Opinion

Hugo Dixon

All Cyprus plan Bs look dreadful

Hugo Dixon
Mar 20, 2013 10:49 UTC

The Cypriots have an expression: eninboro allo. It means: I cannot take any more of it.

There was jubilation last night outside the small Mediterranean island’s parliament when every single MP either voted against a plan to tax depositors or abstained. The message was that people of Cyprus had had enough and weren’t going to let the big bullies, led by Germany, boss them around.

The plan to tax insured deposits was a dreadful mistake – I have described it as legalised bank robbery. But the deposit tax was part of an unpalatable but available 10 billion euro bailout, agreed with the euro zone. That plan A is now at risk. As Cypriots contemplate possible plan Bs, their jubilation may start to fade: all of them are also dreadful.

Some observers, including my colleague Anatole Kaletsky, believe that Germany will now blink. With an election looming there in the autumn, that seems most unlikely. Berlin has said it is unwilling to back any loan bigger than 10 billion euros, already a non-trivial 60 percent of Cyprus’ GDP. The problem is that Nicosia needs 17 billion euros to recapitalise its banks and cover the government’s own expenses, leaving a 7 billion euro hole.

Berlin is right to refuse to lend more. Even with 10 billion euros, Cyprus’ debt will rise to around 130 percent of GDP. At 17 billion euros it would shoot up to around 160 percent of GDP. Under the original plan, debt was supposed to fall to 100 percent by 2020. But after the events of recent days, confidence will be so crushed and the island’s offshore finance business model so broken that this forecast now looks pie in the sky.
So what are Cyprus’ options? There are broadly three: sell its soul to Russia; default and possibly quit the euro; or patch together a new deal with the euro zone. They are all bad, but the last one is the least bad, for both Cyprus and the rest of Europe.

Cyprus deposit grab sets bad precedent

Hugo Dixon
Mar 18, 2013 09:07 UTC

Cyprus’ deposit grab sets a bad precedent. Money had to be found to prevent its financial system collapsing. But imposing a 6.75 percent tax on insured deposits – or even the 3 percent being discussed on Monday morning – is a type of legalised bank robbery. Cyprus should instead impose a bigger tax on uninsured deposits and not touch small savers.

Confiscating savers’ money will knock confidence in the banks. Trust in the government will also take a hit, since Nicosia had theoretically guaranteed all deposits up to 100,000 euros. Small savers should be encouraged not penalised. They are the quiet heroes of the financial system, who squirrel away their savings, not those who drag it down by engaging in borrowing binges.

Nicosia has not technically broken its promise to guarantee small deposits. That’s because it is not the banks which are failing to repay savers – something which would have triggered the insurance scheme. Instead, it is the government itself which is grabbing a slice of deposits. The pill is also being sugared by giving savers shares in the banks and some of the hoped-for revenues from a possible natural gas bonanza as compensation. That said, the mechanism is still an effective breach of promise.

Markets too sanguine about Italy

Hugo Dixon
Mar 11, 2013 10:12 UTC

The markets are too sanguine about Italy. The country’s politics and economics are messed up – and there are no easy solutions. And while Rome does have the European Central Bank as a backstop, it may have to get to the brink before using it.

Investors had jitters after last month’s election result, pushing 10-year bond yields up to 4.9 percent from 4.6 percent. But by last Friday they had fallen back to 4.7 percent. Investors have convinced themselves that some political solution will be cobbled together; that, if one isn’t, it doesn’t really matter; and that, if the worst comes to the worst, the ECB will pick up the pieces by buying the country’s bonds.

Mario Draghi, the ECB president, gave some support for the latter two ideas last week. He downplayed the risks to Italy’s fiscal position by arguing that much of the country’s belt-tightening was on “automatic pilot”. He also made clear that the ECB’s bond buying plan was still available for countries that followed the rules.

Spain probably won’t catch Italian flu

Hugo Dixon
Mar 4, 2013 10:17 UTC

One knee-jerk reaction to Italy’s shock election was to worry about contagion to Spain. As Rome’s bond yields shot up last Tuesday, Madrid’s were dragged up in sympathy. These are the two troubled big beasts of the euro zone periphery and an explosion in either of them could destroy the single currency.

But Spain, where I spent part of last week, probably won’t catch Italian flu. True, the risk of Madrid being thrown off its reform path has risen since Italy’s inconclusive election. But Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy doesn’t have to face the voters for nearly three years. What’s more, the Italian vote may make euro zone policymakers less keen on austerity and so give Spain a better chance of returning to growth.

Indeed, investors have already started having second thoughts. By Friday, Madrid’s 10-year bond yield had fallen back to 5.1 percent from 5.4 percent on Tuesday. The spread between Spanish and Italian yields has shrunk to 0.3 percentage points. There’s even a chance that Madrid could enjoy lower borrowing costs than Rome in the coming weeks if Italy’s political paralysis shows no sign of resolution.

Italy could reignite euro crisis

Hugo Dixon
Feb 26, 2013 10:15 UTC

Can the Italians be serious? That is likely to be the reaction of financial markets and the country’s euro zone partners as they ponder a disastrous election result, which could reignite the euro crisis. More than half of those who voted chose one of two comedians: Beppe Grillo, who really is a stand-up comic; and Silvio Berlusconi, who drove Italy to the edge of the abyss when he was last prime minister in 2011. Both are anti-euro populists.

