Euro Area Crisis Update (EUC Report) — Question for Short Debate

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 7:42 pm on 23rd July 2014.

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Photo of Lord Davies of Stamford Lord Davies of Stamford Labour 7:42 pm, 23rd July 2014

My Lords, it was a pleasure once again to combine with colleagues in producing this report. It is fair to say that all possible perspectives on the issues were represented round the table in our committee and our debates were extremely stimulating and very instructive.

I want to use my time to address three illusions—or delusions, I should perhaps call them—that are extremely widespread, making it very difficult for people to appreciate the problems dealt with in this report. They are serious delusions and very erroneous, and I hope that in the very short time that I have to speak, I can go some way towards destroying them. The first delusion is the idea that the euro crisis is what it sounds like; that is to say that it is a crisis resulting from the existence of the euro and is the fault of the euro project. It is nothing of the kind. The so-called euro crisis is a debt crisis. There is no way in which the existence of the euro, or the existence of any particular currency, would necessarily have produced the outcomes in terms of excessive debt which we have been coping with in the last few years in the euro zone and indeed, elsewhere in the western world.

The reasons for the unbelievably irresponsible and often incompetent excessive lending practices go beyond the subject of this debate, but we are familiar with the general picture. Suffice it to say that we had banks in the European Union—in Ireland and Spain particularly— which lent on real estate projects with less than 10% equity. They were allowing more than 50% of their total assets to be exposed to the real estate sector.

Of course, as a result of the weakness of banks’ balance sheets, the government funds standing behind them produced a move from a banking crisis to a state funding crisis in countries such as Ireland and Spain. The position was made much worse in Greece by the falsification of the national accounts but elsewhere it was almost entirely a result of lender irresponsibility, or even worse than irresponsibility.

I have no doubt that incentives have an important effect on human behaviour, and some of the incentives in terms of short-term bonuses and so on were undoubtedly extremely perverse. They led to people lending to bad risks, taking a bonus on the basis of capitalising the profits to be generated from the loan and then walking off and getting a job somewhere else. We have had to deal with those matters decisively and thank heaven we have.

This was a debt crisis not a euro crisis. Irrespective of the currency these countries had, they would have faced the same magnitude of problems given the levels of debt that had been incurred, the bad debts that had been incurred and the central mispricing of risk that was going on. There was a quite disgraceful mispricing of risk. Again, serious professional incompetence was directed at the management of the enormous resources of the banking system in the European Union. It was a very serious matter indeed.

Some people say that one reason why it was the fault of the euro was because lenders thought that somehow a hidden or covert guarantee was being given by Germany or the other more solid economies to any other economy in the EU that got into trouble. Of course, such people were not only incompetent but they presumably could not read because the treaty precluded such a bail out or guarantee.

I am not suggesting that we had in place all the necessary measures to cope with the crisis and the shock which ensued from this bad lending—we did not. In three areas there was a deficiency of measures and institutions available to cope with this kind of scenario, one of which was that there was insufficient co-ordination of fiscal policy. We had under the euro until recently—until the stability and growth pact in fact—one monetary policy but 17 or 18 fiscal policies. That is not a good situation, but it has now been remedied. There was insufficient co-ordination and no centralisation of banking supervision which, in some areas, was plainly inadequate. The single supervisory mechanism, with the ECB taking charge, is taking place this year and will come into force next year. It is an encouraging measure.

There were, and still are, inadequate mechanisms of automatic stabilisation in the European Union. There is some measure of automatic stabilisation in the working of the cohesion and structural funds, but there should be much more. I am drawn to the idea—I have defended it in many contexts, including in this House—that we should have in the eurozone a single, integrated unemployment insurance system, which would certainly have a major automatic stabilisation effect in a crisis or an asymmetric shock affecting different members of the Union or different parts of the Union in different ways.

There are lessons to be drawn from the crisis. However, under no circumstances can it be called a euro crisis to the detriment of the reputation of the euro because that would not be consistent with the facts. It was a debt crisis.

I move now to the second great delusion, which is even more commonly held. In many places it is an assumption that people take for granted and, therefore, it is never challenged and never thought about. I hope that my mentioning it today might begin to remedy that. It is the assumption that we were quite right to stay out of the euro, that we are much better off out of it, and that it would have been a crazy, inconceivable thought that we would want to join the euro because the euro is in such a crisis. First, that is a misreading of the crisis, as I have already explained. Secondly, it is mathematically incorrect as a description of where the country would be if we had joined the euro. I remind the House of the figures, which I have noted down to make sure that I get them right. In the 15 years from 2000 to 2014—from the beginning of the euro project, if you like—sterling parity has fallen against the euro from 65p to 82p. That is a fall of 27%. So, all other things being equal, we would have been 27% richer—we would have had 27% higher net assets and net revenues—if we were in the system than if we were out of it.

One could say that we would not have had the same growth rate over the same period if we had been in the euro system. I have no idea whether that is the case. Our growth rate over that period has been an average 1.8% per annum. If you take the original EU 12 which were members of the eurozone—and the figures are more or less exactly the same if you take the larger number of countries that joined the EU subsequently—you will see that their growth rate over that period has been 1.2%. That is a difference of 0.6%, which, on the basis of compound interest over 15 years, works out at about 12%. If you make the assumption that our growth rate had been that of the average eurozone member over the period since the beginning of the euro, which is less than we have actually had—it may not be a realistic assumption; it certainly seems odd to make an assumption that our growth rate would have been less than the average eurozone growth rate because we pride ourselves on having a more efficient and more flexible supply side than most of the eurozone— the result would have been that we would have been some 15% better off today, so that is a significant difference.

I refer to a final delusion: the idea that we still face dire consequences from the crisis. The general indicators seem to be rather favourable. Unemployment is falling in the majority of EU countries, including all the four problematic ones—Ireland, Spain, Portugal and Greece. Growth has resumed in the eurozone. The best predictor of the future which I know is the stock market, which tells one really quite an encouraging story about both the future of the eurozone as a whole and about that of the problematic countries within it.