As the saying goes, extraordinary times call for extraordinary measures. The financial markets are highly nervous, and people are losing their faith that politicians can do anything to combat the growing debt crisis.
Under these conditions, the most important aim of any measures has to be to halt the snowball effect of recent events and to keep the economic wildfire from crossing over from the financial markets to the real economy. And the only way to do that is by having politicians wrestle back the helm.
What's more, Europe and the United States need to start coordinating their actions as quickly as possible. In the near term, heavily indebted countries must be given the liquidity they need in the form of new loans. In the long term, politicians need to hammer out a credible way to reduce state debt.
To meet these challenges, Europe needs to follow a six-point plan:
- First, under German and French leadership, the governments of the 17 countries making up the euro zone need to make it clear that they are prepared to use all the means at their disposal to prevent fellow euro-zone countries from going broke. At the height of the financial crisis in 2008, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and then-Finance Minister Peer Steinbrück demonstrated how to communicate such a message in a convincing way when they pledged that the German state would guarantee the savings of private German citizens.
- Second, this promise of support means that the euro rescue fund, the European Financial Stability Facility (EFSF), should be expanded without limits. Loans at cheap interest rates and with long maturities will be offered to any euro-zone country that needs it. But countries that want to refinance their debt using money from euro-zone coffers will have to give up something in return: part of their autonomy over their state finances. In real terms, this means having borrowers present their medium-term budgeting plans to lenders, raise certain taxes and abide by the stipulations of a debt brake similar to the one that Germany has introduced, which requires the government to virtually eliminate the structural deficit by 2016. The bigger the loan, the more autonomy lost. For example, euro-zone officials could even replace those of individual nations to perform duties such as collecting taxes and implementing plans to cut costs and privatize state assets.
- Third, the European Central Bank (ECB) needs to give up its role as the institution that comes to the rescue of countries in risk of default by buying up their sovereign bonds. The ECB is not a so-called "bad bank" for the bonds of broke countries that nobody wants to buy. Instead, it should focus on its most important mandate: managing the money supply so that prices stay stable. So far, it has performed this task well. Bringing debt under control is a matter of financial policy. It's a problem that states should solve -- and not the central bank.
- Fourth, the right thing to do is to transform the euro-zone into a fiscal union in which all members are jointly liable for each other's obligations. If everything else has failed, but politicians -- rightly -- want to prevent the collapse of the monetary union, there needs to be a jointly financed stability mechanism that can supply emergency financial assistance in times of crisis. The EFSF should assume this responsibility. In order to prevent the crisis from spilling over into other countries, it should have the ability to buy sovereign bonds directly on the secondary market -- in other words, from banks and insurance companies. Doing so would turn the euro zone into a so-called transfer union.
- Fifth, in order to free countries from the yoke of the ratings agencies, the agencies' verdicts should be downgraded to the status of simple statements of opinion. They would then be viewed as something along the lines of a seal of approval handed out by consumer-protection agencies, but nobody would be forced to pay attention to them. In other words, whoever wants to listen to the pronouncements of those who analyze the creditworthiness of countries and companies can do so -- or not.
- Sixth, the governments of the euro-zone countries should make it clear that they will not allow developments on global stock markets to dictate their actions. They cannot be allowed to make it their goal to influence the behavior of private-sector stockbrokers. However, they need to send out a clear signal that they are willing to keep public budgets in order over the long term and to make every effort to guarantee conditions that encourage growth, stability and the ensuing predictability. They also need to create more transparency and introduce tighter financial-market regulations. They should, for example, implement a complete ban on short-selling.
It would be foolish to expect that even a perfect implementation of these six measures could solve all aspects of the debt crisis for ever. There will always be governments that don't keep to what they've agreed to do, as well as others that continue piling up debt. These proposed solutions are practical, but not perfect.
Neither will they be able to prevent the next crisis. But they would help to make it less likely -- and, if worse comes to worst, they'll make it easier to deal with the consequences.