The economic crisis that once seemed poise to rip the euro zone apart more recently appears to have receded. Greece just successfully floated a bond issue and yields fell across Europe’s troubled periphery. The threat would seem to have been beaten back by bold central bank assertions. In the summer of 2012, European Central Bank President Mario Draghi announced a plan to do “whatever it takes” to save the euro zone.
Appearances can deceive. The Draghi plan (also known as OMT) restored a degree of confidence and stopped a sell-off of sovereign bonds. But the sovereign debt crisis was only one of three interlinked crises plaguing the euro zone. A crisis in the banking sector meant that European business had little access to credit. A crisis of growth meant that peripheral euro zone countries have been suffering from shocking and persistent levels of unemployment. None of these crises have gone away. In recent weeks each crisis has burbled and revealed a lack of policy coordination, either within the euro zone or internationally.
The sovereign debt crisis appears the most benign, as evidenced by this week’s nonchalance among bond investors in Portugal, Italy, Greece, and Spain. But in none of these countries does there appear to be an accepted plan to reduce debt to manageable levels, leaving them vulnerable to future crises of confidence. France and Italy have recently pushed for lenience on austerity rules (waivers for deficit targets), to the dismay of the Germans and the Finns.
Banking progress might seem promising, given that the members of the euro zone recently concluded arduous negotiations to craft a plan for banking union. They reached an agreement, but it appears unwieldy. For example, it grants euro zone banking authorities the power to close troubled banks, but only after a dauntingly extensive series of mandated consultations. At least one prominent commentator (Wolfgang Münchau) argues it is worse than nothing. In terms of international coordination, the US Fed clearly caught Europe off guard with its recent stress tests by setting tougher standards than the Europeans were inclined to impose.
Growth has been tepid, at best, and uneven throughout the zone. The latest IMF forecast, released this week, featured upward revisions, but only called 1.2 percent euro area growth in 2014 and 1.5 percent in 2015 (after -0.7 in 2012 and -0.5 in 2013). Those numbers are averages, with much of the strength coming from northern countries like Germany. Recently, the IMF Managing Director, Christine Lagarde, warned of the dangers of European deflation. The ECB, however, declined to lower rates (it did begin to muse about the possibility of quantitative easing). None of these moves signal confidence about an impending recovery. The Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), upon which Europeans were placing their hopes for a boost to growth, is moving very slowly. There are serious conflicts over issues such as data protection, investor-state dispute settlement, and multiple facets of agriculture. TTIP has the potential to boost European growth, but that is likely well into the future. The countries could also pursue growth through structural reform, but this is impeded in countries such as Greece, Italy, and France by ideology or political weakness.
The euro zone has enjoyed a prolonged reprieve because of heightened global confidence, but core problems in sovereign debt, banking, and growth remain. Recent weeks have highlighted sharp differences of view over ways to address these concerns. Without longer-term solutions, the problems simply await a fall in market confidence in order to reemerge.