This article was first published on the Stratfor website. Stratfor is the world’s leading online publisher of geopolitical intelligence.
Rumors of the imminent collapse of the eurozone continue to swirl despite the Europeans’ best efforts to hold the currency union together. Some accounts in the financial world have even suggested that Germany’s frustration with the crisis could cause Berlin to quit the eurozone — as soon as this past weekend, according to some — while at the most recent gathering of European leaders French President Nicolas Sarkozy apparently threatened to bolt the bloc if Berlin did not help Greece. Meanwhile, many in Germany — including Chancellor Angela Merkel herself at one point — have called for the creation of a mechanism by which Greece — or the eurozone’s other over-indebted, uncompetitive economies — could be kicked out of the eurozone in the future should they not mend their “irresponsible” spending habits.
Rumors, hints, threats, suggestions and information “from well-placed sources” all seem to point to the hot topic in Europe at the moment, namely, the reconstitution of the eurozone whether by a German exit or a Greek expulsion. We turn to this topic with the question of whether such an option even exists.
The Geography of the European Monetary Union
As we consider the future of the euro, it is important to remember that the economic underpinnings of paper money are not nearly as important as the political underpinnings. Paper currencies in use throughout the world today hold no value without the underlying political decision to make them the legal tender of commercial activity. This means a government must be willing and capable enough to enforce the currency as a legal form of debt settlement, and refusal to accept paper currency is, within limitations, punishable by law.
The trouble with the euro is that it attempts to overlay a monetary dynamic on a geography that does not necessarily lend itself to a single economic or political “space.” The eurozone has a single central bank, the European Central Bank (ECB), and therefore has only one monetary policy, regardless of whether one is located in Northern or Southern Europe. Herein lies the fundamental geographic problem of the euro.
Europe is the second-smallest continent on the planet but has the second-largest number of states packed into its territory. This is not a coincidence. Europe’s multitude of peninsulas, large islands and mountain chains create the geographic conditions that often allow even the weakest political authority to persist. Thus, the Montenegrins have held out against the Ottomans, just as the Irish have against the English.
Despite this patchwork of political authorities, the Continent’s plentiful navigable rivers, large bays and serrated coastlines enable the easy movement of goods and ideas across Europe. This encourages the accumulation of capital due to the low costs of transport while simultaneously encouraging the rapid spread of technological advances, which has allowed the various European states to become astonishingly rich: Five of the top 10 world economies hail from the Continent despite their relatively small populations.
Europe’s network of rivers and seas are not integrated via a single dominant river or sea network, however, meaning capital generation occurs in small, sequestered economic centers. To this day, and despite significant political and economic integration, there is no European New York. In Europe’s case, the Danube has Vienna, the Po has Milan, the Baltic Sea has Stockholm, the Rhineland has both Amsterdam and Frankfurt and the Thames has London. This system of multiple capital centers is then overlaid on Europe’s states, which jealously guard control over their capital and, by extension, their banking systems.
Despite a multitude of different centers of economic — and by extension, political — power, some states, due to geography, are unable to access any capital centers of their own. Much of the Club Med states are geographically disadvantaged. Aside from the Po Valley of northern Italy — and to an extent the Rhone — southern Europe lacks a single river useful for commerce. Consequently, Northern Europe is more urban, industrial and technocratic while Southern Europe tends to be more rural, agricultural and capital-poor.
Introducing the Euro
Given the barrage of economic volatility and challenges the eurozone has confronted in recent quarters and the challenges presented by housing such divergent geography and history under one monetary roof, it is easy to forget why the eurozone was originally formed.
The Cold War made the European Union possible. For centuries, Europe was home to feuding empires and states. After World War II, it became the home of devastated peoples whose security was the responsibility of the United States. Through the Bretton Woods agreement, the United States crafted an economic grouping that regenerated Western Europe’s economic fortunes under a security rubric that Washington firmly controlled. Freed of security competition, the Europeans not only were free to pursue economic growth, they also enjoyed nearly unlimited access to the American market to fuel that growth. Economic integration within Europe to maximize these opportunities made perfect sense. The United States encouraged the economic and political integration because it gave a political underpinning to a security alliance it imposed on Europe, i.e., NATO. Thus, the European Economic Community — the predecessor to today’s European Union — was born.
When the United States abandoned the gold standard in 1971 (for reasons largely unconnected to things European), Washington essentially abrogated the Bretton Woods currency pegs that went with it. One result was a European panic. Floating currencies raised the inevitability of currency competition among the European states, the exact sort of competition that contributed to the Great Depression 40 years earlier. Almost immediately, the need to limit that competition sharpened, first with currency coordination efforts still concentrating on the U.S. dollar and then from 1979 on with efforts focused on the deutschmark. The specter of a unified Germany in 1989 further invigorated economic integration. The euro was in large part an attempt to give Berlin the necessary incentives so that it would not depart the EU project.
