News accounts often anticipate that political decisions (especially bad ones) will spell trouble in the market for government debt. In the short term, they will. But such fluctuations don't universally translate into long-term devaluations nor do they necessarily constrain governments.
The center-right New Democracy (ND) party and the Coalition of the Radical Left, known as Syriza, are in a dead heat in the run-up to Sunday's Greek legislative elections. Despite ND's desire to keep the country in the eurozone, the party's campaign talk may be too little, too late. Supposing a Syriza win, the scenarios for Greece, and for Europe, grow dark, quickly.
The collapse of the eurozone no longer seems likely, thanks to its members' decisions to coordinate their fiscal policies more closely. But it is exactly that tighter integration that has made many Euro-skeptic Brits want to opt out of the EU altogether.
The whole of Europe seems to be in economic and political crisis. But there is a small area of calm at the continent’s core: Switzerland. Although much of what makes the country successful would not translate to the rest of Europe, the parts of its political framework that encourage popular legitimacy would -- and they would go a long way toward solving other European governments' problems.
Fixing the euro (the logo, at least) in Frankfurt. (Ralph Orlowski/Reuters)
The eurozone's troubles no longer qualify as a crisis, an unstable situation that could either quickly improve or take a dramatic turn for the worse. They are, instead, a new normal -- a painful situation, to be sure, but one that will last for years to come. Citizens, investors, and policymakers should let go of the idea that there is some magic bullet that could quickly kill off Europe's ailments. By the same token, despite the real possibility of Greek exit, the eurozone is not on the brink of collapse. The European Union and its common currency will hold together, but the road to recovery will be long.
It has been nearly two and a half years since the incoming socialist government in Greece revealed the extent to which its predecessor had accumulated debt, precipitating an economic storm that has left slashed budgets, collapsed governments, and record unemployment in its wake. With each dramatic turn, observers have anticipated the story's denouement. But again and again, a definitive resolution -- either a policy fix or a total collapse -- has failed to emerge.
The truth is that there are no quick escapes from the eurozone's predicament. Divorce is no solution. Although some economists suggest that struggling countries on the periphery could leave the euro and return to a national currency in order to regain competitiveness and restore growth, no country would willingly leave the eurozone; doing so would amount to economic suicide. Its financial system would collapse, and ensuing bank runs and riots would make today's social unrest seem quaint by comparison. What is more, even after a partial default, the country's government and financial firms would still be burdened by debt denominated largely in euros. As the value of the new national currency plummeted, the debt would become unbearable, and the government, now outside the club, would not be able to turn to the eurozone for help.
Some economists go further and argue that countries on Europe's periphery could thrive outside the euro straitjacket. This is equally unconvincing. Southern European countries' economies suffer from deep structural problems that predate the euro. Spanish unemployment rates fluctuated between 15 and 22 percent throughout most of the 1990s; Greece has been in default for nearly half of its history as an independent state. These countries are far more likely to tackle their underlying problems and thrive inside the eurozone than outside it.
Others have suggested that Germany and other core countries -- weary of funding endless bailouts -- might abandon the euro. That is even less plausible. Germany has been the greatest beneficiary of European integration and the common currency. Forty percent of German exports go to eurozone countries, and the common currency has reduced transaction costs and boosted German growth. An unraveling of the eurozone would devastate German banks, and any new German currency would appreciate rapidly, damaging the country's export-led economic model.
A number of policy reforms may improve economic conditions in the eurozone, but none offers a panacea. Eurobonds, increased investment in struggling economies through the European Investment Bank and other funds, stricter regulations of banks, a common deposit insurance system, a shift from budget cuts to structural reforms that enhance productivity and encourage private-sector job creation -- all of these could improve Europe's economic situation and should be implemented.
But none of these measures would quickly restore growth or bring employment back to pre-crisis levels. That is because they do not address Europe's central economic problem: the massive debt accumulated by the periphery countries during last decade's credit boom. The 2000s saw a tremendous amount of capital flow from the northern European countries to private- and public-sector borrowers in Greece, Ireland, Portugal, and Spain. Germany and other countries with current account surpluses flooded the periphery with easy credit, and the periphery gobbled it up. This boosted domestic demand and generated growth in the periphery but also encouraged wage inflation that undermined competitiveness and left massive debt behind. As the economists Carmen Reinhart and Kenneth Rogoff have pointed out, when countries suffer a recession caused by a financial crisis and debt overhang, they take many years to recover.
With both breakup and immediate solutions off the table, then, the eurozone is settling into a new normal. As the union slowly digs itself out of the economic pit, it is important to recognize that its system of economic governance has already been fundamentally transformed over the past two years.
First, the eurozone has, at least in practice, done away with its founding documents. In any monetary union in which states retain the autonomy to tax, spend, and borrow, there is a risk that some countries' excessive borrowing could threaten the value of the common currency. Recognizing this, the euro's creators drafted the Stability and Growth Pact and the "no bailout" clause in the Maastricht Treaty. The SGP placed legal restrictions on member-state deficit and debt levels, and the no-bailout clause forbade the European Union or individual member states from bailing out over-indebted states to avoid moral hazard.
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