POLICY BRIEF 11-13

Europe on the Brink

by Peter Boone, Peterson Institute for International Economics
and Simon Johnson, Peterson Institute for International Economics

July 2011

Europe’s efforts to stabilize its finances are failing, and the region needs to prepare for widespread restructuring of sovereign and bank debt. Peter Boone and Simon Johnson argue that Europe’s financial system has relied on a policy of protecting creditors from default and has thus spread pervasive moral hazard—a presumption by creditors that they will not take losses on their loans to Greece and other ailing countries. The authors argue that this situation is no longer tenable and examine three possible scenarios for the coming months as the sovereign debt crisis evolves. Under the first scenario, the euro area would try to reassert its commitment to avoid defaults and inflation. This continuation of the moral hazard regime would require severe austerity for Greece and other countries on the periphery of the euro area.  The second scenario involves elimination of the moral hazard regime. The euro area would admit that some sovereigns have too much debt. A series of debt restructurings would follow. The final scenario would be for policymakers to continue to contradict themselves by promising selective defaults or restructurings of some countries’ debts while maintaining that they can ensure the stability of the rest of the euro area. But the authors argue that it is an illusion to believe that selective restructuring would not introduce contagion. Such an approach would result in panic, massive capital flight, and disorderly defaults. The ensuing chaos would in turn lead to a negatively charged political atmosphere that would make consensus nearly impossible.

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