Opinion

Hugo Dixon

Spain and Italy mustn’t blow ECB plan

Hugo Dixon
Sep 10, 2012 08:23 UTC

The European Central Bank’s bond-buying scheme has bought Spain and Italy time to stabilise their finances. But if they drag their heels, the market will sniff them out. It will then be almost impossible to come up with another scheme to rescue the euro zone’s two large problem children and, with them, the single currency.

Mario Draghi’s promise in late July to do “whatever it takes” to preserve the euro has already had a dramatic impact on Madrid’s and Rome’s borrowing costs. Ten-year bond yields, which peaked at 7.6 percent and 6.6 percent respectively a few days before the ECB president made his first comments, had collapsed to 5.7 percent and 5.1 percent on Sept. 7.

Most of the decline came before Draghi spelt out last Thursday the details of how the plan will work. What makes the scheme powerful is that the ECB has not set any cap to the amount of sovereign bonds it will buy in the market. The central bank’s financial firepower is theoretically unlimited, whereas the euro zone governments’ own bailout funds do not have enough money to rescue both Spain and Italy.

But the new type of intervention, christened “Outright Monetary Transactions”, has three important limitations.

First, the ECB will only buy a country’s bonds if its government agrees to a bailout programme with the euro zone, and sticks to “strict and effective” conditions detailed in such a deal. Second, the central bank will focus its purchases on bonds with a maturity of one to three years. Finally, Draghi has not specified how much he wants to drive down Madrid’s and Rome’s borrowing costs.

Can Super Mario save the euro?

Hugo Dixon
Jul 30, 2012 08:45 UTC

Can Super Mario save the euro? Mario Draghi said last Thursday that the European Central Bank’s job is to stop sovereign bond yields rising if these increases are caused by fears of a euro break-up. While this represents a sea-change in the ECB president’s thinking, it risks sowing dissension within his ranks. He will struggle to come up with the right tools to achieve his goals.

Draghi seemingly stared into the abyss and had a fright. Spanish 10-year bond yields shot up to 7.6 percent on July 24 while Italian ones rose to 6.6 percent. The high borrowing costs are not simply a reflection of the two countries’ high debts and struggling economies. Investors also fear “convertibility risk” – or the possibility that the euro will break up and they will get repaid in devalued pesetas and liras.

The central banker’s statement that dealing with convertibility risk is part of the ECB’s mandate is therefore highly significant. He rammed home his message, saying: “Within our mandate, the ECB is ready to do whatever it takes to preserve the euro. And believe me, it will be enough.”

Confidence tricks for the euro zone

Hugo Dixon
Jul 23, 2012 09:31 UTC

The euro crisis is to a great extent a confidence crisis. Sure, there are big underlying problems such as excessive debt and lack of competitiveness in the peripheral economies. But these can be addressed and, to some extent, this is happening already. Meanwhile, a quick fix for the confidence crisis is needed.

The harsh medicine of reform is required but is undermining confidence on multiple levels. Businesses, bankers, ordinary citizens and politicians are losing faith in both the immediate economic future and the whole single-currency project. That is creating interconnected vicious spirals.

The twin epicentres of the crisis are Spain and Italy. The boost they received from last month’s euro zone summit has been more than wiped out. Spanish 10-year bond yields equalled their euro-era record of 7.3 percent on July 20; Italy’s had also rebounded to a slightly less terrifying but still worrying 6.2 percent.

Successful summit didn’t solve crisis

Hugo Dixon
Jul 2, 2012 09:27 UTC

Cuando despertó, el dinosaurio todavía estaba allí. “Upon waking, the dinosaur was still there.”

This extremely short story by Guatemalan writer Augusto Monterroso sums up the state of play on the euro crisis. Last week’s summit took important steps to stop the immediate panic. But the big economies of Italy and Spain are shrinking and there is no agreed long-term vision for the zone. In other words, the crisis is still there.

The summit’s decisions are not to be sniffed at. The agreement that the euro zone’s bailout fund should, in time, be able to recapitalise banks directly rather than via national governments will help break the so-called doom loop binding troubled lenders and troubled governments. That is a shot in the arm for both Spain and Ireland. Meanwhile, unleashing the bailout fund to stabilise sovereign bond markets could stop Rome’s and Madrid’s bond yields rising to unsustainable levels.

Euro banking union won’t come fast

Hugo Dixon
Jun 18, 2012 08:58 UTC

Some European policymakers are talking about a “banking union” for the euro zone as if it was around the corner. Jose Manuel Barroso, the European Commission president, for example, told the Financial Times last week that such a union – which would involve euro-wide supervision, bailouts and deposit insurance for the banking industry – could be achieved next year.

But this is not remotely likely. Parts of the zone’s banking industry are so rotten that taxpayers elsewhere can’t reasonably be asked to bear the burden of bailing them out. A massive cleanup is required first. The crisis in Greece, Spain and other countries may provide the impetus. But even then, as Germany suggests, banking union should proceed in stages.

The appeal of a euro zone banking union is understandable. Governments and lenders are currently roped together in what has been dubbed the sovereign-bank doom loop. Weak banks – for example those in Spain, Ireland and Cyprus – can drag down their governments when they need a bailout. Equally, weak governments, such as Greece’s, can drag down their banks when those are stuffed with their own sovereigns’ bonds. By shifting responsibility for bailouts to the euro zone as a whole, the loop could be cut. Or, at least, that is the hope.

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.

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.