Opinion

Hugo Dixon

All roads lead to Berlusconi’s Rome. For now.

Hugo Dixon
Oct 31, 2011 01:14 UTC

The euro zone’s future hangs on Italy – and Italy’s future hangs on its politics. The best way forward would be a grand coalition replacing Silvio Berlusconi’s discredited government. But after the prime minister’s Houdini act last week, that doesn’t seem likely and other scenarios aren’t as attractive.

Until recently, investors didn’t pay too much attention to the multi-dimensional chess game that is Italian politics. The state may have nearly 2 trillion euros of debt, equal to 120 percent of GDP,  but the country is rich: Net household wealth was 8.6 trillion euros in 2009, according to the Bank of Italy. The deal-making and back-stabbing in Rome – or for that matter, Berlusconi’s bunga-bunga sex parties – didn’t seem to matter. True, the country has virtually stopped growing in recent years. But there was even a view that Italy benefited from having politicians that were so concerned with their elaborate games that they couldn’t interfere with the business of business.

All that changed in early July. As the euro crisis gathered pace, scandals and wrangling in Rome unsettled markets. The 10-year bond yield, which had been a relatively comfortable 4.8 percent, shot up to 6 percent in two weeks. Berlusconi and Giulio Tremonti, his previously respected finance minister, fell out. The center-right government, which survives on a wafer-thin majority, was able to pass austerity measures to cut the deficit. But the actions were seen as too little, too late. Investors became hyper-sensitive to Italian politics and were no longer willing to take things on trust.

The rot was only stopped by the European Central Bank wading into the market in August and buying Italian bonds. But even this bought only temporary respite. Despite two European summits last week designed to provide a comprehensive solution to the euro crisis, Italian yields ended the week back at 6 percent. The country is on the edge of a debt spiral as investors’ concerns about the country become self-fulfilling. If borrowing costs rise further, the country’s debts won’t seem sustainable, meaning yields could shoot still higher.

The best way of breaking the vicious spiral would be to have a positive political shock – to counter the negative one delivered over the summer.  And the best way of achieving that would be to have a temporary grand coalition led by a technocrat such as Mario Monti, the former European Commissioner. Its mission would be to take harsh actions needed to solve Italy’s two big problems: debt and low growth. Labor markets would be liberalized; the bloated public sector would be cut down to size; and the over-generous pension system would be reformed. It might even be possible to reduce debt to below the psychologically important 100 percent mark by privatizing assets and instituting a one-off property tax.

The euro and the Hotel California

Hugo Dixon
Oct 26, 2011 15:26 UTC

The euro zone is like Hotel California, UBS wrote in a report published in September. “You can check out any time you like but you can never leave,” it said, quoting the Eagles song. A British businessman, Simon Wolfson, has now offered a 250,000 pound prize to the person who can come up with the most convincing explanation of how an orderly exit from the single currency is possible.

The problem is the word “orderly.” There are lots of scenarios where a country such as Greece could quit the euro in a disorderly fashion, destroying its own economy and that of its neighbous as well as possibly plunging the world into a recession. But how is it possible to do this without triggering financial Armageddon?

The first difficulty stems from the fact that an exit couldn’t happen overnight. There is no legal procedure for a country to quit. Joining was supposed to be an irrevocable commitment.

Bankers issue nostra culpa for economic crisis

Hugo Dixon
Oct 24, 2011 11:17 UTC

To: Barack Obama
From: Humboldt Pye, Chairman of First Reform Bank

Dear Mr. President:

I’m writing an open letter to you and other G20 leaders on behalf of the chairmen of the world’s leading banks to say sorry.

We do not think banks are to blame for every ill the world currently faces, as the Occupy Wall Street protests and their kin in other countries suggest. A balanced audit would attribute responsibility to policymakers too: you and your predecessors set the rules of the game that we so craftily exploited. Even the public had a hand in the current mess: excess spending in some countries and inadequate taxpaying in others allowed people to consume too much.

But we are not in a position to lecture the rest of society. During the bubble years, we focused first on our own pay packages and then on profits for our shareholders. Insofar as we thought about the wider interest, we comforted ourselves with the belief that financial markets were efficient and free markets were the best way of generating wealth. So, as we pursued our self-interest, the world must by definition get better.

Guantanamo’s detox man

Hugo Dixon
Oct 4, 2011 17:28 UTC

By Hugo Dixon

If anybody can provide a measure of legitimacy to the trials of detainees in Guantanamo Bay, Brigadier General Mark Martins may be that person. Barack Obama will certainly be hoping so. Martins, who was on the Harvard Law Review with the president when they were students, has this week taken over as chief prosecutor for military commissions at a time when the highest-profile Guantanamo detainees are coming to trial. The first death penalty moved a step closer last week when a trial was ordered for Abd al-Rahim al Nashiri, who allegedly planned the bombing of USS Cole in 2000. The case of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed (KSM), the alleged mastermind of the 9/11 attacks, is likely to follow shortly afterwards, in what some people are dubbing America’s Nuremberg trial.

The new chief prosecutor is a mixture of brain and brawn. A Rhodes scholar at Oxford, Martins is also a six-foot three-inch fitness freak. David Petraeus, the U.S. commander of the surges in both Iraq and Afghanistan and now director of the Central Intelligence Agency, describes him as a “once in a generation officer.” Martins also has a track record of tackling difficult assignments.

Guantanamo has been plagued by controversy ever since it was used as a detention camp for alleged al Qaeda and Taliban prisoners in early 2002. Military commissions were established at about the same time to try some of the detainees. The Guantanamo-cum-military commissions process has, to many critics, seemed toxic not least because some detainees were subjected to waterboarding and other coercive techniques before they arrived there; many have been detained for long periods without trial; and the few who have been tried (so far it is only six) were put through a judicial system that didn’t offer the normal protections available in U.S. courts of law.