Much can be done to strengthen EMU within the current legal framework
- Much improvement can be realized within the current legal framework
- Banking Union must be finished, including a European Deposit Guarantee Scheme
- The creation of a central fiscal capacity would be an improvement
- It is essential to create a pan-EMU safe asset
- The ECB needs more effective instruments in order to deal with deflation
Many policymakers and analysts agree that EMU needs strengthening. But there the consensus usually stops. Some countries are in favour of an increase of the fiscal capacity at the European level. Such a central budget could be helpful in conducting an EMU-wide anti-cyclical policy during recessions and/or helping countries that are hit by idiosyncratic shocks. Some countries, especially France and to a lesser extent Germany, want to push forward, other countries are stepping on the brakes. Although some small, but very important progress has been booked, the current agreement on a central budget of € 25 billion (0.2 Percent of EMU GDP) is hardly material.
On completing Banking Union the disagreement focusses on the creation of a European Deposit Insurance Scheme (EDIS). Politicians in Northern countries in general have little confidence in banks in Southern Europe, especially Italy. This make them very reluctant to establish EDIS, fearing that ‘Northern taxpayers’ money’ may be needed to bail-out Italian banks. To make things even more complex, many analysts all over Europe have also little confidence in certain German banks, although their worries are cushioned by the strength of German public finances.
We are not exaggerating when we conclude that the common ground on the future position of Europe is limited. This is a sad conclusion, given the fact that EMU is not complete yet, that it is still not an optimal currency area and that, as a result, it is highly vulnerable to market pressures. It appears that European politicians are only able to make tough decisions in crisis times, but that their firmness disappears like melting snow in the sun the moment the urgency disappears. The result is that crises in the Eurozone hit unnecessarily hard.
However, European integration has delivered a large amount of good things, such as peace, higher growth and increasing welfare. It would be extremely sad if all this would be put in danger by the indecisiveness of the current generation of politicians. The positive growth effect of EMU, on the other hand, is much more uneven and therefore more disputed. However, the good news is that a substantial number of measures that will strengthen EMU can be materialized without material changes in the Treaty. Therefore, given the current political environment, the best way ahead may be to pick the low-hanging fruit of a series of no-regret options that will strengthen EMU, largely within the current European regulatory framework.
This article offers a series of proposals, some already very well-known, others more innovative, that one the one hand strengthen EMU, but on the other hand leave future policy options widely open. We will successively discuss the Banking Union, budgetary policy, the creation of European safe asset and the mandate of the European Central Bank (ECB).
Completion of the Banking Union
In December 2010, the BIS published a new regulatory framework, BIS-3. BIS-3 brought stricter capital rules, based on risk-weighted assets, a reintroduction of an unweighted capital rule, the so-called leverage ratio, and a series of new liquidity ratios (the Liquidity Coverage Ratio (LCR) and the Net Stable Funding Ratio (NSFR)). Today, banks are much better capitalized and they have much more liquidity than in 2008. In addition, there are new rules on bail-in, frequent stress-testing and capital floors for risk weighting.
The creation of the Banking Union was another major step forward. The Banking Union is mainly built on two main initiatives, the Single Supervisory Mechanism and Single Resolution Mechanism, which are based upon the EU's "single rulebook" or common financial regulatory framework. The introduction of central supervision of the large banks by the ECB, based on this Single Rulebook, resulted in harmonized and better supervision. However, the Banking Union is still incomplete and the situation is still not perfect. To begin with the last topic, the ties between banks and their national governments is still much too close. These ties are revealed in particular in a high proportion of national government debt held by banks in certain countries. The resulting ‘doom loop’ is still fearful. Banks in problems may in the end have to be saved by governments, which themselves in turn could run into problems. As risk premiums on their debt increase, interest rates will rise. Higher interest rates mean declining bond prices. This will add to losses on government bonds for banks, which will need help, etc., etc. In extreme cases, a too big to rescue banking system can even derail a whole country. The problems experienced by Spain and Ireland in 2008 are good examples of this. This problem can only be solved by first getting rid of the zero-weighting of government bonds and, even more importantly, the creation of a pan-European safe asset to break the ‘doom loop’ for once and for all. We will discuss this last topic later.
