Beware the “F” word. The European Central Bank and, to a lesser extent, the zone’s political leaders have bought the time needed to resolve the euro crisis. But there are signs of fatigue. A renewed sense of danger may be needed to spur politicians to address underlying problems. It would be far better if they got ahead of the curve.
The big time-buying exercise was the ECB’s injection of 1 trillion euros of super-cheap three-year money into the region’s banks. A smaller breathing space was won last week when governments agreed to expand the ceiling on the region’s bailout funds from 500 to 700 billion euros.
These moves have taken the heat out of the crisis – both by easing fears that banks could go bust and by making it easier for troubled governments, especially Italy’s and Spain’s, to fund themselves. Data from the ECB last week shows how much of the easy money has been recycled from banks into government bonds. In February, Italian lenders increased their purchases of euro zone government bonds by a record 23 billion euros. Spanish banks, meanwhile, increased their purchases by 15.7 billion euros following a record 23 billion euro spending spree in January.
The risk is that, as the short-term funding pressure comes off, governments’ determination to push through unpopular reforms will flag. If that happens, the time that has been bought will be wasted – and, when crisis rears its ugly head again, the authorities won’t have the tools to fight it.
Early signs of such fatigue are emerging. One is the tendency of politicians – most recently, Italian Prime Minister Mario Monti – to say that the worst of the crisis is over. They may wish to take credit for their crisis-fighting skills or relax. But it is too early to declare victory.