(By Michael Pettis) Normally I don't like to write about European prospects in the midst of a very rough patch in the market because in that case there isn't much I can say that isn't already being said. I find it more useful to wait for those recurring periods in which the markets recover and optimism rises. Still, given the conjunction of political uncertainty in Beijing, low Chinese growth numbers, and another round of deteriorating circumstances in Europe, I will spend most of this issue of the newsletter trying to outline the possible paths countries like Spain must face.
For several years I have been saying that Spain would leave the euro and restructure its external debt. I should say that I specify Spain because it is the country in which I was born and grew up, and so it is also the country I know best. When I say Spain, however, I really mean all the peripheral European countries that, like Spain, are uncompetitive, have high debt levels, and suffer from low savings rates that had been forced down in the past decade to dangerous levels.
Spain had a stronger fiscal position and healthier bank balance sheets than many of its peers when the crisis began, so any argument that applies to Spain is likely to apply more forcefully to its peers. As an aside I will add that France is for me the dividing line between countries that will be forced into devaluation and restructuring and those that won't – in my opinion France could go either way and we will get a much better sense of this in the first year of Hollande's presidency.
There are two reasons why I was and am fairly sure that Spain cannot stay in the euro (or, which amounts to the same thing, that Germany will leave the euro instead of Spain). The first has to do with the logic of Spain's balance of payments position, and the second has to do with the internal dynamics that drive the process of financial crisis.
To address the first, I would start by noting that thanks to excessively loose monetary policies driven primarily by German needs over the past decade, Spain has made itself wholly uncompetitive in the global markets and in so doing has run large current account deficits for nearly the entire past decade. Its fundamental problem, in other words, has been the process by which its savings rate has collapsed, its cost structure forced up, its debt levels soared, and a great deal of investment directed into projects, mostly real estate, that were not economically viable. As I have discussed often enough in previous issues of this newsletter, I think all of these problems are related and are the automatic consequences of the same set of policy distortions implemented in Spain and in Germany.
Until Spain reverses its savings and consumption balance and drives down its current account deficit into surplus, which is what a reversal of these distortions would imply, it should be pretty clear that Spain will continue struggling with growth and will continue to see debt levels rise unsustainably. But the balance of payments mechanism imposes pretty clear constraints on the process of adjustment. In that sense there are really only three ways Spain can regain competitiveness sufficiently to raise savings and reverse the current account:
- Germany and the other core countries can take steps to reverse the policies that led to the European crisis. They can cut consumption and income taxes sharply in order to reduce domestic savings and increase domestic consumption. These would lead to a reversal of the German trade surpluses and higher inflation in Germany, the combination of which would allow Spain to reverse its trade deficit and regain competitiveness via lower inflation relative to that of Germany and a weaker euro.
- Spain can force austerity and tolerate high unemployment for many more years as wages are slowly pushed down and pricing excesses are ground away. It can also take measures to reduce costs by making it easier to start businesses, reducing business taxes, and by improving infrastructure, but these latter provide too little relief except over a very long period, especially given the difficulty Spain will face in financing infrastructure and reducing taxes.
- Spain can leave the euro and devalue. This would leave it with a problem of euro-denominated debt, whose value would soar relative to GDP denominated in a weakening currency. In that case Spain would almost certainly be forced to halt debt payments and restructure its debt.
I want to stress that these are, practically speaking, the only three ways for Spain to regain competitiveness. There are other ways that could in theory also work, but they are too unlikely to consider. One could assume for example that the rest of the non-European world – most importantly the US, China and Japan – take steps to stimulate their domestic economies sufficiently to force up consumption and run in the aggregate large and growing trade deficits. These deficits, whose counterpart would be a very large European trade surplus, would then bail out the whole eurozone by generating GDP growth rates that exceed the debt refinancing rates.
I think most of my readers will however agree that this is pretty unlikely. The rest of the world is also struggling with growth and in no hurry to run large trade deficits. Another possibility is that we suddenly see a rapid and dramatic move towards full fiscal union in Europe, in which sovereignty, for all practical purposes, is fully transferred to Brussels (or Berlin). But that probably won't happen either – the rise of nationalism throughout Europe has made this always-unlikely prospect even less likely.
So we are left largely with these three ways of allowing Spain to regain a cost structure that makes it competitive and allows it to amortize its debt while growing. Anyone who rules out two of the three ways listed above must automatically imply that Spain will follow the third way. So which will it be?
Humpty Dumpty economics
The first way is for Germany to reverse its surplus and begin running large deficits. This is by far the best way, but I think it is very unlikely. Berlin has made no indication that it is prepared to do what would be necessary for it to run large deficits and, on the contrary, it is even talking about the need for more austerity.
In part this is because Germany has a potentially huge debt problem on its balance sheet. As a consequence of its consumption-repressing policies during the decade before the crisis, Germany's domestic savings rate was forced up to much higher than it otherwise would have been and Germany has had to export the excess capital. Not surprisingly, given European monetary dynamics, this capital has been exported largely to the rest of Europe in order to fund the current account deficits of peripheral Europe that corresponded to the surpluses Germany so badly needed to grow.
It did this not by accumulating euro reserves, which it could not do anyway, but rather by accumulating loans to peripheral Europe through the banking system. As a result of all of these loans, Germany is rightly terrified that a wave of defaults in Europe will cause its own banking system to require a state bailout if it is not to collapse, and so it does not want to cut taxes and reduce savings because it believes (wrongly) that austerity will make it easier to protect its creditworthiness.
But German's anti-consumption policies are leading it towards a debt problem in the same way that similar US policies in the late 1920s created an American debt crisis during the next decade. In that light I thought this very illuminating quote from then-presidential candidate Franklin Delano Roosevelt might be apposite:
A puzzled, somewhat skeptical Alice asked the Republican leadership some simple questions:
"Will not the printing and selling of more stocks and bonds the building of new plants and the increase of efficiency produce more goods than we can buy?"
"No," shouted Humpty Dumpty, "the more we produce the more we can buy."
"What if we produce a surplus?"
"Oh, we can sell it to foreign consumers."
"How can the foreigners pay for it?"
"Why, we will lend them the money."
"I see," said little Alice, "they will buy our surplus with our money. Of course these foreigners will pay us back by selling us their goods."
"Oh not at all, "said Humpty Dumpty. "We set up a high wall called the tariff."
"And," said Alice at last, "how will the foreigners pay off these loans?"
"That is easy, said Humpty Dumpty.