Archive for the ‘Eurozone Crisis’ Category

A Euro Treasury? An Interview with Jörg Bibow

Michael Stephens | February 10, 2014

(The following is the translation of an interview that appeared in Sunday’s Eleftherotypia. C. J. Polychroniou talks to Jörg Bibow about the latter’s proposal for a Euro Treasury and how it represents a viable solution to the eurozone crisis — a crisis that is very much ongoing, Bibow explains.)


CJP: A number of economists, including yourself, maintain that the eurozone crisis remains unresolved, yet the financial markets are calm. Is this a case of seeing the glass half empty rather than half full?

JB: Sure, if you are a believer in the efficient market theory you might conclude that things are just fine. Well, I don’t. Does anyone remember that the markets were also in a state of bliss in the years leading up to the crises in the US and Europe? As serious economists such as Keynes and Minsky well understood, financial markets are subject to conventional behavior and prone to instability. The current convention appears to be that Mr. Draghi’s famous “whatever it takes” promise is insurance enough that really bad stuff is not going to happen. Fine, but how powerful is Mr. Draghi, really? At some point the markets might wake up and wonder what it would actually take to fix the situation and how Mr. Draghi might possibly deliver on that. Complacency can turn into another full-blown scare in no time. And the reason to be scared is the fact that the euro is still not on any sound footing. Serious regime flaws are still in place. The eurozone economy may have stopped shrinking, largely owing to growth in the rest of the world, but that alone does not fill up the glass. Unemployment is stuck at mind-bogglingly high levels. Indebtedness continues rising. Prospects for any real recovery are grim. Ultimately, what will convince countries to stay with the euro as the euro comes to symbolize impoverishment rather than prosperity?

CJP: Many critics of the current eurozone architecture maintain that a transfer union is the only way to address imbalances and keep the euro alive. What you have proposed, however, is a “Euro Treasury” scheme which is designed not to be a transfer union. First, what’s wrong with having a transfer union?

JB: A transfer union features more or less automatic support from currently richer and stronger members to partners that are currently poorer and weaker. An element of transfer union was part of the EU and euro project from the beginning, the EU structural and cohesion funds. The US monetary union includes a far more extensive transfer union than that to be sure. Unfortunately, the euro crisis has greatly increased resistance against moving in that direction. Moreover, the troika rescue programs are erroneously interpreted as transfers – when in fact they were bailouts of creditor countries’ banks and meant more debts rather than any gifts for euro crisis countries, allegedly the beneficiaries. I see nothing wrong with a US-style transfer union for Europe in the long run. My “Euro Treasury” plan simply acknowledges that that is not a short-run option. Therefore, my Euro Treasury would pool fiscal resources and issue common euro bonds. But the benefits would be equally spread, with no transfers from rich to poor.

CJP: Exactly, how would the Euro Treasury work? continue reading…


European Commission Kicks Off Fresh Round in its Never-ending Love Affair with Structural Reform

Jörg Bibow | January 24, 2014

The Commission’s latest “Quarterly Report on the Euro Area” makes an interesting read; at least to those who simply can’t get enough of the “structural reform” gospel that has been running high in the Commission’s corridors for the past 30 years or so. So be warned: For any more enlightened minds the report is mainly of interest for what it does not talk about.

One might perhaps start by congratulating the Commission for noticing that the euro area is falling behind internationally. In case you had not known, the euro area’s GDP is still about 3 percent below its pre-crisis peak level, domestic demand about 5 percent. Few other policymakers on this planet have such a stellar record to show for themselves. And the Commission is surely part of that gang.

The Commission does not wish to talk about the crisis too much though. It is more concerned with long-run trends that started some time before the crisis. In particular, the Commission points out that after catching up quite successfully with the US in terms of productivity levels and living standards from the mid-1960s up until the mid-1990s, something seems to have happened in the mid-1990s that enabled the US to persistently outperform the euro area ever since. What happened around that time that allowed the US to achieve respectable growth but prevented the euro area from fulfilling its promise? Well, it comes as little surprise that the Commission is quick to blame the euro area’s sluggish productivity performance on nothing but a supposed lack of growth-boosting “structural reforms.” Europe talked about its “Lisbon Agenda,” but never got round to implementing it, the Commission observes regretfully.

Needless to say, the Commission is even more convinced that now is the time to really go for it. continue reading…


Euro Delusion and Denial Keep Authorities Entranced

Jörg Bibow | January 22, 2014

Could it be that Mario Draghi is alone among the key euro authorities in recognizing that the euro crisis may not be quite over yet? Given that Mr. Draghi is also widely credited as the euro’s foremost savior, this seems more than just a little odd.

