MacroScope

Another U.S. debt ceiling showdown could roil markets: NY Fed paper

After two days of testimony from Federal Reserve Chairman last week in which he decisively criticized Congress’ decision to slash spending arbitrarily in the middle of a fragile economic recovery, a report on money market funds from the New York Fed nails home the point.

The paper’s key finding is that, as most observers already knew, investors were a lot more worried about a break-up of the euro zone in the summer of 2011 than they were about U.S. congressional bickering over the debt ceiling.

But as Americans face a series of regularly schedule mini-eruptions in the fiscal policy arena, the authors conclude with a thinly-veiled warning to lawmakers:

The relatively benign effects of the 2011 U.S. debt-ceiling crisis on U.S. financial markets appear to have been serendipitous, as the U.S.and European debt crises occurred concurrently. Money funds nevertheless reacted to the increased riskiness of Treasuries by dramatically decreasing the maturities of Treasuries held in their portfolios during the debt-ceiling crisis. This behavior suggests that we can’t be sure that the effects of future fiscal crises on financial markets will be similarly benign.

The real sequester threat: rising political risk in the United States

Despite the Obama administration’s cataclysmic warnings about the effects of $85 billion in looming spending cuts known as the “sequester,” chances are the lights will not go out when they kick in this weekend. Still, the economic impact could be significant. The cutbacks might shave a half percentage point or more from an economy that is forecast to grow around 2 percent this year — but which only mustered a 0.1 percent increase in annualized fourth quarter GDP. This, at a time when a similar austerity-driven approach has left much of Europe mired in recession.

Both the public and the markets seem to be taking Washington’s latest war of words in stride. After all, people are becoming inured to the regularly scheduled fiscal crises that have become a part of the capital’s landscape. But the sequester’s most frightening potential consequence is much broader than its near-term economic ripples. The real danger is that, with every new episode of political theater over the budget, America’s credibility as a serious, trustworthy nation is eroded. The concept of political risk, once reserved for banana republics in the developing world, is now very much alive in the United States. And that is one liberty a debtor nation cannot afford to take.

Super, or not so super, Thursday

For those who thought the euro zone had lost the power to liven things up, today should make you think again.

ITEM 1. The European Central Bank meeting and Mario Draghi’s hour-long press conference to follow. Rarely has a meeting which will deliver no monetary policy change been so pregnant with possibilities.

Draghi, the man tasked with becoming the European bank regulator on top of all his other tasks, will face some searing questioning on his time as Bank of Italy chief and what he knew about the disaster that has befallen the country’s oldest bank, Monte dei Paschi.

On fiscal ledge, corporate gain may be household’s pain

It doesn’t sound sustainable but, at least in coming months, businesses look set to keep booming even as consumers come under pressure – in line with the recent trend. That’s because the economic hit from the partial deal on the fiscal cliff will hurt salaried workers disproportionately, says Steven Ricchiuto, chief economist at Mizuho.

He writes:

Although the worst of the fiscal cliff has been avoided, the compromise is not macroeconomic neutral. Our calculations, in fact, suggest that the drag created by the reversal of the payroll tax cut and the various tax hikes on upper income households will cut real GDP by upwards of 0.5% to 1% from our preliminary 1.5% to 2% forecast.

Real GDP in the range of 0.5% to 1.5% this year implies that corporate profit growth will come at the expense of the wage earner. Moreover, the earnings focus assures a larger share of national income will accrue to the corporate sector. This implies another year of limited employment gains.

Britain’s budget conundrum

Budget statements from Britain and Ireland take top billing today with UK finance minister George Osborne cutting an increasingly lonely figure in policymaking circles as an advocate of cutting your way back to growth. While the economic policy room for manoeuvre is limited this is a huge political moment. With elections due in 2015, a feeling of recovery must be entrenched in the public’s mind well beforehand if the Conservatives are to entertain hopes of governing alone next time. So measures now and in the 2013 budget in the spring are the best opportunity to change the game.

Osborne has already said he is sticking to his austerity plan – and having made it the government’s central policy plank he has little choice although the opposition Labour party have staked out the opposite ground and hopes to capitalise. Even so, Osborne is likely to have to admit that he will miss his debt-cutting targets so that the pain will have to last for longer, well into the latter part of this decade.

As the euro zone has shown, without growth cutting debt is nigh on impossible. Osborne came into government in 2010 saying the austerity drive would be complete by the time of the 2015 election. He is expected to say today that it will stretch to 2018. Labour’s significant opinion poll lead is widely seen as “soft” but it might not be for long.

