Euro zone perspective – nowhere near out of the woods

April 10, 2012

After the Easter break, a bit of perspective — to paraphrase the immortal Spinal Tap, maybe too much perspective.

Over the past two weeks, Spanish and Italian borrowing costs have continued to rise – in the former’s case they have now relinquished more than half their fall since December and are heading back into the danger zone. Stocks have also appeared to have given up on their first quarter rally, presumably testament to the realization that the ECB and other top central banks are unlikely to be writing any more blank cheques for banks to reinvest.

Late last year, it was Italy that seemed to have the power to drag Spain into the debt crisis mire. Now, it’s the other way round and after the ECB anaesthesia  wears off, it’s clear the euro zone patient is still sickly.

The European Commission will cast an eye over Spanish budget plans at some point this week. Spanish risk premiums have leapt since Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy defied Europe in early March by unilaterally easing Madrid’s 2012 deficit target. The silver lining for Madrid is that it has taken advantage of the benign market conditions early in the year to clear almost half its 2012 debt issuance needs and Rajoy is pushing through sweeping labour reforms and savage spending cuts. The trouble is that policy mix is likely to drive Spain further into recession – a recipe for debt to rise not fall.

Approaching elections in Greece and France throw further uncertainty into the mix. The former could weaken austerity resolve and the latter may elect a socialist president intent on rewriting the bloc’s new fiscal rules. 

After weak U.S. jobs data on Friday, even a surprise Chinese trade surplus in March – suggesting it’s fabled soft landing is on track – has failed to lift equities. European stocks have dropped more than  one percent in early post-holiday trade and safe haven German Bunds have jumped at the open with yields at their lowest level since September. For the first time this year, the markets have reverted to a glass half empty rather than half full bent.

The U.S. data overhang continues to be the strongest driver for now but a wobbly Spanish bond auction last week is also fresh in investors’ memories, given a big Italian debt sale looms on Thursday.

Today, the Dutch and Austrians come to the market and Spanish central bank chief Ordonez is speaking.
Germany has emulated China and reported a second consecutive monthly rise in exports with imports rising even faster, suggesting its economy may skirt the oncoming euro zone recession by finding buyers for its goods and boasts solid domestic demand. But it’s worth noting that that meaningful demand for its exports is coming from outside the euro zone, an indication of why the path of the Chinese economy is probably the most crucial factor in the months ahead.

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