Recall that, almost magically, Mr. Draghi managed to pull the euro currency union back from that yawning abyss of acute breakup scares prevailing until the summer of 2012 – and with nothing but words: the simple promise “to do whatever it takes” to keep the euro whole.

As the markets have stayed calm ever since, the euro body politic has indulged in complacency. All the more so since the release of the first non-negative quarter-on-quarter GDP growth number for the spring of last year that saw the euro authorities engage in self-congratulatory shoulder-slapping, bravely declaring that the war on the euro crisis was won as their sound policies were finally starting to bear fruit.

European Commission president José Manuel Barroso just added another refrain to the chorus, predicting that 2014 would bring definite change for the better to the euro community. Interestingly, as delusion and denial seems to fully absorb other euro authorities, the ECB’s president alone is taking a more clear-headed view on the actual state of affairs and prospects for the euro currency union. I dare to venture that this may be because he is also all too aware of the fact that his monetary powers are actually quite limited.

It may be time for a sober stocktaking of where the eurozone stands regarding the successful resolution of its internal crisis. Is the economy truly on the mend? Has the euro policy regime been put on a sound and sustainable footing? continue reading…


Is the Recession in Greece Ending?

Gennaro Zezza | December 9, 2013

The Hellenic Statistical Authority (ElStat) reports today that real GDP in the third quarter of 2013 has fallen by “only” 3 percent. More in detail, from their press release:

Total final consumption expenditure recorded a decrease of 6.6% in comparison with the 3rd quarter of 2012 (Table 4).
Gross fixed capital formation (GFCF) decreased by 12.6% in comparison with the 3rd quarter of 2012 (Table 4).
Exports increased by 5.7% in comparison with the 3rd quarter of 2012 (Table 4). Exports of goods increased by 2.4% and exports of services increased by 8.8%.
Imports increased by 2.3% in comparison with the 3rd quarter of 2012 (Table 4). Imports of goods increased by 2.6% and imports of services increased by 1.1%.

(Imports will be growing with exports also because, as we have argued, a large and growing portion of Greek exports are intra-industry trade connected to oil products.)

My personal guess is that these figures will be revised downwards.


In the chart above we show exports of services in euros, as published by ElStat, together with the Turnover Index in Accommodation and Food Service Activities, also published by ElStat. The definition of the index given by Eurostat is as follows: “The definition of turnover is rather straightforward. It comprises basically what is invoiced by the seller. Rebates and price deductions are taken into account as well as special charges that the customer might have to pay. Turnover does not include VAT or similar deductible taxes.”

The two figures in the chart seem to move with the same seasonal pattern (although they are not strongly correlated in growth terms). If we take the value of the index as a predictor of the value of exports for the third quarter of 2013, we should expect exports of services to grow at about 1.2 percent over the same quarter of the previous year — or less, since the chart suggests that exports are less volatile than the turnover index.

This is a much lower value than what ElStat expects for exports of services. Given that all other components of demand are in free fall, a decrease in real GDP of 3 percent YoY in the third quarter of 2013 seems to me to be on the optimistic side.


Three Links on the Eurozone Crisis

Michael Stephens |

1) In an interview with Roger Strassburg, James Galbraith discusses the “Modest Proposal,” a plan for resolving the eurozone’s multiple crises without creating any new institutions or amending any treaties. Galbraith is a co-author of the latest version of the proposal, joining Yanis Varoufakis and Stuart Holland (an earlier version was published as a Levy Institute policy note). The interview then turned to a discussion of next year’s potential US debt standoff in the context of Modern Money Theory.

Read Galbraith’s full interview here at Yanis Varoufakis’s site.

2)  Starting off from Wynne Godley’s 1997 observation that the fundamental problem with the EMU setup was the institutionalized divorce between fiscal policy and currency sovereignty, Rob Parenteau develops an alternative public financing instrument that attempts to get around this flaw:

… governments will henceforth issue revenue anticipation notes to government employees, government suppliers, and beneficiaries of government transfers. These tax anticipation notes, which are a well known instrument of public finance by many state governments across the US, will have the following characteristics: zero coupon (no interest payment), perpetual (meaning no repayment of principal, no redemption, and hence no increase in public debt outstanding), transferable (can be sold onto third parties in open markets), and denominated in euros. In addition, and most importantly, these revenue anticipation notes would be accepted at par value by the federal government in settlement of private sector tax liabilities.

