Emma Clancy – Some euros are more equal than others: trade imbalances and debt crises

The Euro has failed Europe’s citizens, resulting in Germany’s financial hegemony. This is the fourth  article in a series presenting the report The Future of the Eurozone. Preivous articles in this series are here, here, and here

Emma Clancy works as a policy advisor for Sinn Féin and the European United Left (GUE/NGL) in the European Parliament on the Economic and Monetary Affairs Committee and the Panama Papers Committee of Inquiry.

This is an excerpt from the economic discussion document launched by MEP Matt Carthy on October 27, entitled The Future of the Eurozone. Download the full document for a referenced version

Cross-posted from Emma’s blog



A protester waves the tricolour at a protest against the Troika bailout of Ireland in 2010

The creation of the euro was in part a response to the collapse of Bretton Woods, and in part a means for European federalists to push the pace of political integration. There was a widespread belief stretching back to the Gold Exchange Standard that a common currency would ensure price stability and predictability, eliminate the risk of changes in exchange rates and therefore boost trade. For the European external-deficit states, the susceptibility of their currencies to repeated devaluations against the Deutschmark was viewed as an economic and political vulnerability, which caused inflation that reduced the purchasing power of both rich and poor.

Successive French governments had repeated the call for a European monetary union since Giscard d’Estaing first proposed it in 1964. Germany had dragged its heels on such a union for decades, largely because of a fear that a fixed exchange rate between the franc and the Deutschmark would require the Bundesbank to print more money to prop up the franc, causing inflation that had been regarded with profound dread by Germans since their experience of the hyper-inflation of the 1920s, a dread that continues to define German monetary policy today.

The typical explanation regarding the creation of the Economic and Monetary Union (EMU) found in history books is that Germany finally agreed to the long-standing French call for a monetary union after the fall of the Berlin Wall in exchange for French acceptance of Germany’s reunification. But it was also created to accommodate Germany’s export-led economic strategy. The Deutschmark’s sky-high value in the wake of the collapse of Bretton Woods was a reminder to Germany that if the Deutschmark’s exchange rate was to float freely its value could rise indefinitely, making its exports too expensive and destroying its trade surplus strategy. Competitive currency devaluations were successfully reducing Germany’s trade surpluses with the countries that used them during the 1980s. Germany needed some way of locking its exchange rate to other currencies after the demise of the dollar zone.

Germany’s biggest export – stagnation

The question of how to deal with chronic, persistent trade imbalances within a common currency area was resolved to a large degree under the Bretton Woods system by the American commitment to spend its surplus internationally – its direct injection of capital into the economies of its capitalist allies during the duration of the system through aid and then investment. In this way, the US exported its goods but it also exported demand. The German model, on the contrary, aims to export its goods and import demand from other countries. In this way, the biggest German export can said to be stagnation. Instead of playing a role of recycling surplus profits, generating growth and stabilising the international economic system, the persistent German surplus plays a destabilising and deflationary role in the monetary union.

Large and persistent trade surpluses are a problem because the sum of all surpluses has to equal the sum of all deficits. In stable economic periods, the banks in surplus countries can lend to borrowers in deficit countries, maintaining a semblance of balance, but in a crisis this surplus recycling measure comes to a sudden stop. But chronic surpluses also cause an overall decline in demand. The surplus countries are exporting goods but they are spending less than they are making in income.

Trade imbalances cause debt crises

Trade imbalances do not only contribute to stagnation. Countries who run deficits must borrow the gap between what they export and what they import, meaning they have to take on more debt and become exposed to the risk of a debt crisis. If the country’s exchange rate can be devalued, then the external imbalance can be gradually reduced as the deficit country’s exports become more competitive on the global market. But inside a currency union, the option of exchange rate adjustment disappears. The main alternative way for a deficit country inside a currency union to regain trade balance is by an ‘internal devaluation’. This is when the nominal exchange rate remains fixed, but the real exchange rate falls as local prices in the deficit country drop, which makes its exports more competitive.

In a currency peg system, participating countries are not only prone to experiencing high or long-term unemployment, as they lack the ability to change their exchange rates and interest rates after a shock; they are also very susceptible to debt crises. In the absence of successful internal devaluation, deficit countries with a misaligned exchange rate seeking to finance the gap between their imports and exports rely on capital inflows. If foreign direct investment is not forthcoming then the only option is debt. But if the misalignment in the exchange rate is persistent, then the debt mountain grows until creditors fear it will not be repaid, usually resulting in a sudden stop of credit.

Ireland, Spain, Greece and others received huge capital flows after the creation of the euro in 1999, as a result of the elimination of exchange-rate risk. These countries were able to run deficits but also maintain employment and experience growth as a result of the low interest rates they were allowed to borrow at, and the small risk premium on government bonds (the risk premium being the extra amount that was added to the government bonds to compensate for the perceived extra risk associated with lending to that country).

