MacroScope

Back from the beach

Back from a two-week break, so what have I missed?

All the big and ghastly news has come from the Middle East but there have been interesting developments in the European economic sphere.
It seems safe to say that Britain’s economic recovery is on track, and maybe more broadly rooted than in just consumer spending and a housing market recovery (bubble?).

Slightly more surprisingly, the euro zone is back on the growth track too with some unexpectedly strong performances from Portugal and France in particular in the second quarter. Latest consumer morale data have been strong and as a result European Central Bank policymakers have begun downplaying thoughts of a further interest rate cut. However, it’s unlikely that all these countries will grow as strongly in the third quarter. Tuesday’s reading of German sentiment via the Ifo index will be key this week.

Perhaps the biggest surprise was Germany’s Wolfgang Schaeuble admitting what was widely known but hitherto unacknowledged – that Greece will need more financial help. The real shock was not the news but the source; the assumption had been that no one would whisper a word until the German elections are out of the way in four weeks’ time. Angela Merkel has been notably more circumspect about Greece than her finance minister.

The IMF estimates an 11 billion euros hole and Greek finance minister Stournaras came out over the weekend saying 10 billion euros may be needed. Having been leant more than a quarter of a trillion already that may be small enough beer to pass without protest. What would be politically more toxic would be a writedown on Greek bonds, most of which are now held by euro zone government and the ECB. That may be unavoidable eventually but remains a taboo for now, not least since Portuguese and Cypriot bailouts could have to be renegotiated over the next year too.

Some in Brussels are talking about lower interest rates or longer repayment terms on existing loans rather than cold, hard cash – but it amounts to the same thing. ECB policymakers Jens Weidmann and Erkki Liikanen are both speaking today. Bundesbank chief Weidmann has already declared a debt haircut would be a mistake and said the onus is on Athens to implement the required reforms.

A day to reckon with

This could be a perfect storm of a day for the euro zone.

Portugal’s prime minister will attempt to shore up his government after the resignation of his finance and foreign ministers in successive days. The latter is threatening to pull his party out of the coalition but has decided to talk to the premier, Pedro Passos Coelho, to try and keep the show on the road.

If the government falls and snap elections are called, the country’s bailout programme really will be thrown up into the air. Lisbon plans to get out of it and back to financing itself on the markets next year. Its EU and IMF lenders are due back in less than two weeks and have already said the country’s debt position is extremely fragile.

Given the root of this is profound austerity fatigue in a country still deep in recession a further bailout is increasingly likely. Portuguese 10-year bond yields shooting above eight percent only add to the pressure; the country could not afford to borrow at anything like those levels. President Anibal Cavaco Silva’s will continue talks with the political parties today.

ECB in court

The major euro zone event of the week starts on Tuesday when Germany’s top court – the Constitutional Court in Karlrsuhe – holds a two-day hearing to study complaints about the ESM euro zone bailout fund and the European Central Bank’s still-unused mechanism to buy euro zone government bonds.

The case against the latter was lodged by more than 35,000 plaintiffs. Feelings clearly run high about this despite the extraordinary calming effect the mere threat of the programme has had on the euro debt crisis. Some in Germany, including the Bundesbank, are worried that the so-called OMT could compromise the ECB’s independence and would be hard to stop once launched.

A verdict won’t be delivered until later in the year but already there is already jockeying for position. Germany’s Spiegel reported that a limit had been set on the amount of bonds the ECB could buy – directly contradicting what Mario Draghi has said. That was swiftly and categorically denied by the ECB, then Executive Board Member Joerg Asmussen warned there would be “significant consequences” if Germany’s constitutional court rules the bond-buying programme was illegal.

Taking stock

It’s May Day and most of Europe, barring Britain, is taking a holiday so maybe it’s a day to take stock.

But first, a nervous glance at little Slovenia. Last night Moody’s cut its debt rating to junk, forcing Ljubljana to abandon a planned bond issue which looked set to raise several billion dollars and making a fifth euro zone sovereign bailout much more likely. Given the ham-fisted effort to rescue Cyprus didn’t put markets into a spin, it’s unlikely Slovenia will upset the euro zone applecart but it’s a reminder that this crisis isn’t over and won’t be until the currency bloc gets serious about creating a banking union. Slovenia’s problems, like Cyprus’s, are rooted in the banking sector, which is stifled by about 7 billion euros in bad loans.

One bullet was dodged when the Cypriot parliament narrowly approved its bailout late yesterday, which will avert bankruptcy but at a painful cost.

ECB eclipsed by BOJ

The European Central Bank takes centre stage. While others in the euro zone are saying the way Cyprus was bailed out – with bank bondholders and big depositors hit – could be repeated, the ECB insists it was a one-off.

Fearful of any signs of contagion it will continue to talk that talk and there’s no sign of it having to do more so far, with no bank run even in Cyprus let alone further afield. But the last two weeks has reignited debate about what the ECB might have to do in extremis. It’s no nearer deploying its bond-buying programme but it could flood the currency area’s financial system with long-term liquidity again if called upon.

