"Authorities... misread the real cause of the crisis": former Greek finance minister

Yannos Papantoniou on the Eurozone crisis.

The Cyprus bailout deal is a watershed in the unfolding eurozone crisis, because responsibility for resolving banks’ problems has been shifted from taxpayers to private investors and depositors. But imposing major losses on Cypriot banks’ depositors violates the deposit-insurance guarantee that forms part of the proposed European banking union, while the imposition of capital controls further erodes the monetary union’s foundations. So, is Europe chasing its tail?

Germany and the other countries of the eurozone core are signalling that debt mutualisation within the monetary union is out of the question, and that bailouts of countries or financial institutions will be balanced by “bail-ins” of their creditors. Increased uncertainty concerning the safety of deposits will push up interest rates and deepen Europe’s recession, and may also trigger capital outflows from the eurozone’s weaker peripheral economies to the core.

The implications of this shift may be far-reaching. The German model for resolving the debt crisis and returning to internal or external balance relies on fiscal consolidation and structural reforms for the deficit countries. But, if all countries simultaneously attempt to improve their fiscal or external balances by cutting spending and raising taxes, all will fail, because each country’s austerity implies less demand for other countries’ output, in turn perpetuating both domestic and external imbalances. “Bailing in” creditors will exacerbate these trends.

Moreover, a deep and prolonged recession implies vanishing support for reforms, as governments fail to convince citizens that current sacrifice will ensure a better future. Privatization, market liberalization, the opening of closed professions, and government downsizing involve conflicts with powerful vested interests, such as businesses in protected industries, public-sector unions, or influential lobbies. Resolving such conflicts requires social alliances, which are invariably undermined by discontent, civil disorder, and political instability.

The recent Italian election has shown how toxic the association of austerity policies with the pursuit of reform has become. Anti-austerity anger swept away the reform agenda of Mario Monti’s previous technocratic government, leaving Italy, its future uncertain, to continue muddling through. The same scenario seems to be emerging in Greece, where the depth of the austerity-induced recession, with output down by 25 per cent over five years and unemployment at 27 per cent, is paralyzing a reform-minded center-right government.

The gaps in the strategy are clear. First, the eurozone authorities misread the real causes of the debt crisis, which stemmed mainly from a growing competitiveness gap between the core and periphery countries. The resulting private-sector imbalances culminated in banking problems that were eventually transferred to sovereigns. Greece’s fiscal profligacy was the exception rather than the rule.

Indeed, in contrast to the United States, eurozone authorities were slow to consolidate the banking system after the global financial crisis erupted in 2008, and failed to sever the ties between sovereigns’ and banks’ balance sheets. Nor did they push strongly for structural reforms. Instead, they emphasized harsh austerity, which was to be pursued everywhere.

Second, the effects of austerity were exacerbated by the choice to pursue nominal, rather than structural, fiscal-deficit targets. Countries with a stronger fiscal position (that is, smaller structural deficits) should be encouraged to adopt more expansionary policies in order to contribute to lifting overall demand. Moreover, the European Investment Bank’s lending capacity could be increased substantially, and European Union structural funds mobilized, to finance investment projects in the peripheral economies.

Third, the European Central Bank’s announcement last August of its “outright monetary transactions” program – through which it guarantees eurozone members’ sovereign debt, subject to policy conditionality – has contributed significantly to subduing financial turbulence in the eurozone. But the OMT scheme has not been reinforced by a reduction in key interest rates, which would boost inflation in core countries with external surpluses and thus help to close the competitiveness gap with the periphery. Crucially, monetary-policy measures do not address the underlying problem of lack of demand.

Last, but not least, the eurozone authorities misread the confidence factor. In theory, simultaneous fiscal consolidation and supply-side reform facilitates economic recovery, because it increases confidence among consumers and investors, thereby inducing higher spending and production. But this does not necessarily work in an imperfectly functioning monetary union, such as the eurozone, where the continual appearance of systemic flaws erodes confidence; in such circumstances, the result may be hoarding and capital outflows, rather than increased spending.

The rest of this article can be read on economia.

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Why relations between Theresa May and Philip Hammond became tense so quickly

The political imperative of controlling immigration is clashing with the economic imperative of maintaining growth. 

There is no relationship in government more important than that between the prime minister and the chancellor. When Theresa May entered No.10, she chose Philip Hammond, a dependable technocrat and long-standing ally who she had known since Oxford University. 

But relations between the pair have proved far tenser than anticipated. On Wednesday, Hammond suggested that students could be excluded from the net migration target. "We are having conversations within government about the most appropriate way to record and address net migration," he told the Treasury select committee. The Chancellor, in common with many others, has long regarded the inclusion of students as an obstacle to growth. 

The following day Hammond was publicly rebuked by No.10. "Our position on who is included in the figures has not changed, and we are categorically not reviewing whether or not students are included," a spokesman said (as I reported in advance, May believes that the public would see this move as "a fix"). 

This is not the only clash in May's first 100 days. Hammond was aggrieved by the Prime Minister's criticisms of loose monetary policy (which forced No.10 to state that it "respects the independence of the Bank of England") and is resisting tougher controls on foreign takeovers. The Chancellor has also struck a more sceptical tone on the UK's economic prospects. "It is clear to me that the British people did not vote on June 23 to become poorer," he declared in his conference speech, a signal that national prosperity must come before control of immigration. 

May and Hammond's relationship was never going to match the remarkable bond between David Cameron and George Osborne. But should relations worsen it risks becoming closer to that beween Gordon Brown and Alistair Darling. Like Hammond, Darling entered the Treasury as a calm technocrat and an ally of the PM. But the extraordinary circumstances of the financial crisis transformed him into a far more assertive figure.

In times of turmoil, there is an inevitable clash between political and economic priorities. As prime minister, Brown resisted talk of cuts for fear of the electoral consequences. But as chancellor, Darling was more concerned with the bottom line (backing a rise in VAT). By analogy, May is focused on the political imperative of controlling immigration, while Hammond is focused on the economic imperative of maintaining growth. If their relationship is to endure far tougher times they will soon need to find a middle way. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.