MacroScope

Stress, stress, stress

The European Central Bank will announce the methodology which will underpin the stress tests of about 130 big European banks next year.

It is caught between the devil and the deep blue sea. Come up with a clean bill of health as previous discredited stress tests did and they will have no credibility. So it is likely to come down on the side of rigour but if in so doing it unearths serious financial gaps, fears about the euro zone would be rekindled and there is as yet no agreement on providing a common backstop for the financial sector.

France, Spain and Italy want a joint commitment by all 17 euro zone countries to stand by weak banks regardless of where they are. Germany, which fears it would end up picking up most of the bill, is worried about the euro zone’s rescue fund, the European Stability Mechanism, helping banks directly without making their home governments responsible for repaying the aid.

The pecking order is clear – a bank’s shareholders, creditors and large depositors would get hit first with national governments picking up the slack thereafter. But if it stops there, the “doom loop” of weak sovereigns propping up stricken banking sectors and each dragging the other down will be unbroken.

Moreover, ECB chief Mario Draghi has intervened to say bondholders shouldn’t be hit in all circumstances, for fear of investor flight.

Forever blowing bubbles?

UK finance minister George Osborne is speaking at a Reuters event today, Bank of England Deputy Governor Charlie Bean addresses a conference and we get September’s public finance figures. For Osborne, there are so many question to ask but Britain’s frothy housing market is certainly near the top of the list.

The government is extending its “help to buy” scheme at a time when house prices, in London at least, seem to be going through the roof (no pun intended). Property website Rightmove said on Monday that asking prices for homes in the capital jumped 10.2 percent in the last month alone.

The Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors has suggested the Bank’s Financial Policy Committee should cap house price inflation at 5 percent a year. A Bank of England policymaker retorted that it wasn’t down to his colleagues to regulate prices.

Slow motion coalition

Angela Merkel’s CDU and the centre-left SPD will begin formal coalition talks in Germany this week after a meeting of 230 senior SPD members gave the go-ahead on Sunday.

To win the vote, the SPD leadership pledged to secure 10 demands it called “non-negotiable”, including a minimum wage of 8.50 euros per hour, equal pay for men and women, greater investment in infrastructure and education, and a common strategy to boost euro zone growth.

That means thrashing out a policy slate with Merkel’s party is likely to take some time so the betting is an administration won’t be in place until late November at the earliest. SPD chairman Sigmar Gabriel said the aim was to have a functioning government by Christmas.

Greek turning point?

Greece will unveil its draft 2014 budget plan which is expected to forecast an end to six years of recession.

The draft will include key forecasts on unemployment, public debt and the size of the primary surplus Athens will aim for to show it is turning the corner. The government has said any further fiscal belt-tightening will not bring cuts in wages and pensions and that savings will be generated from structural measures.

If even Greece has passed the worst then maybe the euro zone crisis really is on the wane. The FT reports that billionaire John Paulson and a number of other U.S. hedge funds are investing aggressively in Greece’s banking sector, expecting it to get off its knees – an interesting straw in the wind.

Banking union shift

For most of the year, the biggest question for the euro zone was whether the pace of reform would pick up after German elections which are now just six days away. Thanks to a Reuters exclusive over the weekend it appears the answer could be yes, at least incrementally.

Senior EU officials told us that Germany is working on a plan that would allow the completion of a euro zone banking union without changing existing EU law. Until now, Berlin has insisted the EU would have to amend its Treaty to move power to close or fix struggling banks from a national to a European level – a process which could take years.

In exchange, a cross-border resolution agency would only rule over the fate of 130 euro zone banking groups that will be directly supervised by the European Central Bank from the second half of 2014. That would leave Germany’s politically sensitive savings banks under Berlin’s control.

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.

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.