The European Council decided during a summit organized to address the COVID-19 crisis on 23 April to confirm a European Commission program to support national insurance systems. They also approved a program by the European Investment Bank to support lending to small and medium-sized enterprises, and another by the European Stability Mechanism to make loans available to national governments to pay for health care expenses related to the pandemic. Finally, the Council asked the Commission to set out a roadmap for the creation of a ‘recovery fund, which is needed and urgent’. Supporters of the decision hailed it as an unprecedented leap toward a Europe of solidarity; critics decried it as vague and insignificant. They are both wrong and right at the same time.
The European Council will meet by video conference next Thursday. When it does, the three main items on the agenda will be to approve the recommendations made by the Eurogroup on 9 April, to push forward the conversation about a European Recovery Fund, and to restart and restructure the talks about the upcoming multi-annual financial framework. In English, that means the conversation will be about money. Like any conversation about money it will be difficult. The opportunities for misunderstanding are everywhere. Now is a good time to sort out some of the issues.
I am an American – an outsider – not a European. I have been studying and living in Europe for a while; I wrote my doctoral dissertation on Dutch politics; I spend more time now looking at politics in Italy. Alongside that political interest, I have spent much of the past thirty years looking at European monetary integration. Europe has taught me a lot, but there are still many things I find confusing. Top of the list right now is that the governments of the euro area would rather accept a higher shared risk in the ECB than they would face if they agreed to share risks through an institution specifically designed to raise credit in the markets. This strange choice about how to share risks matters because the risks the European face have never been greater.
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.
At some point in the early months of 2007, the words ‘sub-prime mortgages’ began to filter into the popular press. By the end of that August, they were ubiquitous. This small section of the high-risk, high-yield housing finance market in the United States sparked a global financial and economic crisis that would scar a generation. The stories that emerged to explain how this happened were the stuff of fiction or perhaps something even stranger. Banks booked mortgages to people with no demonstrable assets or income, at introductory rates that quickly reset to terms that only the most resilient of households could afford. By the time the borrowers defaulted, however, the banks had sold the mortgages to other investors using complicated securitization instruments that effectively hid the risks involved. The institutions left holding the bag were not only unaware of the dangers the faced but completely unprepared for the consequences. In his powerful new book on The Political Economy of Housing Financialization, Gregory W. Fuller explains why that happened, how the dynamics differed across countries, and what we might do to anticipate similar crises in the future.
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.