MacroScope

France’s downturn is more significant than you think

The huge downturn in French businesses was by far the most disappointing aspect of this week’s euro zone PMIs, which again painted a dismal picture of the euro zone economy.

Maybe it’s because grim euro zone PMIs come around with depressingly familiarity these days, but economists on the whole had surprisingly little say about this.

Still, the March survey delivered some major landmarks relating to France.

Most obviously, its services companies endured their worst month since February 2009, practically at the nadir of the Great Recession of 2008-09.

But perhaps more interesting is how poorly France is now faring in comparison even against its sickly neighbours.

Since August 1999, French service sector activity has contracted at a faster rate than in both Italy and Spain on only three occasions.

Europe’s ‘democratic deficit’ evident in Cyprus bailout arrangement

The problem of a “democratic deficit” that might arise from the process of European integration has always been high on policymakers’ minds. The term even has its own Wikipedia entry.

As Cypriots waited patiently in line for banks to reopen after being shuttered for two weeks, the issue was brought to light with particular clarity, since the country’s bailout is widely seen as being imposed on it by richer, more powerful states, particularly Germany.

Luxembourg has accused the Germans of trying to impose “hegemony” on the euro zone.  The country, whose banking system, like Cyprus’, is very large relative to the economy’s tiny size, fears that similarly harsh treatment could be imposed on its depositors.

Euro bailouts — one out, one in

We had thought the end-of-week EU summit was going to be a lacklustre affair but things are starting to bubble up.

Ireland announced last night it would issue its first new 10-year bond since it was bailed out in 2010. It sounds like the books on the syndicated issue will open today with dealers predicting strong demand. This is a crucial step in Dublin becoming the success story the euro zone desperately craves. Some European Central Bank policymakers have said the bank’s bond-buying programme could be deployed to help Ireland once it has demonstrated its ability to issue debt in a variety of maturities. Others, notably Bundesbank chief Jens Weidmann, appear less keen on the idea.

With yields below four percent (they peaked above 15 percent in 2011) and needing to raise only a few billion in debt this year, it’s not clear that Ireland even needs ECB help to put the bailout behind it, but bond-buying support would certainly seal its exit and also show the ECB’s intent to markets. Further down the line, it will be worth pondering whether Ireland’s journey demonstrates that austerity was the right medicine. Plenty of euro zone policymakers will say so. The interesting question to address would be whether Dublin could have got there faster with more leeway to boost growth and therefore tax revenues.

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.

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.