By Steven Saville
The euro may well gain in value relative to the US$ over the next 12 months, but three differences between the monetary systems of the US and the euro-zone guarantee that the euro will collapse (cease being a useful medium of exchange) before the US$ collapses.
The first difference is to do with the euro-zone system being an attempt to impose common monetary policy across economically and politically disparate countries. This is a problem. A central planning agency imposing monetary policy within a single country is bad enough because it generates false price signals and in so doing reduces the rate of economic progress. However, when monetary policy (the combination of interest-rate and money-supply manipulations) is implemented across several economically-diverse countries the resulting imbalances grow and become troublesome more quickly.
As an aside, money is supposed to be a medium of exchange and a yardstick, not a tool for economic manipulation. Therefore, it is inherently no more problematic for different countries to use a common currency than it is for different countries to use common measures of length or weight. On the contrary, a common currency makes international trading and investing more efficient. For example, there were long periods in the past when gold was used simultaneously and successfully as money by many different countries. However, if a currency can be created out of nothing then there is no getting around the requirement to have an institution that oversees/manages it. The euro therefore could not be ‘fixed’ by simply eliminating the ECB. The ECB and the one-size-fits-all monetary policy it imposes are indispensable parts of the euro-zone system.
The second difference is linked to the concept that a government with a captive central bank cannot become insolvent with respect to obligations in its own currency. For example, due to the existence of the Fed the US government will always have access to as much money as it needs to meet its obligations, regardless of how much debt it racks up. Putting it another way, should all other demand for Treasury debt disappear the Fed will still be there to monetise whatever amount of debt the US government issues. Consequently, the US government will never be forced to directly default on its debt.
It’s a different story in the euro-zone, however, because the ECB is not beholden to any one government. The provision of ECB financial support to one euro-zone government therefore requires the acquiescence of other governments. This hasn’t been a stumbling block to date and the ECB has provided whatever support was needed to prevent financially-stressed euro-zone governments from directly defaulting on their debts, but eventually a point will be reached when the governments of some countries balk at their interest rates and money being distorted as part of an effort to prop-up the finances of other governments. At that point there will be direct default on euro-zone government debt or the disintegration of the monetary union.
Once it becomes clear that direct default on government debt is a risk to be reckoned with, ‘capital’ will flee the euro-zone at a rapid rate. This is because the main (only?) reason to own government bonds is that they are supposedly risk free.
The third critical difference between the US and euro-zone monetary systems is similar to the second difference. In the US there is a symbiotic relationship between the Fed and the government, with one institution always prepared to support the other in a time of crisis. One consequence of this relationship is the impossibility — as discussed above — of the US government ever being forced to directly default on its debt. Another consequence is the impossibility of the Fed ever becoming bankrupt.
Several years ago there was much speculation that the Fed would go broke due to large losses on the bonds it was buying in its QE operations, but this speculation was never well-informed. Up until now the Fed has made out like the bandit it is on its ‘investments’ in Treasury and mortgage-backed securities, but even if these securities had collapsed in value it would not have resulted in the Fed going bust. It simply would have led to a line being added to the Fed’s balance sheet to keep the books in balance.
Again, though, it’s a different story in the euro-zone. Should the ECB begin to incur large losses on its bond portfolio there is no certainty that it would be able to keep going about its business as usual. To do so would require the support of governments/countries that never benefited from and never whole-heartedly agreed with the programs that led to the pile-up of low-quality bonds on the ECB’s balance sheet.
Summing up, the US monetary system is problematic in that it gets in the way of economic progress, but it is much less fragile than the euro-zone monetary system. That’s why the euro-zone system will be the first to collapse.