[Comments from friends have led me to strengthen my arguments in the following slightly revised version of this post.]
Public misunderstandings of economic issues do not go away easily. Recently, I began an e-mail exchange with four Chinese students. Perhaps it is forgivable for them being in one of China’s remote provinces to say with regard to the Greek and Portuguese debt problems: “The root cause is that different developing countries use the same currency, [which] is not appropriate.” While this may sound plausible, some of their other beliefs were totally bizarre. However, it is not forgivable for the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, to say: “We can’t have a common currency where some get lots of holiday time and others very little.” This is not only ridiculous because Germans have longer vacations than the Greeks (I am speaking only of official time off, not German versus Greek work habits), which they do. It is ridiculous and wrong because it implies that it is not viable for rich people to live in the same country with poor people.
The use of a common currency, the Euro, IS NOT the root cause of Europe’s debt problems. As this does not seem to be obvious to some intelligent people who should know better, let me spell it out in very simple, elementary terms.
A person or family in the United States (or any other country) that spends more than her income for long periods has a potential problem and that problem has nothing to do with the fact that she is using the same currency as everyone else in the country. She may rationally borrow for short periods to cover temporary interruptions in her income or finance large purchases that she has the income to repay over time, but if she continually borrows amounts that she cannot reasonably expect to be able to repay, she and her foolish creditors have a problem. More often (hopefully), debt defaults result from unexpected changes in fortune. All countries have legal procedures (bankruptcy) for dealing with such defaults that avoid sending the defaulter to debtors’ prison. But as long as each person or family lives within its means, there is no reason on earth why their means can’t vary enormously without undermining the harmony of their coexistence. If this is so within countries, it is even more so between them (security concerns aside).
The probability of lending money to someone who cannot repay is directly related to the incentives faced by borrowers and lenders. A debtors’ prison was about as strong an incentive you could have against careless borrowing though they varied a great deal from one country to another. Most took the form of workhouses. In England, a debtor (and often his family) remained in confinement until his debt was repaid. In most European countries he stayed for a maximum of one year. However, from the establishment of the United States, Americans decided that people should be given second chances and abolished debtors’ prisons. In England, the Bankruptcy Act of 1869 abolished debtors’ prisons. We now take second chances for granted. But this does increase the risk that some people will borrow too much.
Who gets credit is almost totally regulated by the requirements of lenders to have confidence that borrowers can and will repay them. No one is forced to lend. Lenders require information from borrowers on their past and expected income and on their track records of repaying earlier loans. They may require collateral to “secure” the loan. Borrowers themselves are deterred from borrowing what they cannot be paid by the penalties imposed by bankruptcy laws should they default even if they aren’t sent to prison. This very fact increases the confidence of lenders to lend in the first place. If the penalties are too severe and/or collateral and other security too costly, less will be lent. A delicate balance is needed to optimize the reallocation of savings to investors (or consumers).
At the end of the day, life is uncertain. Not everything can be foreseen. Some chances are reasonable, however, and worth taking. Some lenders are willing to take larger risks if compensated by higher interest rates on such loans. Thus markets tend to demand higher interest rates (relative to those on safe loans) for riskier loans. Lenders still expect to make a reasonable return on their loans on average with the “risk premium” received from those who repay covering the limited losses on the few who don’t.
Sovereign borrowers, like Greece, are generally considered low risk because they can tax their citizens to repay borrowed money. But as Argentina and Russia have shown there are limits to taxation. Unless lenders (buyers of sovereign debt) think that sovereign borrowers will be bailed out by the IMF or others under all circumstances, they will demand an interest rate that reflects their assessment of the risk that the borrower might default. A higher interest rate for riskier borrowers is a good thing as it provides a financial incentive for the borrower to slow down.
Greece’s adoption of the Euro contributed to its current debt problem only in that it removed one of the risks of lending to Greece—the risk that Greece would devalue its currency and thus reduce the foreign currency value of what it owes (if lenders had denominated their loans in the Greek currency). Greece no longer has its own currency and thus lenders no longer face so-called “exchange rate risk.”
Until recently lenders did not add a risk premium to loans to Greece or Portugal. They charged these borrowers almost the same as they charged the German government. Thus there was little financial incentive from this source for Greece to limit its borrowing. But like any borrower, whether an individual, a company, or a country, the game lasts only as long as lenders believe they will be repaid and borrowers are foolish to borrow what they cannot productively use and repay. That Greece has been foolish is perhaps one of the nicer ways of putting its behavior. Now, finally lenders have become more discriminating and have begun to add large risk premiums to any new loans to Greece and other riskier borrowers. This came late but is welcome.
The above discussion provides background to my views on the proposal now being made by many in Europe to finance national government borrowing with Eurobonds. Rather than individual countries issuing sovereign debt and paying the risk premium the market demands for their particular situation, they would borrow through an EU wide institution, such as the European Financial Stabilization Fund (EFSF). Greece would sell its bonds to the EFSF, which would pay for them with funds raised by issuing its own Euro denominated bonds. EFSF bonds would be backed by the financial resources of the EU (all European member countries collectively) and would thus enjoy the credit rating of the EU rather than of Greece.
