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.
As we approach another round of talks on the third Greek bailout package, I thought it would be appropriate to share two thoughts on the importance of debt forgiveness and on Europe’s preparedness in case this all goes wrong. My basic line is that debt-forgiveness is the only pragmatic choice. I also worry that Europe is not as prepared for the alternative as it should be.
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.
If there is one theme that unites European responses to the global financial crisis, it is national responsibility and not European solidarity. There have been moments of solidarity to be sure. The creation of first temporary and then permanent bailout funds was the most obvious; the unconventional monetary policies of the European Central Bank (ECB) and ECB President Mario Draghi’s ‘whatever it takes speech’ count as well. Nevertheless, with the exception of the European Stability Mechanism (ESM), these moments of solidarity have been exceptional, temporary and transitional. They bought time for governments to restructure their banks, consolidate their finances, reform their market institutions, and prepare for an uncertain future so that another round of crisis summits and rushed institution-building will no longer be required. Once this transition period is over, cross-border redistribution and burden-sharing can be kept to a minimum. That is the objective.
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 European Central Bank (ECB) made no changes to its policy stance when the Governing Council met in Vienna on 2 June. Price inflation in the euro area remains well below the ECB’s definition of price stability and the prospects for inflation to move upward remain unchanged. Nevertheless, ECB President Mario Draghi argued in response to questions during his press conference, ‘we have to see the full impact of the measures that we’ve decided in March.’ Some of those, like the targeted long-term refinancing operations that offer to subsidize bank lending and the inclusion of corporate bonds in the ECB’s large-scale asset purchases will only start over the coming weeks. It takes time for such measures to work their way through to the consumption and investment that drives the real economy. And for those who complain that the ECB seems slow in meeting its policy target, Draghi made it clear that: ‘the medium term for a return to inflation to our objective of an inflation rate of close to but below 2 percent is pretty long.’ In other words, the ‘medium term’ from the ECB’s perspective is essentially as long as it takes.