It was the supposed return of Super Mario.
Preceded by two solid days of leaks that let the world know more or less what he was about to propose, European Central Bank President Mario Draghi took to the podium Thursday to announce the newest plan to save the ailing economies of Europe. The announcement, unlike Draghi's last public appearance, went off without a hitch. It was exactly what the markets had expected -- if anything, it was a slight positive surprise.
The plan, Draghi said, is to use his bank's considerable firepower to lower the borrowing costs that the peripheral economies of the euro zone face -- and which plague Spain in particular -- by helping those countries avoid a devastating financing crisis by making short-term bond purchases.
The trade-off for the countries that ended up being helped by the plan: they would have to come to Brussels with hat in hand to accept the aid, likely taking on additional austerity measures before qualifying for the help.
But while pundits and analysts dissected a myriad of angles regarding the ECB's proposal, one less-considered issue has been how, following the announcement of the plan on Thursday, it increasingly seemed that Spain was being given the short end of the stick, while Italy was being favored, by the announcement.
The Pain in Spain
It seems counterintuitive that one country could get hurt at the expense of another when both are being offered the same choice, as happened Thursday. To see how that could be the case, one first needs to understand the complex political chess that Draghi's seemingly straightforward proposal unleashed for periphery country politicians.
Draghi knew his proposal would not be welcomed with open arms by the people it is meant to help and did not disguise that fact when announcing the plan. Sending a shot across the bow to the Spanish, whose country has the most wounded economy in Europe outside of Greece, whose economy is economically depressed, Draghi was almost defiant, answering a reporter's question about how exactly the plan would help the Iberian country by noting "we designed now a road, and it's in [...] the hands of the euro group and the hands of the government of Spain."
While markets across Europe rallied, the scene that was suggested by the euphoria in the Continent's bourses never fully materialized.
In fact, in an appearance just minutes after Draghi had finished speaking in Brussels, Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy stood next to German Chancellor Angela Merkel to pretend he hadn't even been paying attention to Draghi, in spite of the fact his expected announcement was about the only thing taking up high-level discussions in the world of European policy making over the past two days.
"I have no news. When I have news, I'll let you know. I haven't even had the time to read about Mr. Draghi's press conference," Rajoy told the Spanish media, saving himself from having to comment on whether he'd take the bailout-for-austerity offer.
Somewhat contradicting himself as to how much he did know about Draghi's proposal, he later added that during the meeting with Chancellor Merkel, "we did not comment on anything regarding possible [austerity] conditions."
The message was crystal clear: The Spanish, even in their hour of economic need, are not just going to give up sovereignty over fiscal decisions in exchange for a rescue.
It's partly national pride, partly a high stakes game of political chicken.
In the past, Rajoy has adopted an ornery attitude that stressed not being seen as capitulating to a foreign power, advising his economic minister to push back hard on negotiations with euro zone peers, because "Spain is not Uganda," a foreign land being helped out of pity, but an integral member or the euro zone.
Spain's stubborn stance was further emboldened on Thursday after the Spanish government was able to successfully sell investors $3.5 billion in short-term debt earlier in the day, albeit at a lower price than the government had hoped. Following the auction, the government said it assessed itself as being "in a comfortable position and without undue market pressures," given it had already placed over three-quarters of the debt load it had scheduled to sell in 2012.
"Everything gives the impression that the Spanish government will continue pressing to move forward without having to make further compromises," Spanish brokerage Link Securities wrote in a note to clients Thursday that summarized the day's events.
"A very tough position"
"No compromises" may as well be a campaign slogan for Rajoy. In an interview with German newspaper Allgemeine Zeitung that came out Thursday morning, Rajoy essentially argued that the ECB's actions were not being driven by the Spanish component of the crisis, even if his country did at the time seem to be in the biggest hole.
"I am serene, calm and in balance, because I know where we are going and what we have to do," Rajoy told the paper, adding that "the doubts [driving ECB action] are not regarding Spain."
Rajoy's implication, then, is that the ECB is using the Spanish situation as fodder to foam the runway for the next country in the crisis firing line -- Italy.
There is an argument that has been made by many who are skeptical of the central bank's motivation, and it's a widely held perception in general -- that Italy, with an economy and banking sector much larger than those of Spain, is underreporting its economic malaise. Also feeding the rumor mill is the fact the Italian government under prime minister Mario Monti has moved swiftly to position itself as being open to a bailout, which is in contrast to politicians in other countries who have only acceded to rescues kicking and screaming, and usually with a resignation letter in hand.
Monti added to that perception on Thursday when, during a press conference alongside European Commission president José Barroso, he noted that, due to Draghi's actions, "the drama in the word 'help' has been reduced."
Leaking to the British press on the same day, an unnamed senior official in Draghi's government told the Financial Times on Thursday that while "Monti is in a very tough position," he would likely be amenable when "Germany and the Bundesbank ... ask for firm commitments on future reforms."
Of course, bending to the will of the supranational European government juggernaut is considerably easier for Monti than it is for more populist politicians; Monti is a technocratic 'unity' leader appointed by a previous government to get his country out of the crisis, not a politician trying to save his party from electoral obliteration, like Rajoy.
"A sovereign cabal"
Perhaps the most concrete proof that the plan proposed by the European Central Bank on Thursday pegged Spain as an unintended loser and Italy as an unintended winner -- or that at least reasonable people could see it that way -- came from a denial of the fact by the man who was announcing the plan.
In one of the most telling comments during the press conference, Mario Draghi noted that, while the might be construed as damaging to Spain, he said: "I would not identify this [policy decision] with this caricature of being a sovereign cabal or an Italian thing. No, it is not. It is the Governing Council that, in its almost unanimous decision, has taken this measure."
The decision, and the market rally that followed it, was indeed almost unanimous. But consider the following table, which shows the gains in share price Thursday for large, publicly traded banks across seven European countries.
It might not be a caricature, but considering how shows the Italians coming out overwhelmingly on top, it's not exactly a pretty picture either.
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