Eurobonds (not to be confused with the US dollar denominated bonds of the same name with which many European and other governments and companies have borrowed for half a century) would reduce the cost to Greece of borrowing and would provide a better asset in which central banks and multilateral companies could hold Euro reserves. The latter would facilitate the use of the Euro as an international reserve currency.
The cost of Greek debt service would drop immediately, but without other steps by the Greek government to reduce its bloated budget and to free up the competitive capacity of its economy more debt would be accumulated until it again reached the limits of its ability to service its debts. I outlined the issues and options for Greece in more detail over a year ago (May 2010) at http://wcoats.wordpress.com/2010/05/30/greeces-debt-crisis-simplified/.
The ability of Greece to borrow unlimited amounts via the EFSF at safe Eurobond interest rates would remove an important incentive for Greece to adjust and live within its means. Thus the Eurobond idea in this form is a bad idea and Germany is right to oppose it. The financial assistance now being given by the EU and the IMF carries conditions that Greece address the underlying and real causes of its debt problem (excessive government spending and an uncompetitive economy) and it has been making considerable progress toward satisfying those conditions. Such loans (also at low risk free rates) provide an alternative way of imposing incentives for better behavior by Greece to that of high risk premiums for market borrowing.
Because of this perverse incentive effect of opening Eurobond financing to Greece and other EU members with excessive debt, its proponents speak of the need to combine it with stronger EU control over national fiscal policies. It is not clear what form such tighter control might take and it is frankly difficult for me to imagine France or Italy, for example, allowing EU bureaucrats in Brussels to dictate limits on their national expenditures.
“Eurobonds ‘mean telling the people, the citizenry, that you are ready to share risks,’ [Amadeu Altafaj] Tardio [a spokesman for the European Commission’s economic and monetary affairs committee] said. ‘That would be the strongest support for the euro area. It makes sense in the context of a monetary union. . . . Politically it does not seem feasible.’”
It is instructive to contrast the EU situation with that of the United States. The federal government of the U.S. issues debt securities in its name and with its (now slightly down graded) own credit rating (AA+). The stock of its debt outstanding is approaching $15 trillion dollars, almost half of which is owned (lent from) abroad. Each of the 50 states in the United States also borrow by issuing debt securities in their own names and each receives its own credit rating and pays interest accordingly. The money raised by the federal government is to supplement its tax revenue to finance its own expenditures (though the federal government does grant some revenue to the states from its budget). Thus it has full control (I am ignoring the political dysfunction of our current Congress) over its own expenditures and borrowing needs. States have full control over their own budgets and financing.
The situation in Europe is quite different. The Eurobond proposal is not for the financing of the EU budget (comparable to the federal budget in the U.S.), but for the financing of individual country budgets (comparable to states in the U.S.). This is why advocates of Eurobonds couple their proposal with the need to increase EU control over member countries’ budgets. Such control would be comparable to federal government control over state budgets in the U.S. This seems both politically very unlikely in Europe and, in my opinion, undesirable.
There is a version of the Eurobond proposal that does make sense to me. Bruegel, a European think tank, has suggested an approach that differentiates between debt financing member country borrowing that is less than 60% of their GDP and borrowing that is more. Eurobonds proper would only finance borrowing up to the 60% level. Any country wishing to borrow more than that would need to issue their own bonds and pay whatever risk premium the market demanded of them individually. Eurobonds would have priority standing in the event of default. This would restore the market discipline of excessive borrowing that the open-ended Eurobond proposal would remove, and would be easy to enforce.
Reducing the borrowing cost on debt equal to 60% of its GDP would help make the existing stock of debt more sustainable. But unless Greece and other EU members addressed their fundamental problems, the flow of new debt would continue. The market’s assessment of the prospects of Greece defaulting on such additional borrowing (over 60% of its GDP) would determine the risk premium Greece would have to pay for such borrowing and would provide better market discipline of its behavior than a pure Eurobond scheme.
Don’t blame the Euro. Blame the misbehavior of individual countries. Both rich countries and poor countries can participate in the global economy whether using the same currency or not if each lives within its means. When looking for solutions, don’t destroy the costs of bad behavior and thus the incentives for good behavior. This includes the incentives faced by market lenders (banks and others), who, thankfully, are finally taking some loss in the restructuring of Greek debt, but perhaps not enough to be more careful next time nor to reduce the exciting stock of Greek debt to make it sustainable. In the final analysis, only Greece, like any household, can make the changes that will restore its credit worthiness and its place in the global economy.
 Email correspondence with Chinese students who found my address on the Internet.
 Howard Schneider, “Europe debt crisis forces officials to revisit creation of common eurobonds”, The Washington Post, August 26, 2011, Page A11.