Deflation Stalks Europe–And the World

I tell you what, when The Economist thinks the biggest economic problem facing the Eurozone and thus the world is artificially induced deflation, people should pay attention. The influential British journal has, after all, ranted about “structural reform” and “fiscal discipline” and other code words for reducing public spending as avidly as any Beltway deficit hawk, for a long time. But the German-driven austerity campaign is now clearly the preeminent problem:

If Europe is to stop its economy getting worse, it will have to stop its self-destructive behaviour. The ECB needs to start buying sovereign bonds. Germany’s chancellor, Angela Merkel, should allow France and Italy to slow the pace of their fiscal cuts; in return, those countries should accelerate structural reforms. Germany, which can borrow money at negative real interest rates, could spend more building infrastructure at home.

That would help, but not be enough. It is a bit like the early years of the euro debacle, before [European Central Bank President] Mr Draghi’s whatever-it-takes pledge, when half-solutions only fed the crisis. Something radical is needed. The hitch is that European law bans many textbook solutions, such as ECB purchases of newly issued government bonds. The best legal option is to couple a dramatic increase in infrastructure spending with bond-buying by the ECB. Thus the European Investment Bank could launch a big (say €300 billion, or $383 billion) expansion in investments such as faster cross-border rail links or more integrated electricity grids—and raise the money by issuing bonds, which the ECB could buy in the secondary market. Another possibility would be to redefine the EU’s deficit rules to exclude investment spending, which would allow governments to run bigger deficits, again with the ECB providing a backstop.

Behind all this sits a problem of political will…. Mrs Merkel and the Germans seem prepared to take action only when the single currency is on the verge of catastrophe. Throughout Europe people are hurting—in Italy and Spain youth unemployment is above 40%. Voters vented their fury with the established order in the EU’s parliamentary elections earlier this summer, and got very little change. Another descent into the abyss will test their patience. And once deflation has an economy in its jaws, it is very hard to shake off. Europe’s leaders are running out of time.

Again, when The Economist uses terms like “a problem of political will” to refer not to spending-mad Greeks or Spaniards but to the ever-virtuous Germans, it’s time to worry.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.