What's A Euro Worth?
By Charles Bierbauer/CNN
Washington (CNN) -- The pfennig jar is next to the penny drawer, for what either is worth.
Over the years, I've often returned from international travels with a pocket full of change. I'd ritually transfer the coins to a jar in a pigeon hole in an old English desk to await my next trip. Since I'd just as typically forget to scavenge the desk before the next trip, there they lay.
I emptied the jar the other night. It jingled my memory of times and trips past.
Deutschmarks. My wife and I met in Germany on the Rhine.
Italian lire. Seeing the Pope in the Vatican. Venice. Capri.
Australian cents. New Year's eve in Sydney.
Japanese yen. Travels with President Bush.
French francs. A week in the Loire. Enough left for an espresso?
Try doing that with a Euro!
A Euro. Where'd that come from? Spain? Austria? Finland? It could be any of the eleven European countries that have now formally agreed to shed their national notes and coins in favor of a single multinational currency.
They'll use them for electronic transactions beginning next year. By 2002, the francmarkpesetalireguilderschillings will be gone. A European journey will end with a couple anonymous Euros to dump in the desk drawer.
For many travellers the Euro may mark the end of currency confusion. Ever heard some baffled American ask, "How much is that in real money?" Travel will be simpler, but where's the romance?
Less traumatic travel won't be the biggest benefit Americans derive from the Euro. A more efficient European economy could be good for U.S. business, too.
"That'll mean more jobs here, more investment income for our firms," says economist C. Fred Bergsten, director of the Institute for International Economics. "That's thoroughly good."
Bergsten welcomes the Euro, but also sees a challenge to the U.S.
"This will be the first real competition for the dollar since the dollar passed (British) sterling as the world's key currency about 75 years ago. The reason is simple. There has been no economy of a parallel size to that of the United States all through that period," Bergsten says.
"Euroland", as it's already being called, will nearly equal the U.S. gross domestic product. It's share of world trade is greater.
U.S. officials support the consolidation. President Clinton told visiting Italian Prime Minister Romano Prodi this week he's in favor of "increasing unity within Europe ... including the common currency."
The common European currency and common monetary policy behind it will facilitate U.S. investment in the member countries. It will enhance the possibilities of more multinational mega corporations such as this week's welding of Daimler-Benz and Chrysler.
American companies have long been active in Europe. The Common Market opened the door in the 1960s when half a dozen West European countries took the first step toward economic integration. But the market was still often fragmented by uncommon national interests.
Will those national interests now be bought off by the Euro's prospects?
Harvard economist Martin Feldstein ponders whether the no-way-out bond of the Euro could "reinforce long-standing animosities based on history, nationality and religion." Beyond the loss of national identity there is also the risk of the member countries' economies developing at different paces.
The U.S., whose 13 colonies pitched their separate currencies more than 200 years ago, has figured out how to make this work. The northern "rust belt" and the southern "sun belt" have differing growth rates and human and capital resources shift accordingly.
The British are staying out of the initial Euro configuration in good measure because their economic recovery is ahead of most of the others. But Britain can shuck its shillings and pounds when it's psychologically ready. (Brits also resisted adopting the metric measure system which the rest of Europe uses.)
Italy and Spain surprised many by swiftly getting their economies in shape for an enthusiastic entry into the monetary union. But it's clearly the French and Germans who are leading the movement, to the extent some see it as a Franco-German power play. Others see it as logical.
"Almost every aspect of European integration is dominated by the French and the Germans. The Germans are the biggest and dominant economy. The French have the strongest political tradition and leadership," economist Bergsten notes. "And the fundamental objective of the whole European integration project is to overcome the hostility of centuries between France and Germany, so naturally they are going to lead in the process."
Bergsten sees the Euro and the dollar becoming the two competing global currencies. There is little interest in a common Asian currency. No yen for the yen with Japan's economy depressed.
As for the loose change in the desk. It can serve as a world history lesson.
"Son, once the world was full of countries with different languages,
different traditions, different monies."
Television erased a lot of those differences. The dollar and the Euro eliminated others.
This year the dollar's strong against European currencies. And the Euro's not here yet. And travellers have another choice, the really universal currency -- plastic!