MacroScope

Market/economy disconnect?

Italy comes to the market with a five- and 10-year bond auction today and, continuing the early year theme, yields are expected to fall with demand healthy. It could raise up to 6.5 billion euros. A sale of six-month paper on Tuesday was snapped up at a yield of just 0.73 percent. Not only is the bond market unfazed by next month’s Italian elections, which could yet produce a chaotic aftermath, neither is it bothered by the scandal enveloping the world’s oldest bank, Monte dei Paschi, which is deepening by the day.

Even before this week (it also sold nearly 7 billion euros of debt on Monday), Italy had already shifted 10 percent of its annual funding needs. Clearly it, and Spain, is off to a flying start which removes a lot of potential market pressure.

But the disconnect with the miserable state of the two countries’ economies should still give pause for thought. Flash Q4 Spanish GDP figures, out later, are forecast to show its economy contracted by a further 0.6 percent in the last three months of the year, with absolutely no end to recession in sight. That looks like a good opportunity to detail the state of the Spanish economy and how it could yet push Madrid towards seeking outside help. Italian business confidence data are also due.

Banks will settle the 137 billion euros of cheap three-year European Central Bank money that they intend to pay back early, which raises another interesting angle. Some of them will avail themselves of shorter-term ECB money to compensate but there are concrete signs that the ECB’s balance sheet is shrinking on a trend basis. That amounts to a slight policy tightening at a time when other central banks around the world are printing money furiously, or at least not reversing course. Talk of a currency war may be overdone but in that environment, upward pressure on the euro could well persist – not good news for a currency bloc back in recession. The double whammy is that there is little sign that banks are prepared to increase their lending.

If markets are to turn tail, the catalysts are more likely to come from the United States courtesy of a Federal Reserve policy meeting, December jobless figures and Q4 GDP this week. But the macro news has been fairly consistently good from the States in recent weeks and the Fed, with its lower unemployment target, is unlikely to even hint at an end to ultra-loose policy yet. So it really comes down to how far ahead of reality markets have got. World stocks are up the best part of four percent since the turn of the year.

Irish setback

We’ve been saying for some time that while the immediate heat may be off the euro zone, therein lies a danger – that policymakers will relax their efforts to remould the bloc into a tougher structure that can withstand future crises, and possibly even allow this crisis to flare back into life.

Exhibit A has been the apparent backsliding on what we thought was a concrete plan to allow the euro zone rescue funds to recapitalize banks directly from next year, thereby removing the onus on highly indebted governments to do so. Over the weekend we got Exhibit B courtesy of a Reuters exclusive.

We reported that the European Central Bank had rejected Ireland’s solution to avoid the crippling cost of servicing money borrowed to rescue its failed banking system – debt servicing would amount to around 3 billion euros a year for the next 10 years. Dublin wanted to convert the promissory note into long-term bonds. The ECB decided last week that that crossed its red line of monetary financing.

Europe and the danger of soft-pedalling

No one really questions Angela Merkel’s supremacy in Germany but losing the key state of Lower Saxony in a Sunday election, albeit by the narrowest of margins, means we’ll have to put on ice proclamations that her re-election for a third term in the autumn is now merely a procession. The centre-left SPD and Greens won the state by a single seat. Merkel and others will speak about the result today. What it probably does affirm is that the Chancellor will be extremely cautious about agreeing to more euro zone crisis fighting measures before the national election is safely out of the way.

We’ve been here before. When the drumbeat of market pressure eases, euro zone policymakers have tended to lose their sense of urgency. Today’s meeting of euro zone finance ministers, the first of the year, could be a case in point. The agenda lists “progress” on Cyprus, Spain, Ireland, Portugal and Greece with no decisions expected.
The meeting is set to anoint Dutch Finance Minister Jeroen Dijsselbloem as its new chairman after France dropped its objections on Sunday. He will attend the final press conference so it will be interesting to hear his pitch.

The most important area of debate will be the euro zone’s rescue fund and its ability eventually to recapitalize struggling banks directly, thereby breaking the “doom loop” whereby weak governments drive themselves further into debt by propping up listing banks while the lenders are stuffed with that government’s bonds which are liable to lose value. EU leaders seemed pretty clear at last June’s summit that this would be done but there are now suggestions that governments will remain on the hook to at least some extent. That would be a very significant backward step.

Will bank lending finally start to rise?

Big news over the weekend was the world’s banks being given an extra four years to build up their cash piles, and given more flexibility about what assets they can throw into the pot. This is a serious loosening of the previously planned regime and could have a significant effect on banks’ willingness to lend and therefore the wider economy.

For over two years, banks have complained that they can’t oil the wheels of business investment and consumer spending while being forced to build up much larger capital reserves to ward off future financial crises. That contradiction has now been broken (a big win for the bank lobbyists) and the impact on economic recovery could be profound.

However, there are no guarantees. Banks, in Europe at least, have also insisted that lending has remained low because there isn’t the demand for credit from business and households. If that’s true, increased willingness to lend might not be snapped up.

Fed call for cap on bank size sparks fresh debate on too big to fail

Federal Reserve Board Governor Daniel Tarullo’s call for limiting bank size is sparking debate in unexpected places. Keith Hennessey, who ran the National Economic Council under President Bush, was in Chicago late last week for a discussion with Democratic lawmaker Barney Frank. The topic of the panel, sponsored by CME Group Inc., was the housing crisis.

