Investor and philanthropist George Soros said Thursday the "euro is here to stay" but warned that complacency about the future of the 17-country currency is misplaced because its fundamental problems have not been fixed.
While the European Central Bank last year managed to halt market turmoil that threatened to break up the euro, its fundamental imbalances "have been papered over," Soros told journalists at the World Economic Forum in Davos.
He said the currency's government debt crisis has split it into creditor countries such as Germany and debtors such as Greece, with the creditors in charge and demanding what Soros calls misguided austerity — cutbacks in spending to reduce deficits.
He said the policy of cutbacks for indebted countries advocated by Germany and Chancellor Angela Merkel "is just simply counterproductive" and "is pushing the entire eurozone into recession."
Soros said Germany had agreed to do the minimum to stop the eurozone from breaking up. Merkel went along with plans by the European Central Bank to offer to buy bonds issued by indebted countries if they agree to reduce deficits. The offer reduced bond market borrowing costs that threatened to push Spain and Italy into financial ruin.
Soros said that Germany has since begun backing down on its commitment to build new euro institutions such as a centralized EU system of banking supervision and a way to restructure banks without increasing national government debt through bailouts.
"The outcome is what I was afraid of, which is a eurozone divide into creditors and debtors, with the creditors in charge and advocating a policy of austerity which is just simply counterproductive, because you can't reduce debt by reducing GDP, " Soros said, using the abbreviation for gross domestic product, or economic output. "So it's a wrong policy at this time and it's hurting the debtor countries more than Germany, but it is pushing the entire eurozone into a recession."
Soros said a slumping economy would worsen the political tensions between countries and that the creditor-debtor divide risked breaking up the European Union itself over the long term. "So the financial solution is politically unacceptable, in fact in the long run intolerable."
Greece, Portugal and Ireland have needed bailouts from other eurozone countries led by Germany and the International Monetary Fund after they were unable to borrow money at affordable rates to pay off debts that regularly come due. The condition of getting the loans was agreement to sharp cutbacks in spending and tax increases that pushed all three into recessions, which Ireland has now exited, and sent unemployment sharply higher.
Spending cuts can slow an economy by removing the stimulus of government spending.
Soros made a fortune running investment funds and founded a global network of foundations that support democracy and open societies.