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Bankers bash each other in battle for the euro

Once discreet, European bankers take off their gloves in a mounting fight over how to end the euro crisis.

Drahgi 08 31 2012Enlarge
Mario Draghi faces a tough task overcoming German resistance to his plan in the next weeks and months that will probably decide the euro's fate. (Thierry Charlier/AFP/Getty Images)

BRUSSELS, Belgium — Draghi vs. Weidmann doesn't have the same ring as Ali vs. Frazier or King Kong vs. Godzilla, but when it comes to the fate of the euro, it’s a battle between the two biggest beasts of European banking.

Mario Draghi, president of the European Central Bank, is poised next week to put flesh on the bones of his pledge to "do whatever it takes" to save the European currency.

He wants to empower the ECB to use its vast financial firepower to buy an unlimited number of bonds from high-debt countries that can no longer affordably raise money on the markets.

It's seen as an essential step to propping up the tottering finances of Spain and possibly Italy.

But the proposal has Weidmann worried. The president of Germany's central bank has emerged as cheerleader-in-chief for the many Germans who fear Draghi's plan risks undermining their country's economic prosperity.

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Europe's central bankers generally handle their differences discreetly, but the dispute between Draghi and Weidmann has become painfully public in the heat of the euro crisis.

The Bundesbank chief warned Draghi against exceeding his mandate in one recent interview.

Weidmann insinuated "Super Mario" risked undermining European democracy if he goes ahead with the bond-buying plan by triggering a disastrous inflationary spiral and eroding trust in the banking system.

"Such a policy is too close to state financing via the money printing press," he told this week's edition of the magazine Der Spiegel. "In democracies, parliaments and not central banks should decide on such a far-reaching collectivization of risks."

Draghi hit back in the pages of another German weekly. Accusing critics of failing to understand the euro's importance, Draghi's op-ed in Die Zeit insisted the ECB’s mandate is to ensure currency stability for all citizens of the euro area, not just those of any one country.

"The ECB will do what is necessary to ensure price stability,” he wrote. “It will remain independent. And it will always act within the limits of its mandate. This may at times require exceptional measures. But this is our responsibility as the central bank of the euro area as a whole."

Draghi has the backing of many euro zone leaders. On a visit to Spain Thursday, French President Francois Hollande said it’s within the ECB's mandate to intervene on bond markets.

The bankers' bust up will come to a head on Sept. 6, when the ECB board — which includes central bank chiefs from all 17 euro zone countries, including Weidmann — meet to decide on the bond-buying plan.

When Draghi first outlined the scheme on Aug. 2, he said the German representative was the only member opposed.

The Germans have since been lobbying Finland and the Netherlands, where widespread public discontent about helping southern Europe is also strong. Draghi's plan aims to keep them on his side by containing tough conditions for debt-ridden countries hoping the ECB will intervene to buy their bonds.

Those seeking ECB support would first have to apply to the euro zone's bailout fund and submit to outside supervision of their budget plans to ensure they stick to pledges to cut deficits and debt.

The Spanish government is considering taking such a step as it struggles with recession and a spate of bailout requests from debt-ridden regions and markets that have forced it to pay almost 7 percent interest on its 10-year bonds.

Wrangling at ECB headquarters in Frankfurt forced Draghi to cancel his attendance at an international bankers' meeting in Jackson Hole, Wyoming this week. Details of the plan, such as the interest rate triggers for ECB intervention on bond markets and the penalties for countries failing to meet agreed budget-cutting targets, are reported to be causing deep divisions.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel has found herself in the middle of the bankers' battle.

She will have to decide whether to back Draghi’s plan in the face of opposition from German public opinion and members of her own government, or join Weidmann in opposing it at the risk of undermining the economies of other euro zone states.

Although the ECB is free to act independently of government pressure, determined opposition from Berlin could fatally wound the euro by sinking the bond-buying plan.

Weidmann and other critics frequently raise the specter of inflation — the bogeyman of German economics since the 1920s, when huge price rises wiped out savings and helped create the conditions for Hitler’s rise. They say pumping money into the system to support southern Europeans could trigger a new inflationary cycle.

However, concern is also growing about the possibility another scenario will prompt German inflation: spooked investors undertaking a massive transfer of money from the shaky south to safe-haven Germany, which would bring down interest rates and pump up the money supply.

Italian Prime Minister Mario Monti said on Wednesday that the Bundesbank could score an “own goal with paradoxical consequences” by preventing the ECB from buying government bonds to moderate imbalances. "This results in a potential inflation risk in Germany, which I don't think is the wish of the European Central bank, or the German government," he said in comments to the business daily Il Sole 24 Ore.

Amid the wrangling, the announcement of record euro zone unemployment rates of more than 11 percent in July added pressure for the ECB to act.

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Beyond its Sept. 6 decision, the euro faces a series of key dates in the coming weeks.

Germany's constitutional court will rule whether the euro zone's planned 500 billion euro permanent bailout fund is lawful on Sept. 12.

The Netherlands votes in general elections the same day after a campaign polarized by the euro crisis. And international experts must decide by early October whether Greece has met conditions for freeing up the next portion of bailout funds needed to keep its economy afloat.

Also on Sept. 12, the European Commission is set to unveil proposals for a “banking union” that would gove the ECB new authority over thousands of euro zone banks in return for using the bailout fund to rescue banks directly. That could alleviate huge debts carried by Ireland and Spain.

Many believe such reforms to be crucial for turning the around the crisis by giving the euro zone the kind of federal authority it’s lacked since its founding.

http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/news/regions/europe/120831/euro-crisis-Germany-Italy-ECB