Opinion

Hugo Dixon

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.

But a 40 billion-euro recapitalisation and restructuring of the sector, financed mainly by bailout money, has helped change investor perceptions. Several hedge funds – including Paulson & Co – have invested in the banks.

Last month Piraeus Bank placed 494 million euros of its shares and warrants with investors after BCP, the Portuguese lender, decided to sell out. Meanwhile, investors are heading to Athens looking to buy packages of non-performing loans on the cheap.

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.

How the euro zone can muddle through

Hugo Dixon
Jul 8, 2013 09:27 UTC

Three years on, debate still rages over what is to blame for the euro crisis and what to do about it. Meanwhile, large parts of the zone are in a deep recession and the talents of a generation of young people are being wasted.

In looking at what went wrong, some point to the profligacy of borrowers while others stress the design flaws in the system. Yet others pin the blame on how the crisis has been managed. There are still others who think that the euro zone is a victim of a credit crunch that began in the United States.

There is some truth in all these explanations. While the credit crunch did trigger the crisis, it exposed a host of problems that had been masked by a decade of easy growth. Peripheral countries had grown uncompetitive as a result of rising wages. Often there was corruption and excessive debt, while anti-competitive practices that suited vested interests kept productivity low. Almost everywhere, governments ran unsustainably generous welfare states.

Italy’s Letta makes best of bad job

Hugo Dixon
Jun 24, 2013 08:26 UTC

Italy’s new prime minister, Enrico Letta, is making the best of a bad job. After February’s inconclusive election, it looked like Italy’s dysfunctional political system might drag the country further into the abyss. There was a risk that nobody would be able to form a government, new elections would be called and that even these would end in a stalemate.

In the end, a grand coalition was formed involving Letta’s centre-left Democrats, Silvio Berlusconi’s centre-right PDL and Mario Monti’s centrist group. Putting together such a coalition was itself an achievement – given that the Democrats and Berlusconi hate one another and that the Five Star Movement, led by comedian Beppe Grillo, refused to make deals with anybody.

Even after the coalition was formed – largely as a result of pressure from Giorgio Napolitano, Italy’s respected octogenarian president – there wasn’t much hope that it could achieve anything. But Letta has been quietly getting on with reform, as I discovered when I spent a few days in Italy last week. Part of the explanation is that he is an intelligent, modest, consensus-builder rather than a charismatic figure with a big ego.

Euro zone mustn’t flunk bank cleanup

Hugo Dixon
Jun 10, 2013 08:31 UTC

One reason the euro zone is in such a mess is that it hasn’t had the courage to clean up its banks. The United States gave its lenders a proper scrubbing, followed by recapitalisation, in 2009. By contrast, the euro zone engaged in a series of half-hearted stress tests that missed many of the biggest banking problems such as those in Ireland, Spain and Cyprus.

In recent years, the zone has started to address these problems on a piecemeal basis. But it is still haunted by zombie banks, which are not strong enough to support an economic recovery.

The European Central Bank now has a golden opportunity to press the reset button in advance of taking on the job of supervisor in mid-2014. It mustn’t flunk the cleanup.

UK should get on front foot with City

Hugo Dixon
May 20, 2013 08:30 UTC

It is perhaps too much to expect Britain’s Conservative-led government to lead any initiatives on Europe, such is the orgy of self-destruction in the party over whether the UK should stay in the European Union. But, insofar as David Cameron manages to get some respite from the madness, he should launch a strategy to enhance the City of London as Europe’s financial centre.

Britain has in recent years been playing a defensive game in response to the barrage of misguided financial rules from Brussels. It now needs to get on the front foot and sell the City as part of the solution to Europe’s problems. The opportunity is huge both for Britain and the rest of Europe.

The chance of getting the EU to swing behind a pro-City strategy may, on the face of it, seem pie in the sky. Many people blame financiers for the financial crisis. So how could they be part of the solution? What’s more, Continental Europeans have long tended to be suspicious of financial markets.