Magazine | March 8, 2010, Issue


The Greeks have a word for Europe’s unstable currency regime

It’s a cliché to use the word “hubris” in an article involving Greece, but when that article is about the single European currency, what else will do?

From its very beginning, the euro was a project of monstrous bureaucratic arrogance, a classically dirigiste scheme cooked up by an elite confident that it could ignore the laws of economics, the realities of politics, and the lessons of history. While the exact contours of the current crisis could not have been foreseen, the certainty that there would be a crisis could have. To build a monetary union without a political union (or something close to it), or, failing that, an extraordinarily high degree of economic convergence, was asking for, to use another Greek word, catastrophe.

But that’s what the Eurocrats did. And instead of having the humility to launch their new currency on a relatively small scale in, say, the genuinely converging economies of northwestern Europe — of Germany, say, and the Benelux — they redefined convergence. Any EU country that satisfied certain economic tests — the Maastricht criteria — would be eligible to sign up. In the first round (1999), eleven countries did, to be followed later by Greece and four others. The tests were tough, but not entirely unreasonable; yet in applying them as mechanically as they did, the architects of the single currency were in effect arguing that all it took to gauge an economy was something akin to a snapshot. This had the virtue of simplicity, but then so did Five-Year Plans.

Largely uninvestigated suspicions that some of those snapshots may have been photoshopped (there have long been doubts about the quality of the data submitted by Italy and, yes, Greece) were an early warning that the Maastricht criteria, which were also meant to be rules by which countries would continue to play once ensconced within the eurozone, would be enforced less vigorously than first agreed. As it turned out, there was little choice in the matter. The new rules were too rigid for the uncomfortable realities of the ordinary economic cycle, let alone the financial meltdown of the last two years. As things currently stand, they rank somewhere between a promise and a dream. That said, the revelation that Greece may have paid Wall Street’s savviest financial engineers to pretty up its national accounts is unlikely to play well in Brussels, except as ammunition for the claim that “speculators” are to blame for the mess in which the eurozone now finds itself.

The real culprits are closer to hand. The most important were those who insisted that convergence had been achieved when plainly it had not. The interest rates set by the European Central Bank were about right for the eurozone’s core, but they were too low for the nations on its periphery. The economies of the latter may have had more capacity for growth, but they were also more vulnerable to inflation. One size did not fit all. Bubbles ballooned, then burst. Making matters worse was the damaging effect that the historically unusual combination of inflation and a strong currency has had on the already shaky competitiveness of these countries’ industries. Nations with high inflation traditionally try to maintain their competitive position by devaluing their currency, but that option was not open to those now yoked to the euro. On some reckonings, Italy, Greece, and the other “Club Med” countries need to devalue by at least 30 percent to return to the competitive positions they held at the end of the 1990s. They need to, but they cannot.

If the hit to private business has been bad, that to the state sector has been worse, albeit to some degree self-inflicted. For countries with weaker public finances, the euro offered both carrot and stick. The carrot was the lower borrowing cost that came from adopting a currency implicitly backed by the stronger economies at the eurozone’s core. The stick was the fact that debt could no longer be repaid by the printing press. Unfortunately, a number of governments, most notably Greece’s, ate the carrot and ignored the stick, but even those that tried to improve or maintain budgetary discipline found their best efforts swept away in the financial tsunami of 2008–09.

#page#The immediate trigger for the current crisis was panic over the prospect of a Greek default. That’s understandable. Greece’s debt-to-GDP ratio stands at 125 percent (more than double the notional Maastricht ceiling). The budget deficit is now projected at 12.7 percent (more than four times the Maastricht cap), compared with the mysteriously “low” 6 percent claimed by the outgoing government in October. It may still be understated. Nevertheless, however dysfunctional the Augean Greek state may be (did I mention the endemic tax evasion?), it is not alone in its woes, nor — despite the fact that it accounts for just 2 percent of the EU’s GDP — can it be treated as some inconsequential Balkan outpost.

If Greece defaults, a crisis of confidence in the credit of the eurozone’s other highly indebted nations is inevitable. Even in the unlikely event that default could be confined to Greece, a financial collapse in Athens would bring further devastation to Europe’s already battered banking system, both directly and, as sovereign debt was marked to market across the continent, indirectly. Germany’s banks have loaned a total of perhaps 20 percent of Germany’s GDP to Greece, Portugal, Spain, Italy, and Ireland, and French banks have loaned even more of France’s. “Contagion” is back. Greek withdrawal from the eurozone is legally possible, but it is no solution. The result would almost certainly be default.

Whatever the legal issues (a direct EU rescue may be illegal under the Union’s law), political complications (hard-pressed European taxpayers do not relish the thought of paying up for Greece), and risks of a dangerous precedent (how will the other debt-struck countries react?), the only feasible short-term solution will be some sort of bailout, ideally involving the IMF (whatever the supposed blow to EU pride) acting in conjunction with the EU or a group of some of its richer member-states. For now, nemesis will not be allowed to follow hubris. The legalities will be dubious, the politics a charade, and the deal last-minute, but that’s EU business as usual. “International speculators” will be blamed for just about everything. Angela Merkel will make the necessary fierce speeches refusing to pay and will then pay. The Greeks will agree to the necessary fierce cuts in public spending and will then be paid. Whether these cuts (currently targeted at 4 percent) could, should, or will be made in a climate of collapsing domestic demand will be a decision left for another day.

The euro will endure, somewhat debauched (it has already weakened since the Greek panic began), but not all Germans will be upset by that. Germany’s economy is driven by its export sector, and in tough economic times a little devaluation can come in very handy indeed.

Looking farther ahead, the Greek crisis and the fragility of the balance sheets of so many countries within the eurozone suggest that, absent some dramatic recovery in the global economy, the single currency is reaching a point where muddling along is no longer an option. One alternative might be for Germany and some of the other stronger countries to quit the euro, leaving it as a currency more suited to the needs of the eurozone’s weaker brethren. What’s more likely is that those in charge in Brussels will grab the opportunity presented by this mess to move forward with two items on their long-term agenda. The first will be to push for stricter controls on global finance. The second will be to forge the closer fiscal union without which their monetary union cannot endure. If they succeed in the latter, the European superstate will be even closer to birth.

What was it that someone once said about a crisis being a terrible thing to waste?

– Mr. Stuttaford is a contributing editor of National Review Online.

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