MacroScope

Euro zone gymnastics

Sometimes, a week away from the fray can bring perspective. Sometimes, you miss all hell breaking loose.
My last day in the office saw European Central Bank President Mario Draghi utter his “we will do whatever it takes” to save the euro declaration. The markets took off on that, only to sag when the ECB didn’t follow through at last Thursday’s policy meeting.

In fact, it was never that likely that the ECB would rush to act, particularly since Draghi’s verbal intervention had started to push Italian and Spanish borrowing costs lower and the troika of lenders was still musing over Greece. But it seems to me that, despite German reservations, the ECB president has shifted the terms of trade, something market action is beginning to reflect.

There can be little doubt now that the ECB will intervene decisively if required – and the removal of that doubt takes away the main question that has kept markets on edge every since a bumper first quarter evaporated. Yes, there are caveats – notably the fact that Draghi said the ECB would only step in if countries first request assistance. With that will come conditionality and surveillance but it seems highly unlikely that Spain, for example, will be required to come up with any further austerity measures given what it is already doing. Spanish premier Rajoy seemed to soften Madrid’s opposition to seeking help last week, though he said he wanted to know precisely what the ECB might do in return. Until now, seeking sovereign aid has been a taboo for Spain. If that’s changed, it’s also big news.

The fundamentals of the crisis remain the same – a full Spanish bailout would all but wipe out the euro zone rescue funds while one for Italy looks completely unaffordable. All roads point to September, once the German constitutional court has presumably cleared the way for the bloc’s ESM bailout fund to come into being. At some point after that, Spain could ask for help from the fund to lower its borrowing costs rather than seek a sovereign bailout and, from what Draghi has said, the ECB could pile in behind. If that joint action turned the tide in Madrid’s favour it’s possible that Italy, which after all is running a primary surplus, would be taken out of the firing line. A caveat of my own here – next spring’s Italian elections cast a long shadow. Without a credible leader to replace Mario Monti, Italy would leapfrog Spain to the top of the crisis list.

There’s an awful lot of ifs and buts there, but with Spain facing big debt redemptions in October, September is the month.

U.S. bond bulls ready to charge after payrolls report, survey says

(Corrects to show CRT is not a primary dealer)

Bond bulls are ready to charge after Friday’s July U.S. employment data, according to a survey by Ian Lyngen, senior government bond strategist at primary dealer CRT Capital Group.

Says Lyngen:

Despite the vacation season and the multitude of ‘out of office’ responses we got, participation in this month’s survey was above-average and consistent with a market that’s engaged for the big policy/data events of the summer. As for the results of the survey, in a word: BULLISH.

Lyngen argued the survey results were the most bullish since November 2010, a point that was followed by a selloff that brought 10-year yields from 2.55 percent to 3.75 percent over the following four months.

Who would benefit from floating-rate Treasury notes?

The U.S. Treasury Department announced on Wednesday it would begin issuing floating rate notes (FRNs), even if such a new program is at least a year away from implementation. The rationale behind these short-term securities is to give investors protection against the possibility of a sudden spike in interest rates. The Federal Reserve has held overnight rates near zero since late 2008, helping to anchor borrowing costs of all maturities.

But is issuing variable rate securities really a good idea from the taxpayers’ standpoint? Stephen Stanley, chief economist at Pierpoint Securities, thinks not. He believes Treasury officials are getting played by sell- and buy-side investors and their respective vested interests. The Treasury has made the decision in part due to the recommendations of the Treasury Advisory Borrowing Committee (TBAC), made up exclusively of members of the financial industry.

Argues Stanley:

Sell-side participants love it because FRNs represent a new product to trade and one that will be much less liquid and thus may exhibit juicy bid-ask spreads. Buy-side participants love FRNs because they are starving for yield at the short end and FRNs will undoubtedly yield noticeably more than comparable conventional securities.

Glacial progress flagged at G20

The G20 summit may have marginally exceeded the lowest common denominator of expectations with euro zone leaders pledging to work on integration of their banking sectors as part of a push towards fiscal union. But it’s not clear that a banking union will happen any quicker than we thought before.

Germany is happy for cross-border oversight, maybe in the hands of the European Central Bank, to be zipped through but on the really vital parts of the structure – particularly a deposit guarantee scheme to guard against bank runs – it has clearly said it would only be possible once the drive towards fiscal union is set in stone. It will also not countenance mutual debt issuance until the fiscal union is in place.

