Italy’s Economic Problems Under The Spotlight

As Manuel points out in the accompanying post, Romano Prodi’s resignation as Italy’s Prime Minister is a rather sudden and dramatic, but scarcely unexpected, development. The immediate political crisis may be resolved as rapidly as it appeared, but again as Manuel indicates it may only serve as a prelude for further things to come, and the fragility of any government coalition which may be put together only underlines the difficulties Italy will almost certainly have in addressing what are important ongoing economic problems. The present post will simply attempt to outline some of the main economic problems Italy faces, in order to contextualize the political problem a little.
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Have Global Interest Rates Peaked?

With the ECB adamant that it will continue to raise rates this would seem to be the most untimely of questions, but there are now signs that this may well be the case.

Firstly this in Bloomberg today:

Federal Reserve to Cut Rates in 2007, Corporate Bond Sales Show

Thinking about refinancing your mortgage in the U.S.? Wait a year. Considering a certificate of deposit? Sign up now. While economists debate whether the Federal Reserve will cut its target interest rate for overnight loans between banks from 5.25 percent, investors have already decided the central bank will reduce borrowing costs next year. Nowhere is that clearer than in the market for floating-rate notes, whose interest payments rise and fall with central bank policy. Sales of so-called floaters are slowing for the first time since the Fed started raising interest rates in June 2004. They’ve fallen to $21.5 billion in September from a monthly average of $35 billion this year through August, according to data compiled by JPMorgan Chase & Co.

Now one swallow doesn’t make a summer, and it is early days yet, but take a look at ten year US Treasury Bonds:

U.S. 10-year Treasuries fell, halting a five-day rally, before a report today forecast to show consumer confidence gained this month.The gains ended on speculation yields at their lowest since March will deter some investors. The yield on the benchmark 10-year note rose 2 basis points, or 0.02 percentage point, to 4.56 percent as of 6:37 a.m. in New York, according to bond broker Cantor Fitzgerald LP. The price of the 4 7/8 security due August 2016 fell 5/32, or $1.56 per $1,000 face amount, to 102 15/32. Bond yields move inversely to prices.

So today we have nudged the yield back up a little, but the rate has been dropping steadily since March. And yesterday Bloomberg were being even more explicit:
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Hungary: Well That Didn’t Take Long!

It was only just over two weeks ago (two weeks, which following the logic of a historical time which seems far from uniform, now seem like half a lifetime) that guest poster P. O’Neill, said this:

For understandable reasons — the addition of 10, and soon to be 12, new member countries, and the constitutional crisis, the European Union has been preoccupied with foundational questions in recent years. But an older concern is working its way back onto the agenda: how to handle an economic crisis in a member country……However, the risk of the latter type of crisis in a member country is now quite high.

The warning lights are flashing again – this time in eastern Europe, and especially in the recent or imminent member countries of Hungary, Romania, and Bulgaria. Poland is also a source of concern. Some combination of profligate governments, political uncertainty, EU spending booms, and capital inflows have created precarious economic positions for these countries.

Well, well, well, scarcely three weeks later, and here it is, all on the table. Sometimes, in the field of interest of what is sometimes erroneously termed the dismal science, things do indeed move quickly.
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Flexicurity – a working model for Europe?

Before moving in to the nitty-gritty of flexicurity; what it is and whether it can work as a universal European labour market model I should take the time to thank the AFOE team for allowing me a spell as a guest-writer here at the blog in the coming two weeks. In terms of presentation my name is Claus Vistesen and I am a Danish student at the BLC program at Copenhagen Business School. For further info I invite you to visit my personal blog Alpha.Sources, which deals with a wide range of topics of my interest.

There is a lot of talk and flurry at the moment about labour market reforms in Europe, notably in France, but also Germany has been struggling with how to reform the labour market and here as well as here.

Looking to the north we find the Nordic countries who seemingly have the best of two worlds; low uemployment coupled with a high degree of security but what is it exactly that the Nordic countries are doing, and could others potentially follow their example?
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French protests : it’s the politics, stupid!

