Eleventh-hour negotiations have begun to create a much bigger financial “bazooka” to present at this week’s European Union summit that could include running two separate rescue funds and winning increased support for the International Monetary Fund.
This three-pronged rescue system would form part of a carefully crafted package EU leaders hope will win over financial markets, just two months after a similar summit failed to convince bond investors Europe could contain its spiralling debt crisis. The rescue system would be introduced alongside proposals to rewrite EU treaties with far tougher budget rules for the eurozone.
A German-French push for closer economic ties in Europe won the backing of U.S. Treasury Secretary Timothy F. Geithner, who urged governments to work with central banks to erect a “stronger firewall” to end the debt crisis.
Geithner, speaking in Berlin yesterday after talks with German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble, praised the commitment to fiscal programs put in place by new governments in Spain, Italy and Greece, and said he was “very encouraged” by recent efforts to buttress the euro area. He welcomed “progress toward a fiscal compact for the euro zone,” echoing language used last week by European Central Bank President Mario Draghi.
Geithner’s comments backing German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Nicolas Sarkozy were more upbeat than his recent remarks urging Europe to move faster. In a September trip to Europe, Geithner asked leaders to set aside their differences to excise “catastrophic risks” from markets, prompting European criticism of U.S. debt levels.
“This of course will take time” and “a very substantial commitment and a sustained commitment of political will,” he told reporters.
If the most powerful country in the eurozone refuses to recognise the nature of the crisis, the eurozone has no chance of either remedying it or preventing a recurrence. Yes, the ECB might paper over the cracks. In the short run, such intervention is even indispensable, since time is needed for external adjustments. Ultimately, however, external adjustment is crucial. That is far more important than fiscal austerity.
In the absence of external adjustment, the fiscal cuts imposed on fragile members will just cause prolonged and deep recessions. Once the role of external adjustment is recognised, the core issue becomes not fiscal austerity but needed shifts in competitiveness. If one rules out exits, this requires a buoyant eurozone economy, higher inflation and vigorous credit expansion in surplus countries. All of this now seems inconceivable. That is why markets are right to be so cautious.
The failure to recognise that a currency union is vulnerable to balance of payments crises, in the absence of fiscal and financial integration, makes a recurrence almost certain. Worse, focusing on fiscal austerity guarantees that the response to crises will be fiercely pro-cyclical, as we see so clearly.
Maybe, the porridge agreed in Paris will allow the ECB to act. Maybe, that will also bring a period of peace, though I doubt it. Yet the eurozone is still looking for effective longer-term remedies. I am not sorry that Germany failed to obtain yet more automatic and harsher fiscal disciplines, since that demand is built on a failure to recognise what actually went wrong. This is, at its bottom, a balance of payments crisis. Resolving payments crises inside a large, closed economy requires huge adjustments, on both sides. That is truth. All else is commentary.
1. The introduction of the euro made cross-border capital flows far more frictionless. As a result, money began flowing from the sluggish economies of the core countries (mostly Germany, but also France, Benelux, and others) to the more capital-starved economies of the periphery. You can tell two basic stories about why this happened:
a) A “push” story: Investors chasing higher yields actively pushed money into the more vibrant economies of the periphery.
b) A “pull” story: Profligate national governments, addicted to living beyond their means, pulled money into the periphery via heavy borrowing, which crowded out private borrowing.
Most likely, both of these were part of what happened and both reinforced each other. But generally speaking, if the pull story were true you’d expect to see increases in nominal interest rates in the periphery. As the table above shows, that’s not what happened, which means the push story is more likely to be the primary explanation. The primal sin here is that for years supposedly sophisticated investors in the core shoveled money into the periphery with abandon, ignoring the obvious risks of doing so.
2. Normally, capital flows would eventually be moderated by changes in exchange rates, but this was impossible for the periphery since they no longer had their own currencies. The result was persistent hot money flows into a fixed exchange rate area and steadily higher inflation in the periphery compared to the core. This state of affairs is widely known to be unsustainable and eventually disastrous, but it was something Germany happily ignored since it provided German savers with a place to invest their money and provided the periphery with enough cheap capital to act as a thriving market for German exports.
- 5:45 a.m. ET: Tim Geithner meets Nicolas Sarkozy in Paris
- 7:00 a.m.: Weekly MBA mortgage applications index
- 8:30 a.m.: Fed Governor Sarah Bloom Raskin moderates a panel discussion on housing
- 3:00 p.m.: Consumer credit for October
- Also, the Bank of England holds a monetary policy committee meeting.
- And Germany auctions off some bunds.
Earnings: Nothing of note.