Opinion

Europe’s Troika should grow up

In early 2010, a group of men (and a few women) in dark suits landed in Athens. They belonged to a global institution, the International Monetary Fund, and to a pair of regional ones, the European Commission and the European Central Bank.

By: Date: June 6, 2013 Topic: European Macroeconomics & Governance

In early 2010, a group of men (and a few women) in dark suits landed in Athens. They belonged to a global institution, the International Monetary Fund, and to a pair of regional ones, the European Commission and the European Central Bank. Their mission was to negotiate the terms and conditions of a financial bailout of Greece. A few months later, what became known as the “troika” was dispatched to Ireland, then to Portugal, and later to Cyprus.

This endeavor was bound to have wide implications. The troika negotiated what ended up being the largest financial assistance packages ever: loans to Greece from the IMF and European partners are set to reach €240 billion ($310 billion), or 130% of the country’s 2013 GDP – far more in both absolute and relative terms than any country has ever received. Loans to Ireland (€85 billion) and Portugal (€78 billion) are also significantly bigger than those usually provided by the IMF.

Moreover, cooperation between the three institutions is unprecedented. Back in 1997-1998, during the Asian crisis, the G-7 flatly rejected Japan’s proposal for an Asian Monetary Fund. Now the IMF has even accepted a minority-lender role, with the bulk of assistance coming from the European Stability Mechanism (ESM), a new institution often viewed as an embryonic European Monetary Fund.

It is frequently argued that the size of the assistance packages is a testament to Europe’s clout within the IMF. Perhaps, but the packages are, first and foremost, a consequence of the constraints to which Europeans were (and still are) subject.

Economic adjustment is necessarily slower within a monetary union than it is for countries with their own currency, because, even for very flexible economies, prices change more slowly than the exchange rate. Delivering the same result therefore takes more time, and requires keeping countries in intensive care for longer – and at higher cost.

Three years later, the results are mixed at best. Unemployment has increased much more than anticipated and social hardship is unmistakable. There is one bright spot: Ireland, which is set to recover from an exceptionally severe financial crisis. But there is also a dark spot: Greece, where GDP has shrunk by 20% since 2009 and where the public debt/GDP ratio is now higher than anticipated at the launch of the program, despite the debt reduction negotiated with private creditors in February 2012. This is not because of a lack of fiscal consolidation. On the contrary, the Greek authorities have done more than planned on this front. But the collapse of GDP has necessarily implied a rising debt ratio, driving the country into a recessionary spiral as economic contraction forces further spending cuts.

Could the troika have done better? It was not responsible for existing monetary conditions – a currency union with a central bank focused on price stability. But European officials’ hesitant response to the crisis added to the difficulty. Prolonged controversies over the terms and conditions of assistance and the absurdly high interest rate initially set on official loans exacted a heavy toll on countries already under stress.

Furthermore, the troika made three mistakes. First, Greek debt reduction was postponed for too long. Once it became clear that the burden was unbearable, debt should have been cut expeditiously. Too many creditors were reimbursed at par on their maturing claims.

Second, the troika based its programs on overly optimistic assumptions. It misjudged the consequences of fiscal consolidation and credit constraints, underestimating the contraction of employment and overestimating exports and privatization receipts.

Finally, not unlike what happened during the Asian crisis in the late 1990’s, the troika took country cases one by one. As a result, it did not pay enough attention to cross-country spillovers and deteriorating conditions in the wider eurozone.

Should the troika survive? Its three participating institutions have different mandates and different roles. It was perhaps inevitable that initially they worked jointly; but there is reason to question such an approach now.

Operationally and financially, the IMF has become much more involved in Europe than its global shareholders deem sustainable. It should become a catalytic lender whose participation in eurozone programs remains desirable but not indispensable – giving it the possibility to disagree and walk away.

The ECB is in an odd position as well, but for different reasons. As the eurozone’s central bank, rather than a lending institution, it does not have a clear role in negotiations on behalf of creditors. If it remains in the troika, its participation should be mostly silent.

Finally, Europe should transform the ESM into a European Monetary Fund capable of providing policy assessment and advice, as well as financial assistance – possibly drawing on European Commission staff.

Beyond European specifics, the troika experiment answers a question of major importance to other parts of the world: Can the IMF cooperate with regional institutions? The answer is yes – but not easily. The troika has proved functional, and Europe would have been at pains to provide conditional assistance to eurozone countries without the IMF’s participation and support. But cooperation has proved to be difficult, if only because each participating institution has rules and constraints that are not easy to reconcile with the others’.

This column was first published here by Project Syndicate. It draws on a Bruegel report co-authored with André Sapir and Guntram Wolff.


Republishing and referencing

Bruegel considers itself a public good and takes no institutional standpoint.

Due to copyright agreements we ask that you kindly email request to republish opinions that have appeared in print to communication@bruegel.org.

View comments
Read article More on this topic More by this author

Podcast

Podcast

The Art of the Brexit Deal

An emergency Brexit podcast to dissect today's tentative deal between the EU27 and the British Government, featuring Maria Demertzis, Guntram Wolff and Nicholas Barrett

By: The Sound of Economics Topic: European Macroeconomics & Governance Date: October 17, 2019
Read about event More on this topic

Past Event

Past Event

Public finance - time for a quality check

Is the quality of fiscal expenses and revenues more important than the budget deficit?

