Roubini: The Eurozone’s Calm Before the Storm

The following is a Project Syndicate Op-Ed written by NYU Stern Professor Nouriel Roubini. 

NEW YORK – A little more than a year ago, in the summer of 2012, the eurozone, faced with growing fears of a Greek exit and unsustainably high borrowing costs for Italy and Spain, appeared to be on the brink of collapse. Today, the risk that the monetary union could disintegrate has diminished significantly – but the factors that fueled it remain largely unaddressed.

Several developments helped to restore calm. European Central Bank President Mario Draghi vowed to do “whatever it takes” to save the euro, and quickly institutionalized that pledge by establishing the ECB’s “outright monetary transactions” program to buy distressed eurozone members’ sovereign bonds. The European Stability Mechanism (ESM) was created, with €500 billion at its disposal to rescue eurozone banks and their home governments. Some progress has been made on a European banking union. And Germany has come to understand that the eurozone is as much a political project as an economic one.

Moreover, the eurozone recession is over (though five periphery economies continue to shrink and recovery remains very fragile). Some structural reform has been implemented, and a lot of fiscal adjustment has occurred. Internal devaluation (a fall in unit labor costs to restore competitiveness) has occurred to some extent (in Spain, Portugal, Greece, and Ireland, but not in Italy or France), thus improving external balances. And even if such adjustment is not occurring as fast as Germany and other core eurozone countries would like, they remain willing to provide financing, and governments committed to adjustment are still in power.

But beneath the surface calm of lower spreads and lower tail risks, the eurozone’s fundamental problems remain unresolved. For starters, potential growth is still too low in most of the periphery, given aging populations and low productivity growth, while actual growth – even once the periphery exits the recession in 2014 – will remain below 1% for the next few years, implying that unemployment rates will remain very high.

Meanwhile, levels of private and public debt – both domestic and foreign – are still too high, and they continue to rise as a share of GDP, owing to slow or negative output growth. This means that the issue of medium-term sustainability remains unresolved.

At the same time, the loss of competitiveness has been only partly reversed, with most of the improvement in external balances being cyclical rather than structural. The severe recession in the periphery has caused imports there to collapse, but lower unit labor costs have not boosted exports enough. The euro is still too strong, severely limiting the improvement in competitiveness needed to boost net exports in the face of weak domestic demand.

Finally, while the fiscal drag on growth is now lower, it is still a drag. And its effects are amplified in the periphery by an ongoing credit crunch, as undercapitalized banks deleverage by selling assets and shrinking their loan portfolios.

Read the entire opinion piece here.

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