MacroScope

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..

But to the extent that the ECB move was aimed primarily at preventing a seizure of the banks, then one measure of  success can be seen in the degree to which it steepened government yield curves in Spain and Italy. A positive yield curve, which measures the gap between short-term  and long-term interest rates,  is effectively commercial banks' ATM -- they  make money by simply borrowing short-term and lending long. This chart then shows some normality returning to the benchmark interest structure.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The problem, as highlighted by bond investor Pimco and others, is twofold. One, how does all this extra liquidity find its way to the real economy if fearful households and companies don't or can't borrow more or are still assiduously paying down debts -- the suffocating 'deleveraging' process scaring investors and policymakers alike? It's one thing lending back to governments, and that may be a necessary move to prevent economic meltdown, but that's not going to generate renewed economic activity or job growth on its own. And then, two, what if banks -- under regulatory and market pressure to rebuild shot balance sheets -- simply refuse to expand "risky" lending again and hoard these cheap borrowings as cash that gets put back on deposit at the central bank?

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.

Supervising the supervisors

A new Brookings Institution report from the self-appointed Committee on International Economic Policy and Reform suggests that, given a spotty recent record, supervisors and policymakers at the world’s top central banks need to be watched themselves. The group of 16 high-profile economists and financial experts, which includes former Brazilian central bank chief Arminio Fraga, Berkeley professor Barry Eichengreen, Harvard’s Kenneth Rogoff and Mohamed El-Erian from Pimco, proposes a new international watchdog that might ensure actions taken by individual countries are coordinated and smoothed out:

We call for the creation of an International Monetary Policy Committee composed of representatives of major central banks that will report regularly to world leaders on the aggregate consequences of individual central bank policies.

The proposal comes as the Federal Reserve, faced with a weakening U.S. economy, ponders another round of unconventional monetary stimulus. Many analysts believe the Fed will take some type of step to support low long-term rates at its September 20-21 meeting. When the Fed implemented its second round of bond-buying, it came under harsh criticism from emerging economies for pushing up their exchange rates with ultra-low rates in the United States.

from Global Investing:

Emerging consumers’ pain to spell gains for stocks in staples

Food and electricity bills are high. The cost of filling up at the petrol station isn't coming down much either. The U.S. economy is in trouble and suddenly the job isn't as secure as it seemed. Maybe that designer handbag and new car aren't such good ideas after all.

That's the kind of decision millions of middle class consumers in developing countries are facing these days. That's bad news for purveyors of everything from jeans to iphones  who have enjoyed double-digit profits thanks to booming sales in emerging markets.

Brazil is the best example of how emerging market consumers are tightening their belts. Thanks to their spending splurge earlier this decade, Brazilian consumers on average see a quarter of their income disappear these days on debt repayments. People's credit card bills can carry interest rates of up to 45 percent. The central bank is so worried about the growth outlook it stunned markets with a cut in interest rates this week even though inflation is running well above target

Hungary’s central bank in policy bind

Pity Hungary’s central bank. If ever there was a country that needed an interest rate cut, here it is.  With the euro zone in the doldrums, the Hungarian economy is taking a big hit, with April-June growth coming in at a measly 1.5 percent on an annual basis, well below expectations. Quarter-on-quarter growth was in fact zero. Data last week showed annual inflation at two-year lows last month. Despite a cut to personal income tax rates this year, household consumption is stagnating. Unemployment is running at 11 percent. 

Yet the central bank’s hands are tied. A rate cut would weaken the forint currency and that would hurt the Hungarian families, municipalities and companies that are struggling with tens of billions of dollars in Swiss franc-denominated loans. The surging franc has already lopped half a percent off  Hungarian growth this year as families cut back on consumption to keep up loan repayments, Nomura analysts calculate. Another reason Hungary cannot really afford a weaker forint at this stage is its dependance on imports — they make up some 75 percent of GDP, far higher than in neighbouring Poland, says Neil Shearing at Capital Economics

Bond markets are betting on a rate cut — swaps are pricing in a half point cut over the next year. But will the central bank bite the bullet any time soon? ING Bank analysts think not. Hungary could need the protection of high interest rates in event of a global market selloff, they note. Hence the bank can afford to cut rates only next year. Shearing of Capital Economics agrees: “The central bank is in a bind. Provided the euro zone doesn’t melt down, there could be room for one or two rate cuts next year but at the moment its hands are tied by the currency issue.”

Price stability key to ECB bond buys?

Price stability remains the only needle in the compass for the European Central Bank, even when it is buying government bonds, the 17-country bloc’s central bank strived to argue on Sunday.

ECB President Jean-Claude Trichet said, in the statement announcing extension of its bond-buying programme, that the decision was made to keep inflation at an acceptable level.

“This programme has been designed to help restoring a better transmission of our monetary policy decisions – taking account of dysfunctional market segments – and therefore to ensure price stability in the euro area,” Trichet said.