Among investment bankers, there is renewed speculation about the possibility of a country leaving the European Monetary Union (EMU) — or being pushed out. Rating agencies have downgraded Portugal, Greece and Spain, owing to their poor prospects for economic growth and weak public finances. Ireland has been assigned a negative outlook and could soon suffer a downgrade as well.
With fears mounting that one or another euro-zone country may default, yield spreads on government bonds between EMU countries have reached record highs. For some time now, Greek 10-year government-bond yields have been about 300 basis points above German yields. This is a sign that investors now see a significant risk of a Greek default or of Greece exiting from the EMU and redenominating its government bonds.
But the panic that the EMU may disintegrate is overdone. Rather than a default and subsequent exit from the euro zone, the member states are more likely to overrule a fundamental principle of the EMU and bail out a fellow member state.
Leaving the EMU would be a costly option for weak-performing countries. Of course, regaining the exchange rate as an instrument for competitive devaluation could help overcome competitiveness losses because of soaring unit-labor costs.
As Argentina showed after its default and devaluation in the winter of 2001 to 2002, such a move can reignite exports and economic growth.
But Greece, Portugal, Italy and Ireland are not Argentina. The EU treaty does not provide for an exit from the EMU. As a default would demand a change in the currency involved in private contracts, business partners from other EU countries would surely sue, legal uncertainties would drag on and on, and an exiting country’s trade with its main trading partners would be impaired for years to come. So none of the countries at risk would seriously consider reintroducing a national currency.
It is possible that an EMU government will come close to insolvency or illiquidity.
But letting one member fail would create speculative pressure on other EMU governments with weak fiscal positions or shallow domestic bond markets. A widespread default of several countries in the EMU would lead to serious disruptions of trade within the EU and to new problems in the banking system, which would have to write down their holdings of government bonds. The large EU governments are well aware of this problem and would act accordingly.
With its loans to Hungary and Latvia, the European Commission has already revived a credit facility which was dormant since the European Monetary System crisis in 1992 — and for countries outside the EMU. The support is huge. Together with the IMF’s contribution, the EU loan to Latvia amounts to more than 33 percent of Latvian GDP.
By supporting to such a degree two new EU members that are not part of the EMU, the EU countries have demonstrated a much greater commitment to mutual aid than was thinkable only a few years ago. And more is expected to come: Last November, the Ecofin Council increased the ceiling for possible balance-of-payment loans to non-EMU countries to 25 billion euros (US$32.3 billion).
Against this background, it seems inconceivable that the EU should refuse to support an EMU member in a situation similar to that of Hungary and Latvia, especially as all the countries that are currently on market watch lists are long-time EU members. In case of real distress, the rest of the EU will offer a bailout package.