Archive for the ‘Economics’ Category

We’re All State Capitalists Now

If there is one issue on which the rival candidates for the U.S. presidency agree, it’s that America’s global leadership will endure. Mitt Romney insists it is not a “post-American century,” while Barack Obama declared in his State of the Union address that “anyone who tells you otherwise, anyone who tells you that America is in decline or that our influence has waned, doesn’t know what they’re talking about.”
They must enjoy this kind of chest-beating in Beijing.
That a resurgent China poses a challenge to American power — especially in the Asia-Pacific region — has been clear for some time to those who know what they’re talking about. The real question is whether the United States has a credible response. Should it apply some version of the “containment theory” that the late George Kennan recommended for dealing with the Soviet challenge after 1945? Or something more subtle, like the “co-evolution” suggested by former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger?
Leave aside the military and diplomatic calculus and consider only the economic challenge China poses to the United States. This is not just a matter of scale, though it is no small matter that, according to the IMF, China’s GDP will overtake that of the United States within four years on the basis of purchasing power parity. Nor is it only about the pace of China’s growth, though any Asian exporter forced to choose between China and America would be inclined to choose the former; their trade with China is growing far more rapidly than trade with the United States.
No, according to some commentators, the contest between the two Asian superpowers is also fundamentally a contest between economic models: market capitalism vs. state capitalism. Speaking at the World Economic Forum in Davos this January, David Rubenstein of the Carlyle Group expressed a widely held view that the Chinese model of state capitalism is pulling ahead of the U.S. market model. “We’ve got to work through these problems,” Rubenstein said. “If we don’t do [so], in three or four years … the game will be over for the type of capitalism that many of us have lived through and thought was the best type.” I think this view is dead wrong. But it’s interesting to see why so many influential people now subscribe to it.
Market capitalism has certainly had a rough five years. Remember the Washington Consensus? That was the to-do list of 10 economic policies designed to Americanize emerging markets back in the 1990s. The U.S. government and international financial institutions urged countries to impose fiscal discipline and reduce or eliminate budget deficits, broaden the tax base and lower tax rates, allow the market to set interest and exchange rates, and liberalize trade and capital flows. When Asian economies were hit by the 1997-1998 financial crisis, American critics were quick to bemoan the defects of “crony capitalism” in the region, and they appeared to have economic history on their side.
Yet today, in the aftermath of the biggest U.S. financial crisis since the Great Depression, the world looks very different. Not only did the 2008-2009 meltdown of financial markets seem to expose the fundamental fragility of the capitalist system, but China’s apparent ability to withstand the reverberations of Wall Street’s implosion also suggested the possibility of a new “Beijing Consensus” based on central planning and state control of volatile market forces.
In his book The End of the Free Market, the Eurasia Group’s Ian Bremmer argues that authoritarian governments all over the world have “invented something new: state capitalism”:

In this system, governments use various kinds of state-owned companies to manage the exploitation of resources that they consider the state’s crown jewels and to create and maintain large numbers of jobs. They use select privately owned companies to dominate certain economic sectors. They use so-called sovereign wealth funds to invest their extra cash in ways that maximize the state’s profits. In all three cases, the state is using markets to create wealth that can be directed as political officials see fit. And in all three cases, the ultimate motive is not economic (maximizing growth) but political (maximizing the state’s power and the leadership’s chances of survival). This is a form of capitalism but one in which the state acts as the dominant economic player and uses markets primarily for political gain.

For Bremmer, state capitalism poses a grave “threat” not only to the free market model, but also to democracy in the developing world.
Although applicable to states all over the globe, at root this is an argument about China. Bremmer himself writes that “China holds the key.” But is it in fact correct to ascribe China’s success to the state rather than the market? The answer depends on where you go in China. In Shanghai or Chongqing, for example, the central government does indeed loom very large. In Wenzhou, by comparison, the economy is as vigorously entrepreneurial and market-driven as anywhere I have ever been.
True, China’s economy continues to be managed on the basis of a five-year plan, an authoritarian tradition that goes all the way back to Josef Stalin. As I write, however, the Chinese authorities are grappling with a problem that owes more to market forces than to the plan: the aftermath of an urban real estate bubble caused by the massive 2009-2010 credit expansion. Among China experts, the hot topic of the moment is the new shadow banking system in cities such as Wenzhou, which last year enabled developers and investors to carry on building and selling apartment blocks even as the People’s Bank of China sought to restrict lending by raising rates and bank reserve requirements.
Talk to some eminent Chinese economists, and you could be forgiven for concluding that the ultimate aim of policy is to get rid of state capitalism altogether. “We need to privatize all the state-owned enterprises,” one leading economist told me over dinner in Beijing a year ago. “We even need to privatize the Great Hall of the People.” He also claimed to have said this to President Hu Jintao. “Hu couldn’t tell if I was serious or if I was joking,” he told me proudly.
Ultimately, it is an unhelpful oversimplification to divide the world into “market capitalist” and “state capitalist” camps. The reality is that most countries are arranged along a spectrum where both the intent and the extent of state intervention in the economy vary. Only extreme libertarians argue that the state has no role whatsoever to play in the economy. As a devotee of Adam Smith, I accept without qualification his argument in The Wealth of Nations that the benefits of free trade and the division of labor will be enjoyed only in countries with rational laws and institutions. I also agree with Silicon Valley visionary Peter Thiel that, under the right circumstances (e.g., in time of war), governments are capable of forcing the direction and pace of technological change: Think the Manhattan Project.
But the question today is not whether the state or the market should be in charge. The real question is which countries’ laws and institutions are best, not only at achieving rapid economic growth but also, equally importantly, at distributing the fruits of growth in a way that citizens deem to be just.
Let us begin by asking a simple question that can be answered with empirical data: Where in the world is the role of the state greatest in economic life, and where is it smallest? The answer lies in data the IMF publishes on “general government total expenditure” as a percentage of GDP. At one extreme are countries like East Timor and Iraq, where government expenditure exceeds GDP; at the other end are countries like Bangladesh, Guatemala, and Myanmar, where it is an absurdly low share of total output.
Beyond these outliers we have China, whose spending represents 23 percent of GDP, down from around 28 percent three decades ago. By this measure, China ranks 147th out of 183 countries for which data are available. Germany ranks 24th, with government spending accounting for 48 percent of GDP. The United States, meanwhile, is 44th with 44 percent of GDP. By this measure, state capitalism is a European, not an Asian, phenomenon: Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Finland, France, Greece, Hungary, Italy, the Netherlands, Portugal, and Sweden all have higher government spending relative to GDP than Germany. The Danish figure is 58 percent, more than twice that of the Chinese.
The results are similar if one focuses on government consumption — the share of GDP accounted for by government purchases of goods and services, as opposed to transfers or investment. Again, ignoring the outliers, it is Europe whose states play the biggest role in the economy as buyers: Denmark (27 percent) is far ahead of Germany (18 percent), while the United States is at 17 percent. China? 13 percent. For Hong Kong, the figure is 8 percent. For Macao, 7 percent.
Where China does lead the West is in the enormous share of gross fixed capital formation (jargon for investment in hard assets) accounted for by the public sector. According to World Bank data, this amounted to 21 percent of China’s GDP in 2008, among the highest figures in the world, reflecting the still-leading role that government plays in infrastructure investment. The equivalent figures for developed Western countries are vanishingly small; in the West the state is a spendthrift, not an investor, borrowing money to pay for goods and services. On the other hand, the public sector’s share of Chinese investment has been falling steeply during the past 10 years. Here too the Chinese trend is away from state capitalism.
Of course, none of these quantitative measures of the state’s role tells us how well government is actually working. For that we must turn to very different kinds of data. Every year the World Economic Forum (WEF) publishes a Global Competitiveness Index, which assesses countries from all kinds of different angles, including the economic efficiency of their public-sector institutions. Since the current methodology was adopted in 2004, the United States’ average competitiveness score has fallen from 5.82 to 5.43, one of the steepest declines among developed economies. China’s score, meanwhile, has leapt from 4.29 to 4.90.
Even more fascinating is the WEF’s Executive Opinion Survey, which produces a significant amount of the data that goes into the Global Competitiveness Index. The table below selects 15 measures of government efficacy, focusing on aspects of the rule of law ranging from the protection of private property rights to the policing of corruption and the control of organized crime. These are appropriate things to measure because, regardless of whether a state is nominally a market economy or a state-led economy, the quality of its legal institutions will, in practice, have an impact on the ease with which business can be done.
Table: Measures of the rule of law from the WEF Executive Opinion Survey, 2011-2012

(Note: Most indicators derived from the Executive Opinion Survey are expressed as scores on a 1-7 scale, with 7 being the most desirable outcome.)
It is an astonishing yet scarcely acknowledged fact that on no fewer than 14 out of 15 issues relating to property rights and governance, the United States now fares markedly worse than Hong Kong. Even mainland China does better in two areas. Indeed, the United States makes the global top 20 in only one: investor protection, where it is tied for fifth. On every other count, its reputation is shockingly bad.
The implications are clear. If we are to understand the changing relationship between the state and the market in the world today, we must eschew crude generalizations about “state capitalism,” a term that is really not much more valuable today than the Marxist-Leninist term “state monopoly capitalism” was back when Rudolf Hilferding coined it a century ago.
No one seriously denies that the state has a role to play in economic life. The question is what that role should be and how it can be performed in ways that simultaneously enhance economic efficiency and minimize the kind of rent-seeking behavior — “corruption” in all its shapes and forms — that tends to arise wherever the public and private sectors meet.
We are all state capitalists now — and we have been for over a century, ever since the modern state began its steady growth in the late 19th century, when Adolph Wagner first formulated his law of rising state expenditures. But there are myriad forms of state capitalism, from the enlightened autocracy of Singapore to the dysfunctional tyranny of Zimbabwe, from the egalitarian nanny state of Denmark to the individualist’s paradise that is Ron Paul’s Texas.
The real contest of our time is not between a state-capitalist China and a market-capitalist America, with Europe somewhere in the middle. It is a contest that goes on within all three regions as we all struggle to strike the right balance between the economic institutions that generate wealth and the political institutions that regulate and redistribute it.
The character of this century — whether it is “post-American,” Chinese, or something none of us yet expects — will be determined by which political system gets that balance right.

