Can the European Central Bank really save the Eurozone?

10 Aug

The Belgian economist, Paul de Grauwe, has been calling for some time for a comprehensive reform of the Eurozone’s institutions. Contagion, he argues, is inevitable in a currency union that lacks adequate political power. There is no way out of the Eurozone crisis other than more political union. It would appear de Grauwe has the ear of European Central Bank chief, Jean-Claude Trichet: over the weekend the ECB started buying up Spanish and Italian government bonds, at rates low than those being offered by the market. Another step towards the ECB acting as a lender of last resort.

De Grauwe’s account of the crisis is simple and compelling. He argues that government bond markets in a currency union like the Euro are “inherently fragile”. They are basically issuing debt in a currency the value of which they have no real control over. Greece, Spain, and Italy all issue their debt in Euros and yet they do not control the value of the Euro in the same way that the UK or Switzerland control the value of the Pound and the Swiss Franc. Governments in London and Bern can, in extremis, force their central banks to print more money. There will always, in theory, be enough money to pay back bondholders. In the Eurozone, there is no such guarantee as the ECB is not a lender of last resort. And this makes the Eurozone inherently fragile. In practice, the ECB has been buying bonds of crisis-struck member states but it has done so as an exception, not as the rule.

De Grauwe’s recommendation is then simply to give the ECB responsibility as lender of last resort in the government bond markets of Eurozone member states. This should put a stop to contagion, according to de Grauwe. But will it? Defaults have occurred in the past in countries that both issue their own currency and have control over their national central banks. Why should the Eurozone be any different?

De Grauwe’s analysis supposes that there is an institutional quick fix to the Eurozone’s problems. This is akin to suggestions made in the US, covered in the Current Moment, about resolving the debt burden via low interest rates and some easy money provided by the US Federal Reserve. Two problems stand out here. The first is that the problem the Eurozone faces is not an institutional one but it is the inability of some Eurozone member states to return to growth. Until national income in troubled Eurozone member states grows faster than state expenditure, or until a realistic prospect of this arrives onto the horizon, the debt crisis will continue. The European Central Bank, even as lender of last resort and notwithstanding the esteem with which central bankers are held today in macro-economic circles, cannot restore profitability to national economies of the Eurozone.

The second problem is a political one. De Grauwe has nothing to say about the political implications of transforming the ECB into a lender of last resort. Some are beginning to wonder about the democratic quality of these developments but generally it is considered an afterthought to a more pressing set of institutional questions. This repeats the patterns of the past: innovations at the EU level are subsequently presented to domestic populations as a fait accompli, to be given a stamp of approval by voters. Why this should work now, when previous efforts to do the same failed miserably, is anyone’s guess. The Eurozone’s debt crisis, if resolved, is likely to be followed by a political crisis as the EU scrambles to find legitimacy for its new powers.

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