Spoiler alert: we conclude that anything could go, and that claiming otherwise is not very serious.
What do we know about the end of monetary unions?
The European elections were marked by low turnouts and increasing support for Eurosceptic parties. These two elements reflect a wave of mistrust vis-à-vis European institutions, which can also be seen in confidence surveys and in the increasingly loud debate about a return to national currencies. The controversy over a country leaving the euro zone or even the breakup of the monetary union itself started with the Greek crisis in 2010. It then grew more strident as the euro zone sank into crisis. The issue of leaving the euro is no longer taboo. If the creation of the euro was unprecedented in monetary history, its collapse would be none the less so. Indeed, an analysis of historical precedents in this field shows that they cannot serve as a point of comparison for the euro zone.
Although there seem to be a number of cases where monetary unions split apart, few are comparable to the European Monetary Union. Between 1865 and 1927, the Latin Monetary Union laid the foundations for closer monetary cooperation among its member states. This monetary arrangement involved a gold standard regime that established a principle of monetary uniformity with a guarantee that the currencies set up by each member state could move freely within the area. Given the absence of a single currency created ex nihilo as is the case today with the euro, the dissolution of the Union that occurred in 1927 holds little interest for the current debate. In fact, experts in monetary unions instead characterise this type of experience as “areas of common standards”. A study in 2007 by Andrew Rose (see here) assesses 69 cases of exits from a currency union since the Second World War, which would indicate that there is nothing unique about the break-up of the euro zone. However, this sample of countries that have left a currency union cannot really be used to draw meaningful lessons. A large number of these cases involve countries that gained their political independence in the process of decolonization. These were also small developing economies whose macroeconomic and financial situations are very different from those of France or Greece in 2014. The most recent experience was the break-up of the rouble zone, following the collapse of the USSR, and of Yugoslavia, both of which involved economies that were not very open commercially or financially to the rest of the world. In these circumstances, the impact on a country’s competitiveness or financial stability of a return to the national currency and any subsequent exchange rate adjustments are not commensurate with what would happen in the case of a return to the franc, the peseta or the lira. The relatively untroubled separation of the Czech Republic and Slovakia in 1993 also involved economies that were not very open. Finally, the experience most like that of the EMU undoubtedly involves the Austro-Hungarian Union, which lasted from 1867 to 1918. It had a common central bank in charge of monetary control but no fiscal union , with each State enjoying full budgetary prerogatives except with regard to expenditure on defence and foreign policy. It should be added that this Union as such could not go into debt, as the common budget had to be balanced. While the Union established trade and financial relations with many other countries, it is important to note that its break-up occurred in the very specific context of the First World War. It was thus on the ruins of the Austro-Hungarian Empire that new nations and new currencies were formed.
It must therefore be concluded that monetary history does not tell us much about what happens at the end of a monetary union. Given this, attempts to evaluate a scenario involving an exit from the euro are subject to a level of uncertainty that we would call “radical”. While it might be possible to identify certain positive or negative results of exiting the euro, going beyond this to give specific calculations of the costs and benefits of a break-up comes closer to writing fiction than to robust scientific analysis. As for the positive side, it can always be argued that the effects on competitiveness of a devaluation can be quantified. Eric Heyer and Bruno Ducoudré have performed such an exercise for a possible fall in the euro. But who can say how much the franc would depreciate in the case of an exit from the euro zone? How would other countries react if France left the euro zone? Would Spain leave too? In which case, how much would the peseta fall in value? The number of these variables and their potential interactions lead to such a multiplicity of scenarios that no good faith economist can foresee, let alone calculate. The exchange rates between the new European currencies would once again be determined by the markets. This could result in a panic comparable to the currency crisis experienced by the countries in the European Monetary System (EMS) in 1992.
And what about the debt of the private and public agents of the country (or countries) pulling out? The legal experts are divided about what share would be converted by force of law into the new currency (or currencies) and what would remain denominated in euros, which would add to agents’ debt burden. So it is likely that an exit would be followed by a proliferation of litigation, with unpredictable outcomes. After the Mexican crisis in 1994, and again during the Asian crisis in 1998, both of which were followed by devaluations, there was an increase in agents’ debt, including government debt. Devaluation could therefore increase the problems facing the public finances while also creating difficulties for the banking system, as a significant share of the debt of private agents is held abroad (see Anne-Laure Delatte). The risk of numerous private defaults could therefore be added to the risk of default on the public debt. How would one measure the magnitude of such impacts? Or the increase in the default rate? What about the risk that all or part of the banking system might collapse? How would depositors respond to a bank panic? What if they seek to prop up the value of their assets by keeping deposits in euros and opening accounts in countries that they consider safer? A wave of runs on deposits would follow, threatening the very stability of the banking system. It might be argued that, upon regaining autonomy for our monetary policy, the central bank would implement an ultra-expansionary policy, the State would gain some financial leeway, put an end to austerity and protect the banking system and French industry, and capital controls would be re-established in order to avoid a bank run … But once again, predicting how such a complex process would unfold amounts to astrology … And if the example of Argentina  in late 2001 is cited to argue that it is possible to recover from a currency crisis, the context in which the end of the “currency board” took place there should not be forgotten: a deep financial, social and political crisis that does not really have a point of comparison, except perhaps Greece.
