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The European crisis wasn’t caused by deficits. Or debt.

By Ezra Klein,

Martin Wolf looks closely at the numbers and argues that the European crisis is not really about annual deficits or public debt. It’s about trade balances:

Take a look at the average fiscal deficits of 12 significant (or at least revealing) eurozone members from 1999 to 2007, inclusive. Every country, except Greece, fell below the famous 3 per cent of gross domestic product limit. Focusing on this criterion would have missed all today’s crisis-hit members, except Greece. Moreover, the four worst exemplars, after Greece, were Italy and then France, Germany and Austria. Meanwhile, Ireland, Estonia, Spain and Belgium had good performances over these years. After the crisis, the picture changed, with huge (and unexpected) deteriorations in the fiscal positions of Ireland, Portugal and Spain (though not Italy). In all, however, fiscal deficits were useless as indicators of looming crises (see charts).
Now consider public debt. Relying on that criterion would have picked up Greece, Italy, Belgium and Portugal. But Estonia, Ireland and Spain had vastly better public debt positions than Germany. Indeed, on the basis of its deficit and debt performance, pre-crisis Germany even looked vulnerable. Again, after the crisis, the picture transformed swiftly. Ireland’s story is amazing: in just five years it will suffer a 93 percentage point jump in the ratio of its net public debt to GDP.
Now consider average current account deficits over 1999-2007. On this measure, the most vulnerable countries were Estonia, Portugal, Greece, Spain, Ireland and Italy. So we have a useful indicator, at last. This, then, is a balance of payments crisis. In 2008, private financing of external imbalances suffered “sudden stops”: private credit was cut off. Ever since, official sources have been engaged as financiers. The European System of Central Banks has played a huge role as lender of last resort to the banks, as Hans-Werner Sinn of Munich’s Ifo Institute argues.
If the most powerful country in the eurozone refuses to recognise the nature of the crisis, the eurozone has no chance of either remedying it or preventing a recurrence. Yes, the ECB might paper over the cracks. In the short run, such intervention is even indispensable, since time is needed for external adjustments. Ultimately, however, external adjustment is crucial. That is far more important than fiscal austerity.

More here. My Bloomberg column today focuses on a related point: In the long run, the euro zone can’t get out of this crisis through deficit reduction. They can’t even get out through institutional reform. The only way to get out is through growth.

If there’s sufficient growth, then the debts can be paid down and the institutional reforms can work. If there isn’t, then the fiscal union won’t work as the weaker economies won’t be able to hold deficits beneath 3 percent of GDP.

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