Soros on the Crisis and the Euro

The New York Times has an article by George Soros with his take on the challenges facing the Eurozone. It includes a good, high level recitation of the structural deficiencies in the Eurozone (in particular, its lack of a treasury), the evolution of recent stresses, and suggested remedies. While the initial discussion covers a fair bit of familiar territory, Soros offers some pointed observations. He argues that the Eurozone crisis is mainly a banking crisis, a failure to clean up financial firm balance sheets in the wake of the 2007-2008 meltdown.

And he points a finger at Germany for making a difficult situation worse:

The euro is a patently flawed construct, which its architects knew at the time of its creation. They expected its defects to be corrected, if and when they became acute, by the same process that brought the European Union into existence.

The European Union was built by a process of piecemeal social engineering: indeed it is probably the most successful feat of social engineering in history. The architects recognized that perfection is unattainable….They mobilized the political will for a small step forward, knowing full well that when it was accomplished its inadequacy would become apparent and require further steps…

Germany used to be at the heart of the process….After the fall of the Berlin Wall, Germany’s leaders realized that unification was possible only in the context of a united Europe and they were willing to make considerable sacrifices to secure European acceptance….But those days are over. Germany doesn’t feel so rich anymore and doesn’t want to continue serving as the deep pocket for the rest of Europe. This change in attitudes is understandable but it did bring the process of integration to a screeching halt.

Germany now wants to treat the Maastricht Treaty as the scripture that has to be obeyed without any modifications. This is not understandable, because it is in conflict with the incremental method by which the European Union was built. Something has gone fundamentally wrong in Germany’s attitude toward the European Union.

Let me first analyze the defects of the euro and then examine Germany’s attitude. The biggest deficiency in the euro, the absence of a common fiscal policy, is well known. But there is another defect that has received less recognition: a false belief in the stability of financial markets…..

All I need to do is remind you that the introduction of the euro created its own bubble in the countries whose borrowing costs were greatly reduced. Greece abused the privilege by cheating, but Spain didn’t. Spain followed sound macroeconomic policies, maintained its sovereign debt level below the European average, and exercised exemplary supervision over its banking system. Yet it enjoyed a tremendous real estate boom that has turned into a bust resulting in 20 percent unemployment. Now it has to rescue the savings banks, called cajas, and the municipalities. And the entire European banking system is weighed down by bad debts and needs to be recapitalized. The design of the euro did not take this possibility into account.

Another structural flaw in the euro is that it guards only against the danger of inflation and ignores the possibility of deflation….This is due to Germany’s fear of inflation. When Germany agreed to substitute the euro for the Deutschmark it insisted on strong safeguards to maintain the value of the currency. The Maastricht Treaty contained a clause that expressly prohibited bailouts and that ban has been reaffirmed by the German constitutional court. It is this clause that has made the current situation so difficult to deal with.

And this brings me to the gravest defect in the euro’s design: it does not allow for error. It expects member states to abide by the Maastricht criteria—which state that the budget deficit must not exceed 3 percent and total government debt 60 percent of GDP—without establishing an adequate enforcement mechanism. And now that several countries are far away from the Maastricht criteria, there is neither an adjustment mechanism nor an exit mechanism. Now these countries are expected to return to the Maastricht criteria even if such a move sets in motion a deflationary spiral. This is in direct conflict with the lessons learned from the Great Depression of the 1930s, and is liable to push Europe into a period of prolonged stagnation or worse. That will, in turn, generate discontent and social unrest. It is difficult to predict how the anger and frustration will express itself…..xenophobic and nationalistic extremism are already on the rise in countries such as Belgium, the Netherlands, and Italy. In a worst-case scenario, such political trends could undermine democracy and paralyze or even destroy the European Union.

If that were to happen, Germany would have to bear a major share of the responsibility because as the strongest and most creditworthy country it calls the shots. By insisting on pro-cyclical policies, Germany is endangering the European Union. I realize that this is a grave accusation but I am afraid it is justified.

To be sure, Germany cannot be blamed for wanting a strong currency and a balanced budget. But it can be blamed for imposing its predilection on other countries that have different needs and preferences—like Procrustes, who forced other people to lie in his bed and stretched them or cut off their legs to make them fit. The Procrustes bed being inflicted on the eurozone is called deflation.

Unfortunately Germany does not realize what it is doing. It has no desire to impose its will on Europe; all it wants to do is to maintain its competitiveness and avoid becoming the deep pocket for the rest of Europe. But as the strongest and most creditworthy country, it is in the driver’s seat. As a result Germany objectively determines the financial and macroeconomic policies of the eurozone without being subjectively aware of it. When all the member countries try to be like Germany they are bound to send the eurozone into a deflationary spiral. That is the effect of the policies pursued by Germany and—since Germany is in the driver’s seat—these are the policies imposed on the eurozone.

The German public does not understand why it should be blamed for the troubles of the eurozone. After all, it is the most successful economy in Europe, fully capable of competing in world markets. The troubles of the eurozone feel like a burden weighing Germany down. It is difficult to see what would change this perception because the troubles of the eurozone are depressing the euro and, being the most competitive of the countries in the eurozone, Germany benefits the most. As a result Germany is likely to feel the least pain of all the member states.

Yves here. The last comment is a crucial observation. Even though Germans may indeed be choose to wear the deflation hairshirt, they seem unwilling or unable to recognize that other Eurozone member states will take even more pain, and their populations may rebel rather than accede. Not only is this deflationary liebestod dubious from an economic economic perspective, but it is risky political business as well.


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

One Response to "Soros on the Crisis and the Euro"

  1. Christoph   July 16, 2010 at 7:10 am

    Mr. Soros’ statement is partly boring because everyone knows for 15 years now that the Euro currency is tough medicine for the Club Med countries. Yet everyone wanted to join.His expectation that Germany now just throw the Maastricht treaty into the bin and start plugging other peoples’ holes is ridiculous:“Germany now wants to treat the Maastricht Treaty as the scripture that has to be obeyed without any modifications. This is not understandable, because it is in conflict with the incremental method by which the European Union was built. Something has gone fundamentally wrong in Germany’s attitude toward the European Union.”Let me see one instance where Mr. Soros has allowed one of his counter parties off the hook just like that.The Bank of England and Nick Leeson can certainly testify to the contrary.Mr. Soros is pretty blunt in that the process of European integration was dishonest fromt the start:“They mobilized the political will for a small step forward, knowing full well that when it was accomplished its inadequacy would become apparent and require further steps.”Frankly: it is better to stop the bullshit and the emerging police state now even if we in Europe have to go through a depression.The endless postponement of the inevitable through creation of liquidity has not solved any of Japan’s problems. How will it solve the problems of less potent economies.Mr. Roubini still enjoys a solid reputation in Europe. He should be wary to become yet another Wallstreet mouthpiece.