Europe takes a menacing turn

Europe's crisis has entered what may be a less volatile but more lethal phase as Germany's Bundesbank campaigns against indefinite expansion of the zone's money supply and tightens credit at home.

FT.com

Far from abating, the euro crisis has recently taken a turn for the worse. The European Central Bank relieved an incipient credit crunch through its longer-term refinancing operations. The resulting rally in financial markets hid an underlying deterioration; but that is unlikely to last much longer.

The fundamental problems have not been resolved; indeed, the gap between creditor and debtor countries continues to widen. The crisis has entered what may be a less volatile but more lethal phase.

At the onset of the crisis, the eurozone’s break-up was inconceivable: assets and liabilities denominated in the common currency were so intermingled that it would have caused an uncontrollable meltdown. But, as the crisis has progressed, the eurozone has been reoriented along national lines.

The LTRO enabled Spanish and Italian banks to engage in very profitable and low-risk arbitrage in their own countries’ bonds. And the preferential treatment received by the ECB on its Greek bonds will discourage other investors from holding sovereign debt. If this continues for a few more years, a eurozone break-up would become possible without a meltdown – but would leave creditor countries’ central banks holding big claims that would be hard to enforce against debtor countries’ central banks.

The Bundesbank has seen the danger. It is now campaigning against the indefinite expansion of the money supply, and it has started taking measures to limit the losses it would sustain in a break-up. This is creating a self-fulfilling prophecy: once the Bundesbank starts guarding against a break-up, everybody will have to do the same. Markets are beginning to reflect this.

The Bundesbank is also tightening credit at home. This would be the right policy if Germany was a freestanding country, but the eurozone’s heavily indebted members badly need stronger demand from Germany to avoid recession. Without it, the eurozone’s fiscal compact, agreed last December, cannot possibly work. The heavily indebted countries will either fail to implement the necessary measures or, if they do, they will fail to meet their targets because of collapsing demand. Either way, debt ratios will rise, and the competitiveness gap with Germany will widen.

Whether or not the euro endures, Europe is facing a long period of economic stagnation or worse. Other countries have gone through similar experiences. Latin American countries suffered a lost decade after 1982, and Japan has been stagnating for a quarter of a century; both have survived. But the European Union is not a country and it is unlikely to survive. The deflationary debt trap threatens to destroy a still-incomplete political union.

The only way to escape the trap is to recognise that current policies are counterproductive and change course. I cannot propose a cut-and-dried plan, only some guidelines. First, the rules governing the eurozone have failed and need radical revision. Defending a status quo that is unworkable only makes matters worse. Second, the current situation is highly anomalous, and exceptional measures are needed to restore normality. Finally, new rules must allow for financial markets’ inherent instability.

To be realistic, the fiscal compact must be the starting point, although some obvious defects will need to be modified. The compact should count commercial as well as financial debts and budgets should distinguish between investments that pay and current spending. To avoid cheating, what qualifies as investment should be subject to approval by a European authority. An enlarged European Investment Bank could then co-finance investments.

Most important, some new, extraordinary measures are needed to return conditions to normal. The EU’s fiscal charter compels member states to reduce their public debt annually by one-twentieth of the amount by which they exceed 60 per cent of gross domestic product. I propose that member states jointly reward good behaviour by taking over that obligation. They have transferred to the ECB their seignorage rights, valued at €2 trillion to €3 trillion by Willem Buiter of Citibank and Huw Pill of Goldman Sachs, working independently. A special-purpose vehicle owning the rights could use the ECB to finance the cost of acquiring the bonds without violating Article 123 of the Lisbon treaty.

Should a country violate the fiscal compact, it would be obliged to pay interest on all or part of the debt owned by the SPV. That would surely impose tough fiscal discipline.

By rewarding good behaviour, the fiscal compact would no longer constitute a deflationary debt trap. The outlook would radically improve. In addition, to narrow the competitiveness gap, all members should be able to refinance existing debt at the same interest rate. But that would require greater fiscal integration. It would have to be phased in gradually.

The Bundesbank will never accept these proposals, but the European authorities ought to take them seriously. The future of Europe is a political issue: it is beyond the Bundesbank’s competence to decide.

George Soros is chairman of Soros Fund Management. His latest book is titled ‘Coming Soon: Financial Turmoil in Europe and the United States'.

Copyright Financial Times 2012.