Panic is beginning to overwhelm the eurozone. Italy and Spain are caught in the maelstrom. Belgium is slipping into the danger zone. As France is dragged down, the widening gap between its bond yields and Germany’s is severely testing the political partnership that has driven six decades of European integration.
Even strong swimmers such as Finland and the Netherlands are straining against the undertow. Banks are struggling to stay afloat – their capital providing little buoyancy as funds drain away – while businesses that rely on credit are in trouble, too. All signs point to a eurozone recession.
Left unchecked, this panic about sovereign solvency will prove self-fulfilling: just as a healthy bank can fail if it suffers a run, even the most creditworthy government is at risk if the market refuses to refinance its debt. One can scarcely bear imagining the consequences: cascading bank and sovereign defaults, a devastating depression, the collapse of the euro (and perhaps even that of the European Union), global contagion, and potentially tragic political turmoil. So why aren’t policymakers doing whatever it takes to avoid catastrophe?
Ever since Italian bond yields first spiked in early August, I have believed that only an open-ended commitment by the European Central Bank to keep solvent governments’ bond yields at sustainable rates could calm the panic and create the breathing space needed to implement confidence-boosting reforms. Everything that has happened since then has only confirmed this view.
Now that the crisis has reached the “core” of the eurozone, the resources needed to backstop weaker sovereigns exceed the limited fiscal capacity of stronger ones. Financial wizardry cannot disguise that, while throwing a bigger lifeline risks dragging everyone down. Piling everyone on to the same life raft – through Eurobonds backed by joint and several guarantees – is not legally feasible for now, and would be politically toxic if attempted prematurely. Nor can a systemic crisis be resolved by individual governments’ actions – not least because the panic is outpacing politicians’ ability to respond. Only the ECB has the unlimited wherewithal to save Europe from the abyss now.
The ECB has a strong rationale to act: to ensure the smooth transmission of monetary policy, to prevent a depression that would lead to deflation, and to avoid the breakup of the euro. Yet it has so far refused to do so, hiding behind a legal fig leaf.
Granted, Article 123 of the Lisbon Treaty prohibits the ECB from purchasing bonds directly from public bodies, but intervening in the secondary market is permitted. The ECB has long been doing so through its Securities Market Program. Where in the treaty does it say that extending the SMP is prohibited? Indeed, a credible open-ended commitment to contain interest-rate spreads would actually require fewer purchases than the ECB’s current limited and temporary program does.
Unfortunately, many Germans, notably at the Bundesbank, loathe the idea of central-bank intervention, because it conjures up memories of 1923, when the Reichsbank printed money to fund government borrowing, the resulting hyperinflation destroyed middle-class savings, and a decade later Hitler came to power. Yet Germans ought to remember that it was in fact the financial panic provoked by the collapse of the Austrian bank Creditanstalt, the resulting slump, and misjudgment by the German political establishment that cleared the Nazis’ path.
Far from precluding action, history justifies it. Besides, there is no reason to panic about inflation when monetary growth is low, bank credit is contracting, and people are hoarding money rather than spending it. Moreover, any ECB purchases could continue to be sterilized.
Another objection is that ECB intervention would ease the pressure on the new governments in Italy and Spain to reform. Yet, as it is, reformers have no time to establish their credentials, and if the eurozone collapses, the door will be open to populist extremists. So why doesn’t the ECB strike a bargain with solvent governments to keep rates down as long as they stick to their reform programs?
Eurozone leaders could also set out a roadmap towards Eurobonds, subject to strict conditionality, and tied to a credible mechanism for ensuring fiscal prudence. This would provide an additional incentive for governments that wish to qualify to introduce the necessary reforms, while reassuring the ECB and markets that governments remain committed to making the euro work.
Exceptional times demand exceptional measures – and I believe that the ECB will feel obliged to act if the eurozone is pushed to the brink. But the longer the ECB delays, the greater the hit to people’s jobs and savings, the deeper the enduring damage to investors' confidence in the eurozone financial system, and the bigger the risk of a catastrophic mishap. The time to act is now.
Philippe Legrain is an independent economic adviser to the European Commission.
Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2011.
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