By Tom Fairless
FRANKFURT -- Europe's faltering economy and fractious politics are complicating the region's biggest personnel question in years: Who will replace Mario Draghi as president of the European Central Bank?
Mr. Draghi, who previously ran Italy's central bank, emerged as the dominant force in the European economy and financial markets during his seven-plus years as ECB head, holding the currency zone together by breaking taboos, including with the launch of a massive bond-buying program.
Eight months before Mr. Draghi's nonrenewable term ends in October, at least five unofficial candidates appear to be in the running to replace him, according to European officials: Two Frenchmen, two Finns and a German. The candidates have very different economic philosophies, and there is no clear front-runner. All declined to comment. Others could emerge.
With elections to the European Parliament approaching, and political allegiances shifting as anti-EU populist parties gather support, the continent's leaders risk letting the crucial position be hijacked by horse trading used to divvy up top posts, according to Karel Lannoo, chief executive of the Centre for European Policy Studies, a Brussels think tank.
"It's the most systemically important job in Europe, this man controls the show," Mr. Lannoo said. "It can go badly wrong."
Raising the stakes, Europe's economy has stumbled, with Germany's export powerhouse wobbling and Italy sliding into recession.
Mr. Draghi's departure "takes away the big 'put' in the market," said Stephen Isaacs, chairman of the investment committee at Alvine Capital, a London-based investment advisory firm. A put option allows investors to protect against the decline of an asset below a certain price. "In the next downturn, will the ECB president reach for the same monetary tools as the last six years, or say this doesn't work? It should be a big concern."
Europe's personnel carousel pushes off Tuesday, when European finance ministers are expected to nominate Irish central banker Philip Lane as the ECB's next chief economist.
After that, no further decision is expected for 3 1/2 months, when Europe holds parliamentary elections that could kick off a chain reaction of appointments to other top European posts, including head of the European Commission, the EU's executive arm.
Investors are already navigating a toxic mix of risks in Europe, from Brexit to trade wars. Financial markets have trusted Mr. Draghi, but may be less sure of his successor.
The ECB's next policy move is wide open. Until recently, the bank was steering away from ultralow interest rates, moving in December to phase out its massive bond-buying program, known as quantitative easing or QE.
If the economy stabilizes, the ECB could raise interest rates this year. If it doesn't, the bank might turn to new stimulus measures. It has few tools left: Interest rates are already below zero and it holds around EUR2.5 trillion of eurozone bonds.
"The process of phasing out QE went smoothly because investors trust Mario Draghi," said Yannis Stournaras, governor of Greece's central bank.
Eight years ago, Mr. Draghi quickly became the favorite after former German central-bank president Axel Weber, an early front-runner, pulled out of the race. Mr. Draghi used a savvy media campaign to dispel doubts in Europe's biggest economy about whether an Italian would adhere to Germany's anti-inflation mentality.
This time, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron -- who would typically steer the decision -- are weakened at home. They are waiting on the outcome of the European elections, where anti-EU populists are expected to make large gains. That vote will help determine top roles at the European Commission, which in turn will steer Europe's major unresolved policy debates on immigration and defense.
Ms. Merkel has indicated she will support a German candidate for Commission president, Manfred Weber, whose center-right European People's Party is expected to emerge strongest from the European elections in May. If so, France may stake a claim to the ECB.
France has two options in central bank Governor François Villeroy de Galhau and Benoît Coeuré, Mr. Draghi's right-hand man on the ECB's six-person executive board. Neither has ruled out a run. But Frenchmen have already served as ECB president and vice president, so some countries might be wary to give it the top post again.
If Mr. Weber's ascension to the European Commission is thwarted by populist parties, a Frenchman such as Michel Barnier -- currently the EU's chief negotiator in Brexit negotiations -- might get the top Commission job. That could thrust German central-bank President Jens Weidmann -- an outspoken critic of Mr. Draghi's signature policies -- into the ECB presidency.
Mr. Weidmann's chances were until recently considered modest by European officials because Ms. Merkel failed to throw her weight behind him early on. But he was recently given a boost by Italy's finance minister, Giovanni Tria, who unexpectedly indicated that he might back the German.
Italy's populist government underscored its disruptive potential after it attacked the country's own central bank over the weekend, saying its top brass should be replaced because it had failed to effectively supervise the country's troubled banks.
"Obviously if Weidmann is elected, that should totally reprice [market] expectations" of future eurozone interest rates, said Franck Dixmier, global head of fixed income at Allianz Global Investors. Mr. Weidmann called on the ECB last month to press ahead with plans to phase out ultralow interest rates, in contrast with Mr. Draghi, who has indicated that the ECB could unleash fresh stimulus to support the economy.
Investors are currently betting the ECB won't raise its key interest rate to zero for more than two years. It is currently minus 0.4%.
If Mr. Weidmann proves too controversial, leaders could settle on one of two compromise candidates from Finland, a Triple-A rated country that, like Germany, has a reputation for conservative thinking on monetary policy: central-bank Governor Olli Rehn, or his predecessor, Erkki Liikanen.
In Europe, national governments nominate their own candidates for ECB president. European finance ministers then agree on a name to put forward for a vote by national leaders, probably in June or July. In reality, the winning candidate will have been agreed to informally beforehand. It is a more convoluted process than in the U.S., where the president nominates the Federal Reserve chairman and the Senate confirms.
For now, Europeans aren't ready to say goodbye to Mr. Draghi.
"The way you argue, the amount of information you bring, the rigor of your reasoning -- all of that was exemplary," Bernd Lucke, co-founder of the euroskeptic Alternative for Germany party, told Mr. Draghi in a recent debate at the European Parliament.
Asked in January whether the process of finding his successor should be accelerated, Mr. Draghi said no. "I don't have that sense. Maybe people like me."
Write to Tom Fairless at firstname.lastname@example.org
(END) Dow Jones Newswires
February 11, 2019 08:14 ET (13:14 GMT)
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