MacroScope

Austerity light? Maybe a shade lighter

There is a groundswell building in the euro zone that austerity drives should be tempered.

France’s Francois Hollande, favourite to take the presidency next month, said last night that  leaders across Europe were awaiting his election to back away from German-led austerity, and even ECB President Mario Draghi called yesterday for a growth pact.

He was rather opaque on how – although he was clear the European Central Bank would not be doing anything more — but his colleague Joerg Asmussen was a little more forthcoming, saying some EU structural funds could be funneled to countries in crisis to boost employment. These sort of ideas are actively part of the mix and could well be enacted at the June EU summit.

Thay also tally with some of Hollande’s policy slate. He is promoting joint European bonds to finance infrastructure projects, greater investment by the European Investment Bank more efficient deployment of EU regional development resources and a financial transaction tax levied help fund youth and education projects. Some of those options are quite likely to happen. Others much less so.

Reality check: The EU’s German paymasters and the ever-present bond market will only tolerate a marginal shift in direction – you need look no further than at what has happened to Spain and its borrowing costs since it upped its deficit target in March — so there will be not much let-up on the debt-cutting front.
 
Nonetheless, there has been a distinct shift in the rhetoric. Even Angela Merkel is pushing for a more broadly-based minimum wage in Germany, which could be construed as a growth tactic.

For insatiable markets, Spanish steps fall short

So much for the lasting power of the ECB’s 1 trillion euros in cheap bank loans. Spain is again looking like a basket-case, more because of market dynamics rather than any particular policy misteps.

Many observers have praised Spain for its willingness to implement reforms. And yet the markets have another idea. The cost of insuring debt issued by Spanish banks against default has risen sharply over the past month, as a tough budget this week did little to soothe concerns over the country’s deteriorating fiscal situation.

Default insurance for Santander is up 52 percent since March 1 to 393 basis points and the equivalent for BBVA jumped 54 percent over the same period. Both Spanish banks underperformed the Markit iTraxx senior financials index – which measures Europe’s financial institutions’ insurance, or credit default swap prices. It rose by 20 percent over the same period.

Citi solicits staff donations for its political lobby

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Citigroup, the third largest U.S. bank, is actively soliciting donations from its employees for its political action committee (PAC) or fundraising group. In a letter to staff obtained by Reuters, the bank stressed the importance of the upcoming presidential and Congressional elections, urging staff to give to Citi’s PAC. From the letter:

Our Government Affairs team already does a great job promoting our positions on important issues to lawmakers, but there is one thing that each of us can do to enhance their efforts: contribute to Citi’s Political Action Committee (PAC).

Citi PAC is one of the most effective tools we have to amplify the voice of the company in Washington and enhance our profile with lawmakers.  The PAC provides the resources to help suport government officials who share our views on key policy objectives and who understand the impact various policy decisions may have on overall economic investment and growth.

Who’d be a central banker?

The focus is already on the euro zone finance ministers meeting in Copenhagen, starting on Friday, which is likely to agree to some form of extra funds for the currency bloc’s future bailout fund. What they come up with will go a long way to determining whether markets scent any faltering commitment on the part of Europe’s leaders.

In the meantime, top billing goes to Bundesbank chief Jens Weidmann speaking in London later. He is heading an increasingly vocal group within the European Central bank who are fretting about the future inflationary and other consequences of the creation of  more than a trillion euros of three-year money. There is no chance of the ECB hitting the policy reverse button yet but the debate looks set to intensify.
A combination of German inflation and euro zone money supply numbers today (which include a breakdown on bank lending) will give some guide to the pressures on the ECB.

Central bankers face a very mixed picture with U.S. recovery and high oil vying with the unresolved euro zone debt crisis and signs of slowdown in China.

When 500 billion euros no longer pops eyes

There was a time when 500 billion euros in cash was truly spectacular.

But investors and speculators hoping for an even more eye-popping cash injection at the European Central Bank’s second and most likely last three-year money operation on Wednesday are likely to be disappointed, based on past Reuters polls of expectations.

"Here, have some cash"

Ever since the ECB started offering cheap, long-term loans to keep cash flowing through banks during the financial crisis, a clear pattern has emerged in the forecasts of money market traders attempting to gauge their size.

They have consistently underestimated the size of a given new loan tender the first time it is offered, only to overshoot on subsequent operations of the same maturity.

Europe’s wobbly economy

Things are  looking a bit unsteady in the euro zone’s economy.  Just ask Olli Rehn, the EU’s top economic official, who warned this week of  “risky imbalances” in 12 of the European Union’s 27 members. And that’s doesn’t include Greece, which is too wobbly for words. 

Rehn is looking longer term, trying to prevent the next crisis. But the here-and-now is just as wobbly. The euro zone’s economy, which generates 16 percent of world output, shrunk at the end of 2011 and most economists expect the 17-nation currency area to wallow in recession this year and contract around 0.4 percent overall. Few would have been able to see it coming at the start of last year, when Europe’s factories were driving a recovery from the 2008-2009 Great Recession. And it shows just how poisonous the sovereign debt saga has become.

