Friday, November 26, 2010

The Euro: Why we are all in it together

The European bail-out package for the Irish economy this week seems to have failed in its ultimate objective of containing the threat to the Euro. The buzz-word in Brussels is “contagion” and some serious commentators believe that a full-blown currency crisis is now unavoidable as the markets, having done their worst to Greece and Ireland, now turn on Portugal, Belgium and even Spain. Such widespread contagion in the Eurozone could make the single currency unsustainable and the Euro, as we know it, would not survive another two years.

The unthinkable could still happen. The Euro could disintegrate under the relentless pressure of the markets – its weaknesses now so ruthlessly exposed. However, Germany will not allow it – and so long as Germany will shore up the single currency, the Euro will survive.

And yet, Germany has some responsibility for the latest contagion threat. Chancellor Angela Merkel insisted on a permanent crisis mechanism that included provisions for an “adequate participation of private creditors” - meaning future rescue packages might involve a write-down of existing debt – increasing the risk for private bond investors.

This only served to spook the markets, leading to increased borrowing costs for weaker Euro-zone markets. The German government faces increasing pressure to drop the idea and instead extend the European Financial Stability Facility (EFSF) beyond 2013. A permanent rescue and resolution mechanism would provide stability and good governance for the Eurozone.

The Achilles heel of the Euro has been the “no bail-out” clause of the Eurozone’s stability and growth pact – something that the German Finance Minister, Wolfgang Schäuble acknowledged in a speech in Berlin on 5th November. He said that Europeans could not see how far financial integration would go when the no bail-out clause was signed. UK Chancellor, George Osborne’s decision to a bilateral loan to Ireland demonstrated the extent of the exposure of UK banks to the Irish economy. So, the UK – a non-Eurozone country – is as financially integrated to Euro-zone economies as Eurozone countries are to each other. Euro or no Euro, financial integration is now so advanced that contagion is a threat to weak markets in or out-with the single currency area. As David Cameron is fond of saying in these difficult times, we are all in this together.

While it is true to say that Ireland has been constrained by the Euro and the European Central Bank in how it can adjust to worsening economic conditions, it was never the Euro that brought the country to its knees. The mistakes Ireland made were the same as those that ruined Iceland which like the UK is not a member of the Eurozone.

While the reasons for Ireland’s problems differ from Greece, another Eurozone member – the former was guilty of stoking a housing boom and the latter of profligacy and unsustainable indebtedness - they are both guilty of being irresponsible Eurozone members. Germany will want to ensure that Ireland and Greece change their ways. Greece is already winning praise for the way it is introducing new austerity measures. However, Ireland’s budget could go out of the window if – or rather once – a new Government is elected in January.

Reports of the Euro’s death are somewhat premature. The forecast for growth in the Eurozone is higher than it is for non-Euro countries like the UK. It is also worth keeping in mind, the reason for why weaker economies are struggling so much is because the Euro is so strong – and they can’t devalue to become more competitive internationally. Last week, I raised the prospect of a common corporate tax as a consequence of the EU bail-out of the Irish economy. For some, this was a little far fetched – but no more far fetched, I would argue than a complete disintegration of the single currency. The truth is the Euro needs closer economic governance if it is to survive in its current form. If Germany succeeds in putting in place a rescue mechanism, the Euro will survive; if there is closer co-ordination of national economies, the Euro will prosper. As they say; what doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger.

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