But to get Berlin on board with the idea of sharing its currency with the rest of Europe, the eurozone was modeled after the Bundesbank and its deutschmark. To join the eurozone, a country must abide by rigorous “convergence criteria” designed to synchronize the economy of the acceding country with Germany’s economy. The criteria include a budget deficit of less than 3 percent of gross domestic product (GDP); government debt levels of less than 60 percent of GDP; annual inflation no higher than 1.5 percentage points above the average of the lowest three members’ annual inflation; and a two-year trial period during which the acceding country’s national currency must float within a plus-or-minus 15 percent currency band against the euro.
As cracks have begun to show in both the political and economic support for the eurozone, however, it is clear that the convergence criteria failed to overcome divergent geography and history. Greece’s violations of the Growth and Stability Pact are clearly the most egregious, but essentially all eurozone members — including France and Germany, which helped draft the rules — have contravened the rules from the very beginning.
Mechanics of a Euro Exit
The EU treaties as presently constituted contractually obligate every EU member state — except Denmark and the United Kingdom, which negotiated opt-outs — to become a eurozone member state at some point. Forcible expulsion or self-imposed exit is technically illegal, or at best would require the approval of all 27 member states (never mind the question about why a troubled eurozone member would approve its own expulsion). Even if it could be managed, surely there are current and soon-to-be eurozone members that would be wary of establishing such a precedent, especially when their fiscal situation could soon be similar to Athens’ situation.
One creative option making the rounds would allow the European Union to technically expel members without breaking the treaties. It would involve setting up a new European Union without the offending state (say, Greece) and establishing within the new institutions a new eurozone as well. Such manipulations would not necessarily destroy the existing European Union; its major members would “simply” recreate the institutions without the member they do not much care for.
Though creative, the proposed solution it is still rife with problems. In such a reduced eurozone, Germany would hold undisputed power, something the rest of Europe might not exactly embrace. If France and the Benelux countries reconstituted the eurozone with Berlin, Germany’s economy would go from constituting 26.8 percent of eurozone version 1.0’s overall output to 45.6 percent of eurozone version 2.0’s overall output. Even states that would be expressly excluded would be able to get in a devastating parting shot: The southern European economies could simply default on any debt held by entities within the countries of the new eurozone.
With these political issues and complications in mind, we turn to the two scenarios of eurozone reconstitution that have garnered the most attention in the media.
Scenario 1: Germany Reinstitutes the Deutschmark
The option of leaving the eurozone for Germany boils down to the potential liabilities that Berlin would be on the hook for if Portugal, Spain, Italy and Ireland followed Greece down the default path. As Germany prepares itself to vote on its 123 billion euro contribution to the 750 billion euro financial aid mechanism for the eurozone — which sits on top of the 23 billion euros it already approved for Athens alone — the question of whether “it is all worth it” must be on top of every German policymaker’s mind.
This is especially the case as political opposition to the bailout mounts among German voters and Merkel’s coalition partners and political allies. In the latest polls, 47 percent of Germans favor adopting the deutschmark. Furthermore, Merkel’s governing coalition lost a crucial state-level election May 9 in a sign of mounting dissatisfaction with her Christian Democratic Union and its coalition ally, the Free Democratic Party. Even though the governing coalition managed to push through the Greek bailout, there are now serious doubts that Merkel will be able to do the same with the eurozone-wide mechanism May 21.
Germany would therefore not be leaving the eurozone to save its economy or extricate itself from its own debts, but rather to avoid the financial burden of supporting the Club Med economies and their ability to service their 3 trillion euro mountain of debt. At some point, Germany may decide to cut its losses — potentially as much as 500 billion euros, which is the approximate exposure of German banks to Club Med debt — and decide that further bailouts are just throwing money into a bottomless pit. Furthermore, while Germany could always simply rely on the ECB to break all of its rules and begin the policy of purchasing the debt of troubled eurozone governments with newly created money (“quantitative easing”), that in itself would also constitute a bailout. The rest of the eurozone, including Germany, would be paying for it through the weakening of the euro.
Were this moment to dawn on Germany it would have to mean that the situation had deteriorated significantly. As STRATFOR has recently argued, the eurozone provides Germany with considerable economic benefits. Its neighbors are unable to undercut German exports with currency depreciation, and German exports have in turn gained in terms of overall eurozone exports on both the global and eurozone markets. Since euro adoption, unit labor costs in Club Med have increased relative to Germany’s by approximately 25 percent, further entrenching Germany’s competitive edge.
Before Germany could again use the deutschmark, Germany would first have to reinstate its central bank (the Bundesbank), withdraw its reserves from the ECB, print its own currency and then re-denominate the country’s assets and liabilities in deutschmarks. While it would not necessarily be a smooth or easy process, Germany could reintroduce its national currency with far more ease than other eurozone members could.
The deutschmark had a well-established reputation for being a store of value, as the renowned Bundesbank directed Germany’s monetary policy. If Germany were to reintroduce its national currency, it is highly unlikely that Europeans would believe that Germany had forgotten how to run a central bank — Germany’s institutional memory would return quickly, re-establishing the credibility of both the Bundesbank and, by extension, the deutschmark.
