Blog Post

The eurozone’s strategy of pain

For the third year in a row, the eurozone is the weakest link in the world economy. In 2010, attention was focused on responses to the crisis on the eurozone periphery – Greece, Portugal, and Ireland. In 2011, the crisis moved to the core, with Italy and Spain feeling the heat, and concerns mounting about […]

By: Date: February 1, 2012 Topic: Macroeconomic policy

For the third year in a row, the eurozone is the weakest link in the world economy. In 2010, attention was focused on responses to the crisis on the eurozone periphery – Greece, Portugal, and Ireland.

In 2011, the crisis moved to the core, with Italy and Spain feeling the heat, and concerns mounting about the viability of the eurozone itself. The question for 2012 is whether those tensions will abate or reach a new climax. Once again, the Greek crisis is the focus of attention and epitomises Europe’s failings. Once again, hard decisions have to be made about debt restructuring and the provision of further assistance to Athens. And once again, the Europeans have to accept that the situation is more serious than they thought.

But the depth of Greece’s woes should not obscure the fact that it is a small economy and, in many respects, an extreme, special case. No other country flouted the European Union’s budget rules the way Greece did, or has accumulated as large a public-debt burden, and no other EU country combines to the same extent a dysfunctional state and an uncompetitive private economy.

The real battle is being fought in Italy and Spain. Both countries’ borrowing conditions deteriorated in the second half of 2011. Both are so large – accounting for 17% and 11% of eurozone GDP, respectively – that financing them through multilateral assistance would strain, if not exhaust, the resources of the eurozone and the International Monetary Fund. Both recently installed new, reform-minded governments. And both are struggling to rebuild competitiveness, foster growth, restore fiscal soundness, and clean up banks’ balance sheets. If they succeed, the euro will survive; if they fail, it won’t, at least in its present form.

That is why discussions over the last few months have largely, if implicitly, been about how to support adjustment and reform in Italy and Spain. Proposals to permit the European Central Bank to intervene more decisively in bond markets, or to increase the size of the “firewall” by leveraging the European Financial Stability Facility (EFSF), were intended to set an upper limit on interest rates paid by Italy and Spain on their debt emissions.
Similarly, proposals to create common bonds were intended to quell expectations of insolvency by ensuring that these countries would eventually be able to borrow against their eurozone partners’ guarantee. All of the discussions were couched in general terms, but everybody had the same specific countries in mind.

None of these proposals, it seems, will be implemented anytime soon. The ECB has bought some Italian and Spanish bonds, and it might buy more, but it has made clear that it is not ready to commit to a ceiling for long-term interest rates. The EFSF’s size will be increased by accelerating the creation of the permanent European Stability Mechanism, and by letting it overlap with the EFSF. But the EFSF’s capacity will remain at roughly €500 billion – well below the €1 trillion-plus envisaged by those who advocate bringing massive financial firepower to bear (the so-called “bazooka solution”).

Likewise, Eurobonds are officially off the agenda, at least for now. Rather, Europe is putting in place a new fiscal compact to ensure that all eurozone countries adopt and implement stringent budgetary rules.

These choices partly reflect pragmatic concerns: All of the financial-engineering schemes that have been proposed to protect Italy and Spain from aggravated borrowing conditions raise legal, political, or governance difficulties. But there is a principle at issue as well: It is thought (particularly in Germany) that protection from market pressure would only impede adjustment and reform.

Indeed, the perception in Northern Europe is that only serious strains provide the required incentives to overcome domestic political and social obstacles to slashing public spending and reforming labour markets. For Southern Europe, no pain means no gain: A deep recession and a sharp increase in unemployment may be the price of lasting improvements in productivity and competitiveness.

This reasoning is not without justification. Soon after the ECB began buying Italian bonds last August, then-Prime minister Silvio Berlusconi’s government backtracked on its commitments to tax reform. Even though it later reversed its stance, the episode was widely regarded as clear evidence of the moral-hazard effect of ECB support. Only after the bond market turned on Berlusconi again was he replaced by the reform-minded Mario Monti.

But the strategy is a high-risk gamble. Governments may need incentives to act, but they also need to be able to show their citizens that reform pays. If, after a few quarters of fiscal adjustment and painful reform, output is lower, unemployment higher, and the outlook darker, governments may soon lose public support and reform may stall, as we have seen in Greece. Reform-minded teams may lose power to populists.

Furthermore, a degraded macroeconomic and financial environment increases the likelihood of bank failures, with immediate consequences for public finances and economic confidence.

These risks are compounded by the need for reform in several countries at once. Indeed, there is a “fallacy of composition” in the current approach: The countries in need of serious adjustment and improved competitiveness include the whole of Southern Europe and France, and jointly account for more than one-half of eurozone GDP. True, competition for investment is an incentive to act. But macroeconomic and financial interdependence may render success elusive if reforming countries face an adverse regional environment of stagnating or falling demand.

