MacroScope

A Rubicon crossed

What a weekend. The euro zone crossed a dangerous Rubicon by whacking Cypriot bank depositors as part of a bailout – a dramatic departure from previous aid programmes. The finance ministers insist it is a one-off (as they did for Greece) but if investors and bank customers fear a precedent has been set, there could yet be a serious backwash for the euro zone. And all this for six billion euros? It seems perplexing to say the least although our trawl of the streets of the euro zone periphery has detected little alarm so far.

Markets are voting with their feet. The euro has dropped well over one percent, European stock futures are pointing to losses of two to three percent and the safe haven Bund future has leapt a full point at the open. Italian bond futures have done the reverse, suggesting that in the bond market at least, there is more than a little concern about contagion from Cyprus. “The crisis is back,” one bond trader told us. “Precedent” is the word on everybody’s lips. I’ve used it before but Bank of England Governor Mervyn King produced the definitive line on bank runs – it’s never logical to start one but it sure could be logical to join one.

To muddy the waters further, the Cypriots are trying to renegotiate the deal to ease the 6.5 percent burden on smaller depositors and raise it on the richer (from 9.9 percent). This suggests that the president fears that today’s parliamentary vote may be lost without changes. If it is lost – no party has a majority and three of them said yesterday they wouldn’t support the programme – we’re in for a real rollercoaster as everyone scrambles to avoid a default, with all the reputational damage that will do to the euro zone. At that point, we could probably kiss goodbye to the five months of calm imposed by the European Central Bank and its “do whatever it takes” pledge.

On the other hand, if it is passed, this could blow over. Cyprus is a special case with a banking sector – home to money laundering – dwarfing the size of the economy, and the size of the bailout had to be trimmed to something plausible somehow. That may have been the price of keeping the IMF on board, something which the Bundestag probably requires to support this. So better communication by the eurocrats could get that across. Either way, the IMF’s call on Friday for the currency area to press ahead with a common deposit guarantee – a red line for Germany – looks startlingly prescient.

A source close to the consultations told Reuters Nicosia is hoping to cut the tax band to 3.0 percent for deposits under 100,000 euros. Brussels said last night that would be fine as long as the net savings were the same. President Anastasiades is also trying to sugar the pill by offering savers who lost money shares in commercial banks, with equity returns guaranteed by future revenues expected from natural gas discoveries. Another potential spanner in the works has come from Russia (a lot of the deposits in Cyprus are Russian-owned) which says it still hasn’t decided whether to roll over its existing $2.5 billion loan to Cyprus at more favourable rates – something the euro zone is counting on.

Euro bailouts — one out, one in

We had thought the end-of-week EU summit was going to be a lacklustre affair but things are starting to bubble up.

Ireland announced last night it would issue its first new 10-year bond since it was bailed out in 2010. It sounds like the books on the syndicated issue will open today with dealers predicting strong demand. This is a crucial step in Dublin becoming the success story the euro zone desperately craves. Some European Central Bank policymakers have said the bank’s bond-buying programme could be deployed to help Ireland once it has demonstrated its ability to issue debt in a variety of maturities. Others, notably Bundesbank chief Jens Weidmann, appear less keen on the idea.

With yields below four percent (they peaked above 15 percent in 2011) and needing to raise only a few billion in debt this year, it’s not clear that Ireland even needs ECB help to put the bailout behind it, but bond-buying support would certainly seal its exit and also show the ECB’s intent to markets. Further down the line, it will be worth pondering whether Ireland’s journey demonstrates that austerity was the right medicine. Plenty of euro zone policymakers will say so. The interesting question to address would be whether Dublin could have got there faster with more leeway to boost growth and therefore tax revenues.

Euro zone week ahead

Italy will continue to cast a long shadow and has clearly opened a chink in the euro zone’s armour. It looks like the best investors can expect is populist Beppe Grillo supporting some measures put forward by a minority, centre-left government but refusing any sort of formal alliance. That sounds like a recipe for the sort of instability that could have investors running a mile. The markets’ best case was for outgoing technocrat prime minister Monti to support the centre-left in coalition, thereby guaranteeing continuation of economic reforms. But he just didn’t get enough votes. Fresh elections are probably the nightmare scenario given the unpredictability of what could result.

