Opinion

Hugo Dixon

MPS saga not just a local affair

Hugo Dixon
Jan 28, 2013 10:14 UTC

The Monte dei Paschi di Siena saga is not just an Italian affair. Revelations that complex financial transactions used by the country’s third largest bank had the effect of hiding losses are causing a political storm in Italy.

With a general election only weeks away, Silvio Berlusconi looks like being the main winner from the political spat. The former prime minister’s camp has attacked Pierluigi Bersani’s Democratic Party, which is leading in the opinion polls, for being close to Monte dei Paschi (MPS). It has also criticised Mario Monti, the current prime minister, who agreed to increase MPS’s bailout to 3.9 billion euros.

The scandal won’t be enough to get Berlusconi back as prime minister. But it could prevent a Bersani-Monti coalition from running the country with a solid majority in both houses of parliament. If so, fears about Italian political risk could return to haunt the markets.

The still-murky saga has also put Mario Draghi under the spotlight because the ECB president ran the Bank of Italy when MPS was getting into such a mess. Giulio Tremonti, who was finance minister in Berlusconi’s last government, tweeted that it was “stupefying” that Draghi had failed to discover or prevent the complex transactions.

The Italian central bank’s defence is that, while some of its supervisors knew about the transactions, it did not know that they were linked to other loss-making operations because key documents were hidden from it. What’s more, even though it was worried about MPS’s weak risk management, it didn’t have the power to fire bank directors, despite Draghi requesting the last Berlusconi government for such authority. Its moral suasion did, though, eventually help remove the old MPS management last year.

Bersani may not be bad for Italy

Hugo Dixon
Dec 3, 2012 10:22 UTC

The last Italian prime minister whose surname began with a “B” – Silvio Berlusconi – was a disaster. The country’s next leader’s name is also likely to start with a “B”.

Investors want Mario Monti, the technocrat who took over from Berlusconi last year, to stay as prime minister after the election, which will probably be in March. But they are more likely to get Pier Luigi Bersani, leader of the left-wing Democratic Party (PD). While there are risks, such an outcome may not be as bad as it looks – not least because Bersani has promised to continue with Monti’s policies and was one of the few reformers when Romano Prodi was prime minister in the last decade.

Trade union-backed Bersani will be the standard-bearer for the left in the coming elections after winning a decisive primary at the weekend against Matteo Renzi, the modernising mayor of Florence. His first comments were promising: he said the PD would have to tell Italians the “truth, not fairy-tales” about the country’s grave economic situation.

Is Hollande more like Rajoy or Monti?

Hugo Dixon
Nov 19, 2012 10:41 UTC

Is Francois Hollande more like Mariano Rajoy or Mario Monti? In other words, is the French socialist president condemned to be always behind the curve with reform like Spain’s conservative prime minister? Or can he get ahead of it like Italy’s technocratic premier?

I put this question to my fellow guests at a dinner in Paris last week. France is not in imminent risk of blowing up, as wrongly implied by the Economist magazine, which used a cover picture of a lighted fuse on baguettes tied together like sticks of dynamite. France is much richer than Spain and its people are more willing to pay their taxes than the Italians. French 10-year borrowing cost is only 2.1 percent, compared to Italy’s 4.9 percent and Spain’s 5.9 percent.

That said, the country has three deep-seated problems which could ultimately cause a mega-crisis: public spending at 56 percent of GDP is way too high; industrial competitiveness has steadily eroded; and the population is in a state of denial. The last cannot be said of either Italians or Spaniards.

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.

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.

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.

The euro zone’s self-fulfilling spiral

Hugo Dixon
Nov 20, 2011 20:41 UTC

When confidence in a regime’s permanence is shaken, it can collapse rapidly. The fear or hope of change alters people’s behavior in ways which make that change more likely. This applies to both political regimes such as Hosni Mubarak’s Egypt and economic regimes such as the euro.

Fear that the single currency may break up now risks becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy. Banks and investors are beginning to act as if the single currency might fall apart. Politicians and the European Central Bank need to restore belief that the single currency is here to stay. Otherwise, it could unravel pretty fast.

Until a few weeks ago, the idea that the euro wouldn’t survive the current debt crisis was a fringe view. Since the euro summit on Oct. 26-27, it has become a mainstream scenario. So much so that last week risk premiums on the bonds of even triple-A rated countries such as France and Austria rose to record levels, while Spain became the latest country to be sucked into the danger zone.

Italy’s super Mario brothers

Hugo Dixon
Nov 14, 2011 00:50 UTC


The Super Mario Brothers need to work together to save Italy and the euro.

Even if Mario Monti can form a strong government in Italy, the euro zone is vulnerable to bank runs and a deflationary spiral. Stopping that is the role of Mario Draghi, the European Central Bank’s boss. The zone needs vigorous supply-side reform but looser monetary policy. With Silvo Berlusconi gone, the duo and Germany’s Angela Merkel should try to forge a new grand bargain based on this.

Last week witnessed both the Italians and the Greeks dragged to the brink, look into the abyss and dislike what they saw. The two countries have or are in the process of forming national unity governments led by technocrats. This is a step in the right direction. But dangers abound.

The biggest risk is of a visible bank run. There has already been massive deposit flight in Greece as savers fear that the country could get kicked out of the euro – a scenario which is still real despite Lucas Papademos’ appointment as prime minister. But so far there have been no queues outside branches as there were with the UK’s Northern Rock in 2007. If that were to happen, television pictures would be relayed across Europe in seconds potentially provoking copycat runs.

Chaotic catharsis

Hugo Dixon
Nov 7, 2011 02:31 UTC

Chaos, drama and crisis are all Greek words. So is catharsis. Europe is perched between chaos and catharsis, as the political dramas in Athens and Rome reach crisis point. One path leads to destruction; the other rebirth. Though there are signs of hope, a few more missteps will lead down into the chasm.

The dramas in the two cradles of European civilization are similar and, in bizarre ways, linked. Last week’s decision by George Papandreou to call a referendum on whether the Greeks were in favor of the country’s latest bailout program set off a chain reaction that is bringing down not only his government but probably that of Silvio Berlusconi too.

The mad referendum plan, which has now been rescinded, shocked Germany’s Angela Merkel and France’s Nicolas Sarkozy so much that they threatened to cut off funding to Greece unless it got its act together — a move that would drive it out of the euro. But this is probably an empty threat, at least in the short term, because of the way that Athens is roped to Rome. If Greece is pushed over the edge, Italy could be dragged over too and then the whole single currency would collapse. So, ironically, Athens is being saved from the immediate consequences of its delinquency by the fear of a much bigger disaster across the Ionian Sea.