MacroScope

Foreign investors still buying American

Overseas investors have yet to sour towards U.S. assets despite high government debt levels, according the latest figures on capital flows.

Including short-dated assets such as bills, foreigners snapped up $107.7 billion in U.S. securities in February, following a downwardly revised $3.1 billion inflow for January. At the same time, the United States attracted a net long-term capital inflow of just $10.1 billion in February after drawing an upwardly revised $102.4 billion in the first month of 2012.

The data showed China boosted purchases of U.S. government debt for a second month in February, but also some waning of demand for longer-dated securities.

Still, recurring fears that foreign investors might be scared off by high levels of U.S. debt have thus far proven overdone. Writes Millan Mulraine at TD Securities:

Overall, the massive foreign flow into U.S. assets in March suggests that US securities continue to enjoy healthy global appetite in time of fear (Treasuries) and times of hope (equities). The reallocation from Treasuries to shorter-term securities in February is broadly consistent with the risk-on tone that prevailed during the month, reversing the trend of the past few months, when concerns in Europe resulted in the flight to quality.

The going gets tougher for Italy and Spain

One trillion euros is a lot of money. And as we have previously noted on this blog it did a lot for stock markets early this year but not much for the real economy.

But recent bond auctions in the euro zone suggest the impact of two rounds of cheap 3-year ECB funding on the region’s struggling bond market may also be fading.

Italian three-year borrowing costs surged more than a full percentage point at an auction to 3.89 percent – its highest since mid-January.

Ireland’s uneasy market comeback

Ireland, hailed as the poster child of euro zone austerity, is hoping to get back into the long-term bond market this year. But analysts say a hasty return could do more harm than good.

Its market position has certainly improved since it was pushed out of commercial markets and forced to seek a bailout, even though the population at large is still struggling with rigorous austerity.

Ten-year Irish yields have halved to just below 7 percent since July – before the European Central Bank began buying Spanish and Italian bonds in the secondary market to stabilise peripheral markets.

Vultures swoop on Argentina

Holdouts against a settlement of Argentina’s defaulted debt are opening a new front in their campaign for a juicy payout more than a decade after the biggest sovereign default on record.

Lobbyists for some of the investors who hold about $6 billion in Argentine debt are in London to persuade Britain to follow the lead of the United States, which last September decided to vote against new Inter American Development Bank and World Bank loans for Buenos Aires.

Washington believes Argentina, a member of the Group of 20, is not meeting its international obligations on a number of fronts. Apart from the dispute with private bond holders, Argentina has yet to agree with the Paris Club of official creditors on a rescheduling of about $9 billion of debt. It has refused to let the International Monetary Fund conduct a routine health check of the economy. And it has failed to comply with the judgments of a World Bank arbitration panel.

Why Germany doesn’t want euro zone bonds

Ever wanted to know why Germany is not keen on single euro zone bonds? Look no further:

from Mike Dolan:

Sparring with central banks

Just one look at the whoosh higher in global markets in January and you'd be forgiven smug faith in the hoary old market adage of "Don't fight the Fed" -- or to update the phrase less pithily for the modern, globalised marketplace: "Don't fight the world's central banks". (or "Don't Battle the Banks", maybe?)

In tandem with this month's Federal Reserve forecast of near-zero U.S. official interest rates for the next two years, the European Central Bank provided its banking sector nearly half a trillion euros of cheap 3-year loans in late December (and may do almost as much again on Feb 29). Add to that ongoing bouts of money printing by the Bank of England, Swiss National Bank, Bank of Japan and more than 40 expected acts of monetary easing by central banks around the world in the first half of this year and that's a lot of additional central bank support behind the market rebound.  So is betting against this firepower a mug's game? Well, some investors caution against the chance that the Banks are firing duds.

According to giant bond fund manager Pimco, the post-credit crisis process of household, corporate and sovereign deleveraging is so intense and loaded with risk that central banks may just be keeping up with events and even then are doing so at very different speeds. What's more the solution to the problem is not a monetary one anyway and all they can do is ease the pain.

Money funds cut Europe exposure, slowly

Prime U.S. money funds further reduced their holdings of euro zone bank paper in December, although the pace of movement slowed while investors continued to hedge against any bank failures, J.P. Morgan Securities said on Wednesday.  The slower movement out of euro zone bank paper was the result of money funds having already strongly reduced their holdings, J.P. Morgan said in a note to clients.

Euro zone bank paper continued to roll off in December from prime money fund portfolios but has seen some slowing as nearly 70 percent of these exposures have been eliminated from prime fund portfolios over the course of the past year. In spite of continued reductions in euro zone bank exposures, prime fund assets under management were basically flat for the second consecutive month reflecting some level of investor comfort in the level of risk in price fund portfolios as much of the cash that left euro zone bank paper has been reinvested in non-European banks and other high-quality products.

The prime money funds had small net outflows of $2.6 billion in December after net inflows of $4 billion in November, according to J.P. Morgan.

Europe sobers up after Italian auction

After a hopeful couple of weeks and the ”euphoria” caused by an agreement to tackle the euro zone debt crisis, financial markets got a reality check from Italy’s sale of 7.94 billion euros of government bonds. The debt met lower demand than at previous auctions, forcing the country to pay the highest premium since joining the single currency to sell 10-year debt.

The results suggest markets did not think the euro zone rescue deal — which includes an agreement on the write-down of Greek debt, recapitalisation of European banks and leveraging of the euro zone rescue fund – went far enough to restore investor appetite for Italian debt.

Italian yields rose as high as 6.03 percent near levels not seen since early August, when the European Central Bank first began purchasing Italian and Spanish bonds in the secondary market to bring funding costs down to more affordable levels. Brian Barry, analyst at Evolution Securities, says that move alone speaks volumes:

Italy bond spreads signal renewed concern

Spreads between Italian and German government debt are blowing out heading into a European Union summit on Sunday that investors are hoping will come up with some action to address the continent’s sovereign debt crisis. Spreads between 10-year Italian government debt and German bonds of the same maturity widened to 398 basis points on Thursday, making for the biggest gap since at least the fourth quarter of 1996, according to Reuters data.

Andrew Wilkinson, Miller Tabak’s chief economic strategist, expands on the implications:

You have to look back to March 1996 to see the spread’s last excursion above 400 basis points. That was when Italian government was trying desperately to meet Maastricht criteria and join the euro. I’m left wondering how pleased they are with that outcome in today’s market. They never bargained for a spillover from Greece lie this. With the French/German yield spread leading the way this week it looks like pressure will continue to build in to the weekend.

from The Great Debate:

A free lunch for America

By J. Bradford DeLong
The opinions expressed are his own.

Former US Treasury Secretary Lawrence Summers had a good line at the International Monetary Fund meetings this year: governments, he said, are trying to treat a broken ankle when the patient is facing organ failure. Summers was criticizing Europe’s focus on the second-order issue of Greece while far graver imbalances – between the EU’s north and south, and between reckless banks’ creditors and governments that failed to regulate properly – worsen with each passing day.

But, on the other side of the Atlantic, Americans have no reason to feel smug. Summers could have used the same metaphor to criticize the United States, where the continued focus on the long-run funding dilemmas of social insurance is sucking all of the oxygen out of efforts to deal with America’s macroeconomic and unemployment crisis.

The US government can currently borrow for 30 years at a real (inflation-adjusted) interest rate of 1% per year. Suppose that the US government were to borrow an extra $500 billion over the next two years and spend it on infrastructure – even unproductively, on projects for which the social rate of return is a measly 25% per year. Suppose that – as seems to be the case – the simple Keynesian government-expenditure multiplier on this spending is only two.