The PIGS Problem: Surprisingly Difficult to Cure

Damned with austerity, damned if they don’t. What lies ahead is unclear… except a shortage of bacon. 

Despite the insane number of crazy news stories that 2011 has thrown at us, the column inches devoted to the Eurozone Crisis have proven surprisingly resilient over the course of the year. How has the mess developed and why is it going to be so difficult to resolve? (I should note here that I am heavily indebted to Dr. Christopher Bowdler, a tutor at Oxford University, for his absolutely brilliant lecture notes on this topic which have provided me with most of the theory outlined here).

What’s the story so far?

Let’s start at the beginning. The Euro officially came into existence on 1st January 1999, with Greece joining the single currency in 2001. Concern over the size of certain member countries’ budget deficits started to develop in April 2009, with France, Greece, Ireland and Spain all ordered by the EU to reduce the size of their budget deficits. However, by December 2009 the Greek debt burden had risen to 113% of GDP. Not even a near miss of the Eurozone limit of a debt-to-GDP ratio of 60%. This led the ratings agencies, who give assets a grade depending on how ‘safe’ they are perceived to be, to start downgrading Greek debt.

Things were only to get worse. At the start of 2010, Greek accounting (ahem) “irregularities” were discovered, resulting in the size of their budget deficit being substantially upward revised, from 3.7% of GDP to 12.1%. This was almost four times the maximum allowed by EU rules. The market started to get really worried about the country’s ability to pay its debt. It wasn’t so confident about the other countries mentioned above either. This led to rising interest rates on these countries’ government debt as the perceived likelihood of their default grew (see my first post for more on the mechanism). The Eurozone and IMF intervened offering financial support and loans to Greece and Ireland, and also Portugal by May 2011, conditional on the implementation of austerity measures.

However, for Greece, it’s May 2010 110bn-euro package was still not sufficient to quell investor fears. This may have been due to the difficulty/slow speed at which Greece was implementing it’s announced fiscal tightening. Further speculation surrounding the long term viability of Greek membership of the Euro (or lack of it to be more precise) led to the need for further financial aid. In July 2011, a further 109bn-euro package was unveiled which was designed to (hopefully) resolve the Greek debt debacle and prevent the crisis from intensifying and spreading to other countries. This package included measures to increase the amount of time Greece would have to repay it’s debts, reduce the overall amount that it would have to pay back (a selective default…. the phrase “a rose by any other name would smell as sweet” comes to mind….maybe the language is too beautiful for this context though) and created a role for private sector involvement in the bailout.

Despite initial rejoicing at the package, the storm quickly started to brew again with the EU President Jose Manuel Barroso admitting a few weeks ago that measures had not stopped the crisis from spreading. Italy, in addition to the PIGS, is now also the object of intense scrutiny and concern and the European Central Bank (ECB) has now agreed to buy Spanish and Italian bonds in an effort to reduce the interest rates that the market now demands. Last week, there were also rumours that France was the next to go under, with speculation over the possibility of a downgrade in it’s debt rating. Time to cue “Another One Bites The Dust”?

So to sum up, a sizable portion of the Eurozone countries are in financial difficulty. A lot. Bailout packages have not yet been deemed sufficient to quell investor fears and speculation about the future of the single currency. Interest rates on EU government debt remain high, making the whole situation worse and potentially making an even more severe crisis self-fulfilling. Its not yet clear what the outcome of all of this will be. Everything just seems to be all over the place at the moment.

So there’s the timeline. Now we can ask how this mess developed and why the Euro exists in the first place.

Why would you want to join the Euro anyway?

I mean, poor Estonia. Surely there must have been some pretty big plus points to joining for them to finally adopt the Euro this year. Talk about bad timing.

The main arguments for joining the Euro concern the lowering of trade costs and reducing exchange rate uncertainty. The elimination of these costs could, in theory, allow faster growth and greater prosperity among European nations. The advantages of membership were seen as especially relevant to Greece and other southern European nations. Growth via exporting to high income nations in northern Europe was thought to be more easily achieved within the single currency and there was a belief that the exchange rate stability bought about by conversion to the Euro would help these countries achieve inflation and macroeconomic stability.

Some thoughts on why things got Totally Out Of Control. 

We can break this down into two parts. First, what factors contributed to the huge growth in debt to GDP ratios among certain Eurozone countries. Second, how did membership of the Euro make stabilisation harder?

A. The growth in debt-to-GDP ratios

Government debt in the countries in trouble is high. Very high. However, this was  generally true even before they joined the Euro, partly because strong trade unions and political myopia in these countries contributed to sizable deficit bias. Global imbalances (more on this issue in the future) and the perception of Western macroeconomic stability resulted in very low borrowing costs prior to the financial crisis resulting in it being easy and cheap for governments to raise debt in line with GDP.

