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Why the Euro Will Survive and Thrive

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It's easy to believe the euro will fail if you look only at the equity markets. Greek shipping company DryShips (Nasdaq: DRYS  ) is trading for a 50th of its former self. Shares of Spanish telecommunications giant Telefonica (NYSE: TEF  ) continue their descent despite its double-digit dividend yield. And Irish biotech Elan (NYSE: ELN  ) has yet to reclaim the ground it lost over three years ago.

What if I were to tell you, however, that the greatest minds in investing believe the markets are wrong on this count? In an interview with Fool analyst Morgan Housel, Wharton professor Jeremy Siegel predicted that European stocks will jump 25% if and when the European Central Bank gets serious about quelling the continent's problems. And Berkeley professor Barry Eichengreen postulated in his book Exorbitant Privilege that the euro will not only survive the crisis but thereafter thrive due to the world's longing for a currency to rival the American dollar.

In what follows, I take up Siegel and Eichengreen's mantel by showing that the history of the euro and the implications of its failure demonstrate that it'll be around a lot longer than the markets have led us to believe.

The history of the euro
The history of the euro is one of political as opposed to economic expediency dating back 600 years. According to Exorbitant Privilege, the idea underlying it was first proposed by a 15th-century king of Bohemia to finance a European army to fight the Turks. Four hundred years later, Napoleon agitated for a single currency issued under the auspices of promoting the integration of the continent. And in the 1950s and 1960s, French economist Jacques Rueff argued for a single European currency linked to gold.

The horrors of World War II added considerable urgency to the idea. The drafters of the European Economic Community, a precursor to the monetary union, saw integration as a means of preventing similar conflicts in the future. This became particularly important in light of Germany's economic resurgence in the 1950s courtesy of the Marshall Plan. The theory was that Germany's participation in the union would discourage it from reigniting hostilities.

While the Continental powers hadn't come to an agreement by 1989, the reunification of Germany provided the final impetus. On the one hand, it became more urgent to lock Germany into Europe now that its population, land area, and economic capacity were set to expand. And on the other, Germany needed the ascent of the occupying powers -- the United States, France, Britain, and the Soviet Union -- to reunify. The decision to negotiate a legally binding agreement on monetary union was therefore taken in December 1989, little more than a month after the fall of the Berlin Wall.

What this history demonstrates is that the European powers see the euro as more than a common currency. To them, it's the price of peace. As a result, the union and its currency are likely much more resilient than modern-day political and financial pundits recognize.

The unpalatable alternative
In addition to the historical and political ties to the euro, fragmenting into individual currencies simply isn't a palatable alternative. Today's currency market is akin to a dark alley in an unfriendly neighborhood -- it's not somewhere you want to go alone. And the looming presence of an omnipotent dollar makes the situation even worse. In the words of an influential German banker, it's like "being in a boat -- or a bed -- with an elephant."

The experience of South Korea during the Asian financial crisis provides a case in point. In less than two months, from November to December 1997, the Korean won had lost half its value relative to the dollar. This wreaked havoc throughout the peninsula's economy, as it doubled the debts of banks and firms that had borrowed in dollars. And to make matters worse, unlike in the recent financial crisis here in the United States, the Bank of Korea was almost entirely powerless. The only thing it could do is print more won -- and nobody wanted won, they wanted dollars. The situation didn't stabilize until the U.S. Federal Reserve loaned the Bank of Korea $30 billion, which then forwarded those dollars to the institutions in need.

In the event Europe's leaders don't look for precedent abroad, they have their own experience of being on the proverbial business end of the dollar. Their familiarity dates to the late 1960s and early 1970s. At the time, the international monetary and financial system was governed by a series of rules formulated at the Bretton Woods Conference in 1944. Under this system, the majority of the world's currencies were tied to the dollar, which in turn was convertible to gold at a rate of $35 per ounce. While fissures in the system started to develop in 1960 when American international monetary liabilities first exceeded its gold reserves, the problem didn't come to a head until the United States devalued the dollar in 1971 and 1973. This sent capital flooding into currencies like the deutsche mark -- though notably not the franc, much to the consternation of a proud French government.

The negative effects of these capital flows are almost too numerous to list. In the first case, the recipient countries' central banks felt obliged to offset the capital inflow by buying massive amounts of dollars to maintain the agreed-upon parities, only to watch the dollar continue to decline. The disproportionate flow of capital thereafter had secondary effects on the continent. Much to the ire of France, for example, a rising deutsche mark decreased the real price of agriculture imported into Germany. And much to the ire of Germany, it increased the real price of its exports, leaving its exporters less competitive in the global marketplace.

