Birth of the Euro Will It Benefit Europe

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As part of the December 1991 Maastricht Treaty on European Union, the European Economic Commission outlined a plan to achieve the creation of a single European currency starting in 1999. Despite concerns, the new common currency—the euro—came into existence right on schedule in January 1999, with 11 of the 15 European Union countries participating in the monetary union: Austria, Belgium, Finland, France, Germany, Italy, Ireland, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Portugal, and Spain. Denmark, Sweden, and the United Kingdom chose not to participate initially, and Greece failed to meet the economic criteria specified by the Maastricht Treaty (such as having a budget deficit less than 3% of GDP and total government debt less than 60% of GDP) but was able to join later.

Starting January 1, 1999, the exchange rates of countries entering the monetary union were fixed permanently to the euro (which became a unit of account), the European Central Bank took over monetary policy from the individual national central banks, and the governments of the member countries began to issue debt in euros. In early 2002, euro notes and coins began to circulate and by June 2002, the old national currencies were phased out completely, so that only euros could be used in the member countries.

Advocates of monetary union point out the advantages that the single currency has in eliminating the transaction costs incurred in exchanging one currency for another. In addition, the use of a single currency may promote further integration of the European economies and enhance competition. Skeptics who think that monetary union may be bad for Europe suggest that because labor will not be very mobile across national boundaries and because fiscal transfers (i.e., tax income from one region being spent on another) from better-performing regions to worse-performing regions will not take place as occurs in the United States, a single currency may lead to some regions of Europe being depressed for substantial periods of time while other regions are booming.

Whether the euro will be good for the economies of Europe and increase their GDP is an open question. However, the motive behind monetary union was probably more political than economic. European monetary union may encourage political union, producing a unified Europe that can play a stronger economic and political role on the world stage.

take place without the need to carry around large amounts of currency. The introduction of checks was a major innovation that improved the efficiency of the payments system. Frequently, payments made back and forth cancel each other; without checks, this would involve the movement of a lot of currency. With checks, payments that cancel each other can be settled by canceling the checks, and no currency need be moved. The use of checks thus reduces the transportation costs associated with the payments system and improves economic efficiency. Another advantage of checks is that they can be written for any amount up to the balance in the account, making transactions for large amounts much easier. Checks are also advantageous in that loss from theft is greatly reduced, and because they provide convenient receipts for purchases.

There are, however, two problems with a payments system based on checks. First, it takes time to get checks from one place to another, a particularly serious problem if you are paying someone in a different location who needs to be paid quickly. In addition, if you have a checking account, you know that it usually takes several business days before a bank will allow you to make use of the funds from a check you have deposited. If your need for cash is urgent, this feature of paying by check can be frustrating. Second, all the paper shuffling required to process checks is costly; it is estimated that it currently costs over $10 billion per year to process all the checks written in the United States.

Electronic The development of inexpensive computers and the spread of the Internet now make

Payment it cheap to pay bills electronically. In the past, you had to pay your bills by mailing a check, but now banks provide a web site in which you just log on, make a few clicks, and thereby transmit your payment electronically. Not only do you save the cost of the stamp, but paying bills becomes (almost) a pleasure, requiring little effort. Electronic payment systems provided by banks now even spare you the step of logging on to pay the bill. Instead, recurring bills can be automatically deducted from your bank account. Estimated cost savings when a bill is paid electronically rather than by a check exceed one dollar. Electronic payment is thus becoming far more common in the United States, but Americans lag considerably behind Europeans, particularly Scandinavians, in their use of electronic payments (see Box 2).

Box 2: E-Finance

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