MacroScope

Battle lines drawn

Germany's Minister of Finance Wolfgang Schauble speaks during a discussion during the World Bank/IMF annual meetings in Washington

The predictable battle lines were drawn at the G20/IMF meetings in Washington – most of the world urged Europe to do more to foster growth while Germany warned against letting up on austerity. The argument will doubtless be reprised today when euro zone finance ministers meet in Luxembourg.

Given a ghastly run of German data last week and sharp cuts to its growth forecasts by the IMF and Germany’s economic institutes, Berlin’s stance looks increasingly odd but Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble continued to make it abundantly clear he will not countenance any more public spending in the one European country that could really afford it.

Writing cheques won’t fix Europe, he stated bluntly.

If there was anything new it appeared to be the intensity of the response. This from European Central Bank chief Mario Draghi: “For governments that have fiscal space it makes sense to use it. You decide to which countries this sentence applies.”

Jyrki Katainen, the former Finnish premier poised to become the EU’s top official for growth and jobs, said Germany, France and Italy must focus on public investment to revive their economies.

Most outspoken was former U.S. Treasury Secretary Larry Summers, sharing the stage with Schaeuble. Europe risked sliding into an era of Japan-style deflation without a “substantial discontinuity in policy”, he said. Europe, and Germany in particular, should follow recent advice from the IMF to invest in infrastructure projects.

French budget to fire EU growth debate

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France is unveiling its 2015 budget right now and it’s not making pretty reading, confirming that Paris will not get its budget deficit down to the EU limit of three percent of GDP until 2017, years after it should have done.

The health minister has said the welfare deficit is expected to run nearly one billion euros over budget this year and data on Tuesday showed France’s national debt hit a record high in the second quarter, topping two trillion euros for the first time. It will near 100 percent of GDP next year.

All this is predicated on growth picking up and the proportion of national income going on public spending will fall only glacially.
French President Francois Hollande and Italy’s Matteo Renzi are leading a drive to use the maximum amount of flexibility within EU rules to allow a bit more spending or lower taxes to get growth going – French Finance Minister Michel Sapin has just said the pace of budget consolidation in the euro zone must be adapted to reflect the reality of a stagnant economy.

Will French numbers add up?

French President Francois Hollande’s cabinet meets to adopt a new debt reduction plan.

After outlining 50 billion euros of savings for 2015-2017 to help pay for consumer and business tax cuts, the government is due to sign off on already delayed deficit reductions to bring it, eventually, to three percent of output as demanded by Brussels.

The European Commission has taken a dim view of any further relaxation, having previously granted Paris two years extra leeway. The French government insists it will meet its targets but appears to be trying to deliver one message to Brussels and another to its electorate, with domestic politics likely to hold sway.

Five days on, Ukraine accord at risk of unravelling

An international agreement to avert wider conflict in Ukraine, brokered only five days ago, is teetering with pro-Moscow separatist gunmen showing no sign of surrendering government buildings and Kiev and Moscow trading accusations over who was responsible for killings over the weekend.

Washington, which signed last week’s accord in Geneva along with Moscow, Kiev and the European Union, said it would decide “in days” on additional sanctions if Russia does not take steps to implement the agreement. U.S. Vice President Joe Biden is in Kiev where he is expected to announce a package of technical assistance.

So far, markets’ worst fears have not materialized but with thousand of Russian troops massed on the frontier with Ukraine and deadly clashes between Ukrainian forces and pro-Russian separatists, it would not take much to change that.

Moments difficiles

Breaking news is S&P’s downgrade of France’s credit rating to AA from AA+ putting it two notches below Germany. Finance Minister Pierre Moscovici has rushed out to declare French debt is among the safest and most liquid in the euro zone, which is true.

What is also pretty unarguable is S&P’s assessment that France’s economic reform programme is falling short and the high unemployment is weakening support for further measures. There’s also Francois Hollande’s dismal poll ratings to throw into the mix.

As a result, medium-term growth prospects are lacklustre. Euro zone GDP figures for the third quarter are out next week and France is expected to lag with growth of just 0.1 percent.

Is Congress the ‘enabler’ of a loose Fed?

We heard it more than once at today’s hearing of the Joint Economic Committee featuring Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke: the central bank’s low interest rate policies are allowing Congress to delay tough decisions on long-term spending.

As U.S. senator Dan Coats asked pointedly: “Is the Fed being an enabler for an addiction Congress can’t overcome?”

Yet, if you read the subtext of Bernanke’s testimony closely, it may actually be Congress that is enabling a loose Federal Reserve.