The story of the last five months has been the bond-buying safety net cast by the European Central Bank which took the sting out of the currency bloc’s debt crisis. But now it has an Achilles’ Heel. The ECB has stated it will only buy the bonds of a country on certain policy conditions. An unwilling or unstable Italian government may be unable to meet those conditions so in theory the ECB should stand back. But what if the euro zone’s third biggest economy comes under serious market attack? Without ECB support the whole bloc would be thrown back into crisis and yet if it does intervene, some ECB policymakers and German lawmakers will throw their hands up in horror, potentially calling the whole programme in to question.

In other words, until or unless a durable government is formed in Italy which can credibly say and do the right things, the euro zone crisis is back although not yet in the way it was a year ago when break-up looked possible.

Italy gives new bite to euro zone crisis

Don’t start putting out the tinsel yet. Just when we thought we had a smooth glide path into Christmas the euro zone has bitten back.

Over the weekend, Italy’s Mario Monti called Silvio Berlusconi’s bluff and said he was pulling the government down which will mean early elections in February. The budget bill will be passed and then the country will be in a potentially precarious state of limbo as parliament is dissolved. Italian bond futures have opened more than a point lower, which denotes a reasonable measure of alarm, although the safe haven Bund future has only edged up so we’re far from panic mode.

The big question is whether a government results that will stick to Monti’s agenda and whether he himself will have a prominent role to play in the administration. There are constitutional difficulties to keeping Monti as prime minister since he has said he would not stand at the election, though he has also said he would be prepared to step in again if no stable government is formed. Most likely, presuming a government is elected that supports his reforms, is that he will play a key role but not take the top job.

Calm after the storm

After months of bickering and struggle, the euro zone and IMF have agreed on a scheme which will notionally cut Greece’s mountainous debt to a level they view as sustainable in the long-term. Athens has now launched a buyback of its debt at a sharp discount from private creditors which should wipe 20 billion euros of its debt pile – a key plank of the plan.

Is the problem solved? Absolutely not. But has Germany achieved its goal of delaying any disasters, or really tough decisions, until after its elections in the Autumn of 2013? Almost certainly. So we could (famous last words) be in for a period of relative calm on the euro zone crisis front.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel and her finance minister have begun quietly hinting that euro zone government and the European Central Bank may eventually have to take a writedown on the Greek bonds they hold to make Athens’ debt controllable. That won’t happen for at least two years but in the meantime, bailout money will flow and Greece will survive.

If Greek talks are tough, check out the EU budget

The EU budget summit, which could turn into a marathon as it tries to nail down monies for the next seven years, begins today. With the euro zone repeatedly failing to nail down a Greek deal, the EU would be well advised not to let this negotiation fall apart too. Having said that, there is little sign of great concern in market pricing – presumably the ECB’s pledge to buy government bonds in whatever amount it takes to steady the bloc continues to suppress investor nerves and short sellers.

Net contributors to the budget including Germany, France and Britain want to cut 100 billion euros from the European Commission’s draft budget proposal, but differ over which areas to cut. Meanwhile, the main beneficiaries of EU funding such as Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic oppose cuts. The meeting is intended to lay the groundwork for political agreement on the budget by EU leaders at their final summit of 2012 in December. It will last two days, maybe more and it could well be that no agreement is reached. Officials say only a cut in real terms – for the first time ever – is likely to do the trick.

Back to Greece and prime minister Samaras will meet Eurogroup chief Juncker in Brussels although he is now largely a passive, angry bystander in this process. While Juncker’s assertion in the early hours of Wednesday morning that a deal was only held up by complex technical matters has some truth to it, there is a far deeper split to be closed.

French downgrade to give way to Greek debt deal

Big event overnight was the downgrading of France to Aa1 by Moody’s, bringing it in line with Standard & Poor’s which cut back in January. There are some funds (even in this age of AAA scarcity) which will only invest in top notch debt and take their cue to exit once two agencies have dropped that rating, but the immediate impact is unlikely to be dramatic. The euro has slipped on the news, French government bond futures have dropped about a quarter of a point and safe haven German Bund futures have edged up. “Although it’s not great, the market doesn’t seem too worried,” one trader said.

