February 23, 2012
The problems of the eurozone are ultimately malinvestments. In Greece these days the struggle continues about who will ultimately foot the bill for these investments. During the early 2000s an expansionary monetary policy lowered interest rates artificially. Entrepreneurs financed investment projects that only looked profitable due to the low interest rates but were not sustained by real savings. Housing bubbles and consumption booms developed in the periphery.
In 2007 the bubbles began to burst. Housing prices started to stagnate and even to fall. Homeowners and builders started to default on their loans. As banks had financed and invested into these malinvestments, they suffered losses. After the collapse of the investment bank Lehman Brothers interbank lending collapsed and governments intervened. They bailed out banks and, thereby, assumed the losses of the banking system resulting from the malinvestments.
As malinvestments were socialized, public debts soared in the eurozone. Furthermore, tax revenues collapsed due to the crisis. At the same time, governments started to subsidize industrial sectors and unemployment.
Moreover, even before the crisis, governments had accumulated malinvestments due to their excessive welfare spending. Two causes had incentivized social spending in the periphery. The first cause is low interest rates. These low interest rates were caused by an expansionary monetary policy by the European Central Bank (ECB) and the single currency in itself. The euro came with an implicit bailout guarantee. Market participants expected stronger governments to bail out weaker ones in order to save the political project of the euro if worse came to worst. The interest rates that the Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, and Greek governments had to pay came down drastically when these countries were admitted into the euro. The low interest rates gave these countries leeway for deficit spending.