In these circumstances, we believe that attempting to assess the cost and benefits of leaving the euro leads to a sterile debate. The only question worth asking concerns the political and economic European project. The creation of the euro was a political choice – as would be its end. We must break with a sclerotic vision of a European debate that opposes proponents of leaving the euro to those who endlessly tout the success of European integration. There are many avenues open for reform, as has been demonstrated by some recent initiatives (Manifesto for a euro political union) as well as by the contributions collected in issue 134 of the Revue de l’OFCE entitled “Réformer l’Europe”. It is urgent that all European institutions (the new European Commission, the European Council, the European Parliament, but also the Eurogroup) take up these questions and rekindle the debate about the European project.
 For a more detailed analysis of comparisons that can be drawn between the European Monetary Union and Austro-Hungary, see Christophe Blot and Fabien Labondance (2013): “Réformer la zone euro: un retour d’expériences”, Revue du Marché Commun et de l’Union européenne, no. 566.
 See Jérôme Sgard (2002): “L’Argentine un an après: de la crise monétaire à la crise financière”, Lettre du Cepii, no. 218.
Today we learn from Daniel Gros, on Project Syndicate that the emphasis on German surplus is misplaced:
The discussion of the German surplus thus confuses the issues in two ways. First, though the German economy and its surplus loom large in the context of Europe, an adjustment by Germany alone would benefit the eurozone periphery rather little. Second, in the global context, adjustment by Germany alone would benefit many countries only a little, while other surplus countries would benefit disproportionally. Adjustment by all northern European countries would have double the impact of any expansion of demand by Germany alone, owing to the high degree of integration among the “Teutonic” countries.
Fascinating. The bulk of the argument is that Germany is a small player in the global economy, and therefore that its actions have no impact. I have two objections to Gros’ argument. Read More
The Financial Times highlights one of the most striking conclusions of the latest ECB Financial Stability Report (full document here). The ECB, using FT’s words, “issued a stark warning over the threat posed by the scaling back of US monetary stimulus, calling on eurozone policy makers to do more to prepare for the market shocks from Federal Reserve tapering.“
There are of course many reasons why a change of policy of the largest world economy is closely monitored because of its potential impact. The ECB statements nevertheless are striking to me, because they are further confirmation of the small country syndrome that I pointed out in the past.
Quantitative Easing has been pivotal in ensuring that the hasty reversal of the fiscal stance in the United States did not dip their economy into a new recession. One may argue that today’s US economy is not sufficiently robust for exiting monetary stimulus. But it is sooner or later going to happen. The rest of the world has been free riding on Fed’s policies. In particular, the eurozone has benefited from QE in a context of sharp and pro-cyclical austerity, and very timid monetary policy.
Here is the statement I would have expected from the ECB: “The eurozone, the second largest economy of the world, has benefited from exceptional measures implemented by the Fed. This helped our economies and our financial markets in the context of a difficult consolidation process. Domestic factors in the United States will most likely cause a reversal of these policies. It is time European policy makers stand on their legs. As our economies persist in a state of chronic weakness, the ECB will consider its own quantitative easing program, to compensate for tapering in the United States, and provide to the European economy the environment it needs to rebound“
Such a statement, that I would find reasonable and balanced (maybe even too prudent), is nevertheless revolutionary nonsense in European policy circles. Instead we had the same old “copy-and-paste” demand to EMU countries of structural reforms and stable macroeconomic policies (read austerity). Not a single hint of even remotely possible non orthodox policies here at home. The sad truth is that we are structurally incapable of finding within our economy and our institutions the instruments to ensure growth and prosperity. We are structurally free riders. We siphon aggregate demand from the rest of the world running increasing current account balances, and we are not capable of implementing an autonomous monetary policy.
The world’s second largest economic area remains a parasite of the global economy, and it is incapable of living up to its responsibilities. Nothing good can come out of this.
Olli Rehn wrote a balanced piece on Germany’s current account surplus. To sum it up:
- He acknowledges that Germany’s surplus is a problem.
- He acknowledges (albeit indirectly) that the initial source of the problem were capital flows from Germany and the core to the periphery; flows that did not go into productive investment but fueled bubbles.
- He (correctly) argues that over the long run some excess savings from Germany is justified by the need to provide for an ageing population.
- He points out that investment has been too low and needs to increase (possible within the framework of an energy transition).
- He also mentions, without mentioning it, the problem of excessively low wages and pauperisation of the labour force, calling for increases in wages and reduction in taxes to boost domestic demand.
