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As everyone who has played the famous video game knows, Super Mario is not always super. Temporarily able to boost his size and powers, he is nevertheless, for much of the time, just regular Mario.
What to make then of ECB president Mario Draghi? The eurozone crisis has seen the ECB repeatedly expand its operations in its bid to stimulate the euro area economy. As Mr Draghi has repeatedly said, these “extraordinary measures” were meant to provide a temporary breathing space for governments. Instead, politicians have proved all too willing to let the ECB permanently shoulder the load.
In a hearing before the European Parliament yesterday, Mr Draghi cut a frustrated figure as he set out the steps nations need to take to finish building their “incomplete” and “still fragile” monetary union, and to make their economies more competitive. Read more
History is full of great projects left half finished – the Sagrada Família cathedral in Barcelona, the Beach Boys’ Smile album, the last Tintin book … could the euro area’s banking union join them?
Forged at the height of the debt crisis as a way to restore trust in the financial sector, the banking union remains very much a work in progress, and it’s increasingly unclear whether its architects are all working off the same plans.
While the European Central Bank is firmly installed as the currency bloc’s banking supervisor (something examined in-depth in this new study by Bruegel,) and new rules on handling financial crises are on the statute books, discussions are becoming bogged down over the banking union’s third pillar – a centralized scheme for guaranteeing bank deposits. That plan, known as EDIS, is loathed in Berlin while strongly supported by the ECB and governments in southern Europe.
The row between national capitals over EDIS is only part of a larger, and extremely complex negotiation – one that is hampering efforts by Jeroen Dijsselbloem, the Dutch finance minister, to sign off his country’s EU’s presidency by getting a deal on a banking union workplan. The split is likely to be a topic of discussion among policymakers at today’s Brussels Economic Forum. Read more
In countless zombie movies there is the classic moment where a member of the dwindling band of survivors is cornered and desperately opens fire on the oncoming tide of walking dead. Despite firing off round after round, to the despair of our hero, the enemies keep approaching until the fateful click of his empty gun that tells him the game is up.
It’s a predicament not unlike that of German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble as he fights a rearguard action to ward off Brussels plans for a common eurozone scheme to guarantee bank deposits.
The idea, known as EDIS, is loathed in Berlin on the grounds that it could force Germany to help cover the costs of bank failures elsewhere in Europe. At the same time, perhaps unsurprisingly, it is lauded in Southern Europe as a guarantee that capitals will be helped to cope with financial crises.
So far, Mr Schäuble has thrown all kinds of obstacles at the proposal, which was unveiled by the European Commission late last year. He has insisted on a tough programme to close loopholes in existing regulations which he says must be fulfilled before EDIS is even considered. He has also questioned the very legal foundations of the plan – saying parts of it have budgetary implications for nations that go beyond what is allowed under the EU treaties.
Despite all this, discussions on the text have rumbled on for months in the EU’s Council of Ministers.
Now, however, Germany is seeking to hit Brussels where it really hurts: with its own rules of procedure.
In a joint paper with Finland, obtained by the FT, Germany seeks to hoist the European Commission up by its institutional petard, accusing it of failing to respect “requirements under primary law and the Better Regulation principles” by not carrying out a full “impact assessment” before presenting the EDIS plan in November.
It’s the Brussels equivalent of trying to take down Al Capone for tax evasion. But hey, it worked.
A fresh draft of the EU’s long-term budget (a copy can be seen here) has shaved €50bn from the original proposal from the European Commission (which is here), in a partial concession to the UK and other member states determined to contain the bloc’s spending.
The draft, circulated late on Monday night, marked the first time that member states have specified hard figures in their EU budget proposal after more than a year of discussion. As such, it is a highly anticipated moment in the lead-up to a November 22 summit in Brussels when the EU’s 27 heads of government will try to reach a deal on one of their most contentious items of business.
Welcome back to the FT’s live coverage of the eurozone crisis and the global fallout. By John Aglionby and Esther Bintliff in London with contributions from correspondents around the world. All times are GMT.
This post should update every few minutes but might take longer on mobile devices.
Are calm waters finally visible on the horizon of the eurozone? Perhaps – for now. Mario Monti’s first full day as Italian prime minister designate will be marked by a bond auction and his efforts to form a government. A confidence debate starts in Greece on Lucas Papademos’s government. And German chancellor Angela Merkel holds her Christian Democratic Union party annual conference in Leipzig.
