By Gordon Brown
The views expressed are his own.
It was said of European monarchs of a century ago that they learned nothing and forgot nothing. For three years, as a Greek debt problem has morphed into a full blown euro area crisis, European leaders have been behind the curve, consistently repeating the same mistake of doing too little too late. But when they meet on Sunday, the time for small measures is over. As the G20 found when it met in London at the height of the 2009 crisis, only a demonstration of policy intent that shows irresistible force will persuade the markets that leaders will do what it takes. An announcement on a new Greek package will not be enough. Nor will it be sufficient to recapitalize the banks. European leaders will have to announce a comprehensive — around 2 trillion euro — finance facility; set out a plan to fundamentally reform the euro; and work with the G20 to agree on a coordinated plan for growth.
For three years it has suited leaders across Europe to disguise Europe’s banking problems and, citing the blatant profligacy of Greece, they have defined the European problem as simply a public sector debt problem. And it has suited Europe’s leaders to call for austerity (and if that fails, more austerity) and forget how the inflexibility of the euro is itself dampening prospects for growth, keeping unemployment unacceptably high and weakening Europe’s competitive position in the world today. Indeed, Europe’s share of world output has now fallen to just 18 percent. And it is a measure of how it is losing out in the growth markets of the future that just 7.5 percent of Europe’s exports go to the emerging markets that are responsible for 70 percent of the world’s growth.
When I attended the first ever meeting of the euro group of leaders in October 2008 there was astonishment when I reported that Europe’s banks had bought half America’s subprime mortgages and there was incredulity when I said that European banks were far more at risk than U.S. banks because they were far more highly leveraged. Since 2008, as American banks have tackled their toxic assets, they have written off 4 percent of their loans and raised the equivalent of another 4 percent in new equity. But euro area banks have written off just 1 percent of their loans, and have raised their capital base by only 0.7 percent, leaving them highly vulnerable even before their exposure to sovereign debt has become a central issue. Their vulnerability is increased because they have always been far more dependent for their funding on the short term and confidence-dependent wholesale markets, and countries within the euro zone are able to do far less in the face of capital flight than, say, Britain.
Of course in 2008, governments could fund the rescue of indebted banks; in 2011, indebted governments are finding that more difficult. For they know that even after they recapitalize the banks, they have still to deal with the even bigger financial problem of funding the borrowing needs of the most at-risk countries: Greece, Ireland, Spain Portugal and Italy, which could cost as much as $2 trillion in the years to 2014.
It is thus clear that the 400 billion euro rescue fund, the European stability fund, is wholly inadequate to address this profound failure across the European financial system, and that without a mechanism for fiscal coordination the euro cannot easily survive. A few days ago, U.S. Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner said that “the critical imperative is to ensure that the governments and the financial systems under pressure have access to a more powerful financial backstop.”