When the euro was introduced, regulators allowed banks to buy unlimited amounts of government bonds without setting aside any equity capital, and the ECB discounted all eurozone government bonds on equal terms. Commercial banks found it advantageous to accumulate weaker countries’ bonds to earn a few extra basis points, which caused interest rates to converge across the eurozone. Germany, struggling with the burdens of reunification, undertook structural reforms and became more competitive. Other countries enjoyed housing and consumption booms on the back of cheap credit, making them less competitive.
Then came the crash of 2008. Governments had to bail out their banks. Some of them found themselves in the position of a developing country that had become heavily indebted in a currency that it did not control. Reflecting the divergence in economic performance, Europe became divided into creditor and debtor countries.
When financial markets discovered that supposedly riskless government bonds might be forced into default, they raised risk premiums dramatically. This rendered potentially insolvent commercial banks, whose balance sheets were loaded with such bonds, giving rise to Europe’s twin sovereign-debt and banking crisis.
The eurozone is now replicating how the global financial system dealt with such crises in 1982 and again in 1997. In both cases, the international authorities inflicted hardship on the periphery in order to protect the center; now Germany is unknowingly playing the same role.
The details differ, but the idea is the same: creditors are shifting the entire burden of adjustment onto debtors, while the “center” avoids its own responsibility for the imbalances. Interestingly, the terms “center” and “periphery” have crept into usage almost unnoticed.