When confidence in a regime’s permanence is shaken, it can collapse rapidly. The fear or hope of change alters people’s behavior in ways which make that change more likely. This applies to both political regimes such as Hosni Mubarak’s Egypt and economic regimes such as the euro.
Fear that the single currency may break up now risks becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy. Banks and investors are beginning to act as if the single currency might fall apart. Politicians and the European Central Bank need to restore belief that the single currency is here to stay. Otherwise, it could unravel pretty fast.
Until a few weeks ago, the idea that the euro wouldn’t survive the current debt crisis was a fringe view. Since the euro summit on Oct. 26-27, it has become a mainstream scenario. So much so that last week risk premiums on the bonds of even triple-A rated countries such as France and Austria rose to record levels, while Spain became the latest country to be sucked into the danger zone.
The summit itself made two technical decisions which have had damaging, unintended consequences. First, banks underwent a stress test that marked their sovereign bond exposures to market whereas previously regulators maintained the fiction that these positions were risk-free. This meant that lenders suddenly had to start holding capital to back their sovereign debt investments. Not surprisingly, they have become more reluctant to buy bonds. This, in turn, has made it harder for governments to fund themselves.
Second, the summit decided to strong-arm the banks into agreeing to a “voluntary” debt restructuring for Greece. Because the deal is supposedly voluntary, credit default swaps (CDS) – a type of insurance policy that pays out if an entity goes bust – won’t be triggered. This arm-twisting has convinced lenders that CDSs are a useless way of hedging the risk of investing in euro zone government bonds. Without a hedge, many prefer not to hold the bonds at all – again making it harder for states to fund themselves.