The Perrenial Euro Story (or lack of it)

Brad Setser has a post, the perrenial dollar story, which IMHO, has one large and significant ommission: it doesn’t really mention the euro. Personally I don’t really see how you can consider the future evolution of the dollar without taking the euro into account. This realisation provoked a rather long comment from me on Brad’s blog, and it is this comment, in a slightly modifed form, that I am now posting here. (Update: incidentally, I notice that Claus Vistessen has two highly relevant summaries of the great greenback debate (here, and here) which. among other things, serve as an excellent introdiction to the issues involved).

In reponse to a Bloggin Wall Street post which suggests that “folks who worry about the trade deficit are in denial”, Brad hits back with:

“My answer: trade deficits can be a signal of future trouble. Can be. This is different than always are. ”

I think Brad is, as they say ‘flexibilising his argument’. I welcome this and absolutely agree with him.

In fact I would put it this way: imbalances, including trade imbalances, which have no obvious and direct automatic stabilisers to put to work to resolve them, are *normally* a sign of trouble to come in the future. It’s just that, following Keynes, the term structure is the key: we need to distinguish here between the long and the short run.

Now according to Brad those who are not in ‘the US trade deficit matters’ camp tend to argue:

Either “the trade deficit is a sign of US strength, so it doesn’t matter”

Or “the trade deficit is not as bad as it seems”.

Well I can think of a third option (at least), and this would be:

The US trade deficit is in fact worse than it seems, but there is no easy way to correct it, and any significant attempt to correct it from inside the US would cause a lot more pain ex-US than it would cause inside, ie the correction would be, global speaking, non-optimal.

That is, more or less, what I feel. But then I am not in the US :).

I think the comparisons of individual and collective indebtedness (which Brad examines at some length) do have a certain validity, but, as in any debt calculation, it all depends what multiples of present GDP per capita you estimate for the US 20-30 years from now, and what multiples you expect for the ‘rest of the world’. If the US values exceed the ‘rest of the world’ ones, then the indebtedness could indeed be a rational response, if you don’t (and I’m inclined not to, especially with big players like China and India around) then of course……..

The problem here is that it is the Bretton Woods system itself (either in its version 1.0 or its version 2.0) which is a little short of the necessary automatic stabilisers. The natural support points should be the euro or the Japanese yen, but for other reasons, both of these are currently ‘missing’, and so the system itself cannot correct.

Something similar is actually happening inside the euro system itself: let me explain.

Let’s take Spain as a good mini example. Spain has a shocking housing bubble. Arguably the worst on the planet. Spain also has a whopping trade deficit, and extraoradinarily high (and rapidly rising) rates of private indebtedness coupled with very little saving.

The reason is obvious: Spain has a circa 4% inflation rate, and a 2.25% ECB-set base interest rate. This means that people can contract 40 to 50 year mortgages, on an initial interest-only basis, for anything from 3%.

Now not borrowing at 3% when inflation is at 4% just doesn’t seem rational, so most people do.

Thanks to the euro system Spain is effectively spending German savings (in the same way the US is spending Chinese savings).

Can Spain correct? Well it has no control over its virtual exchange rate (the virtual pesseta) since it is pegged to the euro, so it can’t do much about the trade deficit, and it has no control over the interest rate since this is set in Frankfurt, so it can’t do much about the housing bubble.

How long will this ridiculous situation continue? I really don’t know. There is no obvious reason why it needs to end anytime soon. What will happen when it does all come to an end? Again I don’t know, but one can imagine it won’t be anything too nice.

Now really I think this analogy can be applied directly to the US and its role in the global currency markets (via Bretton Woods I and II) and its limited control over its own interest rates (read here the yield inversion) which is at least in part a consequence of globalisation and the financial ‘big bang’ of the late 80s.

So what can’t be happening in fact is, and continues, and will continue until it really can’t any more. I imagine that this end-state will be reached when India and China are fit-enough and strong-enough to take the strain.

Finally a quick word in closing on a recent argument from Marty Feldstein. (New Economist also covers it here).

Brad understandably says:

“It is nice to have some of the arguments I have made backed by someone on the short-list to replace Alan Greenspan.”

