Daniel W. Drezner

We interrupt our normal blogging to inform you of the eurocrisis

Hey, remember when about ten days ago I blogged that things were getting so bad in Europe that it was legitimate to bring up the 1930’s?  What’s happened since that seemingly hyperbolic warning?  As Felix Salmon blogged earlier this week, the European banking system is headed towards a full-blown liquidity crisis.  Yields on Spanish and ...

Hey, remember when about ten days ago I blogged that things were getting so bad in Europe that it was legitimate to bring up the 1930’s?  What’s happened since that seemingly hyperbolic warning? 

As Felix Salmon blogged earlier this week, the European banking system is headed towards a full-blown liquidity crisis.  Yields on Spanish and Italian debt are hovering around the 7% mark, which was the tipping point that forced Greece, Ireland and Portugal to seek assistance from the European Financial Stability Facility and the IMF.  Multiple European countries, including France, have had difficulty completing bond auctions this week.   

So it would seem that the European Central Bank needs to do something.  The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and Financial Times all have lead stories today pointing out the enormous pressures that are being put on the European Central Bank this week.  We’ll excerpt the non-gated NYT story to set things up: 

Only the fiercely conservative stewards of the European Central Bank have the firepower to intervene aggressively in the markets with essentially unlimited resources. But the bank itself, and its most important member state, Germany, have steadfastly resisted letting it take up the mantle of lender of last resort….

At issue is whether the bank has the will — or the legal foundation — to become a European version of the Federal Reserve in the United States, with a license to print money in whatever quantity it considers necessary to ensure the smooth functioning of markets and, if needed, to essentially bail out countries that are members of the euro zone.

Traditionally, and according to its charter, the European bank has viewed its role in much narrower terms, as a guardian of the value of the euro with a mission to prevent inflation. But as market unease has spread over the past two years, critics say the bank’s obsession with what they say is a phantom threat of inflation has stifled growth and helped bring the euro zone to the edge of a financial precipice.

With events threatening to spin out of control, the burden now rests on Mario Draghi, an inflation fighter in the president’s job at the bank barely two weeks who surprised many economists by immediately cutting interest rates a quarter point.

This morning, however, in his first speech as the head of the ECB, Draghi pivoted and redirected the pressure back at the politicial stewards of the EU:

National economic policies are equally responsible for restoring and maintaining financial stability. Solid public finances and structural reforms – which lay the basis for competitiveness, sustainable growth and job creation – are two of the essential elements.

But in the euro area there is a third essential element for financial stability and that must be rooted in a much more robust economic governance of the union going forward. In the first place now, it implies the urgent implementation of the European Council and Summit decisions. We are more than one and a half years after the summit that launched the EFSF as part of a financial support package amounting to 750 billion euros or one trillion dollars; we are four months after the summit that decided to make the full EFSF guarantee volume available; and we are four weeks after the summit that agreed on leveraging of the resources by a factor of up to four or five and that declared the EFSF would be fully operational and that all its tools will be used in an effective way to ensure financial stability in the euro area. Where is the implementation of these long-standing decisions?

The truly scary thing is that, given the state of the Italian and Spanish bond markets, even the full EFSF won’t be enough to calm markets down. 

And so the pressure gets redirected back to Germany, as the most powerful actor in the ECB and EU.  As Matthias Matthijs and Mark Blyth explain in Foreign Affairs, however, Germany has not been reading its Charles Kindleberger:

In order to guarantee the strength of any international economic system, Kindleberger explained, a stabilizer — only one stabilizer — needs to provide five public goods: a market for distress goods (goods that cannot find a buyer), countercyclical long-term lending, stable exchange rates, macroeconomic policy coordination, and real lending of last resort during financial crises. The United States did not supply these things in the 1930s. Germany fails the test on all five items today.

First, rather than providing peripheral countries with a market for their distress goods, the Germans have been enthusiastically selling their manufactured goods to the periphery. According to Eurostat, Germany’s trade surplus with the rest of the EU grew from 46.4 billion euro in 2000 to 126.5 billion in 2007. The evolution of Germany’s bilateral trade surpluses with the Mediterranean countries is especially revealing. Between 2000 and 2007, Greece’s annual trade deficit with Germany grew from 3 billion euro to 5.5 billion, Italy’s doubled, from 9.6 billion to 19.6 billion, Spain’s almost tripled, from 11 billion to 27.2 billion, and Portugal’s quadrupled, from 1 billion to 4.2 billion. Between 2001 and 2009, moreover, Germany saw its final total consumption fall from 78.5 percent of GDP to 74.5 percent. Its gross savings rate increased from less than 19 percent of GDP to almost 26 percent over the same period.

