Opinion

Hugo Dixon

ECB and euro governments play chicken

Hugo Dixon
Jun 4, 2012 08:20 UTC

The euro zone crisis is a multi-dimensional game of chicken. There isn’t just a standoff between the zone’s core and its periphery; there is also one between the European Central Bank and the euro zone governments over who should rescue the single currency. In such games somebody usually blinks. But if nobody does, the consequences will be terrible.

The brinkmanship between the governments is over how much help the northerners, led by Germany, should give the southerners. The core is effectively threatening the peripheral countries with bankruptcy if they don’t cut their deficits and reform their economies. The periphery is saying that, if they collapse, so will the entire single currency which has been so beneficial to Germany’s economy. The game is being played out transparently in Greece and covertly in Spain.

But even if the core eventually decides to help the periphery, there is a struggle of whether the aid should come from governments or from the ECB. Politicians would like the central bank to do the heavy lifting to avoid having to confront taxpayers with an explicit bill. But the ECB doesn’t think it is its job to help governments, arguing that such support violates the Maastricht Treaty.

This standoff is making it hard to devise a Plan B to cope with what is now a clear and present danger: an explosion in the euro zone.

Look at the most immediate problem: what to do if the “jog” out of Greek bank accounts accelerates into a run. The ECB’s exposure to Greek banks is about 125 billion euros – through a combination of its normal liquidity operations and emergency liquidity assistance (ELA) provided by Greece’s central bank.

Greece needs to go to the brink

Hugo Dixon
May 28, 2012 09:39 UTC

Greece needs to go to the brink. Only then will the people back a government that can pursue the tough programme needed to turn the country around. To get to that point, bailout cash for both the government and the banks probably has to be turned off.

It might be thought that the country is already on the edge of the abyss. This month’s election savaged the two traditional ruling parties which were backing the bailout plan that is keeping the country afloat. Extremists of both right and left gained strength – voters liked their opposition to the plan. But nobody could form a government. Hence, there will be a second election on June 17.

Will this second election express the Greeks’ desire clearly: stick with the programme and stay in the euro; or tear up the plan and bring back the drachma? That is how Greece’s financial backers in the rest of the euro zone, such as Germany, are trying to frame the debate. But the electorate doesn’t yet see the choice as that stark. Roughly three quarters want to stay with the euro but two thirds don’t want the reform-plus-austerity programme.

What is the long-term euro vision?

Hugo Dixon
May 21, 2012 09:14 UTC

What should be the long-term vision for the euro zone? The standard answer is fully-fledged fiscal, banking and political union. Many euro zone politicians advocate it. So do those on the outside such as David Cameron, Britain’s prime minister, who last week called on the zone to “make up or break up”.

The crisis has demonstrated that the current system doesn’t work. But a headlong dive into a United States of Europe would be bad politics and bad economics. An alternative, more attractive vision is to maintain the maximum degree of national sovereignty consistent with a single currency. This is possible provided there are liquidity backstops for solvent governments and banks; debt restructuring for insolvent ones; and flexibility for all.

Enthusiasts say greater union won’t just prevent future crises – it will help solve the current one. The key proposals are for governments to guarantee each other’s bonds through so-called euro zone bonds and to be prepared to bail out each other’s banks. In return for the mutual support, each government and all the banks would submit to strong centralised discipline.

How to protect euro from Greek exit

Hugo Dixon
May 14, 2012 08:51 UTC

When euro zone policymakers are asked if there is a Plan B to cope with a Greek exit from the single currency, their typical answer goes something like this: “There’s no such plan. If there were, it would leak, investors would panic and the exit scenario would gather unstoppable momentum.”

Maybe there really is no plan. Or maybe policymakers are just doing a good job of keeping their mouths shut. Hopefully, it is the latter because, since Greece’s election, the chances of Athens quitting the euro have shot up. And unless the rest of the euro zone is well prepared, the knock-on effect will be devastating.

The Greeks have lost their stomach for austerity and the rest of the euro zone has lost its patience with Athens’ broken promises. But unless one side blinks, Greece will be out of the single currency and any deposits left in Greek banks will be converted from euros into cut-price drachmas.

What a euro growth pact should contain

Hugo Dixon
May 7, 2012 10:16 UTC

It has become fashionable to talk about the need for a euro zone “growth compact” as weariness mounts over a diet of nothing but austerity. France’s new president Francois Hollande has popularised the idea. Even Mario Draghi has backed it. That gives the concept credibility as the European Central Bank president was one of the main supporters of the austerity-heavy “fiscal compact”, which requires governments to balance their budgets rapidly. Olli Rehn, the European Commission’s top economic official, has joined the bandwagon too: at the weekend, he advocated a pact to boost investment, while hinting that there may be scope to ease up a bit on the austerity.

But all this chit-chat won’t lead to much unless politicians are prepared take unpleasant decisions on reforming labour, welfare and banking – measures which would boost growth in the long run. That has to be the quid pro quo for loosening the current fiscal squeeze or further easing monetary policy – measures that would help in the shorter term. 

Without such a grand bargain, any growth compact is likely to amount to little more than extra funds for investment. Rehn mentioned the main ideas at the weekend: using EU budget funds to guarantee lending to smaller firms; encouraging countries with fiscal surpluses to increase public investment; and boosting the capital of the European Investment Bank. While these measures are worthy, they are not of the scale needed to change the course of one of the biggest economic crises in recent history. 