Well I could also say the same about my arguments about the euro (or rather Marty Feldstein’s arguments about the euroand here, and here). Indeed, I could go further, and say (if you look carefully at the arguments Bernanke actually puts in euro at five ) “It is nice to have some of the arguments I have made backed by someone on the short-list to replace Alan Greenspan, and by the person who has actually replaced him”.

Feldstein’s view in the linked article is puzzling, since, regardless of whether or not you think the dollar is about to fall, one of the considerations in your judgement should also be your appreciation of whether the euro is up to the task which would fall to it, and indeed whether euro denominated government paper is any way an attractive alternative to US government paper. Since Feldstein has perhaps been one of the most outspoken critics of the euro, you can certainly accuse him of not being exactly ‘consequentialist’ here.

Bernanke is much more ‘subtle’ in his ‘euro at five’ article than he was on the global savings glut issue (where again, of course, he agrees with me, whoops, I agree with him).

Bernanke is the art of diplomacy, calling the introduction of the Euro a ‘remarkable technical achievement’. But if you read the fine print, he more or less agrees with Feldstein:

“Rather than pursuing the question of whether Europe is in fact an optimal currency area in Mundell’s sense, I think it is useful simply to recognize that the European experiment in economic and monetary union has not been motivated primarily by Mundellian factors. ………Political factors, rather than economic ones, have played the dominant role. ”

So, in any event, both Brad and I can have recourse to arguments from ‘authority’ here. Of course non of this makes any of these arguments right. Personally, rather than the US dollar, I would be watching Italian public debt.

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About Edward Hugh

Edward 'the bonobo is a Catalan economist of British extraction. After being born, brought-up and educated in the United Kingdom, Edward subsequently settled in Barcelona where he has now lived for over 15 years. As a consequence Edward considers himself to be "Catalan by adoption". He has also to some extent been "adopted by Catalonia", since throughout the current economic crisis he has been a constant voice on TV, radio and in the press arguing in favor of the need for some kind of internal devaluation if Spain wants to stay inside the Euro. By inclination he is a macro economist, but his obsession with trying to understand the economic impact of demographic changes has often taken him far from home, off and away from the more tranquil and placid pastures of the dismal science, into the bracken and thicket of demography, anthropology, biology, sociology and systems theory. All of which has lead him to ask himself whether Thomas Wolfe was not in fact right when he asserted that the fact of the matter is "you can never go home again".

3 thoughts on “The Perrenial Euro Story (or lack of it)

  1. Edward — I am continually amazed how you can see the tensions within the eurozone so clearly (spain’s current account deficit and the problem of adjsutment, italy looking ahead), but not the problems inside the US-China-Saudi-Arabia-Russia-India (ok, maybe not india) de facto dollar union, which has far less institutional support … there are solutions to growing (in my view) tensions inside the dollar zone that don’t hinge on the attractiveness of the euro. emerging markets could stop financing both the US and europe, for one. And one of the insights of game theory is that just because it is in everyone’s interest to cooperate to avoid the worst outcome, that doesn’t mean it will happen — tho so far BW 1.0 and 2.0 and 2.1 (with oil exporters) have been more stable than i would have expected, nothing guarantees that will continue.

    I enjoy our debates; hope you do to.

  2. “but not the problems inside the US-China-Saudi-Arabia-Russia-India (ok, maybe not india)”

    Good, I’m glad India came off the list, because while it is clear India has plenty of internal problems, globally I don’t see the big issues being too linked to India at present. On the others you mention, it’s not I don’t see problems (eg Russia, just look at any of my posts here, Russia is definitely IMHO THE major security issue facing the EU), my problem is that I see the phenomena, but I don’t see the mechanism, at least not beyond what I have already said.

    “And one of the insights of game theory is that just because it is in everyone’s interest to cooperate to avoid the worst outcome, that doesn’t mean it will happen”

    Of course, I couldn’t agree more. No issue here.

    “I enjoy our debates; hope you do to.”

    Yes of course. I think one of the interesting things about where we are at is that many people have part of the key to the problem, but only part. If we put all the parts together, we may get a more complete picture, that I think is what networking is about, and blogging is a form of networking. Collective brainpower is a geometric and not an arithmetic multiple of the size of the individual brains :).

  3. “I am continually amazed..”

    Actually, wasn’t it Aristotle himself who suggested that it was our sense of wonder (that things should be rather than not be, etc etc) which set us off on the highroad to philosophy. Obviously with this feeling of amazement you are already off to a good start :).

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