Yes, This EMU Will Fly, But Will It Stay Aloft?
Dateline: Jan. 1, 1999. Today, 11 of the 15 European Union (EU) nations relinquished control of their domestic monetary policies, abandoned their currencies and entered Stage 3 of the European Monetary Union (EMU). This event marks the start of the final phase of Europe's 40-year effort to combine its economies. A new European currency, the euro, has officially become the standard unit of account in these nations, with euro notes and coins to be issued by Jan. 1, 2002. Six months later, the current domestic currencies will no longer be legal tender. By joining forces, the 11 nations—Austria, Belgium, Finland, France, Germany, Ireland, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Portugal and Spain—have created an economic area comparable in population and output to that of the United States. The U.S. economy no longer overwhelmingly dominates the international scene with its strength and depth.
Rewind to the Present
No doubt, a news brief similar to the one above will appear in newspapers worldwide on Jan. 1, 1999, when monetary union takes hold in Europe. On this day, European nations will begin operating under a single monetary authority, the European Central Bank (ECB), which will control monetary policy for the EMU's member nations without political influence from any of them, much like the U.S. Federal Reserve System.1 On the first of January, member nations will irrevocably fix the exchange rates among their national currencies, starting the transition from 11 national currencies to a single European currency called the euro. According to the provisions agreed to in the 1993 Treaty on European Union (see Table 1), more commonly known as the Maastricht Treaty, the ECB will issue only euros and make determinations about their supply and European interest rates. In addition, national central banks, like the Bundesbank and the Banque de France, will no longer control their domestic money supplies or monetary policies. Member nations will freely relinquish this control in return for the opportunity to speak with one voice in international markets and, perhaps, become more competitive against the American economy. Participants also believe that monetary union could be the first step toward political union. The transition will be costly to consumers, businesses and governments, but the benefits will be striking.
The European Union
|Not European Monetary
|Not European Monetary
(not by choice)
An American Europe?
For Americans, the benefits of a common currency are easy to understand. Americans know they can walk into a fast food restaurant or gas station anywhere in the United States and purchase anything with the dollar bills in their purses and wallets. The convenience is apparent, though sometimes overlooked or forgotten.
The same is not true in European countries. Because each is a distinct nation with its own currency, a French person cannot buy something at a German store without first exchanging his French francs for deutsche marks. This would be like someone from St. Louis having to exchange her Missouri currency for Illinois currency each time she visits Chicago. To make matters worse, because deutsche marks and francs currently float against each other within a range, the number of deutsche marks the French traveler receives today will probably differ from the number he would have received yesterday or the number he will receive tomorrow.2 On top of this exchange rate uncertainty, the traveler also must pay a fee to exchange the currency, making a trip across the border a costly proposition indeed.
Although the costs to individuals can be limited because of the small quantities of money involved, firms can incur much larger costs. For example, if the franc were to depreciate against the deutsche mark, a French firm would have to ante up more francs than it had originally anticipated for the same amount of marks. To hedge against this uncertainty, firms can purchase foreign exchange futures contracts, which act like insurance policies. These financial market devices enable a firm to fix today the price at which it will exchange its currency in the future. When the euro is introduced next year, however, exchange rate fluctuations among the currencies of the 11 member nations will no longer occur because the rates will be irrevocably fixed to each other since they will be fixed to the euro. Thus, exchange rate uncertainty will disappear, taking with it the need for futures contracts among these currencies.
The Coin of the Realm
How exactly, then, will the euro become the coin of the realm? And what will happen to the deutsche marks, francs, pesetas, lire, escudos, and other currencies before Jan. 1, 2002, when the first euro notes and coins are released? These domestic currencies will continue to circulate after Jan. 1, 1999, but they will all effectively become different expressions of what is economically the same currency. This is tantamount to operating with a single currency. For example, one could argue that 12 currencies circulate in the United States since each Federal Reserve District has bills assigned to it, as designated by the first letter of each note's serial number, which corresponds to a particular Federal Reserve District. The exchange rates between these "currencies" are irrevocably fixed at a one-to-one ratio: One Federal Reserve dollar from the St. Louis District can be exchanged for exactly one Federal Reserve dollar from any other District. Exchange rates between EMU currencies, however, will certainly not be one-for-one, since some European currencies are stronger than others.
It could, for example, be determined that five deutsche marks equals one euro and that 10 French francs equals one euro. The permanent exchange rate between deutsche marks and francs would then be one deutsche mark for two francs.
