The euro has always struck me as Germany’s final success at dominating Europe. What two world wars couldn’t accomplish, the Bundesbank could. By the 1990s, Germany looked like such a model of economic rectitude that eleven of its neighbors and near-neighbors (now 16, not counting principalities) were happy to formally link their currencies to Germany, their monetary policies to a European Central Bank that was a continental version of the Bundesbank, and their fiscal policies to a treaty that said deficits and debt should be under 3% and 60% of GDP (which seemed to reflect German fiscal conservatism).
Fiscal conservatism hasn’t fared well since recession began in late 2007. Even without the countercyclical tax cuts and spending increases that many governments enacted, falling GDP has caused most countries’ debt/GDP ratios to skyrocket. Even Germany’s is now over 80%. (And contrary to conventional wisdom, it’s just not true that the European economies now facing debt crises, with the exception of Greece, were running up huge deficits and debt prior to the recession; c.f. Krugman and Dean Baker.)
The news for much of this year has been of sovereign debt crises in Greece and the other “PIIGS” countries (from the “BAFFLING PIGS” mnemonic for the first 12 euro members), Portugal, Ireland, Italy, and Spain. But the most shocking economic news for me this year was the recent report that they held a German bond auction and “nobody” came. Not really nobody, but the German government was only able sell three-fifths of the “bunds” they intended to sell. To be sure, they’d have sold more if they’d been willing to accept lower bids; these bonds were supposed to pay just 2% interest, and that’s about where the yields ended up. The linked article quotes some observers who say the weak auction was due to investor concerns that Germany might be left holding the bag for PIIGS and other euro countries that can’t pay their debts. Others have said it was mostly about currency risk, i.e., the risk that the euro might massively depreciate or even crack up over the 1o-year lifetime of the bonds.
Could a euro crack-up happen? Some experts think it actually will happen, perhaps soon. Peter Boone & Simon Johnson:
‘The path of the euro zone is becoming clear. As conditions in Europe worsen, there will be fewer euro-denominated assets that investors can safely buy. Bank runs and large-scale capital flight out of Europe are likely.
‘Devaluation can help growth but the associated inflation hurts many people and the debt restructurings, if not handled properly, could be immensely disruptive. Some nations will need to leave the euro zone. There is no painless solution.
‘Ultimately, an integrated currency area may remain in Europe, albeit with fewer countries and more fiscal centralization. The Germans will force the weaker countries out of the euro area or, more likely, Germany and some others will leave the euro to form their own currency. The euro zone could be expanded again later, but only after much deeper political, economic and fiscal integration.’
At least the run on the euro is off to a slow start. The euro has had a rough November, but its decline against the dollar was only four and a half cents, or about a penny per week. The euro’s price against the dollar is still higher now than it was in most of 2005-2006.
As has been noted, euro membership has arguably gone from a privilege to a bane for these weaker countries, and possibly for all of them. Before the recession, their governments and firms could borrow cheaply on the international market, as the relatively stable euro provided insurance for the lenders, against getting repaid in devalued currency. But now euro membership takes away two key stabilization tools for them: monetary stimulus from their own central bank, and currency adjustment (a devaluation could help GDP through increased net exports).
The messy euro situation looks like the big wild card for the U.S. economy. (Here the conventional wisdom is actually correct, in my view.) Although the blow to U.S. exports from a double-dip European recession could theoretically be offset by more expansionary fiscal policy, the political prospects for additional stimulus have been dim for a long time. Things would have to get a whole lot worse here before any new stimulus could get past the Republicans in Congress, and maybe not even then.