Photo: flickr / jurjen_nl
The euro was introduced in 2002 as the single currency of the European Union–consolidating the largest trading area in the world and soon rivaling the dollar for global supremacy.But the accumulation of massive and unsustainable deficits and public debt levels in a number of peripheral economies threatened the eurozone’s viability by the end of its first decade.
The sovereign debt crisis, which fully emerged in 2010, has highlighted the economic interdependence of the EU, while also underscoring the lack of political integration in some areas of the union–along with a weak central government–needed to provide a coordinated and effective fiscal and monetary response to the on-going crisis.
Following World War II, France's Jean Monnet, considered the founding father of modern Europe, argued that economic integration would be vital to eliminating inter-continental conflict in the post-war period. He was the chief architect of the 1951 treaty that established the European Coal and Steel Community, at the time the most significant step ever taken toward European integration. The treaty put the management of iron ore along the Franco-German border under collective control, preventing both countries from single-handedly controlling the ingredients needed for manufacturing arms.
Monnet's belief that economic integration is the key to European peace and prosperity has undergirded the development of the EU over the past 60 years, and was the bedrock on which the single currency was established. Indeed, in a spring 2011 essay on the fragile state of the eurozone, Rome's John Cabot University President Franco Pavoncello summarized Monnet's still-timely vision for the EU: 'The way to build the new union was through incremental steps toward economic integration that one day would lead to political integration.'
Following the Coal and Steel Community, the next major step toward European integration occurred in 1957 when France, Germany, Italy, Belgium, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg signed the Treaty of Rome, establishing the Common Market and the European Economic Community (EEC). The Common Market, which abolished trade tariffs between members, helped the EEC to embark on a rapid growth path. Shortly thereafter, the six countries agreed to joint control over food production, a decision that ultimately led to a surplus of agricultural produce in Europe. Perhaps most notably, notes Pavoncello, its success spurred integration and 'helped seed the collapse of Communism and the birth of globalization.'
European integration and expansion accelerated in the decades that followed, especially with the signing of the Single European Act in 1986 by the twelve EEC nations--Belgium, Denmark, Germany, Greece, Spain, France, Ireland, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Portugal, and the UK. The primary aim of the treaty, which did not take effect until 1992, was to help development of an internal European market, allowing for the free exchange of capital, goods, and people, a move that quickly highlighted the need for monetary coordination.
In 1992, the Maastricht Treaty--or the Treaty on the European Union--formally created what is today known as the EU. Most significantly, the signing of the treaty led to the circulation of the euro currency in January 2002.
Midway through 2011, there were 20-seven member states of the EU, seventeen of which--Belgium, Ireland, France, Luxembourg, Austria, Slovakia, Germany, Greece, Italy, Malta, Portugal, Finland, Estonia, Spain, Cyprus, Slovenia, and the Netherlands--were part of the eurozone. Several EU states, including Bulgaria, Czech Republic, Latvia, Lithuania, Hungary, Poland, and Romania were potential eurozone candidates.
Before the euro was introduced, Maastricht laid out criteria for European countries that wanted to enter the so-called eurozone. All states had to have their financial houses in order by:
- Ensuring inflation was no more than 1.5 per cent a year;
- Keeping budget deficits at no more than 3 per cent of GDP;
- Maintaining a debt-to-GDP ratio of less than 60 per cent.
To meet these criteria, many countries had to adopt strict budgets by cutting public spending and raising taxes. In reality, as many experts warned at the time, the enforcement of these standards was not consistent. As hedge fund manager Jason Manolopoulos explains in his 2011 book Greece's Odious Debt: 'There was shockingly weak due diligence in assessing the suitability for entry into the euro, and equally weak application of the few rules that were supposed to police its operation.'
Population: 11.2 million (est. 2009)
Per Capita Income: $39,600 (est. 2010)
Economic Engines: Consumer Goods, Raw Materials, Tourism
Debt-to-GDP Ratio: 144% (est. 2010); forecast to rise to over 160% by end of 2012
Deficit-to-GDP Ratio: 10.5% (est. 2010)
Greece's debt crisis is a result of massive spending and consumption, coupled with increased wages and government benefits, in the years following its adoption of the euro. Moreover, in November 2009, it was revealed that Greece had manipulated its balance sheets prior to the crisis to hide its debt. As a spring 2011 report by George Mason University's School of Public Policy, 'The European Sovereign Debt Crisis: Responses to the Financial Crisis' (PDF), makes clear: 'The roots of Greece's fiscal calamity lie in prolonged deficit spending, economic mismanagement, government misreporting, and tax evasion.'
In May 2010, the European Commission (EC), European Central Bank (ECB), and IMF held an emergency meeting to address Greece's burgeoning debt crisis, which resulted in the creation of a €750 billion temporary bailout fund called the European Financial Stability Facility (EFSF). Following its inception, the EFSF provided Greece with a €110 billion loan in exchange for assurances that the country would implement strict austerity measures to bring it deficit to under 3 per cent of GDP by 2014. To that end, the agreement called for €28 billion in spending cuts and tax hikes.
