The Great Debate UK
You will often have heard it said that the euro zone cannot ultimately survive without fiscal union. This is complete nonsense. The truth is that, even with a full fiscal union, it cannot survive – at least, not with any form of fiscal union that one can imagine all the members signing up to.
This may be culturally difficult for Germans to understand. It is not that they lack experience of the problems of controlling spending by sub-central governments, because German Lander certainly do get into financial difficulties – three or four are virtually bankrupt at the moment, including the City of Berlin, no less. The problem is that this experience is not relevant to the euro zone for two very important reasons.
First, the willingness of frugal Lander such as Bavaria to subsidise a spendthrift like Berlin may not be unlimited, but it is undoubtedly far greater than the willingness of Germans (or Dutch, Finns or Estonians) to subsidise South Europeans. Secondly, on the whole, Germans are people who accept almost unquestioningly the categorical imperative to obey the law, even when, as in the case of the internal finances of the Bundesrepublik, the law is so complex that nobody except the experts understands it.
To see what happens to a fiscal union when these conditions are absent, consider how different things were in Britain under the late-lamented Mrs. Thatcher. In the mid-Eighties, as the Westminster government struggled to control local authority spending, it faced a rebellion by councillors who, when expected to implement budget cuts, resisted in very much the same way as would the anti-austerity campaigners in Greece, Italy and Spain today, if they were in power. In the end, of course, Westminster won the battle, but it had to go so far as to impose fines (so-called surcharges) on the recalcitrant councillors, backed up by the threat of sequestration and ultimately prison for non-payment.
By Laurence Copeland. The opinions expressed are his own.
Whenever the question of the future of the euro zone comes up, you can always rely on someone (often a German) to say something like “Yes, of course the Germans don’t like having to foot the bill for the weaklings… but at the same time, they do get enormous benefits from having a fixed exchange rate. I mean, just look at their trade surplus. All those Mercs and BMW’s you see in Milan and Athens and…”
This argument is utter nonsense, and the economists especially ought to know better.
from The Great Debate:
Financial conditions in the euro zone have significantly improved since the summer, when euro zone risks peaked because of German policymakers’ open consideration of a Greek exit, and the sovereign spreads of Italy and Spain reached new heights. The day before European Central Bank President Mario Draghi’s famous speech in London in which he announced that the ECB would do “whatever it takes” to save the euro, bond yields in Spain and Italy were at 7.75 percent and 6.75 percent, respectively, and rising. When the ECB announced its outright monetary transactions (OMT) bond-buying program, the euro zone was at risk of a collapse.
Since then, risks have abated significantly, thanks to a number of factors:
The ECB’s OMT has been incredibly successful in reducing the risks of breakup, redenomination and a liquidity/rollover crisis in the public debt markets of Spain and Italy. Although the ECB has yet to spend a single additional euro to buy the bonds of Spain and Italy, both short-term and longer-term sovereign spreads against German bonds have fallen substantially.
Following a number of political and legal hurdles, the successful operational start of the European Stability Mechanism (ESM) rescue fund provides the euro zone with another €500 billion of official resources to backstop banks and sovereigns in the euro zone periphery, on top of the leftover funds of its predecessor, the European Financial Stability Facility (EFSF).
Realizing that a monetary union is not viable without deeper integration, euro zone leaders have proposed a banking union, a fiscal union, an economic union and, eventually, a political union. The last is necessary to resolve any issue of democratic legitimacy that might result from national states transferring power from national governments to EU- or euro zone-wide institutions. This transfer of power also would have to involve the creation of such institutions to ensure solidarity and risk-sharing are developed in the banking, fiscal and economic unions.
The open talk in the summer by some German authorities about an exit option for Greece has turned into a tentative willingness to prevent and postpone such an exit. There are several reasons for this. First, Greece has done some austerity and reforms in spite of a deepening recession, and the current coalition is holding up. Second, an orderly exit of Greece is impossible until Spain and Italy are successfully isolated. Such an exit would lead to massive contagion, which would hurt not only the euro zone periphery but also the core, given extensive trade and financial links. Third, an economic disaster in Greece would be damaging to the CDU Party’s chances of winning the German elections. Thus, even when Greece inevitably underperforms on its policy commitments, Germany and the troika (the IMF, EU and ECB) will hold their noses and keep the funds flowing as long as the current coalition holds up.
Given these developments, the risk of a Greek exit in 2013 has been significantly reduced, even if the risk of an eventual Greek exit from the euro zone is still high, close to 50 percent by my estimation. Meanwhile, the narrowing of Spanish and Italian sovereign spreads has significantly diminished the risk that either country will fully lose market access and be forced to undergo a full troika bailout like Greece, Portugal and Ireland. Both Spain and Italy may in 2013 opt for a memorandum of understanding (MoU) that opens the taps of ESM and OMT support, but such official financing would inspire confidence as it would not be associated with rising, unsustainable spreads and a loss of market access.
from Hugo Dixon:
Investors have been obsessed with the notion of “Grexit” - Greece’s exit from the euro. But “Brexit” - Britain’s exit from the European Union - is as likely if not more so. The country has never been at ease with its EU membership. It refused to join its predecessor, the European Economic Community, in 1957; it was then blocked twice from becoming a member by France’s Charles De Gaulle in 1960s; and shortly after it finally entered in 1973, it had a referendum on whether to stay.
