By Wolfgang Schäuble
In recent weeks, debt markets have undergone wild gyrations, leading some analysts and commentators to question the progress achieved in taming the sovereign debt crisis in the eurozone. More recently, economic data and forward-looking indicators have emerged that many economists think point to a faltering of the global recovery, compounding the general anxiety.
Instead of focusing minds, however, these developments have prompted a cacophony of prescriptions about what western governments should do next. There have been calls on regulators to rein in speculators, on the central banks to loosen monetary policy further, on the US and Germany to use their supposed “fiscal space” to encourage demand and on EU leaders to take an immediate leap into a fiscal union and joint liability. Now more than ever is a time for clear messages and clear priorities.
Whatever role the markets may have played in catalysing the sovereign debt crisis in the eurozone, it is an undisputable fact that excessive state spending has led to unsustainable levels of debt and deficits that now threaten our economic welfare. Piling on more debt now will stunt rather than stimulate growth in the long run. Governments in and beyond the eurozone need not just to commit to fiscal consolidation and improved competitiveness – they need to start delivering on these now.The recipe is as simple as it is hard to implement in practice: western democracies and other countries faced with high levels of debt and deficits need to cut expenditures, increase revenues and remove the structural hindrances in their economies, however politically painful. Some progress has already been achieved in this respect, but more needs to be done. Only this course of action can lead to sustainable growth as opposed to short-term volatile bursts or long-term economic decline.
There is some concern that fiscal consolidation, a smaller public sector and more flexible labour markets could undermine demand in these countries in the short term. I am not convinced that this is a foregone conclusion, but even if it were, there is a trade-off between short-term pain and long-term gain. An increase in consumer and investor confidence and a shortening of unemployment lines will in the medium term cancel out any short-term dip in consumption.
These efforts will inevitably bear fruit, but it will not come overnight. This time, we will have to take the longer view. For too long we have forsaken long-term gains for short-term gratification with the result we all know.
The members of the eurozone have and will continue to collectively provide conditional financial assistance to those countries that find themselves cut off from capital markets, buying them time to put their public finances on a sustainable footing and to improve their competitiveness. There are risks to this strategy. Yet the alternative, by allowing the crisis to infect the eurozone as a whole and threaten the euro, would be riskier still.
When markets become the bearer of bad news, there is a natural tendency to take aim at the messenger. The truth is that governments need the disciplining forces of markets. But markets, like the human beings they are made of, do not always act rationally. In uncertain times and absent a robust regulatory framework, their volatility can exacerbate a crisis.
There is a broad consensus now that more robust, crisis-resistant markets need strong regulation. But the process is laborious and momentum in the G20 appears to be fading. In this context, it may become necessary for key countries to move ahead unilaterally in specific areas. Last year, Germany introduced a limited yet controversial ban on naked short-selling. Today, I would see the introduction of a financial transaction tax in Europe as another case for such a “pacemaker-approach” by a few, important pioneers.
One central lesson of the financial crisis was that markets could only function properly if risk-taking were not divorced from liability. The loosening of this bond was a central factor of the crisis. Likewise, the eurozone crisis unfolded after a decade during which economies with markedly different and, indeed, diverging fiscal profiles and competitiveness were all able to borrow at close to benchmark rates.
Hence my unease when some politicians and economists call on the eurozone to take a sudden leap into fiscal union and joint liability. Not only would such a step fail to durably solve the crisis by addressing only its most superficial symptoms, but it could make it worse in the medium term by removing a key incentive for the weaker members to forge ahead with much-needed reforms. It would also go against the very nature of European integration. Europe has always moved forward one step at a time and it should continue to do so. This does not mean that fiscal policy in the eurozone should not gradually become more centralised. It should, as long as this process is legitimised by a strong democratic mandate. But strengthening the architecture of the eurozone will need time. It may need profound treaty changes, which will not happen overnight. But the direction is not disputed, and the determination of all member states to defend the common European currency is granted.
The writer is Germany’s federal minister of finance