Monday, March 22, 2010


Gaps in the eurozone ‘football league’
By Wolfgang Münchau

At last we are heading towards a resolution, albeit a bad one. After weeks of pledges of political and financial support,
Angela Merkel appears ready to send Greece crawling to the International Monetary Fund.
Germany cites legal reasons for its position. In past rulings, its constitutional court has interpreted the stability clauses in European law in the strictest possible sense. These rulings have left a deep impression among government officials. It is hard to say whether this argument is for real or is just an excuse not to sanction a bail-out that would be politically unpopular. It is probably a combination of the two.
I have heard suggestions that a deal may still be possible at this week’s European summit, but only if everybody were to agree to Germany’s gruesome agenda to reform the stability pact. That would have to include stricter rules and the dreaded exit clause, under which a country could be forced to leave the eurozone against its will. I am not holding my breath.
But either outcome will mark the beginning of the end of Europe’s economic and monetary union as we know it. This is the true historical significance of Ms Merkel’s decision.
Greece faces the most acute difficulties, it is not the only member in trouble. There are at least four – Greece, Spain, Portugal and Ireland – that are probably not in a position to maintain a monetary union with Germany under current policies indefinitely. There may be several more, where the problems are not yet quite so evident. In the presence of extreme current account imbalances and a lack of bail-out or fiscal redistribution mechanisms, a monetary union among such a diverse group of countries is probably not sustainable.
In a column several weeks ago I put forward
three conditions necessary for the eurozone to survive in the long run: a crisis resolution mechanism, a procedure to deal with internal imbalances, and a common banking supervisor. Since then, things have been moving in the wrong direction on all three counts.
For a start, we have come from a situation in which the “no bail-out” clause of the Maastricht treaty, having been almost universally disbelieved for 10 years, is suddenly 100 per cent credible. The minute the IMF marches into Greece, all ambiguity will end.
The debate on imbalances is also regressing. It would be unreasonable to ask Germany to raise wages or cut exports, but there is a legitimate complaint about Germany’s lack of domestic demand. Berlin should accept it needs to develop a strategy. But the opposite is happening. Rainer Brüderle, economics minister, said last week there was nothing the government could do about demand because consumption was a decision by private individuals. A senior Bundesbank official even compared the eurozone to a football league, in which Germany proudly held the number one slot. The long-term direction of fiscal policy is even more alarming, as the gap between Germany and the others will widen.
On banking supervision, the main reason for a common European system is macroeconomic. In a monetary union, imbalances would matter a lot less if the banking system were truly anchored at the level of the union, not the member state. As banks can obtain liquidity from the European Central Bank, even extreme and persistent current account deficits should not matter in good times. But they matter in times of crisis. For as long as bank failures remain a national liability, persistent imbalances could ultimately lead to a national insolvency. If the banking sector were genuinely European, imbalances would still be an important metric of relative competitiveness but we would need to worry a lot less, just as we do not worry about the current account deficit of a city relative to its state.
The lack of a bail-out system, of an agenda to reduce imbalances and of a common banking system are realities that investors should take into account when making long-term decisions, as should policy-makers when they make important choices for citizens. The reality is that the eurozone, as it works today, is not a monetary union but a souped-up fixed exchange rate system.
In the past, global investors have placed a lot of trust in European politicians. They believed Peer Steinbrück, the former German finance minister, in February 2009 when he ended a speculative attack on Ireland, Greece and others with a simple statement of support. They also believed, as I did myself, that political leaders would ultimately do the right thing to save the system, having first explored all the alternatives. As I follow the political debate in Berlin, I am no longer certain that is the case.
Ms Merkel is not a politician driven by a strong historical destiny, unlike Helmut Kohl, her predecessor but one as chancellor. However real the constitutional problems may be, I suspect Mr Kohl would never have hidden behind a technical or legal argument on such a crucial issue.
Europe’s current generation of leaders lacks this accident-avoiding instinct. So when Ms Merkel and her colleagues in the European Council see the iceberg coming, they will tend to rush not to the helm but to the nearest constitutional judge.
I am not predicting a catastrophe. I am merely pointing out that the present policy choices are inconsistent with the survival of the eurozone in its current form.

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