We knew the euro was a bad idea in 1961. What went wrong?

The eurozone is emphatically not an optimal currency area.

Everyone knows this action-movie story: a heroic, war-scarred veteran is promoted to a prestigious desk job, reluctantly hanging up his rifle in the process. But then the state finds itself under threat and his superiors in the bureaucracy turn out to be grossly inept. Eventually, our hero, fearing for the lives of his men and the good of the country, tells them where they can stuff their desk job, picks up his rifle and leads the troops to an epic victory.

The start of this tale is similar to what has been playing out in the Eurozone over the past decade. Countries, hoping to join the safety, prosperity and exclusivity of the Eurozone, readily hung up their weapons of monetary policy, fiscal flexibility and money-printing. But now they need them again, and they're nowhere to be found.

The dangers of currency unions are not only now emerging: they have been a central part of international macroeconomics literature for over half a century, since Robert Mundell’s seminal paper (£) on "Optimal Currency Areas" (OCAs) in 1961.

What seems to have shocked the Eurogenitors is that this longstanding theory was actually right.

OCA theory highlights the costs and benefits of common currency zones and suggests criteria that all states should satisfy before considering their formation. Benefits include increased intra-zone trade, lowered transaction/conversion costs and increased competition through price transparency, while Costs are mainly concerned with lost flexibility. Countries in the zone no longer have the ability to adjust to asymmetric shocks, whether by externally devaluing via currency pr internally devaluing via inflation.

So, could we use OCA theory to retrospectively solve the Eurozone’s problems?

Sadly not. First, many of the criteria which Europe does not meet – hence the original incompatibility – can never be met by it. And second, the Eurozone has created new problems that OCA theory never envisaged. What started as asymmetric shocks – a banking crisis and property bubble bust – have become a massive symmetric attack across the whole region as unarmed sovereigns are left with no policies to defend themselves whilst their very solvency is called into question.

A good example of the Eurozone’s economic incompatibility can be found in Mundell’s first classic OCA criterion: labour mobility. This represents one of the most marked differences between US states and Eurozone countries. If unemployment rises in Detroit – say, because demand for cars falls – workers can move to a state where there is more demand for work, easing Detroit’s unemployment. And Americans do move, frequently. The same is not true of Europe, partly because of the heterogeneity of labour markets but mainly due to culture and, most importantly, language.

So, would a solution to the Euro crisis be to teach everyone, say, German? Despite the obvious historical faux pas of imposing Deutsche Uber Alles, this would raise employment in the short run for Germans (as teachers) – the opposite of what is needed. Teaching English is out for the same reason, and besides, anything that promotes the meddling Brits would be shot down by the Europeans at the helm.

So, how about Spanish? Great idea. Youth unemployment in Spain is a whopping 52 per cent, and teaching your native language requires only a short course that the indignados could pick up in a few weeks. Eurozone-backed free Spanish lessons would ease unemployment (and the associated social benefits) in Spain, whilst the increased skills would further knowledge transfer across the continent and allow for better trade and business links with the fast-growing economies of South America as well as the US (over 10 per cent of the population are Hispanophones).

But of course this is folly. The Italians/Greek/Portuguese would ask, "why not us"? The French would be furieux; to many French diplomats, the very raison d’être of the European project was to spread the French language in defiance of English. They are not about to sponsor an attack on their langue maternelle from over the Pyrenees or anywhere else.

In fact, try though we might to come up with ingenious solutions, microeconomic reforms will not save the Eurozone. No matter what language you put it in, investors can see the current crisis for what it really is: a vote of no confidence in the currency itself.

But OCA theory may have one last bullet in the chamber. Another founding father of OCA theory, Peter Kenen, highlighted in a 1969 paper the need for fiscal integration.

For example, a demand shock in Detroit would not cause a fundamental questioning of the dollar. Instead, Washington would increase transfers to Motor City to allow it to rebalance without cutting state-level consumption and the Treasury would continue to borrow at low rates reflecting the might of the US economy as a whole.

Joining the Euro for many countries has meant surrendering their economic self-determination even while the bazooka-holding Germans have ignored the pressing need for action in the on-going war of attrition against their shared currency.

The Banking Union agreed to on June 27th may sever the link between insolvent banks and insolvent governments but the risk to the currency remains, and thus the unsustainable borrowing costs for peripheral countries will continue.

Everyone can see what Germany’s role in this tale is: either agree to fiscal integration, debt mutualisation and a genuine guarantee of the currency (the markets will know otherwise) or unlock the arsenal, give the Eurozone countries back their self-determination and bring the project to its conclusion.

The story of the European project has been one of peace, prosperity and co-operation for decades, but it is time the next chapter was written.

Robert Mundell, who knew the euro was a bad idea fifty years ago. Photograph: Getty Images

Dom Boyle is a British economist.

Getty
Show Hide image

Arsène Wenger: how can an intelligent manager preside over such a hollowed-out team?