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We’re All State Capitalists Now — By Niall Ferguson | Foreign Policy

Scrutinizing Hayek

Ruizismus among the Austrians

Everyone in Boston of a certain age knows the story of Rosie Ruiz, the marathoner who crossed the Boston finish line in 1980 at 2:31.56, flabby thighs and all, having barely broken a sweat. Despite mounting skepticism, she basked in the glory of having run the third-fastest female marathon in history – for a few days, that is, until a couple of students remembered seeing her jump out of the crowd half a mile from the finish.
Something of the sort has been going on recently with the shade of Friedrich von Hayek. The Austrian economist, who died in 1992 just short of what would have been his ninety-third birthday, never made false claims for himself – far from it: he knew all too well the loneliness of the long distance runner. And scrupulous work as editor by the late W.W. Bartley, interpreter Bruce Caldwell, and biographer Alan Ebenstein, have made it possible to see the man clear.
But the claims conservatives are making about the role he played as an economist are beginning to smack of Ruizismus. That is, they have jumped a caricature out of the bushes late in the day and claim that their guy ran a great race.
By now the story of the short-lived contest between Hayek and John Maynard Keynes in the early 1930s is fairly well known, thanks to highly readable books like Grand Pursuit: The Story of Economic Genius, by Sylvia Nasar, and Keynes Hayek: The Clash that Defined Modern Economics, by Nicholas Wapshott. There is always that very funny rap video, too, if you prefer to watch.
It is certainly true that Lionel Robbins had invited Hayek to London in 1930, specifically to battle Keynes. As Nasar writes, British economics at the beginning of the ’30s was in the process of dividing into two broad camps. There was Cambridge University, the seat of high theory since Newton, home to Malthus and Darwin, citadel of English economics since Alfred Marshall arrived in 1885, and, withal, of decidedly interventionist temperament. The Cambridge camp was led by “the Prof” (there could be only one), Cecil Arthur Pigou, though he was about to be upstaged in unexpected ways by Keynes.
And there was the London School of Economics, where the 30-year-old Robbins had set out to assemble a cosmopolitan group of market-oriented liberals, which included John Hicks, from South Africa; Abba Lerner, from Bessarabia; and Hayek, from Austria. “Robbins’ ambition was to turn the LSE, founded and patronized by Fabian [socialists], into the liberal counterweight to Cambridge collectivism,” writes Nasar.
Hayek arrived in London in January 1931, just as the world slump was deepening. He gave four lectures, arguing, as he had before, that an increase in the money supply would further distort the structure of production and prolong the slump. He was hired by the LSE and got into a fierce exchange with Keynes.
Keynes’ Treatise on Money had just appeared – an attempt to get back to academic economics after a decade of speculation and influential journalism. Hayek panned the book for the “almost unbelievable” degree of obscurity of its equations. Keynes replied by calling Hayek’s 1927 tome, Prices and Production, “One of the most frightful muddles I have ever read.” Pigou attempted to referee: “Body-line bowling [cricket’s equivalent of baseball’s beanball]! The method of the duello! That kind of thing was surely a mistake.”
It turned out that Treatise on Money wasn’t a very important book after all. Keynes hurried on to his General Theory of Employment, Interest, and Money, with its bold claims that a collapse of effective demand had caused the Depression, that a program of government stimulus could end it. And when The General Theory appeared in 1936, Hayek didn’t review it. He may not have been asked.
Keynes’ book was anything but “collectivist” in, say, the manner of Pigou, who in The Economics of Welfare, had argued for the possibility at least of extensive government planning. Instead, the new book argued only for governmental management of the business cycle, through the use of monetary and fiscal policy (macroeconomics, as it quickly became known); the conduct of microeconomics was left to the capitalists.
Thus, in the autumn of 1936, Hayek slowly began to switch to a new and much more philosophical project: an investigation of various spontaneous orders that arise without central direction, and the significance of knowledge in economics.
Thereafter he labored under five distinct handicaps.
The Pure Theory of Capital, his response to Keynes’ success, turned out to be an abject failure. Hayek had begun the book in 1934, hoping to expand decisively on the earlier arguments of Prices and Production. He didn’t finish it until 1940; and when it appeared, in 1941, it seemed completely beside the point – “a pebble thrown in the pool of economic science that seemingly left nary a ripple” was the way Paul Samuelson later described it.
The Road to Serfdom, which appeared in 1944, was an embarrassment. Instead of adopting anti-utopian fiction, as George Orwell did four years later, in Nineteen Eight-Four, Hayek actually argued in the middle of World War II that “it is Germany whose fate we are in some danger of repeating.” Lumping together the more ambitious vision of post-war Labor governments with altogether more modest efforts at reform that soon would be dubbed “the mixed economy,” Hayek wrote, “[D]emocratic socialism, the great utopia of the last few generations, is not only unachievable but to strive for it produces something so utterly different that few of those who now wish it would be prepared to accept the consequences.” Reader’s Digest excerpted it in the United States, and many of those who voted for Thomas Dewey in 1948 may have read it there. But it did Hayek’s reputation as a scholar a great deal of harm.
His divorce in 1950 from his wife of twenty years was a scandal; Robbins, godfather to his son, didn’t speak to Hayek for fifteen years. An early courtship had been jinxed by a year that Hayek spent in 1923-24 studying in New York. Through “some misunderstanding of intentions,” the object of his affections married someone else. He then he married, as he put it, “on the rebound.” Returning to Vienna in 1946, he discovered his earlier sweetheart was now free to marry, whereupon he left his wife (who, under English law, wouldn’t grant him a divorce), their seventeen-year-old daughter and twelve-year-old son, in especially churlish fashion. In Keynes Hayek, Wapshott tells the story:

Hayek celebrated Christmas Day with Hella and the children in their snug family home in Hampstead. Two days later he left them for good, travelling to New York to attend the American Economic Association convention. Hayek’s finances were more on his mind than economics. To avoid the expense of a contested divorce, he slipped a note under the hotel room door of Harold Dulan, chairman of the economics and business department of the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville, asking for a teaching post. Hayek’s plan was to establish residency in Arkansas, a state whose permissive marriage laws would allow him to wrest a cheap divorce from Hella. Dulan duly obliged, as did the chancery division of the Arkansas high court. Hayek’s divorce became absolute in July 1950. “Finally I enforced it,” Hayek recalled. “I’m sure that was wrong and yet I have done it,” he said. “It was just an inner need to do it.”

Hayek needed a way out of England, too. He had acquired an American backer, the libertarian Volcker Fund, of Kansas City, Mo., a foundation willing to pay him $10,000 a year, two or three times an ordinary academic salary. The Institute for Advanced Study wouldn’t hire him, but the University of Chicago, under president Robert Hutchins, would – just not in the economics department, where young professor Milton Friedman objected to Hayek’s economics. So Hutchins persuaded the university’s Committee on Social Thought to appoint him, a second-rate appointment, professionally speaking. Starting in 1950, this permitted Hayek mostly to write and travel; he didn’t participate in the workshop that was remaking monetary economics. These were “wilderness years,” as Wapshott describes them. In 1969 Hayek moved back to Austria for financial reasons, and began suffering from acute depression, probably arising from the first of two heart attacks whose scars were not detected until much later.
Even when he was awarded the Nobel Prize, in 1974, the occasion was bittersweet. He shared the award with another old rival, Swedish economist Gunnar Myrdal. Both men had been highly influential in the economics of the early ’30s (Myrdal, writing in Swedish and German, had pretty thoroughly anticipated Keynes); both had stopped working in the field after Keynes’ triumph in 1936. Myrdal had become a planner, writing two influential books: An American Dilemma: The Negro Problem and American Democracy and Asian Drama: An Inquiry into the Poverty of Nations. Hayek had written The Sensory Order, The Constitution of Liberty, and Law, Legislation, and Liberty. The two thoroughly disliked each other. And both were overshadowed by the presence at the ceremonies that year of Alexander Solzhenitsyn. The novelist, who had been awarded the prize for literature in 1970, had finally been expelled from the Soviet Union.
The great irony is that it was Milton Friedman, honored with a Nobel two years later, who had demonstrated the series of mistakes in monetary policy, tightening when they should have eased, by which the US Federal Reserve Board turned what likely would have been an ordinary recession into the Great Depression. Hayek had been clearly wrong, at least about the monetary policy that was appropriate at the time. (It was the policy that had been advocated by Friedman – supplying liquidity in a financial crisis –that in 2008 enabled the Fed to carry the day.) And as for the period-of-production arguments of Austrian capital theory, they remain unsupported by later empirical work.
The recognition of the Nobel added years to Hayek’s life, at least in the view of those who knew him. (He adamantly denied that the award had anything to do with his longevity.) But it was Margaret Thatcher who plucked him from scientific obscurity and put him at the head of her parade. She had read Road to Serfdom while studying chemistry at Oxford, Wapshott says. He describes the scene when, soon after assuming leadership of the Conservative Party, in 1974, “meeting with the party’s left-leaning research department, she reached into her bag and slammed a copy of Hayek’s Constitution of Liberty on the table. ‘This is what we believe!’” Photo ops with with Ronald Reagan followed, and Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1991.
Since then, there has been a modest flowering of academic interest in his work, particularly at George Mason University – and an explosion of political interest. “The core Hayekian belief that the size of government should be kept to a minimum manifested itself in the early ’90s in the ambitions of Newt Gingrich, a university professor turned Congressman from Georgia,” writes Wapshott. Flat income taxes, as opposed to progressive rates, a long-time Hayek favorite, have begun to appear on some political agendas. And The Road to Serfdom once again topped the best-seller lists for a time last year, when Glenn Beck touted it on his Fox news show.
But the fact remains that Hayek just didn’t contribute very much to the development of technical economics. With the publication of “The Use of Knowledge in Society” in the American Economic Review in 1945, he essentially won on the “calculation debate,” conducted with Ludwig von Mises and Oscar Lange, concerning the possibility of central planning. But it was Leo Hurwicz who carried the lessons to the next stage, where they began to have practical effect.
Paul Samuelson later said, “I can bear witness that, for twentieth century professional economists, Milton Friedman was infinitely more important for turning economists toward conservatism than was Hayek.” His implication was that the Swedes had made the right choices in the mid-1970s. On another occasion he slyly suggested that the award might have been better still if the prize-givers had cited Cambridge economist Joan Robinson, a partisan of Chinese and North Korean communism, as well.
That combination, Hayek, Myrdal and Robinson, might have cast the contributions of each into sharper relief: three pioneers who, after important early contributions, gave up economics for political activism.
Was Hayek more important for the lay public? Whether his thinking played much of a role in “the German miracle,” the restoration of Germany’s devastated economy after World War II, as Nasar implies in her chapter “The Road from Serfdom: Hayek and the German Miracle,” I have my doubts. The thinking that underlay the Marshall Plan had more to do with The Economic Consequences of the Peace, Keynes’ 1919 polemic against the reparations imposed on Germany after World War I, than with Hayek’s jeremiad of 1944.
Certainly Hayek made a big impression on me and my friends, when, as young men, we read him in the 1970s. We felt the same way about the Harvard philosopher Robert Nozick. With the passage of time, though, nineteenth century liberalism has seemed, by itself, a less and less adequate framework with which to deal with the problems of the twenty-first century. What was fresh the, because it had been forgotten, seems today to be nostalgia — or, worse, nonsense, when incorporated in the platform of Republicn presidential candidate Ron Paul.
Both as a contributor to economic theory, then, and a designer of economic policy, the vigorous figure depicted as Hayek in George Mason economics professor George Mason Economics professor Russ Roberts and filmmaker John Papola’s two widely-viewed videos, “Fear the Boom and Bust” and “The Fight of the Century,” and, to a lesser extent, the accounts in Keynes Hayek and Grand Pursuit, seems to have more in common with Rosie Ruiz than with Hayek himself– or at least so it seems to me.
That said, it is pleasing to think that Hayek himself may yet turn out to have been a very great economist after all, far more significant than Myrdal or Robinson, when seen against the background of a broader canvas. The proposition that markets are fundamentally evolutionary mechanisms runs through Hayek’s work. Caldwell, of Duke University, notes that, starting with the Constitution of Liberty, “the twin ideas of evolution and spontaneous order” become prominent, especially the idea of cultural evolution, with its emphasis on rules, norms, and decentralization.
These are today lively concepts in laboratories and universities around the world. “It could have been that Hayek was running a different race, and the fact that he didn’t do well in the Walrasian race was that he wasn’t running in it—he was running in the complexity race,” says David Colander, of Middlebury College. Hayek may yet enter history as a prophet of evolutionary economics, a discipline dreamt of since the days of Thorstein Veblen and Alfred Marshall in the late nineteenth century but not yet forged, whose great days lie ahead.

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2021: The New Europe


Map illustration by Peter Arkle
‘Life is still far from easy in the peripheral states of the United States of Europe (as the euro zone is now known).’

Welcome to Europe, 2021. Ten years have elapsed since the great crisis of 2010-11, which claimed the scalps of no fewer than 10 governments, including Spain and France. Some things have stayed the same, but a lot has changed.

The euro is still circulating, though banknotes are now seldom seen. (Indeed, the ease of electronic payments now makes some people wonder why creating a single European currency ever seemed worth the effort.) But Brussels has been abandoned as Europe’s political headquarters. Vienna has been a great success.

“There is something about the Habsburg legacy,” explains the dynamic new Austrian Chancellor Marsha Radetzky. “It just seems to make multinational politics so much more fun.”

