Mario Draghi, left, stands next to Noonan at last week's finance ministers' meeting
Given the eurozone crisis has, for more than a year, failed to seriously rankle the financial markets, those of us still preoccupied with its aftermath and how it is changing Europe can occasionally feel like a small band of obsessives offering up Talmudic pronouncements of interest to a dwindling number of fellow crisis junkies.
But occasionally one of those textual debates rises to the level of importance that’s worth the attention of a broader audience. And one of those occasions seems to have occurred over the last couple of weeks regarding Ireland and the European Central Bank’s bond-buying programme, known as Outright Monetary Transactions (OMT).
For those who haven’t been following this obsessively, the discussion is important because most officials and market analysts credit OMT with, essentially, ending the hair-on-fire phase of the eurozone crisis last year. Read more
Dijsselbloem, left, with his predecessor Juncker after his election as eurogroup president
Spain’s decision to abstain from Monday night’s vote on Dutch finance minister Jeroen Dijsselbloem’s ascendance to the chair of the eurogroup served to highlight the almost complete dominance of the EU’s triple-A countries in securing top economic jobs in the eurozone.
If we include France and Austria (both of which were downgraded last year by Standard & Poor’s, but retain triple-A ratings from Fitch), the six creditor countries have swept nearly every big opening save the European Central Bank presidency – which was secured by Italian Mario Draghi only after Axel Weber, then head of the German Bundesbank, unexpectedly withdrew his candidacy.
“The Dutch minister seem to us an appropriate person, but fundamentally, it’s a matter of institutional calculations,” Luis de Guindos, the Spanish finance minister, said today in explaining Madrid’s abstention. “Spain has taken a position in regards to a situation that it considers is unjust, which is the representation to the European institutions.”
Madrid has a particular reason to complain, since it has been completely shut out of the top jobs after losing a Spaniard on the ECB’s executive board last year, despite being the euroszone’s fourth largest economy. Dijsselbloem said he has invited De Guindos to The Hague to discuss the issue. The Spaniard has accepted, officials said.
After the jump, a run-down of the triple-A’s recent winning streak: Read more
Greek finance minister Stournaras, left, and prime minister Samaras during last night's debate.
Tonight’s meeting of eurozone finance ministers was, as recently as a week ago, thought to be the final bit of heavy lifting needed to complete the overhaul of Greece’s second bailout. After all, Athens has done what it promised: it passed €13.5bn of new austerity measures on Wednesday and the 2013 budget last night.
But EU officials now acknowledge that the Brussels meeting of the so-called “eurogroup” will not make any final decisions on Greece amid continued debate over how much debt relief Athens needs – and how fast it should come. That means a long-delayed €31.3bn aid payment will be delayed yet again.
One EU official said that despite hopes, the key part of a highly-anticipated report from international monitors – known as the “troika report” because it is compiled by the European Central Bank, International Monetary Fund and European Commission – will not be ready in time for tonight’s meeting: the debt sustainability analysis, which remains a point of contention. Read more
By Paul de Grauwe, London School of Economics
The European Central Bank’s recent decision to be a lender of last resort in government bond markets is a turning point in the governance of the eurozone. By committing itself to unlimited government bond purchases, the ECB prevented a panic that would have pushed governments into liquidity and solvency crises, destroying the eurozone. Read more
Van Rompuy this week at the UN. MEP Goulard called his letter "empty (and quite insulting)".
The ongoing saga of the European Central Bank’s empty seat on its six-member executive board appears to be, well, ongoing.
Senior members of the European Parliament’s economic affairs committee met yesterday for a brief coordinating session and decided to, yet again, postpone the confirmation hearing for Yves Mersch, the Luxembourg central banker whose quest to secure the empty seat has been the subject of intense internecine fighting for more than nine months.
To update readers, Mersch’s nomination is now being held up by the committee because they believe no woman candidate was seriously considered for the post. Herman Van Rompuy, president of the European Council, wrote to the parliament in the last week to explain leaders’ positions – but committee members found the response “very thin,” prompting the decision to put off a confirmation hearing again.
Sylvie Goulard, a French liberal MEP who is a senior member of the committee, told Brussels Blog in an e-mail she found the Van Rompuy letter “empty (and quite insulting)”. Excerpts from the letter are after the jump. Read more
Luxembourg's Yves Mersch, left, arriving at an ECB executive board meeting in Finland last year.
Yves Mersch’s path to a seat on the European Central Bank’s powerful six-member executive board has been rocky.
The head of the Luxembourg central bank was, at first, not even considered a leading candidate for the position, which was being vacated by a Spaniard and, Madrid assumed, would be filled by a Spaniard. But a caucus of northern European countries balked at putting another southerner on the board, so inflation hawk Mersch became their candidate.
That set off months of nasty backroom battles, where the Spanish insisted on compensation – at one point they held out for the head of the new €500bn eurozone rescue fund, which was supposed to go to German economist Klaus Regling – in exchange for acceding to Mersch. Luxembourg retaliated by holding up plans to give Spain more time to hit tough budget targets.
In the end, the northerners won out. Mersch was nominated, and Spain was left empty handed. Everyone thought the fight was over. Everyone thought too soon: this morning, the European Parliament announced it was postponing Mersch’s confirmation hearing scheduled for Monday because no women candidates were considered for the job. Read more
People pass Bank of Greece in Athens last week
Jitters over whether Greece will be forced out of the euro have turned the focus of policymakers in recent days on whether Greece is on the precipice of a bank run.
It’s no mere academic exercise; a full-scale bank run would force the European Central Bank and eurozone lenders to either pump in more money – without a new government in place, and no assurances Athens would live up to the rescue terms – or pull the plug on Greece’s financial sector.
Since a banking sector without a central bank would essentially force Greece back to the barter system, there would be few options left then for Athens to begin printing its own currency again. Essentially, the drachma would return through the back door.
As we reported in today’s dead-tree edition, senior eurozone officials responsible for monitoring the currency area’s banking system said the rate of withdrawals thus far falls short of a panic. But the International Monetary Fund’s recent report on Greece makes it clear that a slow-motion bank run has been under way for more than two years, with close to 30 per cent of deposits being pulled out since the end of 2009. Read more
Belgium's finance minister Steven Vanackere talks to colleagues at the Copenhagen meeting.
Our front page story in tomorrow’s dead tree version of the FT includes lines from confidential analyses distributed to European Union finance ministers at their gathering in Copenhagen. As usual, we thought we’d offer a bit more from the documents here at the Brussels Blog.
Among the most interesting elements in the documents are discussions about Europe’s banks, which have seen a surge in confidence thanks to the European Central Bank’s €1tn in cheap loans, known as LTRO for long-term refinancing operations.
One of the analyses in particular – the three-page “Assessment of key risks and policy issues” prepared by the EU’s economic and policy committee – warns that there are new signs of instability in the European banking sector. Details after the jump… Read more
At the Ambrosetti forum in northern Italy, Nouriel Roubini, the US-based economist, weighs in on the health of Europe’s banks and sides with IMF chief Christine Lagarde on the need for the sector to raise even more capital.
Mario Draghi meets German chancellor Angela Merkel in Berlin last week
UPDATE: Draghi has been confirmed, but not before lots of horse-trading. See our story here.
Day two of the European Union summit is already underway, and among the issues we will be watching closely is the nomination of Mario Draghi to become head of the European Central Bank, which even at this late date appears not entirely a done deal.
As we’ve been reporting for several weeks, France has been grumpy that Draghi’s confirmation will lead to two Italians on the ECB’s executive board and no Frenchman, since the current president, Jean-Claude Trichet, is retiring. Nicolas Sarkozy, the French president, thought he had a deal with Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi for the second Italian, Lorenzo Bini Smaghi, to resign.
But Bini Smaghi, citing the ECB’s independence, has resisted political pressure, and is rumoured to be holding out for Draghi’s current job: head of the Bank of Italy. Berlusconi, however, has an alternate candidate in mind and has thus far resisted French pressure. Read more
Monday night, the work of EU finance ministers meeting in Brussels today to unravel the Greek debt crisis got a whole lot harder: Standard & Poor’s downgraded Greek sovereign bonds to just a few notches above default.
