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F is for fatigue

2 April 2012 By Hugo Dixon

Beware the “F” word. The European Central Bank and, to a lesser extent, the zone’s political leaders have bought the time needed to resolve the euro crisis. But there are signs of fatigue. A renewed sense of danger may be needed to spur politicians to address underlying problems. It would be far better if they got ahead of the curve.

The big time-buying exercise was the ECB’s injection of 1 trillion euros of super-cheap three-year money into the region’s banks. A smaller breathing space was won last week when governments agreed to expand the ceiling on the region’s bailout funds from 500 to 700 billion euros.

These moves have taken the heat out of the crisis – both by easing fears that banks could go bust and by making it easier for troubled governments, especially Italy’s and Spain’s, to fund themselves. Data from the ECB last week shows how much of the easy money has been recycled from banks into government bonds. In February, Italian lenders increased their purchases of euro zone government bonds by a record 23 billion euros. Spanish banks, meanwhile, increased their purchases by 15.7 billion euros following a record 23 billion euro spending spree in January.

The risk is that, as the short-term funding pressure comes off, governments’ determination to push through unpopular reforms will flag. If that happens, the time that has been bought will be wasted – and, when crisis rears its ugly head again, the authorities won’t have the tools to fight it.

Early signs of such fatigue are emerging. One is the tendency of politicians – most recently, Italian Prime Minister Mario Monti – to say that the worst of the crisis is over. They may wish to take credit for their crisis-fighting skills or relax. But it is too early to declare victory.

Italy is a case in point. Monti should have pushed through crucial reforms to the labour market earlier, while his popularity was high and the electorate was afraid that Italy would be engulfed by the crisis. He did not. And although he has now come up with a good package, his honeymoon period as the unassailable technocratic prime minister is nearing its end. His popularity fell to 44 percent from 62 percent in early March, according to a poll published last week by ISPO. Two-thirds of Italians oppose his labour reforms.

It’s a similar story in Spain. Mariano Rajoy, the incoming prime minister, should have cracked on earlier with a budget to bring the government’s finances into balance. To be fair, his administration did publish plans last Friday to curb its deficit – though it won’t be possible to judge how credible these are until Madrid explains how the health and education spending of Spain’s free-wheeling regional governments is to be reined in. Meanwhile, Rajoy’s honeymoon is also over. Last week, he failed to win the regional election in Andalucia and faced his first general strike.

Both Monti and Rajoy are still in strong positions. Although Italy’s political parties could theoretically kick Monti out, they are even less popular than him. Meanwhile, the Spanish prime minister has a sound majority in parliament. But as each month passes, it will get harder to push through reforms. Both men must hold their nerve and implement their full programmes while they can, without compromise.

Further afield, the appetite for austerity is also flagging – sometimes in unexpected places. The Dutch government, one of the high priests of fiscal rectitude, is finding it difficult to cut its own deficit. The ruling coalition may even collapse under the strain.

There is also increasing unhappiness about the fiscal discipline treaty Germany rammed through in December. Francois Hollande, the French socialist who is the front-runner to be France’s next president, wants to add a growth component to it. So do Germany’s social democrats, whose support is needed to ratify the treaty even though they are in opposition.

A fudge will probably be found that adds a protocol to the treaty which emphasises the importance of growth as well as discipline. Indeed, that would be no bad thing: too much austerity can be self-defeating as severe budget squeezes can crush an economy and make it even harder to raise taxes and cut deficits.

However, governments can’t ease up on short-term austerity and do nothing. What is needed is a vigorous programme of long-term structural reforms such as freeing up labour markets and introducing more competition into services industries. This could ultimately boost GDP by about 15 percent in large euro countries such as France, Italy and Spain, according to the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development. Even Germany, whose services markets are sclerotic, could benefit by about 13 percent of GDP.

Such a programme would make the euro zone’s economies fit enough to stand on their own feet when the anaesthetic of cheap money fades. But do governments have the will to make these changes given that the cheap money is lulling them and their people into believing the worst of the crisis is over?

A prod from the markets may be what is required. There are indications that this is beginning to happen. Spanish 10-year bond yields briefly reached 5.5 percent last week. The art, though, will be in the calibration. If markets move too little the politicians will be complacent. If there is too much, the euro zone will slip back into full-blown crisis.


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