The Germans also like the new arrangements. “For some reason, we never felt very welcome in Belgium,” recalls German Chancellor Reinhold Siegfried von Gotha-Dämmerung.

Life is still far from easy in the peripheral states of the United States of Europe (as the euro zone is now known). Unemployment in Greece, Italy, Portugal and Spain has soared to 20%. But the creation of a new system of fiscal federalism in 2012 has ensured a steady stream of funds from the north European core.

Like East Germans before them, South Europeans have grown accustomed to this trade-off. With a fifth of their region’s population over 65 and a fifth unemployed, people have time to enjoy the good things in life. And there are plenty of euros to be made in this gray economy, working as maids or gardeners for the Germans, all of whom now have their second homes in the sunny south.

The U.S.E. has actually gained some members. Lithuania and Latvia stuck to their plan of joining the euro, following the example of their neighbor Estonia. Poland, under the dynamic leadership of former Foreign Minister Radek Sikorski, did the same. These new countries are the poster children of the new Europe, attracting German investment with their flat taxes and relatively low wages.

But other countries have left.

David Cameron—now beginning his fourth term as British prime minister—thanks his lucky stars that, reluctantly yielding to pressure from the Euroskeptics in his own party, he decided to risk a referendum on EU membership. His Liberal Democrat coalition partners committed political suicide by joining Labour’s disastrous “Yeah to Europe” campaign.

Egged on by the pugnacious London tabloids, the public voted to leave by a margin of 59% to 41%, and then handed the Tories an absolute majority in the House of Commons. Freed from the red tape of Brussels, England is now the favored destination of Chinese foreign direct investment in Europe. And rich Chinese love their Chelsea apartments, not to mention their splendid Scottish shooting estates.

In some ways this federal Europe would gladden the hearts of the founding fathers of European integration. At its heart is the Franco-German partnership launched by Jean Monnet and Robert Schuman in the 1950s. But the U.S.E. of 2021 is a very different thing from the European Union that fell apart in 2011.

* * *

It was fitting that the disintegration of the EU should be centered on the two great cradles of Western civilization, Athens and Rome. But George Papandreou and Silvio Berlusconi were by no means the first European leaders to fall victim to what might be called the curse of the euro.

Since financial fear had started to spread through the euro zone in June 2010, no fewer than seven other governments had fallen: in the Netherlands, Slovakia, Belgium, Ireland, Finland, Portugal and Slovenia. The fact that nine governments fell in less than 18 months—with another soon to follow—was in itself remarkable.

But not only had the euro become a government-killing machine. It was also fostering a new generation of populist movements, like the Dutch Party for Freedom and the True Finns. Belgium was on the verge of splitting in two. The very structures of European politics were breaking down.

Who would be next? The answer was obvious. After the election of Nov. 20, 2011, the Spanish prime minister, José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, stepped down. His defeat was such a foregone conclusion that he had decided the previous April not to bother seeking re-election.

And after him? The next leader in the crosshairs was the French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, who was up for re-election the following April.

The question on everyone’s minds back in November 2011 was whether Europe’s monetary union—so painstakingly created in the 1990s—was about to collapse. Many pundits thought so. Indeed, New York University’s influential Nouriel Roubini argued that not only Greece but also Italy would have to leave—or be kicked out of—the euro zone.

But if that had happened, it is hard to see how the single currency could have survived. The speculators would immediately have turned their attention to the banks in the next weakest link (probably Spain). Meanwhile, the departing countries would have found themselves even worse off than before. Overnight all of their banks and half of their nonfinancial corporations would have been rendered insolvent, with euro-denominated liabilities but drachma or lira assets.

Restoring the old currencies also would have been ruinously expensive at a time of already chronic deficits. New borrowing would have been impossible to finance other than by printing money. These countries would quickly have found themselves in an inflationary tailspin that would have negated any benefits of devaluation.

Getty Images
Some bumpy moments in recent EU history.

For all these reasons, I never seriously expected the euro zone to break up. To my mind, it seemed much more likely that the currency would survive—but that the European Union would disintegrate. After all, there was no legal mechanism for a country like Greece to leave the monetary union. But under the Lisbon Treaty’s special article 50, a member state could leave the EU. And that is precisely what the British did.

* * *

Britain got lucky. Accidentally, because of a personal feud between Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, the United Kingdom didn’t join the euro zone after Labour came to power in 1997. As a result, the U.K. was spared what would have been an economic calamity when the financial crisis struck.

With a fiscal position little better than most of the Mediterranean countries’ and a far larger banking system than in any other European economy, Britain with the euro would have been Ireland to the power of eight. Instead, the Bank of England was able to pursue an aggressively expansionary policy. Zero rates, quantitative easing and devaluation greatly mitigated the pain and allowed the “Iron Chancellor” George Osborne to get ahead of the bond markets with pre-emptive austerity. A better advertisement for the benefits of national autonomy would have been hard to devise.

At the beginning of David Cameron’s premiership in 2010, there had been fears that the United Kingdom might break up. But the financial crisis put the Scots off independence; small countries had fared abysmally. And in 2013, in a historical twist only a few die-hard Ulster Unionists had dreamt possible, the Republic of Ireland’s voters opted to exchange the austerity of the U.S.E. for the prosperity of the U.K. Postsectarian Irishmen celebrated their citizenship in a Reunited Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland with the slogan: “Better Brits Than Brussels.”

Another thing no one had anticipated in 2011 was developments in Scandinavia. Inspired by the True Finns in Helsinki, the Swedes and Danes—who had never joined the euro—refused to accept the German proposal for a “transfer union” to bail out Southern Europe. When the energy-rich Norwegians suggested a five-country Norse League, bringing in Iceland, too, the proposal struck a chord.

The new arrangements are not especially popular in Germany, admittedly. But unlike in other countries, from the Netherlands to Hungary, any kind of populist politics continues to be verboten in Germany. The attempt to launch a “True Germans” party (Die wahren Deutschen) fizzled out amid the usual charges of neo-Nazism.

The defeat of Angela Merkel’s coalition in 2013 came as no surprise following the German banking crisis of the previous year. Taxpayers were up in arms about Ms. Merkel’s decision to bail out Deutsche Bank, despite the fact that Deutsche’s loans to the ill-fated European Financial Stability Fund had been made at her government’s behest. The German public was simply fed up with bailing out bankers. “Occupy Frankfurt” won.

Yet the opposition Social Democrats essentially pursued the same policies as before, only with more pro-European conviction. It was the SPD that pushed through the treaty revision that created the European Finance Funding Office (fondly referred to in the British press as “EffOff”), effectively a European Treasury Department to be based in Vienna.

It was the SPD that positively welcomed the departure of the awkward Brits and Scandinavians, persuading the remaining 21 countries to join Germany in a new federal United States of Europe under the Treaty of Potsdam in 2014. With the accession of the six remaining former Yugoslav states—Bosnia, Croatia, Kosovo, Macedonia, Montenegro and Serbia—total membership in the U.S.E. rose to 28, one more than in the precrisis EU. With the separation of Flanders and Wallonia, the total rose to 29.

Crucially, too, it was the SPD that whitewashed the actions of Mario Draghi, the Italian banker who had become president of the European Central Bank in early November 2011. Mr. Draghi went far beyond his mandate in the massive indirect buying of Italian and Spanish bonds that so dramatically ended the bond-market crisis just weeks after he took office. In effect, he turned the ECB into a lender of last resort for governments.

But Mr. Draghi’s brand of quantitative easing had the great merit of working. Expanding the ECB balance sheet put a floor under asset prices and restored confidence in the entire European financial system, much as had happened in the U.S. in 2009. As Mr. Draghi said in an interview in December 2011, “The euro could only be saved by printing it.”

So the European monetary union did not fall apart, despite the dire predictions of the pundits in late 2011. On the contrary, in 2021 the euro is being used by more countries than before the crisis.

As accession talks begin with Ukraine, German officials talk excitedly about a future Treaty of Yalta, dividing Eastern Europe anew into Russian and European spheres of influence. One source close to Chancellor Gotha-Dämmerung joked last week: “We don’t mind the Russians having the pipelines, so long as we get to keep the Black Sea beaches.”


On reflection, it was perhaps just as well that the euro was saved. A complete disintegration of the euro zone, with all the monetary chaos that it would have entailed, might have had some nasty unintended consequences. It was easy to forget, amid the febrile machinations that ousted Messrs. Papandreou and Berlusconi, that even more dramatic events were unfolding on the other side of the Mediterranean.

Mark Nerys
Back then, in 2011, there were still those who believed that North Africa and the Middle East were entering a bright new era of democracy. But from the vantage point of 2021, such optimism seems almost incomprehensible.

The events of 2012 shook not just Europe but the whole world. The Israeli attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities threw a lit match into the powder keg of the “Arab Spring.” Iran counterattacked through its allies in Gaza and Lebanon.

Having failed to veto the Israeli action, the U.S. once again sat in the back seat, offering minimal assistance and trying vainly to keep the Straits of Hormuz open without firing a shot in anger. (When the entire crew of an American battleship was captured and held hostage by Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, President Obama’s slim chance of re-election evaporated.)

Turkey seized the moment to take the Iranian side, while at the same time repudiating Atatürk’s separation of the Turkish state from Islam. Emboldened by election victory, the Muslim Brotherhood seized the reins of power in Egypt, repudiating its country’s peace treaty with Israel. The king of Jordan had little option but to follow suit. The Saudis seethed but could hardly be seen to back Israel, devoutly though they wished to avoid a nuclear Iran.

Israel was entirely isolated. The U.S. was otherwise engaged as President Mitt Romney focused on his Bain Capital-style “restructuring” of the federal government’s balance sheet.

It was in the nick of time that the United States of Europe intervened to prevent the scenario that Germans in particular dreaded: a desperate Israeli resort to nuclear arms. Speaking from the U.S.E. Foreign Ministry’s handsome new headquarters in the Ringstrasse, the European President Karl von Habsburg explained on Al Jazeera: “First, we were worried about the effect of another oil price hike on our beloved euro. But above all we were afraid of having radioactive fallout on our favorite resorts.”

Looking back on the previous 10 years, Mr. von Habsburg—still known to close associates by his royal title of Archduke Karl of Austria—could justly feel proud. Not only had the euro survived. Somehow, just a century after his grandfather’s deposition, the Habsburg Empire had reconstituted itself as the United States of Europe.

Small wonder the British and the Scandinavians preferred to call it the Wholly German Empire.

—Mr. Ferguson is a professor of history at Harvard University and the author of “Civilization: The West and the Rest,” published this month by Penguin Press.

Read the story here: Niall Ferguson on 2021: The New Europe –

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The MasterFeeds

Eurozone Crisis: Here Are the Options, Now Choose
Author: Nouriel Roubini  ·  November 9th, 2011  ·  Comments (1)
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The announcement of the most recent EZ rescue package (acceptance of a bigger haircut for Greek private creditors, the recapitalization of EZ banks and the use of guarantees and financial leverage in the hope of preventing Italy and Spain losing market access) led to markets rallying for a day as the tail risk of a disorderly situation in the EZ, temporarily, diminished. By the next day, Italian yields and spreads were still close to their high, serving as a reminder—as we argued in “The Last Shot on Goal: Will Eurozone Leaders Succeed in Ending the Crisis?,” co-authored with Megan Greene—that the EZ’s fundamental problems will not be resolved by this trio of policy actions.

To put the latest package in context, we need to first assess the fundamental problems facing the EZ and the potential scenarios for the monetary union.

