MacroScope

Bank of England, the first mover?

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After the European Central Bank kept alive the prospect of printing money and the U.S. economy enjoyed a bumper month of jobs hiring prompting some to bring forward their expectations for a first U.S. interest rate rise, the Bank of England holds a monthly policy meeting.

There is no chance of a rate rise this time but the UK looks increasingly nailed on to be the first major economy to tighten policy, with the ECB heading in the opposite direction and the U.S. Federal Reserve still unlikely to shift until well into next year. Minutes of the Fed’s last meeting, released yesterday, showed general agreement that its QE programme would end in October but gave little sign that rates will rise before the middle of 2015.

The British economy is growing fast and its housing market has been running red hot – prices in London have shot up nearly 26 percent from a year ago – though the BoE says rate rises are not the first tool to deal with that. Britain’s closely-watched RICS housing survey, released overnight, showed signs that some of the heat is starting to come out with its house price balance easing back.

However, Minouche Shafik, who will join the nine-strong group of rate setters next month, said yesterday the Bank was likely to lower its estimate of spare capacity in the British economy. That means incipient inflationary pressure could start to build and indicated that the time to raise interest rates may be approaching.

A Reuters poll of more than 60 economists produced a consensus that UK rates will rise for the first time in the first quarter of next year. But it attached a growing, 40 percent chance to a hike before year-end. Only last year, the Bank was predicting no move until 2016.

Draghi in London

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European Central Bank President Mario Draghi will deliver an evening keynote speech in London – the scene for his game-changing “whatever it takes” declaration in 2012.

He is unlikely to come up with anything so dramatic this time but is clearly trying to convince that the ECB could yet start printing money if required to avert deflation.

Draghi has taken the ECB a long way in terms of radical policies which some of its members have found hard to swallow. But QE could yet prove to be a bridge too far. Shortly after Draghi held out the prospect last week of printing euros to ward off deflation, Bundesbank chief Jens Weidmann and his German ECB colleague Sabine Lautenschlaeger mounted a rearguard action.

Good news for Greece?

Unemployment is sky high, national debt is not far short of double the size of an economy which is still shrinking and its ruling coalition has a wafer-thin majority, yet there are glimmers of hope in Greece.

Having finally struck a deal with the EU and IMF to keep bailout loans flowing, Athens is preparing to dip its toe back into the bond market with a five-year bond for up to 2 billion euros.

The government has not said when the syndicated issue might be launched but having mandated banks for the sale the likelihood is sooner rather than later. It’s a remarkably quick return two years after a debt restructuring which was essentially a default.

That sinking feeling

Euro zone inflation, or deflation, is the focus of the moment.

Germany’s HICP rate fell to 1.2 percent last month, Italy’s hit 0.6 percent and Spain’s just 0.3 in December (not to mention Greece’s -2.9 percent). Today we get the figure for the euro zone as a whole. Forecasts for it to hold at 0.9 percent may now look a little toppy.

It’s too early for any dramatic moves but the European Central Bank, which has a policy meeting on Thursday, may well be pushed into easing policy if inflation refuses to pick up and/or the banks clam up ahead of this year’s health tests.

A shock fall in euro inflation to 0.7 percent prompted an interest rate cut to 0.25 percent in November followed by a chorus of denials that deflation was a threat. ECB chief Mario Draghi adhered to that last week but added that he and his colleagues had to make sure inflation didn’t get stuck in the “danger zone” below one percent.

This little piggy went to market

Italy and Spain are both set to launch syndicated bond sales today, taking advantage of temporarily benign market conditions and maybe with a weather eye on the U.S. debt stalemate which could soon throw the world’s markets into turmoil with an Oct. 17 deadline fast approaching.

After Silvio Berlusconi’s failure to pull down the government, Italy’s political crisis is in abeyance for now and its bond yields have eased back. Spain has issued nearly all the debt it needs to this year already.

It’s not quite “crisis what crisis” but the news flow has been largely positive:
- Portugal (after its own self-inflicted  political crisis over the summer) has seen its borrowing costs fall to their lowest in more than a month after its EU/IMF lenders said it was meeting its bailout goals.
- Greece is predicting an end to six years of recession in 2014 and, just as importantly, a primary surplus.
- And the IMF yesterday predicted Italy, Spain, Portugal, Greece and Ireland (which will soon become the first euro zone member to exit its bailout programme) would all grow next year.

Euro bailouts — one out, one in

We had thought the end-of-week EU summit was going to be a lacklustre affair but things are starting to bubble up.

Ireland announced last night it would issue its first new 10-year bond since it was bailed out in 2010. It sounds like the books on the syndicated issue will open today with dealers predicting strong demand. This is a crucial step in Dublin becoming the success story the euro zone desperately craves. Some European Central Bank policymakers have said the bank’s bond-buying programme could be deployed to help Ireland once it has demonstrated its ability to issue debt in a variety of maturities. Others, notably Bundesbank chief Jens Weidmann, appear less keen on the idea.

With yields below four percent (they peaked above 15 percent in 2011) and needing to raise only a few billion in debt this year, it’s not clear that Ireland even needs ECB help to put the bailout behind it, but bond-buying support would certainly seal its exit and also show the ECB’s intent to markets. Further down the line, it will be worth pondering whether Ireland’s journey demonstrates that austerity was the right medicine. Plenty of euro zone policymakers will say so. The interesting question to address would be whether Dublin could have got there faster with more leeway to boost growth and therefore tax revenues.

Today in the euro zone

Investors who bought Greek default insurance discover how much they will be paid today. Memories of the chaos that flowed from CDS payouts after the collapse of Lehmans mean there is a degree of nervousness but the signs are this will be nothing like as serious.

A  payout of around $2.5 billion to holders of the insurance contracts on Greek bonds will not cause the calamity once feared by euro zone politicians and the ECB as it represents a drop in the ocean of losses investors have already taken on money lent to Greece. That doesn’t mean, however,  that a few banks have not been foolish enough to write vast amounts of contracts on Greek debt which will now fall due.

There is a complex auction process to go through where bonds are bought and sold in order to determine a final price, or ‘recovery rate’. That will also give a more accurate guide to the market outlook for Greece since the new bonds issued as part of the bond swap are barely being traded so far. That view ain’t likely to be pretty.