Tag Archives: Views, commentaries and opinions

The Absurdity of the French-German Euro Summit

EconoTwist’s is obviously not the only blog who thinks there’s something absurd about the two top leaders of France and Germany getting together and hammer out the future of the whole European Union, and sending their orders in a five-page letter to the president of the EU Council together with an offer for the leading chair in the new economic government they’re proposing. I’m not sure what they mean by “strengthening” the economic governance, or how this is gonna solve anything. Professor George Irvin, however, have a few clarifying comments.

“In a sane world, the German Chancellor and the French President would sack their economic advisors who clearly lack an understanding of basic economics or national accounting principles. Sadly, the world is growing less sane by the day.”

George Irvin

Except for the so-called “Tobin-tax” on financial transactions, EconoTwist’s, agree on most arguments made by honorary professor George Irvin at the University of London. In his recently published post at the EUobserver.com, professor Irvin points to  one crucial fact: There is nothing in the French-German plans for a new European economic government that actually may stop the debt crisis from escalating.

Angela Merkel and Nicholas Sarkozy spent most part of yesterdays meeting mapping the future of the Euro Area (EA) and apparently came away pleased with their work, professor Irvin observes.

And continues:

The good news is that they want to move towards serious EA economic governance and seemed to have agreed on a Tobin tax as part of the deal.

The bad news is that they want all members of the EA-17 to write a ‘balanced budget’ rule into their constitution; ie, to replicate the German ‘debt brake’ (Schuldenbremse) law across the EA.

It won’t work.

The reason a generalised balanced budget rule won’t work is simple; it follows from the basic national accounting savings balances. Because (over the business cycle as a whole) the private sector normally runs a savings surplus, a government balance of zero logically entails a current account surplus.

While this may hold true for Germany, it cannot be true for all EA countries taken together.

For the EA as a whole, one country’s exports are another’s imports—for some countries (like Germany) to run a surplus, others must run a deficit.

This is not an empirical matter but follows logically from national accounting definitions; Merkel and Sarkozy are guilty of a basic fallacy of composition.

There is only one way a “balanced budget rule” might work for the EA as a whole – each EA deficit country would have to run a countervailing surplus with the non-EA world. But there are two problems here.

The first, shown in a paper by Whyte, is that there is not enough excess demand in the rest of the world to absorb the extra EA exports.

Even if there were, the resulting global trade imbalance would result over time in the EA accumulating excess reserves, much as China today.

Crucially, Mrs Merkel and Mr Sarkozy made no mention of strengthening the “bailout fund” or issuing E-bonds. The latter is vital if short-term crisis is to be avoided.

George Irvin

In a sane world, the German Chancellor and the French President would sack their economic advisors who clearly lack an understanding of basic economics or national accounting principles. Sadly, the world is growing less sane by the day.

The financial markets will know this and soon enough return to speculating against member states’ sovereign debt.

By George Irvin

George Irvin is a retired professor of economics and for many years was at ISS in The Hague. He is now honorary Professorial Research Fellow in Development Studies at the University of London, SOAS.

His blog covers contemporary economic and political issues relevant to the EU.


See also: Van Rompuy tipped to chair new “economic government”

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Filed under International Econnomic Politics, National Economic Politics, Philosophy

The Big Cannoli (Europe’s Catch 22)

At this point the crisis boils down to just one word: Italy, professor of economics and political science, Barry Eichengreen, writes in a commentary.  Italy’s debt is too big to restructure, and too big for the European Financial Stability to handle. Greece may have to restructure again and  France may have to take budgetary measures.  But those are sideshows, Eichengreen points out.

“Which distasteful option – inflation or Eurobonds – will be less revolting to German taxpayers? The German taxpayer will have to choose.  He is in a union with Italy.  And there is no way he can get out.”

Barry Eichengreen

Professor Barry Eichengreen goes straight to the heart of the European debt crises in this commentary article, syndicated by www.eurointelligence.com. Germany is the only European country able to pick up the tab after a decade of unrestrained loan-inflating. And the big question is; are the people of Germany willing to do so?

