Opinion

Hugo Dixon

Euro zone needs anti-boom activism

Hugo Dixon
Sep 23, 2013 09:11 UTC

A big problem with the euro zone’s one-size-fits-all monetary policy is that it risks fitting nobody. That, indeed, was a key cause of the crisis. Early in the century, countries such as Spain and Ireland were booming, while Germany was in the doldrums. Setting interest rates at a level that worked well for the euro zone on average had the effect of inflating the Spanish and Irish property bubbles while pushing up wages so their economies became uncompetitive. When the bubbles burst, the damage was devastating.

It would be hard to argue that any part of the euro zone is currently booming. Even Germany will eke out GDP growth of only 0.3 percent this year, according to the International Monetary Fund. But it may not be long before the problems of a one-size-fits-all monetary policy are back to haunt the zone. Even though the German economy isn’t growing strongly, it is still outperforming the average. What’s more, labour is in short supply in Germany and house prices are rising at a moderate clip – a big contrast to the average, let alone recession-inflicted countries such as Italy.

The European Central Bank’s policy of keeping interest rates at the current 0.5 percent level or lower for an “extended period” is right for the euro zone on average. The weaker countries would benefit from even looser monetary policy. Germany, though, may already need something tighter. If the “extended period” of low interest rates goes on for years, it could experience a boom.

Many observers view one-size-fits-all interest rates as one of the zone’s design defects, about which nothing can be done. Others advocate policies – such as full fiscal union – which are not going to be adopted and wouldn’t really hit the spot even if they were. But the outlook isn’t quite so pessimistic. There are two policies that could mitigate considerably the damage of the single monetary policy – and they don’t even require any treaty changes.

The first is for euro zone countries to pursue vigorous “macroprudential” policies. Since Lehman Brothers went bust five years ago, it has become fashionable to call for bank regulators to have the tools to prevent future bubbles. The main idea is that they should be able to stop credit and asset prices growing too fast by directly intervening in the way banks lend. One way of doing this would be to jack up the minimum capital buffers banks have to hold if the economy is overheating; another would be to cut the size of mortgages they are allowed to make.

Still too big to fail

Hugo Dixon
Sep 16, 2013 09:29 UTC

Lehman Brothers’ bankruptcy five years ago crushed the global economy, turfed millions of people out of their jobs and left governments groaning under hefty debt burdens. Since then, policymakers have been beavering away to make sure that a similar calamity never happens again. Measures to address many of the key problems have been taken or are in the works. But if a Lehman went bust today, there would still be havoc.

The main success has been in building up the capital cushions banks have to withstand shocks. Since the end of 2009, the big global banks have increased their shareholder capital by $500 billion – the equivalent of 3 percent of their so-called risk-weighted assets, according to the Financial Stability Board (FSB), the organisation tasked by the G20 countries to fix the financial system. They are also on track to meet tighter global standards nearly five years ahead of the deadline.

But even this success has to be qualified. The amount of capital banks are supposed to hold depends on the riskiness of their loans. But lenders have too much freedom to decide for themselves how risky a loan is, giving them the opportunity to engage in monkey business. Meanwhile, inside the euro zone, the job of building capital buffers has not been properly done because of a tendency to sweep problems under the carpet. Thankfully, regulators are onto both these issues so there’s a reasonable chance they’ll be solved.

EU should refine its welfare policy

Hugo Dixon
Sep 9, 2013 09:16 UTC

The European Union is underpinned by the so-called “four freedoms”: the free movement of goods, services, capital and people. There’s little controversy over the first three. But the free movement of people has become a hot political issue in many countries, often whipped up by nationalist parties. Some people who want to keep immigrants out are racists. There are also two supposed arguments for keeping foreigners out: that they take both “our jobs” and “our benefits”.

Immigration is a particularly live issue in the UK. In the European Commission’s latest Eurobarometer survey, 32 percent of the British people questioned thought it was one of the two most important issues facing the country. The average for the EU as a whole was 10 percent.

In a poll for The Independent last month, two-thirds of those questioned thought British firms should give UK citizens priority over other candidates from elsewhere in Europe when hiring new workers – even if this meant Britain had to leave the EU. Just 16 percent disagreed. The UK Independence Party, which wants Britain to quit the EU, has heightened anxiety by arguing that there will be a wave of immigrants from Romania and Bulgaria after the last restrictions on their citizens’ movements are lifted at the end of this year.

Vodafone deal days back with a twist

Hugo Dixon
Sep 2, 2013 09:17 UTC

Vodafone’s deal-making days are back – with a twist. The UK mobile giant still holds the record for the world’s biggest deal – its $203 billion hostile acquisition of Germany’s Mannesmann in 2000. It is now on the verge of taking the number three slot as well, by selling its minority stake in Verizon Wireless, America’s largest mobile phone company, for $130 billion to Verizon Communications, which owns the rest.

Over its 31-year life, Vodafone has completed an astonishing series of deals. As so often with mergers and acquisitions, it has been a better seller than buyer. The same is likely to be the case with the Verizon deal.

Vodafone began its life when Racal Electronics, a UK defence firm, won a licence to provide cellular communications in Britain in 1982. As mobile communications started to boom, it soon became the jewel in Racal’s crown – so much so that Cable & Wireless, another UK telecoms group, tried to buy Racal in 1988.