Also on Jan. 1, the prices of all goods, services and debts in EMU countries will be recorded in euros rather than in domestic currencies, making the euro the unit of account. This means that no matter which country one is in, prices will be quoted in euros, making for easy comparisons. On top of easy price comparisons, customers will be able to pay for any good with deutsche marks, francs or lire, for instance. Building on the above hypothetical exchange rates, a Big Mac that costs five euros could be paid for with 25 deutsche marks or 50 francs since either would be five euros. In theory, one could also pay with some combination of currencies that summed to five euros—for example, 40 francs and five deutsche marks. In practice, however, this will probably cause too much confusion and therefore not occur. All the while, remember, not a single note or coin bearing the euro name or insignia will be circulating; that won't occur until Jan. 1, 2002. Six months after that, euros will be the only legal tender in the EMU.
Every Rose Has Its Thorns
Euros won't come without some pain, though. Besides giving up its domestic currency, each country will also relinquish domestic control of its monetary policy. No longer will the Bundesbank, Banque de France or Banca d'Italia be able to control the quantity of deutsche marks, francs or lire in circulation. Neither will they—or any other member nation's central bank for that matter—be able to nudge domestic short-term interest rates one way or the other. On Jan. 1, 1999, the European Central Bank takes over these functions. It alone will issue and control the quantity of euros in circulation. And it alone will influence short-term EMU interest rates through market operations, like the way the Federal Reserve affects the federal funds rate in the United States.
The ECB will be a supranational entity insulated from political influence by any of the member nations.3 Like the Federal Reserve System, the ECB will consist of an executive board, made up of a president, vice president and four other members, appointed to eight-year, nonrenewable terms (similar to the Fed's Board of Governors); and a governing council, comprised of the executive board and each member nation's central bank governor (similar to the Federal Open Market Committee). Every member country will have one vote on the governing council through its central bank governor (similar to the presidents of the Federal Reserve Banks). However, unlike the Federal Reserve's Federal Open Market Committee, which allows only five of the 12 Reserve Bank presidents to vote, the ECB's governing council will allow all members to vote, creating a more decentralized central bank.
The ECB's goal will be to maintain price stability within the monetary union. As such, it cannot be influenced by economic shocks from any one region. And as the central bank, it can prescribe only one monetary policy for the entire EMU, which, ironically, could end up causing the system's undoing.
National governments usually have three policy tools with which to combat economic shocks: fiscal policy, monetary policy and exchange rate policy. By entering the monetary union, EMU national governments will maintain control over fiscal policy only—and have limited flexibility with it at that. Knowing this, the Maastricht Treaty required that these economies converge so that the union could start with relatively homogeneous conditions, thereby attempting to make the effects of monetary policy more uniform across the union. Nonetheless, the countries still differ in some of their economic fundamentals.4
Most European Union nations have been able to bring their consumer price inflation rates to within half a percentage point or so of each other. In 1997, the annual rates in all of these countries—except for Greece—were less than 2 percent. In addition, long-term interest rates in most of these countries have converged to less than 1.5 percentage points of each other. EU nations have not performed as well with their national debts, however. Three members (Belgium, Greece and Italy) had public debts greater than 100 percent of GDP in 1997, and eight other members (Austria, Denmark, Germany, Ireland, the Netherlands, Portugal, Spain and Sweden) had public debts greater than the 60 percent of GDP standard required for EMU admission. That said, nine of these 11 nations have been working to reduce their debt as a percent of GDP over the past few years.
Another prominent economic indicator—the unemployment rate—was not used as one of the requirements for admission by the Maastricht Treaty. In all likelihood, this is because European nations have such poor track records controlling their unemployment rates due to severe labor market restrictions. Double-digit unemployment has been a mainstay in many European nations, particularly France, Italy and Spain, for about 20 years now. And Germany's unemployment rate, after being in the single digits for years, has risen to more than 10 percent since reunification. No EU nation has an unemployment rate near that of the United States. No EU nation has as open a labor market as the United States. Consequently, any shock—particularly a regional one—that causes further disruption to these labor markets could precipitate the union's unraveling.
Will Unemployment Undo the Union?
Different regions of a monetary union having different unemployment rates is not necessarily a problem—consider the United States, where unemployment rates differ greatly across states and regions. Throughout the 1990s, for example, it has not been unusual for unemployment rates in California to be upwards of 10 percent, while in Missouri they have stood at 5 percent or less. Rates have even differed within a state. In Arkansas, for instance, unemployment rates range from less than 2 percent in northwestern counties to 12 percent or more in southeastern counties. All the while, America's monetary union has not collapsed, despite the fact that states cannot and do not have individual monetary or exchange rate policies. In this sense, the states are similar to EMU member nations. However, the U.S. economy has three important features to offset states' lack of monetary and exchange rate policies: 1) a federal government that can implement fiscal policy across states; 2) essentially uniform labor policies; and 3) an open and mobile labor market with freely adjusting wages.5 The EMU does not have any of these. Although EMU members believe the monetary union will eventually evolve into a fiscal federal union too, members' governments will have to take a more active role in removing labor market restrictions. Currently, many European nations have divergent labor market policies that impose not only tight, but differing, restraints, which hamstring markets' ability to clear.