EZ Flow Problems

The EZ suffers from both stock and flow problems, which are related to each other. The flow problems were and/or are:

Large fiscal and current account deficits in most members of the EZ periphery (Greece, Ireland, Portugal, Cyprus, Spain and Italy);
Economic weakness, manifesting itself in renewed near recession or outright recession and weak actual and potential growth;
The periphery’s long-term loss of competitiveness, driven by three factors: Loss of export market share to emerging markets (EMs) in traditional labor-intensive low-valued-added sectors; real appreciation, driven by wages growing more than productivity since the inception of the EZ; and the relative strength of the value of the euro in the past decade.
EZ Stock Problems

The stock problems are the large and possibly unsustainable stock of liabilities of: The government (in most of the periphery with the exception of Spain); the private non-financial sector (mostly in Spain, Ireland and Portugal); the banking and financial system (in most of the periphery); and the country (external debt), especially in Greece, Spain, Portugal, Cyprus and Ireland.

Stock vulnerabilities are the result of flow imbalances: A big fiscal deficit results in a growing and large stock of public debt (Greece, Italy, Ireland, Cyprus, Portugal) and in a large stock of foreign debt when private sector savings-investment imbalances are also large; a wide current account deficit—whether driven by private sector imbalances (like in Spain and Ireland) or public sector ones (Greece, Cyprus, Portugal)—leads to a build-up of foreign debt. In some cases, the excesses started in the private sector (housing boom and then bust in Ireland and Spain); so, initially it was a buildup of private debts and of foreign debts driven by large current account deficits. In other cases, the excesses started in the public sector (Greece, Italy, Portugal, Cyprus), leading to a large stock of public debt and of foreign debt—via current account deficits—in the subset of countries with fragile savings-investment imbalances in their private sectors (Greece, Portugal, Cyprus).

Until recently, Italy had a public debt problem but not current account and foreign debt problems as the high savings of the household sector prevented the fiscal deficit from turning into a current account deficit. But now, the sharp fall in private savings has led to the emergence of a current account deficit even there. In Spain and Ireland, the flow and stock imbalances started in the private sector leading to large current account deficits and foreign debts, but once the Spanish and Irish housing sectors went bust and resulted in sharp fiscal deficits—in part, due to the socialization of private losses—the ensuing rise in public debt created a sovereign debt sustainability problem.

Recent Policy Actions Start to Deal With Some Stock Vulnerabilities

The recent EZ package starts to deal with some—but by no means all—of the stock imbalances in the EZ periphery. First, public debt—in some (Greece) but not all of the countries where it is unsustainable (Portugal, Ireland, Cyprus, Italy)—will be reduced (50% haircut on private creditors, though the July plan will have to be completely scrapped, and the new details are lacking at this point). Second, the excessive amount of debt relative to the equity/capital of EZ banks will be partly addressed—to prevent insolvency—by recapitalizing EZ banks (both in the periphery and the core). These banks suffer from low capital ratios and potential erosion of their capital through losses, given exposures to sovereigns, busted real estate and rising non-performing loans as a result of the growing recession. But the capital needs of EZ banks, given these tail-risk losses, are much larger than the €100 billion of recapitalization needs that the EZ has identified. Third, illiquidity—of banks and sovereigns—risks turning illiquidity into insolvency as self-fulfilling bad equilibria of runs on short-term liabilities of banks and governments are possible. Thus, the ECB’s full allotment policy would prevent such a run on bank liabilities in principle only for banks that are illiquid but solvent, but in practice even possibly for insolvent banks.

For sovereigns that have lost market credibility—and whose spreads could blow to an unsustainable level—“catalytic finance” to use the traditional IMF terminology (see my book “Bailouts vs. Bail-Ins”) or the “big bazooka” of the financial equivalent of Powell’s doctrine of “overwhelming force” is necessary to provide time and financing for the flow adjustment—fiscal and structural—to restore market confidence and reduce spreads to sustainable levels. In each case, assumptions need to be made about whether a country is a) illiquid but solvent given financing to prevent loss of market access, time and enough adjustment/austerity (possibly Italy and Spain); b) illiquid and insolvent (Greece, clearly); or c) illiquid and near insolvent and already needing conditional financing given that market access has already been lost (Portugal, Ireland and Cyprus).

But even if Italy and Spain were illiquid and solvent given time, financing and adjustment, the big bazooka that the EZ needs to backstop banks and sovereigns in the periphery is at least €2 trillion and possibly €3 trillion rather than the fuzzy €1 trillion that the EZ vaguely committed to at the recent summit. So, on all three counts, the recent EZ plan falls short of addressing the stock problems of highly indebted sovereigns, the capital needs of EZ banks and the liquidity needs of EZ banks and sovereigns; it also does little or nothing to restore competitiveness and growth in the short run.

Critical Role of Flow Factors in Resolving Stock Sustainability Issues

To make stocks sustainable, it is crucially important to address flow imbalances, for several reasons. First of all, without economic growth, you have a dual problem: a) The socio-political backlash against fiscal austerity and reforms becomes overwhelming as no society can accept year after year of economic contraction to deal with its imbalances; b) more importantly, to attain sustainability, flow deficits (fiscal and current account) and excessive debt stocks (private and public, domestic and foreign) need to be stabilized and reduced, but if output keeps on falling, such deficit and debt ratios keep on rising to unsustainable levels.

Second, restoring growth is also important because, without growth, absolute fiscal deficits become larger rather than smaller (given automatic stabilizers). Third, restoring external competitiveness is key as that loss of competitiveness led—in the first place—to current account deficits and the accumulation of foreign debt and to lower economic growth as the trade balance detracts from GDP growth when it is in a large and growing deficit. So, unless growth and external competitiveness are restored, flow imbalances (fiscal and current account deficits) persist and stabilizing domestic and external deficits becomes “mission impossible.” Finally, note that, unless growth and competitiveness are restored, even dealing with stock problems via debt reduction will not work as flow deficits (fiscal and current account) will continue and, eventually, even reduced debt ratios will rise again if the denominator of the debt ratio (debt to GDP), i.e. GDP, keeps on falling. Growth also matters as credit risk—measured by real interest rates on public, private and external debt, which measures the default risk—will be higher the lower the economic growth rate. So, for any given debt level, a lower GDP growth rate that leads to a higher credit spread makes those debt dynamics more unsustainable (as sustainability depends on the differential between real interest rates and growth rates times the initial debt ratio).

The Current Account Flow Deficit Problem in the EZ Periphery

While the issue of fiscal deficits and public debt has been overemphasized in the recent policy debate about the problems of the EZ, one should not underestimate the role of external—current account—imbalances. These imbalances are now becoming unsustainable as the “sudden stop” and “reversal of private capital inflows” that the periphery has suffered implies that such deficits are now not financeable in the absence of official finance. These deficits are the result of savings-investment imbalances in both the private (Spain, Ireland, Portugal) and public sectors (Greece, Portugal, Cyprus, Italy); they are also the result of the real appreciation of these countries following a decade of declining export market share, the growth of wages in excess of productivity growth and the strength of the euro. Some of these deficits are now cyclically lower given that the collapse of output/demand has led to a fall in imports. But, on a structural basis, unless the real appreciation is reversed, the restoration of growth to its potential level would result in the resumption of large—and now not financeable—external deficits.

So, the modest reduction in current account deficits in the periphery that has been seen since 2009 is deceptive: It doesn’t—for the most part—reflect an improvement in competitiveness; it is only the result of a severe and persistent recession. Real depreciation is required to restore such competiveness while ensuring sustained economic growth. An inability to restore competitiveness and thus growth would eventually undermine the monetary union as private creditors are now—after a sudden stop—unwilling to finance such deficits. So, eliminating the external current account deficit is as critical to restoring debt sustainability as reducing flow fiscal deficits. And fiscal deficits are not the only explanation of the external deficits as real appreciation and loss of competitiveness are as important, if not more important, than fiscal imbalances, in explaining such external imbalances.

The Recent EZ Package Does Little or Nothing to Restore, in the Short Term, Growth and Competitiveness, Which Are the Key to Sustainability

The latest economic data—such as the EZ PMIs—strongly suggest that the EZ—not just the periphery, but also the core—are falling back into a recession. This is very clear in the periphery where some countries never got out of their first 2008 recession, while the others are plunging back into recession after a very moderate recovery. But even in the core of the EZ, the latest data suggest that a recession is looming.

The recent EZ package (a bigger Greek haircut, bank recaps and a levered European Financial Stability Facility (EFSF), together with more fiscal austerity and a push toward structural reforms) does nothing to restore competitiveness and growth in the short run. In fact, it actually exacerbates the risk of a deeper and longer recession. Fiscal austerity is necessary to prevent a fiscal train wreck, but, in the short run (as recent IMF studies suggest), raising taxes, reducing transfer payments and cutting government spending (even inefficient/unproductive expenditure) has a negative effect on economic growth, as it reduces aggregate demand and disposable income. Moreover, even structural reforms that will eventually boost growth via higher productivity growth have a short-run negative effect: You need to fire unproductive public employees; you need to fire workers in weak firms and sectors; you need to shut down unprofitable firms in declining sectors; you need to move labor and capital from declining sectors to new sectors in which the country may have a comparative advantage. This all takes time and, in the absence of a rapid real depreciation, what are the sectors in which a periphery country has a new comparative advantage? Even necessary structural reforms—like fiscal austerity—reduce output and GDP in the short run before they have beneficial medium-term effects on growth.

To restore growth and competitiveness: The ECB would have to rapidly reverse its policy hikes, sharply reduce policy rates toward zero and do more quantitative and credit easing; the value of the euro would have to sharply fall toward parity with the U.S. dollar; and the core of the EZ would have to implement significant fiscal stimulus if the periphery is forced into necessary but contractionary fiscal austerity (which will have a short-term drag on growth).

Options for Dealing with Stock and Flow Problems

Stock imbalances—large and potentially unsustainable liabilities—can be addressed in multiple ways: a) high economic growth can heal most wounds, especially debt wounds given that fast growth in the denominator of the debt ratio (i.e. GDP) can lead over time to a lowering of debt ratios; b) low spending and higher savings in the private and public sectors can lead to lower fiscal deficits and lower current account deficits (lower flow imbalances) that, over time, reduce the stocks of public and external debt relative to GDP; c) inflation and/or forms of financial repression can reduce the real value of debts; the same can occur with unexpected depreciation of the currency if the liabilities are in a domestic currency; d) debts can be reduced via debt restructurings and reductions, including the conversion of debt into equity. The last option is key: If growth remains anemic in the EZ; if savings lead to the paradox of thrift (a more severe short-term recession) and if monetization, inflation or devaluations are not pursued by the ECB, the only way to deal with excessive private and public debts becomes some orderly or disorderly reduction of such debts and/or their conversion into equity.

Flow imbalances are more difficult to resolve as they imply a reduction of fiscal and current account deficits that are consistent with sustainable growth and with the restoration of competitiveness, which requires real depreciation. To reduce external current account deficits—the key to restoring competitiveness and growth—you need both decreases in expenditure (private and public) and expenditure-switching through a real depreciation. Such real depreciation can occur in four ways: a) a nominal depreciation of the euro large enough to lead to a sharp real depreciation in the periphery; b) structural reforms that increase productivity growth while keeping a lid on wage growth below productivity growth and thus reduce unit labor costs over time; c) real depreciation via deflation—a cumulative persistent fall in prices and wages that achieves a sharp real depreciation; and d) exit from the monetary union and return to a national currency that leads to a nominal and real depreciation. The key issue here is—as we will discuss in detail below—that achieving the real depreciation via route a) is unlikely, as there are many reasons why the euro will not weaken enough; getting it via b) may take way too long—a decade or more—when the sudden stop requires a rapid turnaround of the external deficit; achieving it via c) may also take too long and would be associated with a persistent recession, while leading to massive balance-sheet effects; thus the d) option—exit from EZ—becomes the only available one if the other three are not feasible/desirable.

Additionally, if growth and competitiveness are restored in short order, this is the best way—on top of decreased expenditure via fiscal austerity—to reduce both the fiscal and current account imbalances as well as the relative ones (i.e. as a share of GDP). In other terms, fiscal austerity and structural reforms eventually restore growth and productivity, but they are, in the short run, recessionary. Thus, other macro policies are needed to restore growth, which is critical to make the adjustment politically and financially feasible. Therefore, macro policies consistent with a rapid return to economic growth are the key to resolving flow problems.

