x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Firm hand needed to fix the euro zone's ills

The European debt crisis has paralysed the single-currency bloc, and it seems the crisis will worsen before it gets better. Tough, decisive action is the answer.

There are questions whether euro-zone's single-currency regime can survive much longer without a stronger fiscal union. Andrea Comas / Reuters
There are questions whether euro-zone's single-currency regime can survive much longer without a stronger fiscal union. Andrea Comas / Reuters

Europe is in constitutional crisis. No one seems to have the power to impose a sensible resolution of its peripheral countries' debt crisis.

Instead of restructuring the manifestly unsustainable debt burdens of Portugal, Ireland, and Greece, politicians and policymakers are pushing for ever-larger bailout packages with ever-less realistic austerity conditions.

True, for the moment, the problem is still economically manageable. Euro-zone growth is respectable, and Portugal, Ireland and Greece account for only 6 per cent of the euro zone's GDP.

But by stubbornly arguing that these countries are facing a liquidity crisis, rather than a solvency problem, euro officials are putting the entire system at risk.

Major euro-zone economies such as Spain and Italy have huge debt problems of their own, especially given anaemic growth and a manifest lack of competitiveness.

The last thing they need is for people to be led to believe that an implicit transfer union is already in place, and that reform and economic restructuring can wait.

EU officials argue that it would be catastrophic to restructure any member's debts proactively. It is certainly the case that contagion will rage after any Greek restructuring. It will stop spreading only when Germany constructs a firm and credible firewall, presumably around Spanish and Italian central-government debt.

This is exactly the kind of hard-headed solution that one would see in a truly integrated currency area. So why do Europe's leaders find this intermediate solution so unimaginable?

Perhaps it is because they believe they do not have the governance mechanisms in place to make tough decisions, to pick winners and losers. The EU's weak, fractured institutions dispose of less than 2 per cent of euro-zone GDP in tax revenues.

Any kind of bold decision essentially requires unanimity. It is all for one and one for all, regardless of size, debt position and accountability. There is no point in drawing up a plan B if there is no authority or capacity to execute it.

Might Europe get lucky? Is there any chance that the snowball of debt, dysfunction and doubt will fall apart harmlessly before it gathers more force?

Amid so much uncertainty, anything is possible.

If euro-zone growth wildly outperforms expectations in the next few years, banks' balance sheets will strengthen and German taxpayers' pockets will deepen.

The peripheral countries might just experience enough growth to sustain their ambitious austerity commitments.

Today's strategy, however, is far more likely to lead to blow-up and disorderly restructuring.

Why should the Greek people (not to mention the Irish and the Portuguese) accept years of austerity and slow growth for the sake of propping up the French and German banking systems, unless they are given huge bribes to do so?

As Stanford University professor Jeremy Bulow and I showed in our work on sovereign debt in the 1980s, countries rarely can be squeezed into making net payments (payments minus new loans) to foreigners of more than a few per cent for a few years.

The current EU-IMF strategy calls for a decade or two of such payments. It has to, lest the German taxpayer revolt at being asked to pay for Europe in perpetuity.

Perhaps this time is different. Perhaps the allure of belonging to a growing reserve currency will make sustained recession and austerity feasible in ways that have seldom been seen historically. I doubt it. True, against all odds and historical logic, Europe seems poised to maintain the leadership of the IMF.

Remarkably, in their resignation to the apparently inevitable choice for the top position, leaders of emerging markets do not seem to realise that they should still challenge the US prerogative of appointing the IMF's extremely powerful number two official.

The IMF has already been extraordinarily generous to Portugal, Ireland and Greece. Once the new bailout-friendly team is ensconced, we can expect only more generosity, regardless of whether these countries adhere to their programmes.

Unfortunately, an ultra-soft IMF is the last thing Europe needs right now. With its constitutional crisis, we have reached exactly the moment when the IMF needs to help the euro zone make the tough decisions that it cannot make on its own. The IMF needs to create programmes for Portugal, Ireland, and Greece that restore competitiveness and trim debt, offering them realistic hope of a return to economic growth.

The IMF needs to prevent Europeans from allowing their constitutional paralysis to turn the euro zone's debt snowball into a global avalanche. Absent the IMF, the one institution that might be able to take action is the fiercely independent European Central Bank (ECB). But if the ECB takes over entirely the role of "lender of last resort", it will ultimately become insolvent itself. This is no way to secure the future of the single currency.

The endgame to any crisis is difficult to predict. Perhaps a wholesale collapse of the euro exchange rate will be enough, triggering an export boom. Perhaps Europe will just boom anyway. But it is hard to see how the single currency can survive much longer without a decisive move towards a far stronger fiscal union.

Kenneth Rogoff is a professor of economics and public policy at Harvard University, and was formerly the chief economist at the IMF

* Project Syndicate