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Karina's Column

An insider’s view on the City of London and beyond

The Bank of England’s Tucker time


Asian crisis lessons for Spain and Italy

Knees to chest in the womb position, I bounced in the harness attaching me to the two- inch thick, descending cable. Picking up speed, I accelerated to more than 70 kilometres per hour over the Costa Rican valley open before me.

The finish, 750 metres away, was lost amidst faraway trees, as was the tiny body of the fool who had zip lined across before me.

“I am a widow with an 11-year old child and a thirst for life. WHY AM I DOING THIS?!” I screamed. Perhaps I only imagined the scream as my lips were frozen in petrification. I was powerless to stop the horrific experience. There is no rational reason to be separated from the earth by 200 metres.*

The lookout point from which we started the zip lining faced a colossal volcano. El Arenal is known as Costa Rica’s most active volcano, spewing large amounts of ash, lava and gas. However from 2010 it entered an indeterminate resting phase. An erupting volcano was not the issue. Thus the obvious risk in our zip lining was not the most important one.

Likewise, Spain and Italy are residual risks for the euro. Banks from other countries have had enough time to lower their exposure to the two countries. Wholesale financial markets have been inaccessible to the Mediterranean nations for some time. They are relying on the ECB.

In Spain, a full bail-out is needed, not least to take over from a government whose economic and financial chiefs (Minister Luis de Guindos and Minister Cristobal Montoro) are apparently too intent on throwing poisoned darts at each other to focus on the crisis. Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy cannot bear the humiliation of asking for help. Every day that passes the debt burden on Spaniards becomes heavier. For this he will be judged.

Meanwhile, neighbouring technocratic Prime Minister Mario Monti, who started with a bang, now has his hands tied by a squabbling Italian parliament.

They both need an authority from outside the domestic and European political mess, which can only be the International Monetary Fund.

During the Asian crisis, the IMF stepped in with a heavy tread. With hindsight, it would undoubtedly do some things differently. But all in all, its presence was sufficient to remove the political obstacles to structural reforms while its resources were put to use in Thailand, Indonesia, the Philippines and others.

The complexity of the factors and players involved in the solution to the Asian disaster defies a short column like this one. Still, the need for an authority separate from the crisis-ridden countries is paramount. The European Central Bank is too involved and too political a body: it should play a junior role to that of the IMF, like the central banks in the Asian countries being rescued at the time.

There are those who dismiss Western Europe’s future as that of a Disneyland for tourists from the Bric and other nations in Asia. Beware facile judgments. Many voices were heard being equally contemptuous of Asian nations during their crises. Within only a few years, the Asian tigers rose even stronger.

Only two months ago, the Philippines extended a $1 billion loan to the IMF to help in stabilising the developed world economies.

Transparency has become the sacred cow of our days. Justifiably so. Shining a torch into the hidden recesses of financial institutions has revealed the murkiness of Mexican money laundering, risk exposures being fudged and clients being consistently ripped off.

But there are times when obscurity is necessary, as in the following case. Until the spring of 2012, Paul Tucker, Deputy Governor of the Bank of England, was a strong contender to inherit the governorship from Mervyn King, whose second term finishes in June 2013.

As part of the recent scandal over LIBOR, the ever-more-powerful Treasury select committee called on Paul Tucker to give evidence. They quizzed him over a 2008 email from Bob Diamond, where the (now former) ceo of Barclays alleges that the Deputy Governor told him over the phone that “it did not always need to be the case that we [Barclays] appeared as high as we have recently”.

This was understandably interpreted by Barclays Capital, as an instruction to lower the bank’s Libor submissions.

Now, there is a big difference between the unethical manipulation of the Libor rate for profit – which had been going on for awhile at Barclays and other banks – and the example in question.

The phone call took place a few weeks after the fall of Lehman Brothers, when the world was zip lining with an untested harness. The biggest fear for the central bank and the government was a bank run, which would probably have spread, leading to panic on the streets. There were already rumours about Barclays’s shaky finances in the markets. These could not be allowed to spread to retail depositors. The central bank was simply doing its job in nudging Mr Diamond, via an innuendo-laden sentence, to lower Barclays’s Libor rates so as to shore up its shaken credibility.

There may well be reasons Mr Tucker is not the right person to take over at the Bank of England. But it is incorrect to judge him negatively for doing his job as he did in that now-famous telephone call. Shadows are just as necessary as light in economic management.

A short week in Costa Rica was followed by a leisurely ten days in France. Our summer holidays moved from zip lining, monkey tribe attacks and white water rafting, to Provencal pools surrounded by the smell of lavender. Appearances to the contrary, the risk increased. France is the real risk to the euro, as will be explained in next month’s column.

*For those foolhardy enough to replicate the Costa Rican adventure*