By David Marsh
Published: January 11 2009 18:39 Fnancial Times
International challenges spell good and bad news for the European Central Bank. On the positive side, the credit crisis has given the independent ECB and Jean-Claude Trichet, its president, unexpected authority on the world stage. Most observers agree the 10-year-old economic and monetary union has so far moderated the direct fall-out of the financial crisis for eurozone members. On the negative side, Europe this year faces probably the worst recession since the second world war. Depending on how Emu members react, latent nationalism within the single currency area may emerge as a disruptive force.
Battle lines are being drawn between the “stability first” principles of Europe’s strongest economy, Germany, and the more activist growth policies favoured by France. Mr Trichet, a veteran of fierce battles with the Bundesbank as head of the French Treasury in the early 1990s, has emerged as heir to the German central bank’s anti-inflation throne. The ECB’s president and decision-making council have come under sporadic pressure from European politicians to soften their monetary stance. After the mid-September collapse of Lehman Brothers, the US bank, the ECB cut interest rates three times between October and December – the first reductions since Mr Trichet took office in 2003. But despite recent signs of further economic weakening, there are strong indications that Mr Trichet will continue to garb himself in a mantle of Bundesbank-like firmness.
Emu has required improbable compromises – notably, that it would work without substantial fiscal transfers between countries of markedly different economic performance. Using a single currency to lash together 16 disparate nations has had effects similar to those among occupants of a life raft on a storm-tossed sea. The euro has provided members with an aura of robustness but also made them more prone to fissures caused by disturbances in their internal balance of forces.
A warning signal has come from the sharp rise in the gap or “spread” between yields on bonds issued by heavily indebted Emu countries and those on German government bonds. The crisis has driven up these spreads not only because investors take a less forgiving view of the risks on weaker countries’ debt, but also because of the blockages along what Mr Trichet formerly called the “financial channel” for ironing out discrepancies among member states. The yield spreads – now 2.3 percentage points for Greece, 1.3 points for Italy and 1.7 points for Ireland – are much less than the differences of up to 6 points before the euro was set up. Weaker southern and western states still derive considerable benefit from membership, but – should spreads widen further – that may fast diminish.
A prime reason for the widening spreads is that fixing exchange rates among countries with disparate patterns of prices and productivity has led to changes in relative competitiveness. Since 1999, Germany has gained an overall competitive advantage of more than 10 per cent, while Italy has suffered a loss of nearly 40 per cent, according to Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development figures based on unit labour costs. During much of the euro’s first decade, the positive impact of generally low, stable Emu interest rates largely outweighed the negative influence of disrupted competitiveness. However, as economies contract, papering over the cracks will become more difficult.
That is exemplified by economic policy differences between France’s President Nicolas Sarkozy and Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany. Continuing a French tradition shown by predecessors François Mitterrand and Jacques Chirac, Mr Sarkozy has irritated the Germans with his suspicion of central banking independence and has been still more outspoken than Mr Chirac in publicly criticising ECB interest rate decisions. Mr Sarkozy has clashed with Peer Steinbrück, Germany’s no-nonsense finance minister, telling him on one occasion Germany’s strictures spelled “the end of Franco-German friendship”.
At the root of France’s carping is the widespread French belief that Germany has gleaned unfair economic advantage from Emu. Germany has swung from a pre-Emu current account deficit of 0.8 per cent of gross domestic product in 1998 to a surplus of 6.4 per cent in 2008, according to the OECD. France, Italy, and Ireland, with surpluses of 2.6, 1.9 and 0.8 per cent of GDP respectively in 1998, registered deficits of 1.6, 2.6 and 6.2 per cent in 2008. Last year Greece, Spain and Portugal ran deficits of 10 per cent of GDP and more.
There has been no sign so far of any overt move to modify Emu’s “no-bail-out” clause, which prevents less well off states from demanding help from stronger members. However, if other Emu countries find borrowing progressively harder, non-German politicians may ask Germany to use its comfortable financial position to alleviate pressures on weaker Emu brethren.
The German government, which has rejected forming more demand to help out less competitive euro members, would certainly say no to changing the no-bail-out clause. If bond spreads rise towards pre-1999 levels, speculation may rise that one or more weaker states could suspend their membership. Mr Trichet dismisses such thoughts as “fantasies”. Yet leading European monetary officials stated months ago that precisely such an option – although unlikely – could not be ruled out. If 2008 has been tough for Emu, 2009 could bring still greater tests.
The writer is chairman of London & Oxford Capital Markets. His book, The Euro: The Politics of the New Global Currency, is published by Yale University Press in January/February