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.