It is one thing to believe that governments act only under pressure, and that societies accept reforms only if they believe that there is no other alternative; it is quite another to believe that adjustment and reform will proceed if all of Southern Europe is struggling with recession. Keeping Southern Europe on a short leash would be a more credible strategy if accompanied by a growth programme for the entire eurozone. And, at this stage, such a programme is nowhere in sight.


Republishing and referencing

Bruegel considers itself a public good and takes no institutional standpoint. Anyone is free to republish and/or quote this post without prior consent. Please provide a full reference, clearly stating Bruegel and the relevant author as the source, and include a prominent hyperlink to the original post.

Read article More by this author
 

Opinion

European governance

The euro comes of age

A well-functioning euro reflects a degree of unity that allows the EU to credibly claim a position at the global table and therefore help shape the policies that will deal with global problems. That is a decisive success.

By: Maria Demertzis Topic: European governance, Macroeconomic policy Date: January 13, 2022
Read article More on this topic More by this author
 

Opinion

A role for the Recovery and Resilience Facility in a new fiscal framework

Discussions on reforming European Union fiscal rules must consider a more permanent but targeted role for the Recovery and Resilience fund to meet climate ambitions.

By: Maria Demertzis Topic: Macroeconomic policy Date: January 10, 2022
Read article More by this author
 

Podcast

Podcast

The European economy in 2022

What are the economic priorities for the new year?

By: The Sound of Economics Topic: European governance, Macroeconomic policy Date: January 5, 2022
Read article More by this author
 

Opinion

European governance

The Euro at 20

The euro’s advocates hoped that the single currency would deliver economic and financial integration, policy convergence, political amalgamation, and global influence. While these predictions were often wide of the mark, the euro has arguably proven to be a wise investment.

By: Jean Pisani-Ferry Topic: European governance, Macroeconomic policy Date: January 3, 2022
Read article
 

Blog Post

European governanceInclusive growth

12 Charts for 21

A selection of charts from Bruegel’s weekly newsletter, analysis of the year and what it meant for the economy in Europe and the world.

By: Hèctor Badenes, Henry Naylor, Giuseppe Porcaro and Yuyun Zhan Topic: Banking and capital markets, Digital economy and innovation, European governance, Global economy and trade, Green economy, Inclusive growth, Macroeconomic policy Date: December 21, 2021
Read article
 

Blog Post

European governance

Policy coordination failures in the euro area: not just an outcome, but by design

Discussions on the fiscal framework should aim to correct its procyclical nature with a view to promoting more cooperative outcomes.

By: Maria Demertzis and Nicola Viegi Topic: European governance, Macroeconomic policy Date: December 20, 2021
Read article
 

External Publication

European governance

EU borrowing—time to think of the generation after next

Financing post-pandemic recovery via EU borrowing has proved remarkably straightforward. So why keep it temporary?

By: Grégory Claeys, Rebecca Christie and Pauline Weil Topic: European governance, Macroeconomic policy Date: December 9, 2021
Read article More on this topic More by this author
 

Opinion

Inflation ideology: camp permanent or camp temporary?

Policy focus should be on tackling uncertainties by being able to tackle as many scenarios as possible.

By: Maria Demertzis Topic: Macroeconomic policy Date: December 9, 2021
Read about event More on this topic
 

Past Event

Past Event

Fiscal policy and rules after the pandemic

What are the possibilities for shaping the new fiscal policy?

Speakers: Zsolt Darvas, Maria Demertzis, Michel Heijdra and Katja Lautar Topic: Macroeconomic policy Location: Bruegel, Rue de la Charité 33, 1210 Brussels Date: November 24, 2021
Read article
 

Blog Post

European governance

Including home-ownership costs in the inflation indicator is not just a technical issue

The European Central Bank is right to propose inclusion of owner-occupied housing services in the inflation indicator. But the ECB’s preferred method would involve an asset price in the consumer inflation indicator.

By: Zsolt Darvas and Catarina Martins Topic: European governance, Macroeconomic policy Date: November 18, 2021
Read article More by this author
 

Blog Post

Fiscal arithmetic and risk of sovereign insolvency

The record-high debt levels in advanced economies increase the risk of sovereign insolvency. Governments should start fiscal consolidation soon in an environment of low nominal and real interest rates and post-COVID growth.

By: Marek Dabrowski Topic: Global economy and trade, Macroeconomic policy Date: November 18, 2021
Read article More by this author
 

Opinion

European governance

Growth and inflation after the pandemic in the EU

Countries hit comparatively hard during the financial crisis, helped also by domestic and European policies, are bouncing back from the pandemic faster than their peers.

By: Maria Demertzis Topic: European governance, Macroeconomic policy Date: November 18, 2021
Load more posts