Opinion

Hugo Dixon

A workable euro zone fitness regime

Hugo Dixon
Feb 17, 2014 09:42 UTC

The euro zone has gone from the emergency room to rehab. As often with patients, the question is how to maintain a stiff exercise regime now the immediate danger is over.

Germany has an idea. At December’s summit, it got the rest of the zone to agree in principle to what are called “partnerships for growth, jobs and competitiveness”. The idea is that governments will sign contracts committing them to do things like reform their labour markets, liberalise product markets and improve the efficiency of their public sectors. Countries such as Greece and Cyprus, which are already in bailout programmes, wouldn’t be covered.

The snag is that the leaders haven’t yet been able to agree on what sort of carrot to give countries in return for signing these contracts. They have, though, set an October deadline to reach conclusions.

One option would be to dust off an idea that was doing the rounds at the peak of the euro crisis two years ago: get countries with low interest rates to give some of the benefit they get from cheap money to those with relatively high financing costs.

Here’s how such a scheme, call it “euro-rates”, could work. At the end of each year, the euro zone would work out the average cost of all the bonds issued by participants in the scheme during that year. There would then be a transfer of cash from those who had borrowed cheaply to those who had borrowed expensively. The transfer would be designed to cut but not eliminate the divergence between different countries’ borrowing costs.

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.

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?

Bundesbank right to focus on doom loop

Hugo Dixon
Oct 7, 2013 08:48 UTC

Germany’s Bundesbank is not afraid of playing the role of bad fairy. Last year it opposed the European Central Bank’s scheme for buying potentially unlimited quantities of sovereign bonds – a promise which ended the hot phase of the euro crisis. Last week, it criticised rules that encourage euro zone banks to load up on their own governments’ debts.

Jens Weidmann, the Bundesbank president, is right to put this topic on the agenda. After all, the exposure of banks to governments is one half of what has been dubbed the “sovereign-bank doom loop.” When governments such as Greece got into trouble, they dragged their banks down as well. (The other half of the doom loop involves troubled banks dragging down their governments.)

The problem is how to break this loop without triggering a new crisis in vulnerable countries such as Italy and Spain. After all, if their banks were suddenly told to cut their holdings of Italian and Spanish bonds, Rome and Madrid would be hard-pressed to fund themselves.

Euro zone needs anti-boom activism

Hugo Dixon
Sep 23, 2013 09:11 UTC

A big problem with the euro zone’s one-size-fits-all monetary policy is that it risks fitting nobody. That, indeed, was a key cause of the crisis. Early in the century, countries such as Spain and Ireland were booming, while Germany was in the doldrums. Setting interest rates at a level that worked well for the euro zone on average had the effect of inflating the Spanish and Irish property bubbles while pushing up wages so their economies became uncompetitive. When the bubbles burst, the damage was devastating.

It would be hard to argue that any part of the euro zone is currently booming. Even Germany will eke out GDP growth of only 0.3 percent this year, according to the International Monetary Fund. But it may not be long before the problems of a one-size-fits-all monetary policy are back to haunt the zone. Even though the German economy isn’t growing strongly, it is still outperforming the average. What’s more, labour is in short supply in Germany and house prices are rising at a moderate clip – a big contrast to the average, let alone recession-inflicted countries such as Italy.

The European Central Bank’s policy of keeping interest rates at the current 0.5 percent level or lower for an “extended period” is right for the euro zone on average. The weaker countries would benefit from even looser monetary policy. Germany, though, may already need something tighter. If the “extended period” of low interest rates goes on for years, it could experience a boom.

How to legitimise EU: decentralise

Hugo Dixon
Jul 22, 2013 08:41 UTC

The European Union is facing a crisis of legitimacy. This is evidenced in a decline in support for the EU among citizens in pretty much every member country. The most extreme manifestation is in the UK, where pressure is mounting to quit the EU.

There are two main schools of thought about how to restore trust in Brussels. One is to increase the direct say citizens have over what the European Commission does – say by giving yet more power to the European Parliament or by having a directly elected European Commission president. The other is to stop Brussels interfering in things best left to nation states.

The former school of thought is based on a misconception. The EU does not have a demos: few Europeans feel European rather than Italian, German, French or whatever. Witness the low turnout for European Parliament elections. Trying to construct a democracy without a demos is artificial and so won’t solve the legitimacy problem.