The European debt crisis is not a conflict among nations. All economic systems— and certainly an entity as large and diverse as Europe— generate volatility whose balance sheet impacts are mediated through different political and economic institutions, among which usually are domestic monetary policy and the currency regime. With the creation of the euro as the common currency among a group of European countries, monetary policy and the currency regime could no longer play their traditional roles in absorbing economic volatility. As a result, for much of the euro’s first decade, a series of deep imbalances developed among various sectors of the European economy. Because Europe’s existing economic and political institutions had largely evolved around the national sovereignty of individual countries, and also because the inflation and monetary histories of individual countries varied tremendously before the creation of the euro, it was probably almost inevitable that these imbalances would manifest themselves in the form of trade and capital flow imbalances between countries.
We have a great deal of experience in modern history with the kinds of imbalances from which Europe suffered and continues to suffer, and from the historical precedents three things are clear. First, the imbalances that led eventually to the current crisis had their roots in hidden transfers between different economic sectors within Europe, and not between countries. It is only because of deep institutional differences among the member countries that these imbalances manifested themselves largely in the form of trade imbalances between the different countries in Europe. These hidden transfers artificially forced up the savings rates in some countries and, for reasons that I have discussed elsewhere, it is a matter of necessity, well understood in economics (although too often forgotten by economists), that artificially high savings rates in one part of an economic system must result in higher productive or non-productive investment (in advanced countries usually the latter) or artificially low savings in another part of that system.
Most currency and sovereign debt crises in modern history ultimately represent a conflict over how the costs are to be assigned among two different groups. On the one hand are creditors, owners of real estate and other assets, and the businesses who benefit from the existing currency distortions. One the other hand are workers who pay in the form of low wages and unemployment and, eventually, middle class household savers and taxpayers who pay in the form of a gradual erosion of their income or of the value of their savings. Historically during currency and sovereign debt crises political parties have come to represent one or the other of these groups, and whether they are of the left or the right, they are able to capture the allegiance of these groups.
Except for Greece, in Europe the main political parties on both sides of the political spectrum have until now chosen to maintain the value of the currency and protect the interests of the creditors. It has been the extremist parties, either on the right or the left, who have attacked the currency union and the interests of the creditors. In many cases these parties are extreme nationalists and oppose the existence of the European Union. If they succeed in taking control of the debate, the European experiment will almost certainly collapse, and it will take decades, if ever, for a European union to revive.
As part of the privilege of conquest and as a condition for ending the occupation of much of northern France, Berlin demanded war reparation payments originally proposed at 1 billion gold francs but which eventually grew to an astonishing 5 billion, at least in part because of an explicit decision by Berlin to impose a high enough burden permanently to cripple any possible French economic recovery.
To give a sense of the sheer size of this payment, usually referred to in the literature as the French indemnity, this was equal to nearly 23% of France’s 1870 GDP.
Astonishingly enough France was able to raise the money very quickly, mostly in the form of two domestic bond issues in 1871 and 1872, which were heavily over-subscribed. [...] When markets are very liquid, and in their leveraging-up stage, they can absorb large debt obligations easily, and because they can even turn these obligations into “money”, they almost seem to be self-financing.
The 1858-73 period was one such “globalization period”, with typical “globalization” characteristics: explosive growth in high-tech communications and transportation (mainly railways), soaring domestic stock and real estate markets, booming international trade, and a surge in outflows of capital from the UK, France, the Netherlands and other parts of Europe to the United States, Latin America, the Far East, the Ottoman Empire, and other financial “frontiers”. I would argue that this is why, despite Berlin’s expectation that the indemnity would cripple the French economy, it was surprisingly easy for France to raise the money and for its economy to continue functioning.
