Europe’s triple threat: bad banks, big debts, slow growth

March 22, 2012

The financial turmoil still dogging Europe is most often described as a debt crisis. But sovereign debt is only part of the problem, according to new research from Jay Shambaugh, economist at Georgetown’s McDonough School of Business. The other two prongs of what he describes as three coexisting crises are the region’s troubled banks and the prospect of an imminent recession.

These problems are mutually reinforcing, and require a more forceful policy response than the authorities have delivered to date. In particular, Shambaugh advocates using tax policy to lower labor costs, fiscal stimulus from those economies strong enough to afford it, and more aggressive action from the European Central Bank:

It is possible that coordinated shifts in payroll and consumption taxes could aid the painful process of internal devaluation. The EFSF could be used to capitalize banks and to help break the sovereign / bank link. Fiscal support in core countries could help spur growth.  Finally, the ECB could provide liquidity to sovereigns and increase nominal GDP growth as well as allow slightly faster inflation to facilitate deleveraging and relative price adjustments across regions.

All these steps, especially if taken together in an attempt to treat the three crises holistically could substantially improve outcomes. At the same time, institutional reforms to create a true financial union and a common risk free asset could help both solve the current problems and reduce the connections of these crises in the future.  Of course, politics, ideology, or additional economic shocks could all hinder improvement.  The euro area is highly vulnerable and without deft policy may continue in crisis for a considerable amount of time.

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