Opinion

Hugo Dixon

Renzi rolls the dice

Hugo Dixon
Feb 14, 2014 10:06 UTC

When Julius Caesar crossed the Rubicon in his bid to take control of Rome, he is reputed to have said “alea jacta est” (the die is cast). Matteo Renzi, soon-to-be Rome’s new master, has also rolled the dice. In doing so, he is taking big risks. Given Italy’s mess, one can only pray that his gamble pays off.

There are a lot of good things about Renzi, who became leader of the centre-left Democratic Party in a landslide election last December. He is young, energetic and pro-enterprise. He wants to shake up a political and economic system that has been gridlocked for a couple of decades or more – the consequence of which is an economy that has shrunk 9 percent since 2007, youth unemployment of 42 percent and government debt at 133 percent of GDP.

Still, Renzi has embarked upon a high-risk strategy by kicking out the prime minister, Enrico Letta, who is a member of his own party. His majority is unstable, he knows little about governing and he is relying on Silvio Berlusconi, arch-rival of Italy’s centre left, for a critical reform of the constitution.

Renzi’s initial plan was to work with Letta for a year or so and then become prime minister. The idea was that Letta would do some of the dirty work of cleaning up Italy, leaving Renzi to go to new elections as a largely untarnished figure.

An election can’t be called immediately since Italy’s constitutional court has declared the existing voting system unconstitutional. Hence, the importance of Renzi’s pact last month with Berlusconi – which, hopefully, the latter will not renege on. Not only would the new voting system they agreed be constitutional; it would virtually guarantee stable governments instead of the endless merry-go-around that has characterised Italian politics since World War Two.

Euroscepticism may have silver lining

Hugo Dixon
Feb 10, 2014 09:43 UTC

Many eurosceptic treatises, such as the recent report saying the Netherlands would be better off quitting the European Union, are exaggerated and unconvincing. But mounting euroscepticism could still have a silver lining if it helps those wishing to reform the EU advance their agenda.

Few people think the Netherlands is close to quitting the EU. In this way, it is different from the UK, where exit is a genuine possibility. That said, euroscepticism is on the rise following years of economic stagnation. The right-wing Freedom Party, led by Geert Wilders, is leading in the opinion polls and is likely to be the largest party in May’s European Parliament elections. Other eurosceptic and nationalist parties such as France’s National Front and Britain’s UK Independence Party are also likely to perform well.

To see what is wrong with the eurosceptics’ arguments, look no further than the study on “Nexit” – the Netherlands’ potential exit from the EU – commissioned by Wilders and written by Capital Economics, a London-based consultancy. Although the case for Nexit has been dressed up about as well as it is possible to do so, it is still full of holes.

QE is the way for the ECB to go

Hugo Dixon
Feb 5, 2014 10:35 UTC

The European Central Bank needs to start taking the risks of deflation more seriously. This danger should be top of its agenda when its governing council convenes for its monthly meeting this week.

The ECB’s line is that it does not see deflation on the horizon. True, the inflation rate has been below the target of close to but below 2 percent for over a year. The flash estimate for January was a mere 0.7 percent. But this still amounts to rising prices – not deflation’s actually falling prices.

True, too, that the ECB itself expects inflation to be below target for at least the next two years. But it doesn’t think the euro zone is close to repeating the experience of Japan which has suffered 20 years of flat prices.

Independent Scotland won’t keep the pound

Hugo Dixon
Feb 3, 2014 09:44 UTC

An independent Scotland will not keep the pound. That’s despite this being the express wish of the Scottish government, which is campaigning for independence in September’s referendum. The reason is that it’s hard to see the rest of the UK agreeing to such a deal – except on terms that would affront Scotland’s amour propre.

One can understand why Edinburgh is keen not to change its monetary arrangements. If Scotland had its own free-floating currency, it would be less economically integrated with the rest of the UK. Given that 60 percent of its exports and 70 percent of its imports are with the rest of the UK, such a separation would hit hard.

A separate currency would also cause trouble for the outsized Scottish banking sector. Banking assets are more than 12 times GDP – nearly double the ratio for Iceland, Ireland and Cyprus before their banking industries blew up. The Scottish people might also worry that a Scottish currency could fall in value, devaluing their savings.

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.

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.