Monday, May 10, 2010

Press Briefing

May 10, 2010 Remarks at the East-West Center's 50th Anniversary Celebration, by Judith A. McHale, Undersecretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs. Capital Hilton Hotel, Washington, DC, May 6, 2010 One of the Nation's Leading Legal Minds: The President Nominates Elena Kagan for the Supreme Court Kagan Nomination Launches Constitutional Debate + Supreme Court Nominee Elena Kagan Five Reasons Not to Support a Bailout of Greece The Carbon Recession - CO2 emissions plunge, along with the economy. Washington rejoices The Euro's Tribulations - Don't blame the single currency for the failures of Keynesian economics The FCC vs. Broadband Investors - The last thing Internet entrepreneurs need is a new period of regulatory uncertainty Corporate governance: much better job than they get credit for, but here are a few suggestions for improvement Weekly Address: President Obama Praises the Benefits and Successes of Health Reform Already in Effect ObamaCare's Phony Medicaid 'Deal' - The new health law unconstitutionally coerces the states. The Euro's Tribulations - Don't blame the single currency for the failures of Keynesian economics Arizona's Real Problem: Drug Crime - Violence in the border is not committed by migrant laborers. Islam's Nowhere Men-- Millions like Faisal Shahzad are unsettled by a modern world they can neither master nor reject

The Euro's Tribulations - Don't blame the single currency for the failures of Keynesian economics

The Euro's Tribulations. WSJ Editorial
Don't blame the single currency for the failures of Keynesian economics.WSJ, Monday,May 10, 2010

Twelve years ago, economist Robert Mundell wrote a series of articles in these pages under the headline, "The Case for the Euro," touting the benefits of the single European currency due in 1999. The subsequent decade exceeded the rosiest scenarios set out by the "father of the euro." Sixteen countries came to enjoy prosperity and stability in the world's second most successful zone of sound money and free commerce (after the U.S.).

This year, the party has come to a crashing halt with Greece's financial meltdown, and one consequence has been a run on confidence in the euro. Last week, as the European Union and International Monetary Fund approved a €110 billion rescue and the Greeks adopted an austerity package, the euro tumbled to 14-month lows.

The euro will be tested in the coming months and years by policy makers and markets. The challenges ahead include continued economic weakness, particularly across a Mediterranean flirting with insolvency from Greece to Portugal, political tensions and calls to winnow euroland to the strong economies, or to shelve the euro altogether.

Europe's unprecedented monetary union can no doubt be improved, but its benefits in economic efficiency and monetary discipline should not be ignored, much less tossed away at the first serious challenge. It's also important to understand that the single currency is the scapegoat du jour for a crisis whose real causes are inconvenient for the political class.

In one anti-euro corner are weak-money neo-Keynesians. Greece was their model pupil, spending its way to supposedly drive growth. But when the time came to pay the piper, the lament now heard from Paul Krugman and elsewhere is that the Greeks are unjustly shackled by the euro. Take back national control over monetary policy and the EU's weak economies can once again devalue their way out of trouble. Blaming the euro for the failures of Keynesianism sets a new standard for chutzpah, and this prescription would debase not only the currencies but the middle class for a generation.

Then there's the idea to save the euro by creating a European super-state to set economic policy, harmonize taxes and ease transfers from rich countries to the poor. George Soros stands in this camp, as does prominent German central banker Otmar Issing, who earlier this year wrote that "starting monetary union without having established a political union was putting the cart before the horse." This is really a call for imposing on all countries the welfare state agenda that got Europe into this jam in the first place.

Before offering cures, let's diagnose the Greek disease properly. Joining the euro gave the poorer southern EU countries a perfect opportunity to "pull up their socks," in Professor Mundell's words. Some, like Italy and Spain, did so for a while. But sitting pretty inside the euro club, many politicians took the foot off the pedal of unpopular reforms, such as liberalizing labor codes or lowering costs to business.

Greek politicians in particular lived beyond their means and put much of this spending, in Wall Street parlance, off their balance sheet. The euro did enable bad habits by letting Greece borrow at German interest rates. This postponed the day of reckoning for the failures of reform, until a new Athens government last year came clean about the lies and the mess. But don't blame a currency for irresponsible leadership.

Europe isn't experiencing a currency crisis. It is a debt crisis driven by overborrowing, large and inefficient government, and insufficient economic growth. Some of the sickest countries use the euro as their legal tender, but others don't. Iceland, Latvia, Romania and Hungary were all forced into the arms of the IMF, though none of them is in the euro zone. Britain is also outside the euro bloc but is facing its own day of debt reckoning.

Iceland is a sobering might-have-been for the Greeks. The small Arctic island's financial crisis was compounded by a currency crisis. It's now fast-tracking an application to join the EU and the euro. The Icelanders understand that small countries with shallow capital markets are most vulnerable to currency volatility in a world of floating exchange rates.

Before Greece or Portugal seriously consider bringing back the drachma and escudo, and devaluing their way out of trouble, recall that Argentina took this advice in late 2001. Dropping its dollar peg, the Argentines beggared their people and avoided policy changes. They ended up defaulting and continue to fall behind Brazil and Chile.

The Greeks can leave the euro if they prefer, and neither Berlin nor Brussels would spill many tears. But the costs of dropping out would be substantial. The bulk of Greek financial contracts are in euros. Were a reconstituted drachma devalued by 50%, the public debt to GDP ratio would essentially double—in Greece's case to well over 200% of GDP. Our guess is that the Greeks restructure their debts or default before they drop out of the single currency.

While not the cause of this crisis, the euro has been tarnished by it. Greece's Madoff-like bookkeeping broke the mutual trust that is essential to any monetary compact, and this will take time to restore.

Shortcomings in the rules governing the euro zone were evident long before this crisis, and they now need to be addressed. In one of his 1998 Journal articles, Mr. Mundell wrote that the rules on fiscal deficits and public debts in the Stability and Growth Pact—adopted by euro-zone countries to govern the single currency—needed bite to guard against the obvious free-rider problem: Countries would be tempted to take advantage of a colossal and low-interest bond market believing that "when the chips are down the union will act as lender of last resort." He essentially predicted the problems of Greece and the proposed EU-IMF bailout.

Fines were decreased and the stability pact was never seriously enforced. Germany and France, which pushed hardest for strict penalties, were the first to break the rules without suffering any consequences. Five years ago, Berlin and Paris shot down the European Commission's proposal to oversee national statistical agencies to safeguard against Greek-like cheating.

On Tuesday, the Commission plans to unveil proposals on closer surveillance of euro-zone budgets. Next it should restore some teeth to the stability pact. These modest steps won't excite euro federalists as much as a grand and unrealistic political union, but they might do some actual good.

The future of the euro in the next decade depends on the will of European politicians. First the beggar-thy-currency crowd must be ignored. The European Central Bank has, at least so far, been a bulwark against such talk. On the other hand, the EU's decision to create a "bailout fund" tells creditors and borrower governments alike that they will always be rescued, increasing moral hazard and the odds of another crisis. If asked to foot the bill again, unhappy German or Dutch taxpayers may decide the euro isn't worth the price and themselves push for its dissolution.

Above all, the euro will thrive only if Europe thrives. Austerity plans intended to stem the fiscal hemorrhaging are no substitute for policies to promote growth. Should Europe use this crisis to make itself more competitive and rein in the welfare state, the Continent would be even better placed to take advantage of a huge single market underpinned by a stable currency and low inflation. And if that were to happen, the second decade of the euro could turn out to be better than the first.