Italy: This Time is Different

Seasoned observers of Italian politics will tell you that there is a fairly consistent pattern to political crisis. The pattern starts with infighting among the governing coalition; it accelerates suddenly when one of the coalition partners ‘pulls the plug’ on the government; and then things slow down again as the various stakeholders realize how much is at stake for them personally if they let things fall apart. Parliamentary seats are prestigious, the salaries are high, and the pensions are generous provided the members just stay in post long enough to qualify. More important, real crisis comprises a lot of work with very uncertain pay-offs to be gained from an often-fickle electorate. Meanwhile, bad things can happen to the country’s economy, particularly vis-à-vis the banks and bond markets. In such a context, it is only reasonable to expect that cooler heads will prevail. Given the possible threat that an Italian meltdown would pose for the future of the euro (and hence also the European Union), we should all hope these observers are right. Nevertheless, there are four good reasons to believe that this time is different.

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Sovereign Debt Restructuring and Debt Mutualisation in the Euro Area

The euro area lacks a framework for sovereign debt restructuring and it lacks a common risk-free asset. Both issues are important in looking ahead to the prospect of any future crisis. Of the two, however, the creation of some kind of sovereign debt restructuring mechanism appears to attract the most political attention. This briefing note outlines the issues that would need to be addressed to bring greater stability to the euro area.

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Trouble at the Fed (and Elsewhere)

As U.S. President Donald Trump starts asking about whether he can fire the Chairman of the Federal Reserve, it is time to start asking how strong the protections are for politically independent central banks.  The answers are alarming: Trump is not the only one challenging central bank independence; he is also not the most successful.  Indeed, the challeges are widespread and they have been growing for some time.  That is reason enough to pick up Paul Tucker’s book Unelected Power — which was recently named by Foreign Affairs as one of the top books published in 2018.  If you want a taster, my review of Tucker’s book from Survival is below.  The punchline is that while people are right to be concerned that Trump would violate the independence of the Fed, that does not mean either the Fed or any central bank should be left entirely to its own devices.

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What We Just Learned about Banking Union from Italy

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.

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Two Thoughts on Greece

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.

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Fresh Perspectives on Monetary Union

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.

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A Europe of National Responsibility

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.

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