The euro crisis just got a whole lot worse


Jeremy WarnerWith Europe plunging back into recession and unemployment soaring, Francois Hollande, the French president elect, is calling for growth objectives to be reprioritised over the chemotherapy of austerity.

Riot policemen lead away a right-wing protestor holding a placard reading

Riot policemen lead away a protester holding a placard reading ‘Let’s get out of the Euro’ during May Day demonstrations in Neumuenster, Germany Photo: Reuters

Angela Merkel, the German Chancellor, has meanwhile continued to insist that on the contrary, Europe must persist with the hairshirt. What’s needed is political courage and creativity, not more billions thrown away in fiscal stimulus. Stick with the programme, she urges, as the anti-austerity backlash reaches the point of outright political insurrection.

Hollande and Merkel are, of course, both wrong. What Europe really needs is a return to free-floating sovereign currencies. Only then will Europe’s seemingly interminable debt crisis be lastingly resolved. All the rest is just so much prancing around the goalposts, or an attempt to make the fundamentally unworkable somehow work.

The latest eurozone data are truly shocking, much worse in its implications both for us and them than news last week of a double-dip recession in the UK.

Even in Germany, unemployment is now rising, with a lot more to come judging by the sharp deterioration in manufacturing confidence. For Spanish youth, unemployment has become a way of life, with more young people now out of a job (51.1pc) than in one. In contrast to the US, where the unemployment rate is falling, joblessness in the eurozone as a whole has now reached nearly 11pc. Against these eye-popping numbers, Britain might almost reasonably take pride in its still intolerable 8.3pc unemployment rate.

There is only one boom business in Spain these days – teaching English and German. No prizes for guessing where these students are heading.

Hollande’s opportunism in calling for a growth strategy he must know cannot be delivered looks like being answered only by intensifying recession. Maybe Mario Draghi, president of the European Central Bank, will surprise us after Thursday’s meeting with a rate cut and a eurozone-wide programme of quantitative easing. But even if he did, it wouldn’t fix the underlying problem, which is one of lost competitiveness manifested in ever more intractable levels of external indebtedness.

To think these problems can be solved either by fiscal austerity or, as advocated by Hollande and others, by its polar opposite of fiscal expansionism is to descend into fantasy.

By reinforcing the cycle, and thereby exacerbating the slump, fiscal austerity is proving self-defeating. Far from easing the problem of excessive indebtedness, it is only making it worse.

But it is equally absurd to believe that countries in the midst of a fiscal crisis can borrow their way back to growth. Who is going to lend with the certainty of a haircut or eurozone break-up to come?

I’ve been looking at the comparative numbers on fiscal consolidation, and they reveal some striking differences. The hairshirt prescribed for others is most assuredly not being donned by austerity’s cheerleader in chief, Germany.

In fact, German government consumption is continuing to rise quite strongly, even in real terms, and the fiscal squeeze pencilled in by Berlin for itself for the next three years is marginal compared with virtually everyone else. Germany is requiring others to adopt policies it has no intention of following itself. What’s so odd about that, you might ask?

Right to spend

Germany has earned the right to spend through years of prior restraint. It’s got no structural deficit to speak of and, in any case, isn’t that the way things are meant to work, with those capable of some fiscal expansionism compensating for the squeeze imposed by others?

All these things are true, but there is something faintly hypocritical about a country prescribing policy for others that it wouldn’t dream of imposing on itself. Germany’s supposed love of self-flagellation is actually something of a myth.

By the way, despite the rhetoric, Britain is hardly an outrider on austerity either. Now admittedly, the Coalition’s plans for fiscal consolidation have been somewhat derailed by economic stagnation. We were meant to be further along than we are. But in terms of what’s left to do, the UK is no more than middle of the pack.

On current plans, by contrast, the fiscal squeeze in the US, land of supposed fiscal expansionism, ratchets up substantially to something quite a bit bigger than what the UK has pencilled in for the next two years. It remains to be seen what effect that’s going to have on the American recovery. Will renewed growth melt away as surely as it did in early 2011, or is it self-sustaining this time?

Back in the eurozone, the stand-off between creditor and debtor nations shows few, if any, signs of meaningful resolution. During the recession of the early 1990s, there was a famous British Property Federation dinner at which the chairman introduced the then chief executive of Barclays Bank, Andrew Buxton, as “a man to whom we owe, er, more than we can ever repay”. It was a good joke, but it also neatly encapsulated what happens in all debt crises.

When the debtor borrows more than he can afford, the creditor will in the end always take a hit. The only thing left to talk about is how the burden is to be shared. The idea that you can force the debtor to repay by depriving him of his means of income is a logical absurdity, yet this is effectively what’s going on in the eurozone.

When such imbalances develop between countries, they are normally settled by devaluation, which provides a natural market mechanism both for restoring competitiveness in the debtor nation and establishing the correct level of burden sharing.

Least tortuous form of default

It’s default in all but name, but it is the least tortuous form of it.  Free-floating sovereign exchange rates also provide a natural check on the build-up of such imbalances in the first place.

The reason things got so out of hand in the eurozone is that investors assumed in lending to the periphery that they were effectively underwritten by the core, mistakenly as it turned out. Interest rates therefore converged on those of the most creditworthy, Germany, allowing an unrestrained credit boom to develop in the deficit nations.

None of this is going to be solved by austerity. For now, there is no majority in any eurozone country for leaving the single currency, but one thing is certain: nation states won’t allow themselves to be locked into permanent recession. Eventually, national solutions will be sought.

The whole thing is held together only by the fear that leaving will induce something even worse than the current austerity. This is not a formula for lasting monetary union.

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