The first two pillars of the Banking Union, viz. the Single Supervisory Mechanism and the Single Resolution Mechanism may be present, the third pillar, EDIS, is still absent. This is a major flaw, that must be solved. As said above, Northern countries fear, correctly or not, that under EDIS their taxpayers will have to guarantee weak banks in Southern Europe. Here, a number of observations can he made. First, for the time being, EDIS will come on top of the national DGS schemes, which reduces the aforementioned danger substantially. Second, a DGS doesn’t give subsidies, but loans which are used to protect the depositors. Once a failed bank has been liquidated, the money flows back to the DGS. Of course, this takes time, but usually the ultimate losses of a failing bank are substantially smaller than its deposit base. As a result, the taxpayer may ultimately be kept out of the wind completely.
A point overlooked so far in this discussion is the optimal coverage of a DGS. Today, in EMU national DGS schemes cover savings up to € 100,000 per depositor. This may be too high. As known, the most important positive impact of a DGS is that most depositors can be sure that their money is safe up to the amount of the coverage. Under the current ceiling of € 100,000 most private savings are covered by a DGS. The chance that a bank may confronted with a disastrous bank run is therefore strongly diminished. Basically, this is a good thing. Less known, however, is that a DGS also brings moral hazard issues, which may undermine stability. Depositors, knowing their money is safe, have less incentives to discipline their banks. Moreover, under a DGS interest differences between bank debt of varying risk profiles tend to narrow. Bankers, knowing this, may be tempted to undertake more risky business, without having to pay higher interest rates on the savings deposits on their balance sheet. And finally, the presence of a broad DGS may attract the wrong banks. The higher the coverage, the stronger the disadvantages of a DGS are being felt. As a result, there is an optimum coverage level, that probably is substantially lower than the current level of € 100,000 (Demirgüç- Künt et al. , 2002, 2004, 2015; Groeneveld, 2009; Ioannidou & De Dreu, 2006).Against this background, it may be a policy option to reduce the coverage of EDIS to € 50,000. With this ceiling, the small deposits are still covered. People that have more savings than € 50,000 may spread them over more banks. This will also stimulate the competition in the market for savings deposits. The important thing for the acceptance of EDIS is, that potential losses for EDIS as a result of the lower coverage become much smaller. This may help to convince Northern critics that the risks they run are acceptable.
Although many people have the impression that the criteria of the Stability and Growth Pact (SGP) for the public deficits and debts are unnecessarily strict, this is not really the case. In fact, countries can delay their path to the MTO by up to 15 years (Verbruggen, 2018). Of course, most economists agree that the theoretical underpinning of these criteria are not strong, to say the least. But once countries agreed on these criteria and their governments, in full conscience and responsibility, put their signature under it, they are part of reality. More recent additions, such as the Medium Term Objective for the public deficit, are strong improvements and give a good guideline for fiscal policies. If countries would conduct their fiscal policies according to these rules, they would in good times create enough budgetary leeway for anti-cyclical policies in times of economic downturns. The problem, of course, is that in many countries politicians fail to create enough buffers in good times, so that they have to pursue contractionary policies in the downturn. This phenomenon of pro-cyclical fiscal policies is certainly not a typical Southern-European issue. Fiscal policies in the Netherlands, for example, most of the time are pro-cyclical as well.
The first recommendation in the field of fiscal policy therefore is an easy one. Countries should pursue their fiscal policies according to the rules we all voluntarily agreed upon. Before blaming Europe, national politicians should take their own responsibilities. If they had done this earlier, the Eurocrisis might not have happened at all.
