The Aspen Institute Italia held its first-ever US-Italy dialog in Rome on 3 December 2018. As part of that conversation, the director of Aspenia, Marta Dassù, asked me to make a few remarks on global trade. Here are five quick thoughts.
International political economy used to be about wealth and power. Now the sources of influence and control are more subtle. Governments choose to follow rules that are not enforced, they sign onto policies recommended to them by foreign nationals (or even ‘citizens of nowhere’), and they invite powerful non-state actors to assume control over crucial economic sectors, finance in particular. Three recent books explain why this is so.
The fast pace of change in Italian politics has left many observers outside the country struggling to catch up. This collection offers a quick overview in bullet points with links to recent articles I have written in case you have interest in learning more. I am going to list the material in reverse chronological order. Most people want to know what is happening and then figure out why. If you are one of those people who works the other way around, I advise you to follow the links from the bottom up.
Steve Bannon came to Italy and was greeted with a full-page interview this Sunday (3 June) in the center-left daily newspaper, La Repubblica. The journalist, Antonello Guerrera, seemed determined to find Bannon’s influence behind the unlikely union of Matteo Salvini’s Lega and Luigi Di Maio’s Five Star Movement (M5S). Bannon would have none of it. Although he admitted to having spoken with both gentlemen and having had prior contact with the M5S, he insisted that the two groups came together because sharing the government between them was ‘the logical conclusion’. The two parties’ leaders were ‘heroes’ for having ‘overcome the concepts of left and right’. That was the only way to meet the demands of an electorate, the majority of which voted ‘against the establishment’. ‘Italians should be proud.’ Now Rome is ‘the center of world politics’. The question now is whether the lessons from Italy’s experience are at all in line with what Bannon expects.
The turmoil that struck Italian sovereign debt and bank equity markets on Tuesday, 29 June, is a stark reminder that the potential for another crisis is real, even if not imminent. Important parts of the firewall that separates banks from sovereigns remain incomplete – and central bankers remain vulnerable to political influence as a consequence. Two recent books help illustrate why. One, by former Cypriot Central Bank Governor and Leicester University Professor Panicos Demetriades, reveals the limits of central bank independence. The other, by University of Denver Professor Rachel Epstein, explores the interaction between banks and markets.
Yesterday I had the opportunity to have an exchange of emails with one of Italy’s leading financial journalists. This is part of a longer conversation we have been having over the past few years about the state of European financial markets and the role of Italy within them. The difference this time is that he published the exchange in gli Stati Generali, which is a project created to allow journalists to share stories or rely on formats that might not otherwise find their way into traditional media outlets. Knowing the journalist, the Italian version of our exchange is much more articulate than the English-language original I am reproducing here. The questions are in bold; my responses are in regular text.
Europe’s heads of state or government have launched a new conversation about reforming the financial structures of the European Union in order to prevent another economic and financial crisis like the one that consumed the last decade. They have a number of ambitious proposals on the table — to complete the European Banking Union, to strengthen the European Stability Mechanism, and to enhance political accountability at the European level. Not all of these proposals are sure to be adopted, and progress is likely to be incremental. The goal of ensuring financial market stability is nevertheless apparent.
Earlier this week, French President Emmanuel Macron gave a speech outlining his proposals to reform the European Union. And there were a lot of proposals in that speech. Surprisingly, though, not many of them focused on the euro area or on the process of European macroeconomic governance. Macron talked about creating some kind of common budget and naming a European Minister of Finance, but he did not touch on the major issues sketched in European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker’s State of the Union address or the letter of intent and reflection papers that the Commission has produced as well.
It is no secret that the economics profession is struggling to learn the lessons taught by the recent crisis. Two new books show where that thinking is headed. The End of Theory, by Richard Bookstaber, emphasizes the importance of focusing analysis on the world as it is, rather than on a more formal universe that is easier to model. Adaptive Markets, by Andrew Lo, explores how much we could benefit from learning to tap the potential of modern finance.
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.