Posted by WARREN MOSLER on September 16th, 2011
thanks, well researched and much needed!!!
FINANCIAL CRISIS: Deeper malaise at heart of the European project
Conflicting messages coming out of euroland of late. On the one hand we have a German constitutional court ruling that any permanent action on behalf of the European authorities to stymie the current crisis and pose a risk to other countries are unconstitutional. Add to that Angela Merkel saying that eurobonds are ‘absolutely wrong’. Yet on the other hand, we have Jose Manuel Barroso, the president of the European Committee, coming out saying that a eurobond proposal is imminent. Clearly these two official statements conflict with one another.
Lying behind this latest conflict in euroland is a much deeper conflict: that between full fiscal union and breakup. Eurobonds are seen by many in the EU as the first step toward full federal integration. Sure, the proponents tell us that eurozone-wide bonds would only be issued to back the currently deteriorating position of the sovereign nations in fiscal difficulty, but it’s obvious to all that institutional reforms would have to follow.
Eurobonds would effectively centralise the burden of government expenditure in the eurozone. All states would back the eurobond and all states would, in turn, be backed by the eurobond. Sovereign government debt would gradually wane in importance as the European-wide bonds rose in prominence. With this would come the debate over how fiscal policy should be managed in the union. If states no longer bear the ultimate burden of financing themselves why should they be allowed to make their own taxing and spending decisions?
The trajectory then appears inevitable. Those in the eurozone who want to centralise fiscal policy would soon be front and center stage in the political debate. And those opposed to such centralisation would be equally to the fore. The former would argue that since member states were no longer financing themselves, fiscal responsibilities need to be given to a higher authority. While the latter would make the case that having some eurocrat in Frankfurt or Brussels involved in micromanaging the decisions of a nation state’s taxing and spending is a ghastly prospect — they might allege that it is reminiscent of the old Soviet centralised bureaucracy; now less a Politburo than a Politeuro.
Those opposed to centralisation would probably end up calling for the break up of the eurozone proper — that, after all, would be the logical end point of their argument.
So, what on earth should we do? The dangers of having a centralised fiscal authority are obvious; but the break up of the eurozone would prove remarkably unpleasant for all those involved.
The central question is what the eurocrats would do once they had control over fiscal policy. If they continued on as they are — as arch-conservatives geared only toward curbing inflation, even when such inflation simply doesn’t exist — they would destroy the eurozone. Simple as. Trade imbalances and an uneven economic landscape necessitate government surpluses to be run in some countries and deficits in others. To think otherwise is to think in moral terms rather than economic terms. But if the eurocrats did continue in their highly conservative — dare I say, unrealistic — tracks, we would have constant fiscal crises on our hands and eventually member states who were not allowed to run necessarily loose fiscal policies would drop out of the union.
What the eurozone needs is a central authority with an extremely flexible fiscal policy. Without this the project is doomed from the outset and we may as well just start looking for the cheapest way to get out now before further costs are incurred.
In fact, the eurozone already has an institution that can effectively allow such a flexible fiscal policy to be pursued: the ECB. The ECB, like it’s US cousin the Federal Reserve, has control over the issuance of currency and in that capacity it can effectively pay for anything it wants — provided, of course, that which it pays for is denominated in the currency it issues (Euros, in the case of the ECB). This simple fact comes as a shock to many, but consider what former Federal Reserve chairman Alan Greenspan recently said regarding the Fed:
“The United States can pay any debt it has because we can always print money to do that,” said Greenspan in an interview with Meet the Press recently.
Well, the same is true for the ECB. They have the legal mandate to create as much currency as they see fit and that currency can be effectively used to pay for anything that is denominated in said currency; that includes national government debt. It follows from this that the ECB can, in fact, create any amount of money that can then be used to retire the government debt of those sovereigns now facing default and crisis. This is a much simpler solution than eurobonds because it doesn’t pose any risk to other eurozone countries. And it can also be used in order to ensure fiscal flexibility in the future and ensure that the eurozone prospers rather than collapses.
This proposal was originally put together by economist and government bond expert Warren Mosler. Here’s how it would work:
The ECB would create €1trn on an annual basis and distribute it among the eurozone nations on a per capita basis. So, Germany, since it has a larger population, would get more than, say, Ireland. Each country would then use their newly acquired funds to begin paying down their stock of public sector debt. When they reached a reasonable level of debt — say 60% debt-to-GDP — the transfers would either discontinue or could be renegotiated to allow compliant countries to spend them (provided, of course, there are no major inflationary pressures in the eurozone at the time).
Since the payments take place on an annual basis the ECB and other European authorities could use them as leverage over the sovereign nations to ensure that they complied with responsible deficit targets. This would be far more effective than the current system — which effectively fines member-states for non-compliance — as the penalties for non-compliance would be immediately visible and would not require time-consuming legal and administrative action.
This all seems so simple, so what are the objections? Why won’t the ECB do this and solve the crisis?
Well, economically speaking the problems are basically non-existent. We’ve learned from the Quantitative Easing (QE) programs in the US and Britain (as well as in Japan some years ago) that so-called ‘debt monetisation’ is not inflationary. Buying up government debt certainly increases the amount of bank reserves in the private sector and according to the old economics textbooks this should lead to increased lending and thus inflation. But such inflation simply has not occurred in either country (yes, there is some inflation in Britain right now but this is largely due to oil/food price increases and VAT rises — it is NOT ‘demand-pull’).
This revelation is both surprising and important. Recent studies by economists working within central banks show that mainstream economists have basically been getting the whole thing wrong. In reality expanding bank reserves will not increase lending and so it is not inherently inflationary. Consider this paper by economists at the Bank of International Settlements (BIS) — known among economists as ‘the central bank’s central bank — published in late 2009. The authors write:
“The preceding discussion casts doubt on two oft-heard propositions concerning the implications of the specialness of bank reserves. [These are] first, [that] an expansion of bank reserves endows banks with additional resources to extend loans, adding power to balance sheet policy. Second, there is something uniquely inflationary about bank reserves financing.”
The authors continue:
“In fact, the level of reserves hardly figures in banks’ lending decisions. The amount of credit outstanding is determined by banks’ willingness to supply loans, based on perceived risk-return trade-offs, and by the demand for those loans. The aggregate availability of bank reserves does not constrain the expansion directly.”
So much for the inflation argument!
The other argument is that such debt monetisation might lead to a devaluation of the currency in question. If there are more Euros floating around the banking system, even if they aren’t spent into circulation, their value will decrease. In actual fact there is no evidence of any direct link between exchange-rate depreciation and the creation of money.
This doesn’t mean that depreciation may not occur due to monetisation but it does mean that we have to consider other variables. For example: what are the trade-off effects? If no action is taken and the eurozone crisis continues to spiral out of control will the currency depreciate anyway? You can bet your socks on that! So, exchange-rate issues are far more complex than simply ‘more money = devalued currency’.
In fact, the objections to this sort of plan are typically moral rather than economic in nature. Many commentators have begun to realise that a great deal of the discourse that has cropped up around the eurocrisis is not actually economic at all — it is moral. This is phenomenon about which economic commentators can say little, although it is a very real problem. However, if such moralising leads the eurocrats and the politicians to fiddle while Rome burns we may very well see the ECB creating bank reserves to backstop the banks anyway if a default occurs. Such will be messy. And we have seen it can be avoided. But what can one do? If nothing else necessity is certainly the mother of invention.