In times with extreme negative shocks the SGP-criteria may nevertheless be too strict. However, the criteria and their implementation are in practice flexible enough to deal with ‘normal recessions. Moreover, the European commission already has a facility to help countries in distress as the result of a calamity (see below). All in all, the SGP offers enough opportunities and flexibility to deal with regular business cycles. One lesson of the recent crisis, however, is that the ECB has insufficient instruments available to face an EMU-wide deflationary spiral. We will come back to this later as well, when we discuss the ECB.
The creation of an EMU-wide safe asset
One of the most serious flaws in the design of the Eurozone is the fragmentation of its public bond markets along national lines. This fragmentation makes EMU extremely vulnerable to speculative attacks. Before EMU, attacks on countries that were, correctly or not, deemed as weak by the markets were usually executed via the currency markets. The result was a large number of exchange rate reshufflings in the Exchange Rate mechanism (ERM) (Vanthoor, 2002). In EMU, similar attacks are executed via the public bond markets. It has been one of the main channels along which EMU was almost torn apart during the crisis, after a long period in which bond markets completely failed to differentiate between risks between public bond issuers. After 2008, it became suddenly clear that a crisis in a small member state via the bond markets easily translates into contagion to other countries. This contagion is broader than public bond markets, as national government bond yields usually are the floor for the funding costs of businesses and banks. A whole economy may derail when public bond yields sharply increase.
Only the ECB was able to stem the tide, by a de facto mutualisation of public debt. Initially this was being done by the Securities Market Programme (SMP), although this was not fully successful. Later much larger quantities of public debt were bought under Quantitative Easing (QE). Mutualisation of public debt of Eurozone members is essential for the stability of the Eurozone and the furthering of the role of the euro on world’s financial markets. However, we are far away from agreement on this topic.
There are several ways to mutualize Eurozone public debt.
Conditional Eurobills-or bonds
The most effective solution to this problem would be the (partly or full) mutualisation of public debt of the EMU member states by the issue of conditional Eurobonds. Note that the conditionality is essential. Without conditionality, the use of Eurobonds would bring serious moral hazard and undermine fiscal discipline (Muelbauer, 2013). Eurobonds can only add to stability if they not only bring access to finance against reasonable terms for financially more vulnerable member states, but also advantages for the stronger member states such as a more stable Eurozone, protection against contagion from financially unsound countries and, if possible, lower funding costs (see annex 1). The early plans to use Eurobonds were all based on conditionality (Boonstra, 1991, 2012, 2013), but after the disastrous article by Juncker and Tremonti (2010) the word ‘Eurobond’ is contaminated. In the current climate they are not on the policy agenda, although this may change.
Which still leaves us with the question how we can create an EMU-wide safe asset. This is important, because with such an asset the aforementioned doom loop is very hard to break. Moreover, all efforts to strengthen the international role of the euro are doomed to fail as well as long as Eurozone public bond markets remain fragmented along national lines.
Temporary Eurobill Fund (TEF)
An interesting option may be the introduction of TEF (Bishop, 2018). It is a follow-up of the earlier Eurobill-proposal forwarded by the European League for Economic Cooperation (ELEC, 2011). TEF is an investment fund that finances itself in the market by the issuance of bills with a maximum maturity of two years. The funding is used to buy existing public debt, also with a maximum maturity of two years. Like Eurobonds or –bills, TEF does not create new debt, it only replaces existing public debt. The asset and liability sides of the TEF are fully matched in volume and maturity. The presence of TEF guarantees access to finance for all participating countries, as long as they comply to the SGP. If a member state pursues a fiscal policy that is not in agreement with the EC, TEF is able to immediately stop buying its public debt, meaning that a country should find other investors for financing its debt. Such a country would face an acute financing problem, as markets will require high risk premiums. This fact will strongly improve market discipline.
