Opinion

Hugo Dixon

EU positive contagion hinges on growth

By Hugo Dixon
January 14, 2013

Mario Draghi didn’t quite coin a new phrase last week. But the European Central Bank president certainly popularised the expression “positive contagion”. After years in which the euro zone has been suffering from plain old contagion – which doesn’t even need the qualifier “negative” – Draghi now thinks a positive dynamic is in play.¬†

The term “contagion” has tended to be used in financial markets to refer to the way that problems in one country (such as Greece) can so unnerve investors that they cause difficulties in other countries (for example, Portugal, Spain and Italy). Draghi, though, seems to be using the word more broadly to cover the whole panoply of vicious cycles that had been sucking the euro zone into a whirlpool.¬†

The ECB president is right that the vicious cycle in financial markets has given way to a virtuous one. The best measure of this is how peripheral bond yields have dropped since he said last July that the ECB would do whatever it took to preserve the euro – “and believe me, it will be enough”. Spanish 10-year yields have fallen from 7.4 percent to 4.9 percent, while Italian ones are down from 6.4 percent to 4.1 percent. The Stoxx 50 equity index, meanwhile, is up 12 percent.¬†

But vicious cycles don’t just apply to financial markets. They also affect the real economy and politics – and flip back then into the world of finance. Until Italy and Spain stop shrinking, the risk of tipping back into negative contagion remains.¬†

Remember, too, how financial markets can be fickle. Only a year ago, confidence was buoyed by the ECB’s decision to lend struggling banks 1 trillion euros of cheap three-year money. But then Greece’s indecisive first election and Spain’s dithering over its banking reforms triggered the most dangerous episode yet in the euro crisis.¬†

Still, before looking at the remaining risks, it is important to acknowledge the progress in both the underlying situation and confidence. The fundamental causes of the crisis were uncompetitive economies, excessive government borrowing and weak banks. All three problems have been partly remedied. For example, labour costs in Spain and Greece have been falling, improving their industries’ competitiveness – so much so that Spain has had a current account surplus for the past three months. Meanwhile, fiscal deficits across the periphery of the euro zone have been cut although they are still too high. Finally, Irish, Greek and Spanish banks have been stuffed with capital.¬†

Confidence, too, is returning. It’s not just the sovereign debt yields that have fallen. Capital flight has reversed and banks are less dependent on the ECB for funding.¬†

Positive contagion could work as follows. A growing conviction that the euro zone is addressing its problems and will not break up could strengthen confidence in financial markets. As borrowing costs in peripheral countries fall and their banks feel they are no longer on the precipice, companies and individuals will face less of a credit squeeze. Ultimately, businesses would invest and individuals spend. Measures taken to restore competitiveness would also encourage investment and increase exports. 

All this would bring the recession to an end, which would cause a further boost to the confidence of investors, businesses and consumers. With interest rates falling and tax revenue rising, fiscal deficits would fall Рkicking off another virtuous circle, as governments would no longer be under pressure to tighten their belts with further rounds of austerity. 

Unfortunately, it is still too soon to be sure of such a happy ending Рlargely because the measures taken to improve competitiveness and the impact of the better mood in financial markets on the real economy both operate with a lag. Meanwhile, the austerity measures are still crushing activity. The concern is that, in the interim, as unemployment continues to rise, the political situation in one or more countries could get nasty. 

The political outlook is actually fairly benign because the two most vulnerable countries – Greece and Spain – have recently had elections and are not supposed to have new ones for several years. Meanwhile, this year’s German election could even be positive if it leads to a grand coalition with Angela Merkel as chancellor but including the social democrats, who may be more willing to lend a helping hand to their struggling southern partners. The same could be true if next month’s Italian election results in a stable coalition led by the centre-left Pier Luigi Bersani and involving Mario Monti’s centrist movement.¬†

There are, admittedly, short-term risks. One is that Greece’s fragile coalition does not survive an intensification in the economic gloom. Another is that Silvio Berlusconi somehow pulls off a coup in the Italian elections. But the biggest risk is that Spain, Italy and Greece, in particular, are still mired in recession this time next year. In that scenario, deficits would remain stubbornly high and debt/GDP ratios would still be rising, as would unemployment. Markets might then start worrying again about the sustainability of both public finances and governments’ reform policies, kicking off a new vicious cycle.¬†

The euro zone is witnessing the early stages of positive contagion. But politicians should not be complacent. They must do everything in their power to maximise the chances of this virtuous cycle taking hold. This means keeping up their long-term structural reforms – because the job of restoring competitiveness is far from done – while trying to do whatever they can to mitigate the short-term austerity.

Comments
3 comments so far | RSS Comments RSS

The ECB and IMF are doing a great job of talking down the bond markets without actually doing anything or spending any more money. The reality is however ( see today’s figures ) that there has been no real change on the ground and indeed things are getting worse. It is important to check what is causing account surplus’s as it may be that less is being spent than a growth in income. During recent visits to Greece and Spain my reading is that the decline shows no signs of slowing and that political instability is growing. The ECB have decided on a charm offensive and to publish only the best report they can and ignore the bad news.

Posted by paulos | Report as abusive
 

Hype, lies, wishful thinking, more hype, more duct tape applied to fix a crumbling structure, kicking the can a little further down the road to nowhere, more hype, more lies, another charm offensive…
Meanwhile, in the real world, there’s no sign of anything improving in the Euro zone, and there are more signs of things getting worse, e.g. France.

Posted by reality-again | Report as abusive
 

Dig a hole to fill the first hole and so on. Brag about the hole being filled but don’t mention the new hole.

Increase in Revenue?? where? what country? Austerity equals lower revenue.

Early signs of positive contagion? Uuuuh? Do you dare to go and explain that on a Spanish market square to the locals? Let us know the outcome after you left hospital.

Optimism? yes, one by one, the EU’ers with their fat wages come in the news to tell us that the hole is filled. Problem? we don’t believe them.

Posted by Willvp | Report as abusive
 

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