The Euro Is Doomed: How the Collapse of Italy and Greece Will Destroy the Currency

Commentaries on economics and technology.
Nov. 11 2011 1:58 PM

Too Big to Fail, Too Big to Save

The economic collapse of Italy will destroy the euro.

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The problems with this option are many. Fiscal austerity, while necessary, means a deeper recession in the short term. Even structural reform reduces output in the short run, because it requires firing workers, shutting down money-losing firms, and gradually reallocating labor and capital to emerging new industries. So, to prevent a spiral of ever-deepening recession, the periphery needs real depreciation to improve its external deficit. But even if prices and wages were to fall by 30 percent over the next few years (which would most likely be socially and politically unsustainable), the real value of debt would increase sharply, worsening the insolvency of governments and private debtors.

In short, the eurozone's periphery is now subject to the paradox of thrift: Increasing savings too much, too fast leads to renewed recession and makes debts even more unsustainable. And that paradox is now affecting even the core.

If the peripheral countries remain mired in a deflationary trap of high debt, falling output, weak competitiveness, and structural external deficits, eventually they will be tempted by a third option: default and exit from the eurozone. This would enable them to revive economic growth and competitiveness through a depreciation of new national currencies.

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Of course, such a disorderly eurozone breakup would be as severe a shock as the collapse of Lehman Brothers in 2008, if not worse. Avoiding it would compel the eurozone's core economies to embrace the fourth and final option: bribing the periphery to remain in a low-growth uncompetitive state. This would require accepting massive losses on public and private debt, as well as enormous transfer payments that boost the periphery’s income while its output stagnates.

Italy has done something similar for decades, with its northern regions subsidizing the poorer Mezzogiorno. But such permanent fiscal transfers are politically impossible in the eurozone, where Germans are Germans and Greeks are Greeks.

That also means that Germany and the ECB have less power than they seem to believe. Unless they abandon asymmetric adjustment (recessionary deflation), which concentrates all of the pain in the periphery, in favor of a more symmetrical approach (austerity and structural reforms on the periphery, combined with eurozone-wide reflation), the monetary union's slow-developing train wreck will accelerate as peripheral countries default and exit.

The recent chaos in Greece and Italy may be the first step in this process. Clearly, the eurozone’s muddle-through approach no longer works. Unless the eurozone moves toward greater economic, fiscal, and political integration (on a path consistent with short-term restoration of growth, competitiveness, and debt sustainability, which are needed to resolve unsustainable debt and reduce chronic fiscal and external deficits), recessionary deflation will certainly lead to a disorderly break-up.

With Italy too big to fail, too big to save, and now at the point of no return, the endgame for the eurozone has begun. Sequential, coercive restructurings of debt will come first, and then exits from the monetary union that will eventually lead to the eurozone’s disintegration.

Read this article at Project Syndicate.

Nouriel Roubini is chairman of Roubini Global Economics and professor of economics at New York University's Stern School of Business.