A more modest approach concerns a market-based mutualisation of public debt of the financially weaker countries, most of them that earlier were earlier supported by the ECB’s Special Market Programme (SMP). It appeared that the interventions of the SMP ultimately, after yields came down, proved to be rather profitable. All in all, the ESCB so far made a profit on its purchases under SMP of about € 50 billion. This positive experience with the SMP can be applied to the private sector with the creation of an exchange-traded, Smart Beta ETF fund, called the SMP-Fund. This Proposal was launched by Franz Nauschnigg (2018). Like the ECB’s SMP, the SMP-Fund would buy government bonds, according to the ECB capital key, of Ireland, Italy, Portugal and Spain and, in addition, Cyprus und Slovenia (where spreads are higher). If Greece performs well, it should be added to the list later on. As an ETF, the SMP-Fund could be operated at low costs. Profits above the German Bund benchmark would be shared, with 80% going to the investors, 10% to the SMP-Fund itself and 10% to the adviser who recommended the purchase. This would align the incentives of SMP-Fund management and advisers with those of investors. The SMP Fund could support also support the creation of a euro area fiscal capacity and the EU capital markets union (Nauschnigg, 2018).
Another promising option may be the issuance of bills by the ECB. This would have several advantages. First, it will bring EMU-wide safe assets, created by an European institution with a gilded reputation. It would not only attract banks, but also foreign investors. Foreign central banks would be interested to include this in their foreign exchange reserves. It would also help the reduce the liquidity in the European banking system, as these bills will not be counted as liquidity reserves (Boonstra, 2019).
Such a system is not without precedence. The Swiss National Bank exactly has been doing this, as a measure to steer the banks’ liquidity reserves, until it stopped the issuance of new bills in mid-2011.
European budget and the mandate of the ECB
At present, there is little enthusiasm in most Member States to centrally establish a larger European fiscal capacity to be able to implement anti-cyclical policies. However, this is less problematic than it looks at face value. As explained above, the current fiscal rules offer sufficient scope for dealing with a normal cyclical downturn, provided that politicians achieve sufficient budgetary discipline in good times.
However, it may happen that the current rules are inadequate. A Member State can get into serious problems due to a large asymmetric shock. That can be an economic shock, but more problematic are real disasters. The Netherlands, for example, could be hit by a massive flooding as the result of a serious dike breakthrough. With the main economic areas of the country below sea level, it will certainly need outside help to deal with such a disaster. In such cases, therefore, the European Union should be able to assist a country in need. However, it is not so much necessary to arrange the needed funds in advance. Article 122.2 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union (TFEU) provides in principle for such a situation where it states:
Where a Member State is in difficulties or is seriously threatened with severe difficulties caused by natural disasters or exceptional occurrences beyond its control, the Council, on a proposal from the Commission, may grant, under certain conditions, Union financial assistance to the Member State concerned. The President of the Council shall inform the European Parliament of the decision taken.
This wording offers enough space to help a Member State in need. What the Article does not yet provide is the way in which the EU can finance such aid. It suffices to give the EU the possibility, if the regular budget falls short, to issue bonds itself, to be covered by all member states. Then it is important that the EU budget can be adjusted to provide for the debt service on the newly issued bonds. An alternative, certainly for the financially stronger member states, may be that in times of emergency they may issue emergency bonds themselves, instead of support from the EU. In that situation, these bonds should not count under the regular debt ratio as applied in the SGP.
It is of course very important that the conditions under which all this may occur are clear in advance. After all, if the EU has this possibility once, the danger is of course that Member States will report to the EU with an application for help form the center at the first best possible setback.
