Opinion

Hugo Dixon

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.

Depositors in other peripheral countries would pull savings from their banks. Bond markets in these other countries would also seize up. Why would anybody want to lend money to Rome or Madrid in euros if they thought they were going to be paid back in devalued liras or pesetas?

The solution proposed by most Wolfson Prize finalists is secrecy. Plans for a country’s exit from the euro should be kept under wraps and then sprung on the unsuspecting world on a Friday evening. But this is impractical. How could 17 governments keep secret something that will involve lots of wrangling? Would a democratic country really be able to foist such a momentous decision on its people without a parliamentary debate? Even if secrecy was possible, it wouldn’t stop contagion to other countries.

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.

Hollande’s sins more those of omission

Hugo Dixon
Mar 12, 2012 09:27 UTC

Francois Hollande’s sins are more those of omission than commission. The headlines might suggest otherwise. The socialist challenger to Nicolas Sarkozy as France’s next president has promised to cut the pension age to 60, tax the rich at 75 percent, renegotiate Europe’s fiscal treaty and launch a war on bankers. But these pledges aren’t as bad as they look. The real problem is that Hollande, who has a strong lead in the opinion polls, isn’t addressing the need to reform the country’s welfare state.

Hollande is a moderate. Like Sarkozy, for example, he is promising to cut the budget deficit to 3 percent next year, from 5.8 percent as estimated by the European Commission in 2011. But he still had to throw the left some red meat in the election campaign, which runs until May. That’s not just to prevent votes drifting to Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the far-left candidate. It’s also to avoid being outflanked by Sarkozy’s own populist attacks on corporate fat cats and bankers.

Still, the precise pledges probably aren’t what they seem, as I discovered on a trip to Paris last month.

LTRO was a necessary evil

Hugo Dixon
Mar 5, 2012 09:48 UTC

Bailout may not be a four-letter word. But many of the rescue operations mounted to save banks and governments in the past few years have been four-letter acronyms. Think of the TARP and TALF programmes that were used to bail out the U.S. banking system after Lehman Brothers went bust. Or the European Central Bank’s LTRO, the longer-term refinancing operation. This has involved lending European banks 1 trillion euros for three years at an extraordinarily low interest rate of 1 percent.

The markets and the banks have jumped for joy in response to all this liquidity being sprayed around. So have Italy and Spain, whose borrowing costs have dropped because their banks have been able to take cheap cash from the ECB and recycle it into their governments’ bonds — making a profit on the round trip. But as has been the case with other four-letter bailouts, the LTRO has come in for criticism — most of it a variation on the theme that the way to treat debt junkies isn’t to give them another heroin injection.

One problem is that European governments could now feel less pressure to reform their labour laws and do the other painful things that are needed to get their economies fit. Another is that banks may delay actions that are required to let them stand on their own two feet: such as rebuilding their capital buffers and raising their own longer-term funds on the markets.

How to pep up European growth

Hugo Dixon
Feb 27, 2012 09:27 UTC

Europe needs a growth strategy. In the short term, that means preventing an austerity spiral. In the long run, it means structural reform and a drive to create a genuine single market. The European Union summit this week is a chance to aim at both targets.

The euro zone crisis may be receding. Last week’s temporary fix of Greece’s problems with a 130 billion euro bailout is the most recent cause for optimism. But so long as the region cannot grow – and the European Commission has just forecast zero growth this year for the European Union as a whole and shrinkage for several countries including Italy and Spain – there is a risk of sliding back into crisis.

The European Central Bank’s provision of 500 billion euros of three-year money to the banks before Christmas – and the promise of a similar cash injection this week – has lifted spirits in financial markets. Some of that money will find its way into the real economy. But while monetary policy is lax, fiscal policy is tight. No fewer than 23 of the EU’s 27 countries are in what are known as “excess deficit procedures”, which require them to bring their annual borrowing down to less than 3 percent of GDP over the next year or so. Under the so-called “six pack” system of fiscal discipline, countries can be fined if they fail to stick to the required austerity.

