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Dean Baker

Dean Baker is co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research

November 18th, 2011 7:13 PM

Will the euro be destroyed by ideologues?

We could be living through the last days of the euro. That is not a happy thought. While there were many negative aspects to the rules governing the European Central Bank (ECB) and the eurozone economies, no one can want to see the economic chaos that will almost certainly follow the collapse of the euro.

There will likely be a wave of bank collapses as banks are forced to write down much of the debt they hold in Italy, Ireland and other heavily indebted countries. This would bring about another Lehman-type situation where finance freezes up. Banks would stop lending to each other and even healthy businesses would find it difficult to obtain credit.

That is the story of a severe double-dip in the eurozone, with the spillover effect almost certainly pushing the United States and most of the rest of the world into recession. It could easily be over a decade until these economies recover from the damage.

The absurdity of this story is that such a collapse could be easily prevented. The recipe is simple. The ECB must agree to backdrop the debt of Italy and most of the other heavily indebted countries, after a write-down of Greek debt. It should also have an expansionary policy that allows somewhat higher inflation in Germany so that the peripheral countries can regain competitiveness by having lower positive inflation rates.

The current low inflation rate in Germany requires that Spain, Italy and other peripheral countries actually have deflation to improve their competitiveness. This is difficult to accomplish and likely to lead to many years of slow growth and high unemployment in these countries.

While the basic logic of the situation should be apparent even to people without formal training in economics, the ECB seems oblivious to it. The preferred path from the ECB, along with its partners the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the European Union, is to require that the heavily indebted countries just keep cutting their deficits. This leads to further reductions in demand, which causes higher unemployment. As the unemployment rate rises, tax collections fall and payment for transfer programmes like unemployment benefits increase. The result is that the deficits get larger and the debt to GDP ratio rises.

The absurdity of the ECB agenda should have become apparent even to its top officials when they came up with the idea of a new expanded bailout fund. To make the fund more potent, the ECB sent emissaries to China, Brazil, India and Russia to encourage them to lend money to the fund.

Support from the BRICs?

This is truly a remarkable story since the per capita income of all of these countries is far below the average in the ECB. In Russia, the richest of the group, per capita income is just under $17,000 per year - slightly more than half of the eurozone average. In India, per capita income is under $4,000 - less than 15 per cent of the average for the EU. In short, we have a confederation that includes many of the richest countries on the planet asking for handouts from countries that are much poorer.

Actually, if these fast growing developing countries want to do the eurozone countries a favour, they will take a page from the IMF's handbook. As my colleague Mark Weisbrot has suggested, they will offer the eurozone support for its bailout fund, but with conditions.

The conditions would simply be that the ECB start following good macro policy. In other words it should agree to guarantee the debt of eurozone governments after arranging the necessary write-downs for Greece and other countries that would have difficulty meeting their debt obligations even if they paid very low interest rates.

These countries could also require that the ECB target a somewhat higher inflation rate, in the range of three to four per cent. This would facilitate the adjustment process for the peripheral countries. If inflation in the eurozone averaged four per cent, with a somewhat higher rate in Germany and the continuation of near-zero rates in Spain, Italy and other heavily indebted countries, then this latter group of countries will soon regain their competitiveness. The higher inflation will also help alleviate the debt burdens facing the peripheral countries.

The absurdity of this situation is that the eurozone countries would not need outside support from the BRICs if the ECB was prepared to pursue these policies today. Just as is the case now with the United States, there is no shortage of wealth in the EU, in the sense that it has the ability to produce vastly more goods and services than it is currently producing. The main problem is simply a lack of demand.

We have known how to generate demand since Keynes wrote his masterpiece in the '30s. However, rather than pursue the simple steps needed to restore the eurozone's economy to stable growth, the ECB is adhering to an ideological agenda that will destroy the euro and throw the economy into an even more severe recession than the last one. This is an extraordinary tragedy unravelling in slow motion in front of the world.  

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