December 08, 2011

The Euro: What If …

Writing about web page http://blogs.ft.com/the-world/2011/12/eurozone-crisis-live-blog-19/#axzz1fweCvEJB

What if the Euro collapses? There's already more than enough speculation about that. I'm wondering what will happen if the Euro survives.

Since survival is always conditional, let's ask: What happens if the Euro survives the next three years, which should be enough to take us into the next upswing. Also, we know for sure that the Euro cannot survive in its present form, but let's say there is just enough peripheral shake-out (say, a Greek exit), enough extra liquidity (a "wall of money" to shield the other vulnerable countries from contagion), and enough institutional reform (movement towards a fiscal union) that in 2014 a currency union is still in place with most of its current members.

What then? With all eyes focused on financial and fiscal turmoil, the underlying problem is being forgotten: The Eurozone is still not an optimum currency area.

Robert Mundell (1961) first set out the conditions for a group of countries to benefit from monetary integration: He argued that, to make an optimum currency area, the member states must be convergent in at least one of the following:

  • They should experience similar shocks, and respond similarly to them.
  • Or. they should have flexible (high-mobility) labour markets.
  • Or, they should have competitive (flexible-price) product markets.

If these conditions were met, the real exchange rates of the different member states of a currency union would remain aligned. Without them, a structural mismatch would inevitably evolve. Full employment with low, stable inflation in all parts would be impossible. Unless some parts of the currency union would accept rising inflation, other parts would risk permanent depression.

Using forecast bilateral exchange rate volatility with Germany to measure convergence, Bayoumi and Eichengreen (1997) showed that, from the start, many current Eurozone member states did not not "fit" the Eurozone. Encouragingly, they did find a pre-existing trend towards convergence on the part of countries like Greece, Italy, Spain, and Portugal (but not France or the UK).

There was then a short debate about whether the Eurozone might experience continued convergence so that, although not an optimal currency area at the outset, it might become one. Frankel and Rose (1997, 1998) were for. Feldstein (1997) was against. Then, the Euro was launched. For a while everything seemed fine. But we know now that Feldstein was right.

Behind the scenes, with the Euro in place, previous efforts towards convergence stopped. Greece, Italy, Spain, and Portugal moved further and further away from Germany, not towards Germany. This is shown by statistical series from productivity growth to real exchange rates, trade integration, and fiscal imbalances.

In other words, the Eurozone today is no more of an optimal currency area than it was in 1999 when the Euro was launched. The peripheral countries have not made their markets more competitive. With rare exceptions, labour is unwilling to move across frontiers. The economies of the Eurozone remain "otherwise different" in fundamental ways.

Behind current efforts to save the Euro is still the theory that Greece and Italy can eventually be made more like Germany. If fiscal union is not to commit Germany to subsidize the periphery forever, then it can only mean the application of ever more pressure. German prices must be allowed to bear down cruelly on Mediterranean costs. Their public finances must be topped and tailed to fit the Procrustean bed of German frugality. In the face of ever increasing pressure, the culture of the periphery must surely give way.

But this is almost exactly the same theory that was applied from 1999 to the present, and was found wanting. Pressure was tried before; the only difference in current efforts is the addition to "pressure" of the words "ever increasing."

In other words, whatever their short run expedients, in the long run, Merkel and Sarkozy plan to hold the Eurozone together by the exercise of pure will. Just as Europe's leaders ignored the Mundell criteria in 1999, they will continue to do so. They believe politics can trump economics.

Leadership matters. The price tag of a disorderly collapse of the Euro looks large enough that its leaders should try to avoid our having to pay it. But what can one say of leadership into a cul de sac? The willpower required to hold the Euro together in anything like the form currently envisaged is completely lacking in any Europe-wide popular mandate. The belief that Europe's leaders can look each others' national cultures in the face and remake them arbitrarily goes against all evidence.

In short: What if the Euro survives its present stage? Current efforts will buy time, at best. When time has been bought and paid for, the original flaw will still be there. A Eurozone that is sustainable indefinitely will be limited perhaps to Germany, Austria, and Benelux. It might not even include France, however hard that is to imagine. It will not include the UK.

References

  • Bayoumi, Tamim, and Barry Eichengreen. 1997. Ever Closer to Heaven? An Optimum-Currency-Area Index for European Countries. European Economic Review 41:3-5, pp. 761-770.
  • Feldstein, Martin. 1997. The Political Economy of the European Economic and Monetary Union: Political Sources of an Economic Liability. Journal of Economic Perspectives 11:4, pp. 23-42.
  • Frankel, Jeffrey A., and Andrew K. Rose. 1997. Is EMU More Justifiable Ex Post Than Ex Ante? European Economic Review 41:3-5, pp. 753-760.
  • Frankel, Jeffrey A., and Andrew K. Rose. 1998. The Endogeneity of the Optimum Currency Area Criteria. Economic Journal 108:449, pp. 1009-1025.
  • Mundell, Robert. 1961. A Theory of Optimum Currency Areas. American Economic Review 51:4, pp. 657-665.

- One comment Not publicly viewable

  1. Mark Harrison

    And to follow this up almost immediately, today’s excellent overview of the entire Euro crisis, written by my Hoover colleague Keith Hennessy, assuming no previous knowledge on the part of the reader.

    08 Dec 2011, 15:57


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I am a professor in the Department of Economics at the University of Warwick. I am also a research associate of Warwick’s Centre on Competitive Advantage in the Global Economy, and of the Centre for Russian, European, and Eurasian Studies at the University of Birmingham. My research is on Russian and international economic history; I am interested in economic aspects of bureaucracy, dictatorship, defence, and warfare. My most recent book is One Day We Will Live Without Fear: Everyday Lives Under the Soviet Police State (Hoover Institution Press, 2016).



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