For times when the entire European economy is in a deep recession, one could look again at the mandate of the ECB. The ECB has a clear mandate in itself: it must primarily focus on price stability and, subordinate to the first task, support overall economic development. And the ECB is also the guardian of financial stability. The ECB has a set of instruments that are perfectly suited to fighting inflation, but in times of a serious deflationary threat, the central bank is only moderately equipped. This became apparent when the Eurozone threatened to slip into deflation early 2015. Although the policy of quantitative easing (QE) in this respect maybe does not deserve a beauty award, it seems to be more or less effective and thus defensible. Many critics of the ECB conveniently forget how bad the shape of the Eurozone economy was when the central bank started with QE. Roughly, the policy of the ECB during the crisis can be summarized as mutualisation of existing debt and de facto ex-post monetary financing. As far as the first is concerned, the ECB acquired the ownership of, among other things, a substantial part of the European sovereign debt. Since all member states are shareholders of the ECB, the debt has been de facto mutualized without any transparent political decision making. This is not a criticism at the address of the ECB. It did what it had to do to prevent the collapse of the Eurozone and thus a much deeper crisis. However, national governments can be blamed for having let it go because they failed to deliver a decent EMU. The creation of EMU was a semi-finished project and therefore very vulnerable to speculation.
As regards the second, since the ECB only bought up existing sovereign debt in the secondary market, it de jure did not started monetary financing. The latter refers to a combination of an expansionary fiscal policy, in combination with a central bank that finances public expenditure with newly printed money. Monetary and fiscal policies reinforce each other in that case. Such a policy is explicitly prohibited in Europe (TFEU, article 123.1). But because the ECB did buy government debt under QE, albeit exclusively on the secondary market, the policy can be interpreted as ex-post monetary financing. The stimulating effect of this policy was via the capital markets, viz. high bond and equity prices and very low interest rates. However, fiscal policy was restrictive across the board and thus did not support monetary policy. The result was a slow recovery in growth, particularly in Southern Member States.
Ex-ante monetary financing is a more effective form of stimulus policy than QE, because monetary and fiscal policies are much better aligned under monetary financing, which is not necessarily the case under QE. In this way, QE can, just like helicopter money, be seen as a second-best form of monetary financing (Boonstra & Van Schoot, 2016). The problem with monetary financing, however, is that it can be addictive. The combination of government and money press has proved to be dangerous over the centuries. Virtually all deep financial crises in history were preceded by a government that financed its expenditure in monetary terms. A well-known example is the German hyperinflation of 1923 (Keynes, 1923, Taylor, 2013). More recent examples are Zimbabwe (2008), Venezuela (2018), while Turkey may be entering the danger zone.
It is therefore a good thing that monetary financing in Europe is prohibited as per the Treaty. However, it could be imagined that in times of deep crisis (a combination of a severe recession and deflationary threat) under good, predetermined conditions, the ECB could temporarily switch to monetary financing of public expenditure in infrastructure. This could also be done, for example, in cooperation with the European Investment Bank (EIB) (Benink & Boonstra, 2014). It would probably not only have shortened significantly the recession in the euro zone, but serious market distortions such as negative bond yields would have been avoided.
At the moment there is a strong discussion about the strengthening of the euro zone. In this debate, a lot of attention goes to the possible introduction of a central EMU government budget. Although first, small steps are being made, we are a long way away from a substantial fiscal capacity in EU-level. This discussion reveals strong differences of opinion between the member states. That also means that the danger of a half-baked compromise is always lurking.
This article presents proposals that go less far, but that do contribute to strengthening and better functioning of the EMU. Some of these proposals are within or close to the existing policy framework, others require adaptation to certain components of it. In any case, they still leave all political options open to the future. At the moment, Europe can better patch up EMU as pragmatically as possible, using which is already on track and make future-proof what has now been achieved. The grand political views can wait a while.
 Many thanks to Elwin de Groot, Daniël van Schoot and Maartje Wijffelaars for their comments on an earlier draft of this article.
 With a ‘safe asset’ we mean an asset that is as safe as possible. An asset issued by a government usually is seen as a safe asset, as in the end it is the whole taxable income base of a country that supports is. An asset issued by a central bank is safe, as a central bank can always deliver on its nominal liabilities. But even these assets may be not completely safe, as a government may turn out to be unreliable. The ultimate safety of a central bank security may be less than hoped for when inflation may undermine its value in real terms. When we speak of a safe asset in the European context, we mean usually an asset “which is a safe as possible” and which is supported by a cross-guarantee by all member states, or an asset issued by the ECB.