It should be noted, moreover, that none of the European countries had any power to stop this. Because their separate currencies were so insignificant relative to the dollar, as the saying goes, they were simply holding the tail of the tiger -- that is, of the United States. This is the reason that France's finance minister under Charles de Gaulle referred to the dollar's international hegemony as America's "exorbitant privilege." And it is fear of this impotency that will keep the European countries united behind the euro going forward.

The final analysis
If I were a betting man, I'd wager that the euro will not only emerge from the continent's current economic woes intact, but that it will come out stronger, being backed by the fiscal authority of a more integrated union. When this happens, as Siegel suggests, it will likely send shares of European companies soaring. Two such candidates for this bounce are French environmental services company Veolia Environnement (NYSE: VE  ) and Europe-oriented steel producer ArcelorMittal (NYSE: MT  ) , both of which have been hammered by the uncertainty in Europe.

For more ideas about companies that are primed for the inevitable recovery, check out our free report about stocks that some of the smartest investors are buying. It discloses the identity of a company that Warren Buffett recently invested in, as well as a small bank that he likely would have purchased in his younger days. To access this free report while it's still available, click here now.

Fool contributor John Maxfield does not have a financial position in any of the companies mentioned above. The Motley Fool owns shares of ArcelorMittal and Telefonica. Motley Fool newsletter services have recommended buying shares of Veolia Environnement and Elan. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

Read/Post Comments (33) | Recommend This Article (36)

Comments from our Foolish Readers

Help us keep this a respectfully Foolish area! This is a place for our readers to discuss, debate, and learn more about the Foolish investing topic you read about above. Help us keep it clean and safe. If you believe a comment is abusive or otherwise violates our Fool's Rules, please report it via the Report this Comment Report this Comment icon found on every comment.

  • Report this Comment On January 20, 2012, at 5:44 PM, extramild wrote:

    This is an awful article,

    The reason Elan share price is poor has a lot more to do with how the company has being run for the past few years than any Euro instability.

    In any case how about offering a few solid props and facts for your gut feeling?

    I would expect a better standard of analysis for the euro problem on the fool - if you want the other side of the story why not Google David McWilliams who is excellant.

  • Report this Comment On January 20, 2012, at 6:09 PM, DJDynamicNC wrote:

    Thought provoking.

    It's the end of the day and my weekend is beginning, hope this is still in circulation when I come back on Monday, I would like to think this over and come back and comment. Very intriguing.

  • Report this Comment On January 20, 2012, at 6:26 PM, JohnMaxfield37 wrote:

    extramild -

    Thanks for the shameless plug for Mr. McWilliams.

    After doing a Google search for him, I can definitely see why you wouldn't be interested in what I had to say.

    Suggesting that Ireland split off from the Euro, default on its debts, and establish a currency that would compete with the likes of Nigeria and the Phillipines is an interesting course to recommend. And particularly for someone who purports to be an ex-banker. It seems he would understand the impact of doing so on Ireland's ability to borrow money.

    - John

  • Report this Comment On January 20, 2012, at 6:33 PM, portefeuille wrote:

    Germany's economic resurgence in the 1950s courtesy of the Marshall Plan



  • Report this Comment On January 20, 2012, at 7:26 PM, xetn wrote:

    Perhaps you have overlooked this book which I believe is the "gold standard" view of the Euro:

    This is a free download in several formats.

  • Report this Comment On January 20, 2012, at 7:38 PM, Hawmps wrote:

    I for one believe that there's too much at stake for Europe NOT to figure it out. I would expect stricter guidlines for the Euro countries and more transparancy between the participants in the wake of what's been going on over there. Then I will giggle like a little school girl when my recently acquired long positions in VE, FTE and PT bounce and I will gladly accept whatever dividends I get while I wait.

  • Report this Comment On January 21, 2012, at 3:36 AM, PeakOilBill wrote:

    If you talk to a bunch of Germans or Frenchmen, I think you will find that they HATE being #2 behind the USA. They WILL save the euro no matter what it takes. They dream of the day when their euro is the world reserve currency. They know that the population of Europe far exceeds that of the USA. They have the capacity to supersede the USA in power, but they must do it within the next 40 or so years because of their low birth rates.

    In summary, they know that we are the top dog, they don't like it, and they will do all they can to reverse it. Without a single currency they know that it can never happen.

  • Report this Comment On January 21, 2012, at 10:24 AM, joandrose wrote:


    - have you ever actually lived in Germany or France? ... I have ....!

