Opinion

Hugo Dixon

Confidence tricks for the euro zone

Hugo Dixon
Jul 23, 2012 09:31 UTC

The euro crisis is to a great extent a confidence crisis. Sure, there are big underlying problems such as excessive debt and lack of competitiveness in the peripheral economies. But these can be addressed and, to some extent, this is happening already. Meanwhile, a quick fix for the confidence crisis is needed.

The harsh medicine of reform is required but is undermining confidence on multiple levels. Businesses, bankers, ordinary citizens and politicians are losing faith in both the immediate economic future and the whole single-currency project. That is creating interconnected vicious spirals.

The twin epicentres of the crisis are Spain and Italy. The boost they received from last month’s euro zone summit has been more than wiped out. Spanish 10-year bond yields equalled their euro-era record of 7.3 percent on July 20; Italy’s had also rebounded to a slightly less terrifying but still worrying 6.2 percent.

As ever, the explanation is that the summiteers came up with only a partial solution and even that was hedged with caveats. Although the euro zone will probably inject capital into Spain’s bust banks, relieving Madrid of the cost of doing so, the path will be tortuous. Meanwhile, a scheme which could help Italy finance its debt will come with strings attached – and there still isn’t enough money in the euro zone’s bailout fund to do this for more than a short time.

The two countries’ high bond yields aren’t just a thermometer of how sick they are. They push up the cost of capital for everybody in Spain and Italy, while sowing doubts about whether the whole show can be kept on the road. Capital flight continues at an alarming rate, especially in Spain. The so-called Target 2 imbalances, which measure the credits and debits of national central banks within the euro zone, are a good proxy for this. Spain’s Target 2 debt had grown to 408 billion euros at the end of June, up from 303 billion only two months earlier. The Italian one was roughly stable but still high at 272 billion euros.

Who will watch the Bank of England?

Hugo Dixon
Jul 16, 2012 08:19 UTC

A year ago Rupert Murdoch was probably the most powerful unelected person operating in Britain. The media baron could seemingly choose prime ministers. Then came the phone hacking and police bribery scandal, after which politicians sought to distance themselves from him.

The title of most powerful unelected Briton now probably belongs to Mervyn King, the governor of the Bank of England. Witness the way he dispatched Barclays’ chief executive Bob Diamond two weeks ago in connection with the Libor rate-rigging scandal. Whoever succeeds King next year will have even greater powers. After all, responsibility for financial stability and banking supervision is about to be added to the central bank’s main task of running monetary policy. It’s vital for democracy that this authority is exercised effectively, transparently and fairly.

Who will be King’s successor when he steps down? And how will the new governor be made accountable? These questions have been brought into sharp relief by the Libor scandal. The front runner for King’s job has seen his chances knocked, while doubts have been raised about the central bank’s effectiveness and transparency.

The perils of an indispensable boss

Hugo Dixon
Jul 9, 2012 09:59 UTC

Was Bob Diamond really irreplaceable? Barclays’ board operated for 15 years on the assumption that he was. As a result, the UK bank’s chief executive became more powerful – and ever harder to replace. Now that he has been kicked out in the wake of the Libor rate-rigging scandal, Barclays is struggling to find new leadership.

This is an object lesson for all companies, not just banks. Think of two other UK-listed groups which have recently provoked shareholder anger over their bosses’ high pay packages: WPP, the advertising giant; and miner Xstrata. In both cases, the boards paid their chief executives so much because they thought they were indispensable.

Barclays is now in a mess. Not only has Diamond quit, his chairman, Marcus Agius, has also said he will resign. Both men ultimately had to go: Diamond had come to epitomise the worst of the City of London’s greed, while Agius seemed unable to hold his chief executive in check. Neither man responded to requests for comment.

Successful summit didn’t solve crisis

Hugo Dixon
Jul 2, 2012 09:27 UTC

Cuando despertó, el dinosaurio todavía estaba allí. “Upon waking, the dinosaur was still there.”

This extremely short story by Guatemalan writer Augusto Monterroso sums up the state of play on the euro crisis. Last week’s summit took important steps to stop the immediate panic. But the big economies of Italy and Spain are shrinking and there is no agreed long-term vision for the zone. In other words, the crisis is still there.

The summit’s decisions are not to be sniffed at. The agreement that the euro zone’s bailout fund should, in time, be able to recapitalise banks directly rather than via national governments will help break the so-called doom loop binding troubled lenders and troubled governments. That is a shot in the arm for both Spain and Ireland. Meanwhile, unleashing the bailout fund to stabilise sovereign bond markets could stop Rome’s and Madrid’s bond yields rising to unsustainable levels.

The revolution will be organized

Hugo Dixon
Jun 29, 2012 11:35 UTC

This piece first appeared in Reuters Magazine.

Is it possible that rebel leaders are overrated? In the wake of the Arab Spring, the Occupy Wall Street movement, and other populist uprisings around the world against autocracy and corruption, geopolitical analysts are asking fundamental questions about what leadership means in such struggles. What sort of leadership is needed in nonviolent uprisings? And in this digital age, do rebellions even need leaders?

The romanticized answer is that nonviolent struggles no longer require a charismatic leader – they can emerge spontaneously as oppressed people rise up and communicate through Facebook and Twitter. This lack of organization or hierarchy is said to be well suited to the goals of such movements. Where insurgents are fighting for democratic rule, it is appropriate that nobody is bossing anybody around. What’s more, this alleged lack of leadership has a side benefit in that it precludes the authorities from destroying a movement by rounding up the ringleaders. You can’t lop off the head if there is no head.

