Time to buy euros?

 

Strange but true: the euro is worth almost as much today as it was a month ago, despite all the dramas in Greece and Italy. It's actually about 3% up against the dollar since the start of the year.

You might see that as a vote of confidence, that somehow the single currency will get through this intact. You'd be wrong.

In fact, anyone who thinks that there will still be 17 members in the eurozone in a few years' time should be expecting the value of the currency to go down. Ironically, it's only if you think the eurozone might be about to break apart that it makes good sense to buy.

You might think I've gone entirely mad. But think about it. Within the eurozone, the only remotely plausible recovery path for countries like Greece or Spain involves a much weaker exchange rate - and, incidentally, higher inflation in Germany. (See this past blog for more.)

This is not really negotiable: if there is no path to recovery for these countries, either Germany has to bail them out indefinitely or the eurozone breaks apart.

As we know, Germany doesn't want any of the above. But faced with choosing one, you could see why many Germans would be tempted to get shot of Greece, and possibly some of the others as well.

That, however, would be deeply short-sighted - and not just for the obvious and very important reason that messy exits from the single currency could push Europe into a prolonged depression.

Another, very important reason is that a smaller, "hard core" eurozone would inevitably see its currency go up. That is something that German exporters would not like to see at all.

Germany's current account surplus last year was nearly 6% of GDP. The Netherlands had an even larger surplus. The average current account deficit of the four periphery economies now under pressure was 7% of national income in 2010.

As Graham Turner of GFC Economics has noted, Germany's exports accounted for an astonishing 50% of GDP in the second quarter of 2011. A population that is so dependent on foreign trade for its economic growth might want to think long and hard before talking up the merits of a "hard" single currency zone, where every country is just like them.

Strong money, no growth?

A "stronger" eurozone, applying the German definition of strong, would inevitably have a much stronger currency to match. As Mr Turner reminds us, that hasn't worked out so well for that other ageing export champion - Japan.

A soaring yen helped prolong Japan's battle with deflation and stagnation in the 1990s. They have been struggling with the same problem since 2008, despite record low interest rates.

Today, the foreign exchange markets would like nothing more than another big surplus country whose currency they could buy.

If the Deutschemark were still around, traders would have been piling into it just like they have been piling into the Swiss franc. That might have cost the German economy rather more than bailing out Greece. That could be Germany's future, if it allows the eurozone to get a little smaller.

The German chancellor knows all this very well.

For the record, I don't think either Chancellor Merkel or President Sarkozy have been talking about a break-up of the eurozone, though that is how some have interpreted their recent comments. They are trying to talk up the prospect of fiscal union, because that is what the financial markets need to hear.

The idea is that every country who wants to stay in the single currency needs to accept it's going to be a tighter, more intrusive club of countries than it was before. The promise comes now, to calm markets. The messy business of rewriting the treaties can come later.

That's still about the future. As I said in my piece for the six o'clock news, Chancellor Merkel had less to say yesterday about how to resolve the crisis that's happening now. In a later post, I'll assess the short-term options for rescuing Italy and keeping the single currency on track.

For now, let me just go back to where I began. Countries like Italy need a strong euro like a hole in the head. So, if the exchange rate has been remarkably stable, in recent months, you shouldn't necessarily read that as a signal that the euro will get through this intact.

When I interviewed George Soros the other day, he said this wasn't a time to be selling euros. We all took that to mean he thought politicians would do what it took to keep all of the current members of the euro inside the club. In fact, it could mean exactly the opposite.

 
Stephanie Flanders, Economics editor Article written by Stephanie Flanders Stephanie Flanders Former economics editor

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Comments

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  • rate this
    -23

    Comment number 1.

    It looks as though the euro will become a sort of douchemark with France & Germany at its core It has to go up & France & Germany will suffer economically as a result. Banks will be in trouble & the Barclays guy has very kindly suggested that the oppo isnt bailed out but allowed to go bust. All part of the new socially aware banker

    Democracy - a car driven by an elite guided by finance - roadkill

  • rate this
    +1

    Comment number 2.

    It is hard to know what any currency will be worth tomorrow let alone next week, the fundamentals are ignored as policymakers decide to print gazillions of new money for QE or reduce interest rate at the drop of a hat. The markets decide what they will charge different borrowers according to the perceived risk, however when Argentina last defaulted it only owed circa 50% of GDP not 120% as Italy

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 3.

    Nice idea but your assessment would only be correct if the euro was rising.

    But it isn't rising against other currencies. It is stable. And it has been stable for a good few years. Which means that for every buyer there is a seller convinved of scenario 'X' there is a buyer convinced of scenario 'Y'.

    Sorry.

  • rate this
    +13

    Comment number 4.

    We are simply witnessing the death of the age of credit.
    It will lead to a new age of taxation, and rebellion.

    Businesses, Google & Vodaphone in UK - simply have to pay their taxes, where they earn their crust, rather than overcharging - the net effect today - and squirreling their nutsaway in the Bahamas. A world of logical greed. Insanity rules.
    There really is a Sanity clause - taxation.

  • rate this
    +9

    Comment number 5.

    Even if its short sighted of Germany not to bail out the rest of the EU, don't they have laws stopping them from helping, as well as massive public opposition?
    People say it will be bad for the UK if the Euro fails, but a Germany with a more realistic and stronger currency would be a big boost for our exporters competitiveness - as well as pricing German goods out of the UK market.

 

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