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Euro vision contest

21 May 2012 By Hugo Dixon

What should be the long-term vision for the euro zone? The standard answer is fully-fledged fiscal, banking and political union. Many euro zone politicians advocate it. So do those on the outside such as David Cameron, Britain’s prime minister, who last week called on the zone to “make up or break up”.

The crisis has demonstrated that the current system doesn’t work. But a headlong dive into a United States of Europe would be bad politics and bad economics. An alternative, more attractive vision is to maintain the maximum degree of national sovereignty consistent with a single currency. This is possible provided there are liquidity backstops for solvent governments and banks; debt restructuring for insolvent ones; and flexibility for all.

Enthusiasts say greater union won’t just prevent future crises – it will help solve the current one. The key proposals are for governments to guarantee each other’s bonds through so-called euro zone bonds and to be prepared to bail out each other’s banks. In return for the mutual support, each government and all the banks would submit to strong centralised discipline.

But the European people are not remotely ready for such steps. Anti-euro sentiment is on the rise, to judge by strong poll showings by the likes of France’s Marine Le Pen and Italy’s Beppe Grillo. Germany’s insistence last December on a fiscal discipline treaty has stoked that sentiment.

An attempt by the region’s elite to force the pace of integration with even more ambitious plans could easily backfire with voters, particularly in northern Europe. They would fear being required to fund permanent bail outs for feckless southerners. Premature integration might not even help with the current crisis if it backfired with investors. They might start to question the creditworthiness of a Germany if it had to shoulder the entire region’s debts.

In contrast, the principle of “subsidiarity” – the Maastricht treaty’s specification that decisions should be taken at the lowest possible level of government that is competent to handle them – is good politics and good economics. Of course, even advocates of political union such as Wolfgang Schaeuble, Germany’s finance minister, subscribe to this principle. The issue is to define the minimum conditions needed for the sustainability of the single currency. There are probably three.

The first is that insolvent entities – whether they are governments or banks – should have their debts restructured. One of the main reasons states and lenders were allowed to leverage themselves so much in the boom was because there was a widespread view that they couldn’t go bust. The complacency sowed the seeds of the crisis.

Meanwhile, a key mistake in managing the crisis was the failure to restructure Greece’s debts as soon as they became unbearable. If that had been done, private-sector creditors would have taken the hit. Instead, they were largely bailed out – with the result that 74 percent of Athens’ outstanding 274 billion euros in debt is now held by governments and the International Monetary Fund, according to UBS. This means taxpayers will be on the hook when the big fat Greek default occurs.

Of course, if Greek debt had been restructured earlier, banks in the rest of the euro zone would have had big holes in their balance sheets. Some would have needed bailouts from their governments. But that would have been better than the current debilitating long drawn out sovereign-cum-banking crises.

What’s more, in the future, insolvent banks shouldn’t be bailed out either. Their creditors should be required to take losses before taxpayers have to stump up cash. The failure to do so explains why the government of Ireland, previously financially solid, become infected by its lenders’ folly.

The second minimum condition for monetary union to flourish follows the first: there should be liquidity backstops for banks and governments that are solvent.

With banks, the natural liquidity backstop is the European Central Bank. The quid pro quo is that lenders have to be properly capitalised. Time and again throughout the crisis, euro zone governments have ducked this issue. Only this month, France and Germany conspired to dilute the Basel 3 global capital rules as they apply to Europe, while Spain imposed another half-hearted restructuring on its banks. If the euro zone’s leaders want a successful single currency, this nonsense has to stop.

For governments, the natural liquidity backstop is the European Stability Mechanism, the zone’s soon-to-be-created bailout fund. To do its job properly, it will need extra funds – as it isn’t be big enough to help both Spain and Italy. One option could be to allow it to borrow from the ECB.

Again, the quid pro quo would be solvency. Insolvent government would only get access if they restructured their debts. And illiquid but insolvent ones would need credible long-term plans to cut their debts. Italy, with debt over 120 percent of GDP but huge private wealth and state assets, might one day find itself in the latter category. In return for liquidity, it might have to agree a multi-year programme to privatise real estate and to tax wealth.

The final minimum condition for a successful monetary union is much more flexibility, particularly in labour markets. This is the key to restoring competitiveness in southern Europe and enabling the zone to respond to future shocks.

If the euro zone can do these three things – restructure insolvent institutions’ debts, provide liquidity to solvent ones and improve flexibility everywhere – nations will be able to keep both the euro and much of their sovereignty. That’s a preferable vision to either a euro super-state or the chaos of disintegration.


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