Some euros are more equal than others: trade imbalances and debt crises

WHY WERE leaders of European Union countries so determined to establish a monetary union among member states despite the setbacks and shocks experienced in the first decades of such an attempt at creating a common currency? In part it was a response to the collapse of Bretton Woods, and in part it was viewed by committed European federalists as a way to push the pace of political integration. There was a widespread belief stretching back to the Gold Exchange Standard that a common currency would ensure price stability and predictability, eliminate the risk of changes in exchange rates and therefore boost trade. For the European deficit states, the susceptibility of their currencies to repeated devaluations against the Deutschmark was viewed as an economic and political vulnerability, which caused inflation that reduced the purchasing power of both rich and poor. Meanwhile, from the mid-1980s the expanding US deficit had allowed both Germany and the EEC as a whole to generate a trade surplus. For the technocrats that had already set up shop in the limited European community administrative bodies, the creation of the euro would speed up the process of political integration and movement towards a European federation.

A shared currency with different motivations

Successive French governments had repeated the call for a European monetary union since Giscard d’Estaing first proposed it in 1964, with a view to reining in German power – and to make it easier to impose wage restraint on French workers, by comparing their wages with those of German workers. French national expertise in constructing political institutions would also be able to shine in a European administration. Germany had dragged its heels on such a union for decades, largely because of a fear that a fixed exchange rate between the franc and the Deutschmark would require the Bundesbank to print more money to prop up the franc, causing inflation that had been regarded with profound dread by Germans since their experience of the hyper-inflation of the 1920s, a dread that continues to define German monetary policy today.

The typical explanation regarding the creation of the Economic and Monetary Union (EMU) found in history books is that Germany finally agreed to the long-standing French call for a monetary union after the fall of the Berlin Wall in exchange for French acceptance of Germany’s reunification. But it was also created to accommodate Germany’s export-led economic strategy. The Deutschmark’s sky-high value in the wake of the collapse of Bretton Woods was a reminder to Germany that if the Deutschmark’s exchange rate was to float freely its value could rise indefinitely, making its exports too expensive and destroying its trade surplus strategy. Competitive currency devaluations were successfully reducing Germany’s trade surpluses with the countries that used them during the 1980s. Germany needed some way of locking its exchange rate to other currencies after the demise of the dollar zone. The ERM was viewed as a partial solution to these problems by German political leaders and the Bundesbank. But the speculative attacks on the currency fluctuations possible within the ERM that caused its collapse in 1992 led Germany to finally accept the creation of a common currency – on the condition that the deflationary debt and deficit rules of the Maastricht convergence criteria were accepted by its neighbours, of course.

Germany’s biggest export – stagnation

The question of how to deal with chronic, persistent trade imbalances within a common currency area was resolved to a large degree under the Bretton Woods system by the American commitment to spend its surplus internationally – its direct injection of capital into the economies of its capitalist allies during the duration of the system through aid and then investment. In this way, the US exported its goods but it also exported demand. The German model, on the contrary, aims to export its goods and import demand from other countries. In this way, the biggest German export can said to be stagnation. Instead of playing a role of recycling surplus profits, generating growth and stabilising the international economic system, the persistent German surplus plays a destabilising and deflationary role in the monetary union.

China has faced much criticism internationally in recent years for consistently running a large trade (or current account) surplus, but Germany’s trade surpluses have been almost twice as high as China’s in recent years as a percentage of GDP. China has made a conscious effort to reduce its economic dependence on exports, while Germany recorded a record surplus in the first half of 2017. Large and persistent trade surpluses are a problem because the sum of all surpluses has to equal the sum of all deficits. As discussed above, in stable economic periods, the banks in surplus countries can lend to borrowers in deficit countries, maintaining a semblance of balance, but in a crisis this surplus recycling measure comes to a sudden stop. But chronic surpluses also cause an overall decline in demand. The surplus countries are exporting goods but they are spending less than they are making in income.

