The end of Europe?

Jun 02, 2020
There are several signs that the EU may be splintering at the edges, writes Cormac Lucey.

One of our weaknesses as a species is our self-regard. Sitting at the top of the evolutionary tree, we are in danger of overlooking some fundamental weaknesses. One is the conceit that we make critical decisions based on our thoughts when there is considerable evidence that feelings heavily influence our decision-making. A prime example of feelings misleading decision-making occurred in the Irish property market in the years 2006 and 2007.

In a Davy research note published in March 2006, Rossa White (then the stockbroker’s chief economist, now occupying that position with the National Treasury Management Agency) issued a warning in the note’s title “Dublin house prices headed for 100 times rent earned”. He cautioned investors that “the fundamentals suggest that it will be an adjustment in prices – rather than rents – that will eventually bring valuations down to more realistic levels”. The problem was that investors had extremely positive feelings about property as an investment class resulting from its extremely strong performance in the preceding decade and a half. Feelings trumped thought. Thousands got caught in the resulting carnage.

There is a danger that similar forces may blindside us to weaknesses developing within the European Union (EU) today. When we look back, we see a relatively strong and united body. From an Irish perspective, we associate the dramatic rise in our prosperity in recent decades with our EU membership (much more than with our turbo-charged foreign direct investment sector). But there are several signs that the EU may be splintering at the edges.

Faultline one…

There have been recent calls from the Élysée Palace for the EU to issue jointly guaranteed bonds (debt securities) to help those member states worst afflicted by COVID-19. The alternative, according to the French president, is to risk the collapse of the EU as “a political project”. What you may not be aware of is that in 2019, before any of us had heard of the virus, France and Italy already had the second and third largest budget deficits in the EU. Having maxed-out their own national credit cards, they now want to use the hard-won creditworthiness of others to borrow more.

Faultline two…

The differing borrowing capacity of various EU member states has resulted in widely varying budgetary responses to the pandemic. Germany, which went into the crisis with relatively healthy public finances, plans to spend more than 6% of GDP to boost its economy, before considering the effect of loans and guarantees. Italy, by contrast, entered 2020 with a weak fiscal position and can afford an immediate fiscal impulse of less than 1% of GDP, even though it has been hit much harder by the pandemic than Germany. France is similarly constrained. We can look forward to more wailing from the Élysée Palace.

Faultline three…

The actions of the European Central Bank (ECB) are increasingly running up against political and legal constraints. The German Federal Constitutional Court recently ruled that the ECB had exceeded its legal mandate and “manifestly” breached the principle of proportionality with bond purchases made under previous quantitative easing programmes. How might it rule on the ECB’s current programme, which has been deliberately disproportionate to reduce financial strains in Italy?

A related problem concerns the ECB’s Target 2 balances. They are a key measure of financial market strains within the euro area. They record how much a national central bank is borrowing from the ECB to lend to domestic commercial banks that are suffering deposit withdrawals. For years, Italy and Spain have been borrowers while Germany has been on the opposite side of the equation, helping to fund the ECB. In March, the Italian central bank’s borrowing jumped by over €100 billion to €492 billion, while the amount the Germans lent into the system rose by more than €100 billion to €935 billion. As the US economist Herb Stein quipped, “if something cannot go on forever, it will stop”. We just do not know when.

Cormac Lucey FCA is an economic commentator and lecturer at Chartered Accountants Ireland.