Understandably the element of my talk at the Royal Irish Academy which generated most discussion was the role of the ECB. (Here is a media report, but ignore the last two paragraphs which are confused/wrong. Abstract for the talk is here. Paper will follow.) The proposition I put forward was that the ECB’s OMT programme should have been put in place in 2010, and if it had been countries outside Greece could have implemented a more efficient austerity programme (one that produced less unemployment) and might have retained market access (interest rates on government debt would have remained reasonable). 
There are two serious and related arguments against this view. The first is that it is unrealistic for the ECB to act as a sovereign lender of last resort because of the transfers between countries that this might lead to. (A sovereign lender of last resort is a central bank that is always willing to buy its government’s debt.)  The second is that in practice OMT is bound to be coupled with a requirement for austerity programmes that might have simply duplicated what was actually put into place by national governments. Both arguments speak to a real problem that remains unresolved within the Eurozone, but do not nullify the argument that things should have been done much better.
Government debt in advanced economies is regarded as a safe asset for two reasons. The first is that most governments that borrow in their own currency rarely default. The second is that an individual investor does not need to worry about market beliefs, because if the market panics and refuses to buy the government’s debt the central bank will step in (hence sovereign lender of last resort). If the central bank did not do this, the government might be forced to default because it cannot roll over its existing debt.
It makes sense for the central bank to act as a sovereign lender of last resort, because it avoids self-fulfilling market panics. Doubly so because such panics will be more likely to occur after a large recession when the social value of government borrowing is particularly high. The complication in the case of the ECB is the following. If the market panic is so great that the ECB was forced to actually buy a ‘distressed’ government’s debt (normally the threat to do so is enough), it is possible that this government might choose to default even with ECB support. If it did that, the ECB would make losses which would be born by the Eurozone as a whole (the transfer risk).
Partly for this reason, the ECB has to have the ability not to act as a sovereign lender of last resort, or withdraw support if circumstances change. If that ability exists (a point I will come back to), then the transfer risk associated with the ECB acting as a sovereign lender of last resort are tiny. It represents the kind of minimal risk that should always be offset by the trust and solidarity that comes with the territory of being in a monetary union. I suspect those that suggest otherwise are often trying to hide other motives.
A government that is receiving ECB support of this kind will naturally want to know what it has to do to maintain it, because the threat of its withdrawal is so great. It would be unreasonable to withhold that information. Does that in practice amount to nothing more than the kind of conditions that have in practice been imposed on Ireland and Portugal anyway? Absolutely not. Just as the market does not worry about the build up of debt in a recession in countries like the UK or Japan, a rational ECB would have no reason to impose fiscal consolidation at the time it would do most damage. The time a rational ECB might withdraw its support is once a recovery is complete and the government refuses to embark on fiscal consolidation.
So a sovereign lender of last resort in a monetary union must have the ability not to provide that support. In other words it has to sort Greece from Ireland. That decision is a huge one, because in effect it is a decision about whether the country will be forced to default. It is natural that the ECB wants to share that responsibility with member governments, but as we have seen with Greece member governments are hopeless at making that decision (particularly when their own banks may be compromised by any default). We have also seen that European central bankers are far from rational on issues involving government debt (compared with at least one of their anglo-saxon counterparts), so giving the decision to someone else other than the current ECB would seem like a good idea. However at present there is no institution that seems capable of doing this job.
In this post I suggested contracting out this task to the IMF, although that presumed a reduction in the political influence of European governments on that institution. I have also wondered about whether a body like the newly created network of European fiscal councils could play this role. Another possibility is to reform the ECB so that it is not subject to deficit phobia, and is more accountable. It seems to me that this is where current research and analysis should be going, rather than into schemes involving greater political union.
The existence of various alternatives here means that we should not take what has actually happened in the Eurozone as some kind of immutable political constraint beyond which economics cannot go. There is no intrinsic reason why the OMT that was introduced in September 2012 could not have been introduced in 2010. There is no intrinsic reason why any conditionality that went with that could not have been much more efficient in terms of unemployment costs. Beyond Greece, the Eurozone crisis happened because the ECB thought it could avoid undertaking one of the essential functions of a central bank. This was perhaps the most important of the many errors it has made.
 For a country within a monetary union which needs to reduce debt more rapidly than does the union as a whole, a gain in competitiveness relative to the rest of the union is required to offset the deflationary impact of fiscal consolidation. That ‘internal devaluation’ probably requires some increase in unemployment, but it is much more efficient to obtain that increase in competitiveness gradually.
 It could be argued that the Fed does not provide lender of last resort services to individual member states. But state debt is typically lower relative to GDP and income than for Eurozone governments. Before 2000, Eurozone governments were able to borrow more because they were backed by their central bank. That means that they are inevitably subject to a greater risk of suffering from a self-fulfilling market panic. The architects of the Eurozone might have initially believed that the SGP might avoid the need for a sovereign lender of last resort, but after the Great Recession they would have known otherwise.