Friday, February 11, 2011

Eurozone governance and the Berlin consensus

by Philip Whyte

A broad consensus appears to have emerged across northern Europe on what ails the eurozone. The region's current predicament, on this view, is the result of fecklessness and irresponsibility in geographically peripheral member-states. Countries in the periphery ran into difficulty because they mismanaged their public finances and lost 'competitiveness'. The road to redemption, on this analysis, is for the peripheral countries to consolidate their public finances and embrace supply-side reforms. The task at EU level is to keep member-states on the straight and narrow by making sure that they comply with the fiscal rules and do what is required to remain 'competitive'. This view, which is having a decisive influence on reforms to the way the eurozone is run, coincides with that of the German government. Let us, then, call it the 'Berlin consensus'.

As an analysis of what ails numerous economies across Europe, the Berlin consensus has much to commend it. There is no question that some countries have mismanaged their public finances. Greece, where governments disguised their profligacy by cooking the data, is the most egregious example. Nor is there any question that many 'peripherals', particularly across Southern Europe, face daunting supply-side challenges: low productivity, high drop-out rates from secondary education, inflexible labour markets, insufficient competition in services markets, rapidly ageing populations and low effective ages of retirement are a toxic brew. All these countries are on unsustainable paths and must push through thoroughgoing economic reforms. Depressingly, their reform efforts have been among the most pedestrian in the EU.

So far, so uncontroversial. Is it right, however, to say that the eurozone would have averted crisis if countries had complied with the Stability and Growth Pact and taken the Lisbon agenda of economic reforms more seriously? Nothing is less certain. France and Germany, which violated the Stability and Growth Pact in 2004, do not face funding difficulties in the government bond markets; Ireland and Spain, which complied with the rules until the crisis broke, do. Nor is it clear that macroeconomic imbalances can be pinned on divergences in national 'competitiveness'. Ireland, a flexible economy that scores highly on many indicators of 'competitiveness', is arguably the most troubled (because the most indebted) country in the eurozone. Italy, which scores worse than Ireland on most indicators of competitiveness, is far less indebted.

The problem with the Berlin consensus is that it does not pay enough attention to the demand-side factors that gave rise to the crisis. The cause of the eurozone's macroeconomic imbalances lay on the demand side. In essence, the problem was that demand grew broadly in line with output at eurozone level, but failed to do so at national level. While demand grew faster than output in the periphery, the reverse was the case in the 'core'. Profligacy in the periphery was funded by thrift in the core. This arrangement suited both sides – for a while. Countries in the periphery enjoyed debt-fuelled booms, while countries like Germany could rely on exports to keep growing (in the face of weak demand at home). Export-led growth in the core and rising indebtedness in the periphery were linked: they were reverse sides of the same coin.

Given the amount of capital that was flooding into the deficit countries, there was always a risk that some of it would be wasted on unproductive investments. And so it was. In Greece, the main agent of waste was the government. But the antics of the government in Greece pale in comparison with those of the private sector elsewhere. In Spain and Ireland, the private sector misallocated capital on a truly epic scale. The agents were over-leveraged banks, in both peripheral and core countries, that funded increasingly speculative investments in the property sector. When the property bubble burst and banks' assets turned sour, the direct and indirect costs blew a hole in the public finance. Ireland's deficits and debt exploded because the government guaranteed the liabilities of highly leveraged banks that were too big for the state to save.

At root, the eurozone crisis boils down to an argument about money. Who should pick up the bill for all the capital that was misallocated in the peripheral countries: feckless borrowers, or reckless lenders? Creditor countries, who are currently in the political driving seat, believe the bill should fall on taxpayers in the deficit countries. But it is not clear that this demand is viable – either economically or politically. Some countries in the periphery are probably insolvent, and the medicine they are currently being prescribed risks pushing them into an ever deeper debt trap. It is hard to see how governments in the periphery can indefinitely push through structural reforms if their economies are contracting and their debt burdens are rising. In the end, therefore, some element of forbearance in the creditor countries appears to be inevitable.

What bearing does all this have for the reform of eurozone governance? First, fiscal consolidation and structural reforms in the periphery may be desirable objectives, but they will not restore the most indebted countries to solvency. Second, extending loans on less than generous terms, as Ireland's partners are doing, will buy time but is unlikely to stave off the inevitable: a default on, or restructuring of, peripheral government debt. Third, it is wrong to portray the eurozone crisis as a problem in the periphery alone. The sovereign debt crisis and the banking crisis are inextricably inter-twined. In the peripheral countries, the link is overt. In the core countries it is suppressed. German banks, for example, are under-capitalised and highly exposed to default in the periphery – a fact that the German government is not keen to discuss.

Since a sovereign debt restructuring in the periphery would have repercussions for the solvency of banks in the core, the eurozone needs a crisis management framework to deal with both eventualities. The eurozone needs to establish a framework for orderly sovereign debt restructuring, which would ensure that private-sector creditors share in the pain. And since sovereign debt restructuring would push some European banks into insolvency, the EU needs to develop plans for dealing with this prospect. Solvent sovereigns in the core, such as Germany, will have to decide whether they want to recapitalise their weaker banks, or allow them to survive in their current vegetative state. And countries across the EU must implement resolution regimes that would allow them to wind up insolvent banks in as orderly a fashion as possible.

Philip Whyte is a senior research fellow at the Centre for European Reform


Joaquín said...

Excellent article
Joaquín Solana
Barcelona (Spain)

Rustylink said...

A thoughtful and interesting article.