Four Options to Address the Stock and Flow Problems of the EZ

Given the above analysis of the structural and fundamental problems faced by the EZ, there are four possible options to deal with the bloc’s stock and flow problems; each option implies a different future for the monetary union. Each reduces unsustainable debts and restores growth and competitiveness and reduces flow imbalances via a different combination of the policies discussed above

1. Growth and Competiveness Are Restored. In this first option, policies are undertaken to rapidly restore growth and competitiveness (monetary easing, a weaker euro, core fiscal easing and the reduction of unsustainable public and private debts in clear insolvency cases), to reduce flow deficits and to restore private, public and external debt sustainability, all while the periphery undertakes continued painful austerity and structural reforms. In this scenario, the EZ survives in the sense that most members—maybe with the exceptions of Greece and possibly Portugal—remain in the EZ and most members—again, with the exceptions of Greece and possibly Portugal—avoid a coercive restructuring of their public and private debts. This solution requires a nominal and real depreciation of the euro and, for a period of time, higher (lower) inflation in the core (periphery) of the EZ than the current ECB target to restore, via real depreciation, the competitiveness of the periphery and rapidly eliminate its unsustainable current account deficit.

2. The Deflationary/Depressionary Route to the Restoration of Competitiveness. Growth and competitiveness are not restored in the short run as the core/Germany imposes an adjustment based on deflationary and depressionary draconian fiscal austerity and structural reforms that, in the absence of appropriate expansionary macro policies, makes the recession of the periphery severe and persistent and doesn’t restore its external competitiveness for many years. This depression/deflationary path becomes politically and socially unsustainable for most—but possibly not all—of the EZ periphery as it implies five-ten years of ever-falling output to restore competitiveness via deflation and eventual structural reforms. And with output falling in the short run and a fall in prices/wages, stock problems worsen for a while (as both nominal and real GDP are falling) until the restoration of growth eventually takes care of the stock imbalances. Since, for most EZ members, Option 2 becomes politically and socially unfeasible, in the absence of a path that leads to Option 1, Option 2 evolves into Options 3 or 4.

3. The Core Permanently Subsidizes the Periphery. If Option 1 does not materialize while Option 2 becomes politically-socially unsustainable, the only other way to avoid Option 4 (EZ break-up) is not just via a reduction of the unsustainable stocks of liabilities in the periphery (a capital levy on the core of creditors), but also via a permanent subsidization of the uncompetitive periphery by the core. Since the lack of a restoration of growth/competiveness implies a permanent external deficit (trade deficit) in the periphery with a trade surplus in the core that implies an unsustainable current account deficit in the periphery, the only way in which the core can prevent the periphery from exiting the EZ (even after a debt reduction that doesn’t resolve the current account flow deficit problem) is to make a unilateral permanent yearly transfer payment (of the order of several percentage points of core GDP, possibly as high as 5% of GDP) to the periphery to prevent the trade deficit from turning into an unsustainable current account deficit that in turn leads to the accumulation of even more unsustainable external debt. Such a unilateral transfer sustains the GNP of the periphery while its GDP remains permanently depressed as competitiveness is not restored. So, stock problems are addressed via repeated restructurings, extensions and haircuts of privately held debt (bonds) and bilateral/multilateral loans as well as via recapitalizations of banks that include some conversion of debt into equity. Meanwhile, flow problems are addressed via a permanent yearly subsidy to the periphery from the core.

4. The EZ Experiences Widespread Debt Restructurings. Members of the periphery react to the Option 2 (depression/deflation) that is currently imposed on them by Germany and the ECB by, first, losing market access (or not regaining it) and are thus forced, once official finance runs out (because of political and/or financial constraints in the core), to coercively restructure their public and also their private debts (say, of banks and financial institutions). Even such a debt reduction is insufficient to restore growth and competitiveness as it partially deals with stock problems, but does not deal with flow problems. If, then, the flow problem is not resolved via a permanent subsidization of the income of the periphery by the core (Option 3), then the only other way to restore growth and competitiveness is via exit from the monetary union and a return to the national currency. The EZ can survive the exit of its smaller members (Greece, Portugal, Cyprus), but if debt restructurings and the exit of Italy and/or Spain become necessary/inevitable, the EZ effectively breaks up, with only a small core—Germany and a few core members—remaining in a smaller and much damaged monetary union.

An Assessment of the Likelihood of the Four Options

Option 1: Most Desirable But Quite Unlikely as Contrary to the Goals and Constraints of Germany/the ECB

Which one of these four options is most likely? Option 1 appears the most desirable as it leads to the survival and success of the EZ. However, it is not necessarily the most likely option as it would imply radical, rapid and presumably unacceptable changes in the core’s macro-policy.

First, the ECB would have to reverse its policy tightening and aggressively cut rates; even that would not be sufficient as aggressive quantitative easing (QE) would be necessary to restore growth and provide unlimited lending of last resort (LOLR) to sovereigns—such as Spain and Italy—that are possibly illiquid but solvent if given enough time and liquidity to resolve their problems. Even traditional QE would not be sufficient as unconventional credit easing may be necessary to restore credit growth to smaller firms and households subject to a credit crunch. This is obviously not acceptable to the ECB and Germany as it would require a radical change (maybe via a treaty change) to the ECB’s formal mandate (the bank is currently supposed to only pursue the goal of price stability). The ECB—and eventually Germany as a recap of the ECB would fall to Germany/core—would also take a significant risk in becoming (for a while) the LOLR for Italy and Spain, which may turn out—even with massive liquidity—to be not just illiquid but also insolvent (there are many future paths via which the latter could happen).

Second, the value of the euro would have to fall sharply compared with current levels, possibly toward parity with the U.S. dollar to reverse the loss of competitiveness of the periphery. This would imply that inflation would rise in the core—starting in Germany—for a number of years above 2% to allow the real depreciation of the periphery to occur. This doesn’t look like being politically acceptable to Germany and the ECB. Also, with Germany being uber-competitive and with a large external surplus, while the U.S. dollar needs to a weaken given the large U.S. current account deficit, it is not obvious that the euro would fall as sharply as the periphery needs, unless the ECB aggressively pursues QE and credit easing and jawbones the euro down with verbal and actual intervention: All very unlikely outcomes given the ECB’s current mandate and the German/ECB goal of restoring the periphery’s competitiveness via deflation (“internal devaluation”).

Third, the core would have to accept and implement a fiscal stimulus to compensate for the recessionary effects of the fiscal austerity of the periphery. But Germany and the core are vehemently against back-loaded fiscal austerity let alone fiscal easing of the type that even the IMF is now suggesting to them. Germany/the core is of the view that the problems of the periphery were self-inflicted even when private imbalances (like in Spain and Ireland) rather than public ones were at the core of financial difficulties. So, austerity and reform are viewed by the core as a must for both the periphery and also for the core.

Option 2: Socially-Politically Unacceptable as Implies a Persistent Recession-Depression in Most of the Periphery

Option 2 is the type of adjustment that the ECB and Germany would like to impose on the periphery, but it would be socially and politically unacceptable for most. It is thus not a stable equilibrium but rather an unstable disequilibrium that would eventually lead to Options 3 or 4. Since fiscal deficits are excessive, they need to be rapidly reduced via front-loaded austerity to make public debts sustainable. Current account deficits will be partly reduced via the reduction of public dis-savings. The rest of the external imbalance will be corrected via deflation (internal devaluation) and via accelerated structural reforms that increase productivity growth, while keeping a lid on wage growth below such higher productivity growth will progressively reduce unit labor costs and restore external competitiveness.

The problems with the German/ECB solution to the growth/competitiveness issue are multiple. First, fiscal austerity is necessary, but if implemented by the entire EZ it makes the periphery recession worse, deeper and longer and thus undermines the restoration of growth that is necessary to make the debts sustainable. Also, such recession damages attempts to reduce fiscal deficits; and it improves external balances only temporarily via a compression of imports, not via a true restoration of competitiveness; structural external deficits mostly remain.

Second, reducing unit labor costs via accelerated reforms that increase productivity growth—while keeping a lid on wage growth below such rising productivity growth—is easier said than done. It took 10 to 15 years for Germany to achieve its reduction of unit labor costs via that route. And since German unit labor costs have fallen by 20% since the inception of the EZ, while they have risen by 30% in the EZ periphery, the unit labor cost gap between Germany and periphery is now about 50%. So, if the EZ periphery were to accelerate reforms that actually depress output in the short run, the benefits will start to show up after five years or so; and no country can accept five years of recession or depression before it returns to growth. Also, a reduction in unit labor costs via a rise in productivity growth above positive wage growth—as in Germany in the past 15 years—is politically more feasible—as it is associated with growth rather than recession—than a recessionary adjustment where wages need to fall in nominal terms as productivity growth remains stagnant while output stagnates for a number of years. Given the nominal downward rigidity of wages and prices, outright deflation is extremely hard to achieve in the absence of a severe and persistent depression.

Third, deflation/internal devaluation is not politically-socially feasible if it leads—as is likely—to persistent recession. Deflation—a 5% fall in prices and wages for five years leading to a cumulative compound reduction of prices and wages of 30% that undoes the loss of competitiveness of the periphery—would be most likely associated with a continued recession for five more years, likely turning into a depression.

The international experience of “internal devaluations” is mostly one of failure. Argentina tried the deflation route to a real depreciation and, after three years of an ever-deepening recession/depression, it defaulted and exited its currency board peg. The case of Latvia’s “successful” internal devaluation is not a model for the EZ periphery: Output fell by 20% and unemployment surged to 20%; the public debt was—unlike in the EZ periphery—negligible as a percentage of GDP and thus a small amount of official finance—a few billion euros—was enough to backstop the country without the massive balance-sheet effects of deflation; and the willingness of the policy makers to sweat blood and tears to avoid falling into the arms of the “Russian bear” was, for a while, unlimited (as opposed to the EZ periphery’s unwillingness to give up altogether its fiscal independence to Germany); and even after devaluation and default was avoided, the current backlash against such draconian adjustment is now very serious and risks undermining such efforts (while, equivalently, the social and political backlash against recessionary austerity is coming to a boil in the EZ periphery).

The other cases of successful reductions of large external and fiscal deficits and debts in the European member states in the 1990s—Belgium, Sweden, Finland, Denmark, etc.—are just as irrelevant as Latvia’s example as they occurred against a background of growth (not the current EZ recession), falling interest rates as expectations of EMU led to convergence trades (not the current blowing up of sovereign spreads and loss of market access) and, in some cases, via nominal and real depreciations within the flexible terms of the European Monetary System (not the rigid constraints of a monetary union where there is no national currency and the value of the euro remains excessively strong).

Some EZ periphery members—notably Ireland—are undergoing a degree of internal devaluation, but it is too slow and small to rapidly restore competitiveness: A fall in public wages may, in due course, push down private wages in traded sectors and eventually reduce unit labor costs.

Finally, the deflation route to real depreciation—even if it were politically feasible—makes the private and debt unsustainability problem more severe: After prices and wages have fallen 30% after a painful deflation, the real value of private and public debts would be 30% higher, making the case for a sharp reduction in unsustainable debts even more compelling.

Some EZ countries—notably Ireland—may have a better chance of restoring their competitiveness via internal devaluation than others—Portugal, Greece, Cyprus. Ireland has a large and productive manufacturing base—as two-thirds of its manufacturing industry is owned by multinational firms—many in tech or high-value-added sectors—that made a lot of FDI in Ireland in the past two decades to create an industrial base—in a low corporate tax economy—for their European and international production activities. So, Ireland, with some difficulty, could regain its competitiveness in due time if the fiscal adjustment more rapidly leads to a change in the relative prices of traded to nontraded goods.

