It is a commonplace amongst Anglo-Saxon policy makers that the Eurozone leaders need to use a “big bazooka” to solve the currency crisis that is engulfing the continent. David Cameron has been particularly conspicuous in using this expression. Is it all it is cracked up to be?
So what is a bazooka? Originally it was a tubular musical instrument made famous by the comedian Bob Burns in the 1930s (Mr Burns and instrument in second picture). It then became the colloquial name for an American tubular hand-held antitank weapon introduced in the Second World War (the illustration above is in fact of a more modern and shorter weapon). This was a revolutionary innovation, using recoilless technology and the so-called HEAT armour-penetration system – which allowed infantry to threaten tanks in a way not previously possible. The Germans quickly copied it with the bigger and better panzerschrek (“tank terror”). They also developed countermeasures, including thin armoured outer skirts to their tanks, which set off the HEAT system before it could inflict serious damage. In the 1960s the weapon became obsolete, replaced by more powerful technologies.
A “big bazooka” in the current context is used to mean the deployment by the state (central banks and/or governments) of overwhelming financial resources to bail out troubled banks and others in a financial crisis. The idea is to break a vicious cycle of declining confidence in banks and others, whereby lack of confidence becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy as creditors seek to move their money into safer places. The mere proposition of such resources can be enough to break the cycle, if credible, and prevent the resources ever having to be deployed. The Americans can proudly point out to the use of the technique to solve a series of financial crises, from the Savings & Loan crisis of the 1980s, to the LTCM collapse of the 1990s and the Lehman crisis of 2008. Such tactics are conspicuous by their absence in the Euro crisis, fiercely resisted by the German political class in striking unanimity.
There is an irony that the original bazooka was quite a small weapon – but I suppose it was big for one held by a single infantryman, and the German version conveys all the imagery the metaphor needs. A more telling parallel is that the bazooka, revolutionary when introduced, steadily became obsolete as the world got used to it. No doubt the Germans will point out that the American use of “big bazooka” tactics on repeated occasions shows that there is a flaw. The American financial system suffers a systemic crisis every 10 years or so. This is the first such crisis the Germans have endured since their currency was refounded after the war – and that is because the Germans aren’t running the show.
The have a point. The financial markets are amazingly short-sighted – for example that idea that the US and UK are safe havens because their central banks can overcome any crisis by “printing money”, or monetising debt, in the manner of Zimbabwe. But the long term logic always wins in the end. There seems to be a slowly dawning realisation amongst Anglo-Saxon commentators (for example last week’s Martin Wolf column, as well as the Economist) that the German position in all this amounts to a strategy, “just enough, just in time”, and not the absence of one – even if Mr Wolf grumpily calls it “too little, too late”. The short-term costs of the German strategy are doubtless higher than the American way – but the longer term position is much less clear.