MacroScope

Dancing on the edge of a (fiscal) cliff

With hundreds of billions worth of stimulus measures set to expire on Jan. 1, investors are all too aware that the United States is hurtling toward what economists are calling “a fiscal cliff.” It’s just that most seem to think Congress will execute one of its typical last-minute, hairpin turns to avoid plunging the economy over the edge.

As Russ Koesterich, global chief investment strategist at iShares told Reuters recently, “people are worried but they feel some sort of fix will get done.” Certainly the equity and bond markets back him up: the S&P 500 is up a healthy 12.7 percent this year while benchmark 10-year Treasury yields remain pinned beneath 2 percent.

Ethan Harris at Bank of America-Merrill Lynch isn’t so sure. After all, we’re talking about the same group of politicians who nearly forced the United States to default last year and earned it a credit downgrade from S&P in the process. This time, Republicans and Democrats will have just seven weeks to stitch up a deal, and they’ll have to do it while the wounds inflicted by a brutally negative a presidential election campaign are still fresh.

At stake are about $240 billion in income, capital gains, dividend and estate tax cuts – the Bush tax cuts – that are scheduled to expire on Jan. 1, along with Obama’s $90 billion payroll tax cut. Also set to start next year will be the first round of a 10-year diet of automatic spending cuts totaling $1.2 trillion. These were triggered when a Congressional committee failed last year to agree on a long-term deficit reduction plan.

Harris is warning clients to prepare for the worst:

Absent new legislation, fiscal policy will tighten by more than 4 percent of GDP. Even if just half of the threatened tightening occurs, it would be a major shock to growth.

Tumultuous euro zone week

A week where every facet of the euro zone debt saga will come from all angles.

The major events are the French presidential run-off and Greek general elections on Sunday, May 6.
 
In the former case, a likely socialist Francois Hollande victory could cause some market jitters given his rhetoric about the world of finance. But we’ve looked at this pretty forensically and actually there may not be much to scare the horses. Yes he is making growth a priority (but even the IMF is saying that’s a good idea) yet his only fiscal shift is to aim to balance the budget a year later than Sarkozy would. And, contrary to some reports, he is not intent on ripping up the EU’s new fiscal rules. And of course, the bond market will only allow so much leeway.

If the two main Greek parties – PASOK and New Democracy – fail to win enough votes to govern together, they may have to turn to a fringe anti-bailout party which would put a big question mark over Athens’ ability to stick with the austerity terms demanded by its international lenders.

Even if fears about a hard Greek default or even euro exit result, the threat of contagion looks far smaller. With creditors already having taken a massive haircut, most non-Greek banks completely out or at least having written down anything they hold, a 500 billion euros rescue fund shortly in place and the IMF raising an extra $430 billion of its own, the power Greece has to start a domino effect in the euro zone is very much diminished.

A curate’s egg — good in parts

An action-packed weekend with both good and bad news for the euro zone, which may — net — leave its prospects little clearer.

Item 1: The IMF came up with $430 billion in new firepower to contain the euro zone-led world economic crisis, although some of the money will only be delivered by the BRICS once they have more sway at the Fund. Nonetheless, the figure at least matches expectations and could give markets pause for thought. The official line is that it is for non-euro countries caught up in the maelstrom but no one really believes that. If a Spain is teetering, IMF funds will be there. Together with the 500 billion euros rescue fund set up by the euro zone, there is still barely enough to ringfence both Italy and Spain if it came to it. But will it come to it?

Item 2: Socialist Francois Hollande came out top in the first round of the French presidential election and is now a warm favourite to win. Some fear that could weaken the Franco-German motor which must be humming smoothly if further crisis-fighting measures are to be convincing. Others say he is essentially a centrist who, either way, will be constrained by the realities of the euro zone situation. Domestically, his focus on tax rises over spending cuts and a slower timetable for cuts could drive up French borrowing costs. Attempts by Hollande and President Nicola Sarkozy to woo the substantial votes that went to the far right and far left could lead to some nerve-jangling campaigning messages for the markets to swallow in the run-up to the May 6 second round.

IMF crisis funds: Why nobody really cares

With reporting from Steven C. Johnson and Nick Olivari

A lot of time and money is spent on high-profile multilateral gatherings like this weekend’s International Monetary Fund meeting in Washington. The central story this time is the Fund’s effort to raise more funds (no pun intended), which appears to have been successful as G20 nations committed more than $430 billion in new funds.

French Finance Minister François Baroin, speaking to reporters at a press briefing on the sidelines of the IMF meeting, greeted the news with optimism:

Clearly, the reinforcement of the IMF with more than $400 billion in new resources and its effects on confidence will contribute to financial stability in the euro zone.

