The eurozone and the US: A tale of two currency zones

The eurozone and the US: A tale of two currency zones

Philip Whyte
21 November 2011

by Philip Whyte

Europeans think it is all very unfair. They point out that, in aggregate, the eurozone is in no worse an economic position than the US: its public finances are in better shape than the US’s, and its overall level of private sector debt is actually lower. Yet for the past two years, financial markets have picked on the eurozone with increasing ferocity. In moments of bemused irritation, weary European policy-makers often complain about the baneful influence and biases of the Anglo-Saxon media, or the stubborn irrationality of financial markets. They would do better to reflect on why the eurozone faces an existential crisis while the US does not. The answer is that the two are very different monetary unions.

To start with, the eurozone is a much more decentralised monetary union than the US. The eurozone has no federal budget to speak of. Its closest proxy, the EU budget, is miniscule by comparison (at just 1 per cent of GDP) and cannot in any case go into deficit. Transfer payments are paid out of the EU budget, but these are not, strictly, welfare-related (the main recipients are special interest groups such as farmers). For all intents and purposes, the euro is a currency shared by fiscally independent countries. The upshot is that many things which happen at federal level in the US – deficit-financing, debt issuance, welfare payments, bank deposit protection, and so on – take place at national level in the eurozone.

Sitting atop the eurozone’s fiscally decentralised structure is a central bank which (for political, doctrinal and other reasons) is a more cautious institution than the US Federal Reserve, with a narrower understanding of its function. The European Central Bank (ECB) was deliberately designed as a successor to the German Bundesbank. The result is that it is more inflation-averse than the US Fed, and more reluctant to practice anything that might smack of ‘monetary financing’ (like acting as a lender of last resort to governments). In extremis, the ECB has implemented government bond purchase programmes. However, it has done so half-heartedly, and has always made a point of advertising its aversion to doing so.

So the US is a fully-fledged federation with a relatively flexible central bank, while the eurozone is a fiscally decentralised confederation with a conservative and limited purpose central bank. These differences are critical to understanding why the eurozone is the focus of market turmoil and the US is not. The crux is that the eurozone’s constituents interact very differently with each other than do those of the US: Germany does not stand in relation to Spain the way that Texas does to New Jersey, or eurozone countries in relation to the ECB the way that US states do to the Fed. The structure of the eurozone creates a whole host of problems that do not arise in a fully-fledged federation such as the US. Consider just three.

First, because they do not monopolise control of the currency in which they issue their debt, some countries are treated as if they have issued it in a foreign currency: this explains why Spain is paying 5 percentage points more than the UK to issue 10-year debt, even though its public finances are in no worse shape. Second, unlike the US, the eurozone lacks a joint fiscal backstop to the banking sector: this is why Ireland was plunged into a sovereign debt crisis, but the state of Delaware (where AIG is incorporated) was not. Third, banks and individual states interact differently: in the US, confidence in banks is not affected by the fiscal position of the state in which they are incorporated, but in the eurozone it is.

The eurozone’s structure, therefore, makes it a more fragile monetary union than the US. As a fiscally decentralised monetary union, it is vulnerable to the emergence of vicious ‘death spirals’ in some of its members. These spirals are driven by negative feed-back loops, in which worries about bank and sovereign solvency feed on and amplify each other. So far, eurozone policy-makers have done nothing to fix the structure that gives rise to these deadly spirals. Instead, they have preserved the structure, but made it more rigid. The eurozone remains a fiscally decentralised currency bloc, with a Germanic central bank. The only change is that member-states are now subject to tighter (and more pro-cyclical) fiscal rules.

The German government does not accept that the eurozone is institutionally flawed. It argues that the cause of the crisis is overwhelmingly behavioural, not institutional. The road to salvation is not to deepen integration by establishing a common bank deposit protection scheme or issuing debt jointly (which would increase moral hazard). It is to stop errant conduct. Ever since the crisis broke out, the German mantra has been fiscal consolidation and structural reforms. The underlying assumption is that the eurozone will be fine if it can turn itself economically into a larger version of Germany: countries that consolidate their public finances and reform their economies will end up with German borrowing costs.

It is not hard to see why many Germans find this account so compelling. It speaks to the very real sacrifices that many have made in recent years (for the past decade, German workers’ wages have barely increased in real terms). It suggests that the eurozone need not become the ‘transfer union’ of German nightmares. And it is supported by undeniable evidence of turpitude elsewhere: there is no doubt that Greece mismanaged its public finances, or that countries in southern Europe (and elsewhere) did too little to reform their economies. But what the German narrative does not explain is why the eurozone has proved so much less stable than the US, even though some of its underlying problems are no worse.

The extreme polarisation of government bond yields inside the eurozone does not represent a vote of confidence in the German economy, but a total loss of confidence in the very future of the eurozone. What the financial markets have cottoned on to is the fact that the euro is a post-national currency shared by countries that remain more attached to their fiscal sovereignty than they care to admit. The problem, in other words, is not financial, but political. The eurozone does not need financial assistance from China (or anyone else). It needs its leaders to do something that few have a democratic mandate to do – that is, pool their fiscal resources. Financial markets, for their part, are simply drawing their own conclusions.

Philip Whyte is a senior research fellow at the Centre for European Reform.