Thursday, November 17, 2011

You turn if you want to

Like the markets, I'm oscillating between fear and terror on the future of the euro. On a good day, I'm simply deeply worried. On a bad day, I stick my head under a blanket. This article by Guido Westerwelle (Germany is not for turning on how to save the euro) is actually the kind of thing that keeps me under the duvet.

As well as the ritual commitment to standing firm and avoiding easy get-outs (we prefer to do things the difficult way), Westerwelle shows a touching faith in 'reforms'. So, he states, the way to tackle the immediate crisis is for 'Greece’s government (to) without further delay adopt and implement the necessary reforms'.

Right. Presumably in a minute he'll tell us what the reforms are. Yes, here goes: 'Only when states regain trust by immediate and thorough reforms, can the crisis be overcome.'

Yes, couldn't agree more. So, these reforms are....? Well, he doesn't say, but he does mention that 'Putting the European Central Bank’s printing presses to work... would have dire consequences, both raising inflation and dissipating vitally important incentives for reform'.

So reform is the key. The thing is, there are reforms and reforms. Germany spent most of the last two decades resisting reforms that Brits and Americans insisted were necessary to drag it out of the post-unification torpor. It did make major changes to labour markets and the welfare state, but avoided reforms in a host of other areas. So not all reforms are good reforms, at least for Germany.

Southern European countries have also adopted reforms. Labour markets have been liberalized, financial markets opened, public spending cut, pension ages increased. Not just now, but well before the crisis. Some of these reforms were beneficial, maybe some didn't go far enough. But the notion that reform will solve everything assumes that we know what reforms will restore growth, competitiveness and fiscal stability. And we don't.

Hanging the fate of the Euro on a vague and untested programme of 'reform' is wishful thinking at its most dangerous. It won't work politically, and it probably won't work economically. And it certainly won't deal with Germany's €182 billion trade surplus, which it lent out to the rest of the Eurozone thus creating the debts that we're all worrying about.