By early 2011--after three credit rating agencies downgraded Greece's debt to 'junk' status--it was clear that Greece was struggling to implement the budget cuts and privatization plans mandated by the EU and IMF, and could be headed towards a debt restructuring or default. By the spring, it became evident that Greece had not reduced its deficit enough to be able to borrow on the capital markets by the end of 2011--as the May 2010 bailout had anticipated--and that a second EU-IMF rescue package (Guardian) would be needed to allow Greece to meet its debt olbligations through 2014.
Population: 4.4 million
Per Capita Income: $37,300 (est. 2010)
Economic Engines: Foreign-Owned Manufacturing, Financial Services
Debt-to-GDP Ratio: 94% (est. 2010);
Deficit-to-GDP Ratio: 32% (est. 2010)
Unlike Greece, Ireland's debt crisis is a bank default crisis, a direct result of its housing bubble--which had been fuelled by massive lending from the country's undercapitalized banks--collapsing in 2008. In the wake of the global financial crisis, the Irish economy experienced one of the most severe recessions in the eurozone. According to the George Mason report on the sovereign debt crisis, Ireland's output decreased by 10 per cent between 2008 and 2009, while unemployment increased from 4.5 per cent in 2007 to just under 13 per cent in 2010.
Ireland's government took on massive liabilities to support its financial system (WSJ) during the global financial crisis. In December 2009, the country's finance minister announced a budget reduction plan following warnings from the organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development and the EC (Independent) that its deficit was ballooning to dangerous levels. Still, less than a year later, in November 2010, Ireland was on the verge of default, and was forced to seek help from the EFSF. The EU and IMF agreed to an €80 billion financial rescue package. In return, Ireland implemented a new budget that aims to cut $20 billion over the next four years through spending cuts and tax hikes.
Population: 10.7 million
Per Capita Income: $23,000 (est. 2010)
Economic Engines: Commercial Services, Industry, Energy, Construction
Debt-to-GDP Ratio: 83.2% (est.2010)
Deficit-to-GDP Ratio: 9.1% (est. 2010)
Portugal's GDP, productivity, and wage growth have stagnated (Economist) over the past decade. Moreover, the country's dependence on foreign debt--demonstrated by a current account deficit that was over 10 per cent of GDP in 2009--made it more susceptible to the crisis sweeping the European periphery. Investors bet against Portugal, raising their premiums, and making it increasingly likely the country would not be able to finance itself in debt markets.
As Portugal's debt crisis worsened in 2010 and 2011, then-prime minister Jose Socrates's Socialist government tried in vain to implement numerous austerity packages, each rejected by parliament. By the end of March 2011--with Portugal's credit rating at near-junk status and the yields on 10-year bonds over 8 per cent--it became clear that Portugal, too, would require a rescue loan from the EFSF. In May 2011, the EU and IMF agreed on a €78 billion bailout package (BBC), for which Portugal has agreed to implement the austerity measures that parliament has long avoided, including cuts to pensions that will total 3.4 per cent of GDP.
In the 'short run,' other semi-periphery countries like Spain and Italy are certainly at risk of falling prey to the sovereign debt crisis, says Daniel Gros, deputy director at the Centre for European Policy Studies in Brussels. In Spain, the budget deficit jumped from 3.8 per cent in 2008 to 9.7 per cent of GDP in 2010, making it vulnerable to contagion from indebted eurozone countries, because its fiscal position is not solvent enough to finance itself in the capital markets as investor fears push bond yields higher. Moreover, like Ireland, Spain went through a major housing market bust during the crisis that has left its banking sector at risk. Italy, meanwhile, is at risk because of its high government spending that raised the public debt well above 115 per cent of GDP.
In a June 2011 report issued by the IMF (FT), the fund warned of the risk of contagion throughout both the eurozone periphery and the core: 'A broadly sound recovery continues,' it said, 'but the sovereign crisis in the periphery threatens to overwhelm this favourable outlook, and much remains to be done to secure a dynamic and resilient monetary union.'
However, if the EU is able to weather the debt crisis, it may very well be able to take the next steps in its 60-year journey toward becoming a more integrated bloc of nation-states--both politically and economically. In the wake of the global financial crisis and the subsequent debt crisis, the EU has begun to adopt measures for centralizing governance mechanisms and coordinating fiscal and economic policy. In 2010, the union agreed to replace the temporary EFSF with a permanent rescue fund in 2013 that will be known as the European Stability Mechanism. Similarly, in December 2010, member states established the European Systemic Risk Board, to oversee risk in the financial and banking sectors. There have also been calls for a European-level finance ministry, or equivalent, and the establishment of euro bonds, or the equivalent of American Treasury bonds, says Iain Begg, a professorial research fellow and expert on EU integration at the London School of Economics' European Institute. As Begg notes, a paradoxical outcome of the crisis is that it presents an opportunity for the 'deepening of the EU.'
When it comes to saving, behaviour varies widely among nations. Residents of the United States only save 5.8%.
But the residents of 10 countries save more than 9% of their disposable incomes.
Economists are uncertain why these countries' residents save so much more than others. 24/7 Wall St. has analysed the 10 countries to try to gain insight into the matter.
We reviewed personal savings rate statistics for member countries of the organisation of Economic Cooperation and Development.
This information was then compared to the individual tax rate, unemployment rate and actual disposable income, along with the debt and total deficit, for each country.
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