Thursday, November 19, 1998

Burning the bridges in Europe

In just a few weeks, on the 1st of January 1999, eleven European countries will forsake the right to issue their own currency and accept the circulation within their boundaries of a common currency, the Euro. Monetary policy related to the Euro will be set by a European Central Bank. One fact that struck me as curious is that in all the abundant legislation that regulates this process, there is no mention whatsoever of how to manage the withdrawal or future regret of any of the union’s members.

The absence of alternatives in this case evidently represents a burning of the bridges, but this may be necessary to achieve credibility. There is no turning back and there is no doubt that this is a truly historical moment. As participants in a globalized world in which Europe has an important role, we must naturally wish all members luck, no matter what worries we might secretly harbor.

Until 1971, all money used throughout the history of humanity was backed in one way or another by something physical to which a real value was attributed. Sometimes the backing was direct, pearls for example, while in other cases it was indirect such as the right to exchange bills for a certain quantity of gold.

This physical backing in itself did not necessarily mean it consisted of something of fixed value. The value of a pearl, for example, is in itself subjective. The promise to exchange bills for gold did not guarantee anything either, since this promise could easily be voided by fraud. Whatever the backing was, however, it did at least offer the holder of the money the illusion that it was supported by something concrete.

In 1971, the United States formally abandoned the gold standard and the direct backing, however imaginary, disappeared. Since the Dollar is a legal currency, it could always be used to repay Dollar denominated debt. Today, however, in spite of the fact that the Dollars may have lost some of their purchasing power, a holder of excess Dollars can only hope that the Government of the United States will exchange his old bills for new ones of the same tenor.

This apparently precarious situation must be the raison d’etre of the motto printed clearly on the bills which states “In God We Trust”.

Since 1971, the real value of the Dollar as an element of exchange, has lost some of its value due to inflation. Today, we would need many more Dollars to buy the same houses, cars, movie tickets and gold than we would have needed in 1971. In spite of the above, with few exceptions such as the end of the ‘70s during which inflation increased dramatically, few would dare qualify the United States’ elimination of the gold standard as a failure.

The world’s economies have managed to increase international commerce drastically and with it, sustain a healthy growth rate. Many analysts would explain this phenomenon by saying that the discipline exacted by the gold standard represented a brake on international commerce. The growth rate registered in commerce after 1971 was the result of the release of this brake. Other more critical analysts sustain the thesis that, due to the fact that we have abandoned the discipline required by the gold standard, the world has accumulated gigantic accounts payable, which we may be coming due very soon.

I personally swing back and forth between amazement of the fact that the world has accepted such a fragile system and satisfaction that it actually has done so.

The Euro has one characteristic that differentiates it from the Dollar. This characteristic makes me feel less optimistic as to its chances of success. The Dollar is backed by a solidly unified political entity, i.e. the United States of America. The Euro, on the other hand, seems to be aimed at creating unity and cohesion. It is not the result of these.

The possibility that the European countries will subordinate their political desires to the whims of a common Central Bank that may be theirs but really isn’t, is not a certainty. Exchange rates, while not perfect, are escape valves. By eliminating this valve, European countries must make their economic adjustments in real terms. This makes these adjustments much more explosive. High unemployment will not be confronted with a devaluation of the currency which reduces the real value of salaries in an indirect manner, but rather with a direct and open reduction of salaries or with an increase of emigration to areas offering better possibilities.

What worries me most is the timing. The world is facing the possibility of a global recession. This will require very flexible economic and monetary policies. The fact that the search for initial credibility for the Euro is based on trying to assure markets around the world that the new currency will be guided by a philosophy closer to that of Bonn than that of Rome, probably goes against the best interests of the world.

Published in Daily Journal, Caracas, November 19, 1998

PS. A new English Language Empire?