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The Euro’s PIG-Headed Masters

CAMBRIDGE – 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 (the PIGs), politicians and policymakers are pushing for ever-larger bailout packages with ever-less realistic austerity conditions. Unfortunately, they are not just “kicking the can down the road,” but pushing a snowball down a mountain.

True, for the moment, the problem is still economically manageable. Eurozone growth is respectable, and the PIGs account for only 6% of the eurozone’s GDP. But by stubbornly arguing that that these countries are facing a liquidity crisis, rather than a solvency problem, euro officials are putting entire system at risk. Major eurozone economies like Spain and Italy have huge debt problems of their own, especially given anemic 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.

European Union 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 hardheaded 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 European Union’s weak, fractured institutions dispose of less than 2% of eurozone 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 is 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? Amidst so much uncertainty, anything is possible. If eurozone growth wildly outperforms expectations in the next few years, banks’ balance sheets would strengthen and German taxpayers’ pockets would 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 blowup 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 professor Jeremy Bulow and I showed in our work on sovereign debt in the 1980’s, countries rarely can be squeezed into making net payments (payments minus new loans) to foreigners of more than a few percent for a few years. The current EU/International Monetary Fund 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, emerging-market leaders do not seem to realize that they should still challenge the United States’ prerogative of appointing the Fund’s extremely powerful number-two official. The IMF has already been extraordinarily generous to the PIGs. Once the new bailout-friendly team is ensconced, we can only expect more generosity, regardless of whether these countries adhere to their programs.

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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 eurozone make the tough decisions that it cannot make on its own. The Fund needs to create programs for Portugal, Ireland, and Greece that restore competitiveness and trim debt, and that offer them realistic hope of a return to economic growth. The IMF needs to prevent Europeans from allowing their constitutional paralysis to turn the eurozone’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. 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 Professor of Economics and Public Policy at Harvard University, and was formerly chief economist at the IMF

Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2011.

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