Opinion

Hugo Dixon

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.

Even without visible deposit runs, euro zone banks are debilitated. Many have already suffered runs in the wholesale markets: U.S. money market funds have sharply cut supplies of short-term cash; and hardly any bank has been able to issue unsecured bonds since the summer. The banks are able to get money from the ECB but only for up to a year. Their funding problems now look set to suffocate industry via a renewed credit crunch.

Meanwhile, the banks’ difficulties are exacerbating governments’ funding problems. France’s BNP revealed this month that it had cut its holdings of Italian debt by over 40 percent in the previous four months. Other banks could follow suit, thinking it is better to take smallish losses now rather than get caught in a Greek-style debt restructuring later. This means that, even if Monti gets a mandate to push through structural reforms–which need to be more radical than those planned by Berlusconi–Rome could struggle to finance itself on decent terms. Ten-year bond yields, which ended last week at 6.5 percent after shooting up to 7.6 percent, need to come down to 5 percent for the country’s debt to be sustainable.

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.

All roads lead to Berlusconi’s Rome. For now.

Hugo Dixon
Oct 31, 2011 01:14 UTC

The euro zone’s future hangs on Italy – and Italy’s future hangs on its politics. The best way forward would be a grand coalition replacing Silvio Berlusconi’s discredited government. But after the prime minister’s Houdini act last week, that doesn’t seem likely and other scenarios aren’t as attractive.

Until recently, investors didn’t pay too much attention to the multi-dimensional chess game that is Italian politics. The state may have nearly 2 trillion euros of debt, equal to 120 percent of GDP,  but the country is rich: Net household wealth was 8.6 trillion euros in 2009, according to the Bank of Italy. The deal-making and back-stabbing in Rome – or for that matter, Berlusconi’s bunga-bunga sex parties – didn’t seem to matter. True, the country has virtually stopped growing in recent years. But there was even a view that Italy benefited from having politicians that were so concerned with their elaborate games that they couldn’t interfere with the business of business.

All that changed in early July. As the euro crisis gathered pace, scandals and wrangling in Rome unsettled markets. The 10-year bond yield, which had been a relatively comfortable 4.8 percent, shot up to 6 percent in two weeks. Berlusconi and Giulio Tremonti, his previously respected finance minister, fell out. The center-right government, which survives on a wafer-thin majority, was able to pass austerity measures to cut the deficit. But the actions were seen as too little, too late. Investors became hyper-sensitive to Italian politics and were no longer willing to take things on trust.

The euro and the Hotel California

Hugo Dixon
Oct 26, 2011 15:26 UTC

The euro zone is like Hotel California, UBS wrote in a report published in September. “You can check out any time you like but you can never leave,” it said, quoting the Eagles song. A British businessman, Simon Wolfson, has now offered a 250,000 pound prize to the person who can come up with the most convincing explanation of how an orderly exit from the single currency is possible.

The problem is the word “orderly.” There are lots of scenarios where a country such as Greece could quit the euro in a disorderly fashion, destroying its own economy and that of its neighbous as well as possibly plunging the world into a recession. But how is it possible to do this without triggering financial Armageddon?

The first difficulty stems from the fact that an exit couldn’t happen overnight. There is no legal procedure for a country to quit. Joining was supposed to be an irrevocable commitment.