My new book, Financial Turmoil in Europe and the United States,1 tries to explain and, to the extent possible, predict the outcome of the euro crisis. It follows the same pattern as my other books: it contains an updated version of my conceptual approach and the application of that approach to a particular situation, and it presents a real-time experiment to test the validity of my interpretation. Its account is not complete because the crisis is still ongoing.
We remain in the acute phase of the crisis; the prospect of a meltdown of the global financial system has not been removed. In my book, I proposed a plan that would bring immediate relief to global financial markets but it has not been adopted.
My proposal is to use the European Financial Stability Facility (EFSF), and its successor the European Stability Mechanism (ESM), to insure the European Central Bank (ECB) against the solvency risk on any newly issued Italian or Spanish treasury bills they may buy from commercial banks.2 Banks could then hold those bills as the equivalent of cash, enabling Italy and Spain to refinance their debt at close to 1 percent. Italy, for instance, would see its average cost of borrowing decline rather than increase from the current 4.3 percent. This would put their debt on a sustainable course and protect them against the threat of an impending Greek default. I call this the Padoa-Schioppa plan, in memory of my friend who helped stabilize Italy’s finances in the 1990s and who inspired the proposal. The plan is rather complicated, but it is both legally and technically sound. I describe it in detail in my book.
The European financial authorities rejected this plan in favor of the Long-Term Refinancing Operation (LTRO) of the European Central Bank, which provides unlimited amounts of liquidity to European banks—not to states themselves—for up to three years. That allows Italian and Spanish banks to buy the bonds of their own country and engage in a very profitable “carry trade”—in which one borrows at low interest to buy something that will pay higher interest—in those bonds at practically no risk because if the country defaulted the banks would be insolvent anyhow.
The difference between the two schemes is that mine would provide an instant reduction in interest costs to governments while the one actually adopted has kept the countries and their banks hovering on the edge of a potential insolvency. I am not sure whether the authorities have deliberately prolonged the crisis atmosphere in order to maintain pressure on heavily indebted countries or whether they were driven to their course of action by divergent views that they could not reconcile in any other way. As a disciple of Karl Popper, I ought to opt for the second alternative. Which interpretation is correct is not inconsequential, because the Padoa-Schioppa plan is still available and could be implemented at any time as long as the remaining funds of the EFSF are not otherwise committed.
Either way, it is Germany that dictates European policy because at times of crisis the creditors are in the driver’s seat. The trouble is that the cuts in government expenditures that Germany wants to impose on other countries will push Europe into a deflationary debt trap. Reducing budget deficits will put both wages and profits under downward pressure, the economies will contract, and tax revenues will fall. So the debt burden, which is a ratio of the accumulated debt to the GDP, will actually rise, requiring further budget cuts, setting in motion a vicious circle.
To be sure, I am not accusing Germany of acting in bad faith. It genuinely believes in the policies it is advocating. Germany is the most successful economy in Europe. Why should not the rest of Europe be like it? But it is pursuing an impossibility. In a closed system like the euro clearing system, everybody cannot be a creditor at the same time. The fact that a counterproductive policy is being imposed by Germany creates a very dangerous political dynamic. Instead of bringing the member countries closer together it will drive them to mutual recriminations. There is a real danger that the euro will undermine the political cohesion of the European Union.
The evolution of the European Union is following a course that greatly resembles a sequence of boom and bust or a financial bubble. That is no accident. Both processes are “reflexive,” that is, as I have argued elsewhere, they are largely driven by mistakes and misconceptions.
In the boom phase the European Union was what the British psychologist David Tuckett calls a “fantastic object”—an unreal but attractive object of desire. To my mind, it represented the embodiment of an open society—another fantastic object. It was an association of nations founded on the principles of democracy, human rights, and the rule of law that is not dominated by any nation or nationality. Its creation was a feat of piecemeal social engineering led by a group of far-sighted statesmen who understood that the fantastic object itself was not within their reach. They set limited objectives and firm timelines and then mobilized the political will for a small step forward, knowing full well that when they accomplished it, its inadequacy would become apparent and require a further step.
That is how the European Coal and Steel Community was gradually transformed into the European Union, step by step. During the boom period Germany was the main driving force. When the Soviet empire started to fall apart, Germany’s leaders realized that reunification of their country was possible only in a more united Europe. They needed the political support of other European powers, and they were willing to make considerable sacrifices to obtain it. When it came to bargaining they were willing to contribute a little more and take a little less than the others, thereby facilitating agreement. At that time, German statesmen used to assert that Germany had no independent foreign policy, only a European policy. The process—the boom, if you will—culminated with the Maastricht Treaty in 1992 and the introduction of the euro in 2002. It was followed by a period of stagnation that turned into a process of disintegration after the crash of 2008.
The euro was an incomplete currency and its architects knew it. The Maastricht Treaty established a monetary union without a political union. The euro boasted a common central bank to provide liquidity, but it lacked a common treasury that would be able to deal with solvency risk in times of crisis. The architects had good reason to believe, however, that when the time came further steps would be taken toward a political union. But the euro also had some other defects of which the architects were unaware and that are not fully understood even today. These defects contributed to setting in motion a process of disintegration.
The fathers of the euro relied on an interpretation of financial markets that proved its inadequacy in the crash of 2008. They believed, in particular, that only the public sector is capable of producing unacceptable economic imbalances; the invisible hand of the market would correct the imbalances produced by markets. In addition, they believed that