OFCE le blog has posted the English translation of an article I wrote with André Grjebine a few weeks ago, for the French daily Le Monde. We commented the Standard & Poor’s downgrades, developing the points I had made here.
I maintain that the motivation of S&P marks a turning point in the debate on EMU governance. It was the first time that a major market participant explicitly challenged the priorities that the German leadership is imposing to Europe.
The current discussion on the Greek austerity plan shows that markets are joining those who preach to the desert.
The European Council meeting, next Monday, should finally lift the veil of mystery that has surrounded the new “fiscal compact”, the set of rules supposed to govern fiscal policy in EU member countries. As of now, the only official document in our hands is the Statement approved by the Heads of State and Government at the December 9 meeting.
I have argued at length that I am not in the camp of those who believe fiscal profligacy is the source of EMU problems (recently, here and here). Rather the contrary, I always thought (see for example here and here) that even the current rules de facto prevented EMU countries from effectively using the standard tools of macroeconomic policy.
Standard and Poor’s decision to downgrade a large number of EU countries, on Friday, was widely expected; and, as I write, markets barely reacted. This is not surprising, as the downgrade had already been embedded in market behaviours.
There are of course notable political consequences, for example in what concerns the French presidential race. But from an economist perspective, this is really not a turning point.
There is nevertheless a remarkable news, that went almost unnoticed. Read more…
The Brussels EU Summit is extremely negative for the decisions that have been taken:
- We are going to converge towards a “German Europe”, based on fiscal austerity and on compression of domestic demand. The stubbornness in rejecting any role for active macroeconomic policies is scary, especially as we are still engulfed into a crisis that could have been substantially worse, were it not for the stimulus packages of 2009. Just ask a question: where would the EU be, if the rules Germany wants, were already in place in 2008?
- The eurozone emerges from the Summit, once again, as the only major economy of the world that does not have a properly functioning central bank. With the support of ECB President Mario Draghi, it was once again made clear that the ECB should and would not act as a lender of last resort.
There will be time to discuss these issues, and to ask where does the EMU go (or does not go) from here.
Here I want to underline the only positive aspect of the meeting: The (self) exclusion of the UK from the process of further integration. This is seen as dangerous by most commentators. I’d argue that it is the only good news that we got from the sleepless night in Bruxelles.
The European leaders could not afford to emerge from negotiations empty-handed, and this forced them to refuse the British vetoes. For the past 38 years the UK has been constantly pushing on the brakes of European integration, obtaining (should I use the term ‘blackmailing’?) compensations and opt-out clauses for every advance that it reluctantly allowed.
The looming Armageddon gave European leaders the strength to finally break free from this grip.
Europe is finally advancing towards increased cooperation. In the wrong direction, for the reasons recalled above, but it is advancing. It is to be hoped that last night we set a precedent, and that in the future the method of enhanced cooperation will become the norm each time that a country blocks the process for selfish reasons.
I made this point in an interview this morning.
There was a lot of noise, yesterday, about the main central banks’ decision to coordinate in maximizing liquidity provision (in dollars) to households and firms. An excellent and clear explanation of what they exactly did can be found here.
Are we effectively at a turning point? I am afraid not, for essentially two reasons:
- The first is that, after an initial moment of euphoria, markets may realize what really happened, i.e. that central banks are preparing for a major Lehman-like event: If the euro breaks down, and if investors flee from it, central banks are ready to act to avoid contagion. This is reassuring, but it also informs us that the main monetary authorities of the planet are seriously considering the possibility of such an event occurring.
- Second, this move, per se, does nothing to address the main source of the problem: the lack of proper Eurozone governance, and the unwillingness of the ECB to act as a lender/buyer of last resort. Major changes on these issues would be a turning point, reducing the risk of a euro crisis, and hence making liquidity in dollars unnecessary.
A safe bet: Financial market euphoria will be short-lived.
It had to be expected. Yesterday Germany only placed 3.9bn euros worth of 10-year bonds, from 6bn euros on offer, and the yields started climbing. This means that we are quickly entering into a new phase of the euro crisis.
I think it is useful to list, and assess, the main arguments advanced against an enhanced role of the ECB as a lender/buyer of last resort. I can think of four of them: credibility, inflation, irrelevance, ineffectiveness.
There are two interesting developments in the eurozone crisis.
- The first is that there seems to be no discrimination coming from financial markets anymore. The French (and Dutch, and Belgian, and counting…) spreads are dangerously increasing, not for objective reasons, but rather because France (and then Belgium, and the Netherlands, and counting…) is perceived as the next country in line after Italy. It is clear that the process will not stop, and that today the only investment that is considered safe is German bunds.
- The second development is that besides the German government, the Bundesbank president, and of course the ECB, there is increasing consensus that only a radical shift in monetary policy can stop contagion, building a firewall around eurozone sovereign debt. It is impossible to have well functioning bonds markets with 17 governments de facto borrowing in foreign currencies, and without a lender of last resort.
The two developments are of course related. It becomes increasingly clear that national government, independently of their past wrongdoings or virtuous behavior, are less and less responsible for speculative attacks, that seem to be fueled by the perceived flaws in the EMU governance design: countries with very limited fiscal space and even more limited fiscal pooling, borrowing in a foreign currency without a Lender of last resort umbrella, and experiencing increasing external imbalances.
As somebody would have said some time ago, “it’s the eurozone, stupid!“