Opinion

Hugo Dixon

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.

Many observers view one-size-fits-all interest rates as one of the zone’s design defects, about which nothing can be done. Others advocate policies – such as full fiscal union – which are not going to be adopted and wouldn’t really hit the spot even if they were. But the outlook isn’t quite so pessimistic. There are two policies that could mitigate considerably the damage of the single monetary policy – and they don’t even require any treaty changes.

The first is for euro zone countries to pursue vigorous “macroprudential” policies. Since Lehman Brothers went bust five years ago, it has become fashionable to call for bank regulators to have the tools to prevent future bubbles. The main idea is that they should be able to stop credit and asset prices growing too fast by directly intervening in the way banks lend. One way of doing this would be to jack up the minimum capital buffers banks have to hold if the economy is overheating; another would be to cut the size of mortgages they are allowed to make.

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.

Brexit would be bad for Britain

Hugo Dixon
May 13, 2013 09:25 UTC

Quitting the European Union would be bad for Britain. Membership of even an unreformed EU is better than “Brexit”. Quitting would mean either not having access to the single market – at a huge cost to the economy – or second-tier membership.

The debate over Brexit has moved into high gear in the past 10 days, after the UK Independence Party – which wants Britain to pull out of the EU – performed well in English local elections. The Conservative party, which rules in coalition with the pro-European Liberal Democrats, has been thrown into turmoil because UKIP has been winning votes largely from the Tories.

What’s more, many Conservatives would like Britain to quit the EU too. Last week Nigel Lawson, one of Margaret Thatcher’s finance ministers, argued the case for Brexit. Boris Johnson, the mayor of London who is the Conservatives’ most popular politician, also shuffled a little further in a eurosceptic direction – although he stopped short of calling for an exit.

Austerity debate misses half the point

Hugo Dixon
Apr 29, 2013 09:36 UTC

The austerity debate misses half the point. It is true that governments, especially in the euro zone, shouldn’t chase an austerity spiral ever downwards. But they can’t just sit on their hands. They must drive even harder for structural reforms.

The last few weeks have witnessed a sea-change in the debate over fiscal austerity. A seminal academic paper by Carmen Reinhart and Kenneth Rogoff, which purported to show that economic growth was impaired if government debt levels exceeded 90 percent of GDP, has been discredited.

Meanwhile, the European Commission has softened its line on the merits of further deep budget cuts in peripheral economies. Spain, for example, looks like it will get until 2016 to bring its deficit down below the European Union’s magic number of 3 percent of GDP. Portugal, Greece, Italy and France are also being shown greater leniency by Brussels. One of the first things Enrico Letta, Italy’s new prime minister, said last week was that country needed to focus on growth not austerity.

Greece will probably pull through

Hugo Dixon
Apr 22, 2013 08:52 UTC

Greece is not yet out of the woods. But there is a credible path that could lead the country back into the sunlight. That’s the main conclusion of a week I have just spent in the country.

Although the economy will have a terrible 2013, next year should be better. But the outlook is fragile: political crisis could yet rear its ugly head, tax evasion is rife and there’s the risk of external shocks.

Look first at the good news. Antonis Samaras’ coalition government has held together surprisingly well since it came to power last June following a period of political chaos, despite pushing through extremely unpopular measures. Samaras’ centre-right New Democracy party is neck and neck in the opinion polls with the radical left Syriza, the main opposition party. Samaras hasn’t suffered the plunging support of Spain’s Mariano Rajoy or France’s Francois Hollande.

Cyprus is edging towards euro exit

Hugo Dixon
Apr 8, 2013 09:17 UTC

Cyprus is no longer centre stage. Nicosia has agreed a 10 billion euro bailout deal with its euro zone partners and the International Monetary Fund. A visible bank run has been averted by stringent capital controls. International markets, which only ever suffered a mild bout of jitters, have calmed down.

But it would be foolish to forget about Cyprus. The small Mediterranean island is edging towards euro exit. Quitting the single currency would devastate wealth, fuel inflation, lead to default and leave Cyprus friendless in a troubled neighbourhood. Even so, the longer capital controls continue, the louder the voices calling for bringing back the Cyprus pound will grow.

President Nicos Anastasiades is against Cyprus leaving the euro. But the main opposition communist party wants to pull out. A smaller opposition group wants to stay in the euro but kick out the troika – the European Commission, the European Central Bank and the IMF. The country’s influential archbishop is also critical of the troika.