Interest rates are expected to be held at a record low 0.75 percent. Hints of policy easing further out are not out of the question. As ever, Mario Draghi’s hour long press conference will be minutely parsed but there will be nothing to match the Bank of Japan which earlier announced a stunning revamp of its policymaking rules – setting a balance sheet target which will involve printing money faster and pledging to double its government bond holdings over two years.

Europe’s ‘democratic deficit’ evident in Cyprus bailout arrangement

The problem of a “democratic deficit” that might arise from the process of European integration has always been high on policymakers’ minds. The term even has its own Wikipedia entry.

As Cypriots waited patiently in line for banks to reopen after being shuttered for two weeks, the issue was brought to light with particular clarity, since the country’s bailout is widely seen as being imposed on it by richer, more powerful states, particularly Germany.

Luxembourg has accused the Germans of trying to impose “hegemony” on the euro zone.  The country, whose banking system, like Cyprus’, is very large relative to the economy’s tiny size, fears that similarly harsh treatment could be imposed on its depositors.

One-off or precedent?

Cypriot banks were supposed to reopen today but they won’t and when they do capital controls will be slapped on to prevent money fleeing its borders (was that how the single currency zone and single market was supposed to work?) The controls are supposed to be temporary but the Icelandic experience showed that once imposed they can be devilishly hard to remove. It seems pretty certain that there will be a bank run when the doors are reopened, which is now slated for Thursday.

Dutch Eurogroup chief Jeroen Dijsselbloem gave markets a jolt yesterday. In an interview with Reuters he said in future, the onus would be put on banks to recapitalize and if they couldn’t “then we’ll talk to the shareholders and the bondholders, we’ll ask them to contribute in recapitalising the bank, and if necessary the uninsured deposit holders”. He added that he wanted to get to a situation where the euro zone never needed to use its ESM rescue fund to recapitalize banks directly – a plan that was created last year at the height of the crisis. That all seemed crystal clear but after some adverse market reaction a later statement was put out on his behalf reverting to the earlier line that Cyprus was a one-off case.

So which is it? One-off or precedent? With a banking system eight times the size of its economy and awash with foreign money Cyprus clearly is unlike any of its euro zone peers. But it’s been also clear for some time now that Germany and other northern Europeans don’t want taxpayers to be on the hook for future bailouts and are not keen on using the ESM to recapitalize banks (that was supposed to break the doom loop between weak banks and sovereigns but maybe not any more). German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble was explicit after the bailout was agreed in the early hours of Monday morning, saying with the bail-in “we got what we always wanted”. As such, the Bundestag is almost certain to vote for it.

Cyprus Plan B – phoenix or dodo?

They’ve only been looking for it for a day but Cyprus’s Plan B has already taken on mythical status. A myth it might remain.

Ideas being floated include nationalizing the pension fund (back of the envelope calculations suggest that will raise less than a billion euros) and issuing bonds underpinned by future natural gas revenues (but no one is really sure how much they are worth). So to avoid default it still looks like the Cypriots may have to return to the bank levy they rejected so decisively in parliament on Tuesday, to raise the 5.8 billion euros the euro zone is demanding in return for a bailout.

Finance minister Sarris is still in Moscow hoping for some change out of the Russians and is out this morning saying discussions are ongoing about banks and natural gas.

What now?

 

The slow motion Cypriot car crash of the past five days reached impact point last night when not a single lawmaker voted for the bailout with bank levy attached – the first time a euro zone legislature has simply said no.

So what next? The finance minister is in Russia, ostensibly to seek an extension on an existing 2.5 billion euros loan on better terms, but could there be more on offer besides? The Eurogroup made clear last night that the 10 billion euros bailout was still on the table but that Nicosia had to come up with 5.8 billion euros of its own – the sum that a levy on bank depositors was supposed to raise. Could Moscow fill that gap, maybe in return for a slice of the island’s untapped offshore gas reserves? It looks unlikely but not impossible and there are powerful geopolitics at play. That there will be no more money from the euro zone looks like a given and there seems to be a resolve that it would be better to let Cyprus default then buckle at the last moment.

Finance minister Sarris has just said he hopes for a deal on the existing Russian loan today. In Nicosia, the president is meeting party leaders.

Cypriot crunch point

Cypriot lawmakers are supposed to vote today on a bailout that hits at least some of its bank depositors but the president’s spokesman has said any such legislation is unlikely to pass. This could be brinkmanship but it doesn’t sound like it.

Last night, euro zone finance ministers urged Nicosia to spare depositors with less than 100,000 euros in the bank and hit the richer harder, in order to raise 5.8 billion euros to free up a 10 billion euros bailout. Without it, Cyprus will surely go bankrupt but that is a deal that President Anastasiades baulked at in Brussels over the weekend. The government faces a stark choice: hit those who vote for it and rip up the deposit insurance they thought they had, or clobber the richer (many of them Russians), thus threatening the meltdown of its banking model.

Despite their belated support for the little guy, the euro zone will accept pretty much anything that raises the requisite cash. Germany and others insist the days of bailouts funded solely by taxpayers are over and the Bundestag probably wouldn’t sanction any other sort of deal.