The Euro’s Latest Reprieve [Joseph Stiglitz]


NEW YORK – Like an inmate on death row, the euro has received another last-minute stay of execution. It will survive a little longer. The markets are celebrating, as they have after each of the four previous “euro crisis” summits – until they come to understand that the fundamental problems have yet to be addressed.

This illustration is by Tim Brinton and comes from <a href="http://www.newsart.com">NewsArt.com</a>, and is the property of the NewsArt organization and of its artist. Reproducing this image is a violation of copyright law.
Illustration by Tim Brinton

There was good news in this summit: Europe’s leaders have finally understood that the bootstrap operation by which Europe lends money to the banks to save the sovereigns, and to the sovereigns to save the banks, will not work. Likewise, they now recognize that bailout loans that give the new lender seniority over other creditors worsen the position of private investors, who will simply demand even higher interest rates.

It is deeply troubling that it took Europe’s leaders so long to see something so obvious (and evident more than a decade and half ago in the East Asia crisis). But what is missing from the agreement is even more significant than what is there. A year ago, European leaders acknowledged that Greece could not recover without growth, and that growth could not be achieved by austerity alone. Yet little was done.

What is now proposed is recapitalization of the European Investment Bank, part of a growth package of some $150 billion. But politicians are good at repackaging, and, by some accounts, the new money is a small fraction of that amount, and even that will not get into the system immediately. In short: the remedies – far too little and too late – are based on a misdiagnosis of the problem and flawed economics.

The hope is that markets will reward virtue, which is definedas austerity. But markets are more pragmatic: if, as is almost surely the case, austerity weakens economic growth, and thus undermines the capacity to service debt, interest rates will not fall. In fact, investment will decline – a vicious downward spiral on which Greece and Spain have already embarked.

Germany seems surprised by this. Like medieval blood-letters, the country’s leaders refuse to see that the medicine does not work, and insist on more of it – until the patient finally dies.

Eurobonds and a solidarity fund could promote growth and stabilize the interest rates faced by governments in crisis. Lower interest rates, for example, would free up money so that even countries with tight budget constraints could spend more on growth-enhancing investments.

Matters are worse in the banking sector. Each country’s banking system is backed by its own government; if the government’s ability to support the banks erodes, so will confidence in the banks. Even well-managed banking systems would face problems in an economic downturn of Greek and Spanish magnitude; with the collapse of Spain’s real-estate bubble, its banks are even more at risk.

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