Skip to main content

Could Germany save eurozone by leaving it?

By Clyde Prestowitz and John Prout, Special to CNN
May 30, 2012 -- Updated 2350 GMT (0750 HKT)
Clyde Prestowitz and John Prout say that if Germany returned to the deutsche mark, other eurozone nations would benefit
Clyde Prestowitz and John Prout say that if Germany returned to the deutsche mark, other eurozone nations would benefit
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Writers: To salvage eurozone, Germany, not Greece, should withdraw
  • They say Germany is very competitive; eurozone countries unable to catch up
  • They say Germany could improve its currency valuation, stop preventing euro bonds
  • Writers: Euro bonds could help with euro rescue; pain for Germany would be temporary

Editor's note: Clyde Prestowitz writes on globalization for ForeignPolicy.com and is president of the Economic Strategy Institute. John Prout is the former Paris-based treasurer of Credit Commercial de France.

(CNN) -- With Greece probably heading for an exit from the euro, the European and global economies may be facing disaster. However, there is still time for European leaders to reverse this destructive dynamic with one simple, outside-the-box solution: Instead of pushing Greece out of the eurozone, Germany should voluntarily withdraw and reissue its beloved deutsche mark.

The analysis of the problems of the euro and the European Union has long been upside down, focused on the debt and competitive weaknesses of the so-called peripheral countries (Greece, Italy, Spain, Portugal and Ireland) and especially of Greece. But issues of debt and competitiveness existed and were dealt with rather easily long before the euro arrived, through periodic devaluation of the currencies of the less-competitive countries against those of the more competitive countries, and especially against the deutsche mark.

The problem now is not the weaknesses of the periphery, it's the excessive competitive strength of Germany. Not only is the German economy inherently strong as a result of the high productivity of its workforce, its exports have added competitiveness because the euro is undervalued as far as Germany is concerned. Because it is the common currency of the eurozone countries, the value of the euro reflects the average of their combined competitiveness. But Germany's competitiveness is far above the average. So, for Germany, the euro is too weak. This is why Germany has been accumulating chronic trade surpluses on the scale of the Chinese.

As long as the rest of the eurozone countries are locked in the euro with Germany, the only way for them to become more competitive is to become, well, more Germanic, through austerity measures that cut government spending, reduce welfare budgets, cut wages and raise unemployment. This is, of course, what they have been doing for the past two years.

The aim has been to achieve export-led growth. But because Germany is so hypercompetitive and has been unwilling to stimulate its own economy to achieve higher consumption, its eurozone partners have not been able to increase exports to it and have had thus to compete with it in exporting to the likes of China and the United States.

That hasn't been working very well, and now the consequences of grinding austerity are beginning to tear the political and social fabric even of countries like the Netherlands, which until quite recently were enthusiastically echoing the German call for austerity and growth led by trade with countries outside the EU.

But it is not clear that the eurozone can sustain the social and political pain of austerity long enough and on the scale necessary to eventually achieve competitive parity with Germany.

The alternative is for Germany to revert to the deutsche mark. That would immediately result in appreciation of the German currency and competitive devaluation of the euro for the remaining eurozone countries. Germany would tend to buy more while selling less, and vice versa for the rest of the eurozone. The extra consumption that Germany will not deliver via stimulus policies would be automatically delivered by currency revaluation.

The single most essential element of a euro rescue has always been one form or another of a euro bond guaranteed jointly by all eurozone member countries. What the U.S. Treasury bond is to the U.S. economy, the euro bond would be to the EU. The main obstacle has been Germany's insistence that it would not guarantee payments on bonds for the benefit of other European countries.

German reversion to the deutsche mark would remove this obstacle, and with no further German opposition, the remainder of the eurozone could move ahead to establish a true euro bond, along with a unified treasury function to match the unified banking function of the European Central Bank.

Some may object that German backing would still be required for the eurozone and a euro bond to be viable. That is correct, and Germany would indeed remain committed to the eurozone for a number of reasons. It would need the eurozone more than ever to buy its increasingly expensive exports. The Bundesbank (Germany's central bank) would undoubtedly sell deutsche marks against euros to mitigate appreciation, and the resulting accumulation of euros would be invested in the new euro bonds. This in turn might inspire the European Central Bank to initiate quantitative easing programs that would stimulate the entire EU economy.

