People love to use moral hazard as an excuse to inflict pain on others. So do governments, as we are seeing as the European Union once again threatens Greece with severe measures for that nation’s failure to fully implement the EU’s harsh austerity measures. The argument is extraordinarily simple: if a country cannot discipline itself, then we will teach it discipline through financial lashes. After all, didn’t Greece bring this pain on itself?
A similar mindset drove debt restructuring in Argentina in 2001. The U.S. treasury wanted to make Argentina an example for the whole Latin American region: If Argentina did not reduce its fiscal deficit to zero as promised, the argument went, the nation would deserve to suffer and the government would need to go. Indeed, Argentina did not reduce its deficit to zero, but it got it down to 0.6 percent in the third quarter of 2001. This effort by the Argentinean government was, unfortunately, unaccompanied by similar efforts in its provinces, but still, it was a massive success. But not to the enforcers, who basically said the efforts were not good enough.
What began as a singular sovereign debt problem in Greece in 2009 quickly spread to the rest of Europe. First Ireland; then Portugal and Spain and Italy. Today—only three years after the first signs of trouble—virtually all Europeans have felt the destructive effects of the euro zone turmoil, and its impact is being felt around the world.
Contagion, a phenomenon where financial tumult in one country or region spreads to another country, is now a fact of life. The globalization of finance has, in many ways, made contagion inevitable. The world has become much more integrated through trade, investors, and banks, and these ties have caused countries’ financial markets to move together more closely during good times and bad. Read More »
The news from Europe, particularly from within the euro zone, seems all bad.
Interest rates on Italian government debt continue to rise. Attempts to put together a “rescue package” at the pan-European level repeatedly fall behind events. And the lack of leadership from Germany and France is palpable – where is the vision or the clarity of thought we would have had from Charles de Gaulle or Konrad Adenauer?
In 2009 when my colleagues at the National Bureau of Economic Research and I began planning a conference for a project we’re running on the global financial crisis, we were concerned that the material would no longer be timely when the symposium actually occurred. We needn’t have worried.
I’ve just returned from Washington, DC, where our symposium was held, and again financial crises were the topic of the day. Three years after cracks in the subprime mortgage market erupted into the most severe and synchronized global financial crisis and recession since the Great Depression, the world economy is once more in dangerous territory. What began as a singular sovereign debt problem in Greece has spread to the rest of Europe, and now threatens to become a second act to the first financial crisis. How did we get here? And how can we keep it from happening again?
Jean-Claude Trichet, president of the European Central Bank until October, last week floated two proposals aimed at dealing with Greece and related eurozone public-debt problems.
The first idea would allow European Union authorities to override the policy decisions of member governments that can’t come up with sustainable budgets, implying the creation of an external control board for the likes of Greece. This approach has been used in the past for very weak countries (as well as for the cities of New York andWashington in recent decades). In Europe today, it would have no political legitimacy and would be completely unworkable — imagine the street protests it would spark.