Forget the wolf pack – the ongoing euro crisis was caused by EMU

Monday, May 17, 2010
By Paul Martin

Jean-Claude Trichet tells us the world faced a second Lehman crash in the days and hours before EU leaders launched their €720bn (£612bn) defence fund. If the European Central Bank’s president is correct, we are in trouble. The EU-IMF package is already unravelling. What will the West do for its next trick?

By Ambrose Evans-Pritchard
TelegraphUK

Mr Trichet was ash-white at the Brussels summit a week ago. He distributed charts of credit stress to every eurozone leader. By the time he had finished his hair-raising discourse, everybody round the table finally understood what they faced.

“The markets had ceased to function,” he told Der Spiegel. “There is still a risk of contagion. It can happen extremely fast, sometimes within hours.”

The spreads on Greek, Iberian, and Irish bonds have, of course, dropped since the ECB stepped in with direct purchases. But the euro rally fizzled fast, to be followed by a fresh plunge to a 18-month low of $1.24 against the dollar. European bank stocks have buckled again. Spain’s IBEX index fell 6.6pc in capitulation fever on Friday.

Geneva professor Charles Wyplosz said EU leaders made the error of overselling up their “shock and awe” package before establishing any political mechanism to mobilise such sums. “The fund is an empty shell,” he wrote at Vox EU. “Worse still, crucial principles have been sacrificed for the sake of unconvincing announcements.”

Brussels was unwise to talk of smashing the “wolf pack” speculators and defeat the “worldwide organised attack” on the eurozone. As Napoleon said, if you set out to take Vienna, take Vienna. Besides, the language of the EU priesthood – ex-ECB board member Tomasso Padoa-Schioppa talks of the advancing battalions of the “anti-euro army” – frightens Chinese and Mid-East investors needed to soak up EU debt. These metaphors are a mental flight from the issue at hand, which is that vast imbalances – masked by EMU, indeed made possible only by EMU – have been decorked by the Greek crisis and now pose a danger to the entire world.

One can only guess what Mr Trichet meant when he said we are living through “the most difficult situation since the Second World War, and perhaps the First”. Is this worse than Credit Anstalt in the summer of 1931, the event that brought down central Europe’s banking system and tipped Europe into depression?

Or was Mr Trichet alluding to something else after witnessing the Brussels tantrum by President Nicolas Sarkozy? According to El Pais, Mr Sarkozy threatened to pull France out of the euro and break the Franco-German axis at the heart of the EU project unless Germany capitulated. To utter such threats is to bring them about. You cannot treat Germany in that fashion.

Chancellor Angela Merkel has put the best face on a deal that has so damaged her leadership. “If the euro fails, then Europe fails and the idea of European unity fails,” she said. Too late, I think. The German nation is moving on. I was struck by a piece in the Frankfurter Allgemeine proposing a new “hard currency” made up of Germany, Austria, Benelux, Finland, the Czech Republic, and Poland, but without France. The piece entitled The Alternative says deflation policies may push Greece to the brink of “civil war” and concludes that Europe would better off if it abandoned the attempt to hold together two incompatible halves. “It can be done,” the piece says.

What makes this crisis so dangerous is not just that Europe’s banks are still reeling, with wafer-thin capital ratios. The new twist is that markets are no longer sure whether sovereign states are strong enough to shoulder rescue costs. The IMF warned in last week’s Fiscal Monitor that the tail risk of a “widespread loss of confidence in fiscal solvency” could no longer be ignored. By 2015 public debt will be 250pc in Japan, 125pc in Italy, 110pc in the US, 95pc in France, and 91pc in the UK.

There is a way out of this crisis, but it is not the policy of wage deflation imposed on Ireland, Greece, Portugal, and Spain, with Italy now also mulling an austerity package. This can only lead to a debt-deflation spiral. The IMF admits that Greece’s public debt will rise to 150pc of GDP even after its squeeze, and that Spain’s budget deficit will still be 7.7pc of GDP in 2015.

The only viable policies – short of breaking up EMU or imposing capital controls – is to offset fiscal cuts with monetary stimulus for as long it takes. Will it happen, given the conflicting ideologies of Germany and Club Med? Probably not. The ECB denies that it is engaged in Fed-style quantitative easing, vowing to sterilise its bond purchases “euro for euro”. If they mean it, they must doom southern Europe to depression. No democracy will immolate itself on the altar of monetary union for long.

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