Monday, January 9, 2012

Where Does Sovereign Credibility Come From? The European Sitaution

As usual, when Bob Barro of Harvard writes something it usually contains some provocative ideas.  In the Monday morning Wall Street Journal, Barro writes about how Europe might get out of the Euro. (

What interested me most in Barro’s piece was the emphasis he placed on the credibility of the organizations that issue a currency. 

In essence, as I read the article, Barro argues that the credibility of the Euro comes from those within the eurozone that are fiscally sound and carry those that are not fiscally sound, the “free riders”, along with them. 

This credibility is maintained for as long as the “free riders” conduct their irresponsibility within limits.   In fact, this is what the original charter of the eurozone called for…limits to how irresponsible the “free riders” could be.

But, the limits must be enforced.

“Greece…has been increasingly out of control fiscally since the 1970s.  But instead of expulsion, the EU reaction has been to provide a sufficient bailout to deter the country from leaving.” 

The bailouts have become serial, as bailouts have also been given to Portugal, Ireland, Italy, and Spain. 

Thus, the only way credibility can be maintained is for Germany to continue to be fiscally strong while the union continues to provide bailout packages that will carry the “free riders” along for as long as possible.

Meanwhile, the internal effort of the members of the eurozone has been to create a stronger “fiscal” bond within the zone itself…ultimately moving to a “centralized political entity” that will oversee the fiscal and currency policy of the whole eurozone. 

Europe, to achieve such a “centralized political entity”, would have to overcome many, many issues that have existed on the continent for a long time.  For one, the internal rivalries that have existed for centuries would have to be overcome.  Already the resentment against Germany has grown as Germany has become a more demanding partner within the union.  Even statements like “Germany is achieving through economics what it could not achieve militarily at an earlier date” demonstrate some of the underlying emotions that exist on the continent.  Then you have the cultures, languages, and other hurdles to overcome to achieve the needed unity.

Even so, Barro continues, in the shorter run, the credibility of the nations is vitally important because of the sovereign debt that has already been issued by the governments of Europe and that rest on the balance sheets of the banks within the eurozone.  This is the reason there is rush to achieve the near term austerity in the budgets of Italy, Spain,…and France…among others. 

Greek debt is now yielding more than 34 percent on its ten-year bonds.   Portuguese bonds are yielding more than 13 percent.  The debt of Italy is yielding more than 7 percent.  And Spanish bonds are above 5.5 percent.  These rates are unsustainable!

French debt is yielding around 3.5 percent and the rating agencies are soon expected to remove their AAA rating.

The status of this debt is important because, “the issue that has prompted ever-growing official intervention in recent months has been actual and potential losses of value of government bonds of Greece, Italy and so on.  Governments and financial markets worry that these depreciations would lead to bank failures and financial crises in France, Germany, and elsewhere.”

Credibility is lacking because “it is unclear whether Italy and other weak members will be able and willing to meet their long-term euro obligations.” 

Not only is the banking system threatened by this lack of confidence, the uncertainty that exists surrounding the future structure and performance of this area does not contribute to the achievement of stronger economic growth.  If anything, this uncertainty works to reduce growth.

Only as independent nations with their own currencies would these countries be able to meet their own obligations and achieve the credibility a nation needs to function within the global economy.  “This credibility underlay the pre-1999 system in which the bonds of Italy and other eurozone countries were denominated in their own currencies.  The old system was imperfect, but it’s become clear that it was better than the current setup.”

The issue is one of credibility. 

Right now, Germany seems to possess credibility.  But this credibility is based on its maintaining the position of fiscal responsibility it has already achieved.  And, this is just what the Germans seem to be doing. (“Germany Resists Europe’s Plea to Spend More,”  

As long as the current economic structure exists for the eurozone, the credibility of the eurozone will depend upon it’s ability to provide sufficient “band aides” to piggy-back on the credibility of Germany.   My guess is that it will become harder and harder for financial markets to buy-into this piggy-back arrangement. 

Credibility requires the provision of actions that backup promises.  Barro is suggesting that the only way that the fiscally irresponsible will become credible is for them to be “out-on-their-own” again where they will have to be totally responsible for their own actions.  Unless this happens, there is too much historical baggage carried by the eurozone that will not be overcome.      

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