The Beginning of the End of the Eurozone As We Know It?

The widely-extolled idea, that the EU would find a way to muddle through the Greece crisis, looks very much in doubt. The pressure has not simply put the rescue of Greece into disarray, but appears to have led to some positions being taken that, if they hold, look likely to lead to the partial dissolution of the monetary union. This development would have far-reaching ramifications which are far from well understood, to put it mildly.

We have a sober assessment from Wolfgang Munchau at the Financial Times:

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….

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 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…

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.

Ouch.

Ambrose Evans-Pritchard at the Telegraph waxes characteristically apocalyptic, but it seems fitting today:

The failure of EU leaders to cobble together a plausible bail-out – if that is what occurs at this week’s Brussels summit – is a ‘game-changer’ in market parlance…

There will be no inevitable move to fiscal federalism; no EU treasury or economic government; no debt union. It is Stalingrad for the federalist camp and the institutions of the permanent EU government.

I remember hearing Joschka Fischer, then German Vice-Chancellor, telling Euro-MPs a decade ago that EMU was “a quantum leap … creating an inexorable federal logic”. … Yet the moment of truth has come. There is no quantum leap. We have a Merkel pirouette…

EU leaders may yet rustle up a rescue package that keeps the IMF at bay, but alliances are shifting fast…

Besides, too much has been said over the last week that cannot be unsaid. Mrs Merkel’s speech to the Bundestag was epochal, a defiant warning that henceforth Germany would pursue the German national interest in EU affairs…

Days later, Thilo Sarrazin from the Bundesbank blurted out that if Greece cannot pay its bills “it should do what every debtor has to do and file for insolvency. This would be a suitably frightening example for every other potentially unsound state,” he said, pointedly excluding France from the list of sound countries.

Dr Sarrazin should be locked up in a Frankfurt Sanatorium. It was such flippancy that led to the Lehman disaster, requiring state rescues of half the world’s financial system. A Greek default would alone be twice the size of the combined defaults by Argentina and Russia. Contagion across Club Med would instantly set off a second banking crisis..

Core inflation in Euroland was 0.9pc in February, the lowest since the data series began. It is certain to fall further as the doubling of oil prices fades from the base effect. M3 money has been contracting for a year. Business credit is shrinking at a 2.7pc rate.

So, it is not enough for the EU to impose a fiscal squeeze of 10pc of GDP on Greece, 8pc on Spain, and 6pc on Portugal, and 5pc on France over three years, we need a dose of 1930s monetary policy as well to make sure life is Hell for everybody…

The deeper truth that few care to face is that under the current EMU structure Berlin will have to do for Greece and Club Med what it has done for East Germany, pay vast subsidies for decades. Events of the last week have made it clear that no such money will ever be forthcoming.

Let me be clear. I do not blame Greece, Ireland, Italy, or Spain for what has happened… Nor do I blame Germany…

I blame the EU elites that charged ahead with this project for the wrong reasons – some cynically, mostly out of Hegelian absolutism – ignoring the economic anthropology of Europe and the rules of basic common sense. They must answer for a depression.


Originally published at Naked Capitalism and reproduced here with the author’s permission.