The ironic pain of a rising euro

The eurozone is muddling through its debt crisis but as a result the common currency is rising in an environment of economic fragility. It adds urgency to the reform agenda and puts pressure on the ECB to act.

FT.com

I was reminded recently that there is an important distinction between a problem and a dilemma. A problem has a solution while a dilemma must be continuously managed. The euro’s situation has evolved from being a severe problem to posing a dilemma for eurozone countries seeking to grow and secure debt sustainability.

Six months ago, stress on the European financial system led to existential questions about the euro. The financial system was fragmenting, deposits were pouring out of the weaker countries, and high interest rates were converting liquidity problems into solvency ones, adding to the regional headaches caused by countries already in vicious debt cycles.

Bold policy reactions stopped this dynamic – so much so that, today, several investors are again emphasising rate convergence for many eurozone bond markets. And while harmful credit rationing persists, especially for small- and medium-sized companies in peripheral economies, banks are less fragile.

The immediate solution to the euro’s existential problem came in the form of the European Central Bank’s "outright monetary transactions". The ECB was supported by the progress made by governments in agreeing to reinforce monetary union with greater fiscal union, political integration and banking union.

Having solved its urgent problem, the eurozone needs to deal with a new dilemma: that of an appreciating currency. There is a growing number of countries seeking to weaken their own currencies. Indeed, in the last six months, the euro has appreciated by 11 per cent against the US dollar and by 8 per cent in nominal trade weighted terms. It has appreciated by a lot more against the Japanese yen.

With growth already sluggish, the eurozone can ill afford a stronger currency. Sharp appreciation undermines economic activity – not only for export powerhouses such as Germany but also for countries such as Spain where, for the past eight quarters, the contribution of net exports has been positive.

With budgetary concerns continuing to dominate mindsets, few countries are able and willing to stimulate their economies by loosening national fiscal policies. As a result, the number of unemployed citizens – which is six million higher than at the outset of the global financial crisis – remains alarmingly high, and especially so among the young.

Given what other countries are doing around the world, European politicians need to significantly accelerate policy reforms if they wish to maintain competitiveness in a safe and orderly fashion. This involves quickly moving from the design to the implementation of key measures.

At the regional level, productivity-enhancing structural reforms need to accompany a renewed push on fiscal union, banking union and political integration; and, for starters, politicians should not wait for the June summit to press ahead with the "four presidents” report.

But, having averted an existential financial problem, politicians seem more interested to bask in their success than deal with remaining challenges. This understandable desire to savour the moment – and with it, the illusion of stability – is inevitably strong in the run-up to several key elections this year.

With politicians failing to manage the dilemma directly, it is only a matter of time until they again look to the ECB for help.

Expect the ECB to be pressed hard to join other central banks in actively seeking to depreciate the currency – by cutting the policy rate (currently 0.75 per cent) and quantitative easing of the type pursued by the Bank of England, the Bank of Japan and the US Federal Reserve.

This is not a road that the ECB will embark on easily. And if it does, it would seek to address a regional dilemma by adding to a global one.

Being a relative price, all countries cannot simultaneously weaken their exchange rates (except against gold, real estate and other "real” assets). And should the ECB feel forced to join collective attempts to do the impossible, the risks of a global currency war and related beggar-thy-neighbor outcomes would increase meaningfully.

Copyright the Financial Times 2013.