But, in the case of Greece, Portugal and Spain, the problems of competitiveness are much more chronic and un-resolvable without a nominal currency depreciation: They have permanently lost export market shares in labor intensive and low-value-added sectors—textile, apparel, leather products, light labor intensive manufacturing—to EMs with much lower unit labor costs (Asia, Turkey, Eastern Europe) and they don’t have the high-value-added tech industries of Ireland, for example. Also, in these periphery countries (unlike in Ireland), productivity growth was mediocre even in the years of positive economic growth and restoring comparative advantage without a sharp and rapid real depreciation looks less likely to be achievable.

Spain and Italy are in between Ireland on one side and Greece/Portugal/Cyprus: They experienced as much of an increase in unit labor costs as the rest of the periphery (especially Spain) and they have permanently lost export market share in traditionally labor-intensive sectors. Italy has implemented more structural corporate restructuring than Spain—which restored some competitiveness in higher-value-added sectors—because Spain, growing rapidly during its unsustainable real estate bubble, had little incentive to improve the competitiveness of its traded sector. Also, until recently, Italy did not have the unsustainable current account deficit of Spain as its private saving compensated for the dis-savings of the public sectors. Spain, instead, faces a massive stock of private sector foreign liabilities—held by households, corporate firms, banks and financial firms—that are not easily re-financeable as an external sudden stop has now occurred. But, in the past year, Italy’s current account deficit has now significantly increased, despite depressed economic activity: A worrisome signal of a loss of competitiveness.

Option 3: Not Acceptable to the EZ Core as it Implies Permanent Subsidies to a Large Part of the Periphery, I.e. a Transfer Union Rather Than a Fiscal Union

Option 1 implies a policy adjustment that is biased against Germany/the core/the ECB as it implies that these agents/countries take on significant credit risk and accept higher inflation to adjust inter-EZ real exchange rates; thus, it is unacceptable to them. Option 2 implies that all the burden of adjustment is born by the periphery in terms of many years of fiscal belt-tightening and, worse, a deflationary recession that could turn into a depression. Thus, it eventually becomes unacceptable to the EZ periphery. Then, the periphery would be tempted to unilaterally reduce its debt burdens via coercive debt restructuring first and via exit from the EZ next, as exit, on top of debt reduction, becomes necessary to restore competitiveness and growth.

Then, if the EZ would want to prevent a disorderly break-up of the EZ, it would not only have to accept a reduction of the periphery’s unsustainable debts that imposes a capital levy on the core creditors (something that becomes unavoidable to resolve the stock problems), but, more importantly, it would also have to permanently subsidize the periphery’s chronic trade deficits to prevent such deficits from causing unsustainable current account deficits that are no longer financeable. Thus, a unilateral permanent fiscal transfer by the core to the periphery would be necessary to boost the periphery’s GNP given its depressed GDP and maintain a current account balance in both the core and periphery, despite the persistent trade imbalances between the two regions. If Germany/the EZ core were to run a permanent trade surplus of say 4-5% of GDP relative to that of the EZ periphery, then a permanent yearly transfer of up to 4-5% of GDP from the core to periphery would be necessary to “bribe” the periphery to stay in the EZ rather than exit the monetary union.

Such unilateral transfers from rich to poor regions are not very common, but they aren’t altogether exceptional in the context of nation states where there is a political union. In Italy, the north has transferred income to the south (“the Mezzogiorno”) for decades via the fiscal system. Similarly, West Germany has paid for unification with East Germany with massive transfer payments and government spending on reconstruction that have lasted for over 20 years now and that are not over yet (like the still-existing income tax surtaxes to pay for massive reunification costs). In Australia, the fiscal system permanently transfers income to Tasmania, which is the Australian equivalent—in terms of poverty/low incomes—of the Italian Mezzogiorno or East Germany. But even in the context of unified nation states with a common national identity, such permanent transfers become politically and socially unacceptable as the rich regions resent such transfers and eventually revolt against them: In Italy, for example, political movements representing the rich north (notably, the Lega Nord) have become influential and are now imposing a form of fiscal federalism that will, over time, significantly reduce transfers from the north to the south. And concerns are now being expressed that such fiscal reform will lead to a sharp political backlash in the south; even, in the extreme, threats of secession or national breakdown. So, permanent unilateral transfers of income from rich to poor regions become politically problematic even in a unified political union with a homogenous national identity.

This suggests that the idea that Germany or the core of the EZ would accept a permanent—several percentage points of its GDP—transfer of its income to the periphery as a condition for the periphery not exiting the EZ runs against political trends and is extremely unlikely to occur. The EU has a system of structural payments from rich to poor states (southern and new eastern European members), but these transfers are relatively modest (less than 0.5% of the core’s GDP). Ramping them up by a factor of 10 to bribe the periphery into staying in the EZ would be totally unacceptable—politically and otherwise—to Germany and the rest of the core. Also, it would not make economic sense: Until now, the excess of income (spending) over spending (income) in the core (periphery) that has taken the form of a current account surplus (deficit) in the core (periphery) has been financed with debt that, in principle, is an asset of the core and should be paid back with interest by the periphery over time.

Now, instead, the core would have first to accept a capital levy on its accumulated assets over the periphery (its foreign assets accumulated through decades of current account surpluses) to allow the reductions of the periphery’s unsustainable foreign private and public debts. The EZ core is now grudgingly accepting some of this capital levy (losses on EZ creditors coming from the debt reduction in Greece), but similar capital levies are unavoidable for the debts of Portugal, Ireland and Cyprus, and may become unavoidable even for Italy and Spain.

But even this much larger capital levy would not be enough as the persistent chronic trade deficit of the periphery would next have to be financed not via debt-creating flows, but rather unilateral transfers within a currency union. Providing a system of vendor financing from the core to periphery may have made sense for the core for a while to sustain its export and GDP growth even if it eventually leads to a capital levy when the debtor is unable to pay. But a system of unilateral transfers from the core to periphery where the excess of spending over income of the periphery is financed by permanent grants—not loans—from the core doesn’t make any economic sense for the core: It is a permanent reduction of income and welfare and consumption for no sensible reason apart from the vague goal of keeping the EZ together.

The discussion above suggests that the usual recent argument—i.e. that the EZ needs to become a fiscal union to survive its crisis—is partially wrong and confusing. There is a substantial and critical difference between a fiscal union and a transfer union. In a fiscal union, there is true risk-sharing and no permanent transfer of income from one state/region to another. Where revenues and spending are partially shared at the federal level, there is risk-sharing: When an idiosyncratic shock occurs in one region (such as a recession in one state of the union, but not in other states), risk-sharing implies that revenues and transfers/spending are adjusted to reduce the effect of that temporary state-specific shock to the output (GDP) of that state on its income (GNP). If such state-specific shocks are random—sometimes hitting one region/state, sometimes hitting another region/state of the union—the worse-off region subject to the negative output shock gets partially and temporarily subsidized by the region/state that is temporarily better off. And over time—like in any actuarially fair insurance scheme—mutual insurance smoothes shocks to income that are driven by shocks to output. No region/state permanently subsidizes another one. This is a fiscal union where risk is pooled and shared.

A transfer union is a very different animal: it is not a fiscal union aimed at sharing, insuring and smoothing temporary regional output shocks. It is instead a mechanism that uses fiscal resources—taxes, transfer payments and public spending—to permanently transfer income from richer region/states to poorer regions/states. Transfer unions are politically problematic even in unified nations that are political unions and are nationally homogenous. They are much more problematic when a political union does not exist and where the arguments for a permanent transfer union are not acceptable. For a German to accept a permanent transfer of her income to the Greeks as a condition for Greece remaining part of a monetary union doesn’t make any sense.

Transfer unions also don’t make sense because they breed moral hazard. Even if one could make the argument that initial differences in per-capita income between different regions/states of an economic union were explained by exogenous factors different from endogenous policy/economic efforts, the existence of a permanent transfer union would obviously breed—over time—moral hazard. The weak/poor region might not want to make much economic/policy/fiscal effort to improve its economic/fiscal conditions as it is permanently subsidized by the richer region.

Moral hazard is thus the reason why fiscal unions come with binding rules that limit the risk attached to the transferee being fiscally undisciplined, to prevent a fiscal union becoming a transfer union. This is also the reason why the current efforts of Germany/the core EZ to help the periphery are subject to strict fiscal and structural conditionality: Only if the periphery does significant and painful fiscal austerity and structural reforms, will the core help the periphery to overcome its temporary fiscal and financial problems. This is also the reason why any inter-EZ debate on future quasi or full fiscal union comes with the express request by Germany/the core for binding fiscal rules (balanced budgets over time, balanced budget amendments, sanctions against deviant states) to prevent such a fiscal union from turning into a transfer union.

In conclusion, Option 3 is highly unlikely and undesirable for the core EZ as it would imply the creation of a transfer union, rather than a fiscal union. But if Option 2—deflationary depression—is unacceptable to the periphery, only a transfer union prevents the periphery from being tempted to avoid a persistent recession, from considering exiting the monetary union and restoring its growth and competitiveness via a return to its national currency.

Option 4: Widespread Debt Reductions and Eventual EZ Break-Up—Becomes the More Likely Outcome as the Other Three Options Are Not Likely or They Are Not Desirable or Sustainable

The core of the EZ is unlikely accept a symmetric adjustment—Option 1—that restores competitiveness and growth in the periphery via monetary and fiscal easing and a weaker euro that implies higher inflation for a period of time in the core, a persistent LOLR role for the ECB and significant credit risk for the core if some periphery members end up being both illiquid and insolvent. It is instead pushing for Option 2, recessionary deflation in the periphery, which is not politically acceptable in most of the periphery. Then, the only way to keep the periphery in the EZ becomes both a capital levy on the core creditors to make the debts of the periphery sustainable and, on top of that, unilateral transfers in the form of a transfer union that permanently subsidizes the depressed income—of the EZ periphery (caused by the permanent loss of competitiveness that remaining in the EZ implies).

But such a transfer union is not politically or economically acceptable to the core. Then, the only other option is first a capital levy imposed by the periphery on the core—in the form of a reduction of unsustainable foreign private and public liabilities—to reduce such unsustainable debt. But even that debt reduction is not sufficient to restore competitiveness and growth. And if competitiveness cannot be restored via Option 1 (a much weaker euro), or Option 2 (depressive deflation or too-slow structural reform) or Option 3 (where the incipient permanent loss of income via a permanent loss of competitiveness is permanently subsidized by the core via a transfer union), the only other option left is the one of exiting the monetary union and restoring growth/competitiveness via nominal and real depreciation resulting from ditching the euro and returning to a national currency.

Exiting the monetary union is not a costless action, including—among other problems—the complex and costly process of converting previous euro assets and liabilities into the new national currency i.e. “pesification” or “drachmatizaton” of euro debts. In a separate paper (“Greece Should Default and Abandon the Euro”), I discussed the pros and cons of returning to a national currency and how to limit both the collateral damage of a unilateral exit and of the contagion from such an exit to the remaining EZ members.

Arguing that the EZ may eventually break up usually leads to angry reactions among the supporters of the EZ who argue that such an option would lead to disastrous consequences for the exiting country, the other EZ members and the overall global economy. We don’t deny that a disorderly break-up could be a shock as severe—or even more severe—than the disorderly bankruptcy of Lehman Brothers. But as the Lehman example shows, disorderly shocks do occur from time to time. And the history of financial crises suggests that very costly crises do occur with a virulence and frequency that is rising. So, arguing that a break-up of the EZ is impossible to fathom is not logical.

Also, the oft-heard argument that the EZ was more a political project—unifying Europe and permanently roping in Germany in a European construct—than an economic one and thus it will survive regardless of its economic viability is a logical non-sequitur. Political considerations may lead the EZ to last longer or reduce—everything else equal—the probability of a break-up. But political logic doesn’t suspend the laws of economics: If a monetary union becomes unsustainable it will eventually break up, regardless of its political benefits.

