Opinion

Hugo Dixon

Brexit could come before Grexit

Hugo Dixon
Nov 12, 2012 10:12 UTC

Investors have been obsessed with the notion of “Grexit” – Greece’s exit from the euro. But “Brexit” – Britain’s exit from the European Union – is as likely if not more so. The country has never been at ease with its EU membership. It refused to join its predecessor, the European Economic Community, in 1957; it was then blocked twice from becoming a member by France’s Charles De Gaulle in 1960s; and shortly after it finally entered in 1973, it had a referendum on whether to stay.

The euro crisis has put further pressure on this difficult relationship. David Cameron’s Conservative Party, the governing coalition’s dominant group, delights in pointing out the flaws in the single currency. The party’s eurosceptics feel vindicated because they have long believed that monetary union was only possible with political union.

But “I told you so” is never a good way of endearing oneself to others. What’s more, the idea that greater integration in the euro zone has “remorseless logic” – as Britain’s finance minister, George Osborne, puts it – directly undercuts the country’s national interest. The more the 17 countries in the single currency club together, the more the UK will be left out on the fringe.

If the Tories weren’t so keen to prove the point about how right they had been, they would be able to articulate an alternative way of keeping the euro together based on two key principles: more flexibility at the level of both nation states and the single market so economies can weather shocks; and the use of market discipline rather than bureaucratic rules to prevent banks and governments borrowing too much money and hence requiring taxpayer bailouts.

Such a vision would play to the UK’s national interest. London has long wanted a more open, market-orientated Europe. But, unfortunately, the government has been urging the euro zone in the direction of further integration – only to realise belatedly how bad this could be for Britain’s interests.
This is most apparent with the euro zone’s current push to create a single banking supervisor. It’s far from clear that this will actually help solve the current crisis. But it will certainly create problems for Britain as all 17 members of the zone will vote as a single bloc on future banking regulations.

UBS exposes myth of full-service bank

Hugo Dixon
Nov 5, 2012 10:23 UTC

During the long upswing, second-tier and even third-tier banks felt they needed to offer every product in every part of the world. That led to inflated costs, unethical practices and now terrible returns. Last week’s bold move by UBS to hack back its fixed income division, with the loss of 10,000 jobs, exposes the myth of the so-called “full-service” firm.

The drive behind creating full-service firms was the idea that corporate and investor clients – say, Vodafone or BlackRock – wanted to get all their financial services from a single source. A further motivation was fear among commercial banks that they would be disintermediated by the capital markets. Corporate clients would finance themselves by issuing bonds to investors rather than borrowing from banks.

The full-service myth probably dates from at least the time of “Big Bang” in 1986, when London’s financial markets were deregulated. Over the past quarter of a century, the financial industry has been bulking up in investment banking either by acquiring rivals or by engaging in hiring sprees. UBS, for example, merged with Swiss Bank Corporation, which had already bought S.G. Warburg, and then acquired PaineWebber. It also made a disastrous push into fixed income trading, which cost its shareholders tens of billions of dollars.

World needs healthy capitalism

Hugo Dixon
Oct 29, 2012 09:25 UTC

Last week I gave a speech on “healthy capitalism” at Oxford University. Before doing so, I tried the idea out on an academic friend of mine. He scoffed at it. For him, “healthy capitalism” was an oxymoron. Five years after the start of the world’s worst financial crisis in decades, it is easy to mock capitalism. The system ran amok – leading to debt, unemployment and shrinking economies.

But that’s precisely why the world needs healthy capitalism. Health involves vigour, well-being and resilience. Capitalism – with its basis in free enterprise and private property – can have all those qualities provided warped incentives are corrected and the culture of greed is tempered. State socialism certainly cannot. The practical alternative is to reform capitalism not throw it away.

But how should it be reformed? After the tribulations of recent years, the conventional wisdom is that the problem has been too much freedom. That, though, is a misdiagnosis. Most of the diseases that have become apparent during the crisis have been caused by a distortion of free enterprise rather than too much freedom.

Euro zone doesn’t need Disziplin union

Hugo Dixon
Oct 22, 2012 08:59 UTC

European leaders nudged forward plans for a fiscal union with discipline as its leitmotif at last week’s summit. But such a “Disziplin union” is neither desirable nor necessary. It may not even be politically feasible.

The consensus among the euro zone political elite is that fiscal union is needed to complete the crisis-ridden monetary union. There are two rival views of what this should consist of: a panoply of rules to prevent and punish irresponsible behaviour; or financial payments to help weaker economies. The former view, espoused by Germany, is in the ascendant. It involves lots of sticks but not many carrots.

The summiteers’ main achievement was to give further impetus to the idea that the European Central Bank should act as the zone’s central banking supervisor from the start of next year after Berlin dropped its insistence that its own savings banks should be excluded from the regime. That was an important political concession. It’s also conceivable that the new supervisor will be better able to clean the cesspits in parts of the euro zone than the current often-conflicted national supervisors.

Spanish circle getting hard to square

Hugo Dixon
Oct 15, 2012 09:20 UTC

The art of politics is about squaring circles. In the euro crisis, this means pushing ahead with painful but necessary reforms while hanging onto power.