Geithner’s gauntlet: Social Security is a “separate process” from fiscal cliff talks

Social Security should not be part of the current negotiations over the U.S. budget – that was the message from outgoing Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner over the weekend. During a veritable tour of Sunday shows aimed at addressing negotiations surrounding the “fiscal cliff” of expiring tax cuts and spending reductions, Geithner told ABC News’ “This Week”:

What the president is willing to do is to work with Democrats and Republicans to strengthen Social Security for future generations so Americans can approach retirement with dignity and with the confidence they can retire with a modest guaranteed benefit.

But we think you have to do that in a separate process so that our seniors aren’t – don’t face the concern that we’re somehow going to find savings in Social Security benefits to help reduce the other deficit.

Glimmer of Greek hope

There are signs of headway from Athens where we have just snapped a government source saying the IMF accepts Greek debt is “viable” if it falls to 124 percent of GDP in 2020, rather than the 120 that it had previously decreed was the maximum sustainable level.. The source said fresh measures have been found to reduce debt to 130 percent of GDP by 2020, leaving another 10 billion euros to be covered.

At the latest failed meeting of euro zone finance ministers on Tuesday, we confirmed that the EU/IMF/ECB troika had calculated Greek debt would only fall to 144 percent of GDP in 2020 without further measures, meaning roughly 50 billion euros needed to be knocked of Greece’s debt pile. A report circulated at the meeting concluded (apologies for the number soup) that debt could only be cut to 120 percent of GDP in eight years if euro zone government agreed to take a writedown on their loans, which they will not do for now.

If the IMF will now accept 124 percent as a target that means 20 percentage points of GDP – about 40 billion euros – would have to be lopped off Greece’s debt pile. If they are now only 10 billion short, then measures amounting to 30 billion have been found. It’s hard to believe that could have come from the Greek side which has already slashed to the bone, so maybe some or all of the options we know are on the table — a Greek debt buyback at a sharp discount, lowering the interest rate and lengthening terms on the loans and the ECB foregoing profits on its Greek bondholdings – have been agreed to.

If Greek talks are tough, check out the EU budget

The EU budget summit, which could turn into a marathon as it tries to nail down monies for the next seven years, begins today. With the euro zone repeatedly failing to nail down a Greek deal, the EU would be well advised not to let this negotiation fall apart too. Having said that, there is little sign of great concern in market pricing – presumably the ECB’s pledge to buy government bonds in whatever amount it takes to steady the bloc continues to suppress investor nerves and short sellers.

Net contributors to the budget including Germany, France and Britain want to cut 100 billion euros from the European Commission’s draft budget proposal, but differ over which areas to cut. Meanwhile, the main beneficiaries of EU funding such as Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic oppose cuts. The meeting is intended to lay the groundwork for political agreement on the budget by EU leaders at their final summit of 2012 in December. It will last two days, maybe more and it could well be that no agreement is reached. Officials say only a cut in real terms – for the first time ever – is likely to do the trick.

Back to Greece and prime minister Samaras will meet Eurogroup chief Juncker in Brussels although he is now largely a passive, angry bystander in this process. While Juncker’s assertion in the early hours of Wednesday morning that a deal was only held up by complex technical matters has some truth to it, there is a far deeper split to be closed.

Fiscal cliff could help U.S. avoid road to Japan – but probably won’t

The “fiscal cliff” is widely seen as a massive threat looming over a fragile U.S. recovery. But with a little imagination, it is not difficult to see how the combination of expiring tax cuts and spending reductions actually presents an opportunity for tilting the budget backdrop in a pro-growth direction, even if political paralysis makes this scenario rather unlikely.

For Steve Blitz, chief economist at ITG in New York, the cliff presents a unique chance for the United States to avoid sinking deeper in the direction of Japan’s growth-challenged economy by shifting incentives away from consumption and towards investment:

If current negotiations end up simply turning the “cliff” into a 10-year slide an opportunity to help the economy regain a dynamic growth path and close the gap with pre-recession trend GDP would, in our view, be lost and raise the odds that, in the coming years, U.S. economic performance looks more like Japan’s. […]

Elusive Greek deal

So euro zone finance ministers conferred about Greece and Germany’s Schaeuble came out to declare significant progress although no deal yet. Eurogroup head Jean-Claude Juncker looked forward to a final settlement at the ministers’ face-to-face meeting on Nov. 12.
But a source with no particular axe to grind was much more downbeat, saying there was no real progress with Germany and the IMF at loggerheads over the need for euro zone governments and the ECB to take a haircut on the Greek bonds they hold in order to make the numbers add up.

The IMF is convinced it is the only way, Germany will not countenance it.  So all sides remain far apart and that is without even taking account of a knife-edge parliamentary vote in Athens next week on labour reforms to cut wages and severance payments, which the EU and IMF insist are a key part of a new bailout deal, but which the smallest party in the coalition government has pledged to vote against.

That leaves the two larger parties – New Democracy and PASOK – with a working majority of just nine lawmakers and on a less contentious vote on privatizations on Wednesday, a number of PASOK deputies rebelled.