From Contagion to Incoherence a Simple Macroeconomic Model of the Eurozone Crisis Published PDF

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Yanis Varoufakis





    *University of Athens and University of Texas at Austin

    Based on an account of the macroeconomic foundations and political economy

    underpinning European Monetary Union, this paper presents a simple dynamic

    model of the mutual reinforcement feedback between (i) the Eurozones contagion

    dynamic and (ii) the policy responses of the European Union, including the creation

    of new institutions (e.g. the European Financial Stability Facility, EFSF, and

    European Stability Mechanism, ESM), the signing of new treaties (e.g. the Fiscal

    Past) and, of course, the novel policies of existing institutions (e.g. the ECB).


    While contagion within the Eurozone has been perhaps the most discussed dynamic

    economic process in recent times, it is nevertheless telling that little has been done

    analytically to capture the interplay between contagion and Europes institutional

    responses.1 This paper offers a simple analysis of the nexus between:

    (i) a monetary union whose very design removed internal shock absorbers while,

    at once, magnifying both the probability and the magnitude of a future crisis,

    (ii) a political response to the (preordained) crisis that involved the creation of

    toxic bailout funds which accentuated the crisis,

    (iii) the underlying macroeconomic imbalances which are in fact deepening, thus

    rendering the European Unions fiscal and monetary strategies logically inco-

    herent, and

    (iv) the European Central Bank whose decisive intervention to offer medium-term

    financial stability came at the price of reinforcing long-term disintegration.

    1 See Arestis and Sawyer (2012) for a review of the literature from which this interplay is largely absentand Holland and Varoufakis (2011, 2012) for a discussion of this interplay as well as a proposal for how itcould be short-circuited.

    Contributions to Political Economy (2013) 32, 51-71

    Received: 23 February 2013 Accepted: 11 March 2013# The Author 2013. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of the Cambridge Political EconomySociety. All rights reserved

  • Section 2 discusses the state of the Eurozone before the global financial crisis of

    2008, a period during which global capital and trade flows were bestowing upon

    Europes elites a false sense of security while, simultaneously, ensuring that the

    Eurozone would enter the Great Recession as the global economys most vulnerable

    bloc. Once the Credit Crunch struck global finance, it set in motion the process

    that, beginning with the effective insolvency of most of Europes banks, led to the se-

    quential bankruptcy of member states and their respective banking systems, with

    Greece and Ireland as its early victims.

    Section 3 then examines analytically Europes institutional response to the crisis

    and, in particular, the process that began with Greeces original bailout (May 2010)

    and soon after occasioned the two bailout funds (the European Financial Stability

    Facility, EFSF, and more recently, its permanent replacement, the European

    Stability Mechanism, ESM). Using a simple dynamic model, Section 4 shows why

    the introduction of these new institutions was bound to accelerate the crisis, spread-

    ing the contagion from peripheral nations such as Greece to the Eurozones core. Its

    point is that contagion spread because of (rather than despite) the very design of the

    new fiscal institutions.

    Section 5 extends the analysis to the two major moves by the European Central

    Bank, under its third President, Mr Mario Draghi, which succeeded in arresting the

    contagion within the financial and bond markets; namely the provision of infinite li-

    quidity to the Eurozones banks (the long-term re-financing, or LTRO, programme)

    and, since September 2012, the announcement of the ECBs readiness to purchase

    infinite amounts of Spanish and Italian sovereign debt in the secondary markets (the

    outright monetary transactions, or OMT, programme). However, according to the

    offered model, the calmness that the ECB has purchased by these means accentu-

    ates further the forces of disintegration that are pushing the Eurozones real

    economy to the breaking point. Section 6 concludes with a discussion of the pre-

    dicament facing European leaders who are utterly committed, on the one hand, to

    the Eurozone and, on the other, to policies that lead to its disintegration.


    If the Gold Standard experience of the 1920s taught us anything,2 it is that fixing

    exchange rates between economies whose capital utilisation and degree of oligopoly

    in their manufacturing sectors diverge significantly, especially when underpinned by

    effectively undifferentiated inflation-targeting monetary policies, is a recipe for large

    capital flows from the surplus to the deficit nations.

