I am just back from a conference in Berlin that was attended by finance officials from a number of euro zone countries. I must admit that what I heard left me with an increased sense of foreboding on the future of the euro zone. To no great surprise, officials from stronger countries made it clear their governments are willing to pay a significant price to save the euro zone – but not any price. What worries me most is the emphasis on restoring “market discipline” given concerns for moral hazard, including the continued threat of debt restructuring. (The sentiment behind Deauville has not gone away.) While I have no trouble in understanding this position from likely net contributors under enhanced risk sharing arrangements, it is a recipe for Italy and Spain being driven from the bond markets. The concern of stronger countries for their own creditworthiness under guarantee arrangements was also emphasised – and, again, is understandable.
As has been pointed out before, the main message from “second-generation” currency crisis models is very relevant. Concerns about the willingness of policy makers to bear the costs of protecting a currency peg — or avoiding default — leads to increased expectations of those events, raising the costs of avoiding them still further. It is all too easy to fall into a self-fulfilling, bad-expectations equilibrium.
So what is the way out? Stronger countries need to lay out what institutional arrangements they require to support enhanced risk-sharing arrangements, including some substantial form of euro bonds. For the medium-term, credible institutional discipline must replace market discipline. The present mixed approach is not working. In deciding whether to accede to arrangements that would significantly diminish fiscal/banking sovereignty, all countries must recognise the likely path under the present course. It might be a bridge too far, but at least we should not stumble into disaster.