The eurozone is in recession. This is no surprise. Neither is it surprising that the south is struggling much more than the north. Keynesians are responding with a chorus of voices arguing that this means that it is time to end austerity and increase government spending – as if this can be a solution.

In the short term, the indebted countries cannot borrow more money in any case – it is simply impossible unless the European Central Bank buys the bonds and gets involved in the monetary financing of deficits. However, southern Europe is not failing because governments are spending and borrowing too little. Greece has outstanding debt of 140 per cent of national income and Italy’s debt is 120 per cent of national income. Spain has a more modest debt but is backing huge losses in private banks with government support.

It is possible for countries to ‘grow out’ of these levels of indebtedness but not through borrowing more. Increased borrowing would lead only to a very temporary boost to growth – if that – while leading to higher interest payments in the future, and a necessary reversal of policy which would mean that we simply had a more serious problem a few years down the road. Keynesians and supporters of fiscal prudence might be able to agree on one thing – that there should be some kind of recognition of bad debts. There is no point in governments that have reached the limit of indebtedness bailing out the banks.

Indebted governments are lending to bust banks which have lent to the same indebted governments; governments are bailing out each other; the various EU mechanisms – financed by the same governments – are bailing out the indebted governments; and the ECB – also financed by the governments – is bailing out everybody. Parties have lent money to other parties, who will not repay, and the sooner this is recognised the better. This will mean the orderly failure of some banks and losses being taken by investors. If governments default, then there should be a programme of privatisation – some indebted countries have huge state assets – to pay back creditors.

But the indebted countries are not going to grow out of their debt problem and reduce unemployment unless serious long-term structural problems are addressed that are nothing to do with the crisis, but everything to do with bloated government. On average, 70 per cent of 60-64 year olds in the European Union do not work. This figure is 80 per cent for many of the most indebted countries. Perhaps even more shockingly, the average inactivity rate between 55 and 64 is around 55 per cent – again even higher for the most indebted countries.

Typically, the southern EU countries have shadow economies between 20 per cent and 25 per cent of national income. These are long-standing structural problems and their causes can be traced back to dysfunctional labour markets and social insurance systems, regulation and high taxation as well as, in some cases, endemic corruption. Reforms are necessary for long-term growth, but the reforms must take place now.

Meanwhile, it is impossible to envisage the economies of the southern European countries recovering while they are members of the eurozone. Economic shocks require price adjustments. Before the single currency, this would happen through exchange rate changes. Post the single currency, price adjustments can only be brought about by changes in nominal wages, prices and social security benefits – probably of the order of 20-25 per cent. The dysfunctional micro-economic situation throughout most of the EU prevents such changes.

An orderly departure from the euro is necessary unless reforms are so rapid and so radical that the indebted countries can adjust to the economic situation that is facing them. The three point plan for the indebted eurozone countries now in recession is simple – though not easy: recognise bad debt for what it is; orderly exits from the single currency; radical economic reforms. One part of this programme cannot wait for another. All must happen now.

This article originally appeared in Public Service Europe. 

Philip Booth 154x154
Philip Booth is Academic and Research Director at the Institute of Economic Affairs and Professor of Finance, Public Policy and Ethics at St. Mary's University, Twickenham. From 2002-2015 he was Professor of Insurance and Risk Management at Cass Business School. Previously, Philip Booth worked for the Bank of England as an advisor on financial stability issues and he was also Associate Dean of Cass Business School and held various other academic positions at City University. He has written widely, including a number of books, on investment, finance, social insurance and pensions as well as on the relationship between Catholic social teaching and economics. He is Deputy Editor of Economic Affairs and on the editorial boards of various other academic journals. Philip is a Fellow of the Royal Statistical Society, a Fellow of the Institute of Actuaries and an honorary member of the Society of Actuaries of Poland. He has previously worked in the investment department of Axa Equity and Law and was been involved in a number of projects to help develop actuarial professions and actuarial, finance and investment professional teaching programmes in Central and Eastern Europe. Philip has a BA in Economics from the University of Durham and a PhD from City University.

3 thoughts on “A blueprint to end eurozone recession”

  1. Posted 16/11/2012 at 11:27 | Permalink

    An excellent, but sobering, perspective that sadly will go unheeded…

  2. Posted 16/11/2012 at 15:37 | Permalink

    I agree with Philip Booth about what ought to happen to overcome the problems of several Eurozone countries — including an orderly departure from the euro. But this seems unlikely. So one has to predict that the eventual outcome will be a number of disorderly departures.

  3. Posted 20/11/2012 at 14:42 | Permalink

    There is no more escaping the need to fix broken fundamentals. The time has come for Europe to pay the piper. Great article, Philip

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