MacroScope

Does the European crisis need to get worse to get better?

Europe will do what it takes to save the euro, after it tries everything else. That seems to be the conventional wisdom about the continent’s muddled handling of a financial crisis now well into its third year.

The latest whipsaw came this week when, having hinted at aggressive action on the part of the European Central Bank, its president, Mario Draghi, backtracked a bit by saying the ECB “may” take further non-standard measures such as purchases of government bonds of countries like Spain and Italy, which have come under extreme market pressure.

John Praveen, chief investment strategist at Prudential International Investments Advisers, notes Draghi appears to have attached a new condition to ECB bond buys. Those countries must first ask for a formal bailout from the European Union, which they are reluctant to do because of the tough austerity measures that would then be imposed on them.

The ECB tied its fresh measures to actions by national governments. Specifically, before the ECB reactivates the SMP and steps in to buy bonds on the secondary market (Spanish and Italian bonds), these national governments will first have to seek formal assistance from the ESM/EFSF (Eurozone’s government bail-out fund) to purchase their bonds. Following the request to the EFSF, the ECB will step in to buy bonds.

Unfortunately, at present, both Spain and Italy are very reluctant to seek EFSF support due to the onerous austerity and structural reform conditions that this would entail. Thus, it appears that the crisis (in Spain and Italy) has to worsen and borrowing costs rise further before these governments are forced to ask for EFSF help. Thus, the ECB is likely to standby until the crisis worsens.

Is that a bailout in your pocket?

There was an awkward moment of tension at the Milken Global Conference in Los Angeles, when a buysider on one panel asked a Wall Street banker whether he had pocketed taxpayers’ bailout cash.

The tit-for-tat began when several panelists at the “Outlook for M&A” session began griping about the U.S. government’s tax policy, which they said dissuades corporations from bringing overseas profits back home because of punitive taxes.

The panelists – including James Casey, co-head of global debt capital markets for JP Morgan, Anthony Armstrong, an investment banker at Credit Suisse, and Raymond McGuire, global head of corporate and investment banking at Citigroup – predicted that the M&A market might get a big boost if the U.S. were to offer a tax holiday of sorts for repatriated profits.

Selective transparency at the Fed

It’s something of a dissonant communications strategy: Fed officials are willing to tell us what they think will happen three years from now, but not what they discussed three years ago.

The Federal Reserve’s public relations arm holds up the chairmanship of Ben Bernanke as a model of transparency. And it’s true. Press conferences and federal funds rate forecasts are major steps forward for a central bank that until the mid-1990s didn’t even tell the markets what it was doing with interest rates.

Still, the old habits of secrecy die hard. Monetary policy transparency aside, the Fed has remained adamantly opaque in other ways – to the point that it took a Bloomberg News lawsuit for it to name the recipients of emergency era loans.

European rescue: Who benefits?

The words “European bailout” normally conjure up images of inefficient public sectors, bloated pensions, corrupt governments. But market analyst John Hussman, in a recent research note cited here by Barry Ritholtz, says the reality is a bit more complicated:

The attempt to rescue distressed European debt by imposing heavy austerity on European people is largely driven by the desire to rescue bank bondholders from losses. Had banks not taken on spectacular amounts of leverage (encouraged by a misguided regulatory environment that required zero capital to be held against sovereign debt), European budget imbalances would have bit far sooner, and would have provoked corrective action years ago.

In other words, even if state actors mishandled government finances, Wall Street was, at the very least, an all-too-willing enabler.

A “Greed Tax” on banks

The International Monetary Fund has done what it was bid by the G20  and come up with proposals for getting banks to pay for the government help they receive when they get in trouble.  You can read the actual wording here, but it comes down to this:

Cat1) A “Financial Stability Contribution” which would be pooled into a fund that would use it to help weak banks, or just go into general government revenues.

2)  A “Financial Activities Tax” — perhaps intentionally known as FAT — to be levied on combined bank profits and remuneration (for which read “bonuses”) and paid to governments.