It is fashionable for pundits outside Germany to lambast its government, the Bundesbank and the European Central Bank for being inflexible or stupid or both. Can’t they see that all that’s needed is for the ECB to fire its bazooka by printing unlimited money, and the euro crisis would be over?
After spending a couple of days in Frankfurt and Berlin last week, my impression is that these three institutions are neither stupid nor totally inflexible. That said, Germany is still determined to try its current plan for solving the euro crisis, though it has little chance of working. And by the time the trio get round to implementing a Plan B, the euro zone could be in deep recession or even have exploded.
The current plan has three elements. First, the governments of troubled countries such as Italy and Spain need to implement structural reforms and austerity. Second, the zone’s fire extinguisher, the European Financial Stability Facility, needs to be got in good working order in case the fires in Rome and Madrid become uncontrollable. Finally, governments need to agree a treaty committing them to long-term budgetary discipline.
A month ago, this plan might just have worked. But investor confidence has now deteriorated so sharply that even promising new prime ministers in Italy and Spain haven’t been able to stop their bond yields rising. Meanwhile, Belgium has become the latest country to get dragged close to the danger zone, with the yields on its 10-year bonds approaching 6 percent. Even Germany suffered a failed bond auction last week. The fire extinguisher also looks faulty: plans to leverage up the EFSF so that it is big enough to bail out Rome and Madrid have run into trouble.
Even the proposed treaty, which Germany’s Angela Merkel has been trumpeting with much ballyhoo, is unlikely to do much to restore confidence. While investors will like the idea that governments won’t rack up excessive debts in the future, they might not be so happy about the austerity needed to get every country’s debts below the promised level of 60 percent of GDP.