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GLG: Italy and Greece deserve a central bank

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Guest contributors Bart Turtelboom and Karim Abdel-Motaal run the Emerging Market strategy at Man GLG. The views expressed are their own.

History is written by the victors. That is what emerging markets discovered after their currency crises of the 1990s, and it is what will happen when the annals of the euro crisis are compiled. Treatment of this crisis has varied, but in all its forms the basic premise is already set: Germany and the world are the undeserving victims of Peripheral European excess.  The Periphery spent and borrowed too much causing the current crisis.  Add to this the cultural imagery of Greek pensioners retiring at the tender age of 55 on exotic Aegean islands at German savers’ expense and the colourful chapter on this historical saga is written.

If Emerging Markets is any guide, the problem with this narrative is not just that it is wrong, but downright dangerous in its policy implications.  The tyrannical hold of this perspective on European policy making is pushing the continent down the path of a historic pro-cyclical fiscal contraction almost as the be all and end all of crisis response.  There is already a mountain of evidence that this has not worked, whatever the merits of debt reduction and ideological divisions on its pace and timing.  The missing ingredient has always been and remains today, quite different.  Italy and Greece lack a central bank.  More importantly, they deserve one, desperately.

For an economy where paper money is the medium of exchange and fractional reserve banking exists where a bank transforms a unit of deposits into a multiple of that in loans, a central bank is essential.  This is as true of Switzerland as it is of Greece.  It performs a function of lender of last resort to prevent a rapid run on an otherwise solvent bank (a liquidity crisis) from turning into a solvency one for that bank or for the entire banking system.  When Italy and Greece signed onto the Euro, they had a legitimate right to expect that the Central Banks they were giving up would be replaced by a common Eurozone one, which would in effect perform the same function for their economies.  What they got instead was a Central Bank which is constrained by mandate, and German objection to its modification, from performing that function for anyone but Germany.

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