Equity, Efficiency, and the European Social Model

The Belgian economist André Sapir used a background paper for the September 2005 informal summit of the European Union’s economic and finance ministers to make a provocative claim about the European social model: Europe’s heads of state and government do not need to choose between equity and efficiency or between a welfare state and a market economy; with the right reforms to welfare programs and market institutions, it is possible to have both equity and efficiency at the same time. The British held the rotating presidency of the Council of the European Union and were quick to take up Sapir’s challenge. The quest to achieve both equity and efficiency moved to the heart of efforts to relaunch the Lisbon Strategy and to re-energize the European project. Unfortunately, these efforts were soon overtaken by events.

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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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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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The Conflict over European Economic Policymaking

Economic governance is in the eye of the beholder. The French want discretion, flexibility, and effective crisis management; the Germans want rules, discipline, and effective crisis avoidance. The euro as a single currency reflects both tendencies. There are aspects of Europe’s macroeconomic framework that are flexible and responsive (like the European Central Bank) and aspects that are more rigid and formulaic (like the ‘six pack’ and ‘two pack’ of policy coordination procedures that strengthen the ‘Stability and Growth Pact’). The challenge for Europeans is to find a sustainable balance. Too much of either tendency is not only unacceptable to one side or the other in the Franco-German partnership, it is also unlikely to work in stabilizing either the euro as a single currency or the European Union as a political project.

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Italy’s Referendum and the Future of the EU

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.

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Europe Is an Unsafe Haven after Trump’s Victory

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.

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The Relevance of U.S. Experience for Europe’s Capital Markets Union

This is a talk I gave on 21 June at the European Political Strategy Center, which is the in-house think tank of the European Commission.  The audience was very generous in listening to my presentation.  The point I tried to make is that the capital markets union is an important project, but we should be careful to ensure that policymakers supplement the efforts to make capital markets more efficient with efforts to make them more resilient.  This is an argument that I have made before and yet it is probably worth repeating.  Given the dynamics behind Europe’s economic and financial crisis, there is simply too much at stake.

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Thank you for giving me the opportunity to share some thoughts about the relevance of U.S. experience for Europe’s capital markets union. My argument is that U.S. experience is relevant both in terms of its successes and in terms of its mistakes. The most important lesson I draw from the United States is about the importance of managing or channeling the flight to quality when financial markets come under duress. In jargon, my specific concern is when a sudden increase in liquidity preference translates into a spontaneous return of home bias. In plainer language, what interests me is how we handle situations where investors decide to place priority on protecting the value of their assets.

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