MacroScope

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.

Greece has until the end of the week to put together a detailed programme of public sector reforms to convince the EU and IMF to pay out an 8.1 billion euros loan tranche from its second bailout. That will go to euro zone finance ministers to peruse on Monday.

Without the money, hefty bond repayments due in August look a bit dicey though there are suggestions that the money could be handed out in dribs and drabs to focus minds.

Full blown damage control?

Call it the great wagon circling.

Central bankers are talking tough in the face of the wild gyrations in financial markets. But it’s becoming increasingly clear they are sweating – and drawing up contingency plans to assuage the panic that’s taken hold since Chairman Ben Bernanke last week sketched out the Fed’s plan for winding down its QE3 bond-buying program. U.S. policymakers in particular must have predicted investors would react strongly. But now that longer-term borrowing costs have spiked to near a two-year high, they look to be entering full-blown damage control.

Here’s Richard Fisher, head of the Dallas Fed, speaking to reporters in London on Monday:

I’m not surprised by market volatility – markets are manic depressive mechanisms… Collectively we will be tested. We need to expect a market reaction… Even if we reach a situation this year where we dial back (stimulus), we will still be running an accommodative policy.

Back to banking union

The G8 produced little heat or light on the state of the world economy but if there was one clarion call it was for the euro zone to get on with forming a banking union – the last major initiative needed to draw a line under the euro zone debt crisis.

With the European Central Bank effectively underwriting the bloc’s governments with its bond-buying pledge, a cross-border mechanism to recapitalise or wind up failing banks would do the same for the financial sector.

The trouble is, not unreasonably, Berlin does not want to fall liable for the failure of a bank in a weaker country. Instead, it is pressing for a “resolution board” involving national authorities to take decisions on winding up failed banks, which sounds like the onus would remain on governments to sort out their own banks rather than pooling risk which would convince investors that a proper backstop was in place.

Mervyn King gets a “B” grade from economists… for the time being

As is now customary for retiring central bank chiefs, Bank of England Governor Mervyn King has received a warm – but not a standing – ovation from economists for his time in charge.

But if there’s one thing the last few years have shown, it’s that the legacy of prominent central bankers can sour quickly after retirement.

King received a median 7 out of 10 score for his 10 years as Bank of England governor from 39 economists polled by Reuters this week.

Britain’s Help to Buy unites analysts about its dangers

Even if they can’t agree how much Britain’s Help to Buy mortgage guarantee scheme will boost the housing market, analysts in the latest Reuters poll are united by an understanding of its dangers.

The government’s Help to Buy programme, unveiled in its March budget, is designed to boost mortgage lending and help buyers with small deposits get on the property ladder.

The poll predicts Britain’s house prices will rise at their fastest pace in four years in 2013, and data from Hometrack show London property was snapped up in April more quickly than at any time since October 2007 – adding to concerns Help to Buy might start a new house price bubble.

Mervyn King’s economic ray of light may be too bright

In his valedictory Quarterly Inflation Report, Bank of England Governor Mervyn King shone a ray of light on the British economy, saying it should grow 0.5 percent in the current quarter.

But according to the latest Reuters poll of more than 30 economists, published on Tuesday, that might be too optimistic.

The consensus showed gross domestic product would only expand 0.2 percent, weaker than the 0.3 percent expansion seen in the first quarter when the country missed sinking into an unprecedented triple-dip recession.

What’s it all about?

G7 finance ministers meet London on Friday and Saturday. Since they and many more met in Washington only three weeks ago and not much has changed since, it’s tempting to ask what is the point of this British gathering. There have been mutterings from some of the travelling delegations to that effect.

If there is an angle, it is the unusual focus on financial regulation (usually not part of the Group of Seven’s remit) with some feeling that more than four years after the collapse of Lehman Brothers, efforts to put in place structures to prevent similar events spinning out of control in future are flagging. That puts the euro zone’s fluctuating plans for a banking union firmly in focus, which in turn puts German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble right in the spotlight.

On Tuesday, he said elements of a banking union would have to be pursued without lengthy and arduous treaty change, something he’d previously said would be necessary. Was that a softening of his position? Er, probably not. More likely, the subtext is that because treaty change takes too long, Berlin will pursue only those elements of banking union that don’t require it – i.e. bloc-wide regulation yes, but forget about a bank resolution mechanism let alone a joint deposit guarantee.

Austerity, the ECB and Osborne

There’s been a lot of noise surrounding the rhetorical shift away from austerity in the euro zone in recent days, the notable exception being Germany. It is now widely acknowledged that monetary policy alone cannot turn economies around. But of course it has a vital part to play.

That puts the focus on the European Central Bank and growing expectations that it will cut interest rates to a new record low next month. Yesterday’s poor German PMI could have been the tipping point. On three of the four times the survey reading has fallen below 50 since the collapse of Lehman Brothers a rate cut followed the month after. Germany’s PMI duly slipped into contractionary territory yesterday.

In all this, we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that a quarter-point rate cut may move markets but will have only a small impact on the euro zone economy. It’s also true that the ECB has shown no signs of wanting debt-cutting drives to be mothballed. Its reaction to any shift in that direction remains to be seen.

Octogenarian rekindles Italian hope

 

The big euro zone development over the weekend was the re-election of ageing Italian President Giorgio Napolitano for a second term. The presumption is that to put himself through this again he must have got pretty serious expressions of intent from the warring political parties that they will strive for some form of grand coalition. That may have been made easier by the resignation of centre-left leader Bersani who was in danger of splitting his own caucus.

If that comes to pass it should push back the timing of fresh elections until next year at least, a welcome turn for markets which feared a new poll could result in an even more fractured outcome and put more power in the hands of the anti-establishment Five Star movement. All that means we should see a significant rally in Italian assets today. That should also benefit other peripheral euro zone bonds. Safe haven German Bund futures have already dipped at the open, Italian bond futures have leapt almost a full point and European stock futures are pointing upwards.

87-year-old Napolitano will address parliament later and could either rush through consultations with the parties or skip that step altogether since he’s already heard from them ad nauseam.

From one central banking era to another: beware the consequences

Paul Volcker’s inflation-fighting era as chairman of the Federal Reserve is quite the opposite of today’s U.S. central bank, which is battling to kick start growth and even stave off deflation with trillions in bond purchases. And it is polar opposite of where the Bank of Japan finds itself today, doubling down on easing to lift inflation expectations after two decades of Japanese stagnation. After all, Volcker ratcheted up interest rates in 1979 and the early 1980s to tame the inflation that had been choking the United States.

So it may come as no real surprise that, talking to students and faculty at New York University on Monday, he had a few concerns about where the world’s ultra accommodative central banks are headed.

“There are going to be big losses at central banks at someplace along the line,” he said. “You do all this support of buying longer term securities at very low interest rates; long term interest rates aren’t going to stay where they are forever; at some point losses are going to be taken.”