Keynes called this the paradox of thrift – the phenomenon where when a country’s population saves their money during a downturn this actually causes a fall in aggregate demand, while total savings are not actually increased. Savings must equal investment, so if the level of investment remains the same, the level of savings must also remain the same. People might save a higher proportion of their income, but the only way the level of savings can change is if there is a reduction in the level of income. Stiglitz argues that the global economy today “is in this precise position, with a deficiency of aggregate demand leading to slow growth and 200 million unemployed. This deficiency of demand is the cause of what many call global secular stagnation” (secular meaning long-term stagnation as opposed to cyclical stagnation).

Trade imbalances cause debt crises

Trade imbalances do not only contribute to stagnation. Countries who run deficits must borrow the gap between what they export and what they import, meaning they have to take on more debt and become exposed to the risk of a debt crisis. If the country’s exchange rate can be devalued, then the external imbalance can be gradually reduced as the deficit country’s exports become more competitive on the global market. But inside a currency union, the option of exchange rate adjustment disappears. The main alternative way for a deficit country inside a currency union to regain trade balance is by an ‘internal devaluation’. This is when the nominal exchange rate remains fixed, but the real exchange rate falls as local prices in the deficit country drop, which makes its exports more competitive. (The nominal exchange rate sets the amount of foreign currency that can exchanged for a unit of the domestic currency, while the real exchange rate takes into account local prices and indicates how much goods in the domestic economy can be exchanged for goods in a foreign country.)

In a currency peg system, participating countries are not only prone to experiencing high or long-term unemployment, as they lack the ability to change their exchange rates and interest rates after a shock; they are also very susceptible to debt crises. In the absence of successful internal devaluation, deficit countries with a misaligned exchange rate seeking to finance the gap between their imports and exports rely on capital inflows. If foreign direct investment is not forthcoming then the only option is debt. But if the misalignment in the exchange rate is persistent, then the debt mountain grows until creditors fear it will not be repaid, usually resulting in a sudden stop of credit.

The Irish economy, Spain, Greece and others received huge capital flows after the creation of the euro in 1999, as a result of the elimination of exchange-rate risk. These countries were able to run deficits but also maintain employment and experience growth as a result of the low interest rates they were allowed to borrow at, and the small risk premium on government bonds (the extra amount that was added to the government bonds to compensate for the perceived extra risk associated with lending to that country). Both Ireland and Spain experienced massive housing bubbles based on speculative inflows of capital throughout the 2000s, while neither country imposed any effective measures to cool the heat.

Economist and writer Martin Wolf comments in his book on the financial crisis, The Shifts and the Shocks, that the belief among the Eurozone’s founders was that the problem of trade imbalances would no longer matter in a currency union, “as exchange-rate risks would vanish and payment disequilibria within the area would be smoothly offset by private capital flows”. But “these expectations proved delusional; the sovereign debt crisis in the Eurozone in 2010-12 started as a fully-fledged balance-of-payments crisis… prompted by the accumulation of large payment imbalances between its members and reflecting persistent underlying divergences in prices and costs”. These countries that were running trade deficits based on private and government debt due to the misalignment of their exchange rates then experienced the sudden stop of credit brought about by the global financial crisis, causing creditors to doubt their debts would be repaid. The common currency meant that these countries were forced to turn to the so-called Troika of the European Commission, the ECB and the IMF to be bailed out.

The euro, in this way, is somehow both a domestic and a foreign currency for its members. It is less risky for people, firms and governments to borrow in local currency markets than to borrow in foreign currency. To prevent a debt crisis developing, the government can print more of the local currency to repay creditors. But for Eurozone members, they were borrowing in a supposedly “local” currency that they could not then control. The nature of the Eurozone changed as soon as some members of the monetary union owed other members, Stiglitz argues. “Rather than a partnership of equals striving to adopt policies that benefit each other, the ECB and Eurozone authorities have become credit collection agencies for the lender nations, with Germany particularly influential”. The deficit countries dependent on creditor countries and the ECB are then vulnerable to any and all political and economic demands made by the creditors.

In their study of financial crises over eight centuries, Carmen Reinhart and Kenneth Rogoff identify several key features as having strong correlations with banking crises, all of which applied in the Eurozone. They note that in an analysis of banking crises after 1970, in 18 out of 26 of those studied the financial sector had been liberalised within the previous five years. They also identify a major correlation between removing restrictions on capital mobility and the incidence of banking crises over centuries. “Periods of high international capital mobility have repeatedly produced international banking crises, not only famously as they did in the 1990s, but historically”.