Josh Chaffin’s piece from the FT’s analysis page: Christos Chanos sits in a conference room at his family’s sun umbrella business in Athens and ponders one of the most pressing questions confronting his crisis-hit nation: should Greece leave the euro?
The head of a company founded by his grandfather in the ancient market stalls of the Monastiraki neighbourhood, he has first-hand experience weathering the destabilising effects of a debt crisis that has held Greece in its grip for nearly two years.
He understands the argument that reintroducing the drachma – which Greece swapped for the euro in 2001 – would enable the country to lower its costs and regain competitiveness. But, like many others, he is reluctant to go down that road. “If you ask me if we never should have entered, I could have a long discussion,” says Mr Chanos. “But at this point, I think it would be a huge distraction. What would happen the day after?”
Ahead of this week’s gathering of European finance ministers in Brussels to hash out new bail-out systems for the eurozone, two magazines have weighed in with their views of what needs to come next to rescue the single currency – and both suggest going further than ministers have been willing to thus far.
On Sunday, the New York Times Magazine published a highly readable summary of the crisis by Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman entitled “Can Europe be Saved?” in which he appears to back the idea of a Europe-wide bond.
And the new issue of the Economist advocates a different and far more pessimistic route: a restructuring of Greek debt, followed potentially by similar moves in Ireland and Portugal. Read more
The most significant EU-related development over the holidays was Estonia’s official entry into the eurozone on New Year’s Day, an event that is worth revisiting as the single currency prepares for what is likely to be another year of turmoil.
As Fredrik Erixon, director of the Brussels-based European Centre for International Political Economy, notes in a new “Obituary for the Estonian kroon”, it wasn’t too long ago that the Estonian government was being advised to drop its peg to the euro and let its currency float in order to save its economy from the ravages of the European debt crisis.
But Tallinn hung tough, and as we noted in an article last month, is now poised for gross domestic product growth that is the pride of the EU. According to forecasts by Eurostat, its 4.4 per cent 2011 real GDP growth would make it the best performer in the eurozone.
When I talked to Estonian President Toomas Hendrik Ilves last month, he recalled with hard-to-contain smugness the amount of pressure the country resisted to devalue during the early days of the euro crisis. “All three Baltic economies were in serious trouble, and all kinds of people said devalue, devalue, devalue,” he said. Read more
After days of internecine sniping between leaders of the 16 eurozone countries over Ireland’s debt crisis, officials involved in Tuesday night’s marathon meeting of finance ministers from the euro group say that their session was free of the kind of drama that many had feared heading into the summit.
Jyrki Katainen, the Finnish finance minister who is also the chief economic spokesman for the centre-right caucus of European political parties, called the discussion “pragmatic” and said it focused on the Irish banking sector and how any aid would help restructure it in a way that could stop the bleeding. Read more
Reforming the management of economic policy, primarily in the eurozone but also in the European Union as a whole, is without question one of Europe’s highest priorities. Few steps would do more to raise the EU’s credibility with the US, China and the rest of the world than concerted action to improve European economic performance and make the euro area function more efficiently as a unit. Much of this comes under the heading of “economic governance”. But the difficulty is that it is not always easy to figure out which Europeans are in charge of the process.
On Monday Herman Van Rompuy, the EU’s full-time president, chaired the latest meeting of a task force on economic governance that he was chosen last March to lead. The task force, consisting largely of EU finance ministers, came up with various sensible ideas on tightening sanctions (financial and non-financial) on countries that break European fiscal rules. Task force members also want to strengthen the monitoring of macroeconomic imbalances, such as the gap between large current account surpluses in Germany and deficits in southern Europe. Read more
Financial commentators, like financial markets, move in herds. Is the herd wrong about Greece?
The herd takes the view that Greece will sooner or later have to restructure its debt. According to herd thinking, the €110bn rescue plan arranged for Greece by its eurozone partners and the International Monetary Fund merely buys some time for the Greek government – and for its European bank creditors. The herd predicts a “haircut”, or loss, for Greek bondholders of 30 to 50 per cent of the face value of their bonds. All this is likely to happen towards the end of 2011 or in early 2012, says the herd. Read more
The euro has fallen by almost 20 per cent against the dollar since last November, and the general view in Europe is that this is good news – indeed, one of the few pieces of good economic news to have come Europe’s way recently. The argument goes as follows: euro weakness = more European exports = higher European economic growth.
