Europe’s dangerous new phase
By Lawrence H. Summers
The opinions expressed are his own.
With last week’s tumult in Italian markets, the European financial crisis has entered a new and far more dangerous phase. Where the crisis had been existential for small economies on the periphery of Europe but not systemically threatening to either the idea of European monetary union or to the functioning of the global financial system, it now threatens both European integration and the global recovery. Last week’s drama surrounding bond auctions in Europe’s third leading economy should convince even the most hardened bureaucrat that the world can no longer let policy responses be shaped by dogma, bureaucratic agenda and expediency. It is to be hoped that European officials can engineer a decisive change in direction but if not, the world can no longer afford the deference that the IMF and non-European G20 officials have shown towards European policy makers over the last 15 months.
Three realities must be recognized if there is to be a chance of success. First, the maintenance of systemic confidence is essential in a financial crisis. Teaching investors a lesson is a wish, not a policy. U.S. policymakers were applauded for about 12 hours for their willingness to let Lehman go bankrupt. The adverse consequences of the shattering effect that had on confidence are still being felt now. The European Central Bank (ECB) is right in its concern that punishing creditors for the sake of teaching lessons or building political support is reckless in a system that depends on confidence. Those who let Lehman go believed because time had passed since the Bear Stearns bailout the market had learned lessons and so was prepared. In fact the main lessons learned had to do with how to best find the exits, and so uncontrolled bankruptcies had systemic consequences that far exceeded their expectations.
Second, no country can be expected to generate huge primary surpluses for long periods for the benefit of foreign creditors. Meeting debt burdens at rates currently charged by the official sector for credit – let alone the private sector – would involve burdens on Greece, Ireland and Portugal comparable to the reparations burdens Keynes warned about in The Economic Consequences of the Peace.
Third, whether or not a country is solvent depends not just on its debt burdens and its commitment to strong domestic policies but on the broader economic context. Liquidity problems left unattended become confidence problems. Debtors who are credibly highly solvent at interest rates close to or below their nominal growth rates become likely insolvent at higher interest rates, putting further pressure on rates and exacerbating solvency worries in a vicious cycle. This has already happened in Greece, Portugal and Ireland and is in danger of happening in Italy and Spain. (See interactive graphic.)
Debtor countries can only reduce their debts by running surpluses vis-a-vis the rest of the world. If traditional debtor countries are going to start running surpluses, traditional surplus countries must be willing to reduce their surpluses or move towards deficits.
In short, the approach of lending more and more from the official sector to countries that cannot access the market at premium rates of interest is unsustainable. The debts incurred will in large part never be repaid, even as their size discourages private capital flows and indeed any growth-creating initiative. Assertions that the most indebted countries can service their debts in full at current interest rates only undermine the credibility of policymakers when they go on to assert that the fundamentals are relatively sound in Spain and Italy. Further lending at premium interest rates only increases the scale of the necessary restructuring. It is reasonable to argue that the recognition of debt unsustainability in Greece has been excessively deferred. It is not reasonable to argue that Greek reprofiling or restructuring taken alone will address a growing general confidence crisis.
A fundamental shift of tack is required towards an approach that is focused on avoiding systemic risk, restarting growth, and restoring arithmetic credibility, rather than simply staving off imminent disaster. The twin realities that Greece, Italy and Ireland need debt relief and that the creditors have only limited capacity to take immediate losses means that all approaches require increased efforts from the European center. Fortunately the likely consequence of doing more up front is lower cost in the long run.
The precise details are less relevant than having an appropriate broad approach, and of course will need to be aligned with European political reality. But the crucial elements in any viable strategy will include:
European authorities must restate their commitment to solidarity as embodied in a common currency, and the recognition that the failure of any European economy marks the failure of the European economy and is unacceptable. Towards that end they then should make these further commitments.
First, for program countries. Interest rates on official sector debt will be reduced to a European borrowing rate defined as the rate at which common European entities backed with joint and several liability by all the countries of Europe can borrow. A default to the official sector will not be tolerated so there is no reason to charge a risk premium, since charging a risk premium needlessly puts the success of the whole enterprise at risk.
Second, countries whose borrowing rate exceeds some threshold—perhaps 200 basis points over the lowest national borrowing rate in the Euro system–should be exempted from contribution requirements for bailout funds. The last thing the marginal need is to be pulled down by the weak.
Third, there must be a clear and unambiguous commitment that whatever else happens, the failure of major financial institutions in any country will not be permitted. The most serious financial breakdowns—in Indonesia in 1997, Russia in 1998, and the USA in 2008–come when authorities allow there to be doubt about the basic functioning of the financial system. This responsibility should rest with the European Central Bank with the requisite political support and cover provided.
Fourth, countries judged to be pursuing sound policies will be permitted to buy EU guarantees on new debt issuances at a reasonable price payable on a deferred basis.
These measures would do much to contain the storm. They would lead to a reduction in payments for debtor nations, protect states at risk from participation in rescue efforts or from shortfalls in market confidence, and assure that the ECB is able to continue backstopping the stability of European banks.
This leaves the question of what is to be done with sovereign private debt. Creditors gain nothing from breakdown. They have signalled that they will support an approach based on a menu of options. Some will want to sell out of their exposures at prices marginally above their current market value. Others who still regard sovereign European debts as worth par should be provided with appropriate reduced interest rate, longer maturity options Debt repurchases are a possibility if the private sector accepts sufficiently large present value debt reductions. The key standard by which any approach should be judged is the genuine sustainability of program country debt repayments on realistic assumptions.
Much of this will seem unrealistic given the terms of Europe’s debate. It seemed highly unrealistic even 10 days ago that Italy’s solvency would come into substantial doubt. If the political will can be found, the technical economics are not that difficult. But it will require a shift from politically driven arithmetic to arithmetically driven politics. The alternative to forthright action today is much more expensive action – to much less benefit – in the not too distant future. The next few weeks may well be among the most consequential in the history of the European Union.