MacroScope

Evening of reckoning

EU heads of government and state dine in Brussels this evening to discuss their response to a big slap in the face from the bloc’s electorates.

Italy’s Matteo Renzi, who bucked the trend by winning handsomely as an incumbent prime minister, has the wind in his sails and has pledged to change Europe’s focus towards growth and job creation after years of fiscal austerity in response to the euro zone’s debt crisis.

A French official said President Francois Hollande would back Renzi’s call for more pro-growth policies and tell fellow EU leaders that Europe had reached “the alarm level”. Even Germany’s Angela Merkel – the one who really counts – is talking about Europe’s people not caring about treaty change but job security and prosperity.

Her prescription of focusing on competitiveness, growth and jobs doesn’t sound a million miles away from what Renzi is saying though they come from very different starting points. With France languishing and Renzi suddenly ascendant, it begs the question whether he and the German leader could provide the twin impetus to move the EU forward. Traditionally, only Germany and France in tandem have managed to do so.

Merkel’s intervention begs a further question — whether the further integration that most economists say the euro zone needs to underpin the single currency is a priority, or even possible, if institutional reform is now on the back burner.

Money for Ukraine?

Russia’s next move remains the great unanswered question for Ukraine but there are glimmers that things might be starting to move elsewhere.

IMF chief Christine Lagarde said last night she would send a technical support team to Ukraine soon if Kiev makes a request. It can’t do so until an interim government is formed, probably tomorrow. That would be step one, but only step one, down the road to an international aid package.

The European Union’s foreign policy chief promised Ukraine’s new leaders strong international support but offered up no specifics and there will be no meaningful bailout until after elections slated for late May although EU budget commissioner Janusz Lewandowski said bridging aid of 1 billion euros might be available.

ECB deflation risk denial has echoes of 2009

Euro zone policymakers like to talk. They often contradict each other at separate speaking engagements on the same day. But they have struck a chorus in recent weeks, asserting that deflation is not a threat.

Members of the ECB Governing Council have been particularly vocal, insisting they will not have to alter policy to counter falling prices.

Jan 9: Mario Draghi says the euro zone may “experience a prolonged period of low inflation” — steering clear of even mentioning the word deflation.

Davos Day Two — Rouhani, Lew and Lagarde

Day one in Davos showed the masters of the universe fretting about Sino-Japanese military tensions, the treacherous investment territory in some emerging markets and the risk of a lurch to the right in Europe at May’s parliamentary elections which could make reform of the bloc even harder.

Today, the focus will be on Iranian President Hassan Rouhani (and his main detractor, Israel’s Netanyahu). Presumably he’s there to woo the world of commerce now sanctions are to be relaxed in return for Tehran suspending enrichment of uranium beyond a certain level. Anything he says about Syria’s peace talks, which have so far been more hostile than conciliatory, will instantly be headline news.

Other big name speakers are U.S. Treasury Secretary Jack Lew, IMF chief Christine Lagarde, who is going around warning about the threat of European deflation, Australian premier Tony Abbott, who is running the G20 this year, and a session featuring the BRICS finance ministers.

Data to shape ECB week

Euro zone service sector PMIs and German inflation (with the euro zone number to follow on Tuesday) will lay the ground for the European Central Bank’s first policy meeting of the year.

The surveys are likely to show the currency bloc ended the year on a reasonably robust note with Germany leading the way as always, Italy and Spain showing signs of life and France looking worryingly weak.

Ireland’s reading is already out and has posted its fastest services growth in seven years. Much more importantly for the world, growth in China’s services industries slowed in December, confirming that the world’s second-largest economy lost steam at the end of last year.

Just a typical euro zone day

Spain will sell up to four billion euros of six- and 12-month treasury bills, prior to a full bond auction on Thursday. Italy attracted only anaemic demand at auction last week and Madrid has already had to pay more to borrow since the Federal Reserve shook up the markets with its blueprint for an exit from QE.

However, yields are nothing like back to the danger levels of last year and both countries have frontloaded their funding this year. Economy Minister Luis de Guindos, who declared over the weekend that the Spanish economy will grow in the second half of the year, speaks later in the day.

The political backdrop is also shaky, and getting shakier by the day, although that doesn’t always infect market sentiment. Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy rejected calls to resign on Monday over a party financing scandal and said his reform programme would continue unaffected.

The Greek “cliff”

Some key positions were staked out on Greece over the weekend – ECB power-behind-the throne Joerg Asmussen became the first euro policymaker to say on the record that euro zone finance ministers meeting on Tuesday would be intent only on finding a deal to tide Greece over the next two years. But IMF chief Christine Lagarde told us in an interview that she would push for a permanent solution to Greece’s debts to avoid prolonged uncertainty and further damage to the Greek economy.
  
Sounds like those two positions could be mutually exclusive. However, it may be that something like a behind-the-scenes pledge from the German government that it will act decisively after next year’s election will keep the IMF on board.

Eurogroup chief Jean-Claude Juncker said at the weekend that intensive work was being done on a compromise with the IMF and progress was being made, after the euro zone sherpas put their heads together on Friday. And even hardline German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble said a deal had to be struck on Tuesday and would be. Juncker and Lagarde clashed last week over his suggestion that Greece should be given an extra two years, to 2022, to get its debt/GDP ratio down to 120 percent, the level the IMF has decreed is the maximum sustainable. Lagarde looked surprised and firmly rejected the idea.

IMF officials have argued that some writedown for euro zone governments is necessary to make Greece solvent but Germany has repeatedly rejected the idea of taking a loss on holdings of Greek debt, saying it would be illegal. 
Among ideas under consideration to plug the funding gap are further reducing the interest rate and extending the maturity of euro zone loans to Greece, a possible interest payment holiday and bringing forward loan tranches due at the end of the programme, according to euro zone sources.

Greek debt — a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma

So said Winston Churchill of Russia. The Greek debt saga isn’t quite that unfathomable but the economic necessities continue to clash with the political realities.

Eurogroup Working Group – the expert finance officials from 17 euro zone nations who do the clever preparatory work before their finance ministers meet – will convene to today try and get the Greek debt process back on track after a ministerial meeting got nowhere on Monday and in fact ended up in an unusually public spat between its chair, Jean-Claude Juncker, and IMF Managing Director Christine Lagarde.

The Eurogroup plus Lagarde will meet again next Tuesday and there are big gaps to bridge although we intercepted the IMF chief in Manila this morning, insisting that a deal was possible, or at least that’s one way of reading her “it’s not over until the fat lady sings” quote.

Italy in market after Spanish downgrade

Italy is expected to pay slightly more than it did a month ago to borrow for three years at today’s auction of up to 6 billion euros of a range of bonds. Yields edged up at a sale of 11 billion euros of short-term paper on Wednesday but there is no immediate cause for alarm. Three year-yields have dropped from 5.3 percent to around 3.3 since the ECB declared its readiness to buy the bonds of troubled euro zone sovereigns and Italy has shifted about 80 percent of its debt requirements this year, so is on track in that regard.

The fact that it now seems possible that Mario Monti could continue as prime minister after spring elections can’t do any harm either although yesterday’s surprise cut in income tax muddies the waters a little.

The main problem for Italy is that Spain is in no rush to seek a bailout, a move that would alleviate pressure on Rome too. The IMF kept up the drumbeat of pressure for action in Tokyo, demanding “courageous and cooperative action”, having yesterday said the euro area was still threatened by a “downward spiral of capital flight, breakup fears and economic decline”.  German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble retorted that Europe was solving its problems and had done far more than appeared to outside observers.

Euro zone ying and yang

The ying.
Sources told us last night that Spain may recapitalize stricken Bankia with government bonds in return for shares in the bank. That would presumably involve an up-front hit for Spain’s public finances (it is already striving to lop about 6 percentage points off its budget deficit in two years) which might be recouped at some point if the shares don’t disappear through the floor.
The ECB’s view of this will be crucial since the plan seems to involve the bank depositing the new bonds with the ECB as collateral in return for cash. If it cries foul, where would that leave Madrid?

Spain’s main advantage up to now – that it had issued well over half the debt it needs to this year – may already have evaporated after the government revealed that the publicly stated figure for maturing debt of the autonomous regions of 8 billion euros for this year is in fact more like 36 billion. Catalonia said late last week that it needed central government help to refinance its debt.  If more bonds are required to cover some or all of Bankia’s 19 billion euros bailout, Spain’s funding challenge in the second half of the year starts to look very daunting indeed.

The yang.
Latest Greek opinion polls, five of them, show the pro-bailout New Democracy have regained the lead ahead of June 17 elections although their advantage is a very slender one. If the party manages to hold first place, and secures the 50 parliamentary seat bonus that comes with it, then it looks like it would have the numbers to form a government with socialist PASOK which would keep the bailout programme on the road … for a while.