The euro as an international currency
Speech delivered by Eugenio Domingo Solans, Member of the Governing Council and the Executive Board of the European Central Bank, at The Athens Summit '99, in Athens on 18 September 1999
Thank you for inviting me to the Athens Summit '99 and for giving me the opportunity to speak to you at this important event.
I should like to share with you my views, and the ECB's views, on the importance of the euro as an international currency. I understand that this issue may be of interest to experts from Greece, a "pre-in" country which intends to join the euro area, and to many participants from countries outside the euro area and the European Union, some of which currently have exchange rate regimes related to the euro.
Nowadays the euro is the second most widely used currency in the world economy, behind the US dollar and ahead of the Japanese yen. As we all know, any currency fulfils three basic functions: it is a store of value, a medium of exchange and a unit of account. As a store of value the use of the euro as an investment and financing currency is rapidly increasing, as investors understand the advisability of diversifying their portfolio currencies among those which are more stable and more internationally used. The euro is developing at a slower pace as a medium of exchange or payment currency in the international exchange of goods and services. This fact can easily be explained by the combined and reinforcing effects of network externalities and economies of scale in the use of a predominant international currency as a medium of exchange, as is the case with the US dollar. The use of the euro as a unit of account is linked to its use as a store of value and a medium of exchange. The value stored in euro or the payments made in euro will tend to be counted in euro.
There are good reasons to expect an increase in international public use of the euro as a reserve, intervention and pegging currency, inasmuch as the public authorities understand that it is worthwhile to allocate their foreign reserves among the main international currencies and to give the euro a relevant share in accordance with its internal and external stability and the economic and financial importance of the euro area.
In connection with the use of the euro as a pegging currency, approximately 30 countries outside the euro area currently have exchange rate regimes involving the euro to a greater or lesser extent. These exchange rate regimes are currency boards (Bosnia-Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Estonia); currencies pegged to the euro (Cyprus, the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia and 14 African countries in which the CFA franc is the legal tender); currencies pegged to a basket of currencies including the euro, in some cases with a fluctuation band (Hungary, Iceland, Poland, Turkey, etc.); systems of managed floating in which the euro is used informally as the reference currency (Czech Republic, Slovak Republic and Slovenia); and, last but not least, European Union currencies pegged to the euro through a co-operative arrangement, namely ERM II. As you well know, Denmark and Greece joined ERM II on 1 January 1999 with a ±2.25% fluctuation band for the Danish krone and a ±15% fluctuation band for the Greek drachma. Although the euro remains in second position after the US dollar in terms of its official use, the role of the euro will increase in the future, without a doubt, especially after the year 2002 when the euro banknotes and coins will begin to circulate.
Taking the current situation as a starting point, the Eurosystem's position concerning the future international role of the euro is crystal clear: we shall not adopt a belligerent stance in order to force the use of the euro upon the world economy. We are convinced that the use of the euro as an international currency will come about anyway. It will happen spontaneously, slowly but inexorably, without any impulses other than those based on free will and the decisions of market participants, without any logic other than that of the market. In other words, the internationalisation of the euro is not a policy objective of the Eurosystem; it will neither be fostered nor hindered by us. The development of the euro as an international currency will be a market-driven process, a free process.
The euro fulfils the necessary conditions to be a leading international currency with the US dollar and not against it. There is enough room for both currencies in the world economy. The necessary conditions for a currency to become an international currency are based on two broad factors: low risk and large size. The low risk factor is related to the confidence inspired by the currency and its central bank, which in turn mainly depends on the internal and external stability of the currency. The low risk factor tends to lead to diversification among international currencies, since diversification is a means to reduce the overall risk; it acts, so to speak, as a centrifugal force. By contrast, the large size factor relates to the relative demographic economic and financial importance of the area which supports the currency; in other words, the "habitat" of the currency. The large size factor, which concerns the demographic, economic and financial dimension, generally tends to lead to centralisation around one or a few key international currencies. It can be seen as a centripetal force, as a virtuous circle, which will tend to lead to an increasing use of the euro as an international currency. Let us consider these two factors in more detail.
The first factor concerns low risk, credibility and stability. The stability of the euro is a priority for the ECB. Compared with the idea of stability, the strength of the euro is of lesser importance. This does not mean that the exchange rate of the euro does not constitute an element to be considered in the second pillar of the monetary policy strategy of the ECB, which consists of a broadly based assessment of the outlook for price developments and risks to stability obtained from a wide range of economic indicators, the euro exchange rate being one of them. However, the basic factor that will determine the importance of the euro as a widely used currency in the world economy, in addition to the demographic, economic and financial dimensions of the euro area, is, without a doubt, the stability of the new currency, understood as a means to maintain the purchasing power of savings.