    You must be smoking something to come out with such an amazing statement. The average German is very much more aware of world politics than the average American ! They know the next world top dog is CHINA - by 2020! - and within 20 years after that, the world power will be INDIA . Europe's dreams of being a world power have long since gone . You are VERY,VERY, wrong . I am also very sorry to say that the American dream is fast approaching it's sunset Are you aware that right now,China already makes more automobiles a year than America ? - just for starters !

  • Report this Comment On January 21, 2012, at 10:51 AM, JohnMaxfield37 wrote:

    joandrose -

    I agree that China will rival the U.S. on the geopolitical stage -- some say it already does. In my opinion, India is probably further than 20 years behind when you consider both financial and physical infrastructure, etc.

    However, your assumption that China's ascent necessarily implies America and Europe's descent is probably wrong. What's more likely, at least for the next century, is a multi-polar world -- one in which Europe plays a prominent role.

    Historically, major powers like the United States don't just peacefully fade off into the sunset over the course of a few years. Generally they end abruptly as a consequence of revolution or war. The former is unlikely. And in the event of the latter, no one would prevail the winner.

    - John

  • Report this Comment On January 21, 2012, at 2:23 PM, danallen46 wrote:

    "Why the Euro Will Survive" is followed immediately by an ad for "The Collapse of the Euro". The two together cancel each other out. The result is that it appears nobody here knows what they are talking about.

  • Report this Comment On January 21, 2012, at 3:31 PM, JohnMaxfield37 wrote:

    danallen46 -

    As you noted, these are conflicting opinions.

    Unlike analysts at an investment bank, our writers express their individual opinions. Many see this as a virtue as opposed to a vice because there's no underlying conflict of interest issue.

    I would encourage investors who are interested in the subject to read both -- the latter is free and delivered via email. The following link will take you there:

    - John

  • Report this Comment On January 22, 2012, at 12:12 AM, JohnMaxfield37 wrote:

    xetn -

    Thanks for the link. While I've been on the Von Mises website before, I hadn't come across this ebook. I'll take a look. Full disclosure, I'm not a goldbug.

    You may also be interested in a recent Bank of England paper on the subject -- I can't link to it right now because I'm on a tablet. I'm writing a piece on it which I hope to have completed by Monday or Tuesday. It compares the gold standard era to the Bretton Woods era, the pre-gold standard era, and the post-Bretton Woods era. It's objective and well done.

    - John

  • Report this Comment On January 22, 2012, at 6:35 AM, Fumaten wrote:


    Agree with you regarding the possibility that Ireland will split off from the Euro,

    IMHO very soon, Spain shall design a new peseta and Greece will use new drachmas and not EUR.

    I wrote about this in my blog :

    Good Luck!

  • Report this Comment On January 22, 2012, at 9:06 AM, JohnMaxfield37 wrote:

    Fumaten -

    I appreciate the link.

    To be clear though, I don't think Ireland, Greece, or Spain should split off from the euro. Doing so would be disastrous for any that did.

    - John

  • Report this Comment On January 22, 2012, at 11:57 AM, Wesss wrote:

    Author- Please correct "ascent" to "assent".

  • Report this Comment On January 22, 2012, at 12:01 PM, Zankudo wrote:

    it`s assent not ascent and the Europeans will not let the Euro fail. Period. End of story. I know them. I have sold to them. I have broken bread with them. So live in an alternate reality if you against Europe or the Euro and you may make money in the short term, but in the long run the Euro ain't dead.

  • Report this Comment On January 22, 2012, at 12:16 PM, rodnog wrote:


    You know every single person in Europe? Or you know how the EU will deal with the situation because some of your customers and/or friends are "European"?

    (And you do realise that Europe consists of a huge variety of different countries and cultures, right? When people generalise about "Europeans", it always sounds so foolish, IMHO.)

  • Report this Comment On January 22, 2012, at 9:42 PM, pedorrero wrote:

    I don't know whether the Euro will survive. What I DO know from reading the Economist frequently, is that there is no real effort to solve the underlying problems that caused this or the last three major crises in the economic world: dodgy debts, the willingness of democracy to spend more than it takes in from taxes, and as the 2008-2009 looting of the U.S. Treasury and the hijinks of the ECB and (most recently) the US Fed's backdoor bailout of troubled "PIIGS" countries all is business as usual. no one in power wants to fix the problem because (1) the situation is probably too far gone and (2) the voters would not stand for gutsy solutions and most important (3) those who benefit from the so-called "solutions" are the usual suspects...the bankers, the government cronies who are their hired guns, and so forth. The system is rotten to the core, it's amazing it hasn't imploded yet. If The USA's decline is one of many decades, we'll be lucky. Yes, it's possible: Spain, France, England, now the USA will all fade from the world stage.

