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11/19/2012
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Interview with Economist Hans-Werner Sinn

'Temporary Euro-Zone Exit Would Stabilize Greece'

By Armin Mahler and Michael Sauga
Falk Heller/ DER SPIEGEL

Leading German economist Hans-Werner Sinn.

In a SPIEGEL interview, pugnacious German economist Hans-Werner Sinn warns of the huge dangers associated with a continuation of current bailout policies, why he believes Greece and Portugal should temporarily leave the euro zone and why financial markets are anything but irrational.

SPIEGEL: Mr. Sinn, Chancellor Angela Merkel feels as though economists have left her in the lurch. She once said that the advice that she receives from economists is "about as diverse as it gets." Can you see where she is coming from?

Sinn: No.

SPIEGEL: Excuse me? Economists have completely different ideas about how the euro can be saved. You suggest, for example, that countries should temporarily leave the euro zone until they have re-established their competitiveness. Others, by contrast, recommend collectivizing debt across the euro zone. How should politicians deal with such contradictory advice?

Sinn: There are differences in the recommended therapies, but fewer divergences in the analysis. There is considerable agreement today on the euro's defects.

SPIEGEL: But not on how the euro can be saved, or even whether it should be.

Sinn: I hope that it can be fixed. The euro crisis proceeds in phases, and we are always told that there is no alternative to the next phase, because otherwise the euro would crumble. So there was supposedly no alternative when the European Central Bank (ECB) granted its TARGET loans, when it forced the German central bank, the Bundesbank, to purchase sovereign bonds from Southern European countries against its will, and when increasingly larger rescue funds were approved. Now, they are planning to create a banking union to socialize the debts of banks in Southern Europe. The next step will be the introduction of euro bonds...

SPIEGEL: ... which the German government vehemently rejects.

Sinn: By the time France is hit by the crisis, as everyone fears will happen, the German government will no longer be able to refuse this demand. This development will ultimately lead to a system that has little in common with a market economy. The ECB and the European Stability Mechanism (ESM), the permanent successor to the current rescue fund, will then direct the flow of capital -- with the approval of euro-zone governments -- into countries where it no longer wants to go. This will result in growth losses throughout Europe, and money will continue to be thrown out the window in Southern Europe. Furthermore, it will create considerable discord because it makes closely allied countries into creditors and debtors.

SPIEGEL: The alternative that you are pushing for, in which individual countries would withdraw from the monetary union, would cause enormous turmoil: Companies and banks would go bankrupt and Europe could possibly plunge into a deep recession for years to come. Doesn't that alarm you?

Sinn: I don't agree with the prognosis. If Greece exited the monetary union, the Greeks would purchase their own goods again, and wealthy Greeks would return to invest. And if Portugal leaves, it will have similar positive experiences. The Ifo Institute has studied some 70 currency devaluations and found that recovery begins after one to two years. We are, of course, also suggesting just a temporary exit. Greece and Portugal have to become 30 to 40 percent less expensive to be competitive again. This is being attempted through excessive austerity measures within the euro zone, but it won't work. It will drive these countries to the brink of civil war before it succeeds. Temporary exits would very quickly stabilize these countries, create new jobs and free the population from the yoke of the euro.

SPIEGEL: But who knows what would happen to the population in the event of an exit?

Sinn: We should stop proclaiming the end of the world in the event of an exit. Instead, we should shape the exit as an orderly process with relevant aid for the banks of the country in question and for the purchase of sensitive imports. What we are currently witnessing in Greece is a disaster -- and it's not a disaster caused by an exit, but rather by remaining in the euro zone.

SPIEGEL: How do you intend to ensure that one country's withdrawal won't automatically precipitate a wave of speculation targeting the next potential candidate?

Sinn: The markets aren't stupid -- they don't lump the countries together. We clearly see this with Ireland. Since the end of last year, Ireland's interest rates have fallen more significantly compared to other crisis-ridden countries because Ireland has reduced its prices by 15 percent, allowing it once again to generate current account surpluses.

SPIEGEL: Portugal and Spain are not Ireland.

Sinn: Such countries are in a position to convince investors. Spain only has to devalue by 20 percent. That's achievable within the euro zone. Greece and Portugal are in a separate category. These are the only two countries that consume more than they produce.

SPIEGEL: Now you are appealing to the financial markets to be reasonable. Yet they often overreact and behave irrationally.

Sinn: Where have you seen that?

SPIEGEL: Minor events are often enough to spark sharp increases in sovereign bond interest rates for countries in Southern Europe.

Sinn: But the markets are reacting rationally when they get cold feet and pull out of bad investments in Southern Europe. Last winter, interest rates rose in some cases to over 6.5 percent. Before the introduction of the euro, these countries had to pay interest rates of between 10 and 15 percent. The interest rate reflects the risk that investors will never see their money again. What's irrational about that?

SPIEGEL: If investors are afraid that the monetary union is collapsing, they will pull out their money. And that will, in fact, cause the euro-zone to fall apart.

Sinn: Not if countries change their budgetary policy. If they offer investors collateral in exchange for loans and plausibly argue that they don't intend to take on any new debt, then there will be no discrepancies in interest rates.

SPIEGEL: You say that the long-term consequences of the current rescue policy are more dangerous than the risks associated with changing course now. Is that science -- or a matter of faith?