One might at first think that France’s indemnity, at nearly 23% of GDP over three years, might have been devastating to the economy. It certainly left France with a heavy debt burden, but its immediate economic impact was not nearly as bad as might have been expected. Wikipedia’s assessment is pretty close to the consensus among historians:
"It was generally assumed at the time that the indemnity would cripple France for thirty or fifty years. However the Third Republic that emerged after the war embarked on an ambitious programme of reforms, introduced banks, built schools (reducing illiteracy), improved roads, spreading railways into rural areas, encouraged industry and promoted French national identity rather than regional identities. France also reformed the army, adopting conscription."
Far more interesting to me is the impact of the indemnity on Germany. From 1871 to 1873 huge amounts of capital flowed from France to Germany. The inflow of course drove the obverse current account deficits for Germany, and Germany’s manufacturing sector struggled somewhat as an increasing share of rising domestic demand was supplied by French, British and American manufacturers. But there was a lot more to it than mild unpleasantness for the tradable goods sector. The overall impact in Germany was very negative. In fact economists have long argued that the German economy was badly affected by the indemnity payment both because of its impact on the terms of trade, which undermined German’s manufacturing industry, and its role in setting off the speculative stock market bubble of 1871-73, which among other things unleashed an unproductive investment boom and a surge in debt. [...] So badly was Germany affected by the indemnity inflows that it was widely believed at the time, especially in France, that Berlin was seriously contemplating their full return.
From 2000-04 Spain ran stable current account deficits of roughly 3-4% of GDP, more or less double the average of the previous decade. Germany, after a decade of current account deficits of roughly 1% of GDP, began the century with slightly larger deficits, but this balanced to zero by 2002, after which Germany ran steady surpluses of 2% for the next two years.
Everything changed around 2005. Germany’s surplus jumped sharply to nearly 5% of GDP and averaged 6% for the next four years. The opposite happened to Spain. From 2005 until 2009 Spain’s current account deficit roughly doubled again from its 3-4% average during the previous five years. The numbers are not directly comparable, of course, but during those four years Spain effectively ran a cumulative current account deficit above its previous 3-4% average of roughly 21-22% of GDP. Seen over a longer time frame, during the decade it ran a cumulative current account deficit above its earlier average of roughly 31-32% of GDP.
These are huge numbers, and substantially exceed the French indemnity in relative terms. Of course the current account deficit is the obverse of the capital account surplus, so this means that Spain absorbed capital inflows above its “normal” absorption rate equal to an astonishing 21-22% of GDP from 2005 to 2009, and of 31-32% of GDP from 2000 to 2009. However you look at it, in other words, Spain absorbed an amount of net capital inflow equal to or substantially larger than Germany’s absorption of French reparations during 1871-73. It is not just Spain. In the 2005-09 period a number of peripheral European countries experienced net inflows of similar magnitude, according to an IMF study, including Portugal, Greece and several smaller east European countries. [...] Germany either created or accommodated the collapse in Spanish savings relative to Spanish investment.
I think it is pretty clear, and obvious to almost everyone, that Greece simply cannot repay its external obligations, and one way or another it is going to receive substantial debt forgiveness. There isn’t even much pretence at this point. This morning financial advisor Mish Shedlock, sent me (as a joke? as a sign of despair?) German newspaper Zeit‘s interview with Yanis Varoufakis entitled “I’m the Finance Minister of a Bankrupt Country”.
Even if the question of who is to “blame”, Greece or Germany, were an important one, the answer would not change the debt dynamics. It would take the equivalent of Ceausescu’s brutal austerity policies in Romania, which were imposed during the 1980s in order for the country fully to repay its external debt, to resolve the Greek debt burden without a write-down. Given that Ceausescu’s policies led directly to the 1989 revolution, which culminated in both Ceausescu and his wife being executed by firing squad, the reluctance in Athens to imitate Romania in the 1980s is probably not surprising.
The overall restructuring must be designed so that the interests of Greece, the producers who create Greek GDP, and the creditors are correctly aligned. To date sovereign debt restructurings have almost never included the instruments that reflect the instruments in corporate debt restructurings that accomplish this alignment of interests, largely because these instruments have not been “invented”. Among other things the negotiating committee might want to dust off the GDP warrants that were included in Argentina’s last debt restructuring.
