Jean-Claude Trichet, the President of the European Central Bank (ECB), made headlines toward the end of last week by suggesting that the ECB might have to raise its major interest rate in April.
This suggestion raised quite a bit of controversy and also helped the Euro to rise, briefly, to more than $1.40 per Euro. It also, some said, set the stage for the weekend in Europe and the upcoming discussions about fiscal affairs in the eurozone countries. (http://seekingalpha.com/article/256255-meanwhile-back-in-europe-a-view-of-the-ecb-inflation-and-other-matters)
Trichet has been as hardnosed as anyone in recent years about keeping inflation in check. And, since 2003 when he became President of the ECB, he has been adamant about maintaining an inflation target as the primary objective of the central bank.
In doing so, he has been relatively successful in allowing eurozone economies to expand while keeping the Euro strong, especially against the United States dollar.
In this chart we see an almost steady climb in the dollar/euro exchange rate from about 2002 until late 2008 when the financial markets began to collapse and there was a “flight to quality” toward the United States dollar.
As market participants moved back into “risk” in 2009 the dollar/euro exchange rate began to rise again, roughly reaching $1.50 per Euro. The sovereign debt crisis in the eurozone resulted in another drop in the exchange rate but the Euro began to rise again once Fed chairman Bernanke started talking up his plans for Quantitative Easing, Part II, for the Federal Reserve in late August 2010.
The strength of the Euro, especially against the United States dollar, should be seen as a source of pride for the President of the ECB. Trichet, a Frenchman, saw how upsetting inflation or the threat of inflation could be in international financial markets when he served in the Treasury Department in France during the time that Francois Mitterrand was the President of the French Republic.
Mitterrand was a socialist and who came to power in 1981. Early in his first term, Mitterrand followed a radical economic program, including nationalization of key firms. The economy developed a serious inflationary problem and money fled France causing a substantial decline in the French Franc. After two years in office, Mitterrand made a substantial u-turn in economic policies. In March 1983 he presented the so-called “Liberal turn”, in which priority was given to the struggle against inflation so that France could remain competitive within the European Monetary System.
The young Treasury Department official took note of this and applied the lessons learned when he became a Governor of the Banque de France, a Governor of the World Bank, an Alternate Governor of the International Monetary Fund and the President of the ECB.
Leading the European Central Bank is one thing, but the ultimate success of Trichet’s efforts to keep European inflation under control is also dependent upon the European Union (EU) getting its fiscal act under control. The sovereign debt issue and its resolution amongst the eurozone countries is crucial to the EU in keeping inflation under control and even whether or not the Euro will continue to exist.
The problem in the eurozone is that the limits or restrictions on independent sovereign nations to conduct their own fiscal policies have not been very effective. The leaders of the EU are going to have to reach some satisfactory solution to this problem or there will be continued attacks on the sovereign debt of the less disciplined countries and this will tend to bring with it attacks on the Euro.
In my view, the EU has two choices. It either moves toward the German model of conservative fiscal control of governmental budgets or it fails to bring sufficient controls on less-disciplined governments which, to me, is basically saying that the EU will err on the side of not offending anybody.
To err on this latter side is to seal the fate of the Euro. If one takes the “weaker” side, if one allows the less-disciplined to get-away with their lack-of-will, then the financial problems of the eurozone will continue and there will be a movement away from the Euro. Over time, the value of the Euro will slowly deteriorate. The Germans will not remain in such a union and the Euro will become “legacy.”
Trichet hopes, I believe, that the Germans will prevail in determining the fiscal parameters of the European Union now being discussed. This, to me, is the only hope for the Euro surviving in the longer run. In this, the Germans win…which a lot of people in Europe…and elsewhere…don’t really want to see.
Ultimately, however, the more fiscally prudent nation will prevail whether or not the Euro does. I believe the Germans don’t want the Euro to become history, but they are not willing to sacrifice their economic strength and benefits to live with the excesses of other governments. It is good to be economically strong!
Thus, to Trichet, it’s all about a strong Euro. He has done his job in setting the stage for the continuing discussions within the EU over the future of eurozone cooperation, fiscal policies, and debt restructuring. For the eurozone to be a strong player in the global economy in the future, the EU must have a strong currency. Trichet has done his job in an effort to achieve this goal.