As Germany would be replacing a weaker and weakening currency with a stronger and more stable one, if market participants did not simply welcome the exchange, they would be substantially less resistant to the change than what could be expected in other eurozone countries. Germany would therefore not necessarily have to resort to militant crackdowns on capital flows to halt capital trying to escape conversion.
Germany would probably also be able to re-denominate all its debts in the deutschmark via bond swaps. Market participants would accept this exchange because they would probably have far more faith in a deutschmark backed by Germany than in a euro backed by the remaining eurozone member states.
Reinstituting the deutschmark would still be an imperfect process, however, and there would likely be some collateral damage, particularly to Germany’s financial sector. German banks own much of the debt issued by Club Med, which would likely default on repayment in the event Germany parted with the euro. If it reached the point that Germany was going to break with the eurozone, those losses would likely pale in comparison to the costs — be they economic or political — of remaining within the eurozone and financially supporting its continued existence.
Scenario 2: Greece Leaves the Euro
If Athens were able to control its monetary policy, it would ostensibly be able to “solve” the two major problems currently plaguing the Greek economy.
First, Athens could ease its financing problems substantially. The Greek central bank could print money and purchase government debt, bypassing the credit markets. Second, reintroducing its currency would allow Athens to then devalue it, which would stimulate external demand for Greek exports and spur economic growth. This would obviate the need to undergo painful “internal devaluation” via austerity measures that the Greeks have been forced to impose as a condition for their bailout by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the EU.
If Athens were to reinstitute its national currency with the goal of being able to control monetary policy, however, the government would first have to get its national currency circulating (a necessary condition for devaluation).
The first practical problem is that no one is going to want this new currency, principally because it would be clear that the government would only be reintroducing it to devalue it. Unlike during the Eurozone accession process — where participation was motivated by the actual and perceived benefits of adopting a strong/stable currency and receiving lower interest rates, new funds and the ability to transact in many more places — “de-euroizing” offers no such incentives for market participants:
- The drachma would not be a store of value, given that the objective in reintroducing it is to reduce its value.
- The drachma would likely only be accepted within Greece, and even there it would not be accepted everywhere — a condition likely to persist for some time.
- Reinstituting the drachma unilaterally would likely see Greece cast out of the eurozone, and therefore also the European Union as per rules explained above.
The government would essentially be asking investors and its own population to sign a social contract that the government clearly intends to abrogate in the future, if not immediately once it is able to. Therefore, the only way to get the currency circulating would be by force.
The goal would not be to convert every euro-denominated asset into drachmas but rather to get a sufficiently large chunk of the assets so that the government could jumpstart the drachma’s circulation. To be done effectively, the government would want to minimize the amount of money that could escape conversion by either being withdrawn or transferred into asset classes easy to conceal from discovery and appropriation. This would require capital controls and shutting down banks and likely also physical force to prevent even more chaos on the streets of Athens than seen at present. Once the money was locked down, the government would then forcibly convert banks’ holdings by literally replacing banks’ holdings with a similar amount in the national currency. Greeks could then only withdraw their funds in newly issued drachmas that the government gave the banks to service those requests. At the same time, all government spending/payments would be made in the national currency, boosting circulation. The government also would have to show willingness to prosecute anyone using euros on the black market, lest the newly instituted drachma become completely worthless.
Since nobody save the government would want to do this, at the first hint that the government would be moving in this direction, the first thing the Greeks will want to do is withdraw all funds from any institution where their wealth would be at risk. Similarly, the first thing that investors would do — and remember that Greece is as capital-poor as Germany is capital-rich — is cut all exposure. This would require that the forcible conversion be coordinated and definitive, and most important, it would need to be as unexpected as possible.
Realistically, the only way to make this transition without completely unhinging the Greek economy and shredding Greece’s social fabric would be to coordinate with organizations that could provide assistance and oversight. If the IMF, ECB or eurozone member states were to coordinate the transition period and perhaps provide some backing for the national currency’s value during that transition period, the chances of a less-than-completely-disruptive transition would increase.
It is difficult to imagine circumstances under which such support would not dwarf the 110 billion euro bailout already on the table. For if Europe’s populations are so resistant to the Greek bailout now, what would they think about their governments assuming even more risk by propping up a former eurozone country’s entire financial system so that the country could escape its debt responsibilities to the rest of the eurozone?
The European Dilemma
Europe therefore finds itself being tied in a Gordian knot. On one hand, the Continent’s geography presents a number of incongruities that cannot be overcome without a Herculean (and politically unpalatable) effort on the part of Southern Europe and (equally unpopular) accommodation on the part of Northern Europe. On the other hand, the cost of exit from the eurozone — particularly at a time of global financial calamity, when the move would be in danger of precipitating an even greater crisis — is daunting to say the least.
The resulting conundrum is one in which reconstitution of the eurozone may make sense at some point down the line. But the interlinked web of economic, political, legal and institutional relationships makes this nearly impossible. The cost of exit is prohibitively high, regardless of whether it makes sense.
Marko Papic, Robert Reinfrank and Peter Zeihan are Stratfor analysts