Stability is the basic requirement for a good currency. It is what we at the ECB want for the euro. We want a stable euro and we are convinced that, in the long term, the euro will derive strength from its stability.
The stability of the euro is the basis for the confidence in and the credibility of the ECB, without which a large international role for the euro would be unthinkable. Stability is the proof of the effectiveness of the institution. Yet in order to be credible it is not sufficient for the ECB to maintain stability. Other parameters of its action must be considered: accountability, transparency and communication, a Europe-wide perspective, etc.
These parameters or conditions for the credibility of the euro are certainly demanding. However, the achievement of these conditions is the aim of all those of us who have responsibilities with regard to the functioning of the Eurosystem.
The second factor, which we have called the large size factor or the habitat of the euro, is important because without a certain critical mass, a currency cannot have international relevance, however high its degree of stability.
The figures relating to the population and the GDP of the euro area illustrate this. With 292 million inhabitants, its population exceeds that of the United States (270 million) and that of Japan (127 million). The GDP of the euro area is, on the other hand, equal to 76% of the GDP of the United States (EUR 5,774 billion compared with EUR 7,592 billion), though it is higher than that of Japan (EUR 3,327 billion). The source of this information, which refers to 1998, is Eurostat.
However, even more important than the current figures is the potential for the future development of the euro area, in terms of population and GDP, if and when the so-called "pre-ins" (Denmark, Greece, Sweden and the United Kingdom) join the Eurosystem.
The entry of these countries would result in a monetary area of 376 million inhabitants, 39% larger than the United States and almost triple the size of Japan, with a GDP of EUR 7,495 billion, only slightly less than that of the United States and 125% higher than that of Japan.
All these facts and figures which demonstrate the demographic and economic importance of the European Union would be further strengthened by enlargement to eastern Europe. Our continent has a historical, cultural and geographical identity - from the Iberian peninsula to the Urals, with certain additional external territories - which, in the future, may also come to form an economic unit. However that is, for the moment, a distant prospect.
The size or habitat of an economy does not only depend on demographic or economic factors; it also has to do with the financial base or dimension of the area. In considering the financial dimension of the euro area, the first relevant feature to observe is the low level of capitalisation of the stock markets in comparison with the United States and Japan.
Although this feature could give the impression that the euro area has a relatively small financial dimension relative to its economic dimension, this is not the case. The lower degree of development of the capital markets is offset by a higher degree of banking assets. This means that the financial base of real economic activity in Europe is founded on bank intermediation, which is also a feature of the Japanese economy. For example, private domestic credit in the euro area amounts to 92.4% of GDP, while in the United States it is only 68.9%. Conversely, fixed domestic income represents 34.2% of GDP in the euro area compared with 66.1% of GDP in the United States (statistics from the International Monetary Fund and the Bank for International Settlements as at the end of 1997, taken from the Monthly Bulletin of the European Central Bank). We, therefore, have two distinct models of private financing which clearly have to be taken into account when assessing Europe's financial dimension compared with the United States or Japan.
The euro, the Eurosystem's monetary policy and, in general, the activity of the ECB and the Eurosystem play a key role in the integration of European financial markets and all markets in general. The euro is acting as a catalyst for European economic integration. And more integration will lead to a greater economic and financial dimension.
Monetary and financial integration stemming from the euro and the activity of the Eurosystem will affect the operation of the single European market in a positive way. The European market, with a single currency, will tend to be more transparent, more competitive, more efficient and will function more smoothly. This is the reason why joining the European Union, as a general rule, will lead to joining the euro area, once certain economic conditions (the so-called convergence criteria) have been fulfilled.
Monetary union is always a political operation, irrespective of its technical and economic implications. Currency is one of the most genuine expressions of sovereignty, because the power to issue money is one of the greatest powers in existence. The Treaty on European Union led, first, to the depoliticisation of monetary power in Europe, by means of granting independence to the central banks and prohibiting the monetising of public deficits, and afterwards to denationalisation or supranationalisation (via the creation of the Eurosystem). The Eurosystem was not only created for the purpose of improving the operation of the Single Market, but also in order to make progress on the building of the European political structure.
The euro should not only be seen as a catalyst for European economic integration, it should also be seen as a main beam necessary to construct the European political structure. The relationship between political power and monetary power is an interesting subject which is open to investigation and discussion, but that would certainly go beyond the scope of this speech. I merely wish to point out that, in the case of Europe, it is clear that following the achievement of a single currency, the door remains open to political union, which would represent a crucial step in the process of integration. In conclusion, it would seem clear that the implications of the euro go "beyond supply and demand" (to use the title of the work of Wilhelm Röpke). We are now fully immersed in "meta-economy", which means it is time to end my speech.