In Spain, where I spent part of last week, these circles are getting harder to square. Mariano Rajoy isn’t at any immediate risk of losing power. His 10-month old government has also taken important steps to reform the economy – cleaning up banks, liberalising the labour market and reining in government spending.

But the recession is deepening, the prime minister is a poor communicator and his political capital has plummeted. Madrid will also find it harder than thought to access help from its euro zone partners.

Hugo Dixon: Crisis, what crisis?

Hugo Dixon
Oct 8, 2012 08:59 UTC

The credit crisis burst into the open five years ago. The euro crisis has been rumbling for over two years. The term “crisis” isn’t just on everybody’s lips in finance. Wherever one turns – politics, business, medicine, ecology, psychology, in fact virtually every field of human activity – people talk about crises. But what are they, how do they develop and what can people do to change their course?

The first thing to say is that a crisis is not just a bad situation. When the word is used that way, it is devalued. The etymology is from the ancient Greek: krisis, or judgment. The Greek Orthodox Church uses the term when it talks about the Final Judgment – when sinners go to hell but the virtuous end up in heaven. The Chinese have a similar concept: the characters for crisis represent danger and opportunity.

A crisis is a point when people have to make rapid choices under extreme pressure, normally after something unhealthy has been exposed in a system. To use two other Greek words, one path can lead to chaos; another to catharsis or purification.

Euro crisis is race against time

Hugo Dixon
Oct 1, 2012 09:26 UTC

Solving the euro crisis is a race against time. Can peripheral economies reform before the people buckle under the pressure of austerity and pull the rug from their politicians? After two months of optimism triggered by the European Central Bank’s plans to buy government bonds, investors got a touch of jitters last week.

The best current fear gauge is the Spanish 10-year government bond yield. After peaking at 7.64 percent in late July, it fell to 5.65 percent in early September. It then poked its head above 6 percent in the middle of last week because there were large demonstrations against austerity; because Mariano Rajoy’s government was dragging its heels over asking for help from the ECB; and because the prime minister of Catalonia, one of Spain’s largest and richest regions, said he would call a referendum on independence.

But by the end of the week, the yield was just below 6 percent again. That’s mainly because Rajoy came up with a new budget which contains further doses of austerity. The move prepares the way for Madrid to ask for the ECB to buy its bonds and so drive down its borrowing costs.

Banks should learn to say “Just Go”

Hugo Dixon
Sep 24, 2012 08:44 UTC

Shortly after last year’s bonus round I was having lunch with the boss of an investment firm. He told me how he heard a handful of staff had been grumbling about what, by most people’s standards, were still extraordinary pay packages. He called them into his office and told them that, since they were unhappy, they should “Just Go”.

Most of them packed their things and left the firm. But the next day one came back and said he had been misunderstood. My interlocutor said he hadn’t misunderstood him at all. The employee clearly felt he was worth more than he was paid. He should take his luck and go elsewhere as he clearly didn’t have his heart in his current job. He should “Just Go”. And he duly did.

These words “Just Go” stuck in my mind because financial services bosses use them far too rarely. My lunch companion was perhaps an exception because his family is a big shareholder in his firm. Most other bosses are stewards for shareholders – and normally not terribly good stewards at that.

Can EU defend supranational interests?

Hugo Dixon
Sep 17, 2012 09:56 UTC

European integration tends to advance first with squabbling then with fudge. Every country has its national interest to defend. Some politicians appreciate the need to create a strong bloc that can compete effectively with the United States, China and other powers. But that imperative typically plays second fiddle to more parochial concerns with the result that time is lost and suboptimal solutions are chosen.

Amidst the europhoria unleashed by the European Central Bank’s bond-buying plan, it is easy to miss the immense challenges posed by two complex dossiers that have just landed on leaders’ desks: the proposed EADS/BAE merger; and a planned single banking supervisor.

Look first at the plan to create a defence and aerospace giant to rival America’s Boeing. This has been under discussion since at least 1997 when the UK’s Tony Blair, France’s Jacques Chirac and Germany’s Helmut Kohl called on the industry to unify in the face of U.S. competition. London, Paris and Berlin are the key players in this game because they have the major assets.

Spain and Italy mustn’t blow ECB plan

Hugo Dixon
Sep 10, 2012 08:23 UTC

The European Central Bank’s bond-buying scheme has bought Spain and Italy time to stabilise their finances. But if they drag their heels, the market will sniff them out. It will then be almost impossible to come up with another scheme to rescue the euro zone’s two large problem children and, with them, the single currency.

Mario Draghi’s promise in late July to do “whatever it takes” to preserve the euro has already had a dramatic impact on Madrid’s and Rome’s borrowing costs. Ten-year bond yields, which peaked at 7.6 percent and 6.6 percent respectively a few days before the ECB president made his first comments, had collapsed to 5.7 percent and 5.1 percent on Sept. 7.

Most of the decline came before Draghi spelt out last Thursday the details of how the plan will work. What makes the scheme powerful is that the ECB has not set any cap to the amount of sovereign bonds it will buy in the market. The central bank’s financial firepower is theoretically unlimited, whereas the euro zone governments’ own bailout funds do not have enough money to rescue both Spain and Italy.