Tuesday, 16 August 2011

The Euro Zone Bond Debate: Can we have a common treasury without a common budget?

The debate on whether an European Agency (some kind of Euro Area Treasury department) should replace the Euro Zone countries in financing a substantial share of each country’s public sector borrowing requirements (some suggest a minimum of 60%) has gained new momentum since leading German business groups called for the issuance of Euro Zone bonds in defiance of the official German position.

The centralization of the debt issuing function in the Euro Zone is seen by many (including George Soros) as a solution for the current sovereign debt crisis as well as a way out of the intrinsic weakness of a Monetary Union built without a corresponding budgetary policy. Indeed, the later is the only convincing reason to argue for joint Eurobond issues and the debate should focus on its pros and cons.

Indeed, the European Union has already a long history of joint debt issues. Through the European Investment Bank it finances a non-negligible share of infrastructure projects in Europe. Through the European Commission it has also made several issues to finance specific programs of industrial restructuring and balance of payments support, the most recent being the EFSF mechanism to support the adjustment programs in Greece, Ireland and Portugal. However these issues were for limited purposes and for limited amounts. The centralization of the public sector borrowing requirements is an entirely new game.

In principle, a central Treasury Department for the Euro Zone makes sense. Indeed, that is what happens within national governments where debt issuance by local, state or regional governments is often supplemented by grants, borrowing and guarantees provided by the Ministry of Finance or National Treasurer. However, the later are usually granted under nationally agreed budgetary policies and often require the setting of borrowing limits. These are often the source of frequent disputes between national and sub-national governments that occasionally end up in blackmail by separatist movements.

In a Union like the Euro Area, which is taking the first steps towards a future political unification, a simple setting of borrowing limits by a central Treasurer (no matter how well designed they are) is more prone to such separatist threats because there is no national solidarity. These separatist threats would be a permanent risk undermining the credit standing of the central Treasurer and would become a burden for the remaining members.

To some extent national solidarity can be substituted by common interest in joint spending. For this reason, tying a large share of joint debt issues to the financing of centralized spending in common policies needs to be considered as an essential part of a monetary union package.

Although the experience of common policies in the EU is nothing to write home about (e.g. agriculture) it does not mean that it cannot succeed in areas like transport infrastructure, security (defense and policing), research and population policies (health, education, migration, etc.).

The only certainty is that, like a stool, a solid monetary union also needs three legs – a monetary authority, a treasurer and a spending authority.

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