The euro: like it or lump it


Barry Eichengreen has a post on Voxeu about how difficult it would be for a country to make an orderly exit from the euro. (The column draws on a longer NBER working paper.) The strength of the euro is squeezing Europe, and especially Italy, very hard. There is some talk of pulling out of the euro system. If only. Italy would surely benefit if it could. But, as Eichengreen explains, it literally cannot without precipitating a really fearsome financial crisis.

In 1998, the founding members of the euro-area agreed to lock their
exchange rates at the then-prevailing levels. This effectively ruled
out depressing national currencies in order to steal a competitive
advantage in the interval prior to the move to full monetary union in
1999. In contrast, if a participating member state now decided to leave
the euro area, no such precommitment would be possible. The very
motivation for leaving would be to change the parity. And pressure from
other member states would be ineffective by definition.

Market participants would be aware of this fact. Households and
firms anticipating that domestic deposits would be redenominated into
the lira, which would then lose value against the euro, would shift
their deposits to other euro-area banks. A system-wide bank run would
follow. Investors anticipating that their claims on the Italian
government would be redenominated into lira would shift into claims on
other euro-area governments, leading to a bond-market crisis. If the
precipitating factor was parliamentary debate over abandoning the lira,
it would be unlikely that the ECB would provide extensive
lender-of-last-resort support. And if the government was already in a
weak fiscal position, it would not be able to borrow to bail out the
banks and buy back its debt. This would be the mother of all financial

What government invested in its own survival would contemplate this
option? The implication is that as soon as discussions of leaving the
euro area become serious, it is those discussions, and not the area
itself, that will end.

A cynic's instinct would be to say that scholarly articles explaining why the euro system cannot break up mark the beginning of the end--but Eichengreen's logic seems impeccable. Italy would surely have been better off if it had never joined the system (an isssue Eichengreen does not go into here), but it is too late for regrets now.  The title of the column is the only mistake I can see. "The euro: love it or leave it?" That  surely ought to be: "The euro: like it or lump it [no question mark]."

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Clive Crook is a senior editor of The Atlantic and a columnist for Bloomberg View. He was the Washington columnist for the Financial Times, and before that worked at The Economist for more than 20 years, including 11 years as deputy editor. Crook writes about the intersection of politics and economics. More

Crook writes about the intersection of politics and economics.

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