Monday, November 28, 2011

The Question of Eurobonds

by Richard A. Posner

The Becker-Posner Blog

November 27, 2011

Several countries that belong to the Eurozone and thus use the euro as their currency are in peril of defaulting on their sovereign debt. (In fact Greece is certain to default.) If they default it will probably alleviate their economic woes, because their sovereign debt will (in a total default) be wiped out. They may not even have to pay high interest rates to borrow more money, because with their existing debt wiped out their ability to pay interest on new debt will be greater. Nations have defaulted in the past without terrible consequences; and the deeper the economic hole a nation finds itself in, the less costly default is.

Still, these countries would prefer not to default. They would prefer to borrow at low interest rates. (Who wouldn’t?) They want the European Central Bank to buy their sovereign debt with bonds issued by the bank, bonds that these countries would pay back at their leisure. Naturally the stronger countries of the EU, especially Germany, do not want to throw good money after bad by lending on generous terms to the PIIGS (as they are no longer called in respectable circles—now they are called GIIPS, an acronym that is not be pronounced with a soft g). Instead they want to secure these debts by persuading or coercing the PIIGS to slash their government spending, so that their revenues, diminished by the worldwide depression though they are, will cover their debt service and thus stave off default.

The PIIGS don’t want to slash their spending, and for good reason; the standard recipe for combating depression is to increase government spending. If consumers are reluctant to consume, and as a result production and employment fall, and with it borrowing and hence interest rates, government can borrow cheaply from the private sector, and it can use the borrowed money to stimulate production and employment. That was Keynes’s recipe for fighting unemployment, and it is a sensible recipe if the stimulus program is timely, well designed, and well executed. That’s a big if, but it’s unclear what alternative the PIIGS have. In the long run they could increase government revenues by a combination of tax reform, more aggressive tax collection, reduction of bureaucratic impediments to the formation and expansion of businesses, deregulation (especially of labor markets) and privatization, reduction of public employment, and shrinkage of entitlements programs. But such reforms would take years to bear fruit, and might be reversed at any time, and their short-term impact on the economies of these countries would probably be negative. The PIIGS, with the exception of Ireland, have very bad political cultures, and bondholders would be unlikely to trust the governments of these countries to make timely and effective reforms.


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