Europe needs to show it has a crisis endgame

The eurozone must end its fiscal ambiguity

The last few days have reminded me of the speculative attacks on sterling
and the Italian lira in September 1992. Europe’s
finance ministers and central bankers at the time reacted with anger and
incomprehension. Sterling’s
central parity in the exchange rate mechanism was as unsustainable then as Greek public finances or Spanish
wages are today. Today’s financial markets correctly perceive the eurozone as
not addressing the imbalances. They are confused by shifting signals from Germany and
France about a bail-out
. Investors have concluded that the probability of a
contagious default is rising. They are right.

What has not changed since the 1992 crisis is that European policymakers and
their economic advisers still lack a basic understanding of how financial
markets react to policies or, in this case, to a lack of policies. At the
moment, it is totally unclear what would happen should one eurozone country
become unable to refinance its debt. I suspect there will be a bail-out, but I
am no longer as certain as I once was.

The least helpful suggestion in this situation – one that has already contributed
to investor panic last week – is to let the International
Monetary Fund sort out the mess
. The argument is that the European
Union is not in a position
to provide emergency aid in an effective manner
and that the IMF has the experience, personnel and the
instruments to do so.

That is all true, but advocates of an IMF-led bail-out conveniently ignore
the disastrous signal that this would send to the financial markets about where
the eurozone is heading in the future. It would demonstrate that the eurozone
was incapable of sorting out its own problems. The eurozone might end up losing
so much credibility that investors started treating it not as a monetary union
but as a fixed exchange rate system with a finite time horizon.

One large investor I spoke to last week about IMF involvement immediately
invoked the comparison with Argentina.
was not willing to devalue. Greece
is not in a position to do so. IMF-led programmes work better when currencies
are allowed to devalue, as otherwise the adjustment would have to come
exclusively through a fall in wages and brutal fiscal austerity. If the IMF
came in, Greece might well
go the same way as Argentina.

It would be so much better if the eurozone were to sort out its own
problems. That would require a strategy that went beyond the route
by the bloc’s stability and growth
. The problem is the lack of a credible endgame. The pact contains
detailed procedures of what happens when a government fails to comply with the
wishes of other members, but it does not go beyond its ultimate sanction – a
fine. Yet what is the point of fining an insolvent state? The endgame is still
default – and contagion.

So why is Europe’s policy establishment not
working actively to establish robust anti-crisis policies? I heard it said in Paris and in Berlin
last week that a bail-out signal would be misunderstood by the Greek public. It
would end all efforts at consolidation. My answer to that is that it would
depend on what signal policymakers were sending and what conditions were
attached to the bail-out. Naturally you would want to make it unattractive, to
avoid concerns about moral hazard. It would also have to involve at least a
partial loss of sovereignty. No country in its right mind should want to take
the money. Any that accepted it should know that it would have to live with
highly undesirable consequences.

Such a system would not necessarily avoid default at all times, but it would
help to prevent
automatic contagion
. Countries that do not accept the conditions could
still default but, in that event, other countries could have the choice to
prevent a spillover by complying with the agreed procedure.

At the moment, in the absence of any framework, the threat of a default is
transmitted automatically from the first to the next vulnerable country. Last
week, the stock market fell even
more in Madrid and Lisbon
than in Athens.
And, lest we forget, other European countries might also be vulnerable. Austria could still be drowned
by its banking crisis
; Belgium
has a much higher level of debt than either Spain
or Portugal
and a financial sector heavily shaken by the global crisis. As worries
spread north, serious investors might be tempted to bet serious money on a
eurozone break-up.

At their special
economic summit this Thursday
, EU leaders should focus on the crisis rather
than debating diffuse microeconomic reforms. More money for research and
development is not the answer here. The EU needs to send out an urgent signal
that it is willing to devise a robust anti-crisis policy. There is no need for
such a policy to be in place this week, but the summit should give a clear
signal to the world that the eurozone will sort out its own problems.

The policy will need to do the job, it will need to be compliant with
current EU law – including the no bail-out
– and it must include sufficient disincentives for any potential
recipient. The EU summit is probably the last chance to end the ambiguity that Europe’s headless finance ministers and the European
Commission have created. The EU needs to give investors its own vision of an
endgame. Otherwise we are back to 1992.

This piece was first published in The Financial Times on 7 February 2010


The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


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