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Fixing the euro: a long-term solution or mere sticking plaster?

In the past few days, the euro has been under immense speculative pressure. The trigger for this has been the growing concern about whether Greece would be able to force through austerity measures and cut its huge deficit and debt. Also there has been the concern that much of Greece’s debt is in the form of relatively short-term bonds, many of which are coming up for maturity and thus have to be replaced by new bonds. For example, on 19 May, Greece needs to repay €8.5 billion of maturing bonds. But with Greek bonds having been given a ‘junk’ status by one of the three global rating agencies, Standard and Poor’s, Greece would find it difficult to raise the finance and would have to pay very high interest on bonds it did manage to sell – all of which would compound the problem of the deficit.

Also there have been deep concerns about a possible domino effect. If Greece’s debt is perceived to be unsustainable at 13.5% of GDP (in 2009), then speculators are likely to turn their attention to other countries in the eurozone with large deficits: countries such as Portugal (9.4%), Ireland (14.3%) and Spain (11.2%). With such worries, people were asking whether the euro would survive without massive international support, both from within and outside the eurozone. At the beginning of 2010, the euro was trading at $1.444. By 7 May, it was trading at $1.265, a depreciation of 12.4% (see the Bank of England’s Statistical Interactive Database – interest & exchange rates data

If the euro were in trouble, then shock waves would go around the world. Worries about such contagion have already been seen in plummeting stock markets. Between 16 April and 7 May, the FTSE100 index in London fell from 5834 to 5045 (a fall of 13.5%). In New York, the Dow Jones index fell by 8.6% over the same period and in Tokyo, the Nikkei fell by 7.6%. By 5 May, these declines were gathering pace as worries mounted.

Crisis talks took place over the weekend of the 8/9 May between European finance ministers and, to the surprise of many, a major package of measures was announced. This involves setting aside €750bn to support the eurozone. The package had two major elements: (a) €60bn from EU funds (to which all 27 EU countries contribute) to be used for loans to eurozone countries in trouble; (b) a European Financial Stabilisation Mechanism (a ‘Special Purpose Vehicle (SPV)’), which would be funded partly by eurozone countries which would provide €440bn and partly by the IMF which would provide a further €250bn. The SPV would be used to give loans or loan guarantees to eurozone countries, such as Greece, which were having difficulty in raising finance because of worries by investors. The effect would also be to support the euro through a return of confidence in the single currency.

In addition to these measures, the European Central Bank announced that it would embark on a ‘Securities Markets Programme’ involving the purchase of government bonds issued by eurozone countries in difficulties. According to the ECB, it would be used to:

.. conduct interventions in the euro area public and private debt securities markets to ensure depth and liquidity in those market segments which are dysfunctional. The objective of this programme is to address the malfunctioning of securities markets and restore an appropriate monetary policy transmission mechanism.

Does this amount to quantitative easing, as conducted by the US Federal Reserve Bank and the Bank of England? The intention is that it would not do so, as the ECB would remove liquidity from other areas of the market to balance the increased liquidity provided to countries in difficulties. This would be achived by selling securities of stronger eurozone countries, such as Germany and France.

In order to sterilise the impact of the above interventions, specific operations will be conducted to re-absorb the liquidity injected through the Securities Markets Programme. This will ensure that the monetary policy stance will not be affected.

So will the measures solve the problems? Or are they merely a means of buying time while the much tougher problem is addressed: that of getting deficits down?

Webcasts and podcasts
Rescue plan bolsters the euro BBC News, Gavin Hewitt (10/5/10)
The EU rescue plan explained Financial Times, Chris Giles, Emily Cadman, Helen Warrell and Steve Bernard (10/5/10)
Peston: ‘Crisis is not over’ BBC Today Programme (10/5/10)
Greece ‘will get into even more deep water’ BBC Today Programme (11/5/10)

Articles
EU ministers offer 750bn-euro plan to support currency (including video) BBC News (10/5/10)
EU sets up crisis fund to protect euro from market ‘wolves’ Independent, Vanessa Mock (10/5/10)
Euro strikes back with biggest gamble in its 11-year history Guardian, Ian Traynor (10/5/10)
Debt crisis: £645bn rescue package for euro reassures markets … for now Guardian, Ian Traynor (10/5/10)
The E.U.’s $950 Billion Rescue: Just the Beginning Time, Leo Cendrowicz (10/5/10)
Eurozone bail-out (portal) Financial Times
Bailout does not address Europe’s deep-rooted woes: Experts moneycontrol.com (11/5/10)
An ever-closer Union? BBC News blogs: Stephanomics, Stephanie Flanders (10/5/10)
Eurozone crisis is ‘postponed’ BBC News blogs: Peston’s Picks, Robert Peston (10/5/10)
Multi-billion euro rescue buys time but no solution BBC News, Lucy Hooker (11/5/10)
No going back The Economist (13/5/10)
It is not Greece that worries EURO: It is China that teeters on a collapse Investing Contrarian, Shaily (11/5/10)

Data and official sources
For deficit and debt data see sections 16.3 and 18.1 in:
Ameco Online European Commision, Economic and Financial Affairs DG
For the ECB statement see:
10 May 2010 – ECB decides on measures to address severe tensions in financial markets ECB Press Release

Questions

  1. Why should the measures announced by the European finance ministers help to support the euro in the short term?
  2. Why should the ECB’s Securities Markets Programme not result in quantitative easing?
  3. Explain what is meant by sterlisation in the context of open market operations.
  4. What will determine whether the measures are a long-term success?
  5. Explain why there may be a moral hazard in coming to the rescue of ailing economies in the eurozone. How might such a moral hazard be minimised?
  6. Why should concerns about Greece lead to stock market declines around the world?
  7. What is the significance of China in the current context?
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