Germany and the ECB have less power over the eurozone's peripheral countries than they seem to believe. If they continue to insist on concentrating all the pain of economic adjustment in the periphery, the monetary union’s slow-developing train wreck will accelerate as peripheral countries default and revert to national currencies.
NEW YORK – The eurozone crisis seems to be reaching its climax, with Greece on the verge of default and an inglorious exit from the monetary union, and now Italy on the verge of losing market access. But the eurozone's problems are much deeper. They are structural, and they severely affect at least four other economies: Ireland, Portugal, Cyprus, and Spain.
For the last decade, the PIIGS (Portugal, Ireland, Italy, Greece, and Spain) were the eurozone's consumers of first and last resort, spending more than their income and running ever-larger current-account deficits. Meanwhile, the eurozone core (Germany, the Netherlands, Austria, and France) comprised the producers of first and last resort, spending below their incomes and running ever-larger current-account surpluses.
These external imbalances were also driven by the euro’s strength since 2002, and by the divergence in real exchange rates and competitiveness within the eurozone. Unit labor costs fell in Germany and other parts of the core (as wage growth lagged that of productivity), leading to a real depreciation and rising current-account surpluses, while the reverse occurred in the PIIGS (and Cyprus), leading to real appreciation and widening current-account deficits. In Ireland and Spain, private savings collapsed, and a housing bubble fueled excessive consumption, while in Greece, Portugal, Cyprus, and Italy, it was excessive fiscal deficits that exacerbated external imbalances.
The resulting build-up of private and public debt in over-spending countries became unmanageable when housing bubbles burst (Ireland and Spain) and current-account deficits, fiscal gaps, or both became unsustainable throughout the eurozone's periphery. Moreover, the peripheral countries’ large current-account deficits, fueled as they were by excessive consumption, were accompanied by economic stagnation and loss of competitiveness.
So, now what?
Symmetrical reflation is the best option for restoring growth and competitiveness on the eurozone's periphery while undertaking necessary austerity measures and structural reforms. This implies significant easing of monetary policy by the European Central Bank; provision of unlimited lender-of-last-resort support to illiquid but potentially solvent economies; a sharp depreciation of the euro, which would turn current-account deficits into surpluses; and fiscal stimulus in the core if the periphery is forced into austerity.
Unfortunately, Germany and the ECB oppose this option, owing to the prospect of a temporary dose of modestly higher inflation in the core relative to the periphery.
The bitter medicine that Germany and the ECB want to impose on the periphery – the second option – is recessionary deflation: fiscal austerity, structural reforms to boost productivity growth and reduce unit labor costs, and real depreciation via price adjustment, as opposed to nominal exchange-rate adjustment.
The problems with this option are many. Fiscal austerity, while necessary, means a deeper recession in the short term. Even structural reform reduces output in the short run, because it requires firing workers, shutting down money-losing firms, and gradually reallocating labor and capital to emerging new industries. So, to prevent a spiral of ever-deepening recession, the periphery needs real depreciation to improve its external deficit. But even if prices and wages were to fall by 30 percent over the next few years (which would most likely be socially and politically unsustainable), the real value of debt would increase sharply, worsening the insolvency of governments and private debtors.
In short, the eurozone's periphery is now subject to the paradox of thrift: increasing savings too much, too fast leads to renewed recession and makes debts even more unsustainable. And that paradox is now affecting even the core.