This should solve the problem that Europe’s sovereign bond markets are fragmented along national lines. National public debt is not seen as a uniform risk in EMU, which can be illustrated by the divergent public finances. A German or Dutch government bond, which is supported by a government with a budget surplus and a debt level which is lower that 60% of GDP, is usually seen as a better risk than a bond issued by the Italian or Greek government.
 However, it must be said that, since 2002, EMU has a much better track record (in terms of net borrowing) than any of its G7 and even G20 peers; so somehow the rules may have worked better than many people think.
 It was the use of Longer Term Refinancing Operations (LTROs) and later Draghi’s ‘whatever it takes’ speech of July 2012 that actually calmed markets and that sharply brought down yields on weaker countries’ debt. Which in its turn resulted in the fact that the ECB made large profits on the bonds that it previously had purchased under the SMP.
 Source and more information: www.snb.ch/en/mmr/reference/snb_legal_geldpol_instr2015/source/snb_legal_geldpol_instr2015.en.pdf
 One can make the point that the European early 2015 was in a better shape than the ECB thought at the time. The economy was already in a recovery for more than 2 years and credit growth was also recovering. The EMU-wide deflation at the time was mainly the result of a sharp fall in oil prices. The main fear of the ECB was that the deflation could ‘de-anchor’ expectations. Once deflationary expectations take hold they can result in a self-fulfilling prophecy, a risk the ECB was not prepared to take.
Annex 1: What conditions should Eurobonds meet to be successful?
- Firstly, if a Eurobond program is to be successful, it must ensure that all countries have access to finance on reasonable terms.
- Second, and this is at least as important, it must bring noticeable benefits to all participating countries. So it should not only help the financially weaker countries, but also offer benefits to the stronger member states.
- Thirdly, it should have a disciplinary effect on policy-makers, so do not entail a moral hazard, but rather improve budgetary discipline.
- Fourth, it is preferably self-financing, so that any problems can be met in the future without having to bother the strong countries. With an insurance premium, a fund can be built up to cover the outstanding debt.
- Fifthly, a Eurobond program ideally strengthens financial stability in the Eurozone by breaking the tight financial ties that exist in the EMU member states between the national government and the local banking systems.
- Finally, a Eurobond program must also free the ECB from its interventions in the government debt market, other than the regular open market policy. The ECB must once again be able to concentrate on its primary task: to implement monetary policy with the ultimate goal of maintaining price stability.
Only if a Eurobond program meets all these conditions can it be acceptable for all Member States.
Source: Boonstra, 2013
Annex 2: The concrete proposals at a glance
- Completion of the Banking Union.
- Establishment of a European DGS (EDIS).
- Reduction of the EDIS coverage from € 100,000 to € 50,000 per insured person.
- Abolition of the zero weighting of government debt on the bank balance sheet.
- Adequate approach to bad bank loans.
- For the time being, no adjustment of European budget rules under the SGP. This does require Member States to exercise more budgetary discipline in good times.
- Creation of a EMU-wide safe asset, by way of
- The issue of conditional eurobills or –bonds, or
- The set –up of TEF, or
- The set-up of an SMP fund, or
- The issuance of ECB bonds
- If an individual Member State is affected by a major negative shock through no fault of its own, the EU must be able to provide financial assistance to this Member State. Article 122.2 of the TFEU offers this possibility already.
- This aid may be financed through the issuance of bonds by the European Commission and, if necessary, automatically lead to budget expansion to cover the debt service.
- An alternative is that countries may issue emergency bonds under special circumstances that do not count under the SGP debt ceiling.
- Adaptation of the mandate of the ECB to allow monetary financing of government expenditure in infrastructure under well-defined ex-ante conditions in times of imminent depression.
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