Opinion

Anatole Kaletsky

Market euphoria misreads the signals from Brussels and Rome

Anatole Kaletsky
Apr 25, 2013 15:31 UTC

Financial markets, which balance judgments from some of the world’s most highly paid and best-informed analysts, are often uncannily right in anticipating unpredictable events, ranging from economic booms and busts to elections and terrorist attacks. But markets can sometimes can be spectacularly wrong, especially when it comes to politics. A classic case was the slump on Wall Street after last November’s election in the United States. This week’s market action in Europe may offer an even clearer example of market confusion about two fascinating but Byzantine political entities – the Italian government and the European Central Bank.

European stock markets have rebounded strongly this week in the face of deteriorating economic and financial fundamentals from across Europe on the basis of two political events: the reluctant agreement by Italy’s 87-yearold president. Giorgio Napolitano, to serve another seven-year term because nobody else could be found to do the job; and hints from ECB council members that they might vote to cut interest rates from 0.75 percent to 0.5 percent next Thursday.

Neither of these events remotely justified investors’ euphoria. The ECB case is straightforward. First, the ECB may well disappoint next week, since several influential decision makers oppose a rate cut. Second, even if the ECB does act, a quarter-point cut will do nothing for growth. Third and most importantly, such a tiny rate cut, if it happens, will simply underline the ECB’s refusal to follow the U.S. Federal Reserve, the Bank of Japan, the Bank of England and the Swiss National Bank in expanding the money supply or taking other “unconventional” measures that could potentially have a much greater financial impact than any marginal fiddling with interest rates. So much, then, for the silly idea in Europe that “bad news is good news” because economic weakness will force the ECB to cut rates.

Italian politics is, as ever, more interesting and convoluted. The apparent winners from this week’s events were the strongly pro-euro President Napolitano and his new center-left prime minister, Enrico Letta. In fact, they were the losers. The real winner was Silvio Berlusconi, the nemesis of Napolitano and other responsible Italian politicians and a totemic hate figure for German Chancellor Angela Merkel, along with most other respectable European leaders.

To understand this counterintuitive conclusion, which is widely shared by the financiers and business leaders I met in Italy this week as the election drama unfolded, let us begin with what most investors and responsible politicians across Europe interpreted as this week’s good news. Napolitano’s re-election, denounced by comedian Beppe Grillo’s populist Five Star movement as an “elite coup d’etat,” has allowed the aging president to appoint a politician from the center-left Democratic Party (PD), which secured the largest share of votes in last February’s election, to head a pro-euro technocratic administration likely to be modeled on the outgoing government of Mario Monti. Thus, Italy will now have a functioning democratic government, and one that will stick to most of the Monti policies approved by Brussels and Berlin. Moreover, this government is likely to be stable for at least the next six months, since all the established parties have agreed that a new electoral law must be prepared before the next election to prevent a repeat of the present chaos and to try to block Grillo’s advance.

If Europe wants Thatcherism, it must abandon austerity

Anatole Kaletsky
Apr 11, 2013 16:43 UTC

Among all the obituaries and encomiums about Margaret Thatcher, very few have drawn the lesson from her legacy that is most relevant for the world today. Lady Thatcher is remembered as the quintessential conviction politician. But judged by her actions rather than her rhetoric, she was actually much more compromising and pragmatic than the politicians who now dominate Europe. And it was Thatcher’s tactical flexibility, as much as her deep convictions, that accounted for her successes in the economic field.

Governments in Europe and Britain today are obsessed with hitting preordained and unconditional targets: Inflation must be kept below 2 percent; deficits must be reduced to 3 percent of gross domestic product; government debt must be set on a declining path; banks must be recapitalized to arbitrary ratios laid down by some committee in Basel. In sacrificing their citizens’ well-being and their own political careers to these numerical totems, modern leaders often claim inspiration from Thatcher. And when voters turn against them, Europe’s leaders keep repeating Thatcher’s most famous slogans, “There is no alternative” and “No U-turn”.  But are these the right lessons to draw from Thatcher’s political life? A closer look at her economic achievements suggests otherwise.

In the 20 years she spent in parliament before becoming prime minister, Thatcher first saw Harold Wilson’s Labour government wrecked by currency crises and trade union militancy; then Ted Heath ousted by a miners’ strike; and finally James Callaghan humiliated by the 1976 sterling crisis and driven out of office by the wave of public-sector strikes that came to be called the “winter of discontent.” After these searing experiences, her immediate priority on becoming prime minister was to turn British monetary management and labor relations upside down. Yet her actions were much more cautious and pragmatic than her rhetoric.

Trying to fix broken economics

Anatole Kaletsky
Apr 4, 2013 15:01 UTC

Here is a list of economic questions that have something in common. In a recession, should governments reduce budget deficits or increase them? Do 0 percent interest rates stimulate economic recovery or suppress it? Should welfare benefits be maintained or cut in response to high unemployment? Should depositors in failed banks be protected or suffer big losses? Does income inequality damage or encourage economic growth? Will market forces create environmental disasters or avert them? Is government support necessary for technological progress or stifling to innovation?

What these important questions have in common is that professional economists can’t answer them. To be more precise, economists can offer plenty of answers about government deficits, printing money, inequality, environmental issues and so on, but none of these answers is authoritative enough any longer to persuade other economists, and never the world at large.

Take two examples. On whether government borrowing aggravates recessions or promotes recoveries, the world’s most eminent economists fall into one of two violently conflicting schools. The world’s most important central banks, the U.S. Federal Reserve and the European Central Bank, hold diametrically opposing views about the effects of quantitative easing. If economics were a genuinely scientific discipline, such disputes over fundamental issues would have been settled decades ago. They are equivalent to astronomers still arguing about whether the sun revolves around the earth or earth around the sun.

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