MacroScope

Surprise plunge in bond yield forecasts may spell more trouble ahead

By Rahul Karunakar

The spread between 2- and 10-year U.S. Treasury yields will shrink to 180 basis points in a year according to the latest Reuters bonds poll – the narrowest margin since August 2008, the month before Lehman Brothers collapsed.

Historically, that spread has been a key indication of what investors and traders are thinking about the economy’s prospects: the narrower it gets, certainly with short-term rates already at rock bottom, the darker the outlook.

It wasn’t looking particularly good in August 2008, and of course we all know what happened the following month: the start of an epic financial and economic crisis the world is still struggling to shake off.

A narrowing spread, driven by long-dated yields falling, might be welcomed by central banks who are aiming to bring them down to stimulate growth. But it’s also a dark sign for what people broadly feel is going to happen in the economy.

Said John Silvia, chief economist at Wells Fargo:

“I don’t think it is good news. It just tells you that the overall expectation for growth in the U.S. is weaker over time.”

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.

What have a trillion euros done for the economic outlook? Not much yet

The trillion euro sugar rush that made Q1 the best start to the year for global stocks in more than a decade has already worn off, but what is most striking is not how quickly it ended. It’s how little the economic outlook has changed.

Cheap central bank money mainly seems to have boosted stocks and the optimism of stock market forecasters, who generally are the most bullish of the lot with or without wads of cheap money.

An analysis of Reuters Polls over the past three months, starting just before the European Central Bank made the first of two gargantuan injections of cheap three-year money into the banking system, reveals what many have fretted might happen.

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.

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 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.

from Amplifications:

A centralized Europe is a globalized Europe

By Jean-Claude Trichet

The views expressed are his own.

PARIS – Whenever people seek a justification for European integration, they are always tempted to look backwards. They stress that European integration banished the specter of war from the old continent. And European integration has, indeed, delivered the longest period of peace and prosperity that Europe has known for many centuries.

But this perspective, while entirely correct, is also incomplete. There are as many reasons to strive towards “ever closer union” in Europe today as there were back in 1945, and they are entirely forward-looking.

Sixty-five years ago, the distribution of global GDP was such that Europe had only one role model for its single market: the United States. Today, however, Europe is faced with a new global economy, reconfigured by globalization and by the emerging economies of Asia and Latin America.

from Global Investing:

Hungary’s Orban and his central banker

"Will no one rid me of this turbulent central banker?"  Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban may not have voiced this sentiment but since he took power last year he is likely to have thought it more than once.  Increasingly, the spat between Orban's government and central bank governor Andras Simor brings to memory the quarrel England's Henry II had with his Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Becket, over the rights and privileges of the Church almost 900 years ago. Simor stands accused of undermining economic growth by holding interest rates too high and resisting government demands for monetary stimulus.  The government's efforts to sideline Simor are viewed as infringing on the central bank's independence.

So far, attacks on Simor have ranged from alleging he has undisclosed overseas income to stripping him of his power to appoint some central bank board members. But  the government's latest plan could be the last straw -- proposed legislation that would effectively demote Simor or at least seriously dilute his influence. Simor says the government is trying to engineer a total takeover at the central bank.  "The new law brings the final elimination of the central bank's independence dangerously close," he said last week.  
 
The move is ill-timed however, coming exactly at a time when Hungary is trying to persuade the IMF and the European Union to give it billions of euros in aid. The lenders have expressed concern about the law and declined to proceed with the loan talks.  But the government says it will not bow to external pressure and plans to put the law to vote on Friday. That has sparked general indignation - Societe Generale analyst Benoit Anne calls the spat extremely damaging to investor confidence in Hungary. "I just hope the IMF will not let this go," he writes.

Central banks and governments often fail to see eye to eye. But in Hungary, the government's attacks on Simor, a respected figure in central banking and investment circles,  is hastening the downfall of the already fragile economy. For one, if IMF funds fail to come through, Hungary will need to find 4.7 billion euros next year just to repay maturing hard currency debt. That could be tough at a time when lots of borrowers -- developed and emerging -- will be competing for scarce funds.  Central European governments alone will be looking to raise 16 billion euros on bond markets, data from ING shows. So Orban will have to tone down his rhetoric if he is to avoid plunging his country into financial disaster.

Love, dissent and transparency at the Fed

All four Federal Reserve policymakers who dissented on U.S. central bank policy this year will lose their votes next year. That could make the New Year full of love, but not necessary free from dissent, Dallas Fed President Richard Fisher joked on Friday.

Fisher, like Minneapolis Fed President Narayana Kocherlakota and Philadelphia Fed President Charles Plosser, lobbied and lost against Fed easing earlier this year; all three dissented twice. Chicago Fed President Charles Evans dissented twice from the other side of the aisle, arguing for further easing at the most recent two meetings against the majority’s decision to stand pat.

None will have votes next year. Not, of course, because they voiced their opposition to the majority, but simply because votes rotate among regional Fed presidents according to a set schedule, and it just so happened that all four regional Fed presidents with votes this year used those votes to dissent.

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.