Read the rest here at Naked Capitalism. Parenteau recently discussed the idea at the Levy Institute’s Athens conference. You can listen to his presentation here (Saturday, November 9, Session 4; slides available here).

Also, see Philip Pilkington and Warren Mosler’s related proposal for “tax-backed bonds,” recently updated.

3) Usually, when we think about the rising threat of authoritarianism accompanying Greece’s policy-induced economic disaster, we think about Golden Dawn, but C. J. Polychroniou argues that there’s more to the deterioration of Greece’s political culture than the growing popularity of the far-right party:

In today’s economically beleaguered Greece, where the repayment of foreign debt, the sale of public assets to private interests and the blocking of alternative routes to recovery define the official public policy agenda, the government has resurrected the many authoritarian practices of the past in an apparent effort to keep the game going for as long as possible.

Read the rest at Truthout.


Tax-Backed Bonds: Update and Response to Critics

Michael Stephens | December 6, 2013

Last year, Philip Pilkington and Warren Mosler argued that they had come up with a financial innovation that had the potential to help control the crippling borrowing costs faced by many member-states on the eurozone periphery. Their “tax-backed bond” proposal worked like this: if a member-state issuing these bonds defaulted on a payment, the bonds could, under such circumstances (and only under such circumstances), be used to make tax payments in the country in question (and would continue to earn interest).

This financial innovation attempts to address, obliquely, one of the critical design flaws of the eurozone setup: that member-states remain responsible for their own fiscal policy after having given up control over their own currency. (Dimitri Papadimitriou and Randall Wray explain here why separating fiscal policy from a sovereign currency was such a fatal mistake.)

Part of the idea behind the tax-backed bond proposal is that it would allow a member-state to enjoy borrowing costs that would be more comparable to those of a currency issuer (countries that issue their own currency have lower debt-servicing costs, even when their government debt-to-GDP ratios soar above some of the ratios seen on the eurozone periphery, because they can always make payments when due). Tax-backing is meant to assure investors that these bonds are always “money good.”

Since they first published their proposal, ECB President Mario Draghi had his “whatever it takes” moment, which contributed to a fall in sovereign debt yields on the periphery. Does this make the tax-backed bond moot?

Pilkington has just published an update on the proposal, and he explains why the idea is still relevant in a post-OMT eurozone. In addition to being able to further reduce borrowing costs, Pilkington argues that implementing this plan would enable troubled member-states to minimize or avoid the fiscal austerity imposed as a condition of the troika’s bailouts and backstops; it would “give eurozone member countries back their fiscal independence,” as he puts it.

Pilkington also responds to some objections that have been raised since the proposal was first published, including most notably those of Ireland’s Minister for Finance, Michael Noonan (the proposal was raised, and ultimately rejected, in the Irish parliament). Finally, Pilkington explains how the tax-backed bond could be used in non-eurozone context, referencing recent debates over Scottish independence.

Download Pilkington’s latest policy note: “The Continued Relevance of Tax-backed Bonds in a Post-OMT Eurozone

(The original tax-backed bond proposal, by Pilkington and Mosler, is here.)


Mindless Austerity and Security Guards

Jörg Bibow | December 3, 2013

I recently had the great fortune to listen to a speech delivered by Mr Yves Mersch, Member of the Executive Board of the European Central Bank. This was in Athens on November 8 at the first Minsky Conference in Greece organized by the Levy Economics Institute. The title of the conference was “The Eurozone crisis, Greece, and the Austerity Experience.” The conference was well attended by the interested public. As is typical of Minsky conferences, annually held in the United States, it brought together academic scholars, financial market practitioners, journalists, as well as policymakers, including Mr. Mersch, whose speech was titled “Intergenerational justice in times of sovereign debt crises” (see here). Mr Mersch played part in the negotiations of the Maastricht Treaty and has served as the Governor of the Central Bank of Luxembourg since its formation in 1998, before joining the ECB’s Executive Board last year.

Apart from lauding Greece’s pension reforms as measures that were necessary in view of demographic trends, Mr Mersch hailed Greece’s achievements in closing its fiscal deficit as “remarkable,” describing the Greek austerity experience as a “fiscal adjustment of historic proportions.” That it truly was, and Mr Mersch was keen to emphasize that the “extraordinary efforts” undertaken by the Greek people refuted the naysayers and proved wrong prophetic claims heard in May 2010 that Greece would leave the euro area within months. Mr Mersch acknowledged that record-high unemployment was a “tragedy,” only to go on to assert that “this is the painful cost of reversing the misguided economic policies and lack of reforms in the past.”

