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The European Review

By Patrick Artus, chief economist at Natixis

The eurozone crisis may last 20 years

Friday, 24 August 2012 Written by 
The eurozone crisis may last 20 years Financial markets should not be complacent when considering the timeframe of the eurozone’s recovery. Indeed, there are many conditions that need to be met before the region can officially exit the crisis. For instance, a complete reindustrialisation of countries with a deficit is needed, as well as the implementation of long-term developments, including rebalancing countries’ balance sheets, eliminating fiscal deficits, ensuring structural external deficits disappear, and creating jobs to replace those lost at the beginning of the credit crisis. http://www.ftseglobalmarkets.com/

Financial markets should not be complacent when considering the timeframe of the eurozone’s recovery. Indeed, there are many conditions that need to be met before the region can officially exit the crisis.

For instance, a complete reindustrialisation of countries with a deficit is needed, as well as the implementation of long-term developments, including rebalancing countries’ balance sheets, eliminating fiscal deficits, ensuring structural external deficits disappear, and creating jobs to replace those lost at the beginning of the credit crisis.

A further option, largely rejected across the region, would be to apply elements of federalism to the region in place of wiping external deficits, where the eurozone will act as a ‘transfer union’ that allows for monetary transfers from surplus countries to deficit countries.

During the lengthy process of ensuring all of these conditions are met, there will be a risk of major and long-lasting economic, financial, social and political instability. For the financial markets, this points to a depressed level for asset prices due to the high levels of risk volatility.

The financial markets sometimes believe that the eurozone crisis will be solved rapidly

Admittedly, there has been progress – albeit rather limited – towards solving the eurozone crisis. For instance, the European Central Bank implemented Very Long-Term Refinancing Operations (VLTRO) in late 2011, and the European summit in June 2012 resulted in positive decisions for banking supervision and recapitalisation. There is promise too with the likely implementation of the European Security Mechanism.

These actions have all led to a major, although temporary, improvement in financial markets. However, financial market participants should understand that the eurozone crisis will be very long, given the developments that are needed to end it:

The long-term developments required to end the eurozone crisis

1. Rebalancing of balance sheets

In the eurozone as a whole - and especially in some countries such as Spain, Greece, Ireland, and The Netherlands - an imbalance has appeared in the balance sheets of private economic agents between liabilities (due to a very high private-sector debt ratio) and assets (due to the bursting of the real estate bubble and the fall in real estate prices).

As long as this balance sheet mismatch lasts, the private sector has to deleverage and therefore reduce its spending, which leads to sluggish growth. Also, private borrowers’ solvency will remain poor, which means that there is no end in sight for the banks’ problems. 

2. Restoration of full employment

In the aftermath of the Lehman bankruptcy in 2009, there were heavy factory job losses due to the fall in global trade. Afterwards, the bursting of the real estate bubble triggered a decline in construction employment too.

Currently, many countries (e.g. France, Italy, Spain, Greece, Ireland, and Portugal) have a very high level of unemployment. This has generated a depressive cycle, because high unemployment leads to a decline in labour's bargaining power and a fall in real wages.

The crisis will not end before economies have pulled out of this depressive cycle, i.e. when job losses have been offset by new jobs. But this process has not yet even started, and would require several measures to be adopted in order to do so. These would include attracting new activities to these countries and reindustrialising them. This is not happening, however, and is reflected in the on-going decline of industrial production capacity.

3. Elimination of fiscal deficits

The sovereign debt crisis has occurred because of excessive fiscal deficits in many countries. Governments obviously need to eliminate these fiscal deficits in order to permanently drive down long-term interest rates.

But today we can see a very worrying development: the fiscal deficits are not shrinking – on the contrary, they are increasing because of  sluggish activity.

4. If there is no federalism, the structural external deficits must disappear

Some countries (e.g. Spain, Greece, Portugal, and France) have structural external deficits because of the small size of their exporting sectors, especially in industry. This situation is not sustainable, since these countries are accumulating a continuously growing external debt, and will end up becoming insolvent.

There are then only two solutions to this unsustainable situation, both of which will take a very long time: federalism, or reindustrialisation of countries with a deficit.

We should not expect a rapid end to the crisis in the eurozone

For the time-being, we are seeing major problems when it comes to implementing these long-term developments, and federalism is still off the table.

But for the eurozone crisis to end, all of the mentioned conditions must be met.

The economic, financial, social and political uncertainty will therefore be pronounced in the eurozone for a long time to come – we would estimate about 20 years. 

Patrick Artus

A graduate of Ecole Polytechnique, of Ecole Nationale de la Statistique et de l'Adminstration Economique and of Institut d'Etudes Politiques de Paris, Patrick Artus is today the Chief Economist at Natixis. He began his career in 1975 where his work included economic forecasting and modelisation. He then worked at the Economics Department of the OECD (1980), before becoming Head of Research at the ENSAE. Thereafter, Patrick taught seminars on research at Paris Dauphine (1982) and was Professor at a number of Universities (including Dauphine, ENSAE, Centre des Hautes Etudes de l'Armement, Ecole Nationale des Ponts et Chaussées and HEC Lausanne).

Patrick is now Professor of Economics at University Paris I Panthéon-Sorbonne. He combines these responsibilities with his research work at Natixis. Patrick was awarded "Best Economist of the year 1996" by the "Nouvel Economiste", and today is a member of the council of economic advisors to the French Prime Minister. He is also a board member at Total and Ipsos.

Website: cib.natixis.com/research/economic.aspx

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