Euro zone triptych

Three big events today which will tell us a lot about the euro zone and its struggle to pull out of economic malaise despite the European Central Bank having removed break-up risk from the table.

1. The European Commission will issue fresh economic forecasts which will presumably illuminate the lack of any sign of recovery outside Germany. Just as starkly, they will show how far off-track the likes of Spain, France and Portugal are from meeting their deficit targets this year. All three have, explicitly or implicitly, admitted as much and expect Brussels to give them more leeway. That looks inevitable (though not until April) but it would be interesting to hear the German view. We’ve already had Slovakia, Austria and Finland crying foul about France getting cut some slack. El Pais claims to have seen the Commission figures and says Spain’s deficit will will come in at 6.7 percent of GDP this year, way above a goal of 4.5 percent. The deficit will stay high at 7.2 percent in 2014, the point so far at which Madrid is supposed to reach the EU ceiling of three percent.

2. Banks get their first chance to repay early some of the second chunk of more than a trillion euros of ultra-cheap three-year money the ECB doled out last year. First time around about 140 billion was repaid, more than expected, indicating that at least parts of the euro zone banking system was returning to health. Another hefty 130 billion euros is forecast for Friday. That throws up some interesting implications. First there is a two-tier banking system in the currency bloc again with banks in the periphery still shut out. Secondly, it means the ECB’s balance sheet is tightening while those of the Federal Reserve and Bank of Japan continue to balloon thanks to furious money printing. The ECB insists there is plenty of excess liquidity left to stop money market rates rising much and a big rise in corporate euro-denominated bond sales helps too. But all else being equal, that should propel the euro yet higher, the last thing a struggling euro zone economy needs.

3. Germany’s Ifo index (and a detailed breakdown of its Q4 GDP) follows a stellar reading for ZEW sentiment and a solid PMI earlier in the week. It all confirms that Germany has bounced back in the first quarter while its euro peers – including France – are doing anything but. The German GDP figures are already out, confirming the economy shrank by 0.6 percent but on the debt front the stats office reported a 0.2 percent budget surplus for the year – the first surplus in five years.   Key ECB policymaker Joerg Asmussen is giving Reuters an interview later, his  colleague Benoit Coeure is speaking in Lisbon and Belgium’s ECB representative, Luc Coene, is out saying the current euro level is no threat to growth prospects (growth prospects?).

Italy’s election denouement approaches. We get the final TV appeals by party leaders tonight before campaigning ends. Centre-left leader Bersani, maverick Grillo and Silvio Berlusconi are holding rallies.

NYC Mayor Bloomberg: Highly-indebted U.S. could go the way of Europe

New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg slammed the federal government for following the same fiscal path that has cost European governments so dearly, perhaps offering Democratic President Barack Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney hints about what policies he would like to see from them to win his endorsement as a moderate independent. Bloomberg’s seal of approval carries added weight because he is a billionaire businessman with close ties to Wall Street, a source of donations as well as a powerful force in the economy.

I think it is clear that we have a deficit problem that is going to hurt this country dramatically and unless we do something about it is a cloud on the horizon. It doesn’t mean America is going to go to zero… But I think if you take a look at Europe and other places and it shows you when you live above your means –  It’s different than the city, the deficits we project are aspirational deficits, in the end we balance our budgets, the federal government does not.

The city by law must close any deficits. In contrast, the U.S. government can borrow to fund its operations – and at very low rates in recent years.

Never mind the pain, feel the austerity

Austerity in the euro zone seems to be working — at least as far as the headline,  dry, soulless numbers of  budget balancing are concerned. Bailed out  Greece and Ireland have reported substantial improvements in last year’s profligacy performance.  Spain, while going in the wrong direction, at least has the satisfaction of being told it is not telling fibs.

We will get to the smoke and mirrors in a bit.

First Greece, the euro zone’s poster child for budget ill-discipline. The 2011 budget deficit to GDP ratio  – basically the annual overspend — came in at 9.1 percent. This may seem like a lot given the EU target is 3 percent, but it was down from 10.3 percent  a year earlier and from 15.6 percent the year before that. Furthermore, if you take out all the debt repayments costs that Athens has to make , you end up with only 2.4 percent (although in truth that is like pretending you don’t have a mortgage).

In Ireland, the craic was all about trouncing expectations. The deficit to GDP ratio for 2011 came in at 9.4 percent, which compared with an original 10.6 percent target and even a revised target just last December of 10.  1 percent. Everything is on track, Dublin reckons, to meet this year’s 8.6 percent.

Should central banks now sell gold?

Central banks in debt-strapped countries have a golden opportunity ahead of them, if you will excuse the pun, to help their countries’ finances by selling their yellow metal holdings.

At least, that is the message that Royal Bank of Scotland’s commodities chief Nick Moore has been giving in recent presentations — and he thinks it might happen.   The gist is that gold is now at a record price but banks have not come close to  meeting their sales allowance for the year.

Under the Central Bank Gold Agreement there is a quota of 400 tonnes that can be sold by central banks within a 12 month period and with only about three months to go in the latest period less than 39 tonnes has been sold.  At today’s price that remaining 361 tonnes is worth some $14 billion.

Confidence vs. reality on Europe’s fiscal front

What do Poland, the European Union’s brightest economic light, and Greece, its dimmest, have in common? Both have plans to cut their budget deficits to the Union’s  prescribed 3 percent level by 2012, and both of those plans depend on a lot of ifs.

I can already hear cries of protest from Poland, the only EU member to show any growth at all last year. It that has taken great pains to distance itself from more troubled EU states and is extremely proud of its growth results, with Prime Minister Donald Tusk recently telling the Financial Times: “Who would have thought we would see the day when the Polish economy is talked about with greater respect than the German economy?”

But the comparison still works, not only because Poland and Greece have promised to shrink their deficits so quickly — Greece from an expected 12.7 and Poland from around 7 percent this year — but also because they are depending on growth forecasts that may Protesters march during a rally against the government's austerity  plans in Athensnot materialise. Both stories are also emblematic of a theme sweeping across Europe — an effort by governments to build confidence over fiscal consolidation plans in an uncertain recovery.