  • Report this Comment On January 22, 2012, at 10:09 PM, JohnMaxfield37 wrote:

    Wesss and Zankudo -

    Thanks for pointing out the spelling error. I will say, however, that you denied my wife the pleasure of telling me first.


  • Report this Comment On January 22, 2012, at 10:14 PM, JohnMaxfield37 wrote:

    pedorrero -

    I agree that political solutions to these issues are hard to come by. It's tough to get elected when you cut things like Medicare and Medicaid.

    - John

  • Report this Comment On January 23, 2012, at 2:41 AM, Fumaten wrote:


    Thanks for clarification, in any way some World Class Companies are preparing for possible break up of the EU zone:

    Best Regards,

  • Report this Comment On January 23, 2012, at 1:48 PM, oldengineer wrote:

    Mr. Mayfield,

    I suggest you (and the commenters on your article) read John Mauldin's current weekly letter, "Staring Into the Abyss." I thought that it made sense.

    Old Engineer

  • Report this Comment On January 23, 2012, at 3:19 PM, Synchronism wrote:


    I went into your article hoping for detailed information regarding European prospects, but all it did was tell me how strong are the incentives in keeping the union alive, all up to its last breath. You added a sentimental and political element to the EU's significance, but imo, the determination to survive and the union’s benefits to intranational politics can get them so far.

    I've been reading M. Lewis's "Boomerang" and have been chatting with a few people in my network. The gist of the hypothesis I've made from what I took from these is that nothing concrete has been done to solve the fundamental reasons behind the economic woe, which point to cultural and social traits. Things that cannot be changed in a single decade. (After all, it's not like you can expect the US to stop being a consumerist nation obsessed with raising its debt limit after doing so for over 70 times in the past century.)

    How much debt can the EU write off without putting the union at risk? How can the Germans and the French help their fellow members become more responsible and efficient? From whose asses will they pull out the money to pay off the 650B euros maturing this year? How long can they keep buying time?

    There's even the question of the political backlash from the citizenry. The idea of the shining stars of the EU answering for someone else's irresponsible decisions is just as bad as telling the 99% their – our – hard-earned taxes are going to absorb toxic subprime loans, pay for failing executives’ severance checks with their companies’ boards learning absolutely nothing from the experience, and supplying wages to politicians who engage in insider trading with impunity and are more concerned with limiting freedoms and pursuing their own parties’ agenda to the detriment of the nation and its people.

    I wanted answers to these. :( Looks like I will have to look elsewhere for them.

    ~ Synchronism

  • Report this Comment On January 24, 2012, at 12:28 AM, joandrose wrote:

    @John Maxfield

    One other thought on this one !

    ... "Europe" is not a united entity like the "United" States . The Eurozone is a "marriage of convenience" between many states for their perceived financial benefit. Nothing more. Many of them distrust and even actively dislike each other. Virtually all of them fiercly hang onto their national identities.

    Your scenario of a future financial multi polar world is probably the most correct assessment.

    I still believe that Greece will default and leave the Eurozone - not "if" - just "when" !

  • Report this Comment On January 24, 2012, at 8:39 AM, JohnMaxfield37 wrote:

    Synchronism -

    I understand your desire for a detailed analysis of Europe's structural problems - though it sounds like you already have a pretty good grasp of them. But the magnitude of the problems shuttle the issue into another sphere.

    If you were to use the structural issue exclusively, your analysis would lead to other conclusions. First, that the U.S. will default and fracture. Second, that Japan will do the same. High unit labor costs and excessive governmental spending are defining characteristics of the developed world. Michael Lewis makes this point in his book -- starting the book in Iceland and ending it in the United States, namely California.

    It's for these reasons that I believe other factors will govern the final outcome -- i.e., history and the desire to be able to compete on a global basis. Germany alone can't depart because the mark would appreciate too much. Italy, Greece, Portugal, and Ireland can't either because they would be shut out of the world's credit markets and their collective size takes an IMF rescue off the table. This leaves France, which already feels over-shadowed by Germany -- and that would get worse if they were completely independent entities.

    Will the EU take on an unsustainable amount of debt? Yes. But that's not the issue. Lots of governments have done, and are doing, that. The issue is whether doing so is the best alternative for the continent. And while I may be wrong, I believe that it is.

    - John

  • Report this Comment On January 24, 2012, at 8:49 AM, JohnMaxfield37 wrote:

    joandrose -

    I think that Greece will default as well. Whether it leaves the common currency or gets the boot, is another issue. I tend to think that it won't because the costs of doing are inordinately high. In my opinion, it boils down to a cost-benefit analysis for all involved.