There are some offers you can’t refuse. An invitation to join the permanent roster of Afoe is one of them. Let me first say, then, that I was initially happy and thrilled and grateful to be part of this wonderful blog. All the more so since it means that I’ll be ineligible for the Afoe Awards next year, and thus spared the humiliation of a third crushing defeat in a row. (For those of you who are scratching their head and wondering “who the hell is this guy?”, check this post)

If is say “initially”, it’s because, as the French guy of the team, I now have the daunting task of trying to explain clearly our current social row over the Contrat première embauche (First job contract) to a mainly non-native readership. As it happens, the BBC has already done a quite decent Q&A on the topic. So go read it to get the basics. And then come back here if you want my long and -I hope- not too muddled thoughts on what it all means.
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EU Energy Policy II

Well the new EU energy plan has been released (and here, and you can also find the actual Commission statement here). The final product is pretty much as the leaks suggested.

As was indicated yesterday, Russia related concerns are central. The FT comments:

Russia supplies a quarter of Europe’s gas needs and the Union’s dependence on the country for energy was illustrated in January when a dispute between Moscow and Kiev disrupted gas deliveries to the EU.

All of this was I think anticipated on this blog back in January when the Gazprom/Ukraine dispute first really broke into the public arena. What wasn’t anticipated was this, and especially the gas related dimension of the Suez/Gaz de France merger.

The major changes taking shape in Europe’s energy sector at present undercut the arguments of those who have long been predicting a gradual break-up of monopolies and the disappearance of the industry’s biggest players. The planned merger of Suez and Gaz de France to counter an offensive by Enel and Veolia and the fight between Gas Natural and E.On for the hand of Endesa make it abundantly clear that concentration remains very much a watchword in the branch and that even powerful old public monopolies like Electricite de France could be forced into marriages with others in future.

None of the reasons trotted out to justify the merger between Suez and Gaz de France, to cite but that operation, dwelled on the future role of Russia in Europe’s energy landscape. True, the Russians aren’t directly involved in any of the operations underway in Western Europe. On further examination, however, Gazprom’s moves in recent months could be seen as justification for the consolidation.

The future Suez/Gaz de France grouping will become the leading buyer and the top supplier of gas in Europe. As such, it will rank as one of Gazprom’s prime customers in the world. That, however, isn’t necessarily good news for Gazprom. In its dealings with such a powerful client the Russian monopoly won’t be able to exert as much pressure upon it as upon a smaller entity, let alone bully it.

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Damage at heart of Europe’s single market?

Following up on the points made in this post and this one, former EU competition commissioner Mario Monti has a comment article in today’s FT (behind the firewall unfortunately, but his point is clear from the extract):

The single market, a key pillar of the European Union since its foundation, is in danger. Several member states are reluctant to proceed further in building it; they oppose, for example, the services directive. They even try to undermine the working of those components of the single market that are already in place – and oppose foreign takeovers.

Worryingly, the epicentre of this revolt against the single market lies in countries that are at the core of the single currency. The eurozone, in order to deliver the benefits expected from the euro, needs to have more of a single market than the rest of the EU, but already it is getting less. The euro, meant to be the crowning achievement of the single market, looks increasingly like a currency in search of its market.

Did Russia come out ahead in the gas crisis?

Expanding on (and slightly copying) my comments in Edward’s post below, I was really shocked to see the spin in the western coverage of the Ukrainian gas crisis. The part that didn’t shock me – just made me groan – is the spin of a western press that seems to have decided in advance that Russia must be the bad guy, so Ukraine must be the good guy. Russia may be the bad guy, but I don’t think is Ukraine is the good guy. From what I can tell from the press, Russian claims that Ukraine was siphoning off gas seem well founded – Russia had been complaining since summer about siphoning, Gazprom was willing to let third parties audit the difference between what was going into Ukraine and what was coming out, while Ukraine refused. Also, it seems that the Russians weren’t the only ones making allegations about siphoning. Yes, Russia’s intentions towards Ukraine are not honorable, nor is this some purely commercial conflict free of political meaning. But, that does not exclude the prospect that Ukraine was screwing Russia.

But what really surprised me was the claim that Russia was the loser here.
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