By Peter Boone and Simon Johnson
Europe needs a new recovery plan, bigger and broader than anything put together so far. This weekend is the perfect time to put such a plan together. But be wary of committing official resources too early in this market downdraft – smart policymakers will calmly let the markets fall further, in order to benefit from the rebound potential.
In the last few days, bond markets have decided that the deflationary adjustments – cutting wages and prices — needed in large parts of the eurozone are not politically feasible. The deflationary spiral that will come with fiscal cuts causes political turmoil and reduces revenues – that in turn makes it ever harder to service debt; see Greece this week. Eurozone countries running large budget deficits with substantial outstanding public debt are finding they are cut off from credit markets as a result. This is a solvency issue, not a liquidity issue.
But do not rush into this gap. If the European Central Bank (ECB) were to start buying Spanish debt today, for example, they would find an abundance of sellers because the bonds are fundamentally overvalued.
There is a good rule for foreign exchange intervention: you intervene to buy a currency at a time when you think you can really shift events – i.e., when the exchange rate has fallen more than really makes sense and shorting the currency has become overly fashionable. In that way you cause traders with short positions to lose a considerable amount of money, and you draw in real buyers who want to own the assets because they are inexpensive and can now see an end to the declines.
We are not yet at that point in the bond markets for weaker eurozone countries or in the foreign exchange market for euro.
Start with bonds: Greece clearly must end up restructuring its debt. The IMF program makes that obvious – how can Greece make a total of 19% of GDP in cuts, only to end with 149% of GDP in debt, and a perpetual bill to pay German, French, and other foreign holders roughly 10% of income each year just to cover interest?
This is a political disaster for all concerned and should be cleaned up now rather than left to ferment. The markets, with their high interest rates on Greek debt, show they believe this is the outcome. The market prices in about a 29% chance that Greece’s default within one year, and 35% over two years (assuming a 40% recovery rate on Greek bonds after default and restructuring).
Portugal should restructure preemptively – they have a large budget deficit and current account deficit, and will have similar problems cutting the budget deficit. When the government takes fiscal austerity measures, unemployment will rise further, the economy will slow, so revenues will fall, and that will mean they make too little progress bringing in their deficit.
Spain is in a very difficult position. It is unlikely they can avoid restructuring for the same reasons as Portugal and Greece, but they are starting from a position with less public debt outstanding (if the numbers are correct). However, Spanish banks own a great deal of Portuguese debt, so if Portugal restructures it poses a major additional burden on Spain.
Italy and Ireland are clearly in trouble also, depending on exactly how expectations for eurozone growth are revised downwards. Given all these nations probably need to restructure their debt, or have large bailout packages that may not succeed in any case, we cannot expect bond markets to rally at this time. “Investment grade” investors, finally waking to the problems in the market, now fear holding these bonds.
The traditional holders of these bonds, such as AXA the French insurance group, or German Commerzbank, are telling investors exactly how much risk they have in Portgual-Ireland-Italy-Greece-and-Spain. The true message is: “We promise we will not buy more of the these countries’ debt”. Without the traditional investors available, who is going to finance Spain, Ireland, Italy, and Portugal’s ongoing large budget deficits?
And this is the next problem. This week the EU commission released its forecasts for budget deficits in 2010 and 2011. Those were a depressing set of numbers. They expect Europe will grow by less than 1% this year and only 1.5% in 2011. Meanwhile, budget deficits would hardly change. Ireland leads the pack (in a bad sense) with a 11.7% of GDP budget deficit in 2010 and 12.1% in 2011. Greece, Portugal, Spain are all in the same range – large budget deficits and little improvement on the horizon. These are unrealistic plans given the lack of buyers for their bonds. Careful study of the details will only exacerbate concerns about fiscal solvency.
What should economic policymakers – in Europe, the US, and elsewhere – do about all this, for example as they convene in emergency meetings this weekend?
