Debt Restructuring versus Monetary Easing: The Eurozone Experiment

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Since the outbreak of the Greek debt crisis at the end of 2009, the Eurozone finds itself in an unprecedented debt crisis.

When the Euro was launched in the 1990s, the project was set on a different course. The risk that member states could free ride on the effort of others and, freed from the threat of a currency crisis, relax their fiscal discipline was anticipated. In a historic first, the Maastricht Treaty of 1992 introduced debt limits, and practically invented scrutiny for debt-to-GDP ratios. The Treaty also introduced clear provisions that prohibited any mutual guarantees for sovereign debts.

10 years on, the reality looked very different. Instead of converging, the competitiveness of the economies had diverged and internal imbalances were building up. Instead of using the opportunity to borrow cheaply as a chance to modernize their economies, much of the private and government borrowing in the weaker member countries went into consumption or public pet projects, thus increasing public deficits and fuelling housing booms.

In early summer 2012, after the successive rescues of Greece, Ireland, Portugal, Spain and Cyprus, the Eurozone resembled an embattled fortress in which the onslaught of bond markets took out one member after the other. The financial and political outlook in the key member countries Spain, Italy and France was increasingly bleak, and yields were shooting up. The futile Greek debt restructuring and the botched Cyprus bank bailout added to the pain.

Then, in July 2012, a sudden turnaround occurred. It was brought about by the European Central Bank with the “Draghi put”, immortalized by ECB chairman Mario Draghi’s word that the ECB would do “whatever it takes” to save the euro. It was followed by the announcement of the Outright Monetary Transactions (OMT), a new form of unconventional monetary policy that declared the ECB ready to purchase bonds to provide relief to embattled sovereigns. Effectively, the ECB was offering to provide a monetary solution to sovereign debt problem.

If one believes in the verdict of capital markets, the policy of the European Central Bank is working. At the time of this writing, 20 months later, yield spreads of practically all countries relative to the German Bund are at their lowest level since the start of the European debt crisis. Portugal’s 10 year bond spreads are again below 4%. Several countries are accessing capital markets again, albeit they are still on life support via the European guarantees.

The Eurozone is indulging in this respite and tempted to forget the unsolved problems and imminent danger. The official position of the Eurozone’s political elite is that the debt problem of the member countries will be tackled with fiscal rigor, and that the Eurozone will be acting fast to close all remaining holes in its umbrellas and system of unified economic and regulatory policies so that no speculative attack against individual member countries can ever succeed again. A debt default in any of the member countries, after the historic accident of the Greek default, is squarely ruled out. The IMF subscribes to this vision and goes even further: it says the only solution for the Eurozone is to create a full-fledged political and monetary union (Enoch et al. 2014).

Meanwhile, the level of public debt in key member countries is increasing, not decreasing. In March 2014, the newly appointed governments of Italy and France, key countries whose reform progress is crucial for the future of the Eurozone, have effectively announced that they will flout the commitments made to their partners to bring down their fiscal deficits.

It is worth recalling this timeline of events to illustrate how much the Eurozone is pinning its hopes to avoid of sovereign default on the effectiveness of monetary policy.

In this, Europe is not alone. The United States and Japan are also currently seeing the combination of record sovereign debt with unconventional monetary policies that are bringing down borrowing costs and acts as a crucial factor in facilitating sovereign borrowing. Unlike the ECB’s OMT, the actions of the central banks in Japan and the United States are not explicitly framed as monetary support for unsustainable government debt. But the effects are still the same.

This paper takes the current prominent role played by monetary policy in the management of sovereign debt problems as its starting point. Can monetary policy really solve excessive debt? In principle, yes. It can do away with any need for a sovereign to default. The reason is simple: a sovereign can always try to take recourse to the currency that is the accepted means of payment. Hence, the sovereign does not depend on the goodwill of lenders. This has been known ever since the French kings in the 13th and 14th century repeatedly took recourse to currency debasements. In modern times, the capability of “printing money” is the ultimate insurance against the prospect of a sovereign default.

However, all is not well in the countries that exhibit a policy combination of high public debt, high public deficits, and extremely accommodating monetary policies. There are lingering concerns about deflation. From the point of view of the quantity theory of money, this should be surprising: lax monetary policy should lead to inflation, not deflation. The stubborn path of price levels that refuse to go up has many causes, among them supply side forces linked to globalization and rapid technological change. But clearly, debt overhang and debt deflation play a prominent role. If only supply side factors were to blame, deflationary pressures should be roughly the same in all countries. Instead, they are strongest in many countries with high debt levels, such as Spain and Japan.

This paper will refer to default as debt restructuring if it occurs in agreement with the lenders, or according to an orderly procedure that was known to or acknowledged by the creditors when they extended their credit. What we count as a sovereign default is a matter of debate. It is possible, as Reinhart and Rogoff (2010) do, to include massive inflation episodes and episodes of currency devaluations into the list of default events. Sui generis debt default occurs when the sovereign reneges on debt obligations, either unilaterally or in agreement with the lenders. One of the points made in this paper is that, without denying that massive devaluations and hyper inflation are consequences of sovereign overindebtedness, it is worth distinguishing between these scenarios because their consequences and their wisdom is different.

The goal of this paper is to expose the fallacies of the “Brussels consensus”, the policy pursued by the European policy elite, and to sketch some elements of a different European policy.

The paper is organized as follows. Sections 2 and 3 introduce the concepts of debt overhang and debt deflation that are needed to appreciate the need for restructuring. Sections 4 and 5 discuss issues with monetary policy and mutual guarantees that have similar effects. In Section 6, we discuss the cost of restructuring, and argue in Section 7 that fears of contagion are misplaced. Section 8 elucidates the political economy of the refusal to restructure debt. Section 9 presents policy proposals, and Section 109 concludes.