Eurozone desperately needs a fiscal transfer mechanism to soften the effects of competitiveness imbalances

The eurozone has three problems: national debt obligations that cannot be met, medium-term imbalances in trade competitiveness, and long-term structural flaws.

The short-run problem requires more of the monetary easing that Germany has, with appalling shortsightedness, been resisting, and less of the near-term fiscal restraint that Germany has, with equally appalling shortsightedness, been seeking. To insist that Greece meet all of its near-term current debt service obligations makes about as much sense as did French and British insistence that Germany honor its reparations obligations after World War I. The latter could not be and were not honored. The former cannot and will not be honored either.

The medium-term problem is that, given a single currency, labor costs are too high in Greece and too low in Germany and some other northern European countries. Because adjustments in currency values cannot correct these imbalances, differences in growth of wages must do the job—either wage deflation and continued depression in Greece and other peripheral countries, wage inflation in Germany, or both. The former is a recipe for intense and sustained misery. The latter, however politically improbable it may now seem, is the better alternative.

The long-term problem is that the eurozone lacks the fiscal transfer mechanisms necessary to soften the effects of competitiveness imbalances while other forms of adjustment take effect. This lack places extraordinary demands on the willingness of individual nations to undertake internal policies to reduce such imbalances. Until such fiscal transfer mechanisms are created, crises such as the current one are bound to recur.

Present circumstances call for a combination of short-term expansionary policies that have to be led or accepted by the surplus nations, notably Germany, who will also have to recognize and accept that not all Greek debts will be paid or that debt service payments will not be made on time and at originally negotiated interest rates. The price for those concessions will be a current and credible commitment eventually to restore and maintain fiscal balance by the peripheral countries, notably Greece.