Not everyone thinks things are so shaky.  Unicredit’s chief euro zone economist, Marco Valli, is among the few who believe the euro zone will skirt a recession — defined by two consecutive quarters of contraction — in 2012. This year is “bound to witness a gradual but steady improvement in underlying growth momentum,” Valli said, saying the fourth quarter was the low point in the euro zone business cycle.

from Global Investing:

January in the rearview mirror

As January 2012 drifts into the rearview mirror as a bumper month for world markets, one way to capture the year so far is in pictures - thanks to Scott Barber and our graphics team.

The driving force behind the market surge was clearly the latest liquidity/monetary stimuli from the world's central banks.

The ECB's near half trillion euros of 3-year loans  has stabilised Europe's ailing banks by flooding them with cheap cash for much lower quality collateral. In the process, it's also opened up critical funding windows for the banks and allowed some reinvestment of the ECB loans into cash-strapped euro zone goverments. That in turn has seen most euro government borrowing rates fall. It's also allowed other corporates to come to the capital markets and JP Morgan estimates that euro zone corporate bond sales in January totalled 46 billion euros, the same last year and split equally between financials and non-financials..

from Global Investing:

Phew! Emerging from euro fog

Holding your breath for instant and comprehensive European Union policies solutions has never been terribly wise.  And, as the past three months of summit-ology around the euro sovereign debt crisis attests, you'd be just a little blue in the face waiting for the 'big bazooka'. And, no doubt, there will still be elements of this latest plan knocking around a year or more from now. Yet, the history of euro decision making also shows that Europe tends to deliver some sort of solution eventually and it typically has the firepower if not the automatic will to prevent systemic collapse.
And here's where most global investors stand following the "framework" euro stabilisation agreement reached late on Wednesday. It had the basic ingredients, even if the precise recipe still needs to be nailed down. The headline, box-ticking numbers -- a 50% Greek debt writedown, agreement to leverage the euro rescue fund to more than a trillion euros and provisions for bank recapitalisation of more than 100 billion euros -- were broadly what was called for, if not the "shock and awe" some demanded.  Financial markets, who had fretted about the "tail risk" of a dysfunctional euro zone meltdown by yearend, have breathed a sigh of relief and equity and risk markets rose on Thursday. European bank stocks gained almost 6%, world equity indices and euro climbed to their highest in almost two months in an audible "Phew!".

Credit Suisse economists gave a qualified but positive spin to the deal in a note to clients this morning:

It would be clearly premature to declare the euro crisis as fully resolved. Nevertheless, it is our impression that EU leaders have made significant progress on all fronts. This suggests that the rebound in risk assets that has been underway in recent days may well continue for some time.

from Global Investing:

We’re all in the same boat

The withering complexity of a four-year-old global financial crisis -- in the euro zone, United States or increasingly in China and across the faster-growing developing world -- is now stretching the minds and patience of even the most clued-in experts and commentators. Unsurprisingly, the average householder is perplexed, increasingly anxious and keen on a simpler narrative they can rally around or rail against. It's fast becoming a fertile environment for half-baked conspiracy theories, apocalypse preaching and no little political opportunism. And, as ever, a tempting electoral ploy is to convince the public there's some magic national solution to problems way beyond borders.

For a populace fearful of seemingly inextricable connections to a wider world they can't control, it's not difficult to see the lure of petty nationalism, protectionism and isolationism. Just witness national debates on the crisis in Britain, Germany, Greece or Ireland and they are all starting to tilt toward some idea that everyone may be better off on their own -- outside a flawed single currency in the case of Germany, Greece and Ireland and even outside the European Union in the case of some lobby groups in Britain. But it's not just a debate about a European future, the U.S.  Senate next week plans to vote on legisation to crack down on Chinese trade due to currency pegging despite the interdependency of the two economies.  And there's no shortage of voices saying China should somehow stand aloof from the Western financial crisis, even though its spectacular economic ascent over the past decade was gained largely on the back of U.S. and European demand.

Despite all the nationalist rumbling, the crisis illustrates one thing pretty clearly - the world is massively integrated and interdependent in a way never seen before in history. And globalised trade and finance drove much of that over the past 20 years. However desireable you may think it is in the long run, unwinding that now could well be catastrophic. A financial crisis in one small part of the globe will now quickly affect another through a blizzard of systematic banking and cross-border trade links systemic links.

Dramatic ending to Greek tragedy

Greece is in the danger zone. Even as the country’s finance minister sought to reassure his euro zone counterparts at a meeting in Poland, Greek credit default swaps were pricing in a more than 90 percent chance of default, according to Reuters calculations of Markit data. Economists in a Reuters poll see a 65 percent chance of that happening, probably within a year.

Such fears recently sent jitters across financial markets, prompting some words of comfort from German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Nicolas Sarkozy that they are determined to keep Greece in the euro zone. But speculation is growing that Greece will default, and that it will be a messy ordeal. Here are some of the potential dangers if it occurs:

* Greece may be seen as setting a precedent for Portugal and Ireland, analysts said. Yields on peripheral euro zone debt could surge rapidly, making funding costs increasingly unsustainable as yields on Italian and Spanish 10-year bonds surge back towards 7 percent. The ECB could have to intervene more aggressively in the secondary bond market to the detriment of its balance sheet.