Financial markets are driving the world towards another Great Depression with incalculable political consequences. The authorities, particularly in Europe, have lost control of the situation. They need to regain control and they need to do so now.
Three bold steps are needed. First, the governments of the eurozone must agree in principle on a new treaty creating a common treasury for the eurozone. In the meantime, the major banks must be put under European Central Bank direction in return for a temporary guarantee and permanent recapitalisation. The ECB would direct the banks to maintain their credit lines and outstanding loans, while closely monitoring risks taken for their own accounts. Third, the ECB would enable countries such as Italy and Spain to temporarily refinance their debt at a very low cost. These steps would calm the markets and give Europe time to develop a growth strategy, without which the debt problem cannot be solved.
This is how it would work. Since a eurozone treaty establishing a common treasury would take a long time to conclude, in the interim the member states have to appeal to the ECB to fill the vacuum. The European Financial Stabilisation Fund is still being formed but in its present form the new common treasury is only a source of funds and how the funds are spent is left to the member states. It would require a newly created intergovernmental agency to enable the EFSF to cooperate with Europe’s central bank. This would have to be authorised by Germany’s Bundestag and perhaps by the legislatures of other states as well.
The immediate task is to erect the necessary safeguards against contagion from a possible Greek default. There are two vulnerable groups – the banks and the government bonds of countries such as Italy and Spain – that need to be protected. These two tasks could be accomplished as follows.
The EFSF would be used primarily to guarantee and recapitalise banks. The systemically important banks would have to sign an undertaking with the EFSF that they would abide by the instructions of the ECB as long as the guarantees were in force. Banks that refused to sign would not be guaranteed. Europe’s central bank would then instruct the banks to maintain their credit lines and loan portfolios while closely monitoring the risks they run for their own account. These arrangements would stop the concentrated deleveraging that is one of the main causes of the crisis. Completing the recapitalisation would remove the incentive to deleverage. The blanket guarantee could then be withdrawn.
To relieve the pressure on the government bonds of countries such as Italy, the ECB would lower its discount rate. It would then encourage the countries concerned to finance themselves entirely by issuing treasury bills and encourage the banks to buy the bills. The banks could rediscount the bills with the ECB but they would not do so as long as they earned more on the bills than on the cash. This would allow Italy and the other countries to refinance themselves for about 1 per cent a year during this emergency period. Yet the countries concerned would be subject to strict discipline because if they went beyond agreed limits the facility would be withdrawn. Neither the ECB nor the EFSF would buy any more bonds in the market, allowing the market to set risk premiums. If and when the premiums returned to more normal levels the countries concerned would start issuing longer-duration debt.
These measures would allow Greece to default without causing a global meltdown. That does not mean that Greece would be forced into default. If Greece met its targets, the EFSF could underwrite a “voluntary” restructuring at, say 50 cents on the euro. The EFSF would have enough money left to guarantee and recapitalise the European banks and it would be left to the International Monetary Fund to recapitalise the Greek banks. How Greece fared under those circumstances would be up to the Greeks.
I believe these steps would bring the acute phase of the euro crisis to an end by staunching its two main sources and reassuring the markets that a longer-term solution was in sight. The longer-term solution would be more complicated because the regime imposed by the ECB would leave no room for fiscal stimulus and the debt problem could not be resolved without growth. How to create viable fiscal rules for the euro would be left to the treaty negotiations.
There are many other proposals under discussion behind closed doors. Most of these proposals seek to leverage the EFSF by turning it into a bank or an insurance company or by using a special purpose vehicle. While practically any proposal is liable to bring temporary relief, disappointment could push financial markets over the brink. Markets are likely to see through inadequate proposals, especially if they violate Article 123 of the Lisbon treaty, which is scrupulously respected by my proposal. That said, some form of leverage could be useful in recapitalising the banks.
The course of action outlined here does not require leveraging or increasing the size of the EFSF but it is more radical because it puts the banks under European control. That is liable to arouse the opposition of both the banks and the national authorities. Only public pressure can make it happen.