The cost to Germany of saving Europe will be a hit to exports and perhaps a temporary rise in unemployment, but a return to the deutsche mark would attract a flood of capital to Germany and thereby spur investment while holding interest rates and inflation down.

The real question is whether the cost of slower export growth and increased unemployment is less than that of paying for Greece, then Spain, etc. Somehow, the "unknown" risks of a German exit from the euro appear more manageable, more quantifiable and in some ways more familiar a challenge than endless austerity, social unrest and political polarization.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Clyde Prestowitz and John Prout.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
April 22, 2014 -- Updated 2247 GMT (0647 HKT)
Q & A with artist Rachel Sussman on her new book of photographs, "The Oldest Living Things in the World."
April 22, 2014 -- Updated 1958 GMT (0358 HKT)
Martin Blaser says the overuse of antibiotics threatens to deplete our bodies of "good" microbes, leaving us vulnerable to an unstoppable plague--an "antibiotic winter"
April 22, 2014 -- Updated 1737 GMT (0137 HKT)
John Sutter asks: Is it possible to eat meat in modern-day America and consider yourself an environmentalist without being a hypocrite?
April 22, 2014 -- Updated 1538 GMT (2338 HKT)
Sally Kohn notes that Meb Keflezighi rightly was called an American after he won the Boston Marathon, but his status in the U.S. once was questioned
April 22, 2014 -- Updated 1256 GMT (2056 HKT)
Denis Hayes and Scott Denman say on this Earth Day, the dawn of the Solar Age is already upon us and the Atomic Age of nuclear power is in decline
April 21, 2014 -- Updated 2036 GMT (0436 HKT)
Retired Coast Guard officer James Loy says a ship captain bears huge responsibility.
April 21, 2014 -- Updated 1708 GMT (0108 HKT)
Peter Bergen says the latest strikes are part of an aggressive U.S. effort to target militants, including a bomb maker
April 21, 2014 -- Updated 1345 GMT (2145 HKT)
Cynthia Lummis and Peter Welch say 16 agencies carry out national intelligence, and their budgets are top secret. We need to know how they are spending our money.
April 21, 2014 -- Updated 1235 GMT (2035 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says President Obama knows more than anyone that he has much at stake in the midterm elections.
April 22, 2014 -- Updated 1255 GMT (2055 HKT)
Eric Sanderson says if you really want to strike a blow for the environment--and your health--this Earth Day, work to get cars out of cities and create transportation alternatives
April 21, 2014 -- Updated 1408 GMT (2208 HKT)
Bruce Barcott looks at the dramatic differences in marijuana laws in Colorado and Louisiana
April 18, 2014 -- Updated 2047 GMT (0447 HKT)
Jim Bell says NASA's latest discovery supports the notion that habitable worlds are probably common in the galaxy.
April 18, 2014 -- Updated 1817 GMT (0217 HKT)
Jay Parini says even the Gospels skip the actual Resurrection and are sketchy on the appearances that followed.
April 18, 2014 -- Updated 1752 GMT (0152 HKT)
Graham Allison says if an unchecked and emboldened Russia foments conflict in a nation like Latvia, a NATO member, the West would have to defend it.
April 18, 2014 -- Updated 1311 GMT (2111 HKT)
John Sutter: Bad news, guys -- the pangolin we adopted is missing.
April 21, 2014 -- Updated 1825 GMT (0225 HKT)
Ben Wildavsky says we need a better way to determine whether colleges are turning out graduates with superior education and abilities.
April 18, 2014 -- Updated 1026 GMT (1826 HKT)
Charles Maclin, program manager working on the search and recovery of Malaysia Flight 370, explains how it works.
April 18, 2014 -- Updated 1250 GMT (2050 HKT)
Jill Koyama says Michael Bloomberg is right to tackle gun violence, but we need to go beyond piecemeal state legislation.
April 17, 2014 -- Updated 1845 GMT (0245 HKT)
Michael Bloomberg and Shannon Watts say Americans are ready for sensible gun laws, but politicians are cowed by the NRA. Everytown for Gun Safety will prove the NRA is not that powerful.
ADVERTISEMENT