By John Robertson
Last month, we at the Atlanta Fed had the great pleasure of hosting Sergio Rebelo for a couple of days. While he was here, we asked Sergio to share his thoughts on a wide range of current economic topics. Here is a snippet of a Q&A we had with him about the state of the euro-area economy:
FBRA: Sergio, what would you say was the genesis of the problems the euro area has faced in recent years?
SR: The contours of the euro area’s problems are fairly well known. The advent of the euro gave peripheral countries—Ireland, Spain, Portugal, and Greece—the ability to borrow at rates that were similar to Germany's. This convergence of borrowing costs was encouraged through regulation that allowed banks to treat all euro-area sovereign bonds as risk free.
The capital inflows into the peripheral countries were not, for the most part, directed to the tradable sector. Instead, they financed increases in private consumption, large housing booms in Ireland and Spain, and increases in government spending in Greece and Portugal. The credit-driven economic boom led to a rise in labor costs and a loss of competitiveness in the tradable sector.
FBRA: Was there a connection between the financial crisis in the United States and the sovereign debt crisis in the euro area?
SR: Simply put, after Lehman Brothers went bankrupt, we had a sudden stop of capital flows into the periphery, similar to that experienced in the past by many Latin American countries. The periphery boom quickly turned into a bust.
FBRA: What do you see as the role for euro area monetary policy in that context?
SR: It seems clear that more expansionary monetary policy would have been helpful. First, it would have reduced real labor costs in the peripheral countries. In those countries, the presence of high unemployment rates moderates nominal wage increases, so higher inflation would have reduced real wages. Second, inflation would have reduced the real value of the debts of governments, banks, households, and firms. There might have been some loss of credibility on the part of the ECB [European Central Bank], resulting in a small inflation premium on euro bonds for some time. But this potential cost would have been worth paying in return for the benefits.
FBRA: And did this happen?
SR: In my view, the ECB did not follow a sufficiently expansionary monetary policy. In fact, the euro-area inflation rate has been consistently below 2 percent and the euro is relatively strong when compared to a purchasing-power-parity benchmark. The euro area turned to contractionary fiscal policy as a panacea. There are good theoretical reasons to believe that—when the interest rate remains constant that so the central bank does not cushion the fall in government spending—the multiplier effect of government spending cuts can be very large. See, for example, Gauti Eggertsson and Michael Woodford, “The Zero Interest-rate Bound and Optimal Monetary Policy,” and Lawrence Christiano, Martin Eichenbaum, and Sergio Rebelo, "When Is the Government Spending Multiplier Large?”
Theory aside, the results of the austerity policies implemented in the euro area are clear. All of the countries that underwent this treatment are now much less solvent than in the beginning of the adjustment programs managed by the European Commission, the International Monetary Fund, and the ECB.
FBRA: Bank stress testing has become a cornerstone of macroprudential financial oversight. Do you think they helped stabilize the situation in the euro area during the height of the crisis in 2010 and 2011?
SR: No. Quite the opposite. I think the euro-area problems were compounded by the weak stress tests conducted by the European Banking Association in 2011. Almost no banks failed, and almost no capital was raised. Banks largely increased their capital-to-asset ratios by reducing assets, which resulted in a credit crunch that added to the woes of the peripheral countries.
FBRA: But we’re past the worst now, right? Is the outlook for the euro-area economy improving?
SR: After hitting the bottom, a very modest recovery is under way in Europe. But the risk that a Japanese-style malaise will afflict Europe is very real. One useful step on the horizon is the creation of a banking union. This measure could potentially alleviate the severe credit crunch afflicting the periphery countries.
Editor’s note: Sergio Rebelo is the Tokai Bank Distinguished Professor of International Finance at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management. He is a fellow of the Econometric Society, the National Bureau of Economic Research, and the Center for Economic Policy Research.