First, the core problem is that the euro zone as currently designed is a failure. It has proven wrong to blend so many disparate nations into one currency, and then manage the currency according to relatively hawkish German preferences.
This is an unfortunate loss of face for the eurozone policy elite, but they need to get over this and move on.
The euro zone in its current form needs to be wound down, most likely being reduced to a core of countries that are sufficiently similar – and without the presumption that others will soon be admitted. The weaker countries badly need currencies reflect their national fundamentals. Germany does not need a weak currency, but Greece, Portugal, Ireland and Spain today do.
A depreciation of the euro against the dollar and other major currencies would help. But these nations trade more with each other more than with non-euro countries, so they need to change competitiveness relative to each other.
Even if by a miracle the worst outcomes are now averted, what will prevent problems like this from happening again if the euro zone stays in place? The euro authorities have demonstrated repeatedly they are incapable of regulating banks well at the eurozone or EU level – it is unimaginable that the 16 eurozone countries could get together around a table and declare that any one regulator has been seriously derelict.
The planned budget reforms at the EU level will push towards more discipline, but you need an incentive structure to get that and the consensus-based decision-making does not work for that. If this weekend only produces a reaffirmation of platitudes in this regard, next week will be very bad. This is fiddling while cities burn.
On top of all this, shocks to economic performance that are different across nations will persist. Sharing one currency across these very different and insufficiently convergent countries simply does not make sense.
Second, there needs to be an orderly plan for debt restructuring across the euro zone. This needs to be done quickly (this weekend works, but realistically it will take several weeks), while the exit to a new currency could take longer. Since most euro zone nations bonds are issued under domestic law, such restructurings should be able to proceed quickly (in emerging markets, most of the bonds are often under US or UK law, which generally makes restructuring much harder).
But do not think that Greece can restructure its debts without having broader repercussions. All the weaker eurozone countries must proceed together on this front or there will be chaos.
Third, the G20 needs to assist in the euro restructuring project. This body can authorize the International Monetary Fund to help each affected nation declare a standstill on debt, and then draw up a plan to restructure debt. The IMF should play a key implementation role in helping to decide which nations should restructure their debts and then support this process – not because it is particularly good or suited to this task, but simply because no one else is available.
During the next few years each troubled euro nation will need liquidity support from the ECB, and they will need fiscal financing from the IMF and core nations in the EU. Probably the G20 should commit more resources, at least as a back stop. These programs can be drawn up quickly, and, they should include a transition to a new currency where appropriate.
There is no real leadership in the EU, combined with complete unwillingness to admit the fundamental error of the euro zone itself. The Germans are happy to let other nations suffer for their past mistakes, so they will do nothing until there is a more complete crisis.
The ECB, as witnessed by Mr. Trichet’s news conference on Thursday, has decided that they will play the hawk, and so offer nothing of support to the nations in the periphery. Meanwhile, bond markets have closed for the periphery. This can only mean bond yields keep rising, there are runs on the banks in many nations, and then eventual economic collapse. This, unfortunately, is the path of least resistance for all parties.
So, someone needs to take leadership. Who can do this? Not the IMF by itself – it is too weak and conflicted with Dominique Strauss-Kahn clinging to his position as managing director (against increasing pressure from the United States). Indeed, Strauss-Kahn should leave the IMF so he can launch his run for the French presidency – it would be appropriately ironic if he were to win; as an architect of the eurozone, he is the perfect person to dismantle it. A much more independent person with international stature should replace him.
President Obama needs to step in personally to help this process work smoothly. The president can rightly claim that this is an international issue, not just a euro zone issue, since it impacts global trade and financial stability. All the world’s large banks are closely linked through debt, derivatives contracts, and other finance.
It would be irresponsible to presume that American banks will smoothly sail through the impending financial collapse in the euro zone. If this is left to the Europeans, as we learned this week in markets, there is a clear danger that Europe’s problems will topple the world into a new recession and a serious round of financial instability this year.
Someone needs soon to bring clarity and restore confidence. If not President Obama, who?