This seems to me a reasonable analysis, and I would welcome an official position of the Commission along these lines. Yet, I think that what is missing in Rehn’s piece, and in most of the current debate, is a clear articulation of between the long and the short run.
I would not object on the need for Germany to run modes surpluses on average over the next years, to pay for future pensions and welfare. It is after all a mature and ageing country. Even more, I would agree with the argument that low wages need to increase, and that bottlenecks that prevent domestic demand expansion should be removed. In other words, I would most likely agree on the Commission’s prescriptions for the medium-to-long run.
Nevertheless, there is a huge hole in Olli Rehn’s analysis, that worries me a bit. Rehn seems to overlook the need to do something here and now. Today, with the periphery of the eurozone stuck in recession, emerging economies sputtering, and continuing jobless growth in the US, the world desperately needs a boost from countries that can afford it. And unfortunately there are not many of these.
Germany is instead siphoning off global demand, making the rest of the world carry its economy when it should do the opposite. As a quick reversal of private demand is unlikely, (this, I repeat should be a medium run target), I see no other option in hte very short run than a substantial fiscal expansion.
A cooperative Germany should implement short run expansionary policies (the need for public investment is undeniable), while working to rebalance consumption, investment and savings in the medium run, with the objective of a small current account surplus in the medium run.
That, incidentally, would not make them Good Samaritans. Ending this endless recession in the eurozone (yes I know, it is technically over; but how happy can we be with growth rates in the zero-point range?) is in the best interest of Germany as much as of the rest of the eurozone (and of the world).
A clear articulation between the different priorities in the short and in the medium-long run would benefit the debate. The problem is that then Olli Rehn should acknowledge that in the short run there is no alternative to expansionary fiscal policies in the eurozone core. That would be asking too much…
Germany rejected the US Treasury’s criticism of the country’s export-focused economic policies as “incomprehensible”. Much has been said about that. Let me just add some pieces of evidence, just to gather them all in the same place.
Exhibit #1: Net Lending Evolution
Note#1 : I took net lending because because net income flows from residents to non residents (not captured by the current account) may be an important part of a country’s net position (most notably in Ireland). Note #2: I took away France and Italy from the two groups called “Core” and “Periphery”, because their net position was relatively small as percentage of GDP in 2008, and changed relatively little.
Following the widely discussed U.S. Treasury report on foreign economic and currency policies, that for the first time blames Germany explicitly for its record trade surpluses, I published an op-ed on the Italian daily Il Sole 24 Ore (in Italian), comparing Germany with China. My argument there is the following:
- Before the crisis the excess savings of China and Germany, the two largest world exporters, contributed to the growing global imbalances by absorbing the excess demand of the U.S. and of other economies (e.g., the Eurozone periphery) that made the world economy fragile. (more here)
- In the past decade, China seems to have grasped the problems yielded by an export-led growth model, and tried to rebalance away from exports (and lately investment) towards consumption (more here). The adjustment is slow, sometimes incoherent, but it is happening.
- Germany walked a different path, proudly claiming that the compression of domestic demand and increased exports were the correct way out of the crisis (as well as the correct model for long-term growth)
- Germany’s economic size, its position of creditor, and its relatively better performance following the sovereign debt crisis, (together with a certain ideological complicity from EC institutions) allowed Germany to impose the model based on austerity and deflation to peripheral eurozone countries in crisis.
- Even abstracting from the harmful effects of austerity (more here), I then pointed out that the German model cannot work for two reasons: The first is the many times recalled fallacy of composition): Not everybody can export at the same time. The second, more political, is that by betting on an export-led growth model Germany and Europe will be forced to rely on somebody else’s growth to ensure their prosperity. It is now U.S. imports; it may be China’s tomorrow, and who know who the day after tomorrow. This is of course a source of economic fragility, but also of irrelevance on the political arena, where influence goes hand in hand with economic power. Choosing the German economic model Europe would condemn itself to a secondary role.
I would add that the generalization of the German model to the whole eurozone is leading to increasing current account surpluses. Therefore, this is not simply a European problem anymore. By running excess savings as a whole, we are collectively refusing to chip in the ongoing fragile recovery. The rest of the world is right to be annoyed at Germany’s surpluses. We continue to behave like Lilliput, refusing to play our role of large economy.
Let me conclude by noticing that today in his blog Krugman shows that sometimes a chart is worth a thousand (actually 748) words:
So, on today’s FT the German finance minister Wolfgang Schauble forcefully argued that Europe is on the right track, that austerity is paying off, and that “Despite what the critics of the European crisis management would have us believe, we live in the real world, not in a parallel universe where well-established economic principles no longer apply.“
He then proceeds listing all the benefits that austerity and “well-established economic principles” brought to Germany, and to other countries that followed them. Today, he claims, Germany has strong growth, fueled by domestic demand, and grounded on robust investment and innovation.
Ok, let’s see who lives in a parallel world. Read More