Feb. 19 (Bloomberg) -- The crisis stalking the euro economy began with a footnote.
When the European Union predicted in 1997 that Italy’s budget deficit would exceed the threshold to qualify for the single currency, it buried in the fine print the observation that with “additional measures” the Italians could pass.
They did, thanks to a one-time tax and a yen-denominated swap. It was an early example of the balance-sheet fiddling deployed since then by countries eager to share the benefits of a $13-trillion market and lower borrowing costs, yet unwilling to cede control over their budgets, wages and welfare systems.
Now Greece, by setting a standard for fiscal creativity, has exposed the flaws in Europe’s hybrid of monetary union and fiscal indiscipline. The crisis risks extending the euro’s 6 percent slide against the dollar this year, its expansion into eastern Europe and its prospects to challenge the dollar as an international reserve currency.
Greece’s fiscal tragedy “reveals a lot of things that people didn’t want to look at, such as the lack of economic governance of the euro zone,” said Pervenche Beres, a French member of the European Parliament who is sponsoring a resolution calling for tougher financial regulation. “If Greece falls apart, everything would fall apart. Nobody should allow this.”
Harvard University’s Martin Feldstein was among economists who have cautioned since the currency debuted in 1999 that divergent economies couldn’t fit under a single roof. The union was led by a Germany that consented to give up its deutsche mark as long as the rest of Europe embraced the German aversion to debt that took hold after two world wars.