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The Year Ahead in the Eurozone: Lower Risks, Same Problems

Financial conditions in the eurozone have significantly improved since the summer, when eurozone risks peaked because of German policymakers’ open consideration of a Greek exit, and the sovereign spreads of Italy and Spain reached new heights. The day before European Central Bank President Mario Draghi’s famous speech in London in which he announced that the ECB would do “whatever it takes” to save the euro, bond yields in Spain and Italy were at 7.75 percent and 6.75 percent, respectively, and rising. When the ECB announced its outright monetary transactions (OMT) bond-buying program, the euro zone was at risk of a collapse.

Since then, risks have abated significantly, thanks to a number of factors:

  • The ECB’s OMT has been incredibly successful in reducing the risks of breakup, redenomination and a liquidity/rollover crisis in the public debt markets of Spain and Italy. Although the ECB has yet to spend a single additional euro to buy the bonds of Spain and Italy, both short-term and longer-term sovereign spreads against German bonds have fallen substantially.
  • Following a number of political and legal hurdles, the successful operational start of the European Stability Mechanism (ESM) rescue fund provides the euro zone with another €500 billion of official resources to backstop banks and sovereigns in the euro zone periphery, on top of the leftover funds of its predecessor, the European Financial Stability Facility (EFSF).
  • Realizing that a monetary union is not viable without deeper integration, euro zone leaders have proposed a banking union, a fiscal union, an economic union and, eventually, a political union. The last is necessary to resolve any issue of democratic legitimacy that might result from national states transferring power from national governments to EU- or euro zone-wide institutions. This transfer of power also would have to involve the creation of such institutions to ensure solidarity and risk-sharing are developed in the banking, fiscal and economic unions.
  • The open talk in the summer by some German authorities about an exit option for Greece has turned into a tentative willingness to prevent and postpone such an exit. There are several reasons for this. First, Greece has done some austerity and reforms in spite of a deepening recession, and the current coalition is holding up. Second, an orderly exit of Greece is impossible until Spain and Italy are successfully isolated. Such an exit would lead to massive contagion, which would hurt not only the euro zone periphery but also the core, given extensive trade and financial links. Third, an economic disaster in Greece would be damaging to the CDU Party’s chances of winning the German elections. Thus, even when Greece inevitably underperforms on its policy commitments, Germany and the troika (the IMF, EU and ECB) will hold their noses and keep the funds flowing as long as the current coalition holds up.

Given these developments, the risk of a Greek exit in 2013 has been significantly reduced, even if the risk of an eventual Greek exit from the euro zone is still high, close to 50 percent by my estimation. Meanwhile, the narrowing of Spanish and Italian sovereign spreads has significantly diminished the risk that either country will fully lose market access and be forced to undergo a full troika bailout like Greece, Portugal and Ireland. Both Spain and Italy may in 2013 opt for a memorandum of understanding (MoU) that opens the taps of ESM and OMT support, but such official financing would inspire confidence as it would not be associated with rising, unsustainable spreads and a loss of market access.

While there is a much lower likelihood of disorderly events in the euro zone, there are still significant obstacles to deeper integration, as well as country-specific economic and political vulnerabilities. The biggest obstacle to the formation of a banking, fiscal, economic and political union is that Germany is pushing back against the time line for action, with the initial skirmish on ECB supervision of euro zone banks. This backpedaling reflects deep German skepticism on whether the resolution of the eurozone crisis requires a move toward greater union. Without a more credible commitment to austerity and reforms from euro zone periphery countries, lurching forward would imply that risk-sharing will turn into a large, long-term transfer union, which is unacceptable to Germany and the core. Thus, Germany will do whatever is necessary to delay the integration process, at least until after elections in fall 2013.

Meanwhile, there is a deep recession in the eurozone periphery that is spreading even to parts of the core: France will experience a recession in 2013, and even Germany is sharply decelerating as two of its main export markets, the euro zone periphery and China, contract and slow, respectively. The balkanization of economic activity between the eurozone core and the periphery persists. The balkanization of banking is ongoing as cross-border flows, interbank flows and smart money have left the periphery banks and found shelter in the core; in the case of public debt markets, balkanization and domestication continue as cross-border investors have left the periphery public debt markets, in spite of reduced yields, on top of abandoning periphery banks and corporates.

The eurozone periphery recession will continue in 2013: Fiscal austerity is ongoing; the euro is still too strong; periphery banks have capital shortages and liquidity concerns, and thus are achieving required capital ratios by contracting credit and selling assets; and consumer and business confidence is still depressed given falling output and employment. Moreover, private and/or public debts are still very high and possibly unsustainable over the medium term in a number of periphery countries, while the lack of growth adds to the debt sustainability risks. Potential growth is still very low in most of the periphery as demographic aging is ongoing, while structural reforms are occurring too slowly and only affect productivity growth after long lags.

Underlying all this is the issue of the loss of external competitiveness associated with external current account deficits that private foreign investors are unwilling to finance. Some internal devaluation is ongoing, leading to a reduction in unit labor costs, but that process is recessionary and occurring too slowly. Thus, though financial conditions have improved and tail risks have lessened, the fundamental problems of the euro zone remain.

This piece is cross-posted from Reuters.com with permission.

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