Following the grim market response to European Central Bank President Mario Draghi’s latest monetary policy pronouncements, Europe is approaching another make-or-break moment comparable to the crisis of 2012. The summer quarter ended this week, and financial markets delivered their judgment on just how bad things are, pushing the euro down to its lowest level since September 2012. Europe’s quarterly stock market performance was the worst since the nadir of the euro crisis. The question is whether the miserable summer will give way to a milder autumn. Or whether the summer squalls will turn into a catastrophic tempest.
“I have seen the future and it works,” said Lincoln Steffens, a left-wing American journalist, on returning from the Soviet Union in 1919. After a weekend in Venice at a seminar organized by the Italian ambassador to Britain, I found myself struck by the same thought, which is not exactly the reflection that the world’s most perfectly preserved medieval city is supposed to inspire. Venice is a clichéd metaphor for “Old Europe” — a sclerotic old continent fixated on its past and now retiring to become a museum society, destined gradually to sink beneath the sea. But should we perhaps be inspired, not depressed, by the thought of Venice, the ultimate “museum city,” as a microcosm of Italy and even of Europe as a whole? After all, Venice is still standing, not sinking into the sea, and after 500 years of supposed decline it is still stunningly beautiful. Maybe Italy and Europe, instead of sinking, will also prove their resilience and make a comeback?
On the way to my holiday in Italy this year, I had an epiphany about the state of the world economy. I stopped for lunch in the truly miraculous Piazza dei Miracoli in Pisa, where Galileo Galilei is said to have dropped cannon-balls from the Leaning Tower to test his theories of motion. A few years later, Galileo invented the telescope to amass the detailed astronomical observations that were needed to prove beyond reasonable doubt the heliocentric theory of the universe — the idea that the earth revolves around the sun and not the other way round, as the Bible implied. Galileo was famously tried by the Inquisition for this heresy and decided to recant, presumably inspired by what happened to his fellow-mathematician Giordano Bruno, who was burnt at the stake for similar ideas. But after mechanically recanting, Galileo muttered under his breath the rebellious phrase for which he is still renowned: eppur si muove — “and yet it moves.”
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.
Whisper it softly, but the age of government austerity is ending. It may seem an odd week to say this, what with the U.S. government preparing for indiscriminate budget cuts, a new fiscal crisis apparently brewing in Europe after the Italian election and David Cameron promising to “go further and faster in reducing the deficit” after the downgrade of Britain’s credit. But politics is sometimes a looking-glass world, in which things are the opposite of what they seem.
Remember the euro crisis? For most of 2012, politicians, investors and business leaders were almost unanimous in their belief that the possible breakup of the euro would be a massive risk to the world economy. But today the euro is 5 percent higher against the dollar than it was six months ago, European stock markets have outperformed Wall Street by 11 percent in the same period, and Italian government bonds have been among the best investments of 2012.
The words “core” and “periphery” have become standard terms to describe the winners and losers in the euro crisis. But how could anyone with the slightest sense of history, or knowledge of art and culture, call Italy or Spain peripheral to Europe, while placing Finland and Slovakia, or even Germany and Holland, at Europe’s core?