Euro area

To Form a More Perfect Union

On 31 May 2018, Vítor Constâncio completes 18 years on the Governing Council of the European Central Bank (ECB)—8 as Vice President and 10 as Governor of the Bank of Portugal before that. Ahead of his departure, Vice President Constâncio delivered a valedictory address setting out his views on what needs to be done to make European Monetary Union (EMU) (and what people on the continent refer to as the “European Project”) robust.

Before we get to his proposals, we should emphasize that we continue to view political shifts as the biggest challenge facing EMU (see our earlier posts here and here). The rise of populism in recent euro-area member elections is not conducive to the risk-sharing needed to sustain EMU over the long run. Without democratic support, investor fears of redenomination risk—associated with widening bond yield spreads and, possibly, runs on the banking systems of some national jurisdictions—will continue to resurface whenever political risks spike or local economic fortunes ebb. This latent vulnerability—resembling that of a fixed-exchange rate regime with free movement of capital—diminishes the prospect for strong and stable economic growth in the region as a whole.

Turning to the need for change, the current framework has three significant shortcomings…

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Would Italy be better off without the euro?

With Sunday’s election of President Emmanuel Macron, voters confirmed that France remains a bedrock of the euro area, buttressing the region’s financial markets. But political risks to the euro have not disappeared. In coming months, concerns probably will turn to Italy, where the leader of one popular party has called for a referendum on leaving the euro area, and where parliamentary elections must be held before 20 May 2018.

From an economic perspective, Italy stands on a knife-edge. The economy is smaller and less productive than it was in 2001, while government debt has jumped by 30 percent. As long as interest rates remain low, and the government continues to run a primary budget surplus, the situation is only mildly unsustainable (with the debt/GDP ratio creeping higher). But even a small problem at home or abroad could drive funding costs higher and expose Italy’s precarious state.

Would independent Italian monetary policy, controlled by the Banca d’Italia in Rome, be sufficient to bring Italy back from the precipice and promote economic growth? We doubt it. In the long run, the most effective way to ensure debt sustainability is to implement growth-enhancing structural reforms. Nothing about Italy’s membership in the monetary union prevents this. The problem is a lack of political will...

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The Future of the Euro

In 2012, the ECB faced down a mortal threat to the euro: fears of redenomination (the re-introduction of domestic currencies) were feeding a run away from banks in the geographic periphery of the euro area and into German banks. Since President Mario Draghi spoke in London that July, the ECB has done things that once seemed unimaginable, helping to support the euro and secure price stability.

So far, it has been enough. But can the ECB really do “whatever it takes”? Ultimately, monetary stability requires political support. Without fiscal cooperation, no central bank can maintain the value of its currency. In a monetary union, stability also requires a modicum of cooperation among governments.

Recent developments in France have revived concerns about redenomination risk and the future of the euro....

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After Greece: Saving EMU

Euro-area leaders announced yet another agreement with Greece this morning. However, the survival of the euro area has never been about the fate of Greece. Instead, it is whether the Europeans will implement the reforms necessary to keep the euro area together. If they do, the common currency will endure. If they don’t, then the euro may not survive the next big adverse shock...

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The euro area's debt hangover

The ongoing difficulties in Greece – combined with the ECB’s dramatic actions to ward off deflation – are distracting attention from what may be the euro area’s biggest and most pervasive problem: debt.

You wouldn’t know it from the record low level of government bond yields, but much of Europe lives under a severe debt burden. Nonfinancial corporate debt exceeds 100 percent of GDP in Belgium, Finland, France, Ireland, Luxembourg, Netherlands, Portugal, and Spain. And, gross government debt (as measured by Eurostat) is close to or exceeds this threshold in Belgium, France, Greece, Ireland, Italy, Portugal and Spain...

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ECB Paddles Both Ways in the Rubicon

On January 22, the ECB crossed the Rubicon twice – but in opposite directions. In an effort to combat deflation and years of anemic growth, the central bank announced a sustained program of large-scale asset purchases. At the same time, it capped the amount of risk-sharing in the Eurosystem. Other central banks have done the first, but not the second.  And, while outright balance sheet expansion helped ease euro area financial conditions somewhat, the limit on risk-sharing works in the other direction. Rowing toward both shores at the same time doesn’t move a boat far or fast...

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