Co-authored by Kim Schoenholtz
When the Norwegian Nobel Committee awarded the 2012 Peace Prize to the European Union (EU), they cited advances in "peace, democracy, and human rights." The common currency zone we call the Euro Area isn't mentioned, unless it's implied by the phrase "grave economic difficulties."
If the EU has been a success, the European Monetary Union (EMU) is revealing itself to be the opposite. One might argue that the euro was a mistake from the start, that the history of fixed exchange systems is littered with failure. We have some sympathy with that view, but we'd like to make two different points. First, flaws in the design and implementation of the EMU have made the crisis worse. Second, the decentralized decision-making process of the EU, with political power concentrated in countries rather than Europe, makes effective crisis management nearly impossible.
The euro crisis combines, in our view, a sovereign debt crisis and a banking crisis, with mutually adverse feedback between the two. But design flaws in the system magnified their impact and feedback. The most important flaws were:
Inadequate fiscal discipline. Limits on debt and deficits (the Stability and Growth Pact) failed early on when France and Germany ignored them. That paved the way for countries with weaker fundamentals, including Greece and Portugal, to issue more debt than they could support. When the crisis struck, the no-bailout clause of the Maastricht Treaty also proved to be vacuous. Compare that to the federal system in the United States. Fiscal difficulties in Illinois or New Jersey come with clear precedent against bailouts and have little impact on other states, the federal government, or the monetary system. .
Symmetric treatment of sovereign debt. National bank regulators -- regulation remains a national activity, not a European one -- decided to treat the debt of Euro Area members as risk-free for capital requirements. The European Central Bank compounded the mistake, accepting all such debt as collateral on similar terms until recently. It's not hard to imagine this made the debt of weak states more attractive and allowed them to issue debt on better terms than their fundamentals indicated. These policies further weakened the credibility of the no-bailout commitment.
National regulation, deposit insurance, and bank resolution. Consider a system with no limit on cross-border capital flows, but with national responsibility for regulation, deposit insurance, and resolution of insolvent banks. Add regulatory tolerance of home-country bank risk and sovereign debt problems and you have the perfect environment for a cross-border credit expansion followed by an international bank run. Add national guarantees of banks and you have a feedback amplifier linking banks and sovereigns. The feedback intensifies when bank and fiscal consolidation hit the economy.
Leaks in the payments system. The Euro Area payments system (TARGET2) allowed weak banks to borrow from the European Central Bank to replace their evaporating deposit base. While this avoided a collapse of the euro, it subsidized weak banks, delayed their recapitalization, and reinforced the ongoing disintegration of the Euro Area financial market. Official funds continue to flow on a large scale from the ECB to banks in weak countries. When they buy home-country debt, the financial system becomes riskier, fragmentation more permanent, and market discipline on sovereigns less effective. The enormous growth of TARGET2 balances also makes the creditor countries worry about their exposure to a potentially fragile union. As of September, the Bundesbank's TARGET2 claims was nearly 700 billion euros.
No exit strategy. The authors of the Maastrict Treaty suggested that membership in the Euro Area was irreversible: there were no provisions for exit or expulsion. The threat to leave, however, gives weak countries more leverage than strong ones. They threaten contagion to others, whose membership is revealed to be revocable, and ask for financial help to void the threat. Consider the contrasting situation of Ecuador, which decided to use the US dollar as its currency. Ecuadorians made this decision on their own, and they can change it any time they wish, with no perceivable impact on the U.S. or any other country.
None of these features of European Monetary Union were essential to a common currency system. They were, in a sense, implementation details, but details or not, they made the crisis worse. We see the results now all over Europe.
On top of this, the decentralized nature of political power in Europe makes it extremely difficult for anyone to respond effectively to the crisis. Political power, particularly the power to raise revenue, still resides in countries, not in Europe or a euro-area agency. Many important decisions require unanimous approval of the member states. That leads to concerns about whether (say) Finland will approve a measure to deal with the crisis. The best minds of Europe have come up with some creative workarounds, but it shouldn't have been this hard. The political structure has taken a difficult problem and made it nearly impossible. That was always the inherent tension at the heart of the system: collective monetary policy vs. national political power. It was never a good combination. If you could do it over again, you wouldn't do it this way.
Where will this lead? Maybe Greece will leave, maybe it won't, but the rest probably will continue to muddle along from crisis to crisis. Even if the system holds together for a time, the cost is likely to be an extended period of poor economic performance -- in our view, more extended than it has to be. We would love to be wrong.
Based on remarks made at the G20 Seminar, Mexico City, September 21, 2012. Backus and Schoenholtz are in the economics group of New York University's Leonard N. Stern School of Business.