Is the death of the euro possible? As the global recession deepens, investors are certainly starting to worry that Europe's most ambitious integration project to date, the common currency shared by 16 sovereign nations, could break apart under the strains. The fact that the euro zone, far from decoupling from a U.S. recession, is now contracting at least as fast as the U.S. and the U.K. has added to the concerns. But the notion of a full-scale euro breakup looks vastly overblown.
The key reason the euro zone is not doing well is external, not homemade. Because companies around the world can slash their investment plans in times of uncertainty much faster than households can scale back their expenditures, the traditional exporters of top-quality machinery such as Germany are now suffering the brunt of the global downturn. This, in turn, weakens the euro. At some point, however, the worst of the global crisis will be over—with luck, sometime later this year. Once that happens, trading nations with a focus on investment goods, like Germany, should be able to recover lost ground.
The medium-term outlook for core Europe is still encouraging. German consumers had never joined in the credit-fueled party thrown by U.S. and U.K. consumers. While these consumers will probably need to restrain their consumption for years after the crisis, core continental Europe, as well as China and Japan, could enjoy an almost normal consumer upswing once the crisis is over.
Of course, we have to get to the medium term first. The global turmoil has hit the euro zone as a symmetric shock. All economies in the region are now contracting. In this sense, the euro area looks more and not less cohesive than it did a year ago, when regional real-estate booms were already turning to busts in some euro-member countries such as Spain, Greece and Ireland, while Germany was still enjoying strong export growth.
That said, markets are still shunning all kinds of perceived risks, and thus drawing a much clearer distinction between supposedly strong countries such as Germany and supposedly weak euro members such as Greece, Ireland, Italy and Spain, whose governments now have to pay much more than Germany to borrow on global capital markets.
This has led to speculation that some weaker nations might drop out of the euro, perhaps even solving funding problems the Zimbabwean way, by printing all the money the government wants in a new national currency. But Zimbabwe, which has taken this tactic to its extreme and is now reeling under hyperinflation and economic collapse, proves that this strategy doesn't work. Any country leaving the haven of the euro would risk devaluing its new national currency, and bond markets would demand very hefty risk premiums. These countries would thus find it much more expensive to borrow.
The occasional speculation in corners of the financial markets that a strong country like Germany might abandon the euro makes little sense either. Just imagine what would happen if Germany reintroduced its old Deutsche mark amid the current turmoil. Foreign-exchange markets would probably bid the independent German currency up quickly and strongly, further crippling the growth prospects of a country that exports half of what it produces. Given the extreme economic environment, a German currency might soar even more than in past crises.
The political logic also argues very strongly against a demise of the common currency. All member countries have invested a lot of political capital into the European venture. European leaders meet almost once a month to discuss a huge range of issues. If one country had to ask for urgent help in a particular financial crisis, it would be very difficult for its partners to refuse such a request. After all, that country's vote may soon be needed again in decisions on other matters.
Skeptics have expressed doubt that the euro zone has a pot of money large enough to bail out multiple European member states simultaneously. Yet there are various ways in which euro-zone members could help each other. For example, some European institution backed up by the member states may temporarily guarantee issues of new government bonds by a euro country in trouble. In a similar way, many national governments are already guaranteeing new bank bonds against a fee and for a limited number of years. A similar guarantee to another euro nation would give that member time to ride out the crisis and put its own house in order.
The bottom line: global investors have bigger things to worry about at the moment than a breakup of the euro zone. In the medium term, the crisis may even enhance the position of the euro. Many European countries outside the euro, like Poland and Hungary, are now suffering as their currencies are battered badly. They are trying to get as close as they can to the protective umbrella offered by the euro. The lesson for them is that they should work harder to qualify for Europe's most exclusive club. If they can meet the requirements, their entry will eventually strengthen the common currency.