A further common feature they identify is that in the lead-up to banking crises there is often what they call a “capital flow bonanza” – a surge of capital inflows of roughly a few per cent of GDP on a multiyear basis, and the tendency to run a large current account deficit. While the liberalisation of the financial sector is by no means limited to the Eurozone, the free movement of capital and persistent trade imbalance problems inherent in the Eurozone, due to its design, make the common currency area prone to crises.

Capital defies gravity

After the signing of the Maastricht Treaty in 1992, the interest rates across the euro area converged towards the low level predominant in Germany. At the same time, in taking steps to lower inflation to the 3 per cent limit required for entry into the common currency, governments implemented deflationary measures that compressed wages. These low interest rates, lower real wages and the removal of all restrictions on capital flows as well as financial deregulation in the euro area combined to cause massive influxes of capital into the peripheral economies, and a massive expansion of both private and government debt in these countries. These trends reached new heights in the years leading up to the crisis, causing worsening trade imbalances and divergence.

From 2003 to 2007, net capital outflows from Germany were on average 45 per cent of its GDP. By comparison, the net capital inflows into Greece over the same period was 37.5 per cent of GDP; in Portugal the net inflow was 36.6 per cent of GDP and in Spain it was 29.1 per cent. A large majority of these inflows came in the form of credit. In the Irish state, house prices doubled in real terms between 1995 and 2005, and then continued to rise. From 2003 until 2007 lending to households in the Irish state expanded at one of the highest rates in the Eurozone, with the exposure by German banks reaching more than US$200 billion.

The once-popular view outlined by Wolf above and expounded by free-market fundamentalists – that trade imbalances would be offset and rectified by private capital flows – proved to be completely false. Instead of playing a balancing and stabilising role in the Eurozone economy, the completely free movement of capital generated massive speculative bubbles, and the abrupt reversal of capital flows from 2008 shows that these capital flows have operated in a pro-cyclical instead of counter-cyclical way. (Pro-cyclical policies exacerbate economic and financial fluctuations, while counter-cyclical policies aim to decrease fluctuations.) If the free movement of capital operated in a counter-cyclical way, as was claimed, then it would flow to weak countries when they were in trouble, instead of doing precisely the opposite.

While there is a single interest rate across the Eurozone, set by the ECB, the risk premium on government bonds and bank debt in different countries means the actual interest rate differs significantly across the common currency area. The perceived risk in lending to a weaker country is reflected in the spread of interest rates. Where economies are viewed as strong (and governments viewed as being capable of bailing out their banks), their banks will benefit from lower interest rates. Weaker countries and their companies have to pay a higher interest rate. During a crisis, capital flees to the ‘safe’ countries’ banks. Since 2008 capital has flowed dramatically from the poorer countries to the rich – not only in the Eurozone but across the global economy – with a large proportion of global capital fleeing to the US as a result of the US government’s perceived ability (and political commitment) to bail out the banks. Inside the Eurozone, the trend has been for capital flight from banks in the periphery to the core, particularly Germany. Stiglitz notes: “Standard economics is based on the gravity principle: money moves from capital-rich countries with low returns to countries with capital shortage. But in Europe under the Euro, capital and labor defy gravity. Money flowed upward”.

The proposed European Deposit Insurance Scheme, the so-called third pillar of the EU’s Banking Union following a single rulebook and single supervision, was dreamt up as a way to reduce this tendency. It is one of the few proposals emanating from the Commission and the leaders of the EU that would could actually effectively reduce divergence in the Eurozone, and reduce the incentive for capital flight from the weak to the strong countries. It could work as a form of institutionalised surplus recycling during a downturn or a period of crisis for the periphery – and for that reason it is being resisted by Germany and has been put on the legislative back-burner. The lack of a common deposit insurance scheme makes the Eurozone “structurally vulnerable” to bank runs according to Wolf.

