Istat, the Italian statistical office, just released its Quarterly non-financial accounts for the General Government. As were to be expected, deficit is spiraling out of control (8% on the first quarter, against 7% in 2011), because of higher borrowing costs, and because the economy is doing very poorly.
Two days ago they released the provisional unemployment figures for May: stable above 10% (youth unemployment is at 36.2%!).
It seems that we come full circle, robustly installed in a Recession-Deficit-Austerity-Recession-Deficit-and-so-on spiral.
Austerity works, right? Why on earth, should Italy aim for a balanced budget in 2013? Is this required by current European rules? No(t yet). Is this reassuring markets? No. Is this boosting private expenditure? No. Is this killing the Italian economy? Yes.
Ah, and if at least we did something for those spreads…
Countries like the United States, Japan or the United Kingdom can finance their debt at zero or negative real interest rates. This in spite of debt levels higher than those of the euro area, and growth forecasts that are not necessarily better. Meanwhile, the eurozone peripheral countries have to deal on a daily basis with the mood of markets, and to pay interests on debt at the limit of sustainability.
The reasons for this state of affairs are clear, and have been repeatedly mentioned. Eurozone countries are forced to borrow in a currency that they do not issue: the euro is in effect a foreign currency. To quote Paul de Grauwe,
In a nutshell the difference in the nature of sovereign debt between members and non-members of a monetary union boils down to the following. Members of a monetary union issue debt in a currency over which they have no control. It follows that financial markets acquire the power to force default on these countries. This is not the case in countries that are no part of a monetary union, and have kept control over the currency in which they issue debt. These countries cannot easily be forced into default by financial markets.
In other words, peripheral eurozone countries are in the same situation of Latin America in the eighties: they are forced to pay high risk premia to markets fearing the risk of default, induced by the vicious circle austerity-recession-debt burden.
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.
Not surprisingly, the deal reached last week failed to put the EMU economies back on track. I have always looked with suspicion, if not with outright fear, to policy agendas dictated by financial markets. But the fact that a simple attempt by the Greek Prime Minister to involve his fellow citizens in crucial decisions is creating a panic attack, shows how fragile the agreement was. With André Grjebine I wrote a piece for the French daily Liberation last week, in which we argued that all the crucial weaknesses of the Eurozone were not addressed.
- Address current account imbalances symmetrically, along the lines already outlined by Keynes before Bretton Woods.
- Focus more on quality of public spending, and not on quantitative targets. We mention the golden rule in its original meaning, i.e. the exclusion of public investment from numerical deficit targets. A study (working paper here) I made with some colleagues a while ago hinted that it worked for the UK.
- Finally, we insisted on debt monetization by the ECB, the only possible strategy to defuse speculation against sovereign debt of a currency union.
For observers of EMU woes, it came as no surprise that Wednesday’s summit in Brussels ended in a low-key compromise that leaves the eurozone fragility untouched.
In part this is due to the decision making process in the EU, intrinsically incapable of reaching quick and bold decisions. But there are more substantial reasons that lie in the interpretation of the crisis, the “blame game”; a blame game that has no particular interest, were it not that understanding what went wrong should constitute a guide for designing a durable and effective solution.
I published an editorial (Euro : de quoi l’Allemagne a-t-elle peur ?) with André Grjebine on the French newspaper Le Monde:
We argue that the non-optimality of the EMU led to imbalances that go beyond the responsibility of individual countries, and hence that the solution should be symmetric. We also call for a real European Government.
An English version will follow.