The Arsenal manager faces a frustrating legacy.

Sport is obviously not all about winning, but it is about justified hope. That ­distinction has provided, until recently, a serious defence of Arsène Wenger’s Act II – the losing part. Arsenal haven’t won anything big for 13 years. But they have been close enough (and this is a personal view) to sustain the experience of investing emotionally in the story. Hope turning to disappointment is fine. It’s when the hope goes, that’s the problem.

Defeat takes many forms. In both 2010 and 2011, Arsenal lost over two legs to Barcelona in the Champions League. Yet these were rich and rewarding sporting experiences. In the two London fixtures of those ties, Arsenal drew 2-2 and won 2-1 against the most dazzling team in the world. Those nights reinvigorated my pride in sport. The Emirates Stadium had the best show in town. Defeat, when it arrived in Barcelona, was softened by gratitude. We’d been entertained, more than entertained.

Arsenal’s 5-1 surrender to Bayern Munich on 15 February was very different. In this capitulation by instalments, the fascination was macabre rather than dramatic. Having long given up on discerning signs of life, we began the post-mortem mid-match. As we pored over the entrails, the curiosity lay in the extent of the malady that had brought down the body. The same question, over and over: how could such an intelligent, deep-thinking manager preside over a hollowed-out team? How could failings so obvious to outsiders, the absence of steel and resilience, evade the judgement of the boss?

There is a saying in rugby union that forwards (the hard men) determine who wins, and the backs (the glamour boys) decide by how much. Here is a footballing equivalent: midfielders define matches, attacking players adorn them and defenders get the blame. Yet Arsenal’s players as good as vacated the midfield. It is hard to judge how well Bayern’s playmakers performed because they were operating in a vacuum; it looked like a morale-boosting training-ground drill, free from the annoying presence of opponents.

I have always been suspicious of the ­default English critique which posits that mentally fragile teams can be turned around by licensed on-field violence – a good kicking, basically. Sporting “character” takes many forms; physical assertiveness is only one dimension.

Still, it remains baffling, Wenger’s blind spot. He indulges artistry, especially the mercurial Mesut Özil, beyond the point where it serves the player. Yet he won’t protect the magicians by surrounding them with effective but down-to-earth talents. It has become a diet of collapsing soufflés.

What held back Wenger from buying the linchpin midfielder he has lacked for many years? Money is only part of the explanation. All added up, Arsenal do spend: their collective wage bill is the fourth-highest in the League. But Wenger has always been reluctant to lavish cash on a single star player, let alone a steely one. Rather two nice players than one great one.

The power of habit has become debilitating. Like a wealthy but conservative shopper who keeps going back to the same clothes shop, Wenger habituates the same strata of the transfer market. When he can’t get what he needs, he’s happy to come back home with something he’s already got, ­usually an elegant midfielder, tidy passer, gets bounced in big games, prone to going missing. Another button-down blue shirt for a drawer that is well stuffed.

It is almost universally accepted that, as a business, Arsenal are England’s leading club. Where their rivals rely on bailouts from oligarchs or highly leveraged debt, Arsenal took tough choices early and now appear financially secure – helped by their manager’s ability to engineer qualification for the Champions League every season while avoiding excessive transfer costs. Does that count for anything?

After the financial crisis, I had a revealing conversation with the owner of a private bank that had sailed through the turmoil. Being cautious and Swiss, he explained, he had always kept more capital reserves than the norm. As a result, the bank had made less money in boom years. “If I’d been a normal chief executive, I’d have been fired by the board,” he said. Instead, when the economic winds turned, he was much better placed than more bullish rivals. As a competitive strategy, his winning hand was only laid bare by the arrival of harder times.

In football, however, the crash never came. We all wrote that football’s insane spending couldn’t go on but the pace has only quickened. Even the Premier League’s bosses confessed to being surprised by the last extravagant round of television deals – the cash that eventually flows into the hands of managers and then the pockets of players and their agents.

By refusing to splash out on the players he needed, whatever the cost, Wenger was hedged for a downturn that never arrived.

What an irony it would be if football’s bust comes after he has departed. Imagine the scenario. The oligarchs move on, finding fresh ways of achieving fame, respectability and the protection achieved by entering the English establishment. The clubs loaded with debt are forced to cut their spending. Arsenal, benefiting from their solid business model, sail into an outright lead, mopping up star talent and trophies all round.

It’s often said that Wenger – early to invest in data analytics and worldwide scouts; a pioneer of player fitness and lifestyle – was overtaken by imitators. There is a second dimension to the question of time and circumstance. He helped to create and build Arsenal’s off-field robustness, even though football’s crazy economics haven’t yet proved its underlying value.

If the wind turns, Arsène Wenger may face a frustrating legacy: yesterday’s man and yet twice ahead of his time. 

Ed Smith is a journalist and author, most recently of Luck. He is a former professional cricketer and played for both Middlesex and England.

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit