Opinion

Hugo Dixon

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. 

The main guts of a growth compact ought to be somewhat looser fiscal and monetary policy married to deep structural reform. 

Look first at fiscal policy. It is great that policymakers such as Rehn seem to understand the dangers of an austerity spiral – where excessive budget squeezes crush the economy which in turn makes it harder to balance budgets and so requires further austerity. He says Europe’s fiscal rules are “not stupid”. 

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.

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.