While Europeans were off basking on the shores of the sunny Mediterranean, the crisis was not on holiday.

If you’re back, reading this, you will know that while you were away events entered a new, more ominous stage.

  • Volatility returned with a vengeance.
  • The creditworthiness of major French banks was called into question.
  • Germany’s credit default spreads began to rise, approaching levels previously scaled only at the beginning of 2009.

Here’s what professor of economics and political science at the University of California, Barry Eichengreen, writes in a recently syndicated article by the Eurointelligence.com:

“Lots to grasp, to be sure.  But at this point the crisis boils down to just one word: Italy.   Italy’s debt is too big to restructure and too big for the European Financial Stability to finance.  While crises are complicated beasts, there’s no reason to complicate this one.  Sure, Greece may have to restructure again.  France may have to take budgetary measures.  But those are sideshows.  The euro area will not live or die on their basis.  The euro area’s crisis is all about one thing:  that Italy’s debt might be unsustainable.”

The ECB has ramped up its secondary market purchases, buying some €22 billion of mainly, one assumes, Italian bonds last week.  What it really bought was time.  Time for the members of the euro zone and Italian leaders to finally make the hard choices.

“The official line is that this time will be used to put in place growth-friendly reforms so that Italy can grow out from under its debt mountain, or at least avoid being crushed by it.  Italy is moving now to balance its budget by 2013, a year earlier than previously. Unfortunately, this alone won’t be enough to stabilize the country’s debt-to-GDP ratio of 120 per cent.”  

At the beginning of the summer, the IMF was forecasting that Italian economy would grow by 1 per cent this year and very slightly faster, at best, after that.  Italy needs at least 1 per cent growth and 2 per cent inflation to ensure that the growth of nominal GDP exceeds the 3 per cent interest rate that is the best it can hope for.

Bad economic news from other parts of the world has rendered 1 per cent growth unattainable.  

This, in a nutshell, is what caused the Italian debt market, and European financial markets more generally, to blow up.

The budgetary measures that the Italian government has now proposed, moreover, will only diminish the country’s growth prospects. 

“Raising taxes on financial investments and corporations will not encourage investment.” 

The €13 billion of spending cuts and pension savings slated for the next 18 months will only depress demand further.

“What would help would be radical liberalization of the system of national labor contracts.  While the government is officially backing the idea, the only specifics we have is that any such initiative will be opposed by the country’s powerful trade unions.”

Maybe Italy will shake off the deep structural problems with labor contracts, tax compliance, and company and administrative law as a result of which its economy has been unable to grow.  Maybe 2012 will see the “miracle on the Mediterranean.”

If not, as seems more likely, and Italian growth slows, European policy makers will have two choices. 

One is a higher inflation target for the ECB.  There are a variety of ways of getting rates of inflation and economic growth to sum to more than 3, and more inflation is one of them.  The ECB could stop sterilizing its purchases of Italian bonds.   Given stagnant demand and contractionary fiscal policies, it might have to ramp up those purchases still further to ensure that prices rise at a 3 to 4 per cent annual clip. 

Fortunately, if Europe has one thing in abundance, it is debt securities for the ECB to purchase.

The only other option is Eurobonds.  Serious Eurobonds.  

Halfway houses, for example dividing sovereign debts into a first tier up to 60 per cent of each country’s GDP that will be guaranteed by euro area members as a group, and a second tier that will remain each nation’s responsibility, will no longer cut it.  Italy would presumably be asked to make a pro rata contribution to the fund servicing the Eurobonds.  And it would still have debt in the amount of 60 per cent of its GDP for which the Italian nation alone was responsible.  

The combination would not render its position sustainable in the absence of growth.

“The only workable solution is full pooling of existing debts and having member states contribute to payments on it according to their respective GDPs.” 