A year ago, in the stirring aftermath of the Egyptian revolution, that paradigm had resonance. But the Arab Spring has run into trouble. It took a long and bloody struggle in Libya to depose Colonel Muammar Gaddafi, and Syria is being inexorably sucked into a civil war. Even Egypt no longer looks like a clear victory for the Facebook revolutionaries: The Muslim Brotherhood, which has a more traditional hierarchy and respect for authority, is poised to scoop up the fruits of the populist occupation of Tahrir Square.

How 50 bln euros might save the euro

Hugo Dixon
Jun 25, 2012 10:16 UTC

The break-up of the euro would be a multi-trillion euro catastrophe. An interest subsidy costing around 50 billion euros over seven years could help save it.

The immediate problem is that Spain’s and Italy’s borrowing costs - 6.3 percent and 5.8 percent respectively for 10-year money - have reached a level where investors are losing confidence in the sustainability of the countries’ finances. A vicious spiral - involving capital flight, lack of investment and recession – is under way.

Ideally, this week’s euro summit would come up with a solution. The snag is that most of the popular ideas for cutting these countries’ borrowing costs have been blocked by Germany, the European Central Bank or both.

Euro banking union won’t come fast

Hugo Dixon
Jun 18, 2012 08:58 UTC

Some European policymakers are talking about a “banking union” for the euro zone as if it was around the corner. Jose Manuel Barroso, the European Commission president, for example, told the Financial Times last week that such a union – which would involve euro-wide supervision, bailouts and deposit insurance for the banking industry – could be achieved next year.

But this is not remotely likely. Parts of the zone’s banking industry are so rotten that taxpayers elsewhere can’t reasonably be asked to bear the burden of bailing them out. A massive cleanup is required first. The crisis in Greece, Spain and other countries may provide the impetus. But even then, as Germany suggests, banking union should proceed in stages.

The appeal of a euro zone banking union is understandable. Governments and lenders are currently roped together in what has been dubbed the sovereign-bank doom loop. Weak banks – for example those in Spain, Ireland and Cyprus – can drag down their governments when they need a bailout. Equally, weak governments, such as Greece’s, can drag down their banks when those are stuffed with their own sovereigns’ bonds. By shifting responsibility for bailouts to the euro zone as a whole, the loop could be cut. Or, at least, that is the hope.

Greeks face a Homeric dilemma

Hugo Dixon
Jun 11, 2012 09:19 UTC

Odysseus would recognise the dilemma faced by today’s Greeks as they must choose either the pain of sticking with the euro or the chaos of bringing back the drachma. The Homeric hero had to steer his ship between the six-headed sea monster, Scylla, and the whirlpool, Charybdis. Avoiding both was impossible. Odysseus chose the sea monster, each of whose heads gobbled up a member of his crew. He judged it was not as bad as having the whole ship sucked into the whirlpool.

As Greece heads to the polls on June 17 for the second time in just over a month, none of the options it faces are attractive. The economy has shrunk about 15 percent from its 2008 peak, unemployment stands at 22 percent and further austerity and reform are required as part of the euro zone/IMF bailout. But the lesser of two evils is staying the course.

Some of this misery was inevitable. Greece’s current account and fiscal deficits each reached around 15 percent of GDP in 2008 and 2009, and had to be cut. But successive Greek governments have managed to make the situation worse than it needed to be.

ECB and euro governments play chicken

Hugo Dixon
Jun 4, 2012 08:20 UTC

The euro zone crisis is a multi-dimensional game of chicken. There isn’t just a standoff between the zone’s core and its periphery; there is also one between the European Central Bank and the euro zone governments over who should rescue the single currency. In such games somebody usually blinks. But if nobody does, the consequences will be terrible.

The brinkmanship between the governments is over how much help the northerners, led by Germany, should give the southerners. The core is effectively threatening the peripheral countries with bankruptcy if they don’t cut their deficits and reform their economies. The periphery is saying that, if they collapse, so will the entire single currency which has been so beneficial to Germany’s economy. The game is being played out transparently in Greece and covertly in Spain.

But even if the core eventually decides to help the periphery, there is a struggle of whether the aid should come from governments or from the ECB. Politicians would like the central bank to do the heavy lifting to avoid having to confront taxpayers with an explicit bill. But the ECB doesn’t think it is its job to help governments, arguing that such support violates the Maastricht Treaty.

Greece needs to go to the brink

Hugo Dixon
May 28, 2012 09:39 UTC

Greece needs to go to the brink. Only then will the people back a government that can pursue the tough programme needed to turn the country around. To get to that point, bailout cash for both the government and the banks probably has to be turned off.

It might be thought that the country is already on the edge of the abyss. This month’s election savaged the two traditional ruling parties which were backing the bailout plan that is keeping the country afloat. Extremists of both right and left gained strength – voters liked their opposition to the plan. But nobody could form a government. Hence, there will be a second election on June 17.

Will this second election express the Greeks’ desire clearly: stick with the programme and stay in the euro; or tear up the plan and bring back the drachma? That is how Greece’s financial backers in the rest of the euro zone, such as Germany, are trying to frame the debate. But the electorate doesn’t yet see the choice as that stark. Roughly three quarters want to stay with the euro but two thirds don’t want the reform-plus-austerity programme.