The Magazine

The ‘Beneficial Crisis’

On the road to the European superstate.

May 31, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 35 • By ANDREW STUTTAFORD
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It would have taken a heart of stone not to laugh. Wheeled out earlier this month for celebrations to mark his 80th birthday, a rickety Helmut Kohl announced that the fate of the EU’s floundering single currency was a matter of life and death: “European unification is a question of war and peace .  .  . and the euro is part of our guarantee of peace.” 

The ‘Beneficial Crisis’

Photo Credit: Gary Locke

The former chancellor’s dire warning might have been a touch more persuasive had it not been repeated quite so many times before. To take just one example, in the course of Sweden’s 2003 referendum on whether to sign up for the euro, a “weeping” Kohl told the Swedish premier that he did not want his sons to die in a third world war. A reasonable ambition, but hardly the strongest of arguments for junking the krona. Sensible folk that they are, the Swedes voted nej and are all the better for it today. 

Panzers will not roll in the event of a euro collapse, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t a decent case to be made for the $1 trillion (actually $937 billion at the time of writing, but who’s counting?) support package for the EU’s single currency union announced on May 10. The growing financial panic triggered by Greece’s economic woes was metastasizing into a crisis of confidence in the eurozone’s southern and western rim—the now notorious PIIGS (Portugal, Italy, Ireland, Greece, Spain)—a development that threatened ruin for much of the EU’s fragile banking sector and the shattering of any hopes of European economic recovery. After a dangerous delay caused by German hostility to the idea of bankrolling the Greeks, a 110 billion euro ($137 billion) EU/IMF bailout of the Augean state had been agreed. But it came too late to head off the financial markets’ mounting unease.

Financial panics are best dissipated by a swift, decisive, and dramatic response that signals that a believable lender of last resort has arrived on the scene. This is why, for all its faults, TARP worked. Uncle Sam had rolled into town. There would be no need after all to storm the ATMs. 

Jittery Europeans have had to make do with considerably less reassurance. The eurozone lacks the characteristics and resources of a unified nation. It is a hodgepodge of pacts—some observed, some not—whispered understandings, cultivated ambiguities, and clashing interests that does little to inspire confidence. The nearest it comes to a plausible lender of last resort is Germany, historically the EU’s most generous paymaster—a real nation, with real wealth but, awkwardly, real voters too. 

Those voters have been up in arms at the thought of helping out Greece. This was the real reason that German chancellor Angela Merkel dithered so long before coming to Athens’s aid. She was right to be worried. Within a day or so of the Greek bailout, her governing coalition was thrashed in regional elections in North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany’s most populous state.

Something spectacular had to be done. And if $1 trillion isn’t spectacular I don’t know what is. The support package that finally emerged on May 10 falls into three main parts. The largest is the creation of a “temporary” (three-year) special purpose financing vehicle. This is authorized to borrow up to 440 billion euros ($550 billion) to fund or guarantee loans to member states who find themselves being frozen out of the capital markets. On top of this, there will be a 60 billion euro
($75 billion) “rapid reaction” facility operated by the EU Commission and designed to help any eurozone country facing an immediate cash crunch. Oh yes, the IMF agreed to throw another 250 billion euros ($312 billion) into the kitty. 

But, wait, there’s more. To make sure that struggling European financial institutions are not starved of dollars, a number of the world’s major central banks, including the European Central Bank (ECB) and the Fed, revived the emergency currency swap agreements put in place in late 2007. The ECB then topped up the punch bowl by commencing to purchase government debt from the PIIGS, a move explained by the need to move fast (it will be a while before the full support package can be put in place), but which opened the ECB to the charge that it had been reduced to printing money (“quantitative easing” is the preferred euphemism). The ECB denies this, saying the bond purchases are being “sterilized” by other maneuvers draining the excess liquidity the purchases create. 

International investors feted the support package for all of one day. Then they recognized that, as Merkel conceded, it had “done nothing more than buy time.” The rot within the eurozone continues to fester. As for claims that this was all the fault of the wicked speculators of Wall Street and the City of London (a tiresome cry from the EU’s leadership in recent months that reached a new crescendo last week), well, that’s like blaming the canary for the gas in the coal mine. 

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