Second, instead of countercyclical lending, German lending to the eurozone has been pro-cyclical. Indirectly (through buying bonds) and directly (by spreading its exchange rate through the euro), the country has basically given the periphery the money to buy its goods. During the economic boom of 2003-2008, Germany extended credit on a massive scale to the eurozone’s Mediterranean countries. Frankfurt did quite well for itself. "European Financial Linkages," a recent IMF working paper, reveals that in 2008, Germany was one of the two biggest net creditors within the eurozone (after France). Its positive positions were exact mirrors of Portugal, Greece, Italy, and Spain’s negative ones. Of course, as the financial crisis began to escalate in 2009, Germany abruptly closed its wallet. Now Europe’s periphery needs long-term loans more than ever, but Germany’s enthusiasm for extending credit seems to have collapsed.

And what about the third public good, stable exchange rates? By definition, the euro gives the countries that choose to join it a common external float, the credibility that comes with banking in a potential global reserve asset, and the credit rating of its strongest member. This is both true and where the problems begin. At the core of the eurozone lies a belief that, if countries adhere to a set of rules about how much debt, deficit, and inflation they can have, their economies will converge, and the same exchange rate will work for all members. This is true in theory, but only so long as countries obey the rules. And, despite being the author of many of those rules, Germany showed a singular lack of leadership and responsibility when it came to following them. When it broke the Stability and Growth Pact (SGP) in 2003, it sent the signal to the smaller countries that fiscal profligacy would go unpunished. The result was heightened public sector borrowing and increased public spending. Germany’s enthusiastic lending to the periphery only exacerbated the problem.

Fourth, economic health requires the stabilizer to coordinate macroeconomic policy within the system. In this domain, Germany failed spectacularly, by insisting that the rest of the world follow its peculiar ordoliberal economic philosophy of export-oriented growth. By ignoring long-established ideas such as the Keynesian "paradox of thrift" or the "fallacy of composition," Germany is advocating a serious dose of austerity in the European periphery without even a hint of offsetting those negative economic effects with stimulus or inflationary policies at home. German growth, after all, was partially fueled by demand in Southern Europe (made possible by excess German savings). By the iron logic of the balance of payments, one country’s exports are another country’s imports and one country’s capital inflows are another’s capital outflows. So, the eurozone as a whole cannot become more like Germany. Germany could only be like Germany because the others countries were not. Insisting on ordoliberal convergence is guaranteed to produce economic instability, not stability.

Finally, Kindleberger would want Germany — or, rather, the ECB, which is dominated by Germany — to act as a lender of last resort by providing liquidity during the current crisis. Germany instead insisted on IMF conditionality for the bailout countries and on severe fiscal austerity measures in exchange for limited liquidity, thus failing Kindleberger’s final test. The most obvious example is German obstinacy against letting the ECB play the role that the Federal Reserve played in the United States in 2008 and 2009. By lending heavily, the Fed was able to arrest the United States’ slide into despair. Only a couple of days ago, Jens Weidmann, the president of Germany’s powerful Bundesbank, flat-out rejected the idea of using the ECB as "lender of last resort" for governments, warning that such steps "would add to instability by violating European law." It is hard to see how yet one more violation of European code will add significantly to the already horrendous levels of instability, when brushing democracy aside is considered good for the euro.

It looks as if there’s a plan in the works for the ECB to do a legal end-around by loaning money to the IMF and then having the Fund loan to the GIIPS economies.  If that happens, however, it won’t be announced until next month.  And the way credit markets are playing out right now, I’m not sure the eurozone has that much time.

Now is usually the point in the post at which the instinct to provide some sweeping narrative about the state of the eurozone — a la David Brooks — is very compelling.  What’s the point, however?  The eurozone is in contagion mode right now, which means it doesn’t matter which countries were virtuous and which countries weren’t during the last decade of binge borrowing.  They’re all on the same sinking ship, and the Merkel Algorithm seems to be playing out again. 

Developing…. in a way that truly scares the living crap out of me. 

Daniel W. Drezner is a professor of international politics at Tufts University’s Fletcher School. He blogged regularly for Foreign Policy from 2009 to 2014. Twitter: @dandrezner