Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Thoughts on the Eurozone, Greece, and the EMF

I was asked by Periódico Diagonal to answer a few questions related to the Eurozone, based on several articles that I wrote (here, here, and here). I don't know if these will be published, but "enquiring minds want to know". Here we go:

1. In a recent article you announced that the next cycle of crisis in Europe will be determined by the struggle for exports. Does that mean that the country which lags behind in this struggle for exports will suffer from falling wages?

Rebecca: What I meant was that the Eurozone might find itself in a “race to the bottom”. The prescript coming out of the IMF and the European Union is one of harsh and deep reductions in nominal income (wages) and prices in order to reduce relative prices enough to drive export income. Normally, downward pressure on internal prices via recession occurs alongside a sharp devaluation in the currency, where external demand pulls the economy back onto its feet. But the main problem across the Eurozone IS ITS CONSTRUCT, one currency “to rule them all”. Greece, nor any of the other GIIPS countries – Greece, Italy, Ireland, Portugal, and Spain – can devalue the currency in order to drive export growth.

The problem is that without proper export growth, the internal devaluation would more accurately take the form of “infernal devaluation”. Cuts to nominal income, wealth (via pensions), and other labor variables will restrict current consumption and aggregate spending to a point where such measures then pressure government deficits. It’s a vicious circle, not to mention a fallacy of composition to think that the aggregate can export its way out recession if wages are falling – spending, by definition, must be falling, too.

2. In this sense, the IMF´s advice is to decrease wages and promote privatization of common services. Are we facing the first IMF´s serious intervention in (¿most developed?) the North countries? In that case, what is the aim of these adjustment policies? Do you think they will benefit countries like Greece or Iceland? Or is it just a matter of financial balance and euro´s credibility?

Rebecca: The Iceland economy received IMF support in November 2008, but IMF lending comes at the cost of conditional fiscal austerity programs and macroeconomic measures, including trimming the government-funded pension system, reduced wages, and other related budget cuts. Iceland has muddled through, though, because it has something that Greece (nor any other Eurozone country) doesn’t have: a free-floating, non-convertible currency.

The Iceland case is very different from Greece (or any of the GIIPS), though, because it issued a lot of debt that is denominated in foreign currency. But nevertheless, the Iceland krona depreciated around 50% against the US dollar between July 2008 and December 2009, driving exports and reducing imports. In 2009, real GDP in Iceland fell 6.5%, the biggest drag came from government spending that shaved 12.2% off of GDP growth. However, the contribution coming from exports and imports was +14.2%, which more than offset the drag from the IMF’s “austerity measures”.

Greece doesn’t have this option, since it cannot devalue its currency. Greece can only reduce wages and prices enough to generate internal devaluation resulting in the prescribed export growth. That’s just not going to fly when the Eurozone as a whole is fighting for export income.

But worse yet, there’s a positive feedback loop here that will likely result in a debt deflation scenario, normally resulting in private-sector default. Let’s use Iceland, again, as an example. In 2009, private consumption dragged GDP growth a large 7.8%. In Greece’s case, the effect on consumption would be magnified, since without the benefit of external income generation the private sector must take a larger hit. As consumption falls, so too do tax receipts and the primary deficit rises once more – the positive feedback loop.

3. You say it is impossible for all European countries to decrease wages in order to increase exports because –we suppose- this would reduce, in some way, domestic demand and, therefore, trade within the European Union, seeming to be no other way out. How can we get out of this situation? Could it be the end of the monetary union -so that some countries prefer currency devaluation in order to gain competitiveness?

Rebecca: It probably won’t be the end of the EMU, but I wouldn’t be surprised if some countries defaulted, which then increases the likelihood of the “end of the EMU”. What we have is an unsustainable situation in the Eurozone, as key countries face “infernal devaluation”. Without an epic surge in export growth, the government austerity programs called upon by the E.U. (or the IMF) will force the private sector to accumulate debt in order to balance out the aggregate forces of income and spending. That’s just fact.

The Eurozone was built upon the premise that there would be a unified currency and an un-unified fiscal system. In order to balance the inherent fiscal challenges that come along with inherently different saving motives across the 16 EMU countries, strict rules were set in place: no government is “allowed” to run fiscal deficits in excess of 3% nor accumulate debt in excess of 60% of GDP. Countries are fined, but that didn’t stop them from hiding government obligations from the European Union via sophisticated derivative securities. In the end, you have a band-aid plan to satisfy markets so that Greece can attempt to rollover its near-term debt. This “bailout” comes with no specifics as to threshold levels that must be crossed in order to get the central E.U. players to offer support, which is no doubt by design. Nothing has changed here; no lessons learned; the Eurozone is still just as flawed as it was ten years ago.

What has now become obvious to those who did not see this coming, is that the Eurozone, in its construct, was never meant to withstand the financial contagion and ensuing global recession of 2007-2009.

4. The European media are suggesting this week that the European Union should “let Greece fall” as a sign of credibility. What do you think of this issue?

Rebecca: Unless the structure of the EMU was changed for the better, meaning fiscal consolidation, the Eurozone would be no more “credible” after the default of Greece.

5. What is your opinion concerning the possibility of creating a European Monetary Fund, which has recently come up in the news?

Rebecca: It is an awful idea and ridden with disruptive side effects. In essence, the EMF would be established to prevent sovereign default from causing contagion throughout the Eurozone. If funds are dispersed immediately, the obvious result is the lop-sided power engendered to those countries that contribute, rather than borrow, from the fund. From the get-go, the EMF would bring political pressures from the creditor countries to the unduly strained debtor countries.

With such power comes abuse, as illustrated by the International Monetary Fund’s involvement during the Asian Financial Crisis. The IMF proved itself to be highly intrusive into local sovereignty and adopted a one-size-fits-all policy to its conditional lending programs. There is a reason that capital controls are the policy du jour in Asia, and consequently not part of the IMF’s “prescription”.

It is NOT unlikely that the same [abuse] would happen under the EMF.

Rebecca Wilder

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