Which Outcome Is Most Likely? Further Sequential Debt Restructurings and a Partial Break-Up

Also, we have not argued that a break-up is the only feasible outcome. Option 1 restores growth and competitiveness via an adjustment that is more symmetric than asymmetric—both the core and periphery need to make some sacrifices to allow the survival of the EZ. And, eventually, both Germany and the ECB may accept such a more symmetric option rather than let the EZ be destroyed if political considerations are important in considering the costs and benefits of alternative policy options. Also, internal devaluation plus structural reform may work for some EZ members such as Ireland. A formal transfer union is unlikely, but the core is willing to accept some stock capital levy on its claims on the periphery—debt reduction for Greece and possibly other EZ members—and it may accept some partial transfer payments—various bailouts that have a subsidy component embedded in them—if the periphery makes policy efforts (both fiscal and structural) to fix some of its problems. And arrangements that start as quasi-fiscal unions have a tendency—over time—to absorb components of a partial transfer union (an incentive-compatible or moral-hazard-proof form of a partial transfer union).

Also, note that Option 4 can be something short of a formal full break-up of the EZ. In some variants of Option 4, only some of the weakest members of the EZ exit: Greece, Portugal and Cyprus. Suppose that Italy and Spain were to be successfully ring-fenced: i.e. buying a year of time via the bazooka of the levered EFSF were to be sufficient for Italy and Spain to undertake credible fiscal austerity and reforms, change their governments to more credible ones and partially restore their growth and competitiveness so that a year from now they can borrow at sustainable spreads without any additional official support. Then, if Italy and Spain are out of the woods and a year from now Greece and/or Portugal/Cyprus require not just debt reduction, but also exit from the EZ, a smaller EZ without Greece and/or the other two weak members would be feasible and manageable. If two or three of the smallest members were to exit while Italy and Spain were able to survive and eventually thrive within the EZ, a partial break-up of the EZ would be feasible and possible without destroying the entire monetary union. But if either Italy and/or Spain were to need a coercive restructuring of their public debt and, even after that disruptive action, would still need exit to restore growth/competitiveness, than an effective break-up of the EZ would become likely. Even then, Germany and a small group of core countries might maintain a monetary union. But in that outcome, it is not obvious that even the fiscally and structurally fragile and reform-less France—which would lose its triple-A status and also become the victim of severe collateral damage and contagion from debt restructurings and/or exit of Italy/Spain—would remain part of that “core” EZ.

Political Benefits of the EZ May Not Trump Its Eventual Economic Costs

Regarding the political costs of a break-up of the EZ, it is clear that Germany and France—and other core EZ members—would be seriously damaged by such a break-up and would see the major project of economic and eventual political unification of Europe destroyed. But Europe and the EU would not be destroyed even if the EZ were to partially or fully break up. Some EU members never joined or were allowed to opt out of the EZ (Sweden, Denmark and the UK) and some eastern/central members of the EU may never qualify to join the EZ. So, an EU where some countries are members of the EZ and others are not is totally feasible and better and more viable than an EZ that includes some members that should have never joined in the first place.

In spite of the political benefits of the EZ and the political costs of a break-up, neither Germany/the core nor the periphery would accept the costs of a persistent EZ if its economic/financial costs were to hugely exceed its benefits. It is clear that Germany is ready to pull the plug on Greece—and if necessary on Portugal and Cyprus—if Italy and Spain are successfully ring-fenced. Germany/the core has already accepted the principle and practice of accepting a capital levy on its assets—those of the private German creditors of Greece—rather than further fully socialize the cost of a full and persistent bailout of an insolvent sovereign such as Greece. It would be willing to accept similar capital levies on its claims of other near-insolvent small EZ members such as Portugal and Cyprus. Germany would also accept—and even manage—an orderly exit of Greece and other smaller EZ member from the monetary union if/when Italy and Spain are successfully ring-fenced. So, a smaller EZ is still possible and viable.

The open issue is what Germany will do a year from now if, after an attempt to provide catalytic finance to Italy and Spain via a levered EFSF, either Italy and/or Spain are not able to borrow at sustainable rates without official support if their growth and competitiveness and sovereign viability are not otherwise restored. Would Germany/the core double down and try for another year of Plan A—catalytic finance of even larger size—when that approach has already failed once or would it opt for the preferable Plan B (debt restructuring, eventual exit)?

The German Assessment of the Costs and Benefits of the EZ

The usual argument is made that even Germany then would have no choice to again backstop Italy and Spain as the alternative—collapse of the EZ—would be even more costly to Germany and the global economy. But if Plan A—assuming that Italy and Spain are illiquid but solvent given time, financing and adjustment—has failed, then what is the purpose—for Germany/the core or even the international community (IMF/the U.S./the BRICs) —of doubling down on a failed strategy?

Germany and the ECB have so far hoped that their view of the crisis is correct: The periphery is in trouble because of a lack of fiscal discipline and structural reforms. So, fiscal discipline and structural reforms are the necessary solutions even if they imply painful adjustment and sacrifices for the periphery for a number of years. Germany and the ECB may turn out to be right, but this paper suggests that the painful medicine will be—however necessary over the medium term—too painful and recessionary in the short run and for long enough that it will not be viable. Also, the EZ periphery’s fundamental loss of competitiveness—manifesting itself in now unsustainably large current account deficits—requires a real depreciation that will not be achieved quickly enough with reforms and deflation that depress output for too long before they restore growth. Thus, debt reductions and real depreciation via an EZ exit and a return to national currencies will become—however costly—unavoidable and less painful than the alternative of recessionary deflation.

Then, if this analysis is correct, Germany will eventually have to make tough choices: Either allow a strategy that changes the nature of the ECB and restores growth through a weaker euro and higher inflation in Germany for a period of time; or permanently subsidize the depressed EZ periphery; or allow the debt reductions of most periphery members and their exits from the EZ. Again, if only a small Greece and/or Portugal/Cyprus exits, the process would be—however costly and ugly—manageable, But if the crisis doesn’t spare—in spite of all current adjustment and financing efforts—Italy and/or Spain, Germany/the core EZ could find that further backstopping of Italy/Spain would be too costly and also “mission impossible” if Plan A has failed and repeating it isn’t likely to make it more successful.

Indeed, soon enough, Germany would have to worry about its own fiscal sustainability and the risks involved in endlessly backstopping more EZ members. Today, its taxpayers’ taxes backstop the German public debt. But even Germany has a large fiscal deficit and a large stock of public debt. And, given the ageing of its population, it also has additional implicit long-term fiscal debts/liabilities. Add to that the fiscal cost of recapitalizing many of its insolvent or near-insolvent financial institutions: The Landesbanken, IKB, West LB, Commerzbank and others. The German taxpayers’ money is now also partially backstopping the public debt of Greece, Ireland and Portugal through the IMF, EFSF, EFSM and ECB.

But the public debt of Greece is “only” €300 billion. The public debt of Italy and Spain is close to €3 trillion, or 10 times that of Greece. Germany will now—via the expanded and levered EFSF—partially guarantee part of the Italian and Spanish debt. But about €200 billion of the implicit liabilities of a levered EFSF is already a large risk for an overleveraged Germany. If, a year from now, the bazooka of the levered EFSF has not worked to restore the sustainability of Italy and/or Spain, the idea that Germany would accept taking an additional €3 trillion credit risk by fully backstopping Italy and Spain is quite far-fetched. Since Germany needs to consider that, under some scenarios (whatever their probability), Italy and Spain don’t make it and need both debt restructuring and to exit, Germany must protect itself now for the fallout that a disorderly break-up of the EZ would entail.

And some of the caution that Germany has shown in terms of committing more financial resources to backstopping the periphery has to do with the German need to save some precious bullets—or some dry powder—in case all goes wrong and the EZ breaks up. Using all of its chips now to backstop the periphery would not be rational for Germany, even if doing so raises the odds of Italy and Spain eventually getting out of the woods. Keeping some powder dry for the extreme tail scenarios is a rational strategy for Germany and the core as the financial and economic fallout and costs of a break-up would also be severe for them.

Cost-Benefit Analysis of EZ Membership for the EZ Periphery

A similar cost-benefit analysis of staying in the monetary union applies to the periphery members. Currently, none of them— not even hopeless Greece—is seriously considering exiting the monetary union. But, as we have argued above, if Germany/the ECB insist on an adjustment that is deflationary/recessionary, the social/political backlash against that depressionary adjustment may become overwhelming. Already in Greece, daily demonstrations, strikes and other popular resentment against the austerity may lead the government to collapse in the next few months; and this scenario is becoming more likely as there will now be a referendum on the austerity measures, with all the attached risks. Then, if Greece goes even further off track in terms of its commitments to its “troika” of creditors (the IMF, EU and ECB), the troika would have to pull the plug on Greece and a disorderly default and exit from the union would become inevitable. Even if exit is postponed for another year, chronic and ever-deepening recession will sooner rather than later trigger a government collapse and a possible exit from the EZ.

Also, the alleged benefits of remaining in the EZ may now be less convincing for most periphery members: Initially, the EZ led to interest rate convergence when market discipline was not operational; this was a significant benefit as nominal and real interest rates were low and falling and making the cost of debt for both private and public sectors low. Now, with market discipline in full swing and sovereign spreads high and rising, this major benefit of the monetary union has disappeared and has rather become a major cost/burden. Worse, remaining in the EZ implies ceding from now on a significant part of—if not all—fiscal autonomy to the core: Soon enough, the troika will decide most of the taxation and government spending in the periphery, including social safety nets, social security systems and the matters and details of the privatization of public assets. Germany/the core may also effectively take over part of the periphery’s financial systems if the only way to recapitalize periphery banks is by using EFSF resources. Also, the ECB’s monetary and exchange rate policies have now clearly gained—after over a decade of experience—an anti-growth and an anti-competitiveness bias, focusing instead on the strict achievement of price stability. When national currencies existed, rising differentials in competitiveness—because of differentials in unit labor costs—could from time to time be remedied through nominal and real depreciation of national currencies. Now, that benefit is gone and only recessionary deflation is available.

Cost of EZ Membership May Eventually Outweigh Benefits, Thus Triggering Exit

So, what are the alleged benefits of staying in the monetary union if the costs seem to be rising while the benefits are shrinking? Periphery members are still blinded by the potential stigma of an embarrassing exit, especially policy makers who would lose power if a shameful exit that suggests failure were to occur. So, they are desperately avoiding even the thought of exit rather than seriously and rationally considering its benefits as well as its considerable—but manageable—costs. But populations will not meekly accept year after year of sacrifices, job losses, rising unemployment and hopelessness about an economic recovery. If there is no light at the end of the tunnel or the only light is from the approaching train wreck of a deflationary recession with no hope of a short-term recovery, debt reductions and exits from the monetary union will become necessary, desirable and unavoidable.

Options and Scenarios for the EZ (see map below)

In a recent RGE piece (“The Last Shot on Goal: Will Eurozone Leaders Succeed in Ending the Crisis?,” co-authored with Megan Greene), we outlined three possible scenarios for the EZ in the next 12-24 months. In Scenario 1, the current EZ plan somehow works and Italy and Spain are successfully ring-fenced via the levered EFSF and exogenous factors that restore growth after a 2012 recession. Then Greece and/or Portugal/Cyprus experience debt reductions and possibly exit the EZ, but the EZ survives if Italy and Spain survive and thrive. In Scenario 2, Plan A does not work and, once the levered EFSF bazooka has run out of money and pressure on Italian and Spanish spreads has not abated as recession becomes entrenched, Italy and Spain may have to experience debt restructuring and eventually even exit the EZ. Even in Scenario 2, once Plan A has failed a year from now, Germany/the core/the ECB/the international community could still double down on keeping Italy and Spain afloat even if that becomes unlikely and very expensive if Plan A (catalytic finance) has failed. In Scenario 3, things unravel for the EZ inside 12 months as a disorderly collapse of Greece prevents Plan A (buy time on Greece by keeping it on life support until Italy and Spain are successfully ring-fenced and then pull the plug) from even being tried, before it is given a chance to succeed (Scenario 1) or fail (Scenario 2).


