How the Euro Enabled Europe's Debt Bubbles
It’s the twentieth anniversary of the euro’s existence, and far from being celebrated, it is being blamed for many — if not all — of the Eurozone’s ills.
However, the euro cannot be blamed for the monetary and policy failures of the ECB, national central banks and politicians. It is just a fiat currency, like all the others, only with a different provenance. All fiat currencies owe their function as a medium of exchange from the faith its users have in it. But unlike other currencies in their respective jurisdictions, the euro has become a talisman for monetary and economic failures in the European Union.
The Birth of the Euro
To swap a number of existing currencies for a wholly new currency requires the users to accept that the purchasing powers of the old will be transferred to the new. This was not going to be a certainty, and the greatest reservations would come from the people of Germany. Germans saved, and therefore risked the security of their deposits in a new money and monetary system. They were reassured by the presence of the hard-money men in the Bundesbank, who had a mission to protect the mark’s characteristics against the weaknesses that would almost certainly be transferred into the new euro from more inflationary currencies.
These anxieties were assuaged to a degree by establishing the ECB in Frankfurt, close to the watchful eye of the Bundesbank. The other nations were sold the project as bringing greater monetary stability than offered by their individual currencies and the reduction of cross-border transaction costs. Borrowers in formally inflationary currencies also relished the prospect of lower interest rates.
It was clear at the outset that the new omnibus euro required new disciplines, and it was here that the system failed from the outset. Having sensibly set out the euro’s parameters in the Maastricht Agreement, political considerations then took over. The raison d’être of the euro, so far as the politicians were concerned, was to further the European Project and getting countries into the new Eurozone became more important than compliance with the terms.
The terms had been set in the Maastricht Treaty in February 1992, which was signed by the twelve members of the pre-existing European Community. To qualify, membership in the euro required an inflation rate no more than 1.5% higher than the average rate of the three lowest member states, a fiscal deficit of no more than 3% at the end of the preceding fiscal year, a ratio of gross government debt to GDP of no more than 60%, membership of the exchange rate mechanism for two years without devaluation, and long-term interest rates no more than 2% higher than the inflation rates of the three lowest inflation rates.
This was sensible stuff but was then ignored by the Maastricht signatories. Only Luxembourg fully qualified for membership under the Maastricht terms.
Even the EU’s sheet-anchor, Germany, failed. Her budget deficit in 1996 was 4% of GDP. France’s was managed (manipulated?) down to 4% from 5%. Greece’s budget deficit after some very creative accounting was shown as 8%, and Italy’s must have had a papal blessing, because it miraculously fell from 8% to 4%.
Germany’s government debt to GDP in 1996 embarrassingly just exceeded the 60% criteria level set at Maastricht. Belgium’s stood at 130%, Italy’s at 124%, and Greece’s (reportedly) at 110%. (What debt? We see no debt!)
Of the original Maastricht signatories, only France and the UK squeezed through on this condition.
Despite this fudge, ten of the twelve Maastricht signatories went ahead and adopted the euro in 1999 and as circulating currency in 2002. The UK had dropped out of the EMU in September 1992, and Greece was so obviously non-compliant its entry was delayed by two years.
A Middle Road on Interest Rates
Until the Lehman crisis, national interest rates had converged toward Germany’s under the aegis of a common monetary policy. The ECB’s interest rate policy was necessarily a compromise. At one end of the spectrum were the low rates previously enjoyed by the economies with solid savings rates. These were Germany, Luxembourg, Finland, the Netherlands, and Austria.
At the other end were the bad boys: notably Greece and Italy. In 1992, when Maastricht was signed, Greece’s overnight lending rate was 28%. By 1996, when the Commission released its first convergence report, it had fallen to 12.8%. When Greece joined the euro in 2001, it had fallen to 3.3%. Italy’s 3-month interbank rate fell from 13% to 9%, and then to 3.4% at these same times.
The ECB’s task was not helped by the careless assumption that savings rates were a drag on consumption. Capital which had originated as credit expansion instead of genuine savings migrated to nations with higher bond yields, first as a trickle but then in increasing quantities as confidence grew that monetary unification under the euro was there to stay. This being the case, it was believed by investors that investing in Italian and Spanish debt was as safe as investing in German and French debt for less return.
The capital flows into these savings-starved nations boosted their asset prices and GDPs. And the more that credit-originated capital flooded into them, the more asset prices and GDPs benefited. This meant that based on improving statistics, the euro was deemed a great success, lifting the Mediterranean nations out of poverty. The reality was that capital flows ended up in malinvestments and government profligacy. No one thought to complain, and Germany’s sound-money men were silenced by those who pointed to Germany’s growing exports to the high-spending euro members.
Financing Bubbles and Sowing the Seeds of Today's Crises
In this manner, the ECB’s monetary policy gave impetus to localized credit cycles, particularly for the PIGS and Ireland. Asset booms were turned into bubbles, which finally burst in the wake of the Lehman crisis. The EU’s monetary system was then saddled with trillions of euros of debt that could never be repaid, and the PIGS suddenly found further finance from the markets was unavailable. Interest rate convergence was reversing. Furthermore, the whole Eurozone banking system was threatened with collapse, which always happens when extreme credit bubbles go pop.
Member states had no realistic option but to bail out their banks, and public sector borrowing rocketed, funded by the EU, the ECB, and the IMF. The crisis in Greece was worsened when in late 2009 the government was forced to admit it had lied about its budget deficit for years, and finally admitted to a far higher current-year deficit than previously disclosed. Greece’s 2009 budget deficit was doubled from about 7.5% to 15.1%. The rise in bond yields meant Greece was unable to continue to fund her deficits and roll over existing debt and capital fled to supposedly safer Eurozone jurisdictions.
The Greek crisis is likely to serve as an instructive prelude to numerous other crises that will emerge during the next bust — especially in Italy.
But don't blame the euro itself. When we blame the euro for these ills, we're letting politicians and central bankers — who have only ever viewed the euro as a stepping-stone toward their grand objectives — off the hook.