At the meeting in Rome last Thursday the four heads of state agreed on steps towards a banking union and a modest stimulus package to complement the fiscal compact. But Chancellor Merkel resisted all proposals to provide relief to Spain and Italy from the excessive risk premiums prevailing in the market. This threatens to turn the June summit into a fiasco which may well prove fatal because it will leave the rest of the eurozone without a strong enough firewall to protect it against the possibility of a Greek exit.
Even if a fatal accident can be avoided the division between creditor and debtor countries will be reinforced and the “periphery” countries will have no chance to regain competitiveness because the playing field is tilted against them. This may serve Germany’s narrow self-interest but it will create a very different Europe from the open society that fired people’s imagination. It will make Germany the center of an empire and put the “periphery” into a permanently subordinated position. That is not what Chancellor Merkel or the overwhelming majority of Germans stand for.
Chancellor Merkel argued that it is against the rules to use the ECB to solve the fiscal problems of member countries – and she is right. President Draghi of the ECB has said much the same. There is a missing element in the current plans for the June summit: a European Fiscal Authority (EFA) which, in partnership with the ECB, can do what the ECB cannot do on its own. It could establish a Debt Reduction Fund – a modified form of the European Debt Redemption Pact that was proposed by Chancellor Merkel’s Council of Economic Advisors and is endorsed by the Social Democrats and Greens. In return for Italy and Spain undertaking specified structural reforms the Fund would acquire and hold a significant portion of their outstanding stock of debt.
It would finance the purchases by issuing European Treasury Bills – a joint and several obligations of the member countries – and pass on the benefit of cheap financing to the countries concerned. The Bills will be assigned zero risk rating by the authorities and will be treated as the highest quality collateral for repo operations at the ECB. The banking system has an urgent need for risk-free liquid assets. Banks are currently holding more than €700 billion of surplus liquidity at the ECB earning only one quarter of 1% interest. This assures a large and ready market for the Bills at 1% or less.
Should a participating country subsequently fail to live up to its commitments the EFA may impose a fine or other form of penalty which would be proportionate to the violation so that it would not turn into a nuclear option that cannot be exercised. This would provide strong protection against moral hazard. For instance, it would make it practically impossible for a successor government in Italy to break any commitments undertaken by the Monti government. Having practically half the Italian debt financed by European Treasury Bills will have an effect similar to a reduction in the average maturity of its debt. That would make a successor government all the more responsive to any punishment imposed by the EFA.
After a suitable period the participating countries will enter into debt reduction programs which will be tailored not to jeopardize their growth.
That will be the prelude the establishment of a full political union and the introduction of eurobonds. The issuance of European Treasury Bills would of course require the approval of the Bundestag but it would be in conformity with the requirement by the German Constitutional Court that any commitment approved by the Bundestag should be limited in time and size.
It is not too late to turn into a Political Declaration which outlines not only the long-term goal of a political union but also a road map towards a fiscal and banking union. Guided by this Declaration the EFSF could immediately takeover the ECB holdings of Greek bonds, the ECB could start accumulating Spanish and Italian bonds and Italy and Spain could implement the structural reforms that will qualify them for the Debt Redemption Fund.
This would have the same effect on markets as the finance ministers’ declaration in November 2009 which saved the financial system. It would also change the political dynamics.
The main obstacle is in German politics which is mired in a “can’t do” mode. Chancellor Merkel insists that a political union should precede a full-fledged fiscal and banking union. That is both unrealistic and unreasonable. The three have to be developed together step-by-step. There can be no treaty or constitutional clause preventing the establishment of the EFA if the German electorate as represented by the Bundestag approves it – otherwise there could have been no ESM. If the rest of Europe is united behind this proposal and the Bundestag rejects it Germany must take full responsibility for the financial and political consequences.