Economist and writer Martin Wolf comments in his book on the financial crisis, The Shifts and the Shocks, that the belief among the Eurozone’s founders was that the problem of trade imbalances would no longer matter in a currency union, “as exchange-rate risks would vanish and payment disequilibria within the area would be smoothly offset by private capital flows”. But “these expectations proved delusional; the sovereign debt crisis in the Eurozone in 2010-12 started as a fully-fledged balance-of-payments crisis… prompted by the accumulation of large payment imbalances between its members and reflecting persistent underlying divergences in prices and costs”. These countries that were running trade deficits based on private and government debt due to the misalignment of their exchange rates then experienced the sudden stop of credit brought about by the global financial crisis, causing creditors to doubt their debts would be repaid. The common currency meant that these countries were forced to turn to the so-called Troika of the European Commission, the ECB and the IMF to be bailed out.

The euro, in this way, is somehow both a domestic and a foreign currency for its members. It is less risky for people, firms and governments to borrow in local currency markets than to borrow in foreign currency. To prevent a debt crisis developing, the government can print more of the local currency to repay creditors. But for Eurozone members, they were borrowing in a supposedly “local” currency that they could not then control. The nature of the Eurozone changed as soon as some members of the monetary union owed other members, Stiglitz argues. The deficit countries dependent on creditor countries and the ECB are then vulnerable to any and all political and economic demands made by the creditors.

In their study of financial crises over eight centuries, Carmen Reinhart and Kenneth Rogoff identify a strong correlation between the removal of restrictions on capital mobility and the incidence of banking crises. In the lead-up to banking crises there is often what they call a “capital flow bonanza” – a surge of capital inflows of roughly a few per cent of GDP on a multiyear basis – and the tendency to run a large current account deficit. While the liberalisation of the financial sector is by no means limited to the Eurozone, the free movement of capital and persistent trade imbalance problems inherent in the Eurozone, due to its design, make the common currency area prone to crises.

Capital defies gravity

After the signing of the Maastricht Treaty in 1992, the interest rates across the euro area converged towards the low level predominant in Germany. At the same time, in taking steps to lower inflation to the 3 per cent limit required for entry into the common currency, governments implemented deflationary measures that compressed wages. These low interest rates, lower real wages and the removal of all restrictions on capital flows as well as financial deregulation in the euro area combined to cause massive influxes of capital into the peripheral economies, and a massive expansion of both private and government debt in these countries. These trends reached new heights in the years leading up to the crisis, causing worsening trade imbalances and divergence.

The once-popular view outlined by Wolf above and expounded by free-market fundamentalists – that trade imbalances would be offset and rectified by private capital flows – proved to be completely false. Instead of playing a balancing and stabilising role in the Eurozone economy, the completely free movement of capital generated massive speculative bubbles, and the abrupt reversal of capital flows from 2008 shows that these capital flows have operated in a pro-cyclical instead of counter-cyclical way. If the free movement of capital operated in a counter-cyclical way, as was claimed, then it would flow to weak countries when they were in trouble, instead of doing precisely the opposite.

While there is a single interest rate across the Eurozone, set by the ECB, the risk premium on government bonds and bank debt in different countries means the actual interest rate differs significantly across the common currency area. The perceived risk in lending to a weaker country is reflected in the spread of interest rates. Where economies are viewed as strong (and governments viewed as being capable of bailing out their banks), their banks will benefit from lower interest rates. Weaker countries and their companies have to pay a higher interest rate. During a crisis, capital flees to the ‘safe’ countries’ banks. Since 2008 capital has flowed dramatically from the poorer countries to the rich – not only in the Eurozone but across the global economy – with a large proportion of global capital fleeing to the US as a result of the US government’s perceived ability (and political commitment) to bail out the banks. Inside the Eurozone, the trend has been for capital flight from banks in the periphery to the core, particularly Germany. Stiglitz notes: “Standard economics is based on the gravity principle: money moves from capital-rich countries with low returns to countries with capital shortage. But in Europe under the Euro, capital and labor defy gravity. Money flowed upward”.

The so-called sovereign debt crisis saw the global financial crisis shift to inside the euro area, where it still remains, due to the structural flaws in the architecture of the Eurozone. The ‘foreign currency’ nature of the euro – the fact that countries couldn’t create the money they were borrowing in – meant that the belief by investors in the years following the creation of the common currency that all Eurozone government bonds were equal was short-lived. From 2007-2009 the spreads between government bonds in Greece and government bonds in Germany (‘bunds’) increased tenfold up to 2.8 percentage points, with the market giving its ‘verdict’ on the creditworthiness of the Eurozone’s deficit countries. This increased again to a differential of almost 4 percentage points by April 2010, when the Greek government found itself unable to keep funding itself from international money markets. After the Greek default, the markets turned to train their sights on Ireland.

Varoufakis describes this ‘market verdict’ of risk strikingly: “Suddenly [in 2009-2010] hedge funds and banks alike had an epiphany. Why not use some of the public money they had been given [in the mass bank bailouts] to bet that, sooner or later, the strain on public finances (caused by the recession on one hand, which depressed the governments’ tax take, and the huge increase in public debt on the other, for which the banks were themselves responsible) would cause one or more of the Eurozone’s states to default?” The most common way to place these bets was through credit default swaps, which are basically insurance policies that pay out in the case of a default by a third party. As the CDS casino on sovereign debt in the Eurozone grew – instead of this capital being directed towards productive investment or economic recovery – the rising value of CDSs in Greece, Ireland and the other peripheral economies caused the interest rates these countries were forced to pay to rise, pushing them towards the cliff, and resulted in the existential crisis of the Eurozone in 2011-2012.

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