By James Kwak
So, as everyone knows, the ECB came out yesterday with its latest plan to stem the creeping European sovereign debt crisis. This one involves potentially unlimited ECB purchases of sovereign debt, so long as its maturity is less than three years (presumably so that the ECB can pull the plug within three years on non-complying governments) and the country in question agrees to comply with fiscal policy reforms (i.e., austerity).
I don’t have any particular ability to forecast whether this will succeed or fail. My inclination is that it will succeed for a while and then turn out to be insufficient, for the reasons that others have identified. Central bank bond-buying will enable governments to borrow money at manageable yields, so their national debt will not spiral out of control solely because of climbing interest rates. But to bring debt levels down will require actual economic growth, and more austerity—even if it isn’t quite as austere as that imposed on Greece in the past—will not generate growth. In addition, the ECB’s promise to “sterilize” its bond purchases—I believe by selling other assets to raise the cash for bond purchases, so the net effect will not be to create money—means that this is not a particularly expansionary form of monetary policy.
This is as good an occasion as any, however, to ask a question I’ve been wondering about for, oh, years now. Every discussion of the European crisis includes the following domino theory (although no one calls it that anymore, for reasons I’ll get back to): If Greece leaves the Eurozone, that proves that it is possible to leave the Eurozone—or, put another way, that the powers that be cannot keep the Eurozone intact. If people realize that it is possible, then bond markets will bet even more heavily against Spain and Italy, which will force them to leave the Eurozone, which would be terrible. Hence Greece cannot leave the Eurozone.