Wednesday, April 1, 2015

1/4/15: H-W Sinn "Europe’s Easy-Money Endgame"

A very interesting op-ed by Professor Hans-Werner Sinn of German Ifo Institute for Project Syndicate:

The problem outlined by Professor Sinn is non-trivial.

"...for countries like Greece, Portugal, or Spain, regaining competitiveness would require them to lower the prices of their own products relative to the rest of the eurozone by about 30%, compared to the beginning of the crisis. Italy probably needs to reduce its relative prices by 10-15%. But Portugal and Italy have so far failed to deliver any such “real depreciation,” while relative prices in Greece and Spain have fallen by only 8% and 6%, respectively".

As Professor Sinn notes, there are four possible solutions:

  1. "Europe could become a transfer union, with the north giving more and more credit to the south and later waiving it." 
  2. "The south can deflate." 
  3. "The north can inflate." 
  4. "Countries that are no longer competitive can exit Europe’s monetary union and depreciate their new currency."

So here's the problem, correctly identified by Professor Sinn: "Each path is associated with serious complications. The first creates a permanent dependence on transfers, which, by sustaining relative prices, prevents the economy from regaining competitiveness. The second path drives many debtors in crisis countries into bankruptcy. The third expropriates the creditor countries of the north. And the fourth may cause contagion effects via capital markets, possibly forcing policymakers to introduce capital controls".

Now, note: Ireland has opted for the second path. Any surprise we are driving people into bankruptcy in tens of thousands (once current legal queue is taken into account), along with multiple businesses?

But back to Prof Sinn's analysis. Remember the ECB QE? Ok, says Prof Sinn, suppose it delivers on target inflation of just under 2%. What does it mean for internal devaluations in the 'peripheral' Europe?

"If, say, southern Europe kept its inflation rate at 0% and France inflated at a rate of 1%, Germany would have to inflate by a good 4%, and the rest of the eurozone at 2% annually, to reach a eurozone average of slightly less than 2%. This pattern would have to continue for about ten years to bring the eurozone back into balance. At that point, Germany’s price level would be about 50% higher than it is today."

The problem, thus, is an unresolvable dilemma, since with that sort of arithmetic, we are in a tough bind:

  • Either Germany runs mild inflation, while the 'periphery' runs outright deflation, allowing - over a painfully long period of time (decade or more) to devalue the imbalances, or
  • Eurozone pursues Mr Draghi's objective of 'just under' 2% inflation across the entire Euro area at the expense of Germany (and the rest of the already shrunken 'core').
Do note, I have argued before that deflation in the 'periphery' is not a bad thing, as it allows for the interest rates to remain low (servicing cost of household and corporate debts is lower) and deleveraging of the households and companies to be less painful, while sustaining some domestic demand through increased purchasing power of incomes. So I agree with Professor Sinn's criticism of the ECB QE programme. 

The problem is that this means, as Professor Sinn rightly suggests, continued suppression of demand (the 'austerity' bit).

The choice faced by Europe are ugly. All of them. And there are no guarantees for any of them to actually work. And the cause of this problem is singular: creation of a political currency union. For anyone who says that Greece, Italy, Portugal, Cyprus, Ireland and Spain have caused their own problems, the replies are both simple and complex: 
  • The simple one: absent the euro, their problems would have been by now solved by a combination of the old-fashioned defaults and devaluations. 
  • The complex one: absent monetary transfers (lower interest rates and ample bank liquidity flowing cross-borders) with the EMU from the late 1990s through 2007, the imbalances generated in the 'peripheral' economies would never have been this large. Which means that the simple reply above would have been even more easy to apply.

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