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To end the Eurozone crisis, bury the debt foreverPierre Pâris, Charles Wyplosz, 6 August 2013
The Eurozone’s debt crisis is getting worse despite appearances to the contrary. How can we end it? This column presents five major options for reducing crisis countries’ debt. Looking into the details, it seems the only option that is both realistic and effective is for countries to default by selling monetised debt to the ECB. Moral hazard aside, burying the debt seems to be the only way we can end the crisis.
How to gauge the Eurozone debt crisisThis leaves us with a coarser measure – the evolution of public debts – as a ratio to GDP. Spreads were clearly better indicators before OMT. There are plenty of problems with debt-to-GDP ratios:
- Gross debts are gross, i.e. they ignore public assets.
- Gross debts ignore unfunded public liabilities such as pensions and healthcare.
- GDP is a static measure of the ability to pay; GDP growth also matters.3
The three points taken together suggest that debt-to-GDP ratios of the 2010s paint a more optimistic picture of sustainability than the same levels in the 1990s.
Be that as it may, Figure 1 displays the public debt to GDP ratio for the Eurozone as a whole, along with the highest and lowest member country ratios (ignoring the two special cases of Estonia and Luxembourg).
- Even including optimistic forecasts for 2013, the figure can only confirm that the situation is getting worse.
There can be no surprise here. Budget stabilisation cannot work during a recession as was pointed out at the outset of crisis (Giavazzi 2010, Wyplosz 2010).
Figure 1. Debt to GDP ratios in the Eurozone (%)
Source: AMECO-on-line, European Commission.
Option 5: Debt monetisationAs often when numbers become too big for governments, the central bank emerges as the lender of last resort. De Grauwe (2011) has made the crucial observation that the fundamental reason why the debt crisis has been circumscribed to the Eurozone is that the markets did not believe that the ECB was ready to backstop public debts.
The success of the ECB’s OMT programme so far, in spite of its conditional nature, shows the role that a central bank can play when it moves in the direction of accepting its role as a lender of last resort. But stabilising spreads is merely a temporary stopgap. The legacy of crippling and threatening public debts remains to be dealt with.
This is why debt monetisation emerges as another solution.5 But a mere purchase of bonds by the ECB will not work for two reasons:
- First, each country must pay interest on its bonds, including those held by the central bank.
- Second, when the debt matures, the country will have to pay back the principal.
How the ECB could deal with the debtFor debt monetisation to allow for relief, the debt must be somehow eliminated once it has been acquired by the ECB. One way of achieving this goal is as follows:
- First, the ECB buys bonds of a country, say for a value of €100.
- Second, it exchanges these bonds against a perpetual, interest-free loan of €100.
The counterpart of this operation will appear on the liability side of the ECB’s balance sheet as a €100 increase in the monetary base. This is the cost of the debt monetisation.
Debt monetisation has a bad reputation, which is justified by the fact that it has often led in the past to runaway inflation.
Under current conditions, this is most unlikely to be inflationary. Given the icy state of credit markets, increases in the money base do not translate into increases of the actual money supply; in effect, the money multiplier is about zero.
In addition, high unemployment has created a deflationary environment. But, hopefully, the credit market will be revived one day and the recession will come to an end. At this stage, the money base will have to be shrunk. This is the exit problem (Wyplosz 2013). An alternative is to raise reserve requirements to reduce the size of the money multiplier. Either way, the balance sheet expansion need not lead to inflation.
One solution is for the ECB to sterilise its entire bond buying under this programme by issuing its own debt instruments, leaving the size of the money base unchanged. This can be done at the time of bond purchases or later, when exit will be undertaken.
Of course, the ECB will have to pay interest on its debt instruments, which will reduce profits and seigniorage to all member countries, both the defaulting ones and the others. This transfer ‘in the right direction’ is the way all member countries will share the loss inherent to debt restructuring.7
As always, we have to accept the tyranny of numbers. Today’s balance sheet of the ECB amounts to €2430 billion. The big bang example examined above would add €1200 billion, an increase of 50%. This is huge, but not unprecedented. In July 2007, the ECB balance sheet was €1190 billion – half of what it is today.
ConclusionAt the end of the day, except for Option 1, which is the classic virtuous approach, and Option 2, the disposable of public assets, none of the other options is appealing.
But if Options 1 and 2 are impossible, one has to choose among bad options.
Option 3 is clearly the least desirable because it would shake the markets and possibly take down large segments of the banking system. Option 4 is not just politically explosive; it could trigger a debt crisis among the countries currently perceived as healthy. This leaves us with Option 5.
Of course, defaulting through the ECB is merely a fig leaf to hide the cost of debt restructuring. In addition to spreading the impact over the long run, it has the advantage that the non-virtuous countries will share the costs in the form of reduced profit transfers from the ECB over the long run.
Obviously, debt cancellation entails a huge moral hazard that needs to be dealt with. Here it bears to emphasise that bringing the crisis to an end requires two conceptually different actions:
- One is dealing with the legacy of unsustainable debts, which is what the options presented here do (note that it is proposed to deal with the debt stock legacy, not to finance on-going deficits. A once-for-all action is far less dangerous than a permanent moral hazard).
- The other is to make sure that it will never happen again.
Topics: EU institutions, Macroeconomic policy
Tags: Debt crisis, debt monetisation, Eurozone crisis