Why is a mobile labor force important? Because, in a nutshell, it's the economy's natural distributor of labor resources. By moving, individuals redistribute their underemployed skills to areas where they can be put to better use. For instance, in the early 1990s when California was still in recession and most of the country had already begun recovering, California workers moved to other areas where more jobs were available. If Americans were restricted to their native states, or chose not to move to regions with better opportunities, the economy would not weather shocks as well and total output and income would suffer.
In some ways, the last scenario is exactly what the EMU might face. Economic shocks will not hit all EMU nations equally or simultaneously, and it is not certain that a citizen of Ireland or France would pick up and move to Germany, Belgium or Finland, even if better opportunities existed there.6 And if no one relocates, countries can respond only with fiscal policy.
But EMU participation calls for each country to maintain its national deficit and debt ratios within a specified range.7 So what's a nation to do? Pre-EMU, it could have stimulated the economy either by devaluing its currency, thereby making domestic products relatively cheaper than foreign products, or by easing monetary policy. Post-EMU, it has neither of these choices. And, for its part, the ECB will not be able to tailor its monetary policy to a particular region and likely will not respond to an isolated occurrence of higher unemployment anyway.8 In fact, since the ECB's mission is price stability, it might actually tighten monetary policy in response to a nation's fiscal easing. In any case, interest rates will probably be higher than they otherwise would have been if the nation's own central bank had still been controlling monetary policy. And without labor mobility, the only other option available is the creation of a European federal government that could redistribute income from relatively strong to relatively weak regions, just as the U.S. federal government does. Without such a redistribution of income, lowering of interest rates, currency devaluation, deficit spending, or free and mobile labor force, a country might just decide to opt out of the union to regain its monetary and exchange rate control.9 Hence, the EMU might already contain the seeds of its own destruction.
No Longer the Biggest Kid on the Block
The United States will also have to adjust to the EMU. If for no other reason, the dollar will, for the first time, have a true competitor for its position as the chief international currency. The dollar has essentially been untouchable heretofore thanks to the breadth and scope of the American economy, which produces about a fifth of the world's output. The 15 EU members produce about the same share of world output; the 11 EMU members produce a slightly smaller share. Looking at world trade (in billions of 1996 U.S. dollars), the United States controls about 18 percent, while the 15 EU members control roughly 19 percent.10 About 19 percent of both EU and U.S. trade is with each other. In all, the euro will be exchanged and traded in an economy comparable to that of the U.S. In addition, because all EMU members' financial markets will be denominated in euros, they will effectively act as one market. For instance, the new euro bond market will be valued around $2 trillion, which is slightly less than the American bond market. As such, the euro will become almost as widely used as the U.S. dollar, overnight. And if the euro proves to be a stable store of value, the dollar will face a serious challenge to its position as the predominant currency of international transactions and holdings.
The World Is Watching
Other regions of the globe have been diligently watching the progress of the transition to a single EMU currency. If the euro is successful, nations will see that voluntarily forfeiting their domestic currencies for a single currency is not only feasible, but likely beneficial. In fact, Mercosur, a customs union of Brazil, Argentina, Paraguay and Uruguay, is said to be considering the adoption of a single currency—perhaps called the "merco"—to bring further economic stability to the region. The EMU's success could therefore be the catalyst for other currency consolidations worldwide.
But the EMU's success is by no means guaranteed. Before other countries rush out and replace their domestic currencies and monetary policies to enter currency unions, they will want to see how the EMU weathers its first economic storm. The euro is certainly no panacea for all that ails member countries, but it may, in the end, prove enough of an incentive for members to keep the EMU aloft. The world is watching.
- In practice, though, a country may try to exert political pressure through its ECB representative. [back to text]
- Under this scheme, governments allow exchange rates to float within prescribed limits before they intervene. Under a fixed exchange rate regime, in contrast, governments define the exchange rate and intervene in the market when necessary to maintain it. [back to text]
- See Endnote 1. [back to text]
- Of course, the countries differ more dramatically in politics than economics, but that is not the focus of this article. For a more complete list of the treaty's convergence criteria and country performance, see Deutsche Bundesbank (1998). [back to text]
- Although minimum wages are in force in the United States, they affect only a small percentage of the work force. [back to text]
- This does not even take into account the cultural, ethnic and language differences. [back to text]
- The Maastricht Treaty allows the range to broaden somewhat during a recession, but not substantially. [back to text]
- The U.S. Federal Reserve also cannot target monetary policy to a particular region, although monetary policy can affect different regions of the country differently. [back to text]
- Opting out would be a costly proposition for any country, however, since all euro-denominated debts and accounting systems would have to be converted back to the reintroduced currency. [back to text]
- These trade figures exclude intra-EU trade among member nations. [back to text]
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