A fiscally-unified plan for European defaults

By Felix Salmon
December 20, 2010
George Soros, in a lucid column today, reckons that both might be in the cards:

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There are basically two ways that the European crisis might end up resolving itself. Either the peripheral countries start defaulting, or else the eurozone becomes a fiscal union as well as monetary union. Both are politically unacceptable, of course. And George Soros, in a lucid column today, reckons that both might be in the cards:

The lack of a common treasury is now in the process of being remedied, first by a rescue package for Greece, then by creating a temporary emergency facility, and – the financial authorities being a little bit pregnant – eventually by establishing some permanent institution…

Structural changes may not be sufficient to provide the eurozone countries in need of rescue an escape route from their predicament. Additional measures, such as “haircuts” for holders of sovereign debt, may be needed.

Soros’s solution to the crisis involves recapitalizing the banks, and bringing them under a single European regulator. I like that idea—Europe’s banks have been far too leveraged for far too long, and Europe’s member states will always look forgivingly on their domestic institutions, setting off a regulatory race to the bottom. If a tough regulator can turn the banking systems in countries like Ireland and Spain into something strong and credible, that will help enormously in terms of reducing tail risk in the eurozone. And once that has happened, as Soros says, the banks should even be able to absorb a modest default from Greece or Portugal, and maybe even finance those countries’ recoveries.

When politics meets economics, politics always wins. Eurozone countries will only default when it’s in their political interest to do so; until then, some European institution or other will always be there, in extremis, to bail them out and provide the extra few billions needed to plug whatever budget gaps might be temporarily ineradicable. If you’re going to implement a fiscal union out of necessity that way, you might at least make a virtue of it by imposing a common set of banking standards at the same time.

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