Opinion

Hugo Dixon

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.

Moreover, none of the big beasts of Italian politics, notably Berlusconi, is in Letta’s cabinet. The prime minister, who is not even leader of his own party, keeps a fairly arms-length relationship with the political leaders. This gives his government a semi-technocratic flavour, not vastly dissimilar from the Monti government it replaced.

The worry is that these qualities could be a source of Letta’s ultimate undoing. Although he is popular now, the same was true of Monti in his honeymoon period. Letta has yet to prove he can push through, let alone sell, any real tough reforms.

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.

Cyprus bank “resolution” a bad joke

Hugo Dixon
Apr 3, 2013 09:03 UTC

The “resolution” of Cyprus’ banks is a bad joke. Resolution is one of the new buzzwords in financial regulation. The practice is supposed to stop taxpayers having to bail out banks, while imposing pain fairly on shareholders and creditors.

In Cyprus, Greek deposits and favoured groups at home are exempt from haircuts, while other groups of depositor are hammered even harder. It’s anything but fair.

The resolution of Cyprus’ banks doesn’t matter just for those directly affected. It is one of the most ambitious cases of cross-border resolution since the financial crisis began. So a bad result here is hardly a good advertisement for the technique.

Cyprus leaves banking union up in air

Hugo Dixon
Apr 1, 2013 21:08 UTC

The Cypriot catastrophe shows just how far away the euro zone is from creating its much-touted “banking union”. There was no euro zone supervision of Cyprus’ big banks, no transnational approach to put them into controlled bankruptcy, no common deposit insurance and no flow of bank rescue funds from abroad.

Instead, there was weak supervision by the Central Bank of Cyprus and a mad scramble to carve up the banks’ assets on national lines. Nicosia was left to shoulder the whole cost of protecting small depositors and the euro zone said that none of its bailout cash could be injected into the troubled banks.

Optimists hope the fiasco will provide the euro zone with the impetus to complete its banking union. But it is equally possible that core countries such as Germany, Finland and the Netherlands will become even more reluctant to absorb the liabilities of bust peripheral banks.

Cyprus controls an “omnishambles”

Hugo Dixon
Mar 28, 2013 10:40 UTC

Cyprus’ capital controls are an “omnishambles”. If the Argentine-style “corralito” really can be lifted in seven days, the damage could be contained. But that doesn’t seem credible. Extended controls could spawn bribery, sap confidence, further crush the economy, spread contagion and ultimately lead to the country’s exit from the euro.

The lesson of capital controls elsewhere is that, once they are imposed, they are hard to remove. Iceland’s curbs are still in place five years after they started. In Argentina, they lasted a year.

There’s little reason to suppose it will be much different in Nicosia. After all, the restrictions – which limit both the amount of money people can take from their banks and the amount they can transfer abroad – have been imposed because the lenders do not have enough access to ready funds. If there’s not sufficient liquidity today, why should anybody believe there will be enough in a week, a month or even a year?