MacroScope

To print or not to print

It’s ECB day and it could be a big one, not because a shift in policy is expected but because journalists will get an hour to quiz Mario Draghi on the Italy conundrum after the central bank leaves monetary policy on hold.

To explain: The story of the last five months has been the bond-buying safety net cast by the European Central Bank which took the sting out of the currency bloc’s debt crisis. But now it has an Achilles’ heel. The ECB has stated it will only buy the bonds of a country on certain policy conditions encompassing economic reform and austerity. An unwilling or unstable Italian government may be unable to meet those conditions so in theory the ECB should stand back. But what if the euro zone’s third biggest economy comes under serious market attack? Without ECB support the whole bloc would be thrown back into crisis and yet if it does intervene, some ECB policymakers and German lawmakers will throw their hands up in horror, potentially calling the whole programme in to question.

In Italy, outgoing technocrat premier Monti is due to meet centre-left leader Bersani, the man still harbouring hopes of forming some sort of government. Whether he succeeds or not it seems unlikely that any administration can ignore the dramatic anti-austerity vote delivered by the Italian people.

Draghi will doubtless stonewall on all this but there’s plenty else to chew on. New economic forecasts by ECB staff will presumably look grim and increase speculation about an interest rate cut. But the ECB keeps saying that its focus is getting already record low rates transmitted to all parts of the euro zone and those high debt corners where banks, businesses and people cannot access anything like those low rates. That begs the question what difference would a quarter-point rate cut really make, which leads on to another: what else can the ECB do?

On the nerdy front, a further loosening of collateral rules, which banks can offer up in return for ECB liquidity, is in the pipeline. More profoundly if things continue to get worse, something similar to last year’s deluging of banks with more than one trillion euros of ultra-cheap three-year money could come onto the table (though not yet).

Euro zone week ahead

Italy will continue to cast a long shadow and has clearly opened a chink in the euro zone’s armour. It looks like the best investors can expect is populist Beppe Grillo supporting some measures put forward by a minority, centre-left government but refusing any sort of formal alliance. That sounds like a recipe for the sort of instability that could have investors running a mile. The markets’ best case was for outgoing technocrat prime minister Monti to support the centre-left in coalition, thereby guaranteeing continuation of economic reforms. But he just didn’t get enough votes. Fresh elections are probably the nightmare scenario given the unpredictability of what could result.

The story of the last five months has been the bond-buying safety net cast by the European Central Bank which took the sting out of the currency bloc’s debt crisis. But now it has an Achilles’ Heel. The ECB has stated it will only buy the bonds of a country on certain policy conditions. An unwilling or unstable Italian government may be unable to meet those conditions so in theory the ECB should stand back. But what if the euro zone’s third biggest economy comes under serious market attack? Without ECB support the whole bloc would be thrown back into crisis and yet if it does intervene, some ECB policymakers and German lawmakers will throw their hands up in horror, potentially calling the whole programme in to question.

In other words, until or unless a durable government is formed in Italy which can credibly say and do the right things, the euro zone crisis is back although not yet in the way it was a year ago when break-up looked possible.

A flaw in euro zone defences

Italy continues to dominate European financial markets and it looks like the best they can expect is populist Beppe Grillo supporting some measures put forward by a minority, centre-left government but refusing any sort of formal alliance. That sounds like a recipe for the sort of instability that could have investors running a mile. Outgoing technocrat prime minister Monti is speaking Brussels today. The markets’ best case was for him to support the centre-left in coalition, thereby guaranteeing continuation of economic reforms. But he just didn’t get enough votes.

Fresh elections are probably the nightmare scenario given the unpredictability of what could result.

The story of the last five months has been the bond-buying safety net cast by the European Central Bank which took the sting out of the currency bloc’s debt crisis. But now it has an Achilles’ Heel. The ECB has stated it will only buy the bonds of a country on certain policy conditions. An unwilling or unstable Italian government may be unable to meet those conditions so in theory the ECB should stand back.

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.

A statement of non-intent

The flurry of activity about a G7 currency statement yesterday can now be put in perspective. It will almost certainly happen but it’s very much going through the motions.

We’ve been saying for a while that having urged it to reflate its economy for some time, Japan’s partners could hardly complain now that it is. Lael Brainard of the U.S. Treasury basically let that cat out of the bag last night, warning against competitive devaluations but saying that Washington supported Tokyo’s efforts to reinvigorate growth and end deflation.

What we’ll get is a bland recommitment to market-determined exchange rates and not much more.

Currency chatter

With the rhetoric getting more heated, the three-year market fixation on bond yields could well be supplanted by currencies in the months ahead.

