MacroScope

Greek tragedy turns epic

The Greek standoff continues. The Democratic Left, a junior party in the government’s coalition, could not be swayed and said it would vote against labour reforms demanded by the EU and IMF, so a deal putting Greece’s bailout terms back on track remains elusive.

Just as worryingly, Reuters secured an advance glimpse of the EU/IMF/ECB troika’s report on Greece which showed the debt target of 120 percent of GDP in 2020 will be missed (surprise, surprise) and as things stand will come in at around 136 percent. In other words, more money – up to 30 billion euros –  is going to be needed be that via lower interest rates and longer maturities on loans and/or a writedown on Greek bonds held by the European Central Bank and euro zone governments.

We know the IMF is very keen on the latter, believing that is the only way the numbers can be made to add up. We also know that Germany and others are just as resistant. Other schemes, such as Athens using privatization proceeds to buy back bonds, which has inbuilt leverage since it can do so at a quarter of their face value, may yet come into the mix but don’t alone look like they’ll make enough of a dent in Greece’s debt mountain. Athens looks set to get the extra two years it requested to make the cuts demanded of it, which also falls into the “necessary but insufficient” category.

But the headline is we are nowhere near a deal yet, and time is running short.

Following our exclusive late on Wednesday that Spain has pretty much completed its funding needs for this year and is about to get cracking on 2013, plus its assertion that international investors are returning in droves, it seems increasingly likely that Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy is going to be in no hurry to seek outside aid, not least with key Catalan elections a month away.

There are independent signs that foreign buyers are being lured back, particularly to the shorter-term debt that the ECB has said it will buy if Madrid first asks for help from the ESM rescue fund. But despite the apparent lack of sovereign funding pressure, there are counter pressures on Rajoy. Spain’s biggest bank Santander added to those yesterday, urging the government to seek a bailout after bad property debts eviscerated third quarter profit. A rise in the Q3 unemployment rate to a record 25 percent shows just how dire the real economy is.

Enter the dragon

Big day in Berlin with European Central Bank chief Mario Draghi entering the lion’s den of the Bundestag to explain to German lawmakers why his plan to buy sovereign euro zone bonds in potentially unlimited amounts poses no threat to the ECB’s remit and the euro zone economy.
Former ECB chief economist Juergen Stark – one of Draghi’s most trenchant critics – told us yesterday that the ECB president must present much more convincing arguments than hitherto as to why the plan would not pile enormous risks onto the ECB’s balance sheet for which European taxpayers could have to pay.

The session, which will include 10-minute introductory remarks from Draghi followed by a lengthy Q&A and then short public statements from Draghi and Bundestag President Norbert Lammert, is a rarity. The hawks in parliament will demand to know how bond-buying is remotely in line with the ECB’s mandate. The more moderate will at least want to hear what sort of conditionality the ECB wants to see before it leaps into the breach, and the backdrop is coloured by continued Bundesbank opposition to the Draghi strategy. Angela Merkel is speaking at a separate event in Berlin in, as does Wolfgang Schaeuble later in the day.

Spain will probably loom largest for the German lawmakers but Greece continues to run it a close second with suggestions growing that it will get an extra two years to make the cuts demanded of it. But even that may not be enough for the EU/IMF/ECB troika of inspectors to conclude that Athens’ debt sustainability programme is back on track. The IMF appears to believe that only a writedown of Greek bonds held by the ECB and euro zone governments will do the trick. They, predictