Commentary

Has the ECB Provided the Missing Piece to Resolve the EU Debt Crisis?

By Warren Coats
This article appeared on Cato.org on September 11, 2012.

On September 6, Mario Draghi, president of the European Central Bank (ECB), announced that the ECB would engage in unlimited secondary market purchases of government bonds of member countries adhering to the policy conditions agreed to with the IMF and EU (and thus qualified to borrow from the European Financial Stabilization Fund — EFSF — or the European Stabilization Mechanism — ESM) to the extent needed to promote the efficient transmission of monetary policy throughout the Euro area. The overall liquidity impact of such purchases will be sterilized (offset by the sale of some other ECB assets), as needed, in order to preserve the ECB’s inflation objective of an inflation rate below but near 2% over the next two years. What does this add to the existing European tool kit and is it enough to resolve the EU debt crisis?

All responsible government officials recognize and accept that in the long run nations, like individuals, must live within their means (pay fully for what they consume). Their standard of living will depend on what they are able to produce (productivity). Eliminating government deficits requires reducing government spending and/or increasing tax revenue. Increasing the sustainable standard of living of its people (the level of consumption they can fully pay for with what they produce) requires liberalizing restrictions on labor and product markets and investment that will increase the productivity and thus output of workers and businesses. The debate is primarily over the optimal pace of introducing the measures needed to balance budgets and increase productivity and competitiveness. This matters in that it takes time for the economy to adjust to reforms before it enjoys the benefits of more rapid growth. In the interim continuing but declining deficits must be financed either in the market (if market lenders have confidence in the effectiveness of the measures being taken), or by the IMF/EU/ECB until market confidence can be established.

I have elaborated these points in earlier blogs: “European debt crisis: causes and cures”; “Saving Italy and the euro”; “Buying time for Italy”; and “Saving Greece-Austerity and/or Growth.”

Throughout the crisis Germany has demanded that Greece and other over-indebted and uncompetitive countries undertake the needed corrective measures before being granted the financing needed for the transition back to normal market borrowing. Events have proven Germany to be right, as earlier “bailout” commitments have led to a suspension or slow down in policy reforms thus prolonging recovery. For the same reason Germany has vigorously opposed (correctly in my view) the adoption of Eurobonds, which would allow Greece and others to borrow at the same interest rate as Germany and all other EU members. The moral hazard of bad fiscal behavior when market discipline over borrowing is removed is a real and serious issue.

On the other hand, Germany is also pushing for Fiscal Union in order to gain better EU-wide control over excessive national deficits. This may or may not be a good idea for Europe (I have my doubts); but it is certainly not, contrary to much opinion, essential for the viability of the Euro. The idea behind the German push for Fiscal Union stems from the markets’ failure to properly price the risk of lending to Greece, Portugal and some other overly indebted countries and Germany’s belief that the only way it can protect its taxpayers from supporting inflated living standards to the South is by gaining control over their governments’ expenditures. Until the past few years, the governments of Greece and Portugal could borrow in the market at interest rates very close to the rates paid by the German government, which by the way has borrowed quite a lot itself (the ratio of German government debt to its GDP is currently above 81%). These governments spent and over promised future benefits recklessly on the (temporary) basis of relatively cheap debt financing in the market.

It is certainly a fair question to ask why the market failed in this regard and over-lent to a number of governments that now have difficulty repaying. The expectation that Germany and other Northern EU countries would not allow the profligate southern ones to default made such lending seem risk free and the market priced it accordingly. Fiscal Union and/or EU-wide fiscal rules are one way to limit such excessive borrowing and unfunded future promises. Improved market discipline of borrowing via more accurate risk premiums on market lending is another, and in my opinion, superior approach. Greece’s orderly default (75% haircut) on its publicly held debt and the current crisis have restored a large measure of market discipline to sovereign borrowing. Greece and Portugal do not need to borrow from the market for several more years as long as they implement and adhere to the reforms demanded by the IMF/EU/ECB. However, Spain and Italy closely watch the now far more sensitive interest rates demanded by the market when lending to them. Given the substantial outstanding debt of these countries, those interest rates can make the difference between the success or failure of reform efforts. Ireland, which has successfully, though painfully, implemented all of the conditions of the IMF et al. “bailout,” is well on the way to full recovery and is now able to borrow again in the market at reasonable interest rates.

The missing piece in the EU/ECB tool kit to manage the ongoing debt crisis is the availability of sufficient temporary adjustment financing for larger countries such as Spain and Italy should markets lose confidence in one or both of them before their reforms have had time to bear fruit. The resources of the EFSF/ESM, still waiting for the German constitutional court’s approval, are not sufficient to finance stabilization programs with both countries. This leaves markets uneasy and volatile. Market interest rates on ten-year Spanish government bonds have varied this year between under 5% to 7.6%. German government bond rates have varied between 1.24% and 1.85%. Mario Draghi’s commitment of ECB funds to buy short-term sovereign debt (with maturities of up to three years) in secondary markets does not augment the resources available to the EFSF/ESM to finance adjustment programs with the IMF, but by buying such bonds in the secondary market should liquidity in a program country dry up, the ECB should be able to significantly reduce the prospects of what it considers unrealistically high risk premiums for such bonds. The ECB would only buy bonds of countries meeting the conditionality of an IMF supported adjustment program. Outright secondary market purchases are a standard and traditional liquidity management tool for central banks. What is unique in the European context is that open market purchases must be for the bonds of individual countries and the choice of countries matters. It is for others to determine whether, as Mr. Draghi claims, the new initiative is consistent with the ECB’s mandate.

This past week I attended a meeting of the Mont Pelerin Society in Prague. Friedrich Hayek, Milton Friedman and a few other free market champions founded the MPS in 1946. Czech President Vaclav Klaus, an economist and MPS member, hosted this year’s meeting. President Klaus has opposed the Czech Republic’s adoption of the Euro. It has kept its own currency, which the Czech National Bank has managed very well under an “inflation targeting” policy regime. However, Spanish economist Jesus Huerta de Soto spoke at the meeting in defense of the single currency. He favors a return to the gold standard but convincingly argued that the monetary discipline on Spain provided by giving up its own currency to the Euro was a good second best. The key to success or failure of the Euro for the overly indebted countries that use it is whether they reform deeply enough to live within their own means within a few years and to sufficiently improve their competitiveness with the rest of Europe and the rest of the world. Failure to do so will harm the defaulting country far more than it will harm the Euro. I wish them well.

Warren Coats retired from the International Monetary Fund in 2003 as Assistant Director of the Monetary and Financial Systems Department, where he led technical assistance missions to central banks in over 20 countries.