MacroScope

Battening down the hatches

There’s a high degree of battening down the hatches going on before the Greek election by policymakers and market in case a hurricane results.

G20 sources told us last night that the major central banks would be prepared to take coordinated action to stabilize markets if necessary –- which I guess is always the case –  the Bank of England said it would  flood Britain’s banks with more than 100 billion pounds to try and get them to lend into the real economy and we broke news that the euro zone finance ministers will hold a conference call on Sunday evening to discuss the election results – all this as the world’s leaders gather in Mexico for a G20 summit starting on Monday.
Bank of England Governor Mervyn King said the euro zone malaise was creating a broader crisis of confidence.

The central banks acted in concert after the collapse of Lehmans in 2008, pumping vast amounts of liquidity into the world economy and slashing interest rates. There is much less scope on the latter now. The biggest onus may fall on the European Central Bank which may have to act to prop up Greek banks and maybe banks in other “periphery” countries too although the structures to do so through the Greek central bank are in place and functioning daily. In extremis, we can expect Japan and Switzerland to act to keep a cap on their currencies too. As a euro zone official said last night, a bank run might not even be that visible and start on Sunday night over the internet rather than with queues of people outside their local bank on Monday morning.

But there’s probably a greater likelihood that markets won’t melt down on Monday. A startlingly strong victory for the anti-bailout SYRIZA would cause serious tremors but far more likely is an inconclusive result which leads to days of horse-trading over the formation of a government. And there’s also a strong chance that pro-bailout New Democracy comes first and claims the 50-parliamentary-seat bonus. That would put it in pole position to form the next government, an outcome that could see markets rally strongly and take pressure off Italian and Spanish borrowing costs. Whatever the result, it’s hard to see a durable, stable government being formed so if there is any relief, it could prove to be short-lived.

The odds of dramatic coordinated global action on Monday are probably fairly long and will clearly be dictated by events. However, it is also clear that the prospect of more measured action – as from the Bank of England – is increasingly likely. A Federal Reserve policy meeting next week will have markets travelling in hope though they may arrive with disappointment.

Spain calls for bank aid

Things are on the move in Spain although nothing is set in stone yet.
Treasury minister Montoro’s call yesterday for “European mechanisms” to be involved in the recapitalization of Spain’s debt-laden banks – a reversal of Madrid’s previous insistence that it could sort its banks alone – unleashed a barrage of whispers in Europe’s corridors of powers.

Our sources say that the independent of audit of Spanish banks’ capital needs, the first phase of which is due by the end of the month, will be a key moment after which things could move quickly.

The hitch is that Madrid still doesn’t want the humiliation of asking for a bailout and Germany will not countenance the bloc’s rescue funds lending to banks direct. One possible solution floated last night –  the EFSF or ESM bailout funds could lend to Spain’s FROB bank rescue fund, which could be viewed as tantamount to lending to the state but would give the government some political cover to say it wasn’t asking for the money. This is anything but a done deal and there would still be some strings attached which could be tough for Prime Mininster Mariano Rajoy to swallow.

Merkel under pressure … but unbending

Some interesting events to  ponder over the weekend, though not many of them came from the G8 summit which, as is customary, was strong on rhetoric but bare of any specific policy measures to tackle the euro zone crisis. However, markets seems to have tired of their panicky last few sessions. German Bund futures have opened lower as investors took profits rather than seizing on any positive news. European stocks have edged up.

It does appear that with the ascension of France’s Francois Hollande, the G8 firmament turned into G7 (or maybe 5 since we didn’t hear much from Japan and Russia) versus 1 (Germany) but as things stand we’re still heading for a fairly anaemic “growth strategy” unless euro zone leaders coalesce behind the notion of giving Spain and Greece longer to make the cuts demanded of them. Spain has moved the goalposts further in the wrong direction, revising its 2011 deficit up to 8.9 percent from 8.5 and blaming the overspending regions. That means its already loosened target of 5.3 percent for this year is now even harder to achieve.

Hollande is talking up the case for common euro zone bonds but that will not wash with Berlin for a long time yet. Sources said Monti used the G8 forum to promote a pan-European bank deposit guarantee fund. Good idea but that too will only be conceivable if the European financial sector is on the point of toppling. And who will underwrite it? There is talk too of allowing the EFSF to lend direct to banks to ease the Spanish government’s reluctance to ask for help. That may have a slightly better chance of success but Berlin doesn’t like this idea either.
Look no further than the German Chancellor’s take on the summit – it was all a great success, she said. Everyone agreed that we need both growth and fiscal consolidation.

Fed’s Tarullo not making any promises

We’re pretty sure that Daniel Tarullo, the Federal Reserve’s point person on regulation, expects the United States will finally understand exactly what financial reforms are coming “some time next year.” But the Fed governor made doubly sure to qualify that statement lest anyone – especially any press “in the back” – take it as gospel.

At a conference in New York Wednesday morning, Tarullo was asked how long it would take for the various regulatory agencies to give final details on the raft of financial crisis-inspired reforms, everything from Basel III capital standards to the Volcker ban on proprietary trading. Here’s what he said:

“I know it’s frustrating for people not to have the proposed rules out. On the other hand, doing them simultaneously does allow us to see whether something in one of the proposed capital rules will affect something in another proposed capital rule, so that we end up, when we publish the final rules, with fewer anomalies, questions and the like, which will undermine the ability of a firm or academic or just anyone in the public to see and understand how these things are going to function. I hesitate to give a time line on exactly when we’ll get there. But I think…it seems to be reasonable to expect that some time next year the basic outlines – and I don’t just mean the ideas, I mean the details associated with the major reform elements – should be reasonably clear to people even though questions will inevitably rise in implementation. (You) don’t want to take that as a promise. But as I think about these various streams, that is my expectation… To have gotten it done this year would have meant the sheer magnitude of the task would have lead to a lot of inconsistencies or open questions, which then would have just produced another round of change. So you’ve got me on the record saying some time next year, but I tried to qualify it as much as possible – that’s for all you people in the back…”

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.

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.