However, membership of the Euro has been cited as an underlying cause of high debt levels. Euro membership was thought to have raised southern countries’ growth rates permanently through the advantages above, implying a higher sustainable debt level, and also prevents currency devaluation facilitating cheaper borrowing. The second reason makes investing in these countries ‘safer’ as the value of one’s assets are more protected. Imagine I decided to invest all my money in Greece. Previously, the Greek government could have allowed the drachma to loose value relative to the pound, meaning that what I what I stood to get back from my investment would have been worth less in £ terms. I’d have been worse off and would have want some insurance, in the form of higher interest rates, to protect me from this. With only one currency, the control of which is largely beyond smaller countries, the risk of this currency devaluation is smaller, allowing borrowing rates to fall.

Some have also pointed to the moral hazard arising in currency unions. This is a term you might have heard in connection to the banking crisis. Moral hazard refers to a situation where my incentives to act change after we put our names to some contract. Note that this contract could be implicit– it doesn’t need to be written down, just implied. Membership of a single currency creates an incentive to, or at least removes a disincentive to not, relax about the whole fiscal responsibility thing. Membership creates a presumption (an implicit contract) that a country will be bailed out if they run into trouble with their finances because there is a strong common interest in action which preserves the viability of the Euro. This implicit promise reduced the incentive for Greece to take action to reduce its budget deficit and also lowered the risk to investors, as they knew they would get their money back, making borrowing cheap and easy for countries for whom it really shouldn’t have been.

B. Constraints imposed by the Euro

There are some significant constraints imposed by being a member of a single currency. These constraints have played a role in the current mess as European government’s have been less able to buffer their economies against the financial crisis. So how did Euro membership hinder stabilisation?

(1) Countries have lost the ability to change interest rates to manipulate their economies. They have no individual control over their monetary policy. Thus any stabilisation must be done via changes in tax and government spending BUT at the moment there is no way that investors would accept these countries initiating a widening of their budget deficits. So, there is little the government can do to help ease the pain.

In fact, all the countries in trouble are having to implement harsh austerity measures to get their borrowing costs under control. The Irish Republic passed the toughest budget in the country’s history and the Greek Parliament has also passed severe austerity measures. On Friday, Italy announced further tightening in an attempt to balance the government budget by 2013. Bailout finance has also been made conditional on promises to get debt positions under control. So, what we’re seeing are huge fiscal tightening’s across large swaths of Europe.

(2) With only one currency, nominal exchange rate movements between member countries have not occurred to help rebalance things. Other things equal, one would expect austerity measures and low demand in one country to result in a depreciation of their nominal exchange rate. This acts to makes exports cheaper, boosting their demand and helping to buffer the fall in government spending. Nominal exchange rate depreciation has been an important buffering influence in the UK. Sterling has depreciated by around 20% against the Euro over the last 3 years. The fact that these movements cannot occur quickly means that these countries are hit especially hard, probably harder than the UK, by the onset of austerity measures.

Given the above I’d be pretty nervous as an investor. All the signs suggest that growth among the PIGS is going to be slow…. for some time to come. Therefore, market participants are unlikely to get fully repaid. This has seen the interest rate that these countries can borrow at shoot up making the problem a whole lot worse as this makes the debt financing issue even harder (again, touched upon in post number 1)

What’s next? Oh, if only someone knew!

The outlook is not looking good to say the least. It remains uncertain whether the current bailout packages will be sufficient to impart just a degree of calmness in the markets or will even achieve the desired aims. Greece does appear to be fundamentally insolvent. It is unclear that the state will be able to implement the austerity measures required by the IMF and EU given the widespread social unrest and their sheer scale appears unachievable to me. Further, considering the importance of intracontinental aspects adds some more issues to ponder over. Harsh austerity policy in one country has impacts on others through the trade (export markets dry up) and the financial system (banks and institutions in other European countries will be exposed to their neighbours’ private and government debt and thus defaults in one country directly impose losses on banks in other countries), acting to intensify the slowdown in growth across the region. Thus, it seems to me that the degree of austerity required to quell market fears may actually end up bringing down other countries and thus not get us anywhere closer to a better place.

Basically, I have no idea what the hell is the best way forward. The PIGS are damned with austerity, damned if they don’t. Whatever happens, there will be a transfer of wealth within European countries towards the slower growing, heavily indebted nations either through explicit bailout packages or through the consequences of their default as banks in other countries hold PIGS government debt.

In my opinion, the Euro will not survive in the long term. I have no idea how an exit from the Euro will occur, or what its ultimate impact will be. I just can’t see how the union can stay a union without integration of EU fiscal policy and I don’t think there’s a strong enough European identity for people to be ready to do that. The Economist looked at the states in America which corresponded to the PIGS in Europe. There, huge internal transfers of wealth take place between states and this is possible because of a common fiscal framework and popular support which I take to be grounded in the commonality of values and national identity. Neither of these things are forthcoming in the Eurozone. Also, I don’t think that only ‘a few’ of those in trouble could exit as once outside the union their currencies could devalue, making them more competitive and making it worse for those troubled nations who stuck with the Euro. All or nothing?

There’s the background. No bloody idea what’s going to happen with this one to be honest. Hopefully though this has helped you to understand the background behind the news stories! Let’s see what happens this week……..

2 responses to “The PIGS Problem: Surprisingly Difficult to Cure

  1. Pingback: To Be or Not To Be? | Abi Adams

  2. Pingback: Understanding Eurozone Imbalances II: Talking TARGET | Abi Adams

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