If the restructuring is well designed, within a year of the restructuring I think we could easily see Greek growth surprise us with its vigor. I was delighted to see that Greece’s new Finance minister agrees. An article in Monday’s Financial Times starts with the claim that “Greece’s radical new government revealed proposals on Monday for ending the confrontation with its creditors by swapping outstanding debt for new growth-linked bonds, running a permanent budget surplus and targeting wealthy tax-evaders.” [...] Yanis Varoufakis should really take the lead in designing an entirely new form of sovereign debt restructuring, not just for Greece but for the many countries, in Europe and elsewhere, that will soon follow it into default.
There is no question that a renegotiation of Spanish debt or of its status within the currency union would be accompanied by economic hardship and perhaps even a crisis. But compared to what? The Spanish economy is already in disastrous shape and there is compelling historical evidence that countries suffering under excessive debt burdens can never grow their way out of their debt no matter how radical and forceful the reforms.
This means that by refusing to negotiate debt forgiveness, not only must Spain be prepared to live with unbearably high unemployment and slow growth for many years, which would undermine the social, political and financial institutions that are the real determinants of whether a country is economically advanced or economically backwards, but in the end after many years of suffering Spain would be forced into debt forgiveness anyway, only now with an economy in far worse shape.
There is overwhelming evidence — the US during the 19th Century most obviously — that trade and investment flow to countries with good future prospects, and not to countries with good track records.
Moreover because German capital flows to Spain ensured that Spanish inflation exceeded German inflation, lending rates that may have been “reasonable” in Germany were extremely low in Spain, perhaps even negative in real terms. With German, Spanish, and other banks offering nearly unlimited amounts of extremely cheap credit to all takers in Spain, the fact that some of these borrowers were terribly irresponsible was not a Spanish “choice.” I am hesitant to introduce what may seem like class warfare, but if you separate those who benefitted the most from European policies before the crisis from those who befitted the least, and are now expected to pay the bulk of the adjustment costs, rather than posit a conflict between Germans and Spaniards, it might be far more accurate to posit a conflict between the business and financial elite on one side (along with EU officials) and workers and middle class savers on the other. This is a conflict among economic groups, in other words, and not a national conflict, although it is increasingly hard to prevent it from becoming a national conflict.
But didn’t Spain have a choice? After all it seems that Spain could have refused to accept the cheap credit, and so would not have suffered from speculative market excesses, poor investment, and the collapse in the savings rate. This might be true, of course, if there were such a decision-maker as “Spain”. There wasn’t. As long as a country has a large number of individuals, households, and business entities, it does not require uniform irresponsibility, or even majority irresponsibility, for the economy to misuse unlimited credit at excessively low interest rates. Every country under those conditions has done the same. What is more, even if the decision about the disbursement of the inflows could have been concentrated in the hands of a single, responsible entity, the experience of Germany after 1871 suggests that it is nearly impossible to prevent a massive capital inflow form destabilizing domestic markets. Germany, after all, was much better placed than Spain later was for two important reasons. First, unlike Spain today, Germany was not saddled with an enormous debt obligation which it had to repay. Second, in 1871-73 the transfers went straight to Berlin, which was able fully to control the disbursements. In 2005-09, on the other hand, the transfers to Spain left behind an enormous debt burden and were discrete and widely dispersed in ways that were almost certainly biased in favor of the most optimistic or foolish lenders and the most optimistic or foolish borrowers. [...] Over and over we hear — often, ironically, from those most committed to the idea of a Europe that transcends national boundaries — that Spain must bear responsibility for its actions and must repay what it owes to Germany. But there is no “Spain” and there is no “Germany” in this story.
The current European crisis is boringly similar to nearly every currency and sovereign debt crisis in modern history, in that it pits the interests of workers and small producers against the interests of bankers. The former want higher wages and rapid economic growth. The latter want to protect the value of the currency and the sanctity of debt.http://blog.mpettis.com/2015/02/syriza-and-the-french-indemnity-of-1871-73/