    Given that the deficit economies lack the high concentration of networked, globa-

    lising conglomerates that can convert automatically such capital inflows into

    productivity-enhancing investments, the result, naturally, is rampant asset value

    inflation (e.g. real estate bubbles) in the deficit economies and a growth rate that far

    2 See Hansen (1938).


  • exceeds the rate of accumulation in their exportables sector. In contrast, the surplus

    economies, whose manufacturing is by definition highly oligopolised, and in fact

    lack competitors in the deficit nations (e.g. countries like Greece produce no cars),

    experience high investment rates into productivity-enhancing capital and a consider-

    ably lower concomitant growth rate.3

    The combination of growth rates that exceed (trail) fixed capital formation rates

    in the deficit (surplus) countries gives rise to a tension between (i) the underlying

    economic reality of a slow burning recession in crucial sectors across the surplus-

    deficit nation divide and (ii) the epiphenomenal growth that seems to typify the

    whole common currency or fixed exchange rates bloc4 and in underpinned by a new

    form of financial exploitation of working and middle classes.5 At some point, this

    tension ruptures into a financial crisis which soon turns into a classic debt-

    deflationary spiral with the burden of adjustment disproportionately placed on the

    shoulders of the weakest member states. This is what the world witnessed in the run

    up to the Crash of 1929 and it is precisely the same process that we witnessed in the

    Eurozone recently. It is as if the common currencys designers chose purposely not

    to heed the lessons of the dreadful mid-war era that conspired to cause humanitys

    greatest tragedy.

    There are, of course, important differences between the Gold Standard and the

    Eurozone. One such difference stems from the fact that the creation of a common

    currency, as opposed to fixing exchange rates across different currencies, made it im-

    possible for a deficit nation asphyxiating under the inevitable debt-deflationary spiral

    to cut itself loose, devalue its currency, and thus cut through the Gordian Knot of

    debts, bankruptcies and austerity. In an important sense, Greece and Ireland found

    themselves in 2010 in the situation that Britain would have faced in 1931 if it had

    no currency of its own to un-peg from the Gold Standard and, instead, had to

    create one from scratch so as to devalue it many months later.

    A second critical difference stems from the extent to which our eras financialisa-

    tion creates hitherto unheard of linkages between real wage differentials, real estate

    bubbles, sovereign debt instruments and, not least, exotic financial products. When,

    for instance, real wages were repressed in Germany, following the nations well-

    documented corporatist response to the countrys re-unification, real estate prices

    rose fast in the deficit countries, while aggregate demand was exported from them

    to the surplus countries courtesy of the latters lower growth rate (which was trailing

    the rate at which new excess capacity was being formed).6 Meanwhile, overall

    growth was only sustained with the help of a form of financialisation whose depth

    and rapidity only modern technology (e.g. computerised trading and algorithmic

    financial models) could sustain.

    3 See Halevi and Lucareli (2002) and Halevi (2010).4 See Priewe (2007).5 See Bryan and Rafferty (2006).6 See Niechoj et al. (2011).


  • Meanwhile, and at least since 1980, Americas twin deficits operated like a huge

    vacuum cleaner sucking into the USA the net exports of Germany, Japan and later

    China, thus generating the aggregate demand that their factories craved. At once,

    almost 70% of these exporters profits formed tsunamis of capital that gushed into

    Wall Street as if in a bid to finance Americas twin deficits, and thus closed the

    global loop of real and financial surpluses. On the back of these tsunamis, a wave

    of financialisation developed flooding the banks, including the French and German

    ones, with untold liquidity.7

    The combination of accumulating profits in the Eurozones core (due largely to

    the repression of Germanys wage share) and abundant toxic, or private, money

    minted by the financial sector (primarily by the City and Wall Street) ensured that

    no decent returns could be found in the sluggish Eurozone core itself. It was thus

    unsurprising that torrents of credit rushed from the surplus to the deficit Eurozone

    countries in the form of loans and sovereign debt purchases. For 12 years (1997

    2008), the capital inflows into the Periphery reinforced themselves by strengthening

    the demand for the cores net exports, part of which was utilised in helping German

    multinationals globalise beyond the Eurozone (in Eastern Europe, Asia and Latin


    Figure 1 offers a snapshot of the relative macroeconomic position of the

    Eurozones deficit and surplus member states in relation to their budget, current

    account and net investment positions. Letting si Si 2 Ii, i.e. savings in excess ofinvestment for country i, ti Ti 2 Gi, i.e. govenrment is budget surplus, and ri Xi2Mi, i.e. the difference between the export income and income spent on

    imports, while subscripts D and S refer to the deficit and the surplus Eurozone

    member states, respectively, the downward slopping lines in Figure 1 depict the loci

    that deficit and surplus countries are constrained on by the standard identities of na-

    tional income categories.8 Points D1 and S1 reflect the Eurozones stylised facts

    prior to the Credit Crunch of 2007 and the Crash of 2008: the deficit countries oc-

    cupied a point on their rD constraint which reflected a current account deficitr1D , 0, a budget deficit t1i , 0 and investment exceeding savings, as a result ofthe capital inflows from the Eurozones core (as well as from the City and Wall

