The crisis gripping Europe reflects a much larger problem: The world’s policy makers have fundamentally opposing views of how to manage their currencies and economies. Unfortunately, there’s no happy solution.
Let’s examine the ideologies. In the U.S., the dominant crisis narrative is that authorities faced a once-in-a-hundred-years storm in the financial panic of 2008. The only proper response, then, was for the Federal Reserve to provide unlimited funds until confidence returned and longer-term solutions were possible. Many Americans apply this lens to Europe, and conclude that the European Central Bank must similarly print money to solve its crisis now.
Germans, together with many emerging-market policy makers, see a very different narrative. To them, the crisis is the result of governments repeatedly building up debts in response to economic slowdowns -- the same explanation U.S. authorities offered for emerging-market crises in the late 1990s. They might further note that the U.S. hasn’t used the time bought with the Fed’s largess to address underlying problems, such as the sorry state of public finances.
These poles reflect deeply held beliefs, not intellectual or moral failures, as those on opposite sides of the divide appear to think. There’s no objective truth. Nobody really knows how much debt the U.S. and the euro area, which issue the world’s two leading reserve currencies, can bear. It’s also unclear how much inflation the citizens of advanced nations will tolerate before they lose faith in their currencies. As the U.S. and Europe test new limits, we may soon find out.
Consider monetary policy. Many in the U.S. believe the Fed can expand its balance sheet indefinitely, if necessary. They rightly point out that investors pile into the haven of dollars and U.S. Treasury bonds in times of crisis, and that this revealed preference suggests the dollar’s reserve-currency status is unassailable. Given the experience of the Great Depression of the 1930s and the stagflation of the 1970s, they reasonably conclude that bank runs should be treated with limitless liquidity, and that inflation can ultimately be resolved.
Germans draw their beliefs from a darker history. Between the two world wars, central-bank financing of government deficits fueled the hyperinflation that helped bring down the Weimar Republic and set the stage for the rise of Nazism. Many emerging markets have also learned painful lessons about what can happen when central banks become perceived as primarily lenders to government and enablers of fiscal incontinence. Their response to the American line is that if the fiscal and monetary authorities don’t establish credibility, suffering a bout of austerity may be far less bad than social breakdown. Not surprisingly, the charter of Germany’s Bundesbank forbids lending to government.
Can these differences be reconciled? One seeming compromise -- which will probably be proposed if the world faces another period of systemic risk -- is to invoke a new global reserve currency, namely the International Monetary Fund’s so-called Special Drawing Rights. If the IMF had the ability to issue unlimited SDRs, it could boost the reserves of central banks at will.
Such a move, though, would probably face opposition from the German side of the ideological divide, which would view it as yet another attempt to finance profligacy with funny money.
This suggests a second option will arise: to create some global standard to which the value of individual currencies can be tethered. Central banks would guarantee their currencies’ value in gold, or against a basket of commodities. People with backgrounds in emerging markets would recognize such a commodity standard as essentially identical to a currency board, in which a central bank guarantees the exchange rate of its currency against that of a reserve currency. Currency boards tend to come about when people lose confidence in the fiscal and monetary authorities, almost always as a result of permanent monetization of government debt. Sound familiar?
For policy makers who see the SDR as an answer, the recent European experience offers a cautionary tale. The European Financial Stability Facility represents an attempt to create a new balance sheet to bail out governments. Doing so in a crisis hasn’t worked out well, as the troubles of financially weak states have infected the stronger ones. This is why China, like Germany, is reluctant to become a backstop for Europe. Once that happens, every new “crisis” will drag them in deeper, increasing the likelihood of contagion.
In the short term, the probable outcome is a continued policy muddle. Some central banks will follow the Fed’s example and keep expanding their balance sheets, while others will try to hold the line, like the ECB. To prevent the effects of such opposing policies from leaking across borders, countries might start to employ capital controls.
If the sides ever do agree on a single new architecture, it will probably happen in one of two bad ways. Financially strong countries, such as China and Germany, may become so infected by the weaker countries that the attractiveness of printing money overwhelms ideological constraints. Alternatively, the financially weak nations might give in to demands for austerity and tough choices.
In the final analysis, either option will be painful.
(Eric Fine is a managing director at Van Eck Global. He manages accounts that have positions in the sovereign and corporate debt of various countries, including a net short position in European sovereign debt. The opinions expressed are his own.)
To contact the writer of this story: Eric Fine at EFine@vaneck.com
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