Patience needed to resolve complex euro zone crisis
OPINION: Persuading markets that no state will exit the euro is, in the first instance, a matter of political conviction; not macroeconomic analysis
THE LONG-RUNNING crisis in the euro area is caused in part by the fact that bond market participants have little understanding of, and for a long time had little interest in, how the euro zone makes its decisions at political level.
In the past, they assumed, without much inquiry as to why, that Greek government bonds were no more risky than German government bonds, simply because Germany and Greece had the same currency.
They took no interest in the internal politics, or relative competitiveness, of Greece and Germany, a misunderstanding that often also encompassed economic commentators, especially in the English language media, then and now, unduly influential in the mind of bond market participants. In the wake of the Lehman collapse, everything changed.
The slightest political ripple now sends amplified shock waves through bond markets, and the interest rates charged to different countries within the euro zone vary greatly. Long ignored indices are now scrutinised obsessively.Bond buyers and economists, having ignored the EU political system for years, now crave complete and definitive answers from it, and they want those answers yesterday! Of course, the markets worry about the viability of the public finances of individual states or their banks, but of even greater concern is whether a particular state will stay in the euro in all circumstances. A country leaving the euro could impose an immediate and shocking loss on lenders.
So the first priority for the markets is convincing them that, no matter what, nobody is going to leave the euro. That is a matter of political conviction, not macroeconomic analysis. After that, everything else can be negotiated.
But the political leaders of the euro zone come at things from a very different angle. While they understand the bond buyers’ craving for certainty, they are engaged in a complex multidimensional political negotiation, in which they have to balance the interests of 17 different sets of national taxpayers, some of whom want to shift liabilities and others of whom who want to take on as little liability as possible.
The political negotiation is further complicated by the fact that the EU does not yet have the legal power to do some of the things it needs to do. And some of its members want to trade agreement on new powers for national concessions. Britain is the most outstanding example, but more recently Italy played that game. In Ireland, one political party wanted to veto the ESM, though beneficial to Ireland, simply to get concessions on something else. This sort of silly thing goes on often in EU negotiations, because EU negotiations are conducted by humans, not by angels.
While there is an EU, the people who make the final decisions for the union are national politicians, elected by national electorates who frequently do not understand one another very well. Or choose not to do so.
The cheap caricaturing of Germany in some other EU countries has been matched by equally juvenile caricatures in parts of the German press of countries, like Greece. Sometimes the critics have a point, as when Germans complain about the possibility of extending their credit to countries, like France, which are reducing their retirement age to 60, while Germany feels it must raise its own to 70 to maintain German creditworthiness.
As well as making decisions, leaders have to bring their parliaments, which reflect these very diverse electorates, along. Sometimes they need a two-thirds majority, as in Germany, or a referendum, as in Ireland.