Monday, January 16, 2012

Credit Downgrades and Europe

The problem is the free flow of capital throughout most of the world. 

When capital flows freely you cannot escape the consequences of your actions.

What is called the “trilemma” problem of international economics makes this very clear.  The “trilemma” problem states that a country can only choose two of the following three options.  The three options are to be a part of world capital markets where capital flows freely; have a fixed exchange rate; or, be free to run an independent economic policy.

If there is a free flow of capital internationally, then the choice is reduced to just one of the two remaining options.  But, there are consequences to either choice.

First, if a country choses to run its economic policy independently of all other nations, then it must let it currency float in the foreign exchange markets.  Generally, a nation that wants to run an independent economic policy has particular domestic economic goals it wants to achieve and so wants to be able to choose an independent economic policy that supports these goals.

The goals most often chosen in the latter part of the twentieth century have been full employment and social welfare programs like government jobs, early retirement, substantial amounts of vacation, and high pension levels.  The means of achieving these goals has often been a policy of public sector credit inflation. 

If a country chooses the path of credit inflation then the price of its currency in foreign exchange markets must be allowed to float.  And, if credit inflation becomes extreme, the value of the currency in the foreign exchange markets will decline.  And, this will bring on other problems. 

This is one reason John Maynard Keynes wanted restrictions on the international flow of capital in the 1920s and 1930s. (   A limited flow of capital internationally was a reality when Keynes helped to craft the Bretton Woods agreement that created the rules for the post-World War II international monetary system.  This agreement also included fixed exchange rates between the currencies of the participant nations. 

The purpose of this system was to allow member countries to follow their own economic policies aimed at achieving high levels of employment in their own country.  Therefore, a policy of credit inflation could be followed in each country without disrupting changes in foreign currency rates.

The Bretton Woods system fell apart as international capital markets opened up in the 1950s and 1960s and the credit inflation created in the United States in the 1960s resulted in a situation where the United States could not maintain its fixed exchange rate.  On August 15, 1971, President Nixon choose to float the value of the U. S. dollar.

A second choice, given the unrestricted flow of capital internationally, is to choose a fixed exchange rate.  But, if a nation chooses a fixed exchange rate then it must give up its sovereignty with respect to running an economic policy that is independent of other nations. 

This is what the European nations did when they choose to form a monetary union based on a single currency, the euro: in essence, they choose to have a fixed exchange rate between member nations.  But, the nations forming the union did not want to give up their sovereignty with regards to the formation of their government budgets. 

Oh, they allowed for budget deficits to be run, but they were to be limited in scope.  This, they felt, gave the included nations some flexibility in creating their budgets, but, they were not supposed to exceed the set limits.  The problem was that these limits were unenforceable. 

Which brings us to the current time.  Budget limits have been grossly exceeded and the nations forming the European currency union and these eurozone nations are unable…or unwilling…to give up the sovereignty of running their own economic policy or abiding by the rules of the union.

The “trilemma” analysis states very clearly that in circumstances like this the monetary union must be broken up and the countries must form a central budgetary unit or must once again establish their own currency units whose price will be floated against the other currencies of the former eurozone countries. 

The ultimate cost of running independent economic policies and trying to run a single currency monetary union will be the destruction of the sovereign political bodies as we know them in Europe or the euro, as we know it now, will have to become history.

Current events now relate to the break down of solvency talks, which had been taking place between the Greek government and private investors in Greek debt.  An “unrealistic” proposal has been rejected by the debt holders.     

Furthermore, the credit downgrades of France and other nations, which took place over the past week, were expected, yet no one really exhibited any sense of urgency.   Now that the downgrades have taken place a downward spiral seems to be starting.

“Both events are important because they show us the mechanism behind this year’s likely unfolding of events.  The eurozone has fallen into a spiral of downgrades, falling economic output, rising debt and further downgrades.  A recession has started.  Greece is now likely to default on most of its debts and may even have to leave the eurozone.  When that happens, the spotlight will fall immediately on Portugal, and the next contagious round of downgrades will begin.” (

The European Financial Stability Facility has also been downgraded and this means that its effective lending capacity has been reduced.  The ability to “bailout” distressed countries has declined.  And, the European Central Bank cannot resolve the longer-term issues.  There is very little still available to the European officials to “kick the can down the road” any more.

I just do not see the European countries at this time getting over their resistance to form “a strong central fiscal authority with power to tax and allocate resources across the eurozone.”  Hence, I don’t have much confidence for the continued existence of a common currency for Europe, except maybe, on a much more limited scale.  Right now, I don’t see alternatives to the downward spiral mentioned above.

The bottom line is that the conditions of the “trilemma” problem seem to hold.  Given that capital is flowing freely throughout the world nations cannot just totally ignore the consequences of their choice of economic policy.  And, if the consequences of that economic policy are not realized immediately, the evidence shows that they will be realized sooner or later.  This is a lesson in macroeconomic decision-making that all countries need to take into account when determining what economic policy they should be following.  Are you listening America?     

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