Spain: ¿Cómo se dice “contagion”?

It was not a good day for Spain.

The euro zone’s fourth largest economy had to pay dearer to borrow through medium-term bonds, a sign that concerns over the country´s fiscal problems was curbing appetite for its debt. It sold 2.6 billion euros of 2015, 2016 and 2020 paper – at the low end of the target range.

In contrast, Portugal’s 1 billion euros sale of 18-month treasury bills was a successful test of market appetite for the longest-dated debt since it took an international bailout. Appetite for short-dated paper has been especially supported by the one trillion euros of cheap three-year European Central Bank funding injected into the financial system since December.

The problem is that Spain is the latest country to come into the firing line of the euro zone debt crisis. This week’s tough budget was not enough to calm investor nerves and many fear too much austerity could choke an already struggling economy where unemployment rose to a staggering 22.9 percent in the fourth quarter of 2011 – the highest in the European Union. Meanwhile, the government expects Spain’s public debt to jump in 2012 to its highest since at least 1990.

Europe’s triple threat: bad banks, big debts, slow growth

The financial turmoil still dogging Europe is most often described as a debt crisis. But sovereign debt is only part of the problem, according to new research from Jay Shambaugh, economist at Georgetown’s McDonough School of Business. The other two prongs of what he describes as three coexisting crises are the region’s troubled banks and the prospect of an imminent recession.

These problems are mutually reinforcing, and require a more forceful policy response than the authorities have delivered to date. In particular, Shambaugh advocates using tax policy to lower labor costs, fiscal stimulus from those economies strong enough to afford it, and more aggressive action from the European Central Bank:

It is possible that coordinated shifts in payroll and consumption taxes could aid the painful process of internal devaluation. The EFSF could be used to capitalize banks and to help break the sovereign / bank link. Fiscal support in core countries could help spur growth.  Finally, the ECB could provide liquidity to sovereigns and increase nominal GDP growth as well as allow slightly faster inflation to facilitate deleveraging and relative price adjustments across regions.

Greek debt – remember the goats

Greece’s creditors have essentially let it off the hook by overwhelmingly agreeing to take a 74 percent loss.  So what better time to  remember  one of the first times Athens got in trouble with paying its debts.

In 490 BC, the bucolic plains before the town of Marathon were the site of a bloodbath. Invading Persians  lost a key battle against Greeks, who were led by the great Athenian warrior Kallimachos, aka Callimachus.

The trouble is, Kallimachos shares some of the difficulty with numbers that  modern Greek leaders appear to have.  Before launching himself upon the  Persians,  he  pledged to sacrifice a young goat to the Gods for every enemy that was killed.

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.

S&P statement on Greece

S&P on Monday cut Greece’s ratings to “selective default” but said it would consider the default “cured” after Greece completes its debt exchange. At that point, S&P plans on upgrading the country to CCC. Here is the full statement S&P issued alongside the decision:

Standard & Poor’s Ratings Services said today that it has lowered its ‘CC’ long-term and ‘C’ short-term sovereign credit ratings on the Hellenic Republic (Greece) to ‘SD’ (selective default).

Our recovery rating of ’4′ on Greece’s foreign-currency issue ratings is unchanged. Our country transfer and convertibility (T&C) assessment for Greece, as for all other eurozone members, remains ‘AAA’.

from Scott Barber:

Breaking point? Greece vs. Argentina

As the crisis in Greece continues, the comparisons with Argentina’s chaotic bankruptcy a decade ago start to look more justified. In Argentina, a bank deposit freeze was the tipping point, triggering mass violent protests. People took to the streets banging pots and pans to protest against an economic collapse that plunged millions into poverty. The government declared a stage of siege and presidents resigned one after another. Greek unemployment and industrial production numbers out yesterday were dreadful but how to they compare to Argentina in late 2001?

The table and charts below show some key economic series in Argentina in the run up to 2002 and after. Argentinean real GDP fell nearly 20% from its peak in 1998 to 2002 -that compares with around a 12% fall so far in Greece. The unemployment rate in Argentina reached a peak of 24% not far above the 21% Greece reported yesterday. On other metrics Greece looks much worse; the IMF puts public debt at 50.8% of GDP in Argentina compared to an expected 166% in Greece this year.

The IMF published its Lessons of the crisis in Argentina in 2003 (approved by Tim Geithner no less). Looking at the conclusions, the IMF faced many problems now becoming familiar in Greece as this passage shows: