts: the Danish crown may join up shortly.
The independent European Central Bank (ECB) has single-handedly reined in the growth in the money supply, bringing inflation down to approximately 2 per cent. Average nominal interest rates have stabilised at around 2.5 per cent, while real interest rates are at their lowest since the 1960s. And the abolition of 15 national currencies eliminated exchange risks (1) and transaction costs, galvanizing intra-euro zone trade and investment, which now form a third of its GNP.
In 2008 the euro reached its high against the dollar as the pound collapsed and Iceland went bankrupt. Reassuringly for those in the Eurozone, the euro is emerging as an alternative to the mighty dollar: today it accounts for more than a quarter of all central banks’ foreign exchange reserves and has become the currency of choice, ahead of the dollar, for all international bond issues. As ECB chairman Jean-Claude Trichet said cheerfully: “We are contributing every single day to an ever-higher level of prosperity and we are therefore playing a critical role in the unification of Europe” (2).
For all these glittering achievements, there are signs of malaise. During the last decade the Eurozone’s economic growth was sluggish, unemployment continued stubbornly high and many EU members’ budgetary deficit exceeded the 3 per cent GDP ceiling mandated by the Growth and Stabilisation Pact. By contrast, the Eurosceptics had far lower rates of unemployment (half the Eurozone average), higher growth rates and very low budget deficits (if not surpluses).
The euro has failed to deliver any significant benefits to Eurozone countries, mainly because of structural economic problems for which the euro was never meant to be the panacea. Even so, hopes of reduced unemployment or higher economic growth have not come true. So could the euro be partly responsible for the vicissitudes of the last decade? And will it survive unscathed the crisis engulfing the global economy?
The launch of the euro in 1999 was a politically motivated event which never met the acid test of what economists call an “optimal currency area”. A group of countries (or regions) is deemed to constitute an optimal currency area when their economies are closely interwoven by trade in goods and services, and characterised by mobility of capital and labour. The United States is the longest surviving and most successful example of a well-functioning currency area.
Is the European Union also an optimal currency area? Intra-EU trade hovers at around 15 per cent of the Eurozone’s GNP – significant but considerably lower than in the US. While footloose capital is increasingly the EU norm, labour mobility across Europe is only a fraction of what it is in the US and remains very low within each of its national economies.
Ignoring these problems, the EU launched the euro in 1999 and created a single monetary policy, establishing a central bank and depriving each country of two (out of three) critical policy instruments: an independent monetary policy to tame inflation or spur growth through interest rate adjustments and a flexible exchange rate to keep its economy competitive.
Furthermore, fiscal policy – the third critical instrument – is sharply constrained by the Growth and Stabilisation Pact which caps the budget deficit for each country at 3 per cent of GDP. National debt should not exceed 60 per cent of GDP, with notable exceptions such as Italy and Greece, which breached the ceiling at 104 per cent and 95 per cent of their GDP respectively. Structural and cyclical differences between individual EU members are clear; so the Eurozone’s reduced economic policy deftness is of particular concern in the event that one member country suffers an economic shock that does not affect the rest.
If the Eurozone were really an optimal currency area, a country in trouble would be able to adjust through the mobility of its labour force within the rest of the Eurozone, the flexibility of wages and prices, and/or a budgetary transfer from Brussels to help it out. None of these conditions were met when the euro was first launched, nor is there any sign that member countries are putting in motion structural reforms to bring the Eurozone any closer to becoming an optimal currency area.
The third condition – which is easier to meet – calls for a hefty dose of “fiscal federalism” and would transfer significant taxing and spending power away from national governments to the EU. This transfer remains elusive for fear of further diluting national sovereignty.
Indeed the EU – which itself has limited taxing power (no more than 1.27 per cent of GNP) – cannot make stabilizing fiscal transfers to smooth out national shocks. The brunt of the responsibility for fiscal policy remains in the hands of national governments, with Brussels accounting for less than 3 per cent of Eurozone government expenditures.
This stands in stark contrast to the United States where more than 60 per cent of government expenditures occur at the federal level. The US also has high labor mobility and greater wage flexibility than Europe. Even Germany’s reunification, which joined east and west in a single mark in 1991, hardly created an optimal D-mark zone: in spite of fiscal transfer in excess of 200bn euros over a 10-year period, unemployment remained stubbornly high (close to 20 per cent) in East Germany.
In its first 10 years the Eurozone has experienced at least two main “asymmetrical” shocks which did not impact all its members uniformly: the overvalued dollar from 1999-2002 and the oil shock from 2005-8. In the case of the dollar, those Eurozone countries dependent on international trade have experienced faster imports-induced inflation than those oriented to Eurozone trade. Ireland – more of an international than a European trader – experienced inflation at the rate of 4.1 per cent over the 1999-2002 period, whereas Germany – more of a European than an international trader – remained in the slow inflation lane at 1.2 per cent over that same period.
Similarly, the quadrupling of the price of crude oil is impacting on national rates of economic growth and inflation more or less in proportion to their dependence on oil. France, with its lower dependence on oil (35 per cent of its energy supply because of its high dependence on nuclear power), is less affected than Greece, Ireland, Italy, Portugal or Spain, which rely on oil for more than 55 per cent of their energy supply.
The combination of centralized monetary policy and decentralized fiscal policy is resulting in localized differences in inflation which are affecting the euro’s purchasing power in each Eurozone country. Under a national exchange rate, this is easily corrected through monetary policy and “competitive” depreciation/appreciation of the national currency. But this is no longer a possibility: the straightjacket of the euro killed the exchange rate policy instrument and froze monetary policy at the national level. Because of this inability to respond flexibly to inflation, the purchasing power of the euro is rapidly eroding in several countries.
On the basis of labour cost indices in Italy and Germany over the period 1 January 1999 to 30 September 2008, the euro in Italy is overvalued by 41 per cent against the euro in Germany, and Spain and Greece are not far behind. Unless countries suffering from overvaluation can correct the problem through faster gains in productivity and/or wage and price downward flexibility, the problem is not reversible. More importantly, overvaluation is a cumulative process which becomes harder to correct over time. In this vein, the latest round of EU enlargement may – to a limited extent – bring about some price and wage downward flexibility to the Eurozone as firms can make increasingly credible threats to outsource from or to relocate manufacturing operations to Eastern Europe to take advantage of cheaper labour.
To make matters worse, EU countries cling to their own electoral calendars for presidential, parliamentary or municipal elections. This exacerbates cyclical discrepancies across the Eurozone: the run-up to an election is often accompanied by expansionary fiscal policy.
As the world economy digs itself in a deeper hole, the main economic policy goal is becoming to combat the relentless rise of unemployment, which could rapidly reach 10-12 per cent. Spain’s unemployment has already skyrocketed to 13 per cent in the last six months. But fighting unemployment will result in massive budget deficits, which will unravel the Stabilisation Pact and jeopardise the stability of the single currency. Stimulus plans that are being implemented are blowing big holes in the deficit ceiling set at 3 per cent of GDP, pushing national debts way beyond the threshold of 60 per cent of GDP and raising new threats to the independence of the ECB.
Under duress, and facing the bleak prospect of a prolonged economic crisis and deepening structural unemployment, some countries may be tempted to follow the example of the brutal devaluation of the pound. Greece, Italy, Portugal and Spain (whose unemployment often exceeded 10 per cent in the last decade) will not agree to remain “under-competitive” because of the “over-valuation” of the euro.
However traumatic it may be to reinstate national currencies, some countries could decide to abandon the euro to recover their economic competitiveness. This scenario is reminiscent of the major currency crises that rocked the Bretton Woods system of fixed exchange rates between 1944 and 1971, and more recently the European Monetary System from 1979-99 (3). But this is unlikely in the short term, if only because national debts denominated in euros would become very expensive to service with a newly restored but devalued currency for the seceding country. Even so, further deterioration of an already fragile social climate (such as the recent demonstrations in Greece) fuelled by a brutal acceleration of unemployment, may push some countries to this solution of last resort.
LAURENT JACQUE is the Walter B Wriston professor of international finance and banking at the Fletcher School (Tufts University, US) and HEC School of Management (France)
(1) Risks due to exchange rate fluctuations. Prior to the creation of the euro, investors would routinely speculate against the franc, lire or pound. In September?1992, George Soros successfully speculated against the pound as the United Kingdom abandoned the European Monetary System.
(2) Interview in Die Zeit, Hamburg, 23?July?2007.
(3) The European Monetary System was established in 1979and aimed at stabilising exchange rates among European currencies, in effect re-enacting on a European scale the Bretton Woods system of pegged exchange rates. Each currency was pegged to an artificial currency unit known as the ecu, the predecessor of the euro.
This article appears in the March edition of the excellent monthly Le Monde Diplomatique, whose English language edition can be found at mondediplo.com. This full text appears by agreement with Le Monde Diplomatique. CounterPunch features one or two articles from LMD every month.