This week, everything points towards the first meeting this year of G20 finance ministers and central bankers in Moscow on Friday and Saturday. We’ve already got a clear steer from sources that even though France wants the strong euro on the agenda there will be little pressure put on Japan and others whose policies are pushing their currencies lower. Having urged Tokyo to reflate its economy last year, its G20 peers can hardly complain now that it has. That is not to say there won’t be lots of words on the issue though.

The Wall Street Journal has a piece saying the G7 – or at least its European and U.S. constituents – are planning a joint message ahead of the G20 to warn against a destabilizing competitive currency devaluation race. If true, this will have a big impact on the FX market.

Super, or not so super, Thursday

For those who thought the euro zone had lost the power to liven things up, today should make you think again.

ITEM 1. The European Central Bank meeting and Mario Draghi’s hour-long press conference to follow. Rarely has a meeting which will deliver no monetary policy change been so pregnant with possibilities.

Draghi, the man tasked with becoming the European bank regulator on top of all his other tasks, will face some searing questioning on his time as Bank of Italy chief and what he knew about the disaster that has befallen the country’s oldest bank, Monte dei Paschi.

Irish setback

We’ve been saying for some time that while the immediate heat may be off the euro zone, therein lies a danger – that policymakers will relax their efforts to remould the bloc into a tougher structure that can withstand future crises, and possibly even allow this crisis to flare back into life.

Exhibit A has been the apparent backsliding on what we thought was a concrete plan to allow the euro zone rescue funds to recapitalize banks directly from next year, thereby removing the onus on highly indebted governments to do so. Over the weekend we got Exhibit B courtesy of a Reuters exclusive.

We reported that the European Central Bank had rejected Ireland’s solution to avoid the crippling cost of servicing money borrowed to rescue its failed banking system – debt servicing would amount to around 3 billion euros a year for the next 10 years. Dublin wanted to convert the promissory note into long-term bonds. The ECB decided last week that that crossed its red line of monetary financing.

Europe and the danger of soft-pedalling

No one really questions Angela Merkel’s supremacy in Germany but losing the key state of Lower Saxony in a Sunday election, albeit by the narrowest of margins, means we’ll have to put on ice proclamations that her re-election for a third term in the autumn is now merely a procession. The centre-left SPD and Greens won the state by a single seat. Merkel and others will speak about the result today. What it probably does affirm is that the Chancellor will be extremely cautious about agreeing to more euro zone crisis fighting measures before the national election is safely out of the way.

We’ve been here before. When the drumbeat of market pressure eases, euro zone policymakers have tended to lose their sense of urgency. Today’s meeting of euro zone finance ministers, the first of the year, could be a case in point. The agenda lists “progress” on Cyprus, Spain, Ireland, Portugal and Greece with no decisions expected.
The meeting is set to anoint Dutch Finance Minister Jeroen Dijsselbloem as its new chairman after France dropped its objections on Sunday. He will attend the final press conference so it will be interesting to hear his pitch.

The most important area of debate will be the euro zone’s rescue fund and its ability eventually to recapitalize struggling banks directly, thereby breaking the “doom loop” whereby weak governments drive themselves further into debt by propping up listing banks while the lenders are stuffed with that government’s bonds which are liable to lose value. EU leaders seemed pretty clear at last June’s summit that this would be done but there are now suggestions that governments will remain on the hook to at least some extent. That would be a very significant backward step.

Glimmer of Greek hope

There are signs of headway from Athens where we have just snapped a government source saying the IMF accepts Greek debt is “viable” if it falls to 124 percent of GDP in 2020, rather than the 120 that it had previously decreed was the maximum sustainable level.. The source said fresh measures have been found to reduce debt to 130 percent of GDP by 2020, leaving another 10 billion euros to be covered.

At the latest failed meeting of euro zone finance ministers on Tuesday, we confirmed that the EU/IMF/ECB troika had calculated Greek debt would only fall to 144 percent of GDP in 2020 without further measures, meaning roughly 50 billion euros needed to be knocked of Greece’s debt pile. A report circulated at the meeting concluded (apologies for the number soup) that debt could only be cut to 120 percent of GDP in eight years if euro zone government agreed to take a writedown on their loans, which they will not do for now.

If the IMF will now accept 124 percent as a target that means 20 percentage points of GDP – about 40 billion euros – would have to be lopped off Greece’s debt pile. If they are now only 10 billion short, then measures amounting to 30 billion have been found. It’s hard to believe that could have come from the Greek side which has already slashed to the bone, so maybe some or all of the options we know are on the table — a Greek debt buyback at a sharp discount, lowering the interest rate and lengthening terms on the loans and the ECB foregoing profits on its Greek bondholdings – have been agreed to.