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Dinosaur still there

2 July 2012 By Hugo Dixon

Cuando despertó, el dinosaurio todavía estaba allí. “Upon waking, the dinosaur was still there.”

This extremely short story by Guatemalan writer Augusto Monterroso sums up the state of play on the euro crisis. Last week’s summit took important steps to stop the immediate panic. But the big economies of Italy and Spain are shrinking and there is no agreed long-term vision for the zone. In other words, the crisis is still there.

The summit’s decisions are not to be sniffed at. The agreement that the euro zone’s bailout fund should, in time, be able to recapitalise banks directly rather than via national governments will help break the so-called doom loop binding troubled lenders and troubled governments. That is a shot in the arm for both Spain and Ireland. Meanwhile, unleashing the bailout fund to stabilise sovereign bond markets could stop Rome’s and Madrid’s bond yields rising to unsustainable levels.

Insofar as this restores investors’ confidence, Spain and Italy could avoid the need to obtain a full bailout or restructure their debts. And Ireland, which is in a full bailout programme, could exit that and fund itself in the market again.

The immediate market reaction on Friday was positive. The yield on 10-year bonds fell: for Spain from 6.9 percent to 6.3 percent, for Italy from 6.2 percent to 5.8 percent and for Ireland from 7.1 percent to 6.4 percent. But these rates are still high. And, with the exception of Ireland, Friday’s market movements only take prices back to where they were in May.

What’s more, as the details of Friday’s agreement are picked over, some of the market euphoria may well fade. After all, Germany, the zone’s paymaster, hasn’t written a blank cheque.

Take the bank recapitalisation plan. Madrid is planning to inject up to 100 billion euros into its banks and Dublin has already sunk 64 billion euros into its lenders. The big question is whether the euro zone will reimburse them the full amount invested, given that the stakes in the banks aren’t worth as much. That seems unlikely. But if the full sum isn’t paid, the debt relief for Spain and Ireland may not be as big as some are hoping.

Or look at the market stabilisation mechanism. The euro zone bailout fund’s resources are limited, so it might not be able to keep Italian and Spanish borrowing costs down in the long run. What’s more, to access this mechanism, a country would have to agree to a memorandum of understanding setting out its policy commitments to reform its economy. This means that there will still be some stigma attached to the scheme – which probably explains why Rome and Madrid aren’t rushing to sign up.

To point out that Germany’s Angela Merkel hasn’t agreed a blank cheque is not to criticise the summit compromise. It is essential that Italy’s Mario Monti and Spain’s Mariano Rajoy take further measures to restore their countries’ competitiveness. A second wave of reforms is needed, but both prime ministers have lost momentum in recent months. Money for nothing will take away pressure to do more.

However, the continued uncertainty about exactly how bank bailouts and market stabilisation will work means that the summit did not produce a neat package. As the loose ends are tied up, there could be further wrangling that unnerves investors.

Meanwhile, GDP in both Italy and Spain are continuing to shrink. This means that they won’t hit their deficit reduction targets and that their debts and unemployment will rise further. The summit’s 120 billion euro growth pact isn’t likely to move the needle. More may need to be done to shore up growth. One obvious suggestion would be still looser monetary policy from the European Central Bank.

Recession also has political consequences, especially in Italy, where elections are due next spring at the latest. Both Beppe Grillo, a comedian whose populist Cinque Stelle movement has come from virtually nowhere to 20 percent in the opinion polls in recent months, and Silvio Berlusconi, the former prime minister, are playing the eurosceptic card. In the circumstances, Monti’s technocratic government will struggle to gain political support for any more reforms. Investors and Italy’s euro partners will, in turn, worry about what comes after him.

The euro zone leaders also agreed, in principle, on the first step towards a long-term vision for the region: the creation of a single banking supervisor “involving the ECB”. If this cleans up the mess in large parts of the European financial system, it will be good. But some countries will not wish to surrender control over their banks to a centralised authority and so it is quite possible that some messy fudge will emerge.

If the question of a single banking supervisor is likely to be subject to future disputes, even more disagreement can be expected over whether there should be a full political and fiscal union. Some countries like Germany want much more common decision making, but others fear the loss of sovereignty. Meanwhile, many weaker nations want to pool their debts – an idea rightly rejected by Merkel.

Europe’s people are not ready for full political union. So the best solution would be to keep the loss of sovereignty and debt-sharing down to the minimum. But the summit kicked these big issues into touch.

The dinosaur is less terrifying than it was a few weeks ago. But it is still there.

 

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