The eurozone is no place for poor countries

La zone euro n’est pas faite pour les pays pauvres, estime Simon Tilford, dans un commentaire pour le Centre for European Reform de Londres. Pour les Etats les plus faibles de l’UE, qui aspirent légitimement à entrer dans l’eurogroupe, là où se prennent les décisions les plus importantes, il serait sage d’attendre.

The economic rationale for poorer countries joining the eurozone was that it would hasten economic convergence between themselves and the richer members of the currency union. They would benefit from a stable macroeconomic environment and more trade and inward investment. And Portugal aside, there was some convergence in the early years of the single currency. But this went into reverse in 2008 and by 2013 the poorer members of the currency union were no better off relative to the EU-15 average than they had been in 1999. Worse still, they have been overtaken by a number of the 2004’s EU intake, who in 1999 had been much poorer. Has the euro become a mechanism for divergence ? If so, what are the implications for growth across the eurozone as a whole and for the case for joining ?

In 1999, Greek and Portuguese per capita GDP were around 70 per cent of the EU-15 average, and Spanish a little over 80 per cent. By 2013, Greek and Portuguese GDP was under 70 per cent of the average. Spain has not done quite as badly, but has been diverging since 2008 (see chart 1). Indeed, far from converging with the richer members of the EU, they have converged with the Central and Eastern European countries which joined the EU in 2004. In 1999, the GDP levels in Poland and Slovakia (a euro member since 2009) were 42 per cent and 43 per cent of the EU-15 average respectively. The Czech Republic’s was just over 60 per cent of the average. By 2013, these figures were 65 per cent, 72 per cent and 75 per cent.

For crude supply-siders, the lack of convergence between members of the eurozone reflects the failure of the poorer member-states to push through reforms of their economies rather than anything to do with the structure of the currency union. This has cost them competitiveness, leading to economic stagnation.

Others maintain that divergence since 2008 is cyclical and will be quickly reversed. According to this view, the South is simply going through what Germany went through in the early 2000s. Interest rates are too high for the periphery in much the same way as they were for Germany between 1999 and 2006 ; conversely, they are now too low for Germany. Germany will grow more rapidly than the south for the next few years, but that will then reverse as Germany loses competitiveness and finds itself in similar position to that of the periphery now – with an overvalued real exchange rate and excessively tight monetary policy. At that point there will be renewed convergence between rich and poor. The worst that can be said is that the eurozone has amplified business cycles, but not that it has become an obstacle to convergence between rich and poor.

There are problems with both these arguments. First, it is hard to ascertain a correlation between the kinds of structural reforms the Commission is demanding of the South (principally labour market deregulation) and economic growth. Some of the best performing European economies over the last 20 years – notably Sweden and Austria – have relatively highly regulated labour markets. Germany – the benchmark for much of the Commission’s thinking – also has a tightly regulated labour market (notwithstanding 2004’s Hartz IV reforms), at least in regards to permanent workers (see chart 2). There is certainly a case for labour market reforms to address insider/outsider problems and to help young people and those with poor skills into work. But it is important not to exaggerate the economic effects of such reforms.

Nor can differences in product market regulation explain the lack of convergence in living standards within the eurozone. First, according to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), there has been steady convergence of such regulation among EU member-states. Second, there is no discernible correlation between levels of product market liberalisation and economic growth. For example, Sweden has among the more tightly regulated product markets in the EU, while Germany and Italy score about the same as each other. Greece does rank badly, but only as badly as Sweden did five year earlier (see chart 3).

This is not to say that – all other things being equal – competitive product markets will not boost economic performance, only that they can be more than offset by other things such as the wrong macroeconomic policies or misalignments of real exchange rates. The latter can have a big impact on levels of capital stock per employee and labour skills, which are more important in determining economic performance than levels of labour and product regulation. Cuts in education spending, large-scale emigration of young skilled workers and huge falls in business investment have damaged the productive capacity of the eurozone’s poorer economies.

The cyclical argument for the lack of convergence is also weak. There are several differences between Germany’s position in the early years of the euro and the south now. Germany’s period of retrenchment within the euro was essentially over by 2006. Germany’s real effective exchange rate was not seriously overvalued to start with. Germany was aided in its drive to reduce its real exchange rate by inflation being relatively high elsewhere in the eurozone. And, finally, the country was not highly indebted.

By contrast, the retrenchment in the poorer members of the eurozone has already lasted longer than in Germany in the early 2000s, and there is no end in sight for a number of reasons. First, their loss of trade competitiveness relative to the core is far bigger. Second, they are trying to regain competitiveness by holding inflation rates below the eurozone average at a time when inflation is chronically low elsewhere in the eurozone (German inflation is around 1 per cent and forecast to remain low). And third, they have very high levels of debt. Their drive to improve competitiveness is pushing them into deflation, increasing the real value of their debts and making it harder to deleverage.

As a result, overall levels of indebtedness in Greece, Portugal and Spain are still close to their all-time highs. Their levels of private sector debt have fallen, but there has been an offsetting increase in public debt. According to Standard and Poor’s, the so-called leverage ratio (public and private debt as a share of GDP) in Greece, Spain, and Portugal is currently around twice what it was at the beginning of 1999 ; Italy’s is 35 per cent higher.

Reducing these leverage ratios will be hard. Firms and households will continue to pay down debt for a long time to come, depressing consumption and investment. For their part, poorer eurozone governments risk contributing to the weakness of demand by continuing their drive to consolidate public finances. The result threatens to be weak economic growth and inflation and hence slow deleveraging. This is less a cyclical issue than a semi-permanent state of affairs. Growth in the poorer states will at some point in the future exceed that of the wealthier North, but any convergence is likely to be slow because of the permanent damage done to their growth potential.

A combination of debt write-offs, co-ordinated eurozone fiscal stimulus and a concerted drive by the European Central Bank (ECB) to drive up eurozone inflation could head off this unfavourable outcome. Anything is possible, of course, but all of these things look unlikely. Low borrowing costs have reduced pressure for institutional reforms of the eurozone, even if low bond yields should be ringing alarm bells (reflecting as they do mounting deflationary pressures). The eurozone might agree an investment programme, but a big fiscal stimulus is impossible without rewriting the rules. And there is little chance the ECB is going to morph into a European version of the US Federal Reserve and launch a full-blooded battle against deflation.

The fate of poorer EU-15 members of the eurozone should give prospective eastern and south-eastern EU member-states pause for thought before joining. They should also closely monitor the experience of Slovenia and Slovakia, which joined the single currency in 2007 and 2009 respectively. Slovenia is considerably poorer relative to the EU-15 average than when it joined. Slovakia has performed respectably within the single currency, but its real effective exchange rate has risen steeply relative to its peers (Czech Republic and Poland) and it has slipped into deflation.

For some – Lithuania, for example – joining the euro is about guarding its independence against a revanchist Russia. But the others face a trade-off : join the euro and get a seat at the top table (more and more of the real decisions on economic issues are taken by eurozone countries rather than the EU) in return for a loss of policy autonomy and much increased economic risk. Or reiterate their commitment to join but postpone doing so in the hope that the eurozone is reformed in such a way that it becomes a mechanism for convergence rather than divergence. This is the strategy being successfully pursued by Poland and the Czech Republic. Others would be wise to follow suit.