Italy and the Eurozone

John Kay had an article in the Financial Times earlier in the week, and this seems to have caused quite a ripple around the blogsphere (Eurozone Watch, Economonitor, Claus Vistesen at Alpha Sources). The article was about whether or not it was technically possible for Italy to leave the Eurozone. (Update: Sebastian has a fresh post over at Eurozone Watch Blog continuing the discussion).

John Kay’s conclusion, and it is supported by a very reasoned commentary by Sebastien Dullien at Eurozone Watch Blog (welcome Sebastain and Daniela), is that there is no in-principle technical difficulty in exit. The most authoritative piece of work on this topic that I know of comes from Harvard International financial law specialist Hal Scott. The paper was written back in 1998, and was provocatively entitled “When the Euro Falls Apart“. Despite the title the paper is a tightly reasoned piece of work whose main conclusion is that not only is euro-exit technically perfectly feasibe, in fact the mechanisms which would make this possible were incorporated from the start (in particular keeping independent central banks with their own reserves). I think those who were able to think clearly back then – and were able to use some emotional intelligence – were always aware that there were question marks over Italy’s ability to go the distance.

So the problem is not a technical one. But as John Kay indicates it *is* a political one:
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In Lira, or in Euros?

Even if it is a debatable question whether or not the Iraq war is bogged down in a quagmire, Italy’s economy evidently is. And no-one has even gotten round to offering a plan ‘b’, not even Tony Blair himself. So the silence is deafening, and this simply leads to increased speculation. Berlusconi only pronounced publicy on the issue last Tuesday, nearly three weeks after Maroni’s referendum call. Latest on the list of those taking a long hard look is Bloomberg’s Mark Gilbert, who has dug out an old paper by legal expert on international financial systems Hal Scott.

The key points:

“Countries have kept their own payment systems, government debt instruments, central banks, and the lion’s share of their foreign-exchange reserves,” wrote Hal Scott, professor of international financial systems at Harvard Law School, in a 1998 paper. “It is almost as if the EMU countries have hedged their bets on EMU by retaining the key institutions needed to re- establish their own currency and monetary policies if need be.”

Scott’s paper, titled “When the Euro Falls Apart,” went on to ask “would foreign law, if applicable, such as the law of the U.S. or Germany, enforce the re-denomination or provide instead that the contracts must be honored in euros or are breached if not honored in euros? This is far from clear given the lack of precedents.”
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When You’re Done You’re Done

You know I’m sure most of you think my constant references to Argentina in the context of Italy’s economic problems is troubling, possibly even irritating. You may well be right. I have to say that I followed Argentina steadily from 1998, waiting to see the inevitable happen. The principal problem was, lets be clear, the 1:1 dollar peg. This was the epoch of the internet/ICT boom, and a rapidly rising dollar. It’s not clear to me at all that had Argentina pegged to the dollar in 2002 it would have had the same problems so quickly. One of the problems with being attached to a rapidly rising currency is that your imports get cheaper, and your exports dearer.

Now for an apochryphal story. Late in the crisis, before the geyser finally blew, back in early December 2001, a friend of mine visited Argentina. Seeing some nice shoes in a shop window he entered the shop (you will remember Argentina was famous for its leather products: all those cows). On asking where the leather came from, he was informed ‘it’s from Brazil, Argentinian leather is too expensive’. One month later it was all over bar the shouting. Well…..
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