MacroScope

S&P’s year-end broadside

Any sense of euphoria EU leaders felt about agreeing a plan to underpin Europe’s banks – which should have been muted anyway – may be tempered by S&P’s decision to cut the bloc’s credit rating to AA+ from AAA.

In global terms that’s still rock solid but the rationale – flagging “rising risks to the support of the EU from some member states” has some resonance. On the upside, the agency affirmed its rating of Ireland following its bailout exit and kept its outlook positive. Presumably, S&P is clearing the decks before Christmas because it also reaffirmed the UK’s top notch AAA rating, and reaffirmed South Africa too.

The EU quote packs a punch following a banking union deal where Germany successfully saw off plans for euro zone countries to help each other in tackling problem lenders.

The fact that bank creditors and investors will get hit first in future diminishes the threat to euro zone governments but for several years at least there is no mutual backstop so the buck will continue to stop with them and the potentially ruinous link between failing banks and heavily indebted sovereigns is unbroken.

Cohesion has diminished, S&P concluded.

The history of the euro zone crisis has been that when the pressure diminishes, policymakers lose their sense of urgency so if there was another crunch they would doubtless rush to bolster their defences. The power of ratings agency rulings to roil financial markets is also much diminished – the euro edged down but no more – but there is something to this analysis.

Ireland at the finishing line

Ireland will officially exit its bailout on Sunday. Not much will happen but symbolically it’s huge and will be used by the EU as evidence that its austere crisis-fighting approach can work. Today, the IMF will confirm Dublin passed the last review of its bailout programme – the final piece in the jigsaw. Finance Minister Michael Noonan is also expected to speak.

For Dublin, this is only the beginning.

Support for the coalition government has slumped with the minority Labour party suffering worst (‘twas ever thus in coalitions).
As a result, Labour is pressing for a loosening of the purse strings while the dominant Fine Gael under premier Enda Kenny seems prepared to bet on a return to growth delivering the votes they need to rule outright after the next election, due by early 2016.

There are already some signs of easing with the government opting for a smaller package of spending cuts and tax hikes in its 2014 budget and the IMF warning planned 2 billion budget cuts planned for 2015 year may not be sufficient. The main benefactor in the polls so far has been Sinn Fein. 

Judgment day for Slovenia

The Slovenian government is poised to publish the results of an external audit of its banks, which will say how much cash the government must inject to keep them afloat. We’ve heard from sources that the euro zone member needs as much as 5 billion euros to recapitalize largely state-owned banks.

The central bank said on Tuesday that sufficient funds were available to an international bailout but, while the euro zone might breathe a sigh of relief, Ljubljana’s problems are far from over. A fire sale of state assets will be triggered and the banks are so embedded into the Slovene economy that deleveraging will cause great damage.

The government may raid its own cash reserves of 3.6 billion euros, hit junior bank bondholders to the tune of 500 million euros and, if necessary, tap financial markets. But all this may just be delaying the inevitable for a country that is expected to wallow in recession until 2015. Prime Minister Alenka Bratusek has called a cabinet meeting and a news conference is tentatively scheduled for 1000 GMT.

Confidence in Italy?

Emboldened by the splitting of Silvio Berlusconi’s party and the media mogul’s expulsion from parliament, Prime Minister Enrico Letta has already won one confidence vote in parliament. Today, he has called another to cement his coalition’s standing.

Letta is expected to win with the help of a centre-right group which split from Berlusconi but tensions are rising between his centre-left PD, now by far the biggest party in the coalition, and the small group led by Interior Minister Angelino Alfano.

That’s partly because there’s a new man in town who may press for more left-wing policies that would enrage the centre-right.

Union? Don’t bank on it

The Eurogroup of euro zone finance ministers meets, followed by the full Ecofin on Tuesday, to try and unpick the Gordian Knot that is banking union.

The ministers are seeking to create an agency to close euro zone banks and a fund to pay for the clean-up – completing a new system to prevent a repeat of the bloc’s debt crisis.

But Germany, which does not want to foot the bill for failures elsewhere, is wary not least because a coalition deal to form the next government has yet to win final approval from the Social Democrats.

Game of chicken in Kiev

No sign of tensions calming on the streets of Kiev, in fact today we could have a new flashpoint.

Prime Minister Mykola Azarov’s cabinet is holding its weekly meeting in the government building which protesters have blockaded since Monday, paving the way for a possible showdown.

Popular pressure, following President Viktor Yanukovich’s decision to reject an EU trade deal and turn back to Russia, is being matched by the markets, and it is from there that the potential tipping point could come.

And more from the ECB…

The bombardment of European Central Bank interventions continues today. ECB chief Mario Draghi addresses the European Banking Congress in Frankfurt and any number of his colleagues break cover elsewhere.

Draghi shepherded a surprise interest rate cut earlier this month and consistently says that other options are on the table though yesterday he said that talk of cutting the deposit rate into negative territory to try and force banks to lend more was people “creating their own dreams”.

Having said that, the prospect of printing money has been raised, at least in principle, and the markets still expect a new round of long-term liquidity pumped into the banking system – a repeat of last year’s LTROs – early next year. Anything more would be hugely difficult for Germany and its fellow travellers to swallow.

ECB cacophony

A round of European Central Bank policymakers speeches this week can be boiled down to this. All options, including money-printing, are on the table but it will be incredibly hard to get it past ECB hardliners and neither camp sees a real threat of deflation yet.

Reports that the ECB could push deposit rates marginally into negative territory in an attempt to force banks to lend have been played down by our sources, not least because it would distort the working of the money market.

Today, ECB chief Mario Draghi speaks at a Berlin conference. Bundesbank head Jens Weidmann, who opposed this month’s cut in the main interest rate along with about a quarter of the Governing Council, will also be there as will Angela Merkel.

Taking the union out of banking union?

Today’s meeting of EU finance ministers will grapple with banking union and next year’s stress tests though with no German government in place, a leap forward is unlikely.

One German official seemed pretty clear yesterday, saying: “We don’t want a mutualisation of bank risks.” That, some would argue, takes the union out of banking union and is certainly a very different approach to the one promised last year when EU leaders were scrambling to keep the euro zone together.

Some experts argue that with the European Central Bank pledging to support euro zone governments come what may, the urgency has been taken out of banking union and that next year’s health checks and cross-border supervision under the ECB is going far enough. Any holes in bank balance sheets can comfortably be filled by creditors and governments.

Brussels looks warily at German surplus

Barring a last minute change of heart, the European Commission will launch an investigation into whether Germany’s giant trade surplus is fuelling economic imbalances, a charge laid squarely by the U.S. Treasury but vehemently rejected by Berlin.

This complaint has long been levelled at Germany (and China) at a G20 level and now within the euro zone too. Italian Prime Minister Enrico Letta urged Berlin this week to do more to boost growth.

Stronger German demand for goods and services elsewhere in the euro zone would surely help recovery gain traction. The counter argument is that in the long-run, only by improving their own competitiveness can the likes of Spain, Italy and France hope to thrive in a globalised economy.