The PIIGS Problem: Maginot Line Economics

by Marshall Auerback, Fellow and Contributor to the Roosevelt Institute’s New Deal 2.0

Marshall Auerback warns that Germany’s obsession with a defense against the external threat of inflation is blinding them to the real risks facing Europe.

The Maginot Line, named after French Minister of Defense André Maginot, was a line of defenses which France constructed along its borders with Germany and Italy after suffering appalling damage and casualties during World War I. The French thought they were now protected from a repeat, and believed the defenses impenetrable.

Chatting to a number of German participants at last week’s Institute for New Economic Thinking (INET) conference, we couldn’t help getting a sense of the economic parallel in regard to Germany’s deep resistance to greater fiscal expansion as means of dealing with the problem of the “PIIGS“.

The Problem:

Germany’s fiscal deficit fetishism is largely a product of that country’s own hyperinflation experience during the Weimar Republic. As deeply ingrained as that trauma remains in the German psyche, it is now taking on an almost hysterically irrational quality as evidenced by the latest “rescue package” for Greece. Its EMU “partners”, led by Greece and soon to be followed by Portugal, Spain, Ireland and Italy, are increasingly being forced to embrace Germanic-style hair shirt economics, because the obvious fiscal response is constrained via self-imposed rules inherent in the rules governing the European Monetary Union. These rules are regarded, almost to a man, as “sound economics” by Germany’s policy makers and the vast majority of its citizens (if one is to measure this via the national polls, which continue to indicate visceral hostility to “bailouts” for “lazy Greek scroungers and tax dodgers”). We wonder if they’ll still be feeling that way if the contagion extends to Berlin and Paris.

Historians all know how effective the Maginot Line ultimately proved for the French in terms of defending a German occupation of their country during the Second World War: the Germans were able to avoid a direct assault on the Maginot Line by violating the neutrality of Belgium, Luxemburg and the Netherlands, whilst the Luftwaffe simply flew over it.

Likewise, we think Germany’s “Weimar 2.0″ phobia is based on similarly flawed “Maginot Line” thinking, thereby generating a correspondingly ineffectual response to the EMU crisis. It’s becoming a story of intellectual hubris, defending “good economics”, Germanic-style, over common sense.

Judging from the market’s reaction to the 45m euro rescue package of Greece, it appears that the EMU and, by extension, the euro, have dodged a bullet for now. But the PIIGS problems remain. The terms and conditions include IMF ‘austerity’ measures, which will act to slow the economy of Greece and the entire EU — which is already dangerously weak to the point of promoting higher budget deficits through low tax revenues and high transfer payments. All of which serves to further weaken the creditworthiness of all the member nations.

It also increases the euro debts of the other contributing nations because they are being forced to contribute to this funding package for Greece. The implication of the same type of ‘rescue’ for the larger euro nations is not pretty. Expect much higher levels of stress for the remaining euro member nations presumed to be ’strong’ as the same kind of forced austerity appears in store for other “violators” of the Maastricht Convergence Criteria. Think about Spain, which now has 20% unemployment, or Ireland, which has a classic Iceland problem, given that the liabilities of its banking system vastly exceed the country’s overall GDP.

The underlying assumption of the rescue package is not sound. The stronger nations still think by offering a big enough “guarantee” the markets will take up the slack and finance Greece for them. But the markets now want to see the cash and, more importantly, they want a firm demonstration that the funding guarantees provided will help to sustain the ability of nations like Greece to service its debt without turning the nation into an industrial wasteland. The markets no longer believe in a “contingent liability” model, which is something akin to indicating that you have a rich relative who can help you out if needed. The EMU’s “rich relative” has already indicated that this is verboten, but it has denied Greece and the other PIIGS nations the means to grow adequately to service debt going forward.

The Prognosis:

The euro should therefore fundamentally remain on the weak side after a temporary bout of short-covering, as the high levels of euro national government deficits are adding the non government sectors’ holding of euro denominated financial assets. And the austerity measures are likely to increase euro government deficits and thereby exacerbates potential national insolvency problems amongst the euro zone nations.

