Opinion

Hugo Dixon

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.

Depositors in other peripheral countries would pull savings from their banks. Bond markets in these other countries would also seize up. Why would anybody want to lend money to Rome or Madrid in euros if they thought they were going to be paid back in devalued liras or pesetas?

The solution proposed by most Wolfson Prize finalists is secrecy. Plans for a country’s exit from the euro should be kept under wraps and then sprung on the unsuspecting world on a Friday evening. But this is impractical. How could 17 governments keep secret something that will involve lots of wrangling? Would a democratic country really be able to foist such a momentous decision on its people without a parliamentary debate? Even if secrecy was possible, it wouldn’t stop contagion to other countries.

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.

LTRO was a necessary evil

Hugo Dixon
Mar 5, 2012 09:48 UTC

Bailout may not be a four-letter word. But many of the rescue operations mounted to save banks and governments in the past few years have been four-letter acronyms. Think of the TARP and TALF programmes that were used to bail out the U.S. banking system after Lehman Brothers went bust. Or the European Central Bank’s LTRO, the longer-term refinancing operation. This has involved lending European banks 1 trillion euros for three years at an extraordinarily low interest rate of 1 percent.

The markets and the banks have jumped for joy in response to all this liquidity being sprayed around. So have Italy and Spain, whose borrowing costs have dropped because their banks have been able to take cheap cash from the ECB and recycle it into their governments’ bonds — making a profit on the round trip. But as has been the case with other four-letter bailouts, the LTRO has come in for criticism — most of it a variation on the theme that the way to treat debt junkies isn’t to give them another heroin injection.

One problem is that European governments could now feel less pressure to reform their labour laws and do the other painful things that are needed to get their economies fit. Another is that banks may delay actions that are required to let them stand on their own two feet: such as rebuilding their capital buffers and raising their own longer-term funds on the markets.

How to pep up European growth

Hugo Dixon
Feb 27, 2012 09:27 UTC

Europe needs a growth strategy. In the short term, that means preventing an austerity spiral. In the long run, it means structural reform and a drive to create a genuine single market. The European Union summit this week is a chance to aim at both targets.

The euro zone crisis may be receding. Last week’s temporary fix of Greece’s problems with a 130 billion euro bailout is the most recent cause for optimism. But so long as the region cannot grow – and the European Commission has just forecast zero growth this year for the European Union as a whole and shrinkage for several countries including Italy and Spain – there is a risk of sliding back into crisis.

The European Central Bank’s provision of 500 billion euros of three-year money to the banks before Christmas – and the promise of a similar cash injection this week – has lifted spirits in financial markets. Some of that money will find its way into the real economy. But while monetary policy is lax, fiscal policy is tight. No fewer than 23 of the EU’s 27 countries are in what are known as “excess deficit procedures”, which require them to bring their annual borrowing down to less than 3 percent of GDP over the next year or so. Under the so-called “six pack” system of fiscal discipline, countries can be fined if they fail to stick to the required austerity.

How to help the Syrians

Hugo Dixon
Feb 20, 2012 09:17 UTC

When the Syrian revolution began, the activists employed almost entirely non-violent tactics. They also rejected the idea of foreign intervention. Nearly a year on, the revolution’s character has changed. There are still protests, boycotts, strikes and funeral marches. But the opposition’s main strategy for overthrowing Bashar al-Assad’s regime has become one of out-muscling it. To achieve that, it is calling for military help from abroad – a request that will be pressed when the Friends of Syria, a contact group of mainly Arab and Western countries, meet in Tunis later this week.

The switch in strategy is understandable, though regrettable. The endless killing and torture have taken their toll. Homs, Hama and several other cities are being bombarded by Assad’s forces in what look like medieval sieges and could have similar grisly outcomes. The people worry they will be massacred if they don’t take up arms to defend themselves. Meanwhile, they have seen how foreign military intervention in Libya tipped the balance there and got rid of Colonel Muammar Gaddafi.

The Assad regime probably likes the fact that the opposition has embraced armed struggle. This solidifies its support among its core constituency – the Alawites, who represent about 10 percent of the population – as well as other minorities such as Christians. The regime can argue it has to hit back hard, otherwise it will be massacred. What’s more, it has seen brutality work in the past. Assad’s father survived a rebellion in Hama 30 years ago after killing around 20,000 people.

Monti turnaround can go much further

Hugo Dixon
Feb 13, 2012 09:37 UTC

Mario Monti’s ability to take a crisis and turn it into an opportunity may one day be taught as a case study in political economy. When Italy’s technocratic premier succeeded Silvio Berlusconi last November, the country’s 10-year bond yield was above the 7 percent level that had driven Greece, Ireland and Portugal to seek bailouts. Now it is 5.5 percent – still high but moving in the right direction.

Countries with high debt levels like Italy – its borrowing is 120 percent of GDP – are prone to self-fulfilling prophecies on both the upside and the downside. If investors think a government will go bust, borrowing costs rise which, in turn, makes bankruptcy more likely. But if markets think it is solvent, borrowing costs fall and that means it’s unlikely to fail.

In Italy, where I spent much of last week, there have been spirals within spirals. One has been via domestic politics. Monti has so much credibility that he has been able to reform the pension system, liberalise a raft of monopolistic industries and launch a high-profile crackdown on tax evasion. That has helped cut Italian bond yields, further boosting his credibility.

How to end the banker backlash

Hugo Dixon
Feb 6, 2012 09:47 UTC

There was a whiff of the lynch mob in the UK last week. Stephen Hester, the current Royal Bank of Scotland boss, was bludgeoned by politicians and the media into foregoing his bonus even though he was brought in to clean up the largely state-owned bank. Two days later his predecessor, Fred Goodwin, was stripped of his knighthood. While Goodwin bore much of the responsibility for RBS’s near-bankruptcy, removing his title flouted normal procedures. Not only is such a dressing down traditionally reserved for criminals; the prime minister, David Cameron, prejudged the verdict of the committee which reviewed the knighthood. The week was capped off by the leader of the opposition, Ed Miliband, calling for a tax on bankers’ bonuses.

While the UK is currently the epicentre of the backlash against financiers, the phenomenon is widespread across the Western world. Francois Hollande, who is likely to be France’s next president, has said that his main adversary isn’t Nicolas Sarkozy but a faceless, nameless, opponent – the world of finance. And across the Atlantic, the only serious setback in Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign so far came when he revealed that in 2010 he had paid only 13.9 percent tax on his $21.7 million of income, most of which came from his time as a private equity baron.

There is certainly something ugly about the way politicians – who themselves bear some responsibility for the economic mess – have turned bankers into a scapegoats. But the public isn’t in the mood to show sympathy to bankers these days. The issue is not so much the amounts they are paid. In the same week that the banker backlash was gathering force in the UK, Facebook announced its initial public offering. Nobody batted an eyelid at the prospect of Mark Zuckerberg, the founder, being worth over $20 billion. The difference is that people think Zuckerberg deserves his billions but the bankers don’t deserve their millions.