By Michael Pettis
“How can I, that girl standing there, my attention fix,” asked William Butler Yeats plaintively in the midst of the political upheavals of the early 1930s, “on Roman or on Russian or on Spanish politics?” Well, love and beauty in the Beijing spring weather notwithstanding, it is hard once again not to fix attention on Roman and Spanish politics or, more specifically, on the politics of the euro
At first all this might not seem to be a subject to fit into a blog called “China financial markets,” but aside from personal interest – I was born in Spain, and spent most of my youth there (and my family still lives there) – what happens to the euro will matter to China. Weakness in the euro will make a US export adjustment much more difficult, and this will increase trade tensions between China and the US. More intriguingly, the trade imbalance within Europe that is at the heart of the euro crisis is replicated globally, and is just as much at the heart of the global crisis. Both are going to be equally difficult to resolve.
On this subject I recently called a Spanish friend of mine who studied in the US and currently lives in China. He likes living in China a lot but has often thought about returning to Spain and beginning a career in politics. During the call I told him that if he ever wanted to do so, now was the time. There are two issues which I am certain will move to the center of the political debate in Spain within a few years, and if he were to stake out radical positions on both positions now, his prestige and visibility would quickly soar.
The first issue is Germany’s role in the crisis. I am convinced that over the next few years, fairly or unfairly there will be a crescendo of blame directed at Germany and German policies, and this ire will be magnified by the fact that many Germans seem oblivious to their role in the crisis. The German press in fact seems to delight in wagging a disapproving finger at the shameless profligacy of the south, and this can’t make southerners very happy.
Critics of Germany will argue that this moralistic posturing is thoroughly misplaced. European monetary policy, which was driven largely by Germany, was incompatible with German trade and labor policies that effectively suppressed German consumption, forced a large trade surplus onto its neighbors, and together made a southern European debt crisis almost inevitable.
The strong euro and burgeoning liquidity it brought on meant that much of Germany’s trade surplus had to be absorbed within the eurozone, forcing especially southern Europe into high trade deficits. These deficits were dismissed, very foolishly it turns out, and against all historical precedents, as being easily managed as long as the sanctity of the euro was maintained. A very false analogy was made with the US, in which it was argued that because European countries all use the same currency, trade imbalances within Europe are sustainable in the same way they are sustainable between states in the US.
But states in the US are not like states in Europe. Labor and capital mobility in Europe is very low compared to the US, and the Civil War in the US ensured that sovereignty, including most importantly fiscal sovereignty, resided in Washington DC, and not in the various state capitals. The US is clearly as much an optimal currency zone as any large economy can be.
This isn’t the case in Europe. In fact I would argue that the existence of a common currency in Europe, the euro, is only a little more meaningful than the existence of various currencies under the gold standard, and it was pretty obvious under the gold standard that balance of payments crises could indeed exist.
So why not also in Europe under the euro? As I see it, domestic German policies, perhaps aimed at absorbing East German unemployment, forced a structural trade surplus. The strong euro, along with the automatic recycling of Germany’s large trade surplus within Europe, ensured the corresponding trade deficits in the rest of Europe – unless Europeans were willing to enact policies that raised unemployment in order to counter the deficits. As long as the ECB refused to raise interest rates, southern Europe had to accept asset bubbles and rapidly rising debt-fueled consumption.
This couldn’t go on forever, or even for very long. Now southern Europe is paying the inevitable price, and of course the moralists are accusing the south of being shiftless and lazy, confusing the automatic balancing mechanisms in the balance of payments with moral weakness.
This is not to say that it is all Germany’s fault (although I’m sure I will be accused of making this claim anyway), but rather that the existence of the euro seriously exacerbated the problem by making it very difficult for certain countries to adjust to Germany’s domestic policies, which generated employment growth at home at the expense of Germany’s trading partners. There is no question that a long history of fiscal irresponsibility in southern Europe made things much worse, but the imbalance could have never gotten so large without Germany’s role, and since in a crisis it is always easier to blame foreigners, bashing Germans will become a very popular sport in much of Europe.
Abandon the Euro
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