But the most spirited exchange took place after Hennessey said that banks are simply too big to regulate adequately. “I think Tarullo has got a good point,” he said, referring to Tarullo’s argument for the need to cap bank size. Hennessey, as Bush’s economic policy assistant in 2008, was among administration officials that worked to win Congressional approval for the bailout of insurance major AIG, as its failure threatened to plunge the nation’s financial markets, already reeling from the failure of Lehman Brothers, even deeper into crisis.

Lawmakers eventually relented. On Friday, Frank, who co-authored Wall Street reform legislation designed to prevent another bailout of a too-big-to-fail financial institutions, was not about to cede ground this time to Hennessey. “I didn’t ask what Tarullo thinks – are you for breaking up the banks, and if so, to what size, and by what method?”  “Right now I don’t see any better solution than what Tarullo has suggested – yes, a size cap on banks… The alternative is a repeat of the 2008 crisis.” After the panel, Frank said he took issue with the idea, both from a technical perspective – “How do you do it? Do you sell it? Who’s going to buy it? The other banks by definition can’t.” – and because of concern that trimming bank size will hurt the ability of U.S. financial institutions to compete internationally.

Spanish rescue could cause collateral damage for Italy

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Mounting speculation that Spain is prepping for a bailout begs the question – what happens to Italy?

Sources told Reuters Spain is considering freezing pensions and speeding up a planned rise in the retirement age as it races to cut spending and meet conditions of an expected international sovereign aid package.

Markets took this to mean it was preparing the ground for eventually asking for help. According to Lyn Graham-Taylor, fixed income strategist at Rabobank:

Interview: Richmond Fed’s Lacker on Libor, ‘soggy’ growth and the limits of monetary policy

There appears to have been a significant slowdown in the second quarter. In particular we saw the pace of job creation slowed to a pace of 75,000 per month in the second quarter down from 226,000 in the first quarter and there are also concerns about slowing growth globally, beyond Europe but also in the emerging world and China, which was highlighted in the minutes (to the June meeting) this week. So, where do you think we’re headed? Are we just going to remain in a soft kind of pace? Are there upside risks to growth? Are there downside risks to growth?

Growth has definitely softened. The data are unmistakably weaker in the second quarter than we had hoped they would be. I think everyone recognized the first quarter and the end of last year were a little bit stronger than we might be able to sustain in the middle of the year but it’s definitely come in softer than I’d expected.

At the beginning of the year, it seemed as if Europe wouldn’t maybe weaken as much as we thought but lately the weakening from Europe has been coming online. In the U.S., I think we’re in a situation where we’re going to fluctuate from between the level where we are now to a level that’s more like we saw six or eight months ago. We’re going to have soggy patches, we’re going to have stronger spurts. If you look back over the last three years that’s the record you see. I don’t see a reason for that to change markedly.

Get me to the court on time

Markets were a little unnerved yesterday by concern that Germany’s top court may take a long time to rule on complaints lodged against the euro zone’s permanent bailout fund, the ESM, which was supposed to come into effect this week. Finance Minister Schaeuble urged the constitutional court to reach a speedy decision. The judges are not expected to block it but Germany’s president says he won’t sign it into law without the court’s go-ahead. A minor delay will pose no problem. A lengthier one could jolt investors.

The head of the court raised the possibility of a review taking take two to three months. That could create a dangerous vacuum though he stressed that was just one option. Schaeuble is just out again saying he hopes for a verdict before the autumn.

Bundesbank head Weidmann said even rapid ratification may not stop the crisis escalating further. With only a maximum 500 billion euros (100 billion of which is earmarked for Spain’s banks) at its disposal, the ESM looks ill-equipped to tackle the bond market head on. When the European Central Bank intervened last year to lower Italian borrowing costs it was spending 13/14 billion euros a week. And even then, it bought only temporary leeway.

Euro gang of four – or three versus one?

The euro zone’s big four meet in Rome with Germany’s Angela Merkel likely to come under pressure from Italy’s Mario Monti, Spain’s Mariano Rajoy and France’s Francois Hollande to loosen her purse strings and principles.

Monti, with Hollande’s backing, has suggested using the euro zone rescue funds to buy Spanish and Italian bonds but Berlin is not keen and there are good reasons why it might not work, not least the ESM’s preferred creditor status which means that if it piled in, private investors may flee knowing they would be paid back last in the event of a default.

The Eurogroup may have skirted the same problem with regard to the Spanish banking bailout last night by deciding to start the loans via the existing EFSF, which does not have seniority, before switching to the ESM. The EFSF’s rules will persist throughout.

No Greek relief for pain in Spain

There was no Greek relief rally (though at least we had no meltdown) and Spanish 10-year yields shot back above seven percent as a result, setting a nasty backdrop to today’s sale of up to 3 billion euros of 12- and 18-month T-bills.

Madrid has had little problem selling debt so far, particularly shorter-dated paper, but it’s beginning to look like the treasury minister’s slightly premature assessment two weeks ago that the bond market was closing to Spain is beginning to come true.
The 12-month bill was trading on Monday at around 4.9 percent. As last month’s auction it went for a touch under three percent. If that is not hairy enough, Spain will return to the market on Thursday with a sale of two-, three- and five-year bonds.

We’re still awaiting the independent audits of Spain’s banks which will give a guide as to how much of the 100 billion euros bailout offered by the euro zone they need. Treasury Minister Montoro was out again yesterday, pleading for the ECB to step in – presumably by reviving its bond-buying programme – something it remains reluctant to do, although a strong sense of purpose and commitment on economic union at the EU summit in a fortnight could embolden the central bank to act.