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Anatole Kaletsky: What's Europe's best hope for avoiding a second euro crisis?

This week's theatrical resignation threat by Manuel Valls, the French prime minister, combined with deep European anxiety about deflation, suggest that the euro crisis may be coming back. But a crisis is often an opportunity, and this is the hope now beginning to excite markets in the eurozone.

Investors and business leaders are asking themselves three questions: Will European governments and the European Central Bank recognize the unexpected weakness of the eurozone economy as an opportunity to change course? If they do, will they know how to grasp it? And will they be allowed to do what is necessary by the true economic sovereign of Europe, German Chancellor Angela Merkel?

First, the opportunity. Europe still has a chance to save itself from a Japanese-style lost decade of stagnation and deflation. And this may well be a last chance, because a lost decade in Europe could produce some very un-Japanese social rebellions and political upheavals. Europe, after all, lacks Japan's social consensus, national unity and financial cohesion. It is far from clear that Europe could survive 10 years of recession without up the eurozone breaking up and even perhaps the European Union.

Second, what must Europe do to save itself from stagnation and disintegration? The obvious answer is to follow something similar to the "three arrows" program popularised (though not genuinely implemented) by Japan's prime minister, Shinzo Abe. Abe's "three arrows" were: aggressive monetary stimulus; fiscal easing requiring suspension of deficit and debt targets, and structural reforms to correct long-term weaknesses in both supply and demand.

Judging by ECB Chairman Mario Draghi's speech at Jackson Hole, Wyo., all three of these policies are becoming feasible. The central bank is hinting at more growth-oriented monetary policy, the European Commission seems willing to interpret its fiscal rules more flexibly, and national governments are promising to undertake more structural reforms.

The problem is that all these hints and promises are hedged with too many conditions, uncertainties and caveats. Even if the ECB decides to experiment with U.S., British and Japanese-style quantitative easing, or QE, its record suggests that it will probably do too little, too late – just enough to prevent a collapse of the euro but not nearly enough to pull the European economy out of its slump.

The prospects for fiscal and structural reforms are even more discouraging, judging by this week's political upheaval in France. President Francois Hollande responded to his prime minister's resignation threat by sacking Arnaud Montebourg, the left-wing economy minister, along with several allies. But Montebourg was calling for budget flexibility and fiscal reflation, policies very similar to those suggested by Draghi. And Montebourg rightly stressed the importance of "sequencing" monetary, fiscal and structural reforms correctly, a fair point also made by Draghi and before him by Christine Lagarde, head of the International Monetary Fund. What matters is not just the policies that governments and central banks implement, but the order in which they do so.

Misguided sequencing has arguably been a root cause of European's economic malaise. Monetary expansion, for example, is much more effective if it is combined with fiscal stimulus, either through temporary tax cuts or injections of public spending. But if monetary expansion is contradicted by premature fiscal consolidation, both policies can be doomed to failure.

Structural reforms are very slow to act and cannot generate growth in the short-term. They should thus be viewed as complementary to macroeconomic policy, not as a pre-condition for monetary and fiscal expansion. Major reductions in public spending, which reduce growth in the short term even though they may increase long-run efficiency, should come at the end of the reform process, instead of being "front-loaded" ahead of tax cuts, as the European Commission and the German government tend to demand.

For all these reasons, and many others, skepticism is certainly justified about Europe's willingness to pull itself out of stagnation. That raises the third and most important issue: Will Merkel allow Europe to save itself?

To judge by Merkel's public statements, the answer is "no." Officially, the German government refuses even to discuss any loosening of the EU budget rules. Nor does it accept the economic logic of sequencing espoused by the IMF, the United States, Japan, China and every other major economy. But is that really her position — and even if it is, can she sustain it much longer?

With the German economy weakening due to the recession in France and southern Europe, as well as sanctions against Russia, Merkel is becoming less adamant about imposing German ideas. At the same time, the pressure for change coming from France, Italy and Spain is growing as Hollande, Matteo Renzi and Mariano Rajoy all face challenges to their leadership. In this sense, the rebellion against Hollande could be a useful cautionary tale for Merkel. If she remains too obstinate, she could lose all her allies and face some truly frightening hostility from openly anti-German politicians such as Marine Le Pen, Montebourg and Silvio Berlusconi. This is not a legacy Merkel will want.

It is thus quite possible that this week's political upheaval in France was actually coordinated, at least informally, by Hollande and Merkel. Let us assume that Hollande and Merkel finally recognize, because of the recent slump in European economic indicators, that fiscal and monetary reflation are urgently ​necessary for Europe. For Merkel, this would be a very difficult concession since she has vehemently opposed any loosening of EU budgetary targets and expressed deep reservations about monetary "experiments" such as QE. To avoid losing face, she would require a diversionary tactic. Montebourg's demand for fiscal reflation, which he combined with an attack on Merkel's domination of European economic policy, provided a perfect distraction.

By sacking Montebourg, Hollande was able to signal that he would accept German economic dominance and abide by the EU fiscal rules. Having done this favor for Merkel, he could then go ahead and discretely break the rules. It is a measure of the EU's political and economic dysfunctions that such twisted Machiavellian logic now offers Europe its best hope.

Anatole Kaletsky is an award-winning journalist and financial economist who has written since 1976 for The Economist, the Financial Times and The Times of London before joining Reuters.

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Posted: August 29, 2014 Friday 12:52 PM