The common Germanic retort to this line of thinking is that a default in, say, California, would no more threaten the viability of the dollar than a Greek default would endanger the euro. Perhaps, although the Lehman experience should have taught us all that the negative externalities of such an event can seldom be determined in advance, given the opacity of today’s funding mechanisms. Additionally, the United States of America is an existing NATIONAL fiscal authority which can respond to the growing problem of state insolvency via dollar creation and corresponding revenue sharing with the states. No such comparable fiscal entity yet exists in the euro zone.

Although we have hitherto characterized Greece as the EMU’s “Lehman” problem, the rescue package announced on Monday makes us that think that the better parallel for Greece might well be Bear Stearns. Bear’s “rescue” in March 2008, initially looked like it enabled the global financial markets to avert a growing crisis in the asset backed securities markets. What it did in reality was kick the can down the road, as the underlying structural problems which created the crisis in the first place remained unresolved. The credit crisis that began in August 2007 involved failure of both the liquidity and the solvency risk systems. The consequent freeze-up arose because the subsequent bankruptcy of Lehman and collapse of AIG destroyed the markets’ expectations (built up by years of bailouts) of their being an ultimate market maker, which would always be able to deal in these securitized instruments.

By the same token, the creation of a common currency via monetary union has created market expectations that one country’s paper is as good as another, which explains why, for so many years, “fiscally profligate” nations such as Italy were able to borrow at Germanic level interest rates. But the decision a few months ago by the European Central Bank to block a basic “repo” function — namely, the purchases of a number of European commercial banks of Greek government debt and exchanging this debt via repos with the ECB for German and French government paper is what appears to have initially triggered the Greek crisis and raised issues of Athens’s potential insolvency.

From what we understand, the cessation of this repo function was largely done at the behest of the Germans, who saw this activity as a kind of “back door monetization” which would lead inevitably to inflation. This, despite the fact that the entire euro zone is characterized by huge unemployment , high output gaps, and collapsing domestic consumption. All of this at the core is being driven by Germany’s pathological fear of inflation which they see as the inevitable consequence of excessive government budget deficits.

But Germany’s irrational fears of inflation are storing up the conditions for a far greater crisis down the line. The euro contagion could now very well spread to Italy Portugal Spain and Ireland, all of which (under the terms of this package) have to lend to Greece, at around 5%. So what happens to their funding costs? They go north of 5% as a next step. In the US, when good banks took over bad banks, they became bad banks themselves (see Bank of America and Countrywide). And what about the seniority structure of these loans? Do they subordinate Greek Government Bond holders? One assumes yes, but this is not made clear by the rescue package. In short, this appears to be a cobbled together solution, and it won’t work for a Spain or an Italy. There’s no clarity even on how it gets ratified. The EU says it’s done, but Germany and Holland say they need Parliamentary approval (which can easily be delayed).

Let’s be clear: in the aftermath of World War I, German production capacity was either significantly damaged, or redirected toward output required by the military. The Allied blockade further restricted imports well into 1919, and in 1923, French and Belgian troops occupied the Ruhr valley which held a good deal of Germany’s manufacturing base. All of these measures significantly restricted Germany’s capacity to produce, fueling the distributional conflict that fed the hyperinflation.

There is nothing like that today in Germany, yet “Weimar 2.0″ thinking predominates in much the same way that “Maginot Line” thinking dominated French thinking in its defense establishment. The obsession with a”defense” against the “external” threat of inflation, is blinding Germany. It doesn’t see the risk that the collapse of aggregate demand within the European Monetary Union will ultimately lead to a collapse in Germany’s export sector (a large chunk of which is the product of intra-European trade), and the corresponding extension of the “PIIGS” disease of slow growth and high unemployment to the heartland of the euro zone. We know how it ended for France, once the Maginot Line proved to be a defense more apparent than real.

We hope that Germany’s similarly “successful” defense of inflation does not lead to a comparably disastrous result for Europe today.