It seems everyone is worried that problems in Europe will derail our fragile recovery. For this reason, markets breathed a sigh of relief last fall when the Europeans came up with a plan to provide yet another reprieve to Greece. The main worry, now somewhat eased, was that a Greek default would spread to countries like Italy, Spain, and Portugal.
Although there are legitimate concerns about contagion, the fundamental problem facing Europe is one of governments becoming too big to be supported by the economy. Unless Europe solves its fundamental problems with meaningful structural reform, a temporary debt restructuring, no matter how clever, will fail to right the ship. Closer to home, the same issues that threaten Europe may soon become immediate concerns to Americans.
To understand why, consider two theories of economic destruction, which can be labeled the domino theory and the popcorn theory. Everyone knows the domino theory; it is the analogy commonly used to denote contagion. If one domino falls, it will topple the others, and conversely, if the first domino remains upright, the others will not fall. It is this logic that underlies most bailout strategies.
The popcorn theory emphasizes a different mechanism. When popcorn is made (the old-fashioned way), oil and corn kernels are placed in the bottom of a pan, heat is applied, and the kernels pop. Were the first kernel to pop removed from the pan, there would be no noticeable difference. The other kernels would pop anyway because of the heat. The fundamental structural cause is the heat, not the fact that one kernel popped, triggering others to follow.
Many who believe that bailouts will solve Europe’s problems cite the September 2008 bankruptcy of Lehman Brothers as evidence of what allowing one domino to fall can do to an economy. This is a misreading of the historical record. Our financial crisis was mostly a popcorn phenomenon. At the risk of sounding defensive (I was in the government at the time), I believe that Lehman’s downfall was more a result of the factors that weakened our economic structure than the cause of the crisis.
Consider the events of 2007–8 that either preceded or had nothing to do with Lehman. World liquidity showed major signs of tightening by early August 2007. The recession began in December 2007. Bear Stearns failed and was rescued in early 2008. The auction-rate securities markets failed in the first half of 2008, monoline insurers encountered major difficulties during the spring, and, if not for some creative behind-the-scenes work, the student-loan market would have failed by that summer. The Dow Jones Industrial Average had lost about 3,000 points from its peak by September 2008.
The week before Lehman failed, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, both on the edge of bankruptcy, were placed into conservatorship. On the weekend that the Lehman deal fell through, Merrill Lynch, also on the brink, was saved by Bank of America. By that weekend AIG was already showing signs of likely failure, as were Washington Mutual and Wachovia. Although GM and Chrysler crashed post-Lehman and were kept alive by a government loan, their troubles resulted from the decline in auto sales, coupled with noncompetitive costs. The sum of these events was more than enough to be called a financial crisis and to worsen the recession that was already under way.
Lehman’s demise may well have been an exacerbating factor in the financial crisis and perhaps things might not have been as bad had Lehman not failed. Most directly, the Reserve Primary Fund, a money-market mutual fund that held $785 million in Lehman-issued securities, couldn’t meet investor requests for redemptions at par value. That likely triggered a run on money markets. Other markets may also have been affected by Leh-man’s demise. One does not have to deny the role of contagion to believe that Lehman was not the domino that toppled the others.
But our financial crisis was caused by factors that affected the entire system, just as all corn kernels pop when they are warmed by the same flame. This lesson is important because interpreting our crisis as primarily a contagion event leads to the wrong strategies for dealing with potential disasters. After Lehman, Europeans seem to be so taken with worries of contagion that they are failing to emphasize remedies that actually have a chance of making things better. In their case, and in ours, the solution is primarily a reduction in the bloated size of government expenditures that come about by making promises that cannot be kept.
Especially in Italy and Portugal, as in Greece, the government has grown more rapidly than the economy, which has meant unsustainable government borrowing. Preventing a Greek default will not reverse the lackluster growth that has plagued the other vulnerable countries for many years now. As for the United States, our economy will be stronger if Europe’s health improves, but we must address our own underlying structural problems that are associated with a doubling of our 2008 debt levels by this year. No bailout of another economy will restore our fiscal health or that of Europe.
The cases of Estonia and Turkey attest to the effectiveness of structural change. After a significant economic contraction in 2001, Turkey embarked on a new path of rapid fiscal consolidation. By the end of 2002, growth was 6 percent; by 2004, it was 9 percent. Rather than slowing the economy further, government tightening was associated with strong and almost immediate growth. More recently, Estonia, which experienced an almost 20 percent contraction by the end of 2009, instituted fiscal reforms. Among them were a 10 percent reduction in government operating expenses and a flattening of the pension growth trajectory. In 2010, the year after the reforms, growth had already turned positive, to around 3 percent, and it is forecast to be above 6 percent for 2011.
These two examples, and that of our own financial crisis, suggest that fundamental problems need to be addressed early and forcefully. Both in Europe and the United States, structural weakness stems from government excess and slow economic growth. More important than stemming contagion is reversing the policies that created the problem in the first place.