The euro crisis has put further pressure on this difficult relationship. David Cameron’s Conservative Party, the governing coalition’s dominant group, delights in pointing out the flaws in the single currency. The party’s eurosceptics feel vindicated because they have long believed that monetary union was only possible with political union.
from The Great Debate:
The European crisis is no longer a European crisis. It is now everyone's. Unless Monday’s G20 summit in Mexico coordinates a concerted global action plan right now, we face a global slowdown that will also have a deep impact on the U.S. presidential election and even on China’s transition to a new leadership. This is the last chance.
The standard, but often empty, language of summit communiqués will simply not do when the euro area is finally approaching its own day of reckoning. Whichever way the Greeks vote in Sunday's election, a chaotic exit from the euro is becoming more likely: Its tax revenues are collapsing, not rising as promised. Unable to regain access to markets, Portugal and Ireland will soon have to ask for their second IMF programs. Sadly Italy – and potentially even France – may soon follow Spain in needing finance as the European recession deepens. Even German banks, which are some of the most highly leveraged, are not immune from needing more capital.
The upcoming elections in Greece have gained added significance in recent weeks. It’s not just the Greek people choosing their next leader; it is also being presented as a referendum on euro membership. Either vote for a pro-bailout party and stay in the euro zone or vote anti-austerity and you’re out. But is the outcome of the vote really that clear cut? Although three quarters of Greeks want to remain in the euro zone, 80 percent want the terms of their second bailout to be re-negotiated. The elections might not be such a foregone conclusion after all.
It’s worth looking at the two potential “choices” currently being presented to the Greek people. If they choose a “pro-bailout” party that doesn’t mean that champagne corks will be popped in Berlin. Those in power in Athens need to answer to the electorate who will have given them a mandate to challenge Germany and its insistence on tough fiscal reform in return for bailout cash. So if Europe’s authorities think that the election of New Democracy (one of the parties who pledged to stick to fiscal reform post the election) is enough to keep Greece on the fiscal straight and narrow, think again.
So we’ve got the fresh Greek elections we expected and markets, despite the inevitability that we would get here, have reacted with some alarm. European stocks have shed around 1 percent, and the harbour of German Bunds is pushing their futures price up in early trade. The Greeks will try to form a caretaker government today to see them through to elections expected on June 17.
The key question is whether the mainstream parties can mount a convincing campaign second time around, playing on the glaring contradiction in SYRIZA’s position (no to bailout, yes to the euro) and essentially turning the vote into a referendum on euro membership, which the overwhelming majority of Greeks still support. Don’t count on that. SYRIZA remains ahead in the polls.
To be able to pull it off, PASOK and New Democracy will need some help from Europe. There have already been hints from Brussels that if a pro-bailout government is formed, Athens could be given some leeway on its debt-cutting terms. But equally other voices are saying there is no more room for manoeuvre.
Throughout history it has always been difficult to take something away from someone once you have given it to them. Europe is finding that it is extremely difficult to reign in public finances once they start to go out of control. Democracies don’t like to vote for austerity, which is why Sarkozy lost the Presidency in France, why a radical left party came second in the Greek elections and why the Conservatives got a drubbing at last week’s local elections in the UK.
This tells us something about democracy in the western world. Governments have to manage the public finances directly – they have to sell the debt, do the sums and present budgets. However, the people who vote them into (and out of) power are the public, who rightly in most cases, believe they have worked hard, paid taxes and deserve the services and retirement promises made to them.
The Law of Diminishing Returns states that a continuing push towards a given goal tends to decline in effectiveness after a certain amount of effort has been expended. If this weren't the case, Usain Bolt would be able to run the mile in less than 2-1/2 minutes.
From an economic standpoint, this law now seems to be fully in force in Greece. The latest jobs figures from the twice-bailed out euro zone country paint a bleak numerical picture of the impact of unrelenting austerity in ordinary Greeks, regardless of whether it was self-inflicted or not. To wit:
Last November, at the time of the Chancellor of the Exchequer’s Autumn Statement, the two men in charge of our fiscal and monetary policy together delivered the gloomiest peacetime message in our history. Those of us who have been pessimistic all along were totally outflanked.
The governor of the Bank of England was absolutely right to decry the sudden vogue for technocracy. As he says, the problems in Europe are not fundamentally about a shortage of liquidity, as many commentators suggest and as politicians are only too happy to agree. They are at root about solvency, about the ability and the willingness of countries like Greece to pay their debts, and as such they are political problems which require political solutions. It is simply wishful thinking to imagine that an economics PhD somehow provides access to the secret of how to balance the books of a society which has long been living beyond its means, as have the majority of euro zone members. If it is hard for a Government with a sound electoral mandate to deliver painful medicine, it is likely to be even harder for one with no mandate at all.