By Richard S. Grossman
Because Europe accounts for nearly a quarter of the world’s economic output, this question is important not only to Europeans, but to Africans, Asians, Americans (both North and South), and Australians as well. Those who forecast that the United States’s relatively anemic five-year-old recovery is poised to become stronger almost always include the caveat “unless, of course, Europe implodes.”
So, can we stop worrying about Europe?
Recent signs have been encouraging.
Consider the following graph, which shows the spread between the yields on the 10-year bonds of several European countries and those of the German government. Because the German government’s finances are relatively healthy—and Germany is thus viewed as being quite likely to pay back what it owes—it is able to borrow money more cheaply than most of its neighbors. For 10 years loans, the German government pays interest of about 1.5%, which is among the lowest rates in Europe.
Before the European sovereign debt crisis erupted 2009, spreads were not especially wide. In 2008, the Greek government paid between 0.25-0.75% more to borrow money for 10 years than the German government. When the sorry state of the Greek government’s finances became public, however, the spread between Greek and German yields soared to more than 20% and the European Union (EU) and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) were called in to bail out the Greek government. Ireland, Portugal, and Spain also received rescue packages (as did Cyprus), while Italy appeared to be headed down the same road. Note the wide spreads between these governments’ borrowing costs and those of the fiscally virtuous Germans.
During the last year or so, Greek, Irish, Portuguese, and Spanish spreads have shrunk considerably — not to their pre-crisis levels, but far below their sky-high levels of 2010-2012 — suggesting that doubts about the sustainability of European governments’ debts is receding. The decline in spreads is due in part to the austerity measures adopted as a condition of the EU/IMF bailouts, which have improved the budget outlook among the fiscally weaker countries. German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s April visit to Greece was widely seen as an effort to show support for fiscal austerity and economic restructuring adopted by the Greek Prime Minister Antonis Samaras.
In other positive news, Markit’s European purchasing manager’s composite index for March (released on 23 April 2014), which is considered a proxy for economic output, rose to a nearly three-year high. The index shows a continuous expansion of business activity since last July and forecasts that a backlog of work will lead to further growth in May.
Despite these positive signs, Europe is not out of the woods.
Unemployment remains stubbornly high, due, in part, to austerity: over 25% in Greece and Spain; over 15% in Portugal and Cyprus; and over 10% in France, Ireland, Italy, and a number of other countries.
Although prices are rising slightly in the European Union on average, Greece, Spain, Portugal and a few other European countries are experiencing deflation. Moreover, overall inflation in the EU is below that in the United States, leading the euro to appreciate by between 2-3% against the dollar since the beginning of 2014 and putting a crimp in European exports. Further, Europe’s flirtation with deflation increases the real burden on debtors. During inflationary times, debtors are able to repay their debts in money that is losing its value; deflation forces debtors to repay in money that is gaining in value.
The European economy is improving. But several indicators show that plenty can still go wrong. So let’s not stop worrying yet.
Richard S. Grossman is Professor of Economics at Wesleyan University and a Visiting Scholar at the Institute for Quantitative Social Science at Harvard University. He is the author of WRONG: Nine Economic Policy Disasters and What We Can Learn from Them and Unsettled Account: The Evolution of Banking in the Industrialized World since 1800. His homepage is RichardSGrossman.com, he blogs at UnsettledAccount.com, and you can follow him on Twitter at @RSGrossman. You can also read his previous OUPblog posts.