Speakers: Maria Demertzis, Boris Cournede, Sven Langedijk and Francesco Papadia Topic: European Macroeconomics & Governance Location: Bruegel, Rue de la Charité 33, 1210 Brussels Date: October 16, 2019
Read article More on this topic More by this author

Opinion

Brexit and Finance: Brace for No Impact?

Amid the daily high drama of Brexit, it is easy to lose track of the structural shifts, or lack thereof, that may be associated with the UK’s possible departure from the European Union. One of them, and not the least, is the potential impact on the European and global financial system.

By: Nicolas Véron Topic: European Macroeconomics & Governance Date: October 14, 2019
Read article More on this topic

Blog Post

Cross-border, but not national, EU interregional development projects are associated with higher growth

Our calculations reveal that places where EU regional development projects bind together participants from different countries experience higher economic growth. Purely national interregional projects, on the other hand, are not associated with such benefits. The results hold across regions of different levels of income and consider the effects of other growth-determinants. Cross-border projects might bring efficiency gains, unlock synergies and provide knowledge transfers, boosting activity, with gains going beyond the projects’ scope. Cross-border projects could provide perhaps the only rationale for the continued cohesion/regional funding of more developed regions.

By: Zsolt Darvas, Jan Mazza and Catarina Midoes Topic: European Macroeconomics & Governance Date: October 14, 2019
Read about event

Upcoming Event

Nov
4
08:30

What industrial policy for the European Green Deal?

This event will be a workshop, aiming to look into the design and implementation process of the European Green Deal. Each session will be introduced by three short presentations aimed at launching the discussion among all workshop participants.

Speakers: Jos Delbeke, Bertrand Déprez, Markus Hess, Kerstin Jorna, Laura Piovesan, Megan Richards, Simone Tagliapietra, Kurt Vandenberghe and Reinhilde Veugelers Topic: Energy & Climate, European Macroeconomics & Governance Location: Bruegel, Rue de la Charité 33, 1210 Brussels
Read article More on this topic More by this author

Podcast

Podcast

Brexit: a European Odyssey

Nicholas Barrett and Guntram Wolff talk to Kalypso Nicolaïdis, author of Exodus, Reckoning, Sacrifice: Three Meanings of Brexit. Together they discuss the mythology that binds Britain to continental Europe

By: The Sound of Economics Topic: European Macroeconomics & Governance Date: October 11, 2019
Read article Download PDF More on this topic More by this author

Policy Contribution

With or without you: are central European countries ready for the euro?

The debate on euro adoption by central European EU countries has intensified in the last years. In this Policy Contribution the author does not review all the complex aspects of euro-area enlargement, but analyse a particularly important issue: the build-up of macroeconomic vulnerabilities and the subsequent adjustments.

By: Zsolt Darvas Topic: European Macroeconomics & Governance Date: October 10, 2019
Read article More on this topic More by this author

Blog Post

Long term real interest rates fell below zero in all euro area countries

The 10-year real government bond yield, which is the nominal yield deflated by expected inflation, has fallen below zero in Italy and Greece, boosted by increased market confidence for their new governments. Romania is the only remaining EU country with a positive real interest rate. Negative real interest rates vastly help fiscal sustainability and provide a great opportunity to invest in much needed infrastructure and the transition to a carbon-neutral economy.

By: Zsolt Darvas Topic: European Macroeconomics & Governance Date: October 8, 2019
Read article More on this topic More by this author

Opinion

Europe: en finir avec la politique en silos

Projetée dans un monde de rapport de force dont les principaux protagonistes ne séparent pas géopolitique et économie, l’UE va devoir conduire un changement de logiciel culturel, une mutation organisationnelle et un rééquipement opérationnel, explique l’économiste Jean Pisani-Ferry.

By: Jean Pisani-Ferry Topic: European Macroeconomics & Governance Date: October 8, 2019
Read article More on this topic More by this author

Opinion

The Case for Intelligent Industrial Policy

Although national industrial policies have a bad reputation, there is a strong case for government support to sectors that will increasingly rely on artificial intelligence. In this regard, the German government’s plan to promote production of electric-car batteries may accelerate an industrial renaissance in Europe.

By: Dalia Marin Topic: European Macroeconomics & Governance Date: October 7, 2019
Read about event More on this topic

Past Event

Past Event

A fresh perspective on EU-Turkey relations: still a possibility?

Examining the mutual benefits of a EU-Turkey customs union.

Speakers: Zeynep Bodur Okyay, André Sapir, Sinan Ülgen and Guntram B. Wolff Topic: European Macroeconomics & Governance Location: Bruegel, Rue de la Charité 33, 1210 Brussels Date: October 3, 2019
Read article More by this author

Blog Post

Why structural balances should be scrapped from EU fiscal rules

A prominent team from DG ECFIN of the European Commission challenged some of the criticisms of the EU’s methodology for estimating potential output and output gaps, as well as their role in the EU fiscal framework. In this post, I conclude that their responses to the criticisms they considered are questionable. More importantly, they overlook serious problems with the EU’s potential output methodology.

By: Zsolt Darvas Topic: European Macroeconomics & Governance, Finance & Financial Regulation Date: October 1, 2019
Load more posts