However, it does throw a spotlight on the gap between France’s economic health (lack of it) and the record low costs it can borrow at. We’ve written plenty of good stuff on this already and French finance minister Moscovici gave his response to us last night. Interestingly, it wasn’t an attack on the ratings agencies, which we’ve seen before from Europe in these circumstances. Instead, he said it was an alarm bell telling the government to pursue structural reforms and reaffirmed his commitment to meet budget deficit targets. He noted that France continued to enjoy record low yields after S&P cut early in the year. The only thing he really took issue with was Moody’s view of the large risks to France’s banks. It warned it could cut France’s rating further.

As the day progresses, thoughts will turn to Greece and this evening’s meeting of euro zone finance ministers. We’ve had a strong exclusive readout of what is likely – an endorsement in principle to unfreeze loans to Greece but a final go-ahead for December disbursement only after a few final reforms are enacted in Athens. Berlin has suggested bundling together the next few Greek bailout tranches in order to pay over 44 billion euros if a green light is given. Others want only the next tranche of 31 billion to be handed over at this stage. Either way, that will keep the show on the road but there is plenty more to be decided yet.

Greek debt — a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma

So said Winston Churchill of Russia. The Greek debt saga isn’t quite that unfathomable but the economic necessities continue to clash with the political realities.

Eurogroup Working Group – the expert finance officials from 17 euro zone nations who do the clever preparatory work before their finance ministers meet – will convene to today try and get the Greek debt process back on track after a ministerial meeting got nowhere on Monday and in fact ended up in an unusually public spat between its chair, Jean-Claude Juncker, and IMF Managing Director Christine Lagarde.

The Eurogroup plus Lagarde will meet again next Tuesday and there are big gaps to bridge although we intercepted the IMF chief in Manila this morning, insisting that a deal was possible, or at least that’s one way of reading her “it’s not over until the fat lady sings” quote.

Greek show still on the road

The Greek government pulled it off last night, winning parliamentary approval for an austerity package which offers yet more deep spending cuts, tax rises and measures to make it easier and cheaper to hire and fire workers. But boy was it tight. With the smallest member of the coalition rejecting the labour measures, Prime Minister Antonis Samaras carried the day by just a handful of votes. The overall budget bill is expected to be pushed through parliament on Sunday.

So the show remains on the road and this government has shown more resolve than its predecessors which may buy it some goodwill from its lenders. Attention today turns to the monthly policy meeting of the European Central Bank, a key player in negotiations to put Greece’s debts back on a sustainable path.  Mario Draghi could well rule out taking a haircut on the Greek bonds it holds, something the IMF has pushed it and euro zone governments to do but which Germany and others won’t countenance.  However, the ECB could forego profits it has made on Greek bonds it bought at a steep discount. Those profits have to be funneled through national euro zone central banks and would only be realized when the bonds mature but it would still help.

Greece is set to get two more years to make the cuts demanded of it and EU economics chief Olli Rehn told us yesterday that lengthening the maturities on official loans to Greece and lowering interest rates on them could be done but a haircut was out. There is the possibility of a meeting of the Eurogroup Working Group (the expert officials who prepare for euro zone finance ministers’ meetings) but it seems less likely that a deal will be struck at next Monday’s Eurogroup meeting, with officials now giving themselves until the end of November to come up with something. There were suggestions that Washington had urged big decisions to be put off until after the presidential election. True or not, that roadblock is now out of the way.

More pain for Spain

El Pais has seen tomorrow’s European Commission forecasts for Spain and they’re grim. The Commission predicts the economy will slide by 1.5 percent next year while Madrid’s forecast is for a 0.5 percent contraction. That puts the target of getting the budget deficit down to 3 percent of GDP  even harder to attain – the Commission predicts a deficit of 6 percent next year and 5.8 percent in 2014 while the Spanish government insists it will get it down to 2.8 percent in two years’ time.

Peering through the numbers, the key question is whether this vista will make it more likely that Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy will seek help from the euro zone rescue fund, after which the European Central Bank can intervene to buy Spain’s bonds.

Rajoy has been in no hurry to seek help and given Spain’s funding needs for this year will be met in full after an auction on Thursday there is no pressure on that front. But with the economy in dire straits its borrowing needs are likely to climb next year so a pre-emptive strike would have some merit. It would also give the euro zone the broader benefit of showing the ECB will put its money where its mouth is. ECB policymaker Ewald Nowotny said yesterday that the ECB’s bond-buying programme should be put into use to dispel market doubts – not that that is a consideration for Rajoy.