Onus was put on next week’s EU summit to put flesh on the bones, although no definitive decisions are expected there and EU Commision President Barroso he would present its plan on banking integration in September. Here’s the reality check: European Council President Van Rompuy spelled out the vision of a much deeper economic union to underline the irreversibility of the euro project and said it would take less than the 10 years that ECB chief Draghi has talked about. And for many countries, particularly France, the surrender of that much sovereignty will be very hard to take.

No Greek relief for pain in Spain

There was no Greek relief rally (though at least we had no meltdown) and Spanish 10-year yields shot back above seven percent as a result, setting a nasty backdrop to today’s sale of up to 3 billion euros of 12- and 18-month T-bills.

Madrid has had little problem selling debt so far, particularly shorter-dated paper, but it’s beginning to look like the treasury minister’s slightly premature assessment two weeks ago that the bond market was closing to Spain is beginning to come true.
The 12-month bill was trading on Monday at around 4.9 percent. As last month’s auction it went for a touch under three percent. If that is not hairy enough, Spain will return to the market on Thursday with a sale of two-, three- and five-year bonds.

We’re still awaiting the independent audits of Spain’s banks which will give a guide as to how much of the 100 billion euros bailout offered by the euro zone they need. Treasury Minister Montoro was out again yesterday, pleading for the ECB to step in – presumably by reviving its bond-buying programme – something it remains reluctant to do, although a strong sense of purpose and commitment on economic union at the EU summit in a fortnight could embolden the central bank to act.

Breaking up is hard to do – even for stoic Germany

German Bund futures have just had their second straight week of losses. This has left many scratching their heads given the timing – right before Greek elections that could decide the country’s future in the euro and the next phase of the euro zone debt crisis. That sort of uncertainty would normally bolster bunds, which are seen as a safe-haven because of the country’s economic strength.

To explain the move, analysts pointed to profit-taking on recent hefty gains, and to a bout of long-dated supply from highly-rated Austria, the Netherlands and the European Financial Stability Fund this week. They also noted changes in Danish pension fund rules as an additional technical factor reducing demand for longer-dated German debt.

The losses, however, have also prompted some debate about whether contagion is spreading to Germany, the euro zone’s largest economy.

Spanish bailout blues

100 billion used to be a big number. These days, it barely buys you a little time.

Euro zone finance ministers agreed on Saturday to lend Spain up to 100 billion euros ($125 billion) to shore up its ailing banks and Madrid said it would specify precisely how much it needs once independent audits report in just over a week. 

A bailout for Spain’s banks, struggling with bad debts since a property bubble burst, would make it the fourth country to seek assistance since the region’s debt crisis began, after Greece, Ireland and Portugal.

Channels of contagion: How the European crisis is hurting Latin America

If anything positive can be said to have come out of the global financial crisis of 2008-2009, it may be that the theory arguing major economies could “decouple” from one another in times of stress was roundly disproved. Now that Europe is the world’s troublesome epicenter, economists are already on the lookout for how ructions there will reverberate elsewhere.

Luis Oganes and his team of Latin America economists at JP Morgan say Europe’s slowdown is already affecting the region – and may continue to do so for some time. The bank this week downgraded its forecasts for Brazilian economic growth this year to 2.1 percent from 2.9 percent, and it sees Colombia’s expansion softening as well. More broadly, it outlined some key ways in which Latin American economies stand to lose from a prolonged crisis in Europe.

Latin America has exhibited an above-unit beta to growth shocks in the U.S. and the euro area over the past decade; resilient U.S. growth until now had offset some of the pressure coming from lower Euro area growth, but U.S. activity is now weakening too.

Eurobond or bust

Many market analysts consider a deeper fiscal union the only way to hold together a troubled euro zone. And while Germany continues to loudly reaffirm its long-standing opposition to shared euro zone bonds, the region is in many ways already headed towards implicit mutual responsibility for national debts. Berlin will likely come under increasing pressure to succumb, especially now that “core” European countries are entering the crosshairs of speculators .

The region’s complex TARGET2 payments system, which hosts payment flows between euro zone member states, suggests there is already a good deal of risk-sharing implicit in regional structures, not to mention the exposure the European Central Bank has to peripheral debt. That shared liability may fall short of the kind of joint risk-taking foreseen for a common bond, where one country is responsible for the non-payment of debt by another.

But analysts say the build-up of imbalances in the system – as the ECB replaced private sector lending which dried up for peripheral countries – reflects the latest in a number of crisis-fighting steps that have increased regional integration.

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.