Opinion

Hugo Dixon

What is the long-term euro vision?

Hugo Dixon
May 21, 2012 09:14 UTC

What should be the long-term vision for the euro zone? The standard answer is fully-fledged fiscal, banking and political union. Many euro zone politicians advocate it. So do those on the outside such as David Cameron, Britain’s prime minister, who last week called on the zone to “make up or break up”.

The crisis has demonstrated that the current system doesn’t work. But a headlong dive into a United States of Europe would be bad politics and bad economics. An alternative, more attractive vision is to maintain the maximum degree of national sovereignty consistent with a single currency. This is possible provided there are liquidity backstops for solvent governments and banks; debt restructuring for insolvent ones; and flexibility for all.

Enthusiasts say greater union won’t just prevent future crises – it will help solve the current one. The key proposals are for governments to guarantee each other’s bonds through so-called euro zone bonds and to be prepared to bail out each other’s banks. In return for the mutual support, each government and all the banks would submit to strong centralised discipline.

But the European people are not remotely ready for such steps. Anti-euro sentiment is on the rise, to judge by strong poll showings by the likes of France’s Marine Le Pen and Italy’s Beppe Grillo. Germany’s insistence last December on a fiscal discipline treaty has stoked that sentiment.

An attempt by the region’s elite to force the pace of integration with even more ambitious plans could easily backfire with voters, particularly in northern Europe. They would fear being required to fund permanent bail outs for feckless southerners. Premature integration might not even help with the current crisis if it backfired with investors. They might start to question the creditworthiness of a Germany if it had to shoulder the entire region’s debts.

How to protect euro from Greek exit

Hugo Dixon
May 14, 2012 08:51 UTC

When euro zone policymakers are asked if there is a Plan B to cope with a Greek exit from the single currency, their typical answer goes something like this: “There’s no such plan. If there were, it would leak, investors would panic and the exit scenario would gather unstoppable momentum.”

Maybe there really is no plan. Or maybe policymakers are just doing a good job of keeping their mouths shut. Hopefully, it is the latter because, since Greece’s election, the chances of Athens quitting the euro have shot up. And unless the rest of the euro zone is well prepared, the knock-on effect will be devastating.

The Greeks have lost their stomach for austerity and the rest of the euro zone has lost its patience with Athens’ broken promises. But unless one side blinks, Greece will be out of the single currency and any deposits left in Greek banks will be converted from euros into cut-price drachmas.

What a euro growth pact should contain

Hugo Dixon
May 7, 2012 10:16 UTC

It has become fashionable to talk about the need for a euro zone “growth compact” as weariness mounts over a diet of nothing but austerity. France’s new president Francois Hollande has popularised the idea. Even Mario Draghi has backed it. That gives the concept credibility as the European Central Bank president was one of the main supporters of the austerity-heavy “fiscal compact”, which requires governments to balance their budgets rapidly. Olli Rehn, the European Commission’s top economic official, has joined the bandwagon too: at the weekend, he advocated a pact to boost investment, while hinting that there may be scope to ease up a bit on the austerity.

But all this chit-chat won’t lead to much unless politicians are prepared take unpleasant decisions on reforming labour, welfare and banking – measures which would boost growth in the long run. That has to be the quid pro quo for loosening the current fiscal squeeze or further easing monetary policy – measures that would help in the shorter term. 

Without such a grand bargain, any growth compact is likely to amount to little more than extra funds for investment. Rehn mentioned the main ideas at the weekend: using EU budget funds to guarantee lending to smaller firms; encouraging countries with fiscal surpluses to increase public investment; and boosting the capital of the European Investment Bank. While these measures are worthy, they are not of the scale needed to change the course of one of the biggest economic crises in recent history. 

Does Europe need a banking union?

Hugo Dixon
Apr 30, 2012 08:34 UTC

Does Europe need a “banking union” to shore up its struggling monetary union? And is it going to get one?

These questions are raised by the increasingly lively debate over how to break the link between troubled states in the euro zone periphery and their equally troubled banks. In some countries, such as Ireland, the lenders have made so many bad loans that they have had to be bailed out – in turn, dragging down their governments. In Greece and Italy, the banks have gorged on so many government bonds that they have been damaged by their state’s deteriorating creditworthiness. And, in Spain, the current focus of the euro crisis, a bit of both has been happening: banks made too many bad loans – and then bought too many government bonds.

One proposed solution to this incestuous relationship, advocated among others by the International Monetary Fund, involves creating a centralised Europe-wide system for regulating banks and, if necessary, closing them down and paying off their depositors. The idea is that the region’s lenders would be viewed as European banks rather than Spanish, Greek or Italian ones. If they got into trouble, they wouldn’t infect their governments; and vice versa. That would make the whole euro crisis easier to manage.

IMF-euro conditions not what they seem

Hugo Dixon
Apr 23, 2012 08:54 UTC

We’re going to be really tough on the euro zone. If they want more bailouts from the International Monetary Fund, they are going to have to submit to strict conditionality. That was the message delivered by the rest of the world when it agreed at the weekend to participate in a fundraising exercise that will boost the IMF’s resources by at least $430 billion.

But the meaning of the message isn’t quite what it seems. The IMF is actually in some ways calling for less rather than more short-term austerity in the euro zone. So if the Europeans submit to IMF discipline, it will ironically mean less of a hair shirt.