Unfortunately, the real world is not as simple as that. Inside the 16-nation eurozone, not every country benefits equally from the euro’s decline on foreign exchange markets. As Carsten Brzeski of ING bank explains, what matters is not so much bilateral exchange rates as real effective exchange rates. These take into account relative price developments and trade patterns, and their message for the eurozone is far from reassuring. Read more
There is a gulf separating Germany from France on how to cure the eurozone’s ills, and it does not bode well.
Germany identifies the eurozone’s chief problems as excessive budget deficits, weak fiscal rules and a general culture of over-spending in the region’s weaker countries. The remedy, say the Germans, lies in austerity measures, tougher punishments for rule-breakers and better housekeeping. Germany is so sure that it has got the answer right that it is introducing a €80bn programme of tax increases and spending cuts – not because the German economy desperately needs such measures, but because the government in Berlin wants to set an example to other eurozone states.
France knows the eurozone has a fiscal problem, but it disagrees with the German view that immediate and drastic austerity measures are essential. The French contend that, if budget hawks win the day, Europe’s fragile economic recovery will fade away and there may even be another recession (as Paul Krugman notes, an example often cited in support of this argument is the “Roosevelt recession” of 1937, when President Franklin D. Roosevelt, having just about dragged the US economy out of the Great Depression, inadvertently caused another economic downturn with a premature attempt to balance the budget). Read more
The European Union’s fiscal rulebook, known as the stability and growth pact, has fallen into such discredit since the euro’s launch in 1999 that almost any change is likely to be an improvement. But are the reforms that EU finance ministers agreed in Luxembourg on Monday good enough? I have my doubts.
There are many flaws in the stability pact, but the essential problem is enforcement. How can outsiders compel a government, with sovereign control of its budget, to observe fiscal discipline? The pact contains a provision for imposing fines on countries that run up high budget deficits and ignore recommendations from other member-states and the European Commission to take corrective measures. Predictably, however, no country has ever paid a fine or has even been asked to pay a fine throughout the euro’s 11-year history. Governments have shrunk from punishing other governments because they know that the tables may one day be turned on themselves.
In any case, it has always seemed potty to slap fines on a country with a large deficit. The penalties would simply exacerbate the country’s budgetary difficulties. No wonder Romano Prodi, the former Commission president, once called the stability pact “stupid”. Read more
Slowly, too slowly perhaps, the eurozone is delivering its response to the collapse of market confidence triggered by the European sovereign debt crisis. An important step appears likely to be taken at a finance ministers’ meeting in Luxembourg on Monday. They are set to agree the terms on which a Special Purpose Vehicle will be able to borrow up to €440bn on the markets to help a eurozone member-state that is experiencing borrowing difficulties.
On the face of things, this initiative goes considerably further than the €110bn rescue package arranged last month for Greece. The Greek aid is based on bilateral loans from other governments in the 16-nation eurozone. But the SPV will be a self-contained entity, operating under Luxembourg law, that will issue bonds backed by member-state guarantees.
You could almost call them “common eurozone bonds” – except that, for political reasons, this is an all but unmentionable term. Opposition to common eurozone bonds is exceptionally strong in Germany, where the prevailing view is that such a measure would simply benefit wastrels like Greece and impose higher borrowing costs on countries that practise fiscal discipline – i.e., Germany itself. Nonetheless, the German government has taken an energetic role in designing the structure of the SPV. It is a big moment for Germany and one which shows that the German commitment to making a success of European monetary union is not to be underestimated. Read more
For anyone wondering why Europe’s leaders are so determined to avoid a restructuring of Greek sovereign debt, I recommend a remarkable piece of research published on Monday by Jacques Cailloux, the Royal Bank of Scotland’s chief European economist, and his colleagues. (Unfortunately, it seems not to be easily available on the internet, so I’m providing links to news stories that refer to the report.)
The RBS economists estimate that the total amount of debt issued by public and private sector institutions in Greece, Portugal and Spain that is held by financial institutions outside these three countries is roughly €2,000bn. This is a staggeringly large figure, equivalent to about 22 per cent of the eurozone’s gross domestic product. It is far higher than previous published estimates. It indicates that, if a Greek or Portuguese or Spanish debt default were allowed to take place, the global financial system could suffer terrible damage. Read more