Jim Armitage: A year on, and Mario Draghi's pledge to save the euro should be applauded
He followed his words with deeds by launching a vast programme to buy bonds
Jim Armitage is the City editor of The Independent and London Evening Standard group of newspapers. He has been a reporter and editor for more than 20 years and was recently shortlisted for the Press Gazette financial journalist of the year and The Society of Editors financial journalist of the year awards. He contributes news, investigative reports and comment to the Independent titles plus a daily column in the Evening Standard.
Saturday 27 July 2013
A year ago, Italian banker Mario Draghi saved the world. The bureaucrat at the top of the European Central Bank declared that he would "do whatever it takes" to prevent a collapse of the eurozone economies.
Given that his hands were firmly clasped around the monetary levers of the eurozone – namely the ones that set interest rates and the power to buy unfathomable trillions of euros-worth of debt – the speech meant investors suddenly felt safe enough to hold on to the bonds issued by European governments.
Interest rates for said loans fell dramatically, meaning that stricken governments on the Med could afford to service their mountainous overdrafts a while longer. Mr Draghi followed his words with deeds little more than a month later, launching a vast programme to buy bonds.
As a result of that bond buying pledge – known as the Outright Monetary Transactions programme – bond yields on Spanish and Italian debt have remained affordable despite a potentially bruising year, meaning they have not turned into giant versions of Greece or Ireland.
Many say Mr Draghi has merely fended off the inevitable defaults of such countries with the result that they have just been piling on trillions more Mediterranean debt that will never be repaid.
Others of a more conspiratorial bent point out that, as yet another Goldman Sachs alumnus, Mr Draghi's just keeping up profits for his chums in the investment banks by artificially boosting the stock market and other asset prices.
The fact is, both of these arguments could probably be a bit right. But neither is necessarily a bad thing for the citizens of Europe.
Surely the last thing we need just as the Continent's economies finally seem to be bottoming out is a collapse in European asset prices.
And giving Europe's troubled economies breathing space is a sound strategy, not one to be viewed through the emotional language of "cop out" and "cowardice" that one hears so much in the political dialogue – particularly from eurosceptics who want nothing more than for the single currency project to fail.
Rather than being left alone to collapse, what these countries need right now is time and breathing space to reform their economies. That's not to say they will ever be able to get their debts down to manageable levels by themselves, of course they won't.
But they can reform themselves enough to give Angela Merkel the ammunition to sell to her electorate the concept of offering more German euros to them in support.
Mr Draghi did the right thing, and deserves our applause.
Hacking offers a shadow economy for poor nations
Victims of the cyber attack a week ago on that bastion of the British middle classes, Lakeland homewares, might raise a perfectly crafted spatula in delight.
It emerged yesterday that US prosecutors have filed charges against the biggest and most sophisticated international hacking gang ever busted.
The numbers are mindboggling. Just five men between them are alleged to have stolen more than 160 million credit and debit card details, using them to take more than $300m (£195m) from the businesses they attacked and their customers.
The case is the biggest in the world of its kind, and is probably being brought in the US because it's one of the few countries in the world with the resources and commitment to pursue such vast criminal allegations.
Its perpetrators – from Russia and Ukraine – respected no borders. The investigators have been after them for years, watching in dismay as they allegedly hit firms in the UK, the US, Canada, France, Belgium, the Middle East.
In Britain alone, it is claimed they stole some 30 million payment card numbers from the payment processor Commidea in 2008.
They weren't shy of taking on the biggest companies in the world, either. Nasdaq, Carrefour, Citibank and a subsidiary of Visa all fell victim.
Two of the men were arrested in Holland: one is still there awaiting extradition and the other has already been despatched to the US. It's not clear where in the world the other three are, but we do know their names and clearly defined roles in the gang which, in many ways, mirrored the roles of breaking and entering gangs since time began.
Two, the Russians Vladimir Drinkman, 32, and Alexander Kalinin, 26, were the safecrackers who did the actual hacking, the suit in New Jersey says.
A third, Roman Kotov, 32, was the expert in digging through the files to find the most valuable goods: he sifted the hacked data for those all-important card details.
Another, Ukrainian Mikhail Ryitkov, 26, was the electronic getaway driver, hiding their escape by creating a fog of anonymous web hosting services.
Finally, the fence. He was another Russian, Dmitriy Smilianets, 29, who allegedly sold the card details and distributed the enormous profits. Lakeland victims may take comfort in the fact that European cards fetched the highest prices – at $50 each – due to the computer chips they contain that make them more secure. US and Canadian cards were only $10 and $15 respectively.
Clearly, such vast international crimes need huge amounts of co-operation across borders to counter. And there, according to industry investigators, is the rub. In some of eastern Europe's poorest countries, these thefts from the developed world have created quite a handy shadow economy: a small transfer of wealth from West to East.
It finds its ways into the pockets, not just of those hunched over their computers and doing the dirty work, but of officials too. Not to mention the local clean economy, as the crims spend their ill-gotten gains on cars, luxury goods and properties.
One expert even describes how the best hackers are seen by governments as "national assets".
As ever with crime, it largely breeds and feeds out of poverty. While Western prosectors should be applauded for chasing the bad guys down, our governments will only prevent new gangs springing up by helping Eastern European countries develop the legitimate sides of their economy.
Just think of the businesses these five highly skilled young men might have been creating if they'd had the kind of investment and support tech entrepreneurs can tap into in the West.
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