Reading all the commentary on the latest Irish sovereign debt crisis there’s a lot of wise words being bandied around the UK about why Ireland should never have joined the euro. Like Greece earlier in the year some even darkly foretell that Ireland may eventually have to leave the monetary union to resolve its economic malaise.
There’s three questions that come to mind in response to these views:
• Is the currency union to blame?
• Is it realistic for Ireland to pull out of the euro?
• What’s the impact of the eurozone stress on the UK and in particular our exporters to places like Ireland?
On the first, most commentators agree that Ireland enjoyed a sustained real economy boost before succumbing to a debt-fuelled property boom. Currency union kept interest rates down from what they otherwise might have been. This exacerbated the debt binge – but it’s at least questionable whether it caused it. And although export growth tapered off at around this time, Ireland has remained consistently and massively in trade surplus.
Similarly New Zealand has its own currency but it also had large increases in private debt fuelled by cheap credit at the same time. But in New Zealand’s case the monetary authority tightened the interest rate screws to dampen the inflation it saw in housing prices, loans were made more expensive but still the bubble continued. And by having higher interest rates the exchange rate jumped up as investors and then speculators piled into the Kiwi. New Zealand’s export sector was badly squeezed and NZ has consistently been in trade deficit. The level and volatility of the exchange rate is consistently cited as an issue for NZ exporters.
Similarly the UK has its own currency, so the vicious euro hasn’t wreaked its havoc here either. But just like Ireland and NZ, private debt in the UK soared during the credit boom. And just like Ireland, major banks in the UK have failed. Surely not to the same extent but Robert Peston points out the difference is one of scale not kind.
This is not to say that joining the euro was a great idea; it may be just as many are saying that it was a bad call and that if Ireland wasn't in the euro now, everything would be rosy. But clearly it's more complicated than simply having the euro = bad/not having the euro = good. There are costs and benefits of both options and the debate at the moment is a bit revisionist and one-sided.
I think that the banking sector is a much more significant factor than the currency union for explaining the current mess. The bad loans in the Irish banks represent a failure of regulation of the financial sector. Ireland has the misfortune of being more exposed than most and the Irish Government guaranteeing all the Irish banks’ debts.
So what now? Should Ireland dump the euro, restore the punt and devalue its way to prosperity? A recent BBC article showed the fallacy in this logic. If Ireland dumps the euro and looks to devalue its new currency immediately, the value of its euro-dominated debt will go through the roof. This greatly heightens the chance of default and, anticipating this, investors rapidly withdraw their capital from Ireland before the cross-over to the new currency. That would make a bad situation worse.
What does all this mean for the UK can be boiled down to impacts on demand for our exports and systemic impacts on our financial system.
The Govt’s attitude so far is illustrated by its willingness to participate in the ‘bailout’ of Ireland. But many of Mr Osborne’s Conservative colleagues have questioned why the UK is helping.
Both Cameron and Osborne have stressed the national interest angle, the interlacing of the economies etc. But what if another bailout is needed or, more likely to involve the UK perhaps, the EFSF proves insufficient faced with multiple bailouts. Where then does the interest lie?
The stability growth of the eurozone matters for UK exporters. It matters directly; without it demand for our exports will be lower as eurozone consumers confidence and consumption dips. Even in its parlous state, Ireland still accounts for 6% of UK exports and perhaps more surprisingly, since the end of the recession, Ireland has accounted for 4% of UK export growth.
A similar calculus is possible with other eurozone countries, such as Portgual, supposedly next in line. Although Portugal makes up a much smaller proportion of UK exports, its share of UK export growth, since the end of the recession, exceeds 1%, which is not trivial.
And the more bail outs there are, the more the systemic health of the banking system comes into considerations. I don’t think it’s beyond possibility that it could be in UK banks’ (and via their lending to businesses, the economy’s) interests to support further bailouts, or a replenishing of the EFSF, if the situation became severe enough. The involvement of the IMF in the bailouts already suggests the importance of these issues is wider than just Europe or the eurozone.