Friday, July 29, 2011

The euro is still far from out of danger

by Samuel Brittan

Financial Times

July 28, 2011

During an enforced absence from column writing I tried to keep up with events – not so much by reading a vast number of books, analyses and speeches, which would have been incompatible with eating and sleeping, but by reflecting on what might have happened if Greece had not joined the euro in 2001. Similar reflections might apply to other peripherals such as Portugal but might need modification in relation to Spain, Italy and Ireland.

The first thing to say is that neither the Greek government nor the Greek private sector would have been able to borrow for so long at German interest rates. The drachma discount rate hovered between 14.5 and 21.5 per cent in the 1990s. Its place was then taken by a scarcely credible 3.25 per cent European Central Bank repo rate from 2002 onwards. Outside the euro, the drachma would certainly have fallen, either gradually or in lurches. Greece would therefore have borrowed less on international markets, and invested more wisely.

I am pretty confident of this initial stage of analysis. But what would have happened afterwards depends, as in so many of these exercises, on innumerable counterfactuals.

In the most optimistic version Greece might have settled for a gradually falling currency; and higher but more realistic borrowing rates might have curbed the budget deficits. In a more pessimistic scenario, the drachma might have fallen in lurches leading to a series of so-called crises. One can imagine Greece having had to go to the International Monetary Fund. But a country accounting for 3 per cent of the eurozone’s population and 2 per cent of its output would not then have threatened the European and international financial systems.


No comments: