People from the Irish Republic are rushing over the border into Northern Ireland to take advantage of the cheap prices in the shops as they flash their Euros. The shops in Kent and London are welcoming many continental trippers who find sterling prices cheap to them. On Sunday visiting a shopping centre in middle England in Oxfordshire, I was struck by how many of the voices were speaking foreign languages.
The market is beginning to work, to adjust the big imbalance in the UK balance of payments. Foreign shoppers will swell receipts, whilst UK shoppers will buy fewer foreign made goods as their prices surge. Families nervous of job prospects and finding it difficult to balance domestic budgets will cut back on foreign holidays. Gradually imports and exports will come into better balance.
The danger in the present situation is that many countries and currency blocs might like the sound of devaluation. The UK’s neighbours in Euroland are becoming unhappy about the very strength of their currency which makes UK goods and services such a bargain for them. The Euro area is demonstrating just how dangerous it is to impose currency union on economies and markets that had not properly converged in the first place.
There has been considerable worry about Portugal, Italy, Greece and Spain, sometimes ungallantly named by their initials. None of these economies had been brought fully into line with France, Germany and Benelux, the core countries of the currency union.
In the early days of currency amalgamation Spain had a boom based on interest rates which were too low for her conditions. Now she is experiencing the reverse, with a high currency and relatively high interest rates driving her asset prices down and giving her a severe economic hangover after the heady days of the boom. Spain’s property bubble was blown to greater size by premature membership of the Euro and a monetary policy which was too accommodating for too long. Ireland experienced exactly the same conditions.
Italy has struggled throughout her membership. Used to inflating and borrowing much more than Germany, Italy had for years survived as an exporting country by periodic devaluations. Now she is unable to devalue her way back to competitiveness, so she is suffering loss of export orders and needs to cut wages and restrict costs severely to become more competitive.
Greece too has suffered, entering the Euro area with more borrowing and inflation than was comfortable and now experiencing the rigours of a strong currency.
The cost of borrowing money has risen for the governments of the weaker economies of the Union, despite the fact that they are all part of the same currency area with some implied obligations from the stronger to the weaker members. The bond markets are becoming more suspicious of the sovereign debt of the heavy borrowers amongst the Euroland governments, placing a risk premium on their money raising.
Some Euro critics see in these pressures the beginnings of a break up of the Euro. They think that maybe one or more of the troubled countries will conclude they need to leave the Euro, devalue, and get more people back to work through such a realignment. Why not take the softer option to price yourself into work, rather than the tough option of staying within the Euro and having to cut wages and other costs?
I think this is a misreading of the Euro project. The single currency was always more of a political project than an economic one. The Germans saw it as their contribution to European union to offer a shared currency, drawing on the legendary anti inflation strengths of the DM. They do not expect other countries to cavil at the necessary anti inflation discipline which they built into the Euro, as they think it is good for all.
There is no easy way out of the currency. Whatever the people of the peripheral countries may think of their currency, their governments regard it as a matter of faith to stay in and manage the consequences. EU support for the concept has switched from arguing it is good economically, to arguing that the larger currency bloc gives members some protection from market hurricanes like those that engulfed Iceland recently.
At the same time as some members have to accept the pain that the common currency brings them, some are discussing British membership of the Euro again. German sources have confirmed to me that Germany herself does not think this would be a good time for the UK to join, as they are worried that at this rate of exchange the UK is too competitive for comfort. They see the recent large moves of the pound against the Euro, showing that the two economies have not converged. I think the UK government appreciates that 80% of the UK public are still against membership, and understand that the promise to hold a referendum before joining is a pledge they dare not break. Ministers regularly repeat the mantra that now is not the right time to join, even though they stick to the view that in principle they would like to.
My conclusion is the Euro club’s membership is going to be more stable than some commentators suggest. Weak countries will be reluctant to leave, and big new entrants will either be reluctant to join or kept waiting before they do. Looking at the economies of Western Europe it is difficult to conclude that the Euro area is a perfect size and shape. It appears that too many peripheral economies with different economic policies and circumstances have already been allowed in. Whilst in due course the expansionists might want to welcome more in, there is a growing realisation that large economies to west and east are different and could prove destabilising for the young single currency.
After all, sterling wrecked the Exchange Rate Mechanism, the dry run for the single currency. The pound would prove an overmighty subject for the currency area, which has enough problems sorting out the pressures within its large and divergent territory. Successful single currency areas usually have more advanced means of transferring wealth from good performing areas to distressed areas, and have a common price for raising public capital. Euroland does not so far have these, so the poorer performing areas suffer more, and governments pay different prices to borrow. Lenders are still not fully convinced that a single currency is for ever. In the meantime German and French industry will suffer bigger falls from the strength of their currency, whilst the devalued pound should start to help UK manufacturers if they can have the capital and the stamina to exploit the market opportunity.