The Euro Is Dead

The 'tragedy of the commons' or 'free-rider' dilemma of game theoretical cocktail parties is a great framework for considering the current tug-of-war between individual sovereign fiscal actions among the European Union and the over-arching monetary policy of the ECB. If the ECB is dovish and too many states decide to suckle on the teat of liquidity - as opposed to fiscally 'behave' - then everyone loses (as we see currently evolving). The lack of any Nash (stable and dominant) equilibrium among the European nations and their hoped-for benefactor is becoming increasingly problematic for both trading and business investment.

Nomura's Global Macro Strategy group tackle the problem that is now abundantly clear the euro area as currently constructed is not stable and so it will have to change (hence, the Euro is dead!). The direction of travel is being set out by northern European politicians and is worth noting – more Union not less. But two points are critical to note; first that the new euro area may be so different from the one the current members signed up to as to make a process of voluntary re-application for euro stage II necessary to determine future membership, and second that any new variable geometry euro will take a long period of time to set up. How then to cover the intervening period?

Kevin Gaynor, of Nomura, goes on to point out that while the market and global political pressure for the ECB to act as the bridge is now very loud indeed, many feel this option is not likely now. Kevin then sets up the framework for considering how the Euro will change and potentially emerge:

Game theory offers a route for thinking about these issues in a fruitful but parsimonious way. We can simplify this complex situation into a repeated “game” between the ECB and the fiscal authorities of the euro area. Each player can choose one of two strategies in this game, setting up four outcomes. The table below sets out the situation.




The fiscal authorities can behave or cheat. “Behaving” means instituting and sticking with substantial fiscal and regulatory adjustment. “Cheating” means avoiding that outcome.


The monetary authority can be hawkish, which in this context I take to mean no QE or dovish, offering full support for announced fiscal programmes that are aimed at guaranteeing future solvency.


Now the critical part is to consider how the actions of each party (ECB or sovereign nation) are dominant (or best) for themselves (or overall) and how that can lead to the free-rider (or unintended consequences) problems we have often discussed:


Let’s think about the pay-offs in each box. Behaving on the part of fiscal authorities leaves the ECB deciding whether to support or not. If the ECB takes a hawkish stance then the economy does badly and inflation falls below target – this is not a good pay-off for the ECB and makes the fiscal adjustment harder for the fiscal authority, and so hence I score it -1, -2 for the ECB and governments respectively.


However, if the ECB is dovish in this fiscal scenario then the economy, while doing badly owing to the fiscal tightening, does better than under the hawkish strategy, and so in this context I score it 0,0. This is the best combination of strategies available overall.


Now consider the “cheat on the fiscal stabilisation” strategy. If the fiscal authorities cheat and the monetary authorities go hawkish they both lose. Let’s call this the “leave the euro” box. The ECB doesn’t want the euro to break up, nor individual (or at least “important”) members to leave – its credibility would be lost and its independence could be put at risk. Similarly, we assume most governments would consider “exit” as a fairly substantial negative (we can debate this point of course since some would argue exiting would lead to better medium-term economic outcomes). I score this box as -2, -3 then. 


Finally, we have the fiscal cheat and dovish ECB outcome. This is by far the best for the government and the worst for the ECB since its monetary credibility would be considered to be severely eroded in this outcome leading to free-rider problems whereby other governments start to renege as well. You may or may not agree with the scores, but it is how they rank that really matters in any event.


The question then is, is there a stable solution to the game? And the answer, in my view, is no. If the ECB unilaterally decides to go dovish then the fiscal authority is better off cheating which leaves the ECB worse off than if it had remained hawkish. Therefore, it doesn’t have a “dominant” strategy. Equally, there is no dominant strategy for the fiscal authority independent of what the ECB does.


But the game does have some important things to tell us. First, the ECB doesn’t want to drop into the break-up scenario and so it engages in tentative QE, better known as the SMP. It wants to keep the game alive, in other words. This is akin to the sort of signalling one expects in this sort of repeated game – rather like the USSR and the US at the height of the cold war. Taking the analogy further one tends to see proxy battles being fought in these scenarios – in which case Greece is our cold war Vietnam whereas Italy is the Cuban missile crisis.


How then to move forward? If the ECB is dovish then it invites a free-rider - we-can-ignore fiscal restraints attitude from the sovereigns BUT if the ECB is hawkish it crushes growth expectations and further exaggerates the potential downward spiral austerity-facing nations believe credibility will save them from.

