25 August 2009

Next Head of the European Central Bank a Goldman Sachs Alumnus or Buba's Head Boy?

The German patience with the EU is admirable.

And in the States, the patience with the rule of Wall Street and the hagiographic praise of Chairman Ben is ... remarkable.

One might even be tempted to call him 'maestro,' at least until the next bubble collapses.

Central Banking Publications
Weber Aims High
25 August 2009

So far, the front runner to succeed Jean-Claude Trichet as head of the European Central Bank, when his term ends in 2011, has been Mario Draghi, the shrewd current governor of the Banca d'Italia and Goldman Sachs alumnus (don't all boo at once).

But insiders are keeping a close eye on Axel Weber, president of the Bundesbank. If Draghi were to fall under a bus on the Via Nazionale (easily done, by the way), or if he were to give in to the blandishments of those who are urging him to dive into the treacherous waters of Italian politics, then Weber is positioning himself as the clear fall-back choice.

This would not go down well at the Elysée, where the thought of a German running the ECB makes President Sarkozy see red. Yet why not? Isn't it their turn, at last?

The efforts of French diplomats, allied to their enviable higher education and elite training, have ensured that Frenchmen have sat at the top of many of the great official international institutions for far longer than Germans (or indeed Brits). A Frenchman has occupied the post of IMF managing director for a total of 34 years since the founding of the Fund 65 years ago, while a German has been in the job for only four years. A Frenchman has been president of the European Commission for 14 years, while no German has held the post since Walter Hallstein, who retired in 1967. No German has headed up the EBRD in London, while Frenchmen have run it for 15 years. No German has led the OECD, and so on.

It would be understandable if Germans felt it was time to have their own man at the ECB. After all, it is German public opinion that in the end is critical for the long-term success of the euro. If German taxpayers are called on to bailout backsliding countries unable to discipline their economies (like Italy), they would be much more likely to do so with good grace if their own man or woman was seen to be minding the shop. So anybody committed to the success of the euro should be rooting for a German candidate, n'est-ce pas?

Enter politics. To reach the top job at the ECB, Weber needs to be nominated by the chancellor. Angela Merkel is fully expected to win the general election next month, possibly with a greatly increased personal mandate.

Now, observe a curious fact. For an institution known in the past for lambasting governments' deficit spending, the Bundesbank has been remarkably quiescent recently. Its big guns have fallen silent. Indeed, Weber has praised German economic policy. In a recent interview with Die Zeit online, Weber noted that the GDP recovery in the second quarter owed much to the support measures deployed by the government, the support of the state banking sector and the ECB's monetary easing. Meanwhile, Merkel has roundly criticised other central banks, such as the Federal Reserve and the Bank of England, while supporting the Bundesbank. They are both singing from the same hymn sheet.

Meanwhile, Weber has been quietly appointing his own people to several key positions while some Bundesbank board directors of an independent cast of mind appear to be heading for the exit.

The odds are still on Draghi. He is what the Italians call "furbo" – variously translated as smart, cunning or foxy. The French will be cheering him on. But the Italian fox will be on the outlook for a German greyhound coming up on the inside lane.