And, of course, more of the same would be needed, according to Mr Mersch: more fiscal consolidation, more structural reforms, and lower wages and prices in order to increase external competitiveness and facilitate an export-led recovery, as Greece’s “external sector must go into surplus.” This may be painful, “but we are in a monetary union and this is how adjustment works.” In addition to more wage-price deflation, Mr Mersch singled out the need to restore the health of Greek banks and the need for attracting more foreign investment as the other key ingredients that would deliver adjustment and recovery in Greece.

During the Q&A session following his speech I asked Mr Mersch whether there might not be a conflict between, on the one hand, emphasizing the need of healthy banks that would fund the recovery and, on the other hand, prescribing more wage-price deflation. Since a deflationary environment was not exactly known as a factor that would tend to improve the health of banks. And I also asked him why the ECB was tolerating such a significant undershooting of its 2 percent stability norm while calling for even more wage-price deflation in crisis countries – instead of going for higher inflation in current account surplus countries such as Germany. At least to me it seemed obvious that a properly stability-oriented central bank should much prefer inflation in surplus countries to be sufficiently high so as to enable the bank to actually meet its mandate, that is, 2 percent HICP inflation on average across the currency union, over an outcome where even Germany has an inflation rate that is well below 2 percent, with the ECB ending up sharply missing its self-defined target in the downward direction.

Mindless austerity or stability-oriented austerity?
Mr Mersch’s answers were very interesting. continue reading…


Internal Devaluation in Greece

Gennaro Zezza | November 30, 2013

In a recent speech at the Levy Institute conference on “The Eurozone Crisis, Greece, and the Experience of Austerity” held in Athens, Mr. Yves Mersch, a member of the Executive Board and General Council at the ECB, made it clear that the success of the troika plan for the Greek economy requires the current account balance to improve as the public deficit is reduced. In his own words,

To facilitate an export-led recovery, this trend [decreasing competitiveness] has to be corrected and there is no way this can be achieved in the short run other than by adjusting prices and costs. I know the difficulties that such adjustment creates and the criticisms that are leveled against it. But we are in a monetary union and this is how adjustment works. Sharing a currency brings considerable microeconomic benefits but it requires that relative prices can adjust to offset shocks.

The troika requests for a reduction in costs have been met by Greeks, as our first chart shows.


Indeed, nominal wages(1) have fallen by 23 percent from their peak in the first quarter of 2010, and real wages(2) have fallen by 27.8 percent over the same period.

While it is true that prices started to fall later than wages, and therefore the improvement in competitiveness has been limited, its impact on exports is doubtful.


The chart above shows that nominal exports of goods have somewhat improved, but if we decompose exports of goods using the Eurostat database by SITC categories, we learn that most – if not all – of the increase in exports of goods is related to oil products(3). Indeed, recent news indicates a fall in non-oil exports.


Summing up, internal devaluation has so far had negligible effects on Greek exports, while the fall in the purchasing power of wages has added to the fall in domestic demand generated by fiscal austerity, and thereby contributed to the unprecedented crisis in Greece.

Our July projections have so far been on track, and we predict that even if prices keep falling, as advocated by the troika plan, the response of the current account will be too slow to compensate for fiscal austerity. Strategies to increase employment and income are urgently needed.

(1) The wage index is taken from the Hellenic Statistical Authority (ElStat).
(2) Real wages are obtained by deflating the wage index by the Overall CPI published by ElStat, seasonally adjusted in Eviews and converted to quarterly frequency.
(3) We use the SITC category “Mineral fuels, lubricants and related materials” for our measure of oil-related exports.


No Sound Defense of German Mercantilism, Nowhere

Jörg Bibow | November 12, 2013

In “America’s misplaced lecture to Germany,” Gideon Rachman ends up offering a singularly misplaced defense of Germany. Quite similar to the typical stories one hears on this matter in Germany itself, Rachman appears to be unaware of how self-contradictory his arguments really are. To begin with, after describing the Federal Reserve’s QE policies as both a vital support to the world economy and an addictive drug, he goes on to identify the markets’ reaction to tapering by the Fed as the “biggest threat to the global economy in the coming year.” Does he suggest here that, once adopted, QE policies can never be reversed without causing market turbulences and that QE policies, therefore, should never have been adopted in the first place? That would beg the question as to what else would have provided that vital support to the world economy which Rachman himself attributes to these very policies.