Credible pre-commitment on the part of the fiscal authority is required in order for the ECB to decisively move to the dove camp. Fiscal tightening and regulatory reform are necessary but not sufficient conditions for the move to the behave/dove camp, in our view. Given it’s a repeated game, good behaviour should be rewarded but only in a marginal and reversible fashion.


That leaves markets facing an asymmetric risk/reward pay-off for the simple reason that the fiscal policies being undertaken are multi-year, painful, difficult to execute and conditional on stable political follow through. A virtuous circle where governments learn about the revealed preference of the central bank is entirely possible but would take time and would offer continual bouts of risk aversion on every opposition speech. Moreover, if the authorities look like they will not be a member of euro stage II then the central bank’s commitment should be expected to erode.


The other alternatives are more creative but, we think, entirely plausible. That is to make the cost of cheating much higher or remove the option entirely. In other words you make the behave strategy the dominant one under any ECB strategy. This could be achieved in three ways.


Option one is to ask an external body to take over fiscal powers – most obviously the IMF – in other words give up fiscal independence in the same way these countries have given up monetary independence.


Option two is to give up fiscal independence domestically by setting up a temporary but powerful independent fiscal policy making group (the supposed technocrat approach we are being told is occurring currently) – an option that has been discussed in academic literature before.


Neither of these options are particularly palatable and would be seen as a significant loss of sovereignty.


The final option is make the cost of exit higher in a credible manner. Beefing up contract law on debt wouldn’t help since default would still be possible since the debt is owed. Instead, it would be better to take an asset out. The most obvious one is FX and gold reserves. On the most recent IMF data, Italy, for example, has 78 million fine troy ounces of gold on its central bank balance sheet and around USD35bn of hard currency reserves. In contrast, Italy’s contribution to the ECB’s reserves is around EUR7.1bn. It remains anachronistic that the single currency area still has such an extensive system of national central banks (around 48,000 employees vs 19,000 at the Fed) and the bulk of currency and gold reserves held at the national level. Indeed, taken more broadly the region has around USD607bn of gold reserves at current valuations and USD204bn of hard currency reserves.


Thus, one option for making exit seem even less palatable is to not just withdraw and provide monetary support depending on behaviour but to ask for the national reserves to be pledged to a European authority to be held in escrow. Euro exit or losses for the ECB from support, or indeed financial sector losses from future backsliding could then be paid out of the lost reserves. This would no doubt be hugely unpopular and possibly illegal given central bank independence, but the point is of course that the reserves would not be lost if good behaviour is followed.


These options are highly unusual and politically dangerous, and so are only likely to be used in extremis. Instead, the real situation is likely to continue flopping back and forth between hawk/cheat and dove/behave boxes. Leaving aside whether the game is stable, we must ask whether that outcome is economically stable. And that depends on the fundamentals. A worsening growth environment, tightening private sector financial conditions and balance sheet deleveraging suggest that the short- to medium-term outlook is not conducive to the sort of reforms being promulgated. Moreover, a key component of the adjustment is supply-side reform; by its very nature this is about reducing the price of goods and services at any given level of supply. As such buying time for the fiscal adjustment to take place will be harder not easier.

Right now the onus is on new governments setting out their plans, for which the ECB is signalling its pleasure. But the next round of the game will likely be between the populations and the fiscal authorities, with the skew being toward weaker growth and higher unemployment.


And most poigniantly from the perspective of a Euro that stands relatively strong versus many other global fiat currencies - yet whose core faces not just the highest aggregate credit risk of any block but turmoil so potentially binary in nature that - as the title suggests - the euro as we know it now is indeed already dead and simply, slowly morphing to something else:

Without credible pre-commitment on the part of either the ECB or the fiscal authorities, the game framework indicates either a loss of independence for the ECB under substantial political pressure to shift unilaterally to the dove camp or EFSF/IMF assistance and the pooling of fiscal risks against the backdrop of a political agenda for a new euro area.

Perhaps given our earlier discussion of the EFSF's need to buy its bonds and the proximity of an election cycle (given the implicit US-Bailout that an IMF save would mean), we are more likely to see the ECB fold'em...though this week's schizophrenic EURUSD price action is impossible to know what is being priced in.