So here we are in 2014. As this edition of the Euro Crisis blog draws to a close, it is time to say farewell to the readers and greet the new contributors who will take over and comment on the Euro zone crisis as it develops from here on in. Farewells are also an appropriate time for stock-taking exercises, however, so I think it is appropriate to end my contribution by reviewing what the latest year has meant for the bigger picture of the Euro crisis – at least the way I see it. What progress has been made in the various fronts? And how much closer are we to a resolution of the crisis?
Perhaps not surprisingly, my views are considerably less optimistic than those of most other analysts, many of whom seem to consider that the worse of the crisis is largely behind us. I, on the contrary, believe that we are still far from hitting the bottom, let alone from a resolution. And I also believe that we end the year 2013 in a worse position that we started it.
First, take the superficial element of the crisis: the sovereign debt levels of the eurozone countries. (Superficial in the sense that, as I and many others have argued before, they are a consequence, not a cause, of the crisis.) Between the second quarter of 2012 and the same quarter of 2013 (the latest for which Eurostat has available comparable data), in a context of widespread austerity, absolute public debt levels increased in Austria, Belgium, Cyprus, Estonia, Finland, France, Greece, Ireland, Italy, Luxembourg, Malta, the Netherlands, Portugal, Slovenia, Slovakia and Spain. That is to say, in every single eurozone country except for Germany and Latvia. As a percentage of GDP, government debt increased in all 18 eurozone countries except for Austria, Germany and Latvia – including to such remarkable levels as Greece’s 169%, Portugal’s 131%, Ireland’s 126% and Spain’s 92%. Not quite unexpected given the obviously recessive consequences of austerity, but certainly not a sign of progress towards a resolution: greater debt levels mean a greater burden constraining the possibility of counter-cyclical fiscal policy (particularly with the Fiscal Compact in place) and, at least in the Portuguese and Greek cases, a greater amount which will not, for it cannot, be repaid (whether this be through haircuts or sovereign defaults).
More significantly, though, the more fundamental economic variables which encapsulate the nature of the crisis have either deteriorated or remained unaltered during the course of 2013: the massively negative external debt, or international investment position, of the peripheral Euro zone countries (the ‘divergence’ component of the crisis) remained basically unaltered, save for some marginal improvement in the case of Ireland. As for the overall economic performance (the ‘stagnation’ element of the crisis), the outlook also continues to be profoundly depressing: annual GDP growth in the euro area as a whole in 2013 is estimated at -0.4%, while euro area unemployment remains at a record 12.1%. At the same time, the constraints weighing down on that performance have not alleviated: the deleveraging of the private (household and corporate) sector remains to be done, while the spectrum of deflation is an ever-more-present possibility, further worsening the debt overhang and giving rise to recessive debt-deflation dynamics.
At the political and institutional levels, we now have a Fiscal Compact in place which has basically banned counter-cyclical fiscal policy at a time when monetary policy has become well-nigh ineffective; a ‘banking union’ which has not broken the vicious links between troubled banks and troubled sovereigns; a minuscule EU budget slashing all hopes of a recovery led by counter-cyclical policy at the European level; unrelenting insistence on austerity as supposed way out; discontent with the European project growing steadily across the EU; the far right increasingly showing its ugly head as it takes advantage of the European leaders’ incapacity or unwillingness to address the real root causes of the crisis; and a full-fledged humanitarian crisis in large swathes of the European periphery. Hardly grounds for optimism.
Having said this, it is no doubt true that the eurozone crisis has changed its character during the course of 2013: in contrast to earlier on in the year, we no longer experience the crisis as a series of acute episodes, in which the possibility of a dénouement is just around the corner. Instead, we have entered a largely chronic stage, with neither collapse nor improvement in sight. A significant indicator in this respect consists of the interest rate levels on sovereign debt throughout the eurozone: even though the economic outlook has continued to worsen, interest rates, particularly in the eurozone periphery, have fallen significantly over the course of 2013, thus alleviating one of the most acute dimensions of the crisis. By and large a continuation of the ‘Draghi effect’ (the ECB’s manifest willingness to do whatever it takes to prevent defaults in the Euro zone, provided that austerity remains in place), but unintelligible without taking into account the extent to which resistance to austerity has so far failed to materialise at the political level (thus rendering this deleterious low-level political-economic equilibrium much more stable than it seemed 12 months ago).
But this equilibrium will not last, for austerity and deflation are exactly the key ingredients of permanent recession in our current debt overhang situation – and sooner or later the electorate, in at least one of the more chastised countries, will prefer default and the possibility of a euro exit, for all their risks, to the certainty of perpetual impoverishment. In 2013 the crisis turned into chronic stagnation, but we should not let ourselves be fooled by this apparent calm: it only takes one card to bring the house down.
May you have a happy 2014, dear reader – and in these times of crisis, may Europe and its peoples live up to the lofty democratic ideals which the continent has spawned throughout its history.