Sinn: On the basis of sound analysis, I am pointing to a danger that that many do not perceive, and I am weighing things up. Euro-zone member states have made available €1,400 billion ($1,780 billion) in bailout loans, €700 billion of which has been contributed by the Bundesbank through its TARGET loans. On top of this, there is the ESM with €700 billion, which is to be leveraged to €2,000 billion with the help of private investors. This stabilizes the capital markets, but it also destabilizes the remaining stable European states and wipes out the savings of retirees and taxpayers. We are gradually sliding into a trap from which we will no longer be able to escape. This risk is, in my opinion, the greatest risk of all.

SPIEGEL: But other economists arrive at different conclusions when they analyze the situation. Honestly, if you were the chancellor, wouldn't you also take the safest apparent route forward, just as she is doing?

Sinn: I understand very well that politicians always have to bridge the gap until the next election, even if long-term dangers increase as a result. But as an economist, my time horizon is longer.

SPIEGEL: Isn't it perfectly reasonable to be extremely cautious in this situation?

Sinn: You can't convince me that it makes sense to stand by idly and watch as we take on increasingly greater risks. We are destabilizing our political system with this excessive rescue policy...

SPIEGEL: ... but not if the rescue succeeds.

Sinn: I think that is rather unlikely because it would give us the wrong prices and thus result in a lack of competitiveness in the countries that are receiving public loans. I can't save drug addicts by meeting their demands for more drugs.

SPIEGEL: Proposals by economists also meet with skepticism because their field's reputation has been severely tarnished in recent years. Very few economists predicted the financial crisis, so it's no wonder that politicians no longer place much value in their advice.

Sinn: Only very few economists correctly predicted the time of the crash, that's true. But many had warned of dangerous developments on the financial markets. In 2003, for instance, I dedicated an entire chapter of my book, which deals with systems competition, to the lack of banking regulation -- and sparked a debate in which I favored stronger banking regulation. There were also American economists such as Martin Feldstein and Robert Shiller who repeatedly warned that the bubble on the US financial markets would eventually burst.

SPIEGEL: But surely you don't deny that up until the last decade the vast majority of economists were of the opinion that the financial markets should be liberalized as much as possible.

Sinn: Not in Germany. Leading German proponents of financial market theory such as Martin Hellwig have, like me, always emphatically urged stronger regulation of the financial markets.

SPIEGEL: In the United States, economists are characterized by their unrestrained faith in the markets, whereas here in Germany they are known for their argumentativeness. Last summer, two groups of economists, with two completely contradictory positions, went public on the euro issue: One group, which you belong to, strictly opposes a European banking union, while the other favors this move. Was this a successful initiative?

Sinn: You speak of contradictions where there were none whatsoever. Both groups were against collectivizing bank debts in Europe. The second spoke out in favor of a joint European banking regulatory agency, but the first group has yet to comment on this. The truth is different than how you perceive it: 495 German economists are warning the German government against bailing out Southern European banks with German tax money.

SPIEGEL: This raises the question of why you didn't formulate a joint appeal in the first place.

Sinn: I didn't write the appeal, but I signed it. The author was Walter Krämer from the University of Dortmund. A few days later, Krämer und I wrote an article for the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, in which we both came out in favor of a joint banking regulation regime. This could have admittedly also been part of the first public appeal.

SPIEGEL: Doesn't this show that the appeal may have been the wrong way to launch an economic debate?

Sinn: The idea was not to launch an economic debate, but rather to rouse the public. We saw a threat that the decisions made at the EU summit in June could pave the way for a collectivization of the debts of Southern European banks. The debts of the banks in crisis-ridden countries, however, are three times as high as the national debts. Who, aside from the banks' creditors, should assume these burdens?

SPIEGEL: Still, it should be noted that economists' recommendations are fraught with considerable uncertainty, particularly when it comes to a complex issue like the euro crisis. Your colleague Gert Wagner, president of the German Institute of Economic Research (DIW), says: "Everyone who says that they know precisely what to do is guilty of making the pretence of knowledge in a historically unique situation." Are you not being somewhat presumptuous?

Sinn: Economics professors are not paid to slink away during a crisis.

SPIEGEL: And you know just what to do?

Sinn: I weigh up the risks and make a decision. If I didn't do that, I wouldn't be doing my job as an economist.

SPIEGEL: Are there calls you have made where you later would say that you made a mistake?

Sinn: I was too quick to endorse the euro because I thought it would liberate the continent from endlessly fluctuating exchange rates. My mistake was that I believed that the nations of Europe would adhere to the Maastricht Treaty and not socialize the debts of Southern European countries. Older colleagues had already pointed to this danger at the time.

SPIEGEL: Have you ever considered becoming a politician yourself?

Sinn: No, I take my profession as an economist seriously and feel a commitment to the truth. This is incompatible with having to toe the party line. I aim to help the Germans and the Europeans successfully travel all the way down the path toward European integration, and I can do this more effectively if I don't commit myself to a party.

SPIEGEL: Mr. Sinn, thank you for this interview.

Interview conducted by Armin Mahler and Michael Sauga

Translated from the German by Paul Cohen

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From DER SPIEGEL

About Hans-Werner Sinn

  • DPA
    Hans-Werner Sinn, is president of the Institute for Economic Research in Munich. He is the author of several books on topics ranging from German reunification to the financial crisis. Because of his provocatively libertarian viewpoints, he is one of the best known, but also one of the most controversial economists in Germany.

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