The Super Mario Brothers – changing European politics

Last November saw the two Marios, Draghi and Monti, take on key positions within the Eurozone; Mario Draghi as President of the ECB succeeding Jean-Claude Trichet and Mario Monti succeeding the Silvio Berlusconi as Prime Minister of Italy. Both were appointed rather than being democratically elected but importantly both are hugely experienced within European politics and highly regarded and trusted by their peers. Both have moved fast to create change in their respective areas and together can be seen to be challenging the old power balance within the eurozone away from a Franco-German dominated politics towards a more truly European version.

November was also the period of greatest intensity in the sovereign debt crisis, when Italian 10 year government bond yields exceeded 7%, threatening a global banking and financial markets disaster. Mr Draghi acted decisively in December, cutting the ECB’s key interest rate and then announcing a new policy of Long Term Repurchase Operations, offering unlimited liquidity to Eurozone banks for a 3 year period at only 1%. This new policy has turned out to a marvellous euro-fudge. To German-minded Central Bankers a LTRO is not equivalent to the Anglo-Saxon policy of Quantitative Easing (aka printing money) that they loathe so vehemently, but is a liquidity-management tool which Central Bankers would be expected to deploy at times of crisis. The liquidity is merely lent to the banking system on the basis of collateral, it is not the creation or printing of new money. However (a) the scale of the operation, being unlimited, (b) the long time period involved, prior to this the ECB had never offered such facilities for longer than 1 year and then only in the darkest days of the 2008-09 crisis, and (c) the 1% rate, a zero premium to the official rate and thus creating no stigma for a weak bank being forced to pay higher rates for emergency liquidity, all meant that the short-term effects of this policy are remarkably similar to those of a policy of Quantitative Easing. The financial markets have certainly responded in such a fashion as the dangers of a eurozone banking crisis have receded.

Mr. Monti was effectively installed by Merkel and Sarkozy after they forced the departure of Berlusconi. Despite having enormous wealth and a population and an economy equivalent in size to France, the lack of growth in the Italian economy and its enormous level of national debt meant that it was seen as the weakest of the large European economies. Monti earned his stripes as the EU Competition Commissioner, taking on and defeating both Microsoft and Hewlett Packard in well-publicised battles over their monopoly powers. He has surprised many with the speed and ambition of the fiscal and economic changes he has forced through the Italian parliament, taking on many of the protected special interest groups which benefit from rigidities in the regulatory system. He is clearly aiming at delivering the significant structural reform to the Italian economy which is so badly needed and which Berlusconi failed to deliver.

Having gained credibility with his actions within Italy, Monti has used the fact that Merkel likes and listens to him to argue with Germany about its single-minded focus on austerity as the only tool to restoring the European economy. In recent weeks the tone of German thoughts on the European economy has changed towards the need for greater pro-growth policies. Italy now has a seat at the top table when these matters are discussed.

Sarkozy and France appear to be the losers in this power shift. Sarkozy was very quick to ensure that he maintained a French presence at the top of the IMF by getting Christine Lagarde to replace Dominique Strauss-Khan, but that has cost him a key voice within Europe, where she was well regarded but it has not really helped in terms of getting the IMF to be pro-Europe. It is noticeable how much quieter Sarkozy has been since Monti’s arrival at the top table. This may reflect his domestic political weakness – he faces re-election in May and with current polls suggesting he is set to lose, he has been forced to ask Merkel to campaign for him in France. The Franco-German axis in Europe which has dominated European politics for the last few years is breaking down as Germany is now the clear leader and then below are a newly-weakened France and a newly-strengthened Italy. A greater Southern Europe perspective is just beginning to have an effect on the way in which Europe is now being run.

Elections and political transitions in 2012 – January 2012

This year brings elections or organised transitions in political leadership in Russia, the US, China and France. Such periods can lead to unpredictability in economic policy ahead of these transitions as current leaders seek to avoid bad news in order either to win the election or to go out on a high. Similarly the period immediately after an election or leadership transition is usually one where the leader has most political capital and will generally seek to execute his or her most vital or most cherished policies. These may not necessarily be those policies which are most appropriate in an economic sense but are the most appropriate in a political sense. With so many transitions in such important nations this year, the scope for good politics to triumph over good economics is very large.

The US election is now underway with the Republican primaries firing the starting gun. The two parties are ideologically further apart than at any time in living memory (the phrase “class warfare” is being used a lot), and the Democrat President is unable to get the Republican Congress to agree to anything he wants to do. This year policy is in limbo, US politicians are unlikely to agree on doing anything  with regard to economic policy – this is understood and to some extent accepted by the markets, but action must be taken in 2013 to start reducing the fiscal deficit and the candidates are unlikely to reveal to the electorate just how bad things will need to be in terms of spending cuts or tax increases. In addition, upcoming elections require all candidates to stand up very strongly for American interests in any international dispute – in trade matters this can easily spill over into protectionist policies to “safeguard American jobs”.

In China, a new generation of leaders will come to power just before the US election – at the top level there will be no shocks but there is much manoeuvring still going on for the next level down, who will form the leadership team in five years time. Chinese officials will struggle to allow or tolerate “bad” economic news, and any further weakness of the type seen in recent months may well generate another dramatic stimulus response of the sort seen in early 2009. In foreign and trade policy also, it will be important for the Chinese to be seen to be stoutly defending their interests to safeguard Chinese jobs.

France is the most interesting story with its May Presidential elections. First it means that Sarkozy cannot allow anyone to leave the euro before the elections, because all his efforts over the last two years to “save the euro” would have visibly failed – therefore more summits and buying of time with new initiatives is very likely. However were he to remain President (unlikely from the current opinion polls), he would never have to face the French voters again – he could afford to try to be a European statesman and actually may be prepared to adopt a more German solution to the euro crisis, even at the expense of traditional French interests. By contrast markets might get a nasty shock were his main challenger Francois Hollande to win the Presidency. He is a fairly unreconstructed socialist, and would have few political soulmates in Europe, and has already declared that the current policies of austerity and institutional change to force countries into more restrictive fiscal policies are unacceptable to him. It is difficult to see Angela Merkel willing to give much of the ground that Hollande would require in order for France and Germany to continue to lead the efforts to save the euro. Either way the French election looks likely to be absolutely pivotal in determining which way the euro crisis gets resolved.

Amidst all this, the UK looks to be a rather stable place. The coalition looks set to soldier on – the Liberals cannot afford to leave since the ensuing election would see them almost wiped out, whilst Cameron benefits from pursuing the economic policies that he believes is necessary but seeing the blame laid on the Liberals. The economic policy of steady austerity has been set for the next few years and no change will be considered until much closer to the planned 2015 election. For Cameron, current economic policy is both economically and politically appropriate and he stands in a place that many of his fellow world leaders would wish to be.