It is easy to see why the rest of the world is unhappy with the special treatment the euro zone receives from the IMF. The managing director, currently Christine Lagarde, has always been a European. Vast resources, way beyond what are normally available in IMF programmes, have been channelled to Greece, Ireland and Portugal.

Can the euro omelette be unscrambled?

Hugo Dixon
Apr 16, 2012 08:56 UTC

Can the euro omelette be unscrambled without provoking the mother of all financial collapses? With the crisis heating up again as Spanish 10-year bond yields hit 6 percent last week, the question has renewed urgency. The conventional wisdom is that such unscrambling is impossible. The economic, political and legal complications of bringing back national currencies are so immense that the euro zone’s 17 nations are effectively locked in a prison with no exit.

A 250,000 pound prize offered by Simon Wolfson, a UK businessman, has aimed to turn this conventional wisdom on its head. In offering what is the second-largest economics prize after the Nobel, Wolfson hoped to stimulate creative juices. In one case, he has – although even it is no silver bullet.

Of the myriad problems with returning to the drachma, peseta and lira, the most intractable is how to prevent it triggering bank runs and ultimately financial chaos. Depositors would flee if they thought their euros were set to be converted into a national currency certain to suffer dramatic and immediate devaluation. This has already been happening to some extent in Greece. If the Greeks knew for sure that their old currency was coming back, the current fast walk would turn into a stampede. Even worse, the damage wouldn’t be confined to Greece.

Euro zone should beware the “F” word

Hugo Dixon
Apr 2, 2012 08:25 UTC

Beware the “F” word. The European Central Bank and, to a lesser extent, the zone’s political leaders have bought the time needed to resolve the euro crisis. But there are signs of fatigue. A renewed sense of danger may be needed to spur politicians to address underlying problems. It would be far better if they got ahead of the curve.

The big time-buying exercise was the ECB’s injection of 1 trillion euros of super-cheap three-year money into the region’s banks. A smaller breathing space was won last week when governments agreed to expand the ceiling on the region’s bailout funds from 500 to 700 billion euros.

These moves have taken the heat out of the crisis – both by easing fears that banks could go bust and by making it easier for troubled governments, especially Italy’s and Spain’s, to fund themselves. Data from the ECB last week shows how much of the easy money has been recycled from banks into government bonds. In February, Italian lenders increased their purchases of euro zone government bonds by a record 23 billion euros. Spanish banks, meanwhile, increased their purchases by 15.7 billion euros following a record 23 billion euro spending spree in January.

After the Robin Hood tax

Hugo Dixon
Mar 26, 2012 09:13 UTC

Move over, Robin Hood tax. Make way for the FAT tax and the hot money levy.

The European Union’s plan to put an impost on financial transactions, popularly known as a Robin Hood tax, is dying. That’s a good thing. The idea was taken up by the Occupy movement as well as luminaries such as Bill Gates. But it never made economic sense. Taxing transactions wouldn’t have dealt with any of the causes of the financial crisis such as too much leverage and excessive reliance on hot money. It would just have driven business offshore.

Britain has always opposed the tax, meaning it had no chance of being adopted by the EU as a whole. Now the Netherlands has come out against it, so it can’t even be applied across the whole euro zone. With Germany’s finance minister saying that the “smallest thinkable unit” for the tax is the euro zone, it is only a matter of time before the Robin Hood tax is buried.

EU finance ministers will discuss alternative ways of taxing finance later this week in Copenhagen. The guiding principles should be to rein in excess risk-taking and remove distortions that bias one form of economic activity over another. With these ideas in mind, there are three specific things Europe, and for that matter the rest of the world, should do.

Rajoy’s ploys risk stoking cynicism

Hugo Dixon
Mar 19, 2012 09:13 UTC

At a dinner in Madrid earlier this month, the main complaint about Mariano Rajoy was that the new prime minister was treating the electorate like children. Many of the guests, supporters of Rajoy’s Popular Party (PP), understood that Spain had to cut its fiscal deficit and restore its competitiveness. But they didn’t like the fact that the prime minister hadn’t been frank about his plans.

In advance of last November’s general election, Rajoy said he wouldn’t raise taxes, make it cheaper to fire people or cut the welfare state. But he has now done the first two. After this week’s election in Andalusia, Spain’s largest region, he is expected to do the last.

Rajoy’s camp doesn’t see any problem in failing to be upfront. It would have been foolish to talk too much about austerity in the general election campaign as that might have frightened the voters. For the same reason, it would be foolish to tell them about reforming the welfare state in advance of the Andalusia election.

Hollande’s sins more those of omission

Hugo Dixon
Mar 12, 2012 09:27 UTC

Francois Hollande’s sins are more those of omission than commission. The headlines might suggest otherwise. The socialist challenger to Nicolas Sarkozy as France’s next president has promised to cut the pension age to 60, tax the rich at 75 percent, renegotiate Europe’s fiscal treaty and launch a war on bankers. But these pledges aren’t as bad as they look. The real problem is that Hollande, who has a strong lead in the opinion polls, isn’t addressing the need to reform the country’s welfare state.

Hollande is a moderate. Like Sarkozy, for example, he is promising to cut the budget deficit to 3 percent next year, from 5.8 percent as estimated by the European Commission in 2011. But he still had to throw the left some red meat in the election campaign, which runs until May. That’s not just to prevent votes drifting to Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the far-left candidate. It’s also to avoid being outflanked by Sarkozy’s own populist attacks on corporate fat cats and bankers.

Still, the precise pledges probably aren’t what they seem, as I discovered on a trip to Paris last month.