© 2015 Prof. Farok J. Contractor, Rutgers University
America has been using a single currency since 1793, when the United States Mint in Philadelphia first began issuing US dollar coins. However, it is not the longevity of a currency that determines whether it succeeds, but institutional mechanisms. Such mechanisms are weak or lacking in Europe. To understand why, we need to examine how such mechanisms could help countries in a common zone to ride out economic cycle “booms and busts.”
When a country gives up its own currency (say, the drachma) in favor of a supranational one (such as the euro), it loses two important levers to help soften the blow of a recession: (1) It cannot unilaterally adjust its interest rates downward to stimulate its own economy in a downturn; interest rates could be held uncomfortably high by the supranational monetary authority if the economies in the other member states remain healthy. (2) And it is unable to devalue its currency in order to stimulate the nation’s exports.
For a single currency to function well, three conditions, or institutional pillars, must be in place: (1) fiscal discipline by member states, (2) labor and capital mobility, and (3) inter-regional balancing through transfer payments managed by a central government.
Fiscal Discipline by Member States
While American states are free to set their own budgets and raise money through taxes and borrowing, their excesses are curtailed by state constitutions that recommend or mandate balanced budgets; by an informed media that flags profligate spending; and by the discipline that the bond market imposes. Almost all US states manage to restrict their deficits to a few percentage points.
When the eurozone was introduced in the early 2000s, participating countries that gave up their own currencies made pious promises that they would restrict their budget deficits to no more than 3 percent. But no enforcement mechanism was put in place, and in the go-go years between 2000 and 2007 countries such as Greece ran up sovereign debts well in excess of that limit. By early 2015, Greek debt was estimated to be 177 percent of GDP—in short, unpayable—according to a recently leaked IMF report. In fact, previous Greek governments must have known they were taking huge risks because they hired investment banks such as Goldman Sachs to devise complex swap instruments that hid the true size of their borrowings from other EU states and the public. In 2010, Angela Merkel called this “scandalous.” But she could do nothing about the situation without an EU enforcement mechanism in place.
Labor and Capital Mobility
Recessions and economic downturns impact states differently. If a worker in an Ohio “rust-belt” factory is laid off, he may consider selling his home and loading the family and Golden Retriever into the minivan and driving to Houston or Silicon Valley, where jobs are available. On average, 42 percent of Americans do not reside in the state of their birth. This willing mobility reduces the impact of recessions and unemployment, decreasing the pain in the most affected states. According to the US Census Bureau, after age 18 Americans will move 9.1 times during the rest of their lives. By contrast, 47 percent of Italians, for example, live within 5 kilometers of their mamas. And although jobs are still going begging in Germany, the almost 30 percent of Greeks who are unemployed in 2015 do not wish to relocate because of cultural unfamiliarity and reluctance.
Europe is still a collection of separate cultures, employment regulations, and languages, and therefore labor immobility does not provide the smoothing-out effect seen across the United States. Capital, too, is less mobile across the EU, compared with the US, because varying company regulations and foreign-market unfamiliarity reduce the likelihood of a firm relocating or expanding outside its nation.
Inter-regional Balancing Through Transfer Payments Managed by a Central Government
In the US, most taxes are collected by a centralized federal government, which then allocates money to the states according to their needs. In Europe, each state collects its own taxes and is then reluctant to share any significant amount with the other “foreign” nations in the eurozone. On average in the US, a decline of one dollar in a state budget is offset by a transfer of 28 cents from the federal government. More can be made up by additional taxes raised by the state, providing a cushion to smooth out the bumps over a recessionary period.
True, the EU (Brussels) does reallocate some funds to member states, but these are very small compared with US transfers from the federal government to US states. Moreover, most of the funds Brussels redistributes are project-specific rather than designed to alleviate recessionary suffering or boost flagging economies. Bailouts such as those given to Portugal or Greece have to be painfully negotiated each time and agreed to by all EU member states. And the member states have veto powers. So Brussels really is not a central government, by any means.
Conclusion: Monetary Union Without the Three Institutional Pillars
The euro is a noble experiment designed to foster a sense of pan-European identity (and, incidentally, to reduce currency risk and transaction costs for firms). Its architects had hoped that the façade of unity would then be followed by the construction of three institutional pillars to solidify the structure. Fifteen years hence, European institutions have barely evolved enough to build such pillars or, in other words, to fulfill the three requirements of a monetary union. An appetite for a central fiscal authority is lacking, as is a mechanism to restrain individual states from excess borrowing to boost their budgets. For cultural reasons, cross-border migration of labor remains sluggish, and transfer payments from the rich nations of the EU to support their poorer neighbors is already running into such resistance that countries such as the UK threaten to withdraw from the EU altogether.
Can the noble experiment survive?
Certainly, other nations that received bailouts, such as Portugal, have not only turned the corner, but have begun to pay back their debts. It is possible that the shock of recent events can stem the profligacy of loose fiscal policies, especially if conditions are imposed on them. But the euro will remain a fragile construct, vulnerable to future shocks, whose survival will depend on the continued generosity of the richer members of the EU.