    Street). In contrast, the surplus member states where finding themselves in the adja-

    cent quadrant since, by definition, their current account was in surplus r1S . 0. Inthe meantime, aided by Americas energetic aggregate demand global production,

    the Eurozone as a whole experienced a small but discernible trade surplus with the

    rest of the world rEZ r1D r1S . 0.

    7 See Varoufakis et al. (2011) and Varoufakis (2012, 2013).8 From the standard identities Y C I G X 2M (where Y gross domestic product, or GDP,

    C consumption, I investment, G government expenditure, X export-generated income and M income spent on imported goods and services) and Y C S T (where S domestic savings and T taxes), it turns out that S T I G X 2M or (S 2 I) (T2 G) (S 2 I).


  • While deficit countries were protected from exchange rate speculative attacks, they

    were always open to the threat of a credit crunch. Indeed, a situation like that in

    Figure 1 (underpinned by a growth rate in the Periphery in excess of that in the

    Eurozones core) was simply unsustainable, even in view of the Eurozones trade

    surplus with the rest of the world. Put simply, while the deficit nations had a com-

    bined debt to GDP ratio well above that of the surplus member states, the observed

    anaemic growth rate in surplus nations nominal GDP, in conjunction with their

    substantial budget deficits, was placing the surplus countries debt to GDP ratios in

    FIGURE 1. Before the crisis.


  • a trajectory that would push them to unsustainable levels above those of the deficit


    Moreover, the overwhelming pressure to conform with the Maastricht Treatys 3%

    deficit-to-GDP limit meant that the maintenance of aggregate demand in both

    surplus and deficit countries necessitated the shifting of their positions in Figure 1

    in the direction of the thick arrows: from D1 and S1 to D*1 and S*1 respectively. The

    reason, of course, was that the Maastricht requirement that the ts should not sinkfurther into negative territory meant that the only way that the Eurozones pre-2008

    internal dynamic could be maintained was by means of the following feedback loop:



    The Eurozone, as is now widely acknowledged, simply lacked the mechanisms that

    could contain a financial crisis in its midst, like that, say, of South East Asia in the

    late 1990s.10 Under the principle of Perfectly Separable Debts, which defined the

    Eurozones quasi-constitutional arrangements, and the fact that, uniquely in eco-

    nomic history, the Eurozone featured a Central Bank, the ECB, that lacked a

    mandate for acting as a lender of last resort either for the Eurozones banks or for

    the sovereigns, the scene was set for a sequential bankruptcy of pairs of sovereigns

    and banking systems. All it took, in view of the utterly intertwined nature of public

    finance and banking throughout the common currency area, was some financial

    shock that would set in train the deconstruction process.

    As it happened, the requisite shock was gargantuan and came from Wall Street and

    the City in the form of a comprehensive cessation of inter-bank lending, a sudden

    withdrawal of the hitherto unbounded liquidity and, importantly, the collapse in the

    prices of derivative contracts which, for the past 8 years or so, had acquired the nature

    of private money. Meanwhile, the credit rating agencies, caught out by the sudden an-

    nihilation of their infamous triple-A pronouncements, were on the look out to make

    partial amends by warning their customers about the next sharp decline in paper

    values. It was the difficulties of Dubais sovereign debt, the first example of conta-

    gion from the private to the public debt markets, which caused the agencies to take a

    closer look at other sovereigns. Greece was the obvious focal point.

    Greece was the Eurozone member state with the highest debt-to-GDP ratio and,

    before 2008, the second highest growth rate within the common currency. Capital

    flows (from French and German banks) were channelled through the Greek state

    which was then passing them on to the developers (the result being Olympic Games

    stadia, public infrastructure etc.). Unlike in Spain and Ireland, where the capital

    flows bypassed the state, creatin...