US vote: Who you gonna call? ECB, not Brussels

Geithner, left, has been in frequent touch with ECB's Draghi and his predecessor, Trichet.

A joint election party co-hosted by Democrats and Republicans Abroad at the Renaissance Hotel in Brussels this evening is scheduled to go until 3am in anticipation of a long night ahead for any eurocrats waiting to get first word on who has won the US presidential contest.

Looking for something to do in the interim? For his part, French economist Jean Pisani-Ferry, director of the influential Brussels think tank Bruegel, scoured the recently-released calendars of US treasury secretary Timothy Geithner to find out which of the American’s EU counterparts he talked to most frequently since the eurozone crisis broke nearly three years ago.

Perhaps not surprisingly, by far his most frequent phone calls have gone to the Washington-based International Monetary Fund. Pisani-Ferry counts 114 contacts with either IMF chief Christine Lagarde or her predecessor, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, or their deputies.

What is a surprise is that Geithner’s most frequent interlocutor on this side of the Atlantic has not been in Brussels, Paris or Berlin. Instead, it was Frankfurt, where he contacted European Central Bank president Mario Draghi and his predecessor, Jean-Claude Trichet, 58 times in the 30 months examined.

Although the ECB is a member of the so-called “troika” of international lenders that monitor bailout programmes in Greece, Portugal and Ireland– and therefore a partner with fellow troika member IMF, where the US is the largest funder – some have raised eyebrows about the finding. As Pisani-Ferry himself notes:

There is little doubt that for the US Treasury, “Mr Euro” is first and foremost the ECB president. This finding is especially striking, as the ECB’s institutional interlocutor is the Fed, not the US Treasury.

Or, to put it in more stark terms, the Economist’s Stanley Pignal, late of this parish, asks whether anyone can imagine top eurozone leaders picking up the phone and calling the US Federal Reserve chief.

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After the ECB, Geithner was in touch most frequently with German finance minister Wolfgang Schäuble (36 contacts) and French counterparts François Baroin and, before him, Lagarde (32), who is close with Geithner, having worked with him during the US’s own financial crisis when Geithner was still head of the New York Federal Reserve bank.

The top EU official in Geithner’s rolodex was Olli Rehn, the European Commission’s economic honcho, but he’s only sixth on Pissani-Ferry’s list, behind British chancellors George Osborne and Alistair Darling and almost on par with successive Spanish finance ministers.

As for other EU institutions and leaders, like Herman Van Rompuy, the European Council president, or Jean-Claude Juncker, head of the Eurogroup of eurozone finance ministers, contacts are in the single digits.