March 17, 2013 8:52 pm

Europe cannot allow unfinished business to fester

In economic policy what is good for one is not good for all

Europe’s economic situation is viewed with far less concern than was the case six, 12 or 18 months ago. Policy makers in Europe far prefer engaging the US on a possible trade and investment agreement to more discussion on financial stability and growth. However, misplaced confidence can be dangerous if it reduces pressure for necessary policy adjustments.

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There is a striking difference between financial crises in memory and financial crises as they actually play out. In memory, they are a concatenation of disasters. But as they play out, the norm is moments of panic separated by lengthy stretches of apparent calm. It was eight months from the South Korean crisis to the Russian default of 1998, six months from Bear Stearns’ demise to Lehman Brothers’ fall, and there were several 30 per cent stock market rallies between 1929 and 1933.

Is Europe out of the woods? Certainly a number of key credit spreads, particularly in Spain and Italy, have narrowed substantially. But it is far from clear that market conditions have improved. Investors are still limited. Restrictions limit the ability of pessimistic investors to short European debt. Regulations enable local banks to treat government debt as risk-free. This allows them to access funding from the European Central Bank on non-market terms. And there is the suspicion that, in extremis, the central bank would come in strongly and bail out bond holders. Remissions are sometimes followed by cures and sometimes by relapses.

A worrisome indicator in much of Europe is the tendency of stock and bond prices to move together. In healthy countries, when sentiment improves stock prices rise and bond prices fall, as risk premiums decline and interest rates rise. In unhealthy economies, as in much of Europe today, bonds are seen as risk assets, so they move just like stocks in response to changes in sentiment.

Perhaps it should not be surprising that Europe still looks to be in serious trouble. Growth has been dismal, with eurozone gross domestic product still below its 2007 level. Forecasts predict little, if any, growth this year.

For every Ireland, where there is a sense that a corner is being turned, there is a France, where the sustainability of current policy is increasingly questionable.

The controversy surrounding the decision by European authorities to conduct a bail-in that imposes levies on Cypriot bank depositors gives an indication of the degree of fragility in Europe. The idea that converting a small portion of deposits into equity claims in an economy with a population barely over 1m could be a source of systemic risk suggests the current situation rests on a hair trigger.

All of this is compounded by political uncertainty. Italy’s election was inconclusive even by its own standards. Scandals and staggeringly high unemployment are taking their toll in Spain. France is much calmer about its situation than are many outside observers. And Germany’s primary concern is avoiding turmoil before federal elections in September. There is little doubt that, given a choice, all eurozone countries would prefer almost any kind of macroeconomic unorthodoxy to the breakdown of monetary union. But this is insufficient. There is the serious risk that as nations pursue parochial concerns, the political and economic situation will deteriorate to a point that is not remediable.

Structural reform in the most troubled economies is essential, and the work of building a stronger institutional foundation for monetary union must go on. But the key to success will be the recognition that in economic policy – as in life – what is good for one is not good for all.

It is true, as German policy makers constantly point out, that fiscal consolidation and structural reform were key to Germany’s rise from being the “sick man of Europe” to its current position of strength. What they do not recognise is that there cannot be exports without imports. Germany’s export growth and huge trade surplus were enabled by borrowing by the European periphery. If the debtor countries of Europe are to follow Germany’s path without economic implosion there must be a strategy that assures increased external demand for what they produce. This could come from a German economy that was prepared to reduce its formidable trade surplus, from easier monetary policies in Europe that spurred growth and competitiveness, or from increased deployment of central funds such as those of the European Investment Bank.

Invocation of necessity is not a strategy. As any student of Germany’s experience of the 1920s knows, requiring a nation to service large debts by being austere in a context where there is no growth in demand for its exports is far from being a viable strategy.

European policy makers, the International Monetary Fund and external policy makers with a stake in the European outcome need to recognise that the history of financial crises is a history of missed opportunities. New business is always more exciting than unfinished business. And where matters are controversial, forced moves are easier for policy makers than unforced moves because they can be portrayed as moves of necessity rather than choice. So outsiders avoid confrontation and insiders embrace drift. The consequences could be grave.

The writer is Charles W. Eliot university professor at Harvard and a former US Treasury secretary

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