28 Mar 2014

The EMS Crisis of the 1990s: Parallels with the present crisis?

Daniel Gros

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The EMS crisis of the 1990s illustrated the importance of a lack of confidence in price or exchange rate stability, whereas the present crisis illustrates the importance of a lack of confidence in fiscal sustainability. Theoretically the difference between the two should be minor since, in terms of the real return to an investor, the loss of purchasing power can be the same when inflation is unexpectedly high, or when the nominal value of government debt is cut in a formal default. Experience has shown, however, that expropriation via a formal default is much more disruptive than via inflation.

The paper starts by providing a brief review of the EMS crisis, emphasising that the most interesting period might be the ‘post-EMS’ crisis of 1993-95. It then reviews in section 2 the crisis factors, comparing the EMS crisis to today’s euro crisis.  Section 3 outlines the main analytical issue, namely the potential instability of high public debt within and outside a monetary union.  Section 4 then compares the pressure on public finance coming from the crises for the case of Italy.  Section 5 uses data on ‘foreign currency’ debt to disentangle expectations of devaluation/inflation from expectations of default.  Section 6 concludes.

Daniel Gros is Director of the Centre for European Policy Studies (CEPS) in Brussels. This paper was prepared for the Conference on “Progress through crisis?”, organised jointly by the National Bank of Belgium and the European Central Bank, 12 February 2014, to mark the occasion of the 20th anniversary of the establishment of the European Monetary Institute. The paper will be published by the ECB and the NBB in a forthcoming collective volume.