The serious governance reforms about which European politicians are so fond of speaking could then be put in place to ensure that new debts remain small and that the issuance of Eurobonds is a one-time operation.

Which distasteful option – inflation or Eurobonds – will be less revolting to German taxpayers?  Your guess is as good as mine.  (For what it’s worth, my guess is Eurobonds.) 

But the German taxpayer will have to choose.  He is in a union with Italy.  And there is no way he can get out.

By Barry Eichengreen.

Professor Eichengreen is George C. Pardee and Helen N. Pardee Professor of Economics and Political Science at the University of California, Berkeley.  His latest book is Exorbitant Privilege: “The Rise and Fall of the Dollar“.

Well, here’s some additional reading. I’m not sure if it is to be taken serious or just for laughs…

Mario Draghi, governor of Bank of Italy, made the following conclusion in a speech recently:

“There are favourable factors we can rely on to carry forward the consolidation of the public finances, overcome the emergency now overshadowing the economic outlook, and set Italy on a path towards stable growth. We have the advantage that private sector debt and the country’s overall net foreign debt are both limited. Our banks are sound; they have emerged unscathed from the financial crisis that shook large foreign institutions. We possess fundamental resources that have always characterized the Italians: individual initiative, ability to innovate, willingness to work.”


And here’s some more insight from Mr. Draghi and Bank of Italy:

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Filed under International Econnomic Politics, National Economic Politics, Philosophy

How Many A’s Should The USA Have?

Fitch Ratings – based in France – have just confirmed the US credit rating as AAA, with its economic outlook remaining “stable”. This comes 10 days after US-based rating agency, Standard & Poor’s, stripped the US of its triple-A rating an labeled the nations outlook as “negative”. This is, definitively not, reducing the market uncertainty, and Fitch Ratings argument for keeping the US triple-A is very close to pure nonsense:

“The affirmation of the US ‘AAA’ sovereign rating reflects the fact that the key pillars of US’s exceptional creditworthiness remains intact: its pivotal role in the global financial system and the flexible, diversified and wealthy economy that provides its revenue base.”

Fitch Ratings

A quick attempt to decrypt the message from Fitch: The US is rated triple-A bacause it is. The rating agency also writes that the “monetary and exchange rate flexibility further enhances the capacity of the economy to absorb and adjust to shocks.” I guess this means; they can just print more money.

In light of Fitch comment from August 2., after the US Congress agreed to raise the nations debt ceiling, makes today’s affirming even more peculiar:

“On current trends Fitch projects that US government debt, including debt incurred by state and local governments as well as the federal government, will reach 100% of GDP by the end of 2012, and will continue to rise over the medium term – a profile that is not consistent with the United States retaining its ‘AAA’ sovereign rating,” Fitch Ratings wrote two weeks ago.

(Fitch Comments on US Debt Agreement – Warns of Downgrade)

Today, however, the rating agency is paining a quite different picture:

“US sovereign liabilities, both the dollar and Treasury securities, remain the global benchmark and accordingly the US credit profile benefits from unparalleled financing flexibility and enhanced debt tolerance, even relative to other large ‘AAA’-rated sovereigns. The US dollar’s status as the pre-eminent global reserve currency and depth of the US Treasury market render financing risks minimal and underpin a low cost of fiscal funding.”

“The US economy remains one of the most productive in the world, reflected in levels of income per head that are substantially higher than the ‘AAA’ median and other major ‘AAA’ sovereigns. The institutional, legal and financial infrastructure supports business growth and innovation and Fitch continues to forecast that the US economy (and tax base) will, over the medium term, be one of the most dynamic amongst its high-grade and ‘AAA’ peers and support the stabilisation and eventual reduction in government indebtedness. Fitch’s current assessment is that the US economic recovery will regain momentum and that a period of above trend growth will subsequently be followed by growth of at least 2.25% over the long term.”

Here’s the full statement:

Press release.

Personally, I think this smells kinda funny, and my instincts tells me that there’s more to this than meets the eye…

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