Danske on Eurozone Debt – The Peril of Internal Devaluations

This is really a follow-up on my earlier piece today and my last 2009 piece on Eurozone imbalances and internal devaluation. In particular, I want to point you towards two things. Firstly, Edward has, no doubt after a long hard thought, come to the conclusion that Greece should be sent to the IMF or rather that it is ok to ask the fund for help in order credibly sort out the mess in Greece (and possibly Spain). This is not news as such since the proposition of sending ailing Eurozone countries to the IMF has been on the table for a while now. The main question basically is, as it has always been, whether the program proposed by Greece in conjunction with the EU and set in relation to what ever we might have left of the stability and growth pact (SGP) is really credible as a working solution.

Meanwhile, Danske Bank had a very interesting research note out today by economists Gustav Smidth and Frank Øland Hansen on the sovereign situation in the Eurozone and the potential for correcting not only in the immediate short term (i.e. preventing a collapse), but more importantly how to get debt to GDP ratios back on a solid footing within, let us say, a decade or so. As it turns out this is very difficult.

These are challenging times for public finances across Europe. Reducing debt to the Stability and Growth pact’s upper limit of 60% of GDP will not happen any time soon for most euro area member states. Indeed, even 100% of GDP appears an immense task for several countries. The situation is most dire in Greece and Ireland, which are to be found in the fast track lane for default in our mechanical “no change scenario”. However, it is still not too late to avoid default. If the plans put forward by Greece and Ireland are strictly adhered to, it would stop the debt-to-GDP ratio from sky-rocketing.

Now, Danske Bank’s argument is based on some simple algebra of the government’s budget constraint and some equally simple, one would presume, arithmetic. Basically, the gist is as follows and for all the attacks on Neo-Classical economics accounting, this argument is actually pretty solid.

Therefore, high nominal GDP growth and low interest rates on sovereign debt allow a country a larger deficit-to-debt multiple without increasing the debt-to-GDP ratio. A country with nominal growth lower than the interest rate level will on the other hand have to run primary surpluses in order to keep the debt-to-GDP ratio steady.

This is an important point to take away. Basically, it means that if you can maintain a high level of nominal growth (and what ever amount of primary deficit you run (in principle!)) the debt-to-GDP ratio can be kept in check. We don’t need to entertain this possibility a lot here I think and simply note that this is not likely to be relevant for many of the Eurozone economies going forward. This goes especially for those who are in the biggest trouble right these very days. In fact, the whole rigamole begins by taking to heart chart 4 and 5 in Danske’s research note which shows that while Eurozone economies, in a pre crisis context, enjoyed high GDP growth (nominal) and low funding costs it is expected to be the exact opposite going forward.

This represents a gordian knot since it means that not withstanding the extremely tough austerity that Greece, Ireland and Spain (etc) now need to take in order to get the ship back into the wind through forced primary deficits, they cannot be sure that this in itself will bring the debt to GDP back on track. Much will of course depend on global yields here and the general discourse on fiscal adjustment and how sovereign risk (rising across the board) will quantitatively be reflected in bond yields.

Yet, I don’t want to focus so much on bond yields (although I do think they are important); rather I would like to focus on the other part of the equation as it were, namely that of nominal GDP. You see, this is where it not only gets complicated but also outright problematic. Consequently and since Greece, Spain, and Ireland are members of the Eurozone, the have no independent currency and thus the nominal exchange correction that would almost certainly had occured had these economies had a floating exhange rates now must occur through internal devaluation or outright price deflation.

So this is not only about public debt but also about net external borrowing which these economies now have to shed in order to become competitive and essentially in order to achieve growth in nominal GDP. However, in order to reach this point they need a large and severe bout of deflation exactly, one would imagine, brought about in part by running primary surpluses to simply shock-force the economy onto a more sustainable path. Notwithstanding the obvious cost on the employment from this process it has another very tangible costs. Price deflation thus, through its effect on nominal GDP, increases the real value of the debt and it is exactly this mechanism and how it intersects with the perspective offered by Danske Bank which is so damn important to understand here. And incidentally, as an aside, it is this point which Edward has been desperately trying to pass on during the past two month’s worth of writing (see overview from link above).

PS1: I am lining up a paper on Eurozone imbalances (quantifying them essentially) which will also tackle the issues mentioned above in some detail.

PS2: Danske Bank’s piece is worth reading in its entirety.

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