Opinion

Hugo Dixon

Bernanke deserves 6 out of 10

Hugo Dixon
Jan 27, 2014 09:58 UTC

How should the world outside America view Ben Bernanke’s legacy? Should it lambast the U.S. Federal Reserve chairman, who retires later this week after an eight-year stint, for failing to predict the financial crisis and being slow to react when it hit? Or should it laud him for pulling out the stops to save the financial system and pep up the U.S. economy after Lehman Brothers went bust in 2008? Or should non-Americans be worried that the process of unwinding Bernanke’s unprecedented money-printing policy will deliver a bad case of whiplash?

The answers to the last three questions are “yes, yes and yes.”

Bernanke’s culpability for the global financial crisis is not nearly as great as that of his predecessor, Alan Greenspan. It was, after all, Greenspan who ignored the dangers of financial deregulation, while being ever-too-ready to respond to any sign of market trouble by dropping interest rates – a policy that encouraged banks and investors to run up excessive risks with borrowed money.

By the time Bernanke took over in February 2006, the global credit bubble – and, in particular, the U.S. subprime housing bubble – was already well inflated. There was no way of avoiding trouble. However, the new Fed chairman could have mitigated the damage if he had had more foresight – say, by pushing for tighter regulation of the financial system.

The bigger criticism, though, is that once the subprime bubble burst in mid-2007, Bernanke was slow to appreciate the severity of the situation. True, he did cut interest rates. But he didn’t realise how losses were going to cascade through the global financial system, nor did he push hard enough for financial institutions to increase their capital and liquidity buffers.

What’s more, Bernanke’s Fed did little contingency planning to prepare for a big U.S. financial institution failing. As a result, when Lehman went bust, threatening to drag much of the global financial system down the plughole with it, there was no plan B.

UK Tories mishandle EU relationship

Hugo Dixon
Jan 23, 2014 10:16 UTC

A year after David Cameron promised a referendum on EU membership, the British prime minister and his Conservative party are alienating potential allies across the Channel. He needs to pitch reforms that benefit the whole bloc, not just pander to eurosceptics. Otherwise an “Out” vote looks more likely.

Cameron promised to hold a referendum by the end of 2017, assuming he’s still in power. His original hope was to first renegotiate the terms of Britain’s EU membership sufficiently so that he could then sell the advantages of staying in to a sceptical electorate.

In such a scenario, the expectation was that much of Tory press would rally round – or at least mute their criticism. Meanwhile, business would campaign to stay in, alongside the Liberal Democrats, the junior partners in Cameron’s coalition, and the opposition Labour party.

Renzi-Berlusconi pact gives Italy hope

Hugo Dixon
Jan 20, 2014 10:22 UTC

A weekend pact between Matteo Renzi and Silvio Berlusconi offers new hope to Italy. The constitutional reform deal between the leader of Italy’s largest party and the leader of the opposition addresses one of the country’s biggest problems: its ungovernability. Now Renzi, who runs the centre-left Democratic Party, needs to put his energy behind key economic reforms, especially jobs and public spending.

Italy, where I spent much of last week, has been plagued for years with unstable governments. In part this is because the voting system gives a lot of power to small parties and can lead to conflicting majorities in the two houses of parliament, which have equal power.

The Renzi-Berlusconi deal aims to reinforce the power of larger parties by changing the voting system. It also would demote the upper house so that governments will only need to secure a majority in the lower one. Meanwhile, the two leaders have agreed to cut the power of Italy’s regions – a move which should save money and lead to more stream-lined decision-making.

Europe’s post-crisis challenge

Hugo Dixon
Dec 16, 2013 10:28 UTC

The hot phase of euro crisis may be over. But the zone will limp on for years with low growth and high unemployment unless further action is taken on three fronts: bank balance sheets must be cleaned up, monetary policy loosened and more free-market reforms adopted.

The latest news from the euro zone’s various battlefronts is fairly encouraging. GDP in all the problem countries, with the exception of tiny Cyprus, is expected to grow next year. Budget deficits, one symptom of the crisis, are being cut. Current account deficits, the other main symptom, are coming into balance.

Ireland, the poster child of the harsh recipe of fiscal austerity plus structural reform, has just exited its bailout programme. Portugal may do so next year. Even Greece is toying with the idea of issuing government bonds towards the end of 2014.

Italy has two chances post-Berlusconi

Hugo Dixon
Dec 2, 2013 09:43 UTC

Italy seems continually condemned to disappoint. The economy has barely grown in 20 years. The younger generation is languishing without opportunity: youth unemployment stands at 41 percent. So many chances to reform the country have been wasted – and many by Silvio Berlusconi, who was finally expelled from the Senate last week after being convicted of tax fraud.

