The turmoil that struck Italian sovereign debt and bank equity markets on Tuesday, 29 June, is a stark reminder that the potential for another crisis is real, even if not imminent. Important parts of the firewall that separates banks from sovereigns remain incomplete – and central bankers remain vulnerable to political influence as a consequence. Two recent books help illustrate why. One, by former Cypriot Central Bank Governor and Leicester University Professor Panicos Demetriades, reveals the limits of central bank independence. The other, by University of Denver Professor Rachel Epstein, explores the interaction between banks and markets.
The Italian government passed a series of decrees yesterday to allow Intesa San Paolo to buy the healthy assets of two small banks from the Veneto region – Banca popolare di Vicenza and Veneto Banca. The state will move the distressed assets into a ‘bad bank’ for orderly liquidation. This action closes a chapter on the Italian banking crisis that started in late 2015 when regulators made it clear that the two small Veneto banks needed more capital. Over the intervening period, investors threw good money after bad as the banks continued to haemorrhage deposits and mount up non-performing loans. The government did not want to step in because it did not want to impose losses on large depositors or junior bond holders. Ultimately, though, the situation for the two institutions was unsustainable. Now we know what the solution looks like. The question is what we learned from the process. The short answer is that Europe’s banking union is still dangerously incomplete.
Oxford University Press has published two new books on the political economy of the euro area that should be required reading. One, by C. Randall Henning, explains why the International Monetary Fund has become a central actor in the stabilization of the euro area; another, by Waltraud Schelkle, sheds new light on what the single currency has to offer both in its current form and looking to the future. My reviews of both books are below.
The United States is not the only country where the consensus on central bank independence is in trouble; central bankers across the formerly communist world are facing sustained political challenge as well. The difference in the formerly communist world is that central bank norms, practices and policies never fit as well in the institutional context of regimes in transition and the consensus spread only weakly outward from the central banks themselves. This is the argument Juliet Johnson makes in her brilliant book on the role that central bankers played in the transformation of the post-communist world.
Italians head to the polls on Sunday, December 4, to approve or reject a series of constitutional reforms that will redirect policy competence from the regions to the state, that will transform the Senate into a council of regions, and that will concentrate power in the Chamber of Deputies and the national government. Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi argues that these reforms are necessary to equip Italy with the flexibility needed to compete in the global economy of the 21st Century. His opponents counter that changing the constitution this way will eliminate critical checks and balances and so make the country vulnerable to authoritarianism if not dictatorship.
The surprise victory of Donald J. Trump in the United States (US) presidential elections briefly pushed the euro, the Swiss franc, and the Danish kroner up against the dollar. It also pushed down the yields on high quality sovereign debt and it temporarily sent equity markets into the red. This was all to be expected. Like almost everyone, market participants thought Hilary Clinton would gain the White House alongside a predominantly Republican Congress. They placed their bets to take advantage of another four years of competent administration and legislative logjam. A Trump victory upset that calculation and so some of those market participants were trying to safeguard their capital until they could get a better sense of what is happening. The assumption they made was that Europe can act as a safe-haven. Unfortunately, that assumption is mistaken.
Central bank independence is under attack. This is true particularly in the United States. When the dust began to settle on the presidential primaries in spring 2016, three of the four leading candidates – one Democrat and two Republicans – supported legislation to audit the Federal Reserve (or Fed) and to compel it to follow a rigid and transparent rule for changing policy in response to changes in a limited range of macroeconomic variables. The reason has a lot to do with the same populist resentment that swirls around global trade. And while the Fed has not received the attention given to the trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, for example, it is arguably just as important.