On 27 January in Davos at the World Economic Forum the European Central Bank President, Monsieur Jean-Claude Trichet, stated boldly that “the euro is not in crisis”. He must have felt duty-bound to say that in an attempt to reassure international financial markets, regardless of what he really thought. If he actually believed what he said, then Monsieur Trichet is in denial, which is a poor foundation both for a fruitful discussion of the current crisis of the euro and for progressing towards its solution.
Of course, if one looked exclusively at the current exchange rate between the dollar and the euro and its recent trend, one would get the false impression that there is no crisis. On 29 January the euro stood at $1.37, a higher rate than before the Greek debt crisis erupted in February 2010 ($1.33), and much higher than the $1.18 rate to which it plunged in early May 2010 (and even that was 1cent higher than the initial exchange rate of 1.17 with which the euro started life in 1999). The euro recovery, however, was due primarily to the US Fed injecting $600bn liquidity over 8 months, compared with the comparatively restrictive policies of the ECB, and to US economic prospects being poorer than anticipated. After peaking at $1.42 last November, the euro fell again under $1.30 repeatedly (even a fortnight ago) with contagion spreading from Greece first to Ireland, then to Portugal, then threatening Spain.
Beside the exchange rate increased volatility, and the downgrading of credit ratings, a tangible and accurate measurement of the sovereign debt crisis of the euro is given by each country’s interest rate differential with respect to German bonds (usually taking 10-year bonds), the current yield on existing stock determining the rate at which the countries can borrow to rollover old debt or incur new debt. The spread over the German Bunds (whose yield has also risen as a result of the crisis, for fear of German exposure to baling out possible defaulters) has risen on average and significantly widened across countries over time, especially since the Greek crisis, and is now at record levels, higher than last May. Usually a 2% differential is regarded as the danger level; today Spain is just over, Italy just under that level; Portugal has almost 4% differential, Ireland over 6%, Greece 8 and a half per cent.
At interest rates higher than national growth rates (whether in nominal or real terms, as long as both are measured in the same way) national debt must increase relatively to GDP; debt is unsustainable and default looms. Even on the funds provided by the EFSF (the European Financial Stabilisation Facility set up last May) Greece and Ireland pay 5.8%, a rate lower than their market rates but higher than sustainable and signalling European lack of confidence in these countries’ ability to repay. Rescheduling of Irish and Greek debt – with lengthening of maturities and inflicting a haircut on investors – is now on the cards.
It is true that a recent bond issue by the EFSF was five times over-suscribed, but this was mostly “spurred by Basel III capital rules” set by the BIS, according to which AAA-rated sovereign bonds like those of EFSF “have a risk-weighting of 0%, which means that investors effectively don’t need to hold capital against it”. And that rating involves the EFSF over-collateralising its bonds reducing its operational capacity, and even EFSF bonds are subject to risk (for instance from the downgrading of one of the participating countries, which would require further capitalisation, see Klaus Regling, Eurointelligence.com 27 January).
The ultimate source of euro vulnerability is its premature birth. The single currency was supposed to be the crowning of the economic integration process, after political and fiscal union, after the unification of labour and social policies and, come to think of it, after a common foreign policy and a common army (though these could wait). Instead of which the single currency has been used to promote the so-called finalité politique, i.e. that political union that should have been the pre-condition of the euro. This is like a person buying clothes that are too tight and do not fit in the hope that this might facilitate slimming, by forcing one to diet: it does not work for me, it did not work for Europe. The fiscal constraints imposed by the Maastricht Treaty and the Growth and Stability Pact, 3% public deficit and 60% public debt, have not been observed by too many countries for too long (including Germany and France, who were first to violate the 3% ceiling), to be treated as substitutes for a fiscal union. Thus the initial fall and convergence of interest rates that occurred after the introduction of the euro have been reversed. The global crisis has lowered tax revenues and raised public expenditures, not least for rescuing financial institutions. Europe has reacted too slowly and inadequately to the sovereign debt crisis over the last year; European leaders have spoken with dissonant voices, often making perverse announcements, whether from ineptitude or malice.
Can the euro crisis be solved, or at least be significantly alleviated, by the issue of a single European bond covered by a European guarantee, to replace a sizeable tranche of national debts? This we will consider in one of the next posts.