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Nobel Economics Prizewinner Paul Krugman on “The Euro Trap”

On Monday May 3rd, the Irish Times carried an article by Nobel Economics Prizewinner Paul Krugman on “The Euro Trap”. Its main contention was that the euro-realists and euro-sceptics who had warned against the dangers of abolishing national currencies to form an EU currency union were being proved right by current events.

The austerity being imposed on Greece so that it can repay what it owes to German, French and other banks could be alleviated if Greece had its own drachma to devalue, thus helping to restore its economic competitiveness and enabling its government to use its own money to encourage domestic demand. Exactly the same point is true of Ireland.

This article was first carried as an op-ed piece in the New York Times last week. Since then Krugman has written the following related pieces on his blog, which may be of interest.

The Conscience of a Liberal
Paul Krugman
Tuesday 4 May 2010
Default, Devaluation, Or What?

Is there anything more to say about Greece? Actually, I think so.

Observers like Charles Wyplosz, who point out that the adjustment being demanded of Greece is extraordinary and hard to see happening, are right. And yet .. one thing I haven’t seen pointed out sufficiently is that a debt restructuring, or even a complete cessation of debt service, wouldn’t do all that much to ease the burden.

Consider what Greece would get if it simply stopped paying any interest or principal on its debt. All it would have to do then is run a zero primary deficit – taking in as much in taxes as it spends on things other than interest on its debt. But here’s the thing: Greece is currently running a huge primary deficit – 8.5 percent of GDP in 2009. So even a complete debt default wouldn’t save Greece from the necessity of savage fiscal austerity.

It follows, then, that a debt restructuring wouldn’t help all that much – not unless you believe that getting forgiveness on much of Greece’s existing debt would make it possible to take on substantial new debt, which doesn’t seem very likely.

The point is that the only way to seriously reduce Greek pain would be to find a way to limit the costs of fiscal austerity to the Greek economy. And debt restructuring wouldn’t do that.

Devaluation would, if you could pull it off. I see that Vox has reposted the classic Eichengreen paper on why you can’t. I’ve already written that this argument, which I found extremely persuasive when first made, now seems to me less than watertight. But let me be a little more specific.

The way things are going, it looks quite possible that Greece will spiral into domestic as well as debt crisis, and be forced to take emergency measures. And that makes me think of Argentina in 2001. At the time, Argentina had the convertibility law, supposedly permanently pegging the peso to the dollar – and that was supposed to be irreversible for the same reasons the euro is supposed to be irreversible now. Namely, to repeal the law would require extensive legislative discussion, and any such discussion would set off destructive bank runs, hence there was no way to undo the fixed exchange rate.

But by late 2001 Argentina was a mess, with many emergency measures in place in an effort to contain the situation. These included the corralito, severe restrictions on bank withdrawals to contain bank runs – and one unintended consequence of all this was that the bank runs argument against suspending convertibility became moot.

Is it really impossible to see something similar happening in Greece? And if it does, might not other countries’ membership in the eurozone be called into question?

The Conscience of a Liberal
Paul Krugman
Saturday 1 May 2010
Why Devalue?

As the debate over possible departures from the euro heats up, there seems to a lot of confusion over the possible uses of devaluation. The main argument I’m hearing goes like this: since Greece’s debt is in euros, devaluing won’t relieve the debt burden – so it won’t help.

But that’s missing the point. True, devaluation wouldn’t reduce the debt burden. But it would reduce the macroeconomic costs of fiscal austerity.

Think for a moment about Greece’s predicament now, even if it were to default on its debt. It’s running a huge primary deficit, so even if it were to stop paying any debt service it would be forced to slash spending and/or raise taxes, to the tune of 8 or 9 percent of GDP.

This would have a massively contractionary effect on the Greek economy, leading to a surge in unemployment (and a further fall in revenues, making even more belt-tightening necessary).

Now, if Greece had its own currency, it could try to offset this contraction with an expansionary monetary policy – including a devaluation to gain export competitiveness. As long as it’s in the euro, however, Greece can do nothing to limit the macroeconomic costs of fiscal contraction.

And that’s why a devaluation would help – it wouldn’t reduce the need for fiscal adjustment, but it would reduce the costs associated with fiscal adjustment. As I argued yesterday, this difference is an important reason why Britain, with a primary deficit as large as Greece’s, isn’t in anything like the same amount of trouble.

Or to put it another way, exchange rate flexibility doesn’t solve fiscal problems by itself – but it makes solving such problems much easier.

“The Euro Trap”
Paul Krugman
New York Times, Thursday 29 April; reproduced in the Irish Times, Monday 3 May

Right now everyone is focused on public debt, which can make it seem as if this is a simple story of governments that couldn’t control their spending. But that’s only part of the story for Greece, much less for Portugal, and not at all the story for Spain.

The fact is that three years ago none of the countries now in or near crisis seemed to be in deep fiscal trouble. […] And all of the countries were attracting large inflows of foreign capital, largely because markets believed that membership in the euro zone made Greek, Portuguese and Spanish bonds safe investments.

Then came the global financial crisis. Those inflows of capital dried up; revenues plunged and deficits soared; and membership in the euro, which had encouraged markets to love the crisis countries not wisely but too well, turned into a trap.

What’s the nature of the trap? During the years of easy money, wages and prices in the crisis countries rose much faster than in the rest of Europe. Now that the money is no longer rolling in, those countries need to get costs back in line.

But that’s a much harder thing to do now than it was when each European nation had its own currency.

Back then, costs could be brought in line by adjusting exchange rates … Now that Greece and Germany share the same currency … the only way to reduce Greek relative costs is through some combination of German inflation and Greek deflation. And since Germany won’t accept inflation, deflation it is.

The problem is that deflation – falling wages and prices – is always and everywhere a deeply painful process. It invariably involves a prolonged slump with high unemployment. And it also aggravates debt problems, both public and private, because incomes fall while the debt burden doesn’t.


All this is exactly what the euro-sceptics feared. Giving up the ability to adjust exchange rates, they warned, would invite future crises. And it has.

So what will happen to the euro? Until recently, most analysts, myself included, considered a euro breakup basically impossible … But if the crisis countries are forced into default, they’ll probably face severe bank runs anyway, forcing them into emergency measures like temporary restrictions on bank withdrawals. This would open the door to euro exit.

So is the euro itself in danger? In a word, yes. If European leaders don’t start acting much more forcefully, providing Greece with enough help … a chain reaction that starts with a Greek default and ends up wreaking much wider havoc looks all too possible.

[…] What the crisis really demonstrates, however, is the dangers of putting yourself in a policy straitjacket. When they joined the euro, the governments of Greece, Portugal and Spain denied themselves the ability to do some bad things, like printing too much money; but they also denied themselves the ability to respond flexibly to events.

And when crisis strikes, governments need to be able to act. That’s what the architects of the euro forgot […]

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