Shifting euro zone sands

May 23, 2012

A telling moment. Before pretty much every showdown EU summit since the debt crisis exploded into life, the leaders of France and Germany have got together beforehand to agree a common strategy. It is a truism that the European motor only works efficiently when its two biggest powers are in accord.

This time, following the election of Francois Hollande as French president, there has been no such meeting. Instead he will talk with Spanish premier Mariano Rajoy in Paris before they head to the Brussels summit.
There, Hollande will press for the currency bloc to start issuing joint euro zone bonds and will run into implacable German opposition that will squash the plan for now.
But the plates are shifting and German Chancellor Angela Merkel looks somewhat isolated.

On euro bonds, Hollande can call on the support of Italy’s Mario Monti and the European Commission among others.
Nonetheless, Angela holds the purse strings so while we will see some modest pro-growth measures agreed (and no doubt trumpeted), there will be no pump-priming that requires extra deficit spending, certainly no mutualising of debt and probably no hint that the likes of Greece and Spain will be given longer to make the cuts demanded of them (though that policy’s time could soon come, depending on how the June 17 Greek elections go).

Greek contagion aside, Spain remains the bloc’s biggest headache largely because of the weight of bad debts dragging its banking sector down. One idea is to allow the euro zone’s rescue funds to lend to banks direct, thereby removing the stigma of a government having to ask for aid. But Berlin is not keen on this one either.

Less controversial are plans to boost the capital of the European Investment Bank, use “project bonds” backed by the EU budget to invest in infrastructure and recalibrate some EU structural funds which has been used to help poorer EU members so that it is spent in other areas which might yield a quick growth dividend. None of that can hurt. But peashooters and elephants come to mind.

The golden rule of this crisis is that red lines have and will be crossed, most notably by Germany and the ECB, if the bloc is teetering right on the edge. The first ones to give this time may be on relaxing debt-cutting timeframes and allowing the bailout funds to help banks direct. Euro zone bonds remain a long way off (probably only when all member countries have got their deficits sustainably below 3 percent of GDP) and talk of a bloc-wide bank deposit guarantee fund isn’t anywhere near, though the pace of events could change that. Much hangs on how Greeks vote on June 17.

A demonstration of just how bent out of shape the euro zone is will be provided by today’s German 2-year debt auction. Yielding about 0.07 percent on the secondary market, that means Berlin has set a zero coupon for this sale and will pay no more to borrow this money over two years, yet investors are still expected to snap it up, such is the desperation for something secure. The debt agency says it is not planning to start offering negative coupons.

Markets yesterday were behaving as if something dramatic was in the offing from the summit. Today they seem to have thought better. German Bund futures have opened half a point higher and European stock futures are 1 percent down.

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