Betting on default

The so-called sovereign debt crisis saw the global financial crisis shift to inside the euro area, where it still remains, due to the structural flaws in the architecture of the Eurozone. The ‘foreign currency’ nature of the euro – the fact that countries couldn’t create the money they were borrowing in – meant that the belief by investors in the years following the creation of the common currency that all Eurozone government bonds were equal was short-lived. From 2007-2009 the spreads between government bonds in Greece and government bonds in Germany (‘bunds’) increased tenfold up to 2.8 percentage points, with the market giving its ‘verdict’ on the creditworthiness of the Eurozone’s deficit countries. This increased again to a differential of almost 4 percentage points by April 2010, when the Greek government found itself unable to keep funding itself from international money markets. After the Greek default, the markets turned to train their sights on Ireland.

Former Greek Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis describes this ‘market verdict’ of risk strikingly: “Suddenly [in 2009-2010] hedge funds and banks alike had an epiphany. Why not use some of the public money they had been given [in the mass bank bailouts] to bet that, sooner or later, the strain on public finances (caused by the recession on one hand, which depressed the governments’ tax take, and the huge increase in public debt on the other, for which the banks were themselves responsible) would cause one or more of the Eurozone’s states to default?” The most common way to place these bets was through credit default swaps, which are basically insurance policies that pay out in the case of a default by a third party. As the CDS casino on sovereign debt in the Eurozone grew – instead of this capital being directed towards productive investment or economic recovery – the rising value of CDSs in Greece, Ireland and the other peripheral economies caused the interest rates these countries were forced to pay to rise, pushing them towards the cliff.

Ireland defaulted in December 2010, followed by Portugal and Cyprus. Portugal hadn’t gone through a bubble bursting like Ireland but had experienced a long period of stagnation as a consequence of joining the euro at a very uncompetitive exchange rate that it was then locked into. Cyprus imposed capital controls on euros leaving the country between 2013 and 2015 in fear its partial ‘bail-in’ of deposits would prompt massive capital flight. Iceland had done the same in 2008 but this was the first time capital controls had ever been used in the Eurozone. The Treaty on the Functioning of the EU states that capital controls can only be “justified on grounds of public policy or public security” and that such measures should “not constitute a means of arbitrary discrimination or a disguised restriction on the free movement of capital and payments” (Articles 63 and 65), prompting threats of legal action.

The existential crisis of the Eurozone began in 2011 when the CDS bets on Spain and Italy defaulting caused the spreads in the government bonds of these two countries to diverge from bunds by between three and six percentage points, yield rates that had pushed Greece, Ireland and Portugal over the edge. Spain received a recapitalisation package for its banks but it was not a fully-fledged bailout. Italy’s public debt was around four times the amount of the Eurozone rescue fund.

The European Financial Stability Fund (EFSF) was created in 2010 as a temporary vehicle to finance bailouts, and was made permanent in 2013, becoming the European Financial Stability Mechanism (EFSM). The EFSF and EFSM were created to bail out banks, not states. Varoufakis likens the Eurobonds issued by the EFSF to the toxic collateralised debt obligations (CDOs) peddled by Wall Street in the lead-up to the crisis. CDOs were instruments that included ‘slices’ of different bank loans, each with a different level of risk and a different interest rate. The rationale behind CDOs was that by pooling together risky loans with less risky assets, the overall risk profile would be lowered – the CDO would be able to gain a higher credit rating – and they would be more profitable for investors. The “mix was toxic because if one slice within a CDO went bad, that increased the risk of a default by the next slice”. Unbelievably, the same structure and rationale that underpinned the disastrous CDO was used by the EFSF when issuing Eurobonds for lending to the Irish state, and later other countries subject to Troika intervention. Each Eurozone state was required to make a guarantee according to the size of their GDP, and these guarantee from states with wildly diverse credit ratings were then bundled together as bonds. Weaker countries were charged higher interest rates, increasing the pressure on the next weakest state to fall. The EFSM is now a permanent body called the European Stability Mechanism (ESM).

This is an excerpt from the economic discussion document launched by MEP Matt Carthy on October 27, entitled The Future of the Eurozone. Download the full document for a referenced version of Chapter Three, above.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s