- By Phil LevyPhil Levy teaches international economics at Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs.
The conquering of the euro crisis seems like something out of a fairy tale. Faced with a gut-wrenching peril, our hero closes his eyes and chants an incantation: "Whatever it takes!" Suddenly, once-insurmountable troubles melt away and everyone lives happily ever after.
So what happened? Was it all in our minds? Was the episode anything more than a panicked bunch of bond traders, stampeding toward a precipice but now safely pacified and redirected?
As last summer turned into fall, Italy and Spain were wobbling. The two countries — the third and fourth largest economies in the eurozone — saw their bonds shunned by global investors. For the heavily indebted pair, a bond sell-off meant that interest rates rose and disaster loomed. At some point, the high price of borrowing would become unbearable. The eurozone nations had gathered funds to try to avert a crisis, but the sum would not be enough to cover the needs of such large member economies.
Then Mario Draghi, head of the European Central Bank, stepped in to save the day. He announced that the ECB would do whatever it took to save the currency. If extra funds were needed, the ECB would provide them through a program it called Outright Monetary Transactions — the unlimited purchase of troubled nation bonds once those countries asked for help.
The effect of his announcement was dramatic. Bond yields fell as buyers relaxed. While the previous bailout fund might have been limited, the ECB’s ability to print money and buy bonds was not. The restoration of calm was so successful that the ECB did not have to actually do a thing — the mere announcement that it was willing to act relieved the pressure on Spanish and Italian borrowing.
It is hardly a novel idea to think that a dangerous market panic could be settled by words alone, so long as those words were credible and uttered by the right person. So, do we mark this up as an instance of judicious intervention? A daring move by Mario Draghi that saved the European project and merited his selection as the Financial Times‘ Person of the Year?
Maybe. The problem is that the sovereign debt problems plaguing Spain and Italy were only one part of a multi-dimensional crisis. The other problems remain, two in particular. First, the untenable contradictions of the eurozone’s approach to banking have not been resolved. Second, the beleaguered countries along the eurozone’s periphery are being asked to endure potentially unbearable levels of unemployment and economic stagnation.
The banking problem can seem the most obscure part of the problem. Yet as the global financial crisis demonstrated, the provision of credit is the lifeblood of an economy. Cut off credit and economic asphyxiation sets in quickly. Europe’s additional discovery was that, in a single currency zone, money could flow very rapidly from any bank perceived as risky to others perceived as safe. Any hint that a bank’s host country might leave the euro or that the bank might have gorged itself on dubious sovereign debt would be enough to start the exodus of funds. No funds, no credit, no economic activity.
Eurozone leaders resolved to fix this with a banking union. And then they ran into politics. Banking regulation is sensitive. There was little appetite for ceding control. Last week, discussing a recent bilateral move by France and Germany to coordinate their banking policies, the Financial Times’ Wolfgang Münchau wrote:
"My suspicion is that the ultimate intent of the Franco-German legislation is to secure the position of their national champion banks … The most important signal sent by the unilateral legislation in France and Germany is the lack of political will to sort out the banking mess, which is at the heart of the eurozone crisis. Instead, governments are seeking refuge in symbolic gestures … The renationalisation of banking means that the monetary union is as unsustainable today as it was in July last year — and now the policies needed to fix this problem have been abandoned."
This was one danger of Draghi’s move. By alleviating the sense of impending doom, he also may have undermined the impetus for overcoming entrenched opposition to reform.
The growth and unemployment situation is not much better. A story this week, contrasting positive Spanish sentiment with dismal performance, detailed the economic turmoil in the country:
"…in the last quarter of 2012 … the number of companies declared bankrupt soared by almost 40 per cent to 2,584. It was the highest number since the crisis began, suggesting that the situation for credit-starved Spanish companies is not only getting worse — but getting worse faster than before … Nor has there been any sign of a turnround in Spain’s dismal unemployment numbers, which continue to rise towards 6 million, or more than 26 per cent of the workforce … The IMF expects a drop in GDP of 1.5 per cent this year — a worse recession than in 2012."
We also come upon another danger of Draghi’s move: By restoring confidence in the euro, he paved the way for the currency to rise, which did no favors for eurozone exporters. That’s hardly the cause of Spanish economic woes, but it is no help, either.
And then, as always, the democracies of Europe have politics. Spain’s governing party is caught up in a political scandal. Italy is moving back to electoral politics after a technocratic interlude. It is not clear that difficult political choices will get much easier in either case.
The list of eurozone perils is alarmingly long. Yet a remarkable sense of calm prevails in the markets. Perhaps this will be a crowd-pleasing story book ending, the sort in which impossible obstacles are overcome and everyone goes home happy. Or perhaps it will be the kind of story one rarely sees out of Hollywood, in which our blissful hero opens his eyes, only to find that he had dreamt his salvation and the threats remained, more menacing than before.