MacroScope

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.

French media are reporting the government will raise the official deficit forecast for this year and next to 3.8 percent and 3.0 percent of GDP respectively, which leaves no room for manoeuvre. 

Overnight, there has been some heavily coded criticism from closer to home.

France’s High Council for Public Finances, an audit panel created to offer independent assessment of feasibility of the budget programmes, said the government would raise its growth forecasts to 1.0 percent this year and 1.7 percent in 2015 which it said was realistic for this year but maybe not thereafter. Growth of 2.25 percent is pencilled in for 2016.

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.

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.

Spain calls for bank aid

Things are on the move in Spain although nothing is set in stone yet.
Treasury minister Montoro’s call yesterday for “European mechanisms” to be involved in the recapitalization of Spain’s debt-laden banks – a reversal of Madrid’s previous insistence that it could sort its banks alone – unleashed a barrage of whispers in Europe’s corridors of powers.

Our sources say that the independent of audit of Spanish banks’ capital needs, the first phase of which is due by the end of the month, will be a key moment after which things could move quickly.

The hitch is that Madrid still doesn’t want the humiliation of asking for a bailout and Germany will not countenance the bloc’s rescue funds lending to banks direct. One possible solution floated last night –  the EFSF or ESM bailout funds could lend to Spain’s FROB bank rescue fund, which could be viewed as tantamount to lending to the state but would give the government some political cover to say it wasn’t asking for the money. This is anything but a done deal and there would still be some strings attached which could be tough for Prime Mininster Mariano Rajoy to swallow.