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Kirkegaard: The Euro Is Safer than Ever – Here's Why

There has been little love by financial markets for European leaders these days. But one has to wonder about the level of disdain reflected in recent surveys of City of London economists and global investors showing agreement about the likelihood of a breakup of the euro-zone.

How can a majority of 25 City of London economists conclude that “a euro break-up of greater or lesser proportions during the next Parliamentary term” – within five years , in other words – is likely?

Not according to the economic and political facts, it would seem.

A currency union in Europe was always destined to suffer problems. Because it lacks a fiscal as well as monetary component, the euro zone does not possess a central mechanism to overcome future geographically concentrated “asymmetric shocks,” in which some countries suffer downturns and need fiscal help while other countries do not.

Without adequate labor mobility across member state borders (or often even within them), the European institutional framework is further hampered because workers cannot move in search of jobs because of language and other barriers. These handicaps rob the euro zone of several basic tenets of an “optimal currency area” (OCA).

Despite these problems, however, it is worth remembering that OCA theory predicted in the first place that the euro would never happen. The same theory suggests that the euro is now bound to fail. Such predictions, though, are overwrought. Just because something doesn’t operate optimally in an economic sense, does not mean that it will fail once in existence.

In reality, there is next to no chance that the euro-zone will break up as a result of the current economic crisis in Europe, or as a result of a probable Greek sovereign default. There are several reasons why.

First, leaving the euro would impose a catastrophic cost on any nation that tries to do so out of economic weakness. Even euro-zone countries that default on their debts would be far better off inside the euro-zone than outside (crucially, euro-zone members cannot be kicked out), because in the longer-term they would still have access to the deep liquid euro-zone financial markets.

Any euro-denominated interest rate imposed by financial markets even after a default would be a lot lower than interest rates on, say, new drachma-denominated bonds.

Moreover, under the Lisbon Treaty (which will not be revised in even the medium term) leaving the euro zone cannot be done without quitting the EU entirely. Such a move would entail a nearly complete regional political isolation and probably exposure to the EU’s external trade barriers as well.

It is important to note that ditching a physical currency that remains the legal tender in other countries is very different from simply breaking a currency peg, as Argentina did in 2001. As the introduction of euro notes and coins showed in 2002, a new physical currency would entail a lengthy logistical operation.

A process of many months of emptying and refilling ATMs etc. can hardly be kept secret. While the mechanics are undertaken, a country wishing to leave the euro and reintroduce a new, weaker national currency, would experience a devastating capital flight, as private residents transfer their money out of the country.

It can be argued that quitting the euro after a sovereign default resulting from a collapse of the domestic banking system would not add that much more economic chaos to the mix; that view ignores several issues.

There is a lot more to an economy than the banking system, for one thing. Leaving the euro for a weaker currency would essentially cast private contracts denominated in euros into default, or facing rapidly rising liabilities through a depreciating “new drachma”.

In addition, countries that seek to reintroduce a new national currency must have reasonable expectations of large export gains from a competitive devaluation. In the case of Greece and most other Mediterranean euro-zone members (with Italy as the partial exception), large export gains from even a large competitive devaluation look very unlikely.

Greece, with a total “goods export intensity” worth just seven percent of GDP in 2008, is by far the least goods export oriented country in the euro-zone. The country fundamentally makes too little that the rest of the world wants to benefit much from the short-term pricing advantages of reintroducing its own currency.

Moreover, Greece’s two large services sector export articles – tourism and shipping – would find it difficult to gain from depreciation. Tourism is highly sensitive to social unrest, which is all but guaranteed with the introduction of a “new drachma.”

Shipping is conducted almost wholly in US dollars for both revenues and costs, and is thus unlikely to benefit much from a competitive Greek devaluation. The economic gains for Greece associated with leaving the euro-zone thus are like the Sirens – seductive, but mythical and dangerous.

What if a strong country like Germany were to leave the euro-zone? Similar misconceptions exist about the willingness and possibility of such a move. Despite some talk about this prospect in Europe, the case for a German departure from the euro-zone is simply non-existent.

It is politically unthinkable that Germany would undermine 60 years of pro-European policies by leaving the euro-zone and thereby destroying the entire EU that has anchored its identity and powered its postwar authority.

Germany's Economic Advantages from the Euro

Recall that the German parliament drew broad political support for the recent 750 billion euros ($915 billion) European Financial Stability Facility (EFSF) from both the governing CDU-FDP coalition and the main opposition parties SPD/Green party. That backing came despite the potential price tag of 150 billion euros or more for Germany.

