The Ticking Euro Bomb What Options Are Left for the Common Currency?


Part 3: Design Defects, Political Weakness, Public Disinterest

The architects of the euro and their successors have lost the Maastricht Treaty bet. They have jeopardized an agreement made by 12 countries in the hope that the markets wouldn't notice how fragile their shiny new currency really is. And what the founders of the euro left in the way of loopholes in the original treaty -- which was aimed at providing a stable foundation for the common currency -- their successors have used in the course of 10 years to make the euro even more vulnerable.

In defiance of all rules, the euro countries have almost doubled their combined national debt since 1997. It has grown by close to €2 trillion, or 30 percent, in the last three years alone. Without the costs incurred as a result of the financial crisis, perhaps it would have taken longer for the bet to turn sour, but it would have done so nonetheless. The euro had too many design defects, the European political class was too weak to correct them, and Europeans themselves were too disinterested in the entire massive project.

A Dangerously Unstable Network

The four main promises of the euro, as put forth in the Maastricht Treaty, were all broken: government debt was not limited, but in fact doubled, with only five of the 17 euro countries still falling below the debt ceiling of 60-percent of gross domestic product permitted in the agreement's Growth and Stability Pact; budget deficits were not capped, and only four countries are now below the norm; the ban on bailouts was violated; and the European Central Bank, no longer independent, has turned into a bad bank for the bonds of ailing governments.

It isn't just a matter of political failure, which would have been as inconsequential as any broken election promise. In fact, it is a matter of the failures of two generations of political leaders, which have resulted in Europe now being blanketed in a dangerously unstable network of countries, their central banks, the ECB, the banks and investors.

The nations of the euro zone are in debt to the tune of €8 trillion, while banks hold European government bonds at a face value of €1 trillion on their books. The central banks of Greece, Italy, Portugal and Spain owe Germany's Bundesbank €348 billion. The ECB has purchased €150 billion in government bonds, and the banks, fearing loan defaults, would rather park up to €150 billion with the ECB than lend money.

The sum of all credit default swaps for Greece is unknown, as is the identity of the banks that hold them, which makes their risks incalculable. Large European banks have so many bonds of vulnerable countries on their books that, according to the IMF, they would need €200 billion in additional capital to pull through in the event of large-scale defaults. This has already prompted the rating agencies to downgrade some of the banks.

The Euro Is a House without Keepers

This highly explosive network of mutual dependencies makes the euro unstable in times of crisis. But it becomes vulnerable and truly dangerous as a result of a unique feature that distinguishes it from the dollar, the yuan and all other currencies: The euro is a house without keepers, a currency without political protection, without a uniform fiscal policy, and without the ability to forcefully defend itself against speculative attacks.

For a monetary union to function, the economies of its member states cannot drift too far apart, because it lacks the usual balancing mechanism, the exchange rate. Normally a country depreciates its currency when its economy falters. This makes its goods cheaper on the world market, allowing it to increase exports and thereby reduce its deficits. But this doesn't work in a monetary union. If one country doesn't manage its economy effectively, the common currency acts as a manacle.

If Greece were a state in a United States of Europe with a common fiscal and economic policy, it would be just as protected as the city-state of Bremen, also deeply in debt, is by the Federal Republic of Germany. But because there is no common European fiscal policy, Greece, as the weakest country in the European Union -- and despite the fact that it only contributes three percent to the total economic output of the euro countries -- becomes a systemic threat for 16 countries and 320 million Europeans. And the euro, intended as a means of protecting Europe against the imponderables of globalization, becomes the most dangerous currency in the world.


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andrewpurdy 10/09/2011
1. Greece may not be the spark
Everyone is concentrating on Greece, but Greece has not been willing to default, and has used its enormous leverage to get bailout after bailout over the last few years. The spark that brings down the Eurozone, if this happens at all, will most likely be something intrinsic to the private markets, something outside of government control. I am thinking along the lines of an electronic panic bank run. If all the corporate big boyz pull out their Euros at the same time and convert those Euros into foreign currencies or gold, the EZ banks could go down very fast. Too fast for EZ governments to act in time. It could be over within hours. There was an electronic bank run after Lehman failed, and the US Government stopped it by guaranteeing money market accounts. Is the ECB politically capable of doing the same? If the Euro collapses, I would buy Siemens stock. Siemens has a banking license, and can stash its Euros with the ECB. Very few industrial companies have this privelege.
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