This comedy could easily end in tragedy. The inconclusive result has echoes of last year’s first Greek election – except that Italy is bigger and more strategic. The country faces political paralysis, while its economy is shrinking and its debt is rising. The European Commission forecast last week that GDP would fall a further 1 percent this year after last’s year 2.2 percent drop. Debt, meanwhile, would reach 128 percent of GDP by the end of this year.

The euro crisis went into remission after the European Central Bank’s president Mario Draghi promised last summer to do “whatever it takes” to preserve the single currency. But, if Italy proves ungovernable during this critical time, even the ECB’s safety net may not work.

The Bundesbank isn’t mad

Hugo Dixon
Feb 18, 2013 09:33 UTC

The Bundesbank isn’t mad. In a world where it is increasingly fashionable to call for central banks to print money, the German central bank is one of the last bastions of orthodoxy. Although its stance is extreme, it is a useful antidote to the theory that easy money is a cost-free cure to economic ills.

The Bundesbank is hostile to anything that smacks of monetary financing – printing money to finance governments’ deficits. It is worried that central bank independence is getting chipped away as recession drags on in much of the developed world; it thinks that the European Central Bank shouldn’t respond to the recent rise in the euro by loosening monetary policy further; it is always concerned about the potential for inflation; and it thinks that spraying cheap money around can allow governments to shirk their responsibilities.

To many people, these attitudes seem old-fashioned. Surely central banks should bend the rules to get the world economy out of its current rut? A few go even further and advocate “overt monetary financing”, as Adair Turner, chairman of the UK’s Financial Services Authority, did in a seminal speech earlier this month. Overt monetary financing involves governments deliberately running fiscal deficits and openly funding them by borrowing from central banks.

Banks must probe clients’ motives

Hugo Dixon
Feb 11, 2013 10:17 UTC

Should an investment bank worry about a client’s motive when it engages in a complex and potentially suspicious transaction?

Monte dei Paschi di Siena (MPS) has been just such a client. The Italian bank, which has just been rescued by the state, engaged in a series of fiendishly complex deals with Deutsche Bank, JPMorgan and Nomura which had the effect of giving a misleading picture of its finances.

One controversy relates to how MPS paid for its acquisition of Antonveneta, another Italian bank, in 2008. JPMorgan helped finance part of the deal by selling 1 billion euros in so-called FRESH notes, a type of bond convertible into MPS equity. But the Bank of Italy objected that they were not sufficiently loss-absorbing and insisted that MPS only pay money to JPMorgan to forward onto the investors if it made a profit.

Mario Draghi’s poisoned banking chalice

Hugo Dixon
Feb 4, 2013 10:01 UTC

When euro zone governments agreed last year to give the European Central Bank the power to supervise its banks, that looked like another victory for its president Mario Draghi. It is more like a poisoned chalice.

The ECB will certainly get a chunk of extra power. But it will also be blamed when banks run into trouble, as they inevitably will. Draghi himself is experiencing this first hand following the scandal at Monte dei Paschi di Siena (MPS), which has had to be rescued by the Italian state. He has been lambasted for failing to supervise the country’s third largest bank properly when he ran the Bank of Italy – although the criticism seems overdone and has often been fuelled by his political opponents back in Rome.

The potential reputational risks for the ECB from banking snarl-ups on its watch are probably even bigger than they are for national central banks. This is because it doesn’t yet have the full set of tools to do the job properly. Moreover, a huge amount is at stake since the ECB is the euro zone’s most credible institution. If its reputation gets tarnished because of perceived supervisory failures, that could rub off on its ability to conduct monetary policy or manage crises effectively.

MPS saga not just a local affair

Hugo Dixon
Jan 28, 2013 10:14 UTC

The Monte dei Paschi di Siena saga is not just an Italian affair. Revelations that complex financial transactions used by the country’s third largest bank had the effect of hiding losses are causing a political storm in Italy.

With a general election only weeks away, Silvio Berlusconi looks like being the main winner from the political spat. The former prime minister’s camp has attacked Pierluigi Bersani’s Democratic Party, which is leading in the opinion polls, for being close to Monte dei Paschi (MPS). It has also criticised Mario Monti, the current prime minister, who agreed to increase MPS’s bailout to 3.9 billion euros.

The scandal won’t be enough to get Berlusconi back as prime minister. But it could prevent a Bersani-Monti coalition from running the country with a solid majority in both houses of parliament. If so, fears about Italian political risk could return to haunt the markets.

UK faces five years of limbo-land

Hugo Dixon
Jan 23, 2013 11:33 UTC

The UK faces half a decade of limbo-land. David Cameron’s promise of an in/out referendum on Britain’s membership of the European Union by the end-2017— provided he wins the next election – means an extremely long period of uncertainty for business. That will be bad for investment. It also heightens the risk of an eventual “Brexit” – a British exit from Europe – which would be even worse for the economy.

An in/out referendum is neither desirable nor necessary. Of course, if the UK was planning to hand further powers to Brussels, it would be a good idea to get the people’s consent. But no leading British politician of either left or right is contemplating such a transfer of sovereignty. Cameron has been driven to promise such a referendum because of the pressure from eurosceptics within his Conservative party as well as fears that UKIP, a fringe political entity which wants Britain to leave the EU, could take votes away from the Tories in the 2015 election.

If Cameron had been promising a quick referendum, the uncertainty for business would be manageable. But he has decided that he first wants to see if he can negotiate a “new settlement” based on a competitive, flexible and fair single market. That’s why the referendum could be nearly five years away.