The European Debt Crisis - See Complete Coverage
The European Debt Crisis - See Complete Coverage

The SPD/Green Party abstained in the vote only because of opposition to the lack of “private sector involvement” (i.e. pain for the banks) in the package. In other words, only a Germany ruled solely by the far left party, Die Linke, which received just 11.9 percent of the vote in the 2009 national German elections, would conceivably oppose current policies.

This broad political support among the German political parties matters. German politicians are elected by proportional representation, a system that awards power to smaller and bigger political parties. Financial markets fearing a departure from the euro by Germany, where the euro is admittedly more and more unpopular, still attach far too much importance to single-issue polls on this issue.

The experience of European countriesthat have undergone popular referenda on EU-related issues (Denmark, Sweden, Ireland, France and the Netherlands) is that whereas voters reject the recommendations of their elected politicians on such matters, there is next to no impact on how they vote in the next general election.

There is no reason to believe that the German electorate is different. Polls showing public dissatisfaction with the euro will not likely lead to a massive swing of voters to Die Linke or a new “anti-EU protest party” in the next German election. The polls can therefore be largely ignored.

There is a striking contrast between the power of populist fringe groups in the United States and Europe. Many American commentators accustomed to the ability of extremist groups to win in closed winner-take-all primaries – as the Tea Party candidates have done this year - underestimate the stabilizing political effect of proportional representation in Europe.

Commentators also underestimate the electorate’s and the government’s deeply institutionalized attachment to the European Union, which will make it harder to attract the popular majority required in PR systems in support of an EU pullout.

As argued forcefully by Adam Posen, Germany retains huge economic advantages from being in the euro-zone in the form of seigniorage, deeper bond-markets and the inability of close trading partners/competitors in France, Italy and elsewhere to devalue.

Add to this the 972 billion euros (data from end Q1 2010) in German bank exposure to other euro-zone countries, of which 355 billion euros pertains to Greece, Italy, Spain and Portugal, as of end-March 2010.

All of these claims – currently denominated in Germany’s own national currency – would be severely impaired, were the other euro-zone countries to re-introduce their own weaker national currencies, adding an intolerable strain to an already weak German banking system. Destroying the euro-zone by leaving it would therefore completely destroy the German banking system far more completely than any Greek default could achieve.

Yet, while the euro-zone won’t break under the strain of the current crisis, it will nonetheless be a very different euro-zone after the current crisis, especially in its Southern part.

Originally designed as the ultimate symbol of European monetary integration and the firm foundation of the rapid economic growth in the Southern peripheral members – with the hope of delivering convergence in living standards to the richer Northern parts of Europe – the euro from now on will convey no such positive vision.

Rather than economic growth and rising living standards, the euro will now entail a damp deflationary – potentially even Thatcherite – embrace of its Mediterranean members. Its power is certain to force European leaders to legislate lower public wages and overhaul their social and economic models to avoid the catastrophic Greek-like debt death-spiral.

Just as German politicians have swallowed the bitter medicine of a 150 billion euros bailout of the euro-zone (on top of the previous Greek bailout), so too will the euro-zone’s Mediterranean leaders drink from the same cup.

In spite of all these dark forebodings, the euro-zone will hold together. It will do so not by a positive vision of the common future, but by the painful recognition of the staggering cost of leaving.

As Machiavelli wrote concerning whether it is better for a ruler to be loved than feared:

“It may be answered that it…is much safer to be feared than loved…. because friendships that are obtained by payments…are not secured, and in time of need cannot be relied upon;… but fear preserves you by a dread of punishment which never fails.”

As with princes, so too with currency unions of democratic nations.

Europe can be consoled by the understanding that it will prove safer for the euro to be held together by elected governments fearful of the cost of leaving than by the mirage of an excessively low cost of capital, a spurious convergence of government bond yields, and unsustainable bursts of growth in the periphery.

Let the financial markets and the doom-sayers wail that the end is nigh for the euro. The performance of Germany and the weaker euro-zone states demonstrate that, on the contrary, the euro is safer today than ever. Instead of a breakup, look for expansion, starting with Estonia in 2011.

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Jacob Funk Kirkegaard has been a research fellow at the Institute since 2002. Before joining the Institute, he worked with the Danish Ministry of Defense, the United Nations in Iraq, and in the private financial sector.