The Writing On The Wall: Eurozone fail to take decisive action

Eurozone leaders tacit failure to take prompt action leaves Eurozone a long way from recovery.

The current eurozone crisis is not going to end any time soon. Despite Mario Draghi’s so-called “ice-cream,” a pledge by the European Central Bank (ECB) to intervene in the European bond market, the optimism was brief and the current crisis remains more potent than ever. What is most striking  are some of the parallels between the current eurozone crisis and the European Monetary System (EMS) crisis of 1992-1993 and more importantly, the inability of European ministers to act effectively on past mistakes.

Many Greeks and Spaniards have stoned police cars and set fire to shops to protest budget cuts, to little avail. Hitherto, the EMS crisis, although in hindsight is not of the same magnitude, relatively speaking, there are many mistakes that have been repeated during the current crisis. Interest rate harmonization across the entire euro-zone clearly does not work due to the structural imbalances of the Northern, wealthier states and the Southern, poorer states. Similarly, when the UK wanted to reduce interest rates during the 1992-1993 EMS crisis, they were prohibited, due to the dominance of the German economy (sound familiar ?) and when they maintained high interest rates due to several factors, including the reunification of East and West Germany it had a detrimental affect on the British economy. Moreover, this imbalance of economic performance requires a significantly tighter fiscal framework that will complement the monetary framework already in place, without this, the crisis will not be solved and this increases the possibility of another crisis reoccurring in the future. Furthermore, had Greek, Spanish, Irish, Italian and most European nations adopted a much stricter fiscal framework, then the problems of today would be severely reduced.

This has been the hallmark of the eurozone, austerity is the bitter medicine for over indulgence on cheap credit

It should be noted that the legal framework was already in place to circumvent nations from binging on cheap and available credit, but this has proven to be nothing more than hollow rhetoric. The ECB’s decision however to act as lender of last resort should provide the framework for the fiscal unity that the euro-zone has required since its inception. Monetary unity alone is not sufficient, both fiscal and monetary unity is required to harmonize the euro-zone. Nevertheless, by accepting the stringent fiscal reform package, the indebted nations will be relinquishing national sovereignty, which is a consequence of the over indulgence of available credit. Undoubtedly, these are the very beginnings of the proposed reforms and many citizens in the heavily indebted countries may not have the patience to wait until these reforms manifest into tangible results. This transition period marks a significant time for the euro-zone and many nations may feel time is running out. The Stability and Growth Pact was intended to penalize nations with a debt-to-GDP ratio greater than 60%. Clearly, the intentions were correct, but the implementation or rather, the lack of demonstrates the incapability of euro-zone leaders to take decisive action.

The intentions of the SGP were understandable; any union that would amalgamate several contrasting economies needed a stringent fiscal framework in order for it to function appropriately. If we analyse the current euro-zone crisis, the authenticity of the SGP is in question because strict sanctions were to be imposed on any nation who did not adhere to the ‘strict’ conditions set by the EU. If this were the case then several nations including Germany, Italy and Greece in particular would have been punished appropriately for their fiscal mismanagement. Former UK Prime Minister John Major suggests that:

“Southern states over indulged on low interest-rates and racked up debts. When Germany and France over-stepped the criteria without any penalty by the commission, the criteria became toothless.” 

It is fair to suggest with hindsight that sanctions on nations who had failed to abide by the framework set by the EMU would have almost minimalized the severe economic damage that has beset the euro-zone today. Had sanctions been imposed some ten years ago, or even five, then the severe problems that appear only to be appearing now could have been dealt with then.

Nations were meant to be punished if government debt-to-GDP exceeded 60%.

With regards to the realization of the EMU, the SGP was implemented in 1997, two years before the data range in the graph. Despite a prerequisite of national debt being less than 60% of GDP levels, the graph above highlights the inability of euro-zone members failing to deal with nations not following the fiscal framework. This tacit failure to impose sanctions on members allowed certain members continue to let national debt to grow until it became an apparent and uncontrollable problem, hence, the systemic failure of the system itself. Clive Cook of Bloomberg is one of several commentators who have critical views on not only the SGP, but of EU governance in general.

Remember the EU’s vaunted Stability and Growth Pact of 1997, which supposedly put limits on public borrowing — and which Germany, by the way, violated? The same syndrome is evident today. Write a new rule now, worry about enforcing it later. This has been the hallmark of EU governance.”

Moreover, this has been a consistent theme that has underpinned EU and euro-zone governance (or lack of). Despite apparent mechanisms being in place to prevent severe economic shocks, euro-zone nations appear to have repeated some of the same systemic errors, the only difference with the EMS crisis of 1992 and the current crisis is the severity, the current crisis however appears to be of a much greater proportion, with the lasting effects significantly greater.

Clearly, the current economic crisis that is crippling the euro-zone could have been prevented if decisive action was taken to punish nations who did not adhere to the ‘strict’ rules set out in the SGP. Retrospective analysis does little to compensate the fact that the damage as a result of this failure has been catastrophic. There is no easy remedy; the euro-zone must comply with the reform package set out by the ECB in order to have the fiscal harmonization so desperately required in order to achieve the goal of a single currency. Without both monetary and fiscal unity, this crisis will occur in the future, and the consequences far worse, something that seems too difficult to comprehend at this moment in time.

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5 thoughts on “The Writing On The Wall: Eurozone fail to take decisive action

  1. Two thumbs up!! I agree 100% that the lack of governance is the biggest problem in Europe. The bottom line is that the underlying purpose of creating the EU is somewhat faded away and at its place there’s a gigantic bureaucratic monster with yet so few power that is unable to accomplish anything. Just look at any political document that comes out of the EU…like to regulate the trade of- I don’t know, I am just saying- cotton balls, you have a 3000 page book with 4 million clauses, and 7 trillion asterisks. It can’t work like this anymore. If we are a Union we have to act like a Union!

    • Thanks Fabrizio. The whole idea of the EU was to have zero capital mobility, but the politics just convolutes everything and it just makes the union a bureaucratic mess. And this stalls everything, creates discontent and makes things much more difficult than they should be.

      • Well, I don’t exactly agree with what you’re saying here. The EU has favored capital mobility and fixed exchange rate over independent monetary policy. This is exactly what I want to write my next post on, so I’ll keep you posted ;)

  2. I was referring to “the whole idea of the EU was to have zero capital mobility,” while I think the EU focused very much on granting free capital mobility and fixed exchange rate at the detriment of monetary independence.

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