The country now has two chances to reform. The first is that Enrico Letta, the prime minister, will be emboldened to push through changes now that Berlusconi has been sent packing. If he still can’t, Matteo Renzi – who is expected to be chosen leader of the centre-left Democrats on Sunday – should force elections and show he is as radical in deed as he is in words.

Look first at Letta. He is an intelligent centrist from the Democratic party. But, since he became prime minister in April after an indecisive election result, he has not achieved much. This is largely because his government had to rely on Berlusconi’s centre-right party. The two groups found it virtually impossible to agree on anything.

Athens can capitalise on market interest

Hugo Dixon
Nov 18, 2013 09:45 UTC

Greece has been the markets’ whipping boy for most of the past four years. But in the last few months, sentiment has changed and international investors are bottom-fishing – in particular for banking assets.

This gives the country a double opportunity: lenders can use it to clean up their balance sheets by selling non-performing loans; and the state can privatise its stakes in the banks. Both should grab the chance while it lasts.

Greece’s banks have been in a terrible mess as a result of the crisis. Not only were they loaded up with government bonds, which got haircut; even the big four that survived are weighed down by about 65 billion euros of non-performing loans, equivalent to around a third of GDP.

Greece’s reform job isn’t even half done

Hugo Dixon
Nov 11, 2013 09:51 UTC

Greece’s reform job is not even half finished. The government hasn’t done enough to root out the vested interests that strangle the economy. Nor has it cracked down fully on tax evasion or pushed hard enough to privatise state-owned properties.

On the other hand, Antonis Samaras’ coalition is so fragile that it could collapse if the troika – the European Commission, the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund – forces it to impose more austerity. That could lead to a new phase in the Greek crisis. The government’s best bet is to make a sharp distinction between structural reform and austerity – and persuade its lenders that it’s so serious about the former that more cuts and taxes aren’t required.

The atmosphere in Athens, which I visited last week, is tense. One reason is that two members of the ultra-right wing Golden Dawn party had just been murdered in a professional hit job. That followed the killing of a left-wing rapper by a member of Golden Dawn which, in turn, had triggered the arrest of the party’s leader. No one is quite sure whether this is the start of a cycle of violence which could destabilise the government, drive away tourists (the country’s main source of export revenues) and undermine business confidence.

ECB really must act on deflation

Hugo Dixon
Nov 4, 2013 15:00 UTC

The case for looser monetary policy should be clear when the European Central Bank governing council convenes in Frankfurt on Thursday. The question is what tools to use: lower interest rates, spraying the banks with more cheap long-term money or the ECB’s first dose of “quantitative easing”. The answer should be a mixture of all three.

Mind you, there are enough inflation hawks inside the governing council that it’s not certain it will even agree that more needs to be done. Some central bankers may argue monetary policy is already loose enough. After all, the ECB’s main interest rate is 0.5 percent and back in July the central bank said, in its first experiment with “forward guidance”, that it expected interest rates to “remain at present or lower levels for an extended period of time”.

What’s more, the euro zone is gradually recovering. In the second quarter, GDP rose 0.3 percent compared to the previous three months. As if this were not enough, Germany’s Bundesbank has started warning that property prices are getting overvalued in some German cities. Why stoke an emerging bubble with still cheaper money?

The City has huge scope to expand

Hugo Dixon
Oct 28, 2013 10:14 UTC

Finance has rightly been in the sin bin for the last six years. And the cleanup job isn’t finished. But Mark Carney, the new Bank of England governor, is correct to stress how a large and expanding City of London is good for Britain, Europe and the world – provided it is properly organised.

Carney’s comments, in a speech last week, will seem heretical to many – maybe even to his predecessor, Mervyn King, who showed a barely disguised disdain for financiers. Would it really be healthy, for example, for the balance sheets of British banks to reach nine times GDP, double the current ratio – as Carney projected they could by 2050?

British public will have some big questions about the potential resurgence of finance. Will taxpayers be asked to swoop in again to bail out bust banks? If a rescue is needed, would the government have the wherewithal to support a gigantic sector? Is it wise for the UK to put so many of its eggs in the finance basket?

Brexit process would be messy

Hugo Dixon
Oct 21, 2013 08:58 UTC

Imagine the British people vote to quit the European Union in the referendum David Cameron has promised to hold by 2017. What happens next? What, if any, special relationship would the UK seek to retain with the EU? Would it be able to negotiate what it wanted? And how would the economic damage unleashed by years of uncertainty be kept to the minimum?

These questions aren’t just troubling British businesses, the vast majority of which want to stay in the EU so they can enjoy full access to its single market. They are also worrying some eurosceptics who are concerned that, even if it would be good for Britain to quit the EU, the process of getting from A to B could be messy.

Hence, the launch of a 100,000 euros prize by the Institute for Economic Affairs, a UK eurosceptic think-tank. It will announce later this month the shortlist for the best essay to answer the question of what measures are needed to ensure a free and prosperous economy after an “out” vote in a putative referendum.