The real issue here is why such overburdening responsibility for supporting the global economy has come to rest on the Federal Reserve’s shoulders. Apparently without seeing the connection, Rachman supplies one reason himself: the “particularly mindless game” of toying with defaulting on the national debt on the part of the US Congress that has accompanied harsh fiscal contraction in the US this year.

Another reason is to be seen in the fact that Europe’s economy, especially the eurozone under German austerity leadership, has been shrinking for years. Europe is still the US’s most important trading partner. It may be a matter of annoyance rather than envy that US firms find themselves exporting into a shrinking market while German firms enjoy participating in the recovery of their important US market. Globally, then, QE may also be seen as a defense against bloated German export surpluses, benefiting from a euro exchange rate that is way undervalued as far as Germany is concerned.

But Rachman also refers to the situation inside the currency union, attesting that Germany has generously provided large-scale bail-outs for its eurozone partners in crisis. Again, he is missing an important connection here. continue reading…


Bibow: German Policy Bears Foremost Responsibility for the Euro Crises

Michael Stephens | November 5, 2013

In advance of this week’s Ford–Levy Institute conference in Athens, Greece (Nov. 8–9), Jörg Bibow gave an interview with George Papageorgiou, senior editor of, on the role German policy has played (and still plays) in generating and exacerbating many of the problems plaguing the eurozone periphery — something Bibow was warning about back in 2005 (see here, for instance). He also addressed where the eurozone needs to go from here, touching on a plan for a Euro Treasury he’ll be discussing at the Athens conference.

The English text of the interview follows (Greek version here):

You have been critical of German policy. How does it really affect the rest of Europe? In what ways does it cause harm to the peripheral economies?

Yes, indeed, German policy bears foremost responsibility for the euro crises and German policy is key to Europe’s future. Germany is Europe’s largest economy. For that reason alone whatever happens in Germany inevitably significantly impacts the eurozone economy. For instance, when Germany prescribed itself an extra dose of wage repression and fiscal austerity in the early 2000s, this had rather fateful consequences for the currency union. For one thing, stagnant domestic demand in Germany constrained its euro partners’ exports to Germany. For another, stagnation in Germany provoked some degree of monetary easing from the ECB, monetary easing which was both too little for Germany but too much for the euro periphery where wages and domestic demand were thereby propelled further. In other words, Germany undermined the ECB’s “one-size-fits-all” monetary policy stance. This happened alongside cumulative divergences in intra-area competitiveness positions, current account imbalances and the corresponding buildup in foreign asset and debt positions. Together this meant that the currency union was going to face trouble as soon as those imbalances would start to unravel. I started warning of these developments in 2005, but the euro authorities were sleeping at the wheel for many years to come.

This is the background to the still unresolved euro crisis, which is primarily a balance-of-payments and banking crisis that only became a sovereign debt crisis as a consequence. Adding insult to injury, the crisis has left Germany in the driver’s seat in eurozone policymaking. Germany punches above its weight in current policy debates. Unfortunately, in misdiagnosing the true nature of the crisis, Germany’s policy prescriptions have focused on nothing but fiscal austerity and structural reform. The consequences are proving a disaster for Europe. In particular, since Germany refuses to adjust its massive external imbalance and continues to have very low inflation, the ongoing rebalancing process inside the currency union is proving deflationary for everyone else. Essentially, as average eurozone wage and price inflation has fallen to extremely low levels, euro crisis countries are forced into debt deflation. Predictably, the wreckage is truly enormous. Policies and consequences are akin to what U.S. President Hoover and German Chancellor Brüning attempted in the 1930s. As we know, this sad experiment in macro policy folly gave the U.S. FDR, the New Deal, and Social Security, while outcomes in Germany were far less benign. It is as yet unclear which path Europe will take this time; the constructive or the destructive one.

What drives then Germany’s current policy? Doesn’t its leadership recognize the danger it poses for the future of the eurozone?

Confusion, a load full of ideological baggage, and short-sighted vested interests, I suppose. Apparently the German authorities do not understand the futility of their favored policies. My reading is that they have never quite understood that Germany could only succeed with its peculiar economic model in the past because and as long as its key trading partners behaved differently. Today Germany is forcing Europe to become like Germany. The trouble is of course that not everyone can be super-competitive and run perpetual current account surpluses at the same time. Somehow the German authorities are stuck in a deep ideological hole on this issue – and they keep on digging.

If Germany continues practicing its current policies, what would be the most likely outcome? Will we head towards the dissolution of the eurozone or with the permanent two- or even three-tier Europe and with the periphery in a quasi colonial situation? continue reading…