Paolo Gentiloni began his tenure as European Commissioner today by giving an interview in Corriere della Sera. He spoke about a number of the major issues the new Commission has to face, but the part of the conversation that made the front page ran something like ‘the reform of the European Stability Mechanism is not a threat.’ Flip to page three and the title is even more explicit: ‘There is no plot in Brussels against Italy.’ European macroeconomic policy coordination is politically explosive. Gentiloni is the Commission’s first line of defence.
Central banks are never independent from politics. The bankers who run those organizations may have the institutional power to define their own objectives, the technical capability to adjust the settings on their monetary instruments, and strong legal protections around the terms and conditions for their employment. But none of that is enough to insulate them from politics. Determined politicians will find a way to exercise influence, no matter what the obstacles. More often than not, such politicians will do so without even implicating the legislative process. They do not have to rewrite the laws to violate central bank independence. Politicians only need to take advantage of the fact that central bankers come from society, they (and their families) have to live somewhere, and eventually they will also retire.
Central banks have been in the news a lot lately, with Mario Draghi’s dramatic decision to redeploy the full range of unconventional policies alongside Jerome Powell’s more obvious ambivalence about loosening the monetary spigots. In part this is a function of timing. The business cycle is turning and yet central banks have not quite managed to reset their instruments after the last crisis. Part is also due to overload. Central banks have been ‘the only game in town’ for a long time, they have expanded responsibility for prudential oversight, and politicians seem none too eager to assume responsibility for macroeconomic performance. It would be a mistake, however, to focus too much on short term explanations. Three recent books explore some of the deeper forces that have pushed central bankers into the spotlight.
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.
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.
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.
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.