If ministers were hoping to “re-purpose” Greek debt in a way that would prevent the eurozone’s first-ever default, S&P is basically telling them: Good luck; we don’t believe you can do it.
But a closer reading of the S&P report may give the eurozone leaders an out: the credit rating agency seems to have ignored the possibility that the new Greek bail-out will opt for a roll-over of Greek bonds, a plan backed by the European Central Bank, instead of a debt swap, which is supported by Germany. Read more
A decision about how to keep Greece solvent is coming to a head, and for those keeping tabs, here’s a quick primer on what to watch for in the next few days. Read more
With all the controversy surrounding succession at the head of the European Central Bank, at least European finance ministers could agree on another ECB succession challenge with quite a bit less conflict.
Peter Praet, a regulation expert from Belgium, has been selected to replace Austria’s Gertrude Tempell-Gugerell on the European Central Bank’s governing council, eurozone finance ministers unanimously agreed during their afternoon gathering in Brussels.
The outcome doesn’t come as much of a surprise: the only other nominee, Slovakia’s Elena Kohutikova, had a lacklustre hearing at the European parliament, even as Praet’s star continued to rise.
But his nomination means there will be no women on the 23-member council, comprised of 17 central bankers from the countries that use the euro, and six executive board members, of which Praet will be one. Read more
Speaking with one voice. Singing from the same song sheet. Communicating clearly with financial markets. Avoiding needless disputes with governments. These are essential attributes of high-level policymakers at a modern central bank. So what are we to make of an extraordinary speech given last Friday in the Moroccan city of Rabat by Lorenzo Bini Smaghi, an executive board member of the European Central Bank?
To put it bluntly, Bini Smaghi told the German government that it had screwed up Europe’s response to the Greek debt crisis. Germany’s ineptitude meant that the final price of the emergency rescue package ended up being far higher than necessary, he complained. Read more
The European Union is often derided for policy confusion and speaking with a multitude of voices – but sometimes it’s not the EU’s fault, it’s the fault of one of the member-states. Take the idea of setting up a European Monetary Fund. This emerged as a serious possibility for the first time when Wolfgang Schäuble, Germany’s finance minister, offered support for it in an interview last weekend with Welt am Sonntag.
Within a couple of days, however, Germany’s two most important central bankers – Axel Weber, the Bundesbank president, and Jürgen Stark, an executive board member of the European Central Bank – had distanced themselves from the idea. Even more confusingly, Chancellor Angela Merkel chipped in with the remark that it wouldn’t be possible to set up a European Monetary Fund without changes to the EU’s governing treaty. As she well knows, after the agonising experiences first with the EU’s failed constitutional treaty and then with the Lisbon treaty (which finally came into force in December), there is next to no appetite for such changes among the EU’s 27 governments. Read more
Today’s European Union summit in Brussels will set out the framework for a financial rescue operation for Greece. This much is clear is from various briefings being given by officials from countries as varied as Austria, Lithuania, Poland and Spain. But financial markets will have to wait until next week to see the full details of the plan.
The central question is how far Germany has been pushed to swallow its words and offer help for Greece, after weeks of denying that it would do anything of the sort. Only this morning Otmar Issing, the German former chief economist of the European Central Bank, was telling German television viewers that Greeks enjoyed “one of the most luxurious pensions systems in the world” and it was unreasonable to expect German taxpayers to fund it. Read more
There is a need to clear up some misconceptions about how Greece, or some other fiscal miscreant in the 16-nation eurozone, would be rescued by its partners in the event that it was unable to refinance its debts.
Quite a few commentators seem to think eurozone governments would find it hard to sidestep the ban on bail-outs specified in European Union treaty law. The European Central Bank, the European Commission and certain EU governments, not least that of Greece itself, have contributed to the confusion by insisting in public that a rescue is undesirable and unnecessary (while quietly planning for precisely this contingency). Read more