    With respect to the monetary union as a marriage of convenience, I would say it's much more than that. The world has become too big and inter-connected for any one small country to compete globally. And that's where the common currency helps.

    - John

  • Report this Comment On January 24, 2012, at 1:08 PM, Synchronism wrote:


    A "pretty good grasp" is not enough for me. The magnitude of the economic woe is so dire it is a political and cultural problem than an economic one, and in such a case, having more information can't hurt so long as they're of significant relevance (and they're organized well enough to relay the "big picture").

    Your post adds to this, showing the ginormous carrots leading both the Union and the United States. The stakes are so high it's ostensible they will find some way to prevent an implosion, keep their countries intact, even if the hedge funds waging investment war through distressed debt, CDS's, and litigation blockades eke a deal favorable for only them.

    A Pyrrhic victory, I would imagine.

    Nonetheless, being people trying to work our money to the bone in an economic environment of uncertainty and double standards, the question we should be answering is whether whatever Europe, whatever America, decides will be good for non-alternative investors (which I personally define to be people and corporations playing in fixed-income, equities, options) in the medium-term, taking into consideration intrinsic value estimates and market psychology.

    ~ Synchronism

  • Report this Comment On January 24, 2012, at 1:38 PM, JohnMaxfield37 wrote:

    Synchronism -

    I agree with you. The magnitude of the issue is unprecedented.

    Whatever the EU/ECB do in the near term, moreoever, will be temporary regardless of how it's spun. Large-scale loses will have to be realized at some point, because fiscal austerity for a generation doesn't seem sustainable in terms of domestic politics.

    That could be next year or decades down the road. Beats me. But it does seem inevitable.

    In terms of protection going forward on the equities front -- big, diversified, and responsible exposure to Asia appeals to me.

    - John

  • Report this Comment On January 24, 2012, at 3:55 PM, Synchronism wrote:


    Diversification in Asia isn't a problem for me. 50% of my money's in the Philippines. :P

    What do you think will be the political/social effects of the largescale losses? Civil unrest? Riots? Looting? Poverty ala Depression?

    ~ Synchronism

  • Report this Comment On January 27, 2012, at 4:23 PM, Zeppelin6880 wrote:

    Greece will default and return to the drachma, but perhaps stay in the free trade zone such as other countries currently do (Finland, Sweden, ??? I may be wrong but there are Nordic countries NOT on the euro but who are in the free trade zone).

    Ireland will NOT pay back the debts of their private banks just to please German, French, et al banks. That is just not going to happen. As John Mauldin likes to say, Ireland will wait until Greece defaults, then nobody will care when Ireland does because it's small potatoes.

    Spain, Portugal, Italy. Hmm, they probably will have to have some sort of restructuring as well. It is nearly mathematically impossible for them to pay all their debt back.

    The ECB will be forced to print MASSIVE amounts of euros to prop up the highly indebted nations. If they don't print (heck even if they do print) then some of these countries default (not if but when) and then the French and German banks are pretty much insolvent (because they don't have the capital base to take all those losses, they are leveraged like 30 or 40 to 1 on "risk-free" government debt) and Europe would be in its deepest recession ever. So yes, perhaps the EU and euro remain intact, but it will be at a high cost (i.e. an extremely devalued currency due to all the money printing) and a serious depression. The ECB will make Ben Bernanke look insignificant in comparison to the 2 trillion or so euros they will need to print.

    I agree though, most of Europe's policians want to keep the euro alive, but hey, I want a million bucks to rain down on me from the sky, but I'm not holding my breath. Most European constituents (especially Greece and Ireland) will eventually realize that austerity isn't the key and if they are going to go in a depression you might as well do it with no debt, so they will default, for sure. Once Greece and Ireland default, why would Italy, Portugal, Spain, etc continue to pay their debts?

    Interesting article, but completely wrong. Check back in a year (give or take a few months) and we will see who is right.

  • Report this Comment On January 28, 2012, at 10:42 AM, extramild wrote:

    Hi folks,

    Two things to say here :-

    1. To those people who say the French/Germans will move heaven and earth to save the euro I can only ask one question - If the French/Germans wanted to save the Euro why have they not done it yet?

    2. Secondly if you have half an hour to spare below is a link to a very interesting program on BBC about the similarities between the gold standard and Euro

  • Report this Comment On February 02, 2012, at 7:28 AM, thidmark wrote:

    "If the French/Germans wanted to save the Euro why have they not done it yet?"

    For the same reason many people do their Christmas shopping on Dec. 24 and file their taxes on April 15.

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