Ambrose Evans-Pritchard weighs in the Daily Telegraph with thoughts about Greece, southern Europe and the fact that so many countries, such as Italy, Portugal and Greece, cannot cope with the euro. The logic of this, the article seems to imply, is that these nations should revert to their previous national currencies.
For reasons that some regulars at this blog will recall, I think this idea of reverting to purely national currencies is simplistic, and not just because the practical logistics of switching back to pesetas, liras or drachmas will be painful (for example, there is the issue of repaying euro-denominated debt). A national fiat currency, such as the old Italian lira, is still a form of state-issued monopoly money, liable to be abused and printed in vast amounts. Evans-Pritchard talks about the need for affected nations to be able to devalue their currencies so as to boost exports. But if you devalue – ie, print more of it – your currency, then the price of imported goods soars. Greece, for instance, imports a lot of things and is not a major exporter of goods or services, apart from some agriculture and so on. Devaluation may be good for Greece’s important tourist trade, but not so great in terms of keeping a check on inflation.
Detlev Schlichter, champion of what he calls “inelastic money”, has scorned the idea that reverting to national fiat moneys represents a step forward for the debt-laden countries of southern Europe.
Here are two paragraphs:
“One frequently gets the impression from reading the mainstream media that Greece has a monetary policy problem and not a fiscal problem. This is incorrect. Yet many commentators seem to argue along the following lines: This crisis is due to the straitjacket of the single currency with its one-size-fits-all monetary policy, or at least aggravated by the constraints of this system. Greece would have more “policy options” in dealing with its troubles if it had control of its own national currency.”
“Then there is, connected to this, an underlying – and not very flattering – notion that the Greeks are somewhat unfit to live and work in a ‘hard money system’, which presumably the euro is. The Greeks, this seems to be the allegation, like borrowing and spending too much. I am paraphrasing here but this is certainly the underlying tone of the narrative. The Germans and Dutch and French can live without the constant aid of conveniently cheap national money – but the Greeks can’t.”
These countries’ appalling fiscal problems would not be altered one jot by the quick fix of switching one transnational form of fiat money in exchange for a national form of fiat money. What these countries need is honest money that retains its value over time. I get the impression that were Greece, for example, linked to the old Gold Standard of the pre-First World War variety (which worked relatively well for its constituent members until the war destroyed it), Mr Evans-Pritchard would be objecting to that also. But the problems of these countries cannot be resolved by nation-state fiat funny money. Mr Evans-Pritchard, for example, suggests that the “PIIGS” countries need the equivalent of a 40 per cent devaluation against, say, Germany and France. Under a gold standard and a regime of small governments and flexible labour markets, no such a drastic shift would occur. Real wages in certain uncompetitive sectors would decline, and wages in more competitive ones would rise. Take the case of Greece: under a stable monetary system, Greece’s tourist industry would be able to compete splendidly so long as its costs were controlled. And this leads to the core of the issue: flexible rates of exchange between different fiat money systems appeal to those who don’t want to undertake the more painstaking route of curbing government, encouraging free markets in labour, etc. Devaluation will always appeal as an easy way out.
Schlichter has more thoughts on the recent attempts by EU states to shore up the euro.
Update: Of course, I can imagine some defenders of devaluation arguing that this reduces the real incomes of people in a country, which makes that nation more competitive, hence achieving the same sort of result as a decline real wages under the conditions of a fully flexible labour market. The problem is that the former approach makes no distinction between sectors or businesses. Also, the history of post-war Europe does not suggest that devaluation is much of a cure for deep-seated economic ills. The decline in the value of sterling in 1967 did not arrest Britain’s relative decline; when West Germany had a strong deutschemark in the 1970s, it was economically strong. True, the fall of sterling from the exchange rate mechanism in 1992 coincided with an improvement, but then again, the UK’s fiscal position was in relatively good shape and the UK labour market did not have some of the burdens of today.