In terms of the four options in this paper, Option 4 is analogous to Scenario 3 (widespread defaults and the break-up of the EZ), which in our view will become more likely over time. Scenario 1 is, in our view likely to succeed only if Option 1 (macro policy reflation of the EZ) is implemented soon, yet Germany/the core/the ECB want to achieve Scenario 1 by implementing Option 2 (deflation, austerity and reforms). We have argued that Option 2 is very unlikely to lead to Scenario 1 for most EZ periphery members as it will lead to entrenched recession that will last for years and a too-slow restoration of competitiveness. Option 3 is not politically feasible as it implies that the core accepts both a massive capital levy on its current claims on the periphery and an additional permanent subsidization of the periphery’s income. Thus, Option 3 corresponds to a notional “Scenario 4,” to which we assign a near-zero probability in our scenario analysis.

Of course, among the six eurozone countries in trouble so far (Greece, Portugal, Ireland, Cyprus, Spain and Italy), a subset of them will experience restructurings and reductions of their public debts and private debts as a way to resolve their stock imbalances. And a different subset of these six countries may also eventually decide to exit to resolve their flow imbalances. So, many different permutations and combinations of outcomes/scenarios are possible. But our four options and the related policies associated with them provide a map of how one can potentially resolve stock and flow imbalances in the EZ. And our three scenarios provide a timeline of how, over the next 12-24 months, economic and financial conditions will evolve in the EZ. Some countries will for sure restructure their debts and some will most likely exit the EZ. If enough of them restructure and exit—especially the two big ones in the periphery (Italy and Spain)—this would effectively represent a break-up of the EZ.

Our point is that we cannot rule out Option 4 becoming more likely: i.e. Scenarios 2 and/or 3 materialize, so the next steps of these scenarios are widespread debt restructuring and eventual exit from the EZ of enough member states such that a break-up of the EZ turns out to be necessary and unavoidable. In terms of this non-linear set of scenarios, the periphery will push for Options 1 or 3 as a way to avoid Option 4; but if Germany/the core/the ECB stick with Option 2, Scenarios 2 or 3 rather than 1 will materialize and the EZ will eventually end up with Option 4, i.e. debt reductions, exit from the monetary union and the break-up of the monetary union.

This paper—and its companion piece—outlines the options available to the EZ, the accompanying policy actions and the scenarios that will result from the complex, dynamic, high-stakes game being played. Various options are available at each node, with the chosen policies leading to a variety of different outcomes, grouped under our three main scenarios.

Read the whole article here: EconoMonitor : Nouriel Roubini’s Global EconoMonitor » Eurozone Crisis: Here Are the Options, Now Choose

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Entrepreneurial democracies and the happiness factor – The Globe and Mail

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From Peter Schiff of Asia-Pacific capital

SOUNDS GOOD, BUT WAIT, There is something hidden behind all those 9’s…

Theres A Hidden 9 In Herman Cains 9-9-9 Plan

October 18, 2011
Herman Cain has been gaining much traction with his 9-9-9 Plan, a bold proposal to replace our dysfunctional tax code with what could be a simpler, less invasive, and more economically stimulative alternative.
While I don’t agree with the full spectrum of Mr. Cain’s policy choices, I applaud his courage on the tax front.
Judging by his rising poll numbers, this appreciation is widely shared.
However, the plan has deep flaws, the most glaring of which is its creation of a hidden payroll tax which represents a fourth “nine.” This serious pitfall has been unmentioned by Mr. Cain and overlooked by those who have analyzed his plan.

Cain would replace the current system of income and payroll taxes with a 9% flat-rate personal income tax, a 9% corporate tax, and a 9% national sales tax. Great idea. Such a system would unburden businesses, provide a tax cut for most Americans, and shift taxation to consumption and away from income generation. \
This is exactly what our economy needs. But unlike our current corporate tax system, the plan eliminates the deductibility of wages and salaries from corporate income. The net effect is the creation of a brand new 9% tax on wages. When this fourth 9 falls from Cain’s sleeve, many of his opponents will likely accuse him of cheating.
Much of the plan’s virtue lies in its elimination of Social Security and Medicare taxes (payroll taxes) that fall heaviest on lower income workers. This includes the 6.2% Social Security tax and the 1.5% Medicare tax paid directly by the worker. But it also includes the 6.2% and 1.5% portions paid indirectly by workers through their employers. Payroll taxes are, in reality, a cost of employment.
From the employer’s perspective these costs are part of the wage package. Absent these taxes, employers could raise wages by an equivalent amount without raising labor costs. Inclusive of this portion, payroll taxes currently cost workers 15.4% of their wages.

The Cain plan scraps this tax. But the elimination of wage deductibility from corporate taxes replaces it with a 9% payroll tax. Therefore a more honest name for Cain’s proposal is the 9-9-9-9 plan. The forth nine changes everything.
Cain admits that the 9% sales tax would fall heaviest on the poor, but he claims that the elimination of the payroll tax would more than compensate. But when the hidden 9% payroll tax is factored in, more than 50% of workers who currently pay an average income tax rate of just 3% would see a huge tax hike, from 18.4% (former payroll tax plus income tax) to 27%: 9% payroll tax, 9% income tax and 9% consumption tax (poorer workers generally spend all their income).
On the other hand, high income tax payers get a huge break. Not counting the consumption tax, the 9-9-9 plan reduces the highest marginal tax rate from 38% (35% income tax and 3% payroll tax – on income over $105,000) to just 18% (9% income tax plus 9% payroll).
For the self-employed, who can transform their wages into dividends (that are deductible business expenses under the 9-9-9 plan), the rate would fall to just 9% (all income tax, no payroll or business tax). Of course, in either case, the 9% sales tax will apply to spending, but even if 100% of earnings are spent (which is generally not true of high earners) the top rate would still top out at only 27% for the highest salaried employees and just 18% for the self-employed. In essence, tax cuts for the rich are paid for with tax hikes on the poor and middle class. If these aspects were widely known the plan would become a political dead letter.
Even with its flaws, the 9-9-9-9 plan would create an economic windfall by lowering the top corporate rate to 9% from 50% (35% at the corporate level and 15% on dividends taxed at the individual level), and simplifying the tax code to reduce unnecessary compliance costs and the economically inefficient behavior that is created by perverse tax incentives.
These changes alone will make America far more globally competitive. Also by taxing individuals based more on what they spend rather than on what they earn, the plan will encourage more savings (which is a key ingredient for economic growth). As a result, the economy will grow faster, generate greater output of goods and services, and create more jobs.
The problem for Herman Cain is that unless he slashes government expenditures, his pro-growth tax structure will inevitably shift more of the tax burden to low and moderate-income people. The only way to combine tax reform with tax reductions for most taxpayers is to shrink government to a more manageable scale.
The size of the tax increases required to keep Cain’s 9-9-9-9 plan revenue neutral demonstrates just how high a percentage of our current taxes are being paid by affluent taxpayers. Couples making more than $250,000 and individuals making more than $125,000 only constitute about 3% of taxpayers but pay almost half of all taxes. Any policy that cuts their taxes will inflict a disproportional hit on government revenue.
Contrary to the rhetoric emanating from the American left, the “rich” are currently paying a lot more than “their fair share.” It is only a handful of mega-rich, those whose entire incomes are derived from dividends and capital gains, rather than salaries or business profits, who have the ability to pay lower tax rates than some members of the middle class. The left knows this but continues to build their “free loading millionaire” straw man because it makes good politics.
In the final analysis, if Cain really wants a 9-9-9 plan that doesn’t raise taxes he needs to remove the hidden 9% payroll tax. However, the only way this could be done, without blowing an even bigger hole in the federal deficit, is to combine his plan with significant spending cuts. If he can pull that off, three nines may be a winning hand after all.

There’s A Hidden 9 In Herman Cain’s 9-9-9 Plan

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Posted By David Rothkopf

Little could seem so remote from one another than the 9-9-9 tax reform plan of Herman Cain and the chants of the “other 99 percent” as they occupy Wall Street. One is the politically motivated brain-child of a millionaire businessman while the other is a product of the barely contained anger of young people frustrated by the corruption and inequity inherent in the global politics and business today. Yet these two movements are actually linked together in more ways than you might think, nine to be exact:
1.) Both are products of the politics of alienation. Vast majorities on the right and left feel that the system is no long the means by which we fix our problems — it is the problem. They feel that politicians and Wall Street and big business are self-dealing and leaving the vast majority of Americans
2.) Both are fueled by a belief that the American dream is broken. The self-dealing has essentially gutted the promise of a better future for all those willing to work for it. The essentials of that dream — a home, the value one can build in that home, rising wages, a better tomorrow for our kids — they’re all gone or compromised for most Americans. For those who didn’t go to college there was once an opportunity to join the middle class and have a life of dignity — also gone. The idea of retiring seems also destined to soon become an exhibit in the Smithsonian as few Americans indeed will be able to afford it.
3.) Both turn on a common theme — driven by an intense indignation at inequity. It’s not just that they system is broken, as Nick Kristof writes compellingly in yesterday’s New York Times, it is that it has been gamed. A tiny few benefit and the rest of us of the country — the 99 percent, the residents of Main Street — are falling hopelessly, helplessly behind.
4.) Both a reactions against “the establishment” — although different halves of the establishment. The Tea Partiers think government is the problem. The Occupy Wall Street crowd think it’s the financial community or big corporations. The reality is that it is the collaboration between the two for decades (centuries actually) to change the rules of the system to give monied interests the upper hand, a free ride, bailouts when they need it (even when average home owners get nothing), etc.
5.) Both have “good hooks” — they are easily digested, communicated, understood. The reason that 59 point plans and 1000 page pieces of legislation get no traction is that they are difficult to communicate, understand, debate effectively. Condemn Cain or the protestors all you want, they are connecting because they are dealing at a visceral level with a problem that actually lives in people’s guts.
6.) Neither is truly radical. One is the defense of the status quo dressed up in the garb of “change” (where have we seen that before?). The other is unfocused anger. Radical would require an effort to really, truly and deeply challenge and change the system — to get money out of politics through federally financed elections, to limit the size of banks, to demand transparency and tighter regulation of derivative products, to effectively challenge corporate compensation systems, to toss out the current tax code and start over with something simpler…and, sorry Herman, fairer. We are at a time that demands real, constructive radicalism, a willingness to question everything, to embrace “dangerous’ ideas, to ask why we have markets, why we have the system of government we have, what our collective goals are, what our core political philosophies are and to be willing to remake and rebuild those institutions and systems and processes that don’t conform to our vision and our ideals
7.) Both are preludes to real change — but neither in its current form is the ultimate vehicle for that change. Because there is no “ask” for the Occupy Wall Street people, because 9-9-9 doesn’t add up and would be deeply unfair to poor and middle income Americans, the movements are more noteworthy for what fuels them than where they are going. The frustration will either lead to a real constructive change agenda…or it won’t, problems will deepen…and the real call for change will come more emphatically later.
8.) Each is being misinterpreted by the other. The Occupy Wall Streeters are not, as accused by the right, “anti-American.” At their core what they are doing is as fundamentally American as can be. The Tea Partiers may not be my cup of…well, they may be hard for me to swallow…but they do have a legitimate beef that the government needs to operate in their interests and within its budget. That’s not to say one side will agree with the other…it’s to say that both should listen carefully for what is the same in their arguments. (So too should politicians on both sides who are too quick to view all this as politics as usual…and to play it as such.)
9.) Both should be welcomed by everyone — they are a sign of long-overdue activism. Now the job is to translate that activism into meaningful change…which I think may require a very different set of political leaders and parties than we have today.

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Nine things that 9-9-9 and the ‘Other 99’ have in common – By David Rothkopf | David Rothkopf

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