The fading strength of U.S. exports

U.S. exports posted their biggest drop in nearly four years in October, pushing the U.S. trade deficit higher despite a decline in imports to their lowest level in 1-1/2 years.

The data reveal that U.S. exports of goods and services have now decelerated to a year-on-year growth rate of just 1 percent compared with 2.8 percent in the third quarter of 2012 and 11.5 percent last year at this time, writes Deutsche Bank Securities chief U.S. economist Joseph LaVorgna in a research note.

We are concerned by this export trend, not only in October, but over the past several months, because exports have contributed an outsized share to economic growth in the current cycle. If exports fade away as an economic driver in the near-to-medium term, other domestic engines will need to accelerate in order to pick up the economic slack and maintain growth near 2.0-2.5 percent. We think this is possible if fiscal cliff concerns are adequately addressed. The domestic offset will come from continued recovery in the housing sector, as well as pent-up demand from households and businesses.

The vote that counts for markets

The American people have spoken but for the markets the votes of 300 Greeks could be of even more importance in the short-term. German Bund futures have opened flat, not really reacting to Obama’s victory, while European stocks have eked out some early gains.
       
We await a knife-edge parliamentary vote in Athens on labour reforms to cut wages and severance payments, which the EU and IMF insist are a key part of a new bailout deal, but which the smallest party in the coalition government has pledged to vote against. That leaves the two larger parties – New Democracy and PASOK – with a working majority of just nine lawmakers and on a less contentious vote on privatizations, a number of PASOK deputies rebelled. Ratcheting up the pressure is a second day of a general strike which will see thousands take to the streets.

We know that the troika has advised that another 30 billion euros needs to be found to keep Greece afloat. We also know that the IMF has been pressing for the ECB and euro zone governments to take a writedown on Greek bonds they hold, which Germany refuses to do so (which means it won’t happen, for now at least). The Eurogroup is awaiting the troika’s final report and it’s looking less likely that a definitive plan will be signed off at next Monday’s meeting of euro zone finance ministers.

Nonetheless, it’s in no one’s interests to let Greece crash at this point so the presumption is a deal will be done, probably featuring Greece getting two extra years to make the cuts demanded of it, extending maturities on its loans and cutting the interest rates. Talk of the ECB foregoing profits on the Greek bonds it holds (rather than taking a loss, since it bought them at a steep discount) continues to do the rounds. A further German condition is for a ring-fenced escrow account to hold some Greek tax revenues to ensure that it services its loans. Greece will probably also be allowed to issue more t-bills to tide it over though that requires the ECB’s acquiescence since Greek banks are entirely dependent on central bank liquidity and have been offering those t-bills up as collateral. Mario Draghi is speaking today.

Ambling through the archives: Don’t blame the deficit, 1983 edition

The battle over the amount and nature of government spending is the focus of the current U.S.presidential campaign and is unlikely to go away even after the November election is well in the rear view mirror.

In such a setting, a paper presented by economist Albert M. Wojnilower at the October 1983 Bald Peak Conference sponsored by the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston, sounds as timely today as it did then. Wojnilower, then chief economist at First Boston, prepared his “Don’t Blame the Deficit” talk as a commentary on “Implications of the Government Deficit for U.S. Capital Formation,” a paper by Benjamin M. Friedman, a professor of political economy at Harvard.

Here is the jist of Wojnilower’s argument, made almost three decades ago when the Ronald Reagan presidency was almost three years old: If the United States is under-investing, the “villain” is not the Federal budget deficit, he said.

EU summit aftermath

After the EU summit exceeded expectations the more considered verdict of the markets will dictate in the short-term, certainly until the European Central Bank’s policy meeting on Thursday. Previous summit deals crumbled pretty quickly buying only a few days or even hours of market relief.

After strong gains on Friday, Asian stocks are up modestly and European shares have edged higher. However, German Bund futures are nearly half a point higher, so something’s got to give and more often than not it’s the stock market that thinks again. So maybe Friday’s rally was a one-off.

For it to have any legs, the ECB may well have to come up with something on Thursday, and a quarter-point rate cut – widely priced in – may not be enough. ECB policymaker Asmussen is already out saying Greece must should not loosen its bailout programme, Spain can restore confidence with a bank recap plan that builds in a large margin for error and dismissing calls for the ESM rescue fund, which comes into being next week, to get a banking licence so it could draw on virtually unlimited ECB funds. That all sounds fairly uncompromising.