Proposals for a European Monetary Fund

There are lots of stories in today’s press about the German-backed proposal to introduce a new European Monetary Fund to help out EU states in difficulty. Setting up the fund would require a new treaty, which would take a long time. So, on the face of it, this isn’t about helping out Greece, though it could turn out that Greece becomes the “test case” for how an EMF would operate.

One aspect of this story that I’m having some trouble understanding is why the IMF cannot be used to assist an EU member. The Irish Times Cantillon column explains the argument as follows. Current circumstances imply that:

The only possible lender of last resort is thus the International Monetary Fund, but an IMF intervention in a euro-zone economy would be a mortal blow to the credibility of the euro.

Ok, here’s a question. What does “mortal blow to the credibility of the euro” actually mean? And if it means something concrete (and bad) why does an IMF intervention produce this bad outcome while an EMF intervention does not? Answers on an electronic postcard …

Scary graph

The first graph in this post is really quite alarming. (It would of course have been nice if there had been Irish data!)

For an individual country, ‘internal devaluation’ is the optimal strategy in our situation. (Optimal given our constraints that is — it is an incredibly lousy option relative to nominal devaluation, or being able to run a counter-cyclical fiscal policy.) But if everyone is doing the same thing, then it becomes collectively self-defeating.

This is a European problem, and requires European solutions designed to support demand and prevent continent-wide deflation.

Paul Krugman is alarmed here.

Pettis on Europe (and China)

A reader has pointed me towards this nice post by Michael Pettis, which strays from his usual Chinese turf to take a look at Europe. It makes the same points as the ones Martin Wolf has been making about the need for the large countries with ‘fiscal room’ in the Eurozone, particularly Germany, to do everything they can to maintain aggregate demand in the Eurozone.

This should be obvious to anyone with an understanding of intermediate macroeconomics, so I won’t comment on it. But Pettis also cites Barry Eichengreen’s classic Golden Fetters, which readers may not be familiar with, and in particular Barry’s views on the implications of democracy for the maintenance of the gold standard. That system required adjustment through deflation for countries suffering negative shocks. This was not necessarily a problem in the 19th century, when wages and prices were flexible, and universal suffrage was rare. By the 20th century, however, rigidities in the economy were such that deflation implied unemployment; and democracy meant that this economic cost translated into a direct political cost for policy makers. The gold standard, inevitably, broke down when confronted with the pressures of the Great Depression.

I don’t think it’s fair to compare the euro to the gold standard, as Pettis does. The ECB has lowered interest rates, not raised them, although not by as much as other central banks; and both the French and the Germans have applied fiscal stimulus to their economies. On the other hand, it is true that adjustment in the PIIGS now implies deflation there (unless, as the FT points out today, inflation in the Eurozone as a whole is increased). This is going to be both economically and politically costly, and will have unpredictable effects, especially if the Eurozone as a whole experiences a double dip recession.

I suspect that Ireland will find these adjustments easier to bear than most, since emigration gives us both an economic and a political safety valve. (That was a positive rather than a normative statement by the way.)

Eichengreen on Leaving the Euro

The Greek situation is regularly discussed as being “a threat to the Euro” and, on this blog and elsewhere in Irish commentary, it has revived the idea that the solution to our economic problems is to leave the Euro and re-establish our own currency.

This idea is often discussed as though membership of the Euro simply involves being locked into a disadvantageous fixed exchange rate, which we can address by getting out of the Euro. In fact, the process of leaving the Euro would be far more complex than that and could have many downsides that would offset the benefit of a more competitive exchange rate. Perhaps it’s been linked to on this blog before but this paper by Barry Eichengreen provides plenty of food for thought on this issue.

Update: Thanks to Philip for pointing out that Eichengreen has a new column on Greece and the Euro. Link here.

Europe, like Ireland, is facing two crises, not one

With all the talk about debt crises last weeek, it is easy to forget that there is a real economic crisis afflicting Europe as well. The 4th quarter GDP numbers were disappointing, and the fact that Eurozone industrial output fell 1.7% in December is alarming. Unemployment is still rising, and the real Eurozone economy is not out of the woods yet. A primary focus of economic policy still needs to be the avoidance of a double dip.

The fact that little Ireland is having to cut expenditure and raise taxes at a time like this will further worsen our own economic problems, but is of no broader consequence. How many Irish people have even noticed what is happening in Latvia? The same could be said of Greece. But if the entire periphery found itself having to fight market panic by cutting in an excessive fashion, simultaneously, that could be very dangerous — especially if Spain, or, God forbid, Italy, became involved as well.

Martin Wolf is very good on this, while those of you of a more temperamental disposition may enjoy Simon Johnson’s latest piece, with Peter Boone. The core Eurozone countries don’t just have to ward off self-fulfilling market panics focussed on the PIIGS, but continue to support aggregate demand in the Eurozone. I understand concerns about government debt, but people focussed on that problem should remember three things. First, deficits will continue to rise if the real economy worsens, and a lack of aggregate demand is still a problem for the real economy. Second, the more the ECB does to loosen monetary policy, the less is the burden which fiscal policy has to shoulder. And third, if we experience another year like 2008-2009 any time soon, the probability of a wave of defaults will rise sharply.