Troubles in the EuroZone: Will the Contagion Affect the U.S.?

Jun 21, 2010 | Updated May 25, 2011

A recent poll by Douglas Schoen and Patrick Caddell suggests that swing voters in the US, who are key to the fate of the Democratic Party, care most about three things: reigniting the economy, reducing the deficit and creating jobs.

But the latter two goals are generally incompatible, especially during major recessions.

In times of high unemployment, government deficits are required to underwrite growth, given that the private sector shift to non-government surpluses has left a huge spending gap and firms responded to the failing sales by cutting back production. Employment falls and unemployment rises. Then investment growth declines because the pessimism spreads. Before too long you have a recession. Without any discretionary change in fiscal policy (now referred to in the public media as "stimulus packages") the government balance will head towards and typically into deficit, unless the US miraculously becomes an export powerhouse along emerging Asia lines, and runs persistent current account surpluses, to a degree which allows the governments to run budget surpluses.

This is not going to happen, particularly when the largest current account surplus nations, notably Germany, cling to a mercantilist export led growth model, an inevitable consequence of that country's aversion to increased government deficit spending. The German government's reticence to counter any kind of shift in regard to its current account surplus is particularly significant in light of the ongoing and intensifying strains developing in the EMU nations (see here) . Last week's Greek "rescue" is Europe's "Bear Stearns event". The Lehman moment has yet to come. One possible outcome of this could well be significantly larger budget deficits in the US and a substantial increase in America's external deficit, given the unlikelihood of America becoming an export super power again. Let me elaborate below.

In the euro zone, I now see one of two possible outcomes. Scenario 1: the problem of Greece is not contained, and the contagion effect extends to the other "PIIGS" countries, leading to a cascade of defaults and corresponding devaluations as countries exit the EMU. Interestingly enough, the country which could well be affected most adversely in this situation is France, as the country's industrial base competes largely against countries like Italy and the corresponding competitive devaluation of the Italian currency in the event of a euro zone break-up could well destroy the French economy (by contrast, as a capital goods exporter with few euro zone competitors, Germany's industrial base will be less adversely affected in our view).

In Scenario 2 (more likely in my opinion) we get some greater fears about other PIIGS nations (discussion is now turning to Spain, Portugal and Ireland). The EMU might well hold together but the corresponding fear of contagion might well provoke capital flight and drive the euro down to parity (or lower) with the dollar. Of course, the euro's weakness creates other problems: when the euro was strengthening last year due to portfolio shifts out of the dollar, many of those buyers of euro bought euro denominated national government paper (including Greece). The resultant portfolio shifts helped fund the national EMU governments at lower rates during that period. That portfolio shifting has largely come to an end, making national government funding within the euro zone more problematic, as the Greek situation now illustrates.

The weakening euro and rising oil prices raises the risk of 'inflation' flooding in through the import and export channels. With a weak economy and national government credit worthiness particularly sensitive to rising interest rates, the European Central Bank (ECB) may find itself in a bind, as it will tend to favor rate hikes as prices firm, yet recognize rate hikes could cause a financial collapse. And should a government like Greece be allowed to default, the next realization could be that Greek depositors will take losses, and, therefore, the entire euro deposit insurance lose credibility, causing depositors to take their funds elsewhere.

It all could get very ugly for the ECB. The only scenario that theoretically helps the value of the euro is a national government default, which does eliminate the euro denominated financial assets of that nation, but of course can trigger a euro wide deflationary debt collapse. The 'support' scenarios all weaken the euro as they support the expansion of euro denominated financial assets, to the point of triggering the inflationary 'race to the bottom' of accelerating debt expansion.

So timing is very problematic. A rapid decline of the euro would facilitate a competitive advantage in the euro zone's external sector, but it could also set alarm bells off at the ECB if such a rapid devaluation creates perceived incipient inflationary strains within the euro zone.

What about the US? In the latter scenario, we can envisage a situation in which the combination of panic and corresponding flight to safety to the dollar and US Treasuries, concomitant with the increased accumulation of US financial assets (which arises as the inevitable accounting correlative of increased Euro zone exports) means that America's external deficits inexorably increase. There will almost certainly be increased protectionist strains, a possible backlash against both Europe and Asia, especially if the deficit hawks begin sounding the alarm on the inexorable rise of the US government deficit (which will almost certainly rise in the scenario we have sketched out).

Assuming that the US does not wish to sustain further job losses, the budget deficit will inevitably deteriorate further, either "virtuously" (via proactive government spending which promotes a full employment policy), or in a bad way , whereby a contracting economy and rising unemployment, produce larger deficits via the automatic stabilisers moving to shore up demand as the economy falters.

How big can these deficits go? Easily to around 10-12% of GDP or higher (versus the current 8% of GDP) should a euro devaluation be of a sufficient magnitude to induce a sharp deterioration of America's trade deficit. Possibly even higher.

What will be the response of the Obama Administration? America can sustain economic growth with a private domestic surplus and government surplus if the external surplus is large enough. So a growth strategy can still be consistent with a public surplus. But this becomes virtually impossible if the euro zone's problems continue, as we suspect that they will.

President Obama, however, has long decried our "out of control" government spending. He clearly gets this nonsense from the manic deficit terrorists who do not understand these accounting relationships that we've sketched out. As a result he continues to advocate that the government leads the charge by introducing austerity packages - just when the state of private demand is still stagnant or fragile. By perpetuating these myths, then, the President himself becomes part of the problem. He should be using his position of influence, and his considerable powers of oratory, to change public perceptions and explain why these deficits are not only necessary, but highly desirable in terms of sustaining a full employment economy.

Governments that issue debt in their own currency and do not promise to convert their currency into anything else can always "afford" to run deficits. Indeed, in this context government spending financially helps the private sector by injecting cash flows, providing liquid assets and raising the net worth of some or all private economic agents. In contrast to today's budget deficit "Chicken Littles", we maintain that speaking of government budget deficits as far as the eye can see is ludicrous for the simple reason that as the economy recovers, tax revenue rises, the deficit automatically reduces. That's the whole reason for engaging in deficit spending in the first place. Any projections that show the deficit continuing to climb without limit is misguided -- the Pete Peterson projections, for example, will never come to pass. As we near and exceed full employment, inflation will pick-up, which reduces transfer payments and increases tax revenues, automatically pushing the budget toward surpluses.

In the 220 year experience of the United States there have only been a few years when we've not had deficits and each time the surpluses were immediately followed by a depression or a recession. History shows that we can run nearly permanent deficits and that when we do, it's better for the economy. The challenge for our side of the debate is to expose these voluntary constraints for what they are and explain why the US is not a Weimar Germany waiting to happen.

Originally appeared on NewDeal2.0