Monti turnaround can go much further

Hugo Dixon
Feb 13, 2012 09:37 UTC

Mario Monti’s ability to take a crisis and turn it into an opportunity may one day be taught as a case study in political economy. When Italy’s technocratic premier succeeded Silvio Berlusconi last November, the country’s 10-year bond yield was above the 7 percent level that had driven Greece, Ireland and Portugal to seek bailouts. Now it is 5.5 percent – still high but moving in the right direction.

Countries with high debt levels like Italy – its borrowing is 120 percent of GDP – are prone to self-fulfilling prophecies on both the upside and the downside. If investors think a government will go bust, borrowing costs rise which, in turn, makes bankruptcy more likely. But if markets think it is solvent, borrowing costs fall and that means it’s unlikely to fail.

In Italy, where I spent much of last week, there have been spirals within spirals. One has been via domestic politics. Monti has so much credibility that he has been able to reform the pension system, liberalise a raft of monopolistic industries and launch a high-profile crackdown on tax evasion. That has helped cut Italian bond yields, further boosting his credibility.

Three bad fairies at euro feast

Hugo Dixon
Jan 30, 2012 10:42 UTC

Investors are feeling more optimistic about the euro crisis. So are policymakers. That much was evident last week at the World Economic Forum’s annual meeting in Davos. There was much satisfaction over the early performance of the Super Mario Brothers – Mario Draghi, president of the European Central bank, and Mario Monti, Italy’s prime minister. What’s more, a deal may be in the works to build a bigger firewall against contagion, constructed out of commitments from euro zone members and the International Monetary Fund. And it looks like there will be another short-term fix for Greece.

But three bad fairies were lurking at the Davos feast. Spain and France are relatively new problems and Greece is an old one. All three are powerful menaces.

Madrid is staring at a particularly vicious version of the austerity spiral afflicting most of the euro zone. The last government missed its fiscal targets, leaving the country with a budget deficit of 8 percent of GDP in 2011. The programme agreed with the European Union commits Spain to cutting this to 4.4 percent in 2012. Doing so would be hard in good times. Trying to reach this target when GDP is set to shrink by at least 1.5 percent and the unemployment rate is already 23 percent would be nearly suicidal.

Europe’s self-help

Hugo Dixon
Jan 23, 2012 03:42 UTC

The euro zone shouldn’t rely on a bailout from the rest of the world. The International Monetary Fund is asking for an additional $600 billion to help deal with the euro crisis. But the euro zone, which is vastly richer than most of the rest of the world, should find the money to solve its own problems. It will be bystanders in the developing world that may need help if the euro blows up.

One can see why the IMF wants more money. An additional $600 billion on top of its existing firepower of $390 billion would take it up to a nice round number of $1 trillion. Not only would that give its bosses more swagger as they crisscross the world fighting fires but it would allow the IMF to play a big role in any bailout of a large euro zone country such as Italy.

But why should the rest of the world bail out the euro? The rich normally help the poor. But GDP per capita in the euro zone was $33,819 in 2011, more than five times that in the developing world, according to the IMF. As things stand, 57 percent of the IMF’s existing loans are to the euro zone, according to the Center for Economic and Policy Research. It’s not surprising that other countries are hardly rushing to funnel yet more money its way.

Europe’s Sisyphean burden

Hugo Dixon
Jan 16, 2012 10:43 UTC

Watch Athens more than Standard & Poor’s. The biggest source of immediate trouble for the euro zone could be the one country the ratings agency didn’t examine in a review that led to the downgrade of France and eight other states. Even if the short-term shoals can be navigated, the rest of the zone won’t find it easy to get by Greece.

The points S&P made when stripping France and Austria of their triple-A ratings and knocking two notches off the ratings of the likes of Italy and Spain were valid. It is true, for example, that policymakers can’t agree what to do to solve the euro crisis and that “fiscal austerity alone risks becoming self-defeating.” But these points, as well as the prospect of S&P downgrades, were already in the market.

Meanwhile, what Mario Draghi said last week about “tentative signs of stabilization” is true. The European Central Bank (ECB), over which Draghi presides, is itself partly responsible for that stabilization by virtue of providing 489 billion euros of three-year money to banks just before Christmas. Mario Monti’s promising beginning as Italy’s prime minister is the other main factor. The Super Mario Brothers have got off to a good start.