Sunday, December 11, 2011

The Sovereign Debt Crisis: Europeans To Live In Glass Houses

The latest EU proposal for resolving the sovereign debt crisis promises "automatic" consequences if member nations' annual budget deficits exceed 3% of their GDP. The European Commission, the executive arm of the European Union, can also impose additional requirements. All this is supposed to keep EU members on the straight and narrow, never spending excessively, texting while driving, or using any cuss words.

But there's a catch. EU members holding 74% or more of the union's voting power (votes are allocated among EU members by size, similar to the U.S. House of Representatives) can vote to lift the sanctions. Virtually all of EU members fail to comply with its requirement to keep total national sovereign debt at not more than 60% of GDP. Many have trouble meeting the 3% budget deficit requirement. In other words, the members of the EU are not without sin. If a fellow member nation needed dispensation from the "automatic" consequences and the EC's sanctions for going over the 3% limit, would the other EU nations be the first to cast a stone? When you live in a glass house, you will do unto others as you would have them do unto you. The 74% catch (we can call it "Catch-74") renders the "automatic" consequences semi-automatic and creates a go along, get along dynamic that is antithetical to the notion of fiscal discipline.

Only Britain dissented from the latest proposal, steering its own course in turbulent seas, Union Jack snapping briskly in the wind. It's unclear that Britain's tack makes economic sense. But if the EU fails to definitively resolve the crisis, there may be many on continental Europe who will think themselves accursed not to be among the happy few who chose to keep their monetary policy independent.

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