Does Europe need a banking union?

Hugo Dixon
Apr 30, 2012 08:34 UTC

Does Europe need a “banking union” to shore up its struggling monetary union? And is it going to get one?

These questions are raised by the increasingly lively debate over how to break the link between troubled states in the euro zone periphery and their equally troubled banks. In some countries, such as Ireland, the lenders have made so many bad loans that they have had to be bailed out – in turn, dragging down their governments. In Greece and Italy, the banks have gorged on so many government bonds that they have been damaged by their state’s deteriorating creditworthiness. And, in Spain, the current focus of the euro crisis, a bit of both has been happening: banks made too many bad loans – and then bought too many government bonds.

One proposed solution to this incestuous relationship, advocated among others by the International Monetary Fund, involves creating a centralised Europe-wide system for regulating banks and, if necessary, closing them down and paying off their depositors. The idea is that the region’s lenders would be viewed as European banks rather than Spanish, Greek or Italian ones. If they got into trouble, they wouldn’t infect their governments; and vice versa. That would make the whole euro crisis easier to manage.

IMF-euro conditions not what they seem

Hugo Dixon
Apr 23, 2012 08:54 UTC

We’re going to be really tough on the euro zone. If they want more bailouts from the International Monetary Fund, they are going to have to submit to strict conditionality. That was the message delivered by the rest of the world when it agreed at the weekend to participate in a fundraising exercise that will boost the IMF’s resources by at least $430 billion.

But the meaning of the message isn’t quite what it seems. The IMF is actually in some ways calling for less rather than more short-term austerity in the euro zone. So if the Europeans submit to IMF discipline, it will ironically mean less of a hair shirt.

It is easy to see why the rest of the world is unhappy with the special treatment the euro zone receives from the IMF. The managing director, currently Christine Lagarde, has always been a European. Vast resources, way beyond what are normally available in IMF programmes, have been channelled to Greece, Ireland and Portugal.

Can the euro omelette be unscrambled?

Hugo Dixon
Apr 16, 2012 08:56 UTC

Can the euro omelette be unscrambled without provoking the mother of all financial collapses? With the crisis heating up again as Spanish 10-year bond yields hit 6 percent last week, the question has renewed urgency. The conventional wisdom is that such unscrambling is impossible. The economic, political and legal complications of bringing back national currencies are so immense that the euro zone’s 17 nations are effectively locked in a prison with no exit.

A 250,000 pound prize offered by Simon Wolfson, a UK businessman, has aimed to turn this conventional wisdom on its head. In offering what is the second-largest economics prize after the Nobel, Wolfson hoped to stimulate creative juices. In one case, he has – although even it is no silver bullet.

Of the myriad problems with returning to the drachma, peseta and lira, the most intractable is how to prevent it triggering bank runs and ultimately financial chaos. Depositors would flee if they thought their euros were set to be converted into a national currency certain to suffer dramatic and immediate devaluation. This has already been happening to some extent in Greece. If the Greeks knew for sure that their old currency was coming back, the current fast walk would turn into a stampede. Even worse, the damage wouldn’t be confined to Greece.

Euro zone should beware the “F” word

Hugo Dixon
Apr 2, 2012 08:25 UTC

Beware the “F” word. The European Central Bank and, to a lesser extent, the zone’s political leaders have bought the time needed to resolve the euro crisis. But there are signs of fatigue. A renewed sense of danger may be needed to spur politicians to address underlying problems. It would be far better if they got ahead of the curve.

The big time-buying exercise was the ECB’s injection of 1 trillion euros of super-cheap three-year money into the region’s banks. A smaller breathing space was won last week when governments agreed to expand the ceiling on the region’s bailout funds from 500 to 700 billion euros.

These moves have taken the heat out of the crisis – both by easing fears that banks could go bust and by making it easier for troubled governments, especially Italy’s and Spain’s, to fund themselves. Data from the ECB last week shows how much of the easy money has been recycled from banks into government bonds. In February, Italian lenders increased their purchases of euro zone government bonds by a record 23 billion euros. Spanish banks, meanwhile, increased their purchases by 15.7 billion euros following a record 23 billion euro spending spree in January.

Rajoy’s ploys risk stoking cynicism

Hugo Dixon
Mar 19, 2012 09:13 UTC

At a dinner in Madrid earlier this month, the main complaint about Mariano Rajoy was that the new prime minister was treating the electorate like children. Many of the guests, supporters of Rajoy’s Popular Party (PP), understood that Spain had to cut its fiscal deficit and restore its competitiveness. But they didn’t like the fact that the prime minister hadn’t been frank about his plans.

In advance of last November’s general election, Rajoy said he wouldn’t raise taxes, make it cheaper to fire people or cut the welfare state. But he has now done the first two. After this week’s election in Andalusia, Spain’s largest region, he is expected to do the last.

Rajoy’s camp doesn’t see any problem in failing to be upfront. It would have been foolish to talk too much about austerity in the general election campaign as that might have frightened the voters. For the same reason, it would be foolish to tell them about reforming the welfare state in advance of the Andalusia election.