MacroScope

Before the crash: Ambling through the ‘archives’

Moving from one house or apartment to another is mainly onerous, but one of its few pleasures is coming across papers you have not seen for years: the adventure stories your grown son wrote when he was eight years old or the book report he wrote on William Shakespeare’s Richard III when he was 10.

Another potential source of amusement is finding an older newspaper or magazine article or column, preserved on purpose or inadvertently. One reads these pieces with the benefit of time: You, dear reader, have seen the future at which the columnist, either hapless or prescient, could only make a guess, educated or otherwise.

So herewith are excerpts from two side-by-side columns published in the Summer 2005 edition of TIAA-CREF’s “advance,” two years before the financial crisis sent the global economy into its worst downturn since the Great Depression.

On the left side of page 19, Robert Shiller, professor of economics at Yale University, began a column entitled “Homes are a Risky Long-Term Investment.”

On the right side, Richard Peach – then a vice president at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York and now a senior vice president in the area of macroeconomic and monetary studies – wrote under the headline: “Is There a Housing Bubble?”

Risk of contagion if Greece exits euro: WestLB

What happens if Greece leaves the euro? No one can say for sure. But John Davies at WestLB, finds it difficult to envision a benign outcome.

Greece’s economy, at around $300 billion, is very small compared to the euro zone as a whole. The problem is if other countries follow suit – or are pressured in that direction by stubborn financial markets.

Such a scenario doesn’t bear thinking about because it is so horrible.

There is a good chance that the market would immediately trade Portugal towards pre-debt swap Greece levels. The next in line would certainly be Ireland and Spain.

Germany’s zero bound

The ultra-low rates offered by two-year German bonds reflect just how worried investors have become about the euro zone debt crisis and the continent’s sluggish economy.

Two-year German debt is currently yielding only 0.09 percent. That is less than the 0.11 percent offered by equivalent bonds in Japan – whose central bank has been grappling with deflation for some two decades. It is also below the 0.26 percent offered by similar U.S. Treasuries after the Federal Reserve more than tripled the size of its balance sheet compared to pre-crisis levels.

Elwin de Groot, senior market economist at Rabobank, expects the euro zone’s sluggish economy and intractable debt crisis to continue to favour a safety bid as long as policymakers do not take steps towards a closer fiscal union. He sees the two-year German bond yield hitting zero in three to six months and ten-year benchmark yields falling to 1.40 percent over the same period from 1.59 percent currently.

“There are human beings involved” in austerity debate

The inventors of democracy and its greatest 18th century champions both go to the polls this weekend. Greek and French voters will try to elect governments they hope will help release their economies from the grips of the euro zone debt crisis.

While exercising their democratic vote, Europeans will also be contemplating another key issue: their basic economic survival.

That is why the debate about austerity versus growth has become so important.

Financial markets see fiscal discipline as crucial to get the euro zone’s debt burden back to sustainable levels. They are going into the Greek elections favoring triple-A rated bonds over peripheral counterparts.

Netherlands at core of the crisis

The Netherlands has become the latest country to come into the firing line of the euro zone crisis.

The cost of insuring five-year Dutch debt against default jumped to its highest since January as the government’s failure to agree on budget cuts spiraled into a political crisis and cast doubt over its support for future euro zone measures.

Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte offered to resign on Monday, creating a political vacuum in a country which strongly backed an EU fiscal treaty.

U.S. housing slump: Six years and counting

Just as Americans begin to regain some hope that the housing sector might be on the mend, we get another batch of data showing the sector’s not quite there yet.

Groundbreaking on homes fell unexpectedly in March to an annual rate of just 654,000, down from 694,000 in February and well short of the 705,000 Reuters consensus forecast. Some context: permits peaked above 2.2 million in early 2006, at the apex of the housing bubble. On the bright side, permits for future construction rose to their highest level in 3-1/2 years.



In other housing data this week, homebuilder sentiment deteriorated again after posting a pretty decent rebound from the very depressed levels seen in 2011.

For insatiable markets, Spanish steps fall short

So much for the lasting power of the ECB’s 1 trillion euros in cheap bank loans. Spain is again looking like a basket-case, more because of market dynamics rather than any particular policy misteps.

Many observers have praised Spain for its willingness to implement reforms. And yet the markets have another idea. The cost of insuring debt issued by Spanish banks against default has risen sharply over the past month, as a tough budget this week did little to soothe concerns over the country’s deteriorating fiscal situation.

Default insurance for Santander is up 52 percent since March 1 to 393 basis points and the equivalent for BBVA jumped 54 percent over the same period. Both Spanish banks underperformed the Markit iTraxx senior financials index – which measures Europe’s financial institutions’ insurance, or credit default swap prices. It rose by 20 percent over the same period.

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.

A recovery in Europe? Really?

There’s a sense of relief among European policymakers that the worst of the euro zone’s crisis appears to have passed. Olli Rehn, the EU’s top economic officials, talked this week of a “turning of the tide in the coming months”. Mario Draghi, the president of the European Central Bank, speaks of “sizeable progress” and “a reassuring picture”.

At last week’s spring summit, EU leaders couldn’t say it enough: “This meeting is not a crisis meeting … it’s not crisis management,” according to Finnish Prime Minister Jyrki Katainen. All the talk is of how the euro zone’s economy will recover in the second half of this year.

But for the 330 million Europeans who make up the euro zone, the outlook has, if anything, darkened. As euro zone governments deepen their commitment to deficit-cutting, and rising oil prices mean higher-than-expected inflation, households can’t be counted on to drive growth. Not only did housing spending fall 0.4 percent in the October to December period from the third quarter, but unemployment rose to its highest since late 1997 in January.

France: More like Italy than Germany?

In the more than two years that have passed since the start of Europe’s financial crisis, France has consistently aligned itself with Germany in pushing for greater austerity in so-called “peripheral countries” like Greece, Portugal, Spain and Italy. German Chancellor Angela Merkel even took the rare and somewhat awkward step of publicly campaigning for French President Nicolas Sarkozy.

But a closer look at the country’s debt profile suggests France may be misjudging its own underlying financial conditions. Even beyond French banks’ considerable exposure to southern European sovereign bonds, analysts say the economic backdrop is remarkably similar to nations that have run into trouble.

Writes Christoph Weil of Commerzbank in a research note:

France has the same problems as the euro periphery. The French economy is struggling with a massive loss of competitiveness and rising unemployment, while the consolidation of government finances is progressing at a sluggish pace.  [...]