Krugman on the Euro

by Andrew Stuttaford

Paul Krugman’s politics are what they are, but when it comes to economics, well, sometimes . . . 

A case in point is his long piece on the euro in today’s New York Times magazine. It’s well worth reading in full. I’d stress that when Professor Krugman writes about the ‘case’ for a transnational currency, he is talking about the economic case. The political case, pro or con, is something else altogether. Equally, his reference to a single currency making business easier must be read in an all-things-being-equal way. A single currency eliminates foreign-exchange transaction costs, and (theoretically) eliminates currency risk within the unified monetary space. The trouble, of course, is that, so far as the euro was concerned, all things were not equal. One size did not fit all.

A brief extract doesn’t do Professor Krugman’s article full justice, but here’s a sample:

The case for a transnational currency is, as we’ve already seen, obvious: it makes doing business easier. Before the euro was introduced, it was really anybody’s guess how much this ultimately mattered: there were relatively few examples of countries using other nations’ currencies. For what it was worth, statistical analysis suggested that adopting a common currency had big effects on trade, which suggested in turn large economic gains. Unfortunately, this optimistic assessment hasn’t held up very well since the euro was created: the best estimates now indicate that trade among euro nations is only 10 or 15 percent larger than it would have been otherwise. That’s not a trivial number, but neither is it transformative.

Still, there are obviously benefits from a currency union. It’s just that there’s a downside, too: by giving up its own currency, a country also gives up economic flexibility.

Imagine that you’re a country that, like Spain today, recently saw wages and prices driven up by a housing boom, which then went bust. Now you need to get those costs back down. But getting wages and prices to fall is tough: nobody wants to be the first to take a pay cut, especially without some assurance that prices will come down, too. Two years of intense suffering have brought Irish wages down to some extent, although Spain and Greece have barely begun the process. It’s a nasty affair, and as we’ll see later, cutting wages when you’re awash in debt creates new problems.

If you still have your own currency, however, you wouldn’t have to go through the protracted pain of cutting wages: you could just devalue your currency — reduce its value in terms of other currencies — and you would effect a de facto wage cut.

Won’t workers reject de facto wage cuts via devaluation just as much as explicit cuts in their paychecks? Historical experience says no. In the current crisis, it took Ireland two years of severe unemployment to achieve about a 5 percent reduction in average wages. But in 1993 a devaluation of the Irish punt brought an instant 10 percent reduction in Irish wages measured in German currency.

Why the difference? Back in 1953, Milton Friedman offered an analogy: daylight saving time. It makes a lot of sense for businesses to open later during the winter months, yet it’s hard for any individual business to change its hours: if you operate from 10 to 6 when everyone else is operating 9 to 5, you’ll be out of sync. By requiring that everyone shift clocks back in the fall and forward in the spring, daylight saving time obviates this coordination problem. Similarly, Friedman argued, adjusting your currency’s value solves the coordination problem when wages and prices are out of line, sidestepping the unwillingness of workers to be the first to take pay cuts.

Naturally, there are parts of this article with which one can disagree, but there’s plenty to mull for those nervously awaiting the next stage of the euro crisis.