If you have any spare cash laying around and need of a vacation, Chevy Chase would probably recommend that you go to Europe. The euro currency has dipped to a nine-year low against the dollar. That is good for tourists going to Europe, but is not good for European economic prospects in the long term. Why?
Recently, Mario Draghi, the president of the European Central Bank and probably the most powerful man in Europe, hinted that he was about to effectively print lots of money, hoping to jolt the sclerotic European economy back to prosperity. Europe's abysmal economic performance has led to excessive fears of deflation -- that is, the falling of prices. But you say, wouldn't falling prices benefit European consumers? Yes, but the ECB cares less about citizens and more about businesses that don't want the prices of their products to decline.
A U.S.- or British-style "quantitative easing" by the ECB would allegedly goose the sluggish European economy back to life and increase prices, thus alleviating the fears of price deflation. After all, isn't the United States' economy finally experiencing recovery after years of massive money printing by the U.S. Federal Reserve? Wouldn't that be a good thing for Europe too?
Central bankers of rich European nations, such as Germany, don't really agree -- and correctly so. They fear that their economies will suffer to compensate for the deadwood still in the economic system from financially irresponsible countries, such as Greece, Spain, Portugal, Italy, Ireland, etc. All of these nations have been on critically needed austerity programs to get their economy-dragging huge debts down. The fear in Europe is that in Greece, a far left populist party, Syriza, may win the upcoming election and halt the austerity program that was required by international lenders when they last bailed Greece out of its financial irresponsibility.
So in compensating for these countries' prior financial profligacy, which has dragged economic growth in Europe because of huge amounts of accumulated debt, Draghi wants to take the irresponsibility to the European-wide level by a massive printing of money. The United States has been urging Europe to undertake such a quantitative easing for a while now, but Germany has been rightly reluctant. Germany, always fearful of inflation after its experience with hyper-inflation during the interwar period, is fearful of money printing.
But didn't money printing turn the U.S. economy around? After the financial crisis, borrowers in the United States have reduced debt, which may be helping economic growth rates. However, the growth in the U.S. economy could also be artificial. Any time money is printed on a mass scale, as it has been in the United States and Britain, it can create a sense of false prosperity.
Such artificial prosperity has occurred a couple of times recently in the United States. In the 1990s, Alan Greenspan, the Federal Reserve chairman appointed by President Ronald Reagan, turned on the money spigot. The money flowed into new Internet companies, causing the dot.com bubble, which burst around the new millennium, causing a recession. To right this downturn, Greenspan and his successor, Ben Bernanke, started the money printing presses again. Much of the money flowed into the U.S. housing industry, creating a bubble that popped in 2008, leading to the worst worldwide financial and economic meltdown since the Great Depression. To "save" the U.S. and world economies, Bernanke then printed money like no one else in history.
That's where we are today. Americans -- and Europeans -- should be wary of where all that money has gone. This time, where is the bubble of artificial prosperity that will come crashing down? In recent times, the U.S. economy has been on one Fed-induced sugar high after another. Europe should pay attention to the U.S. record and continue with the German-enforced austerity that will be bring about long-term European prosperity once the irresponsible countries have been forced to get their financial houses in order. Unfortunately, Europe will probably not continue on a financially more responsible course because, by all outward appearances, the U.S. economy is beginning to grow nicely.
If Greece does elect Syriza, abandon its required austerity program, and exit the Euro currency, the entire currency could come apart, with a rump group of responsible nations forming their own currency union. Such a crisis may cause central banks all over Europe to print money to "save" the system -- as was done in the United States.
A better course of action is to delay gratification, continue belt-tightening austerity, and lay the groundwork for long-term legitimate economic growth. Unfortunately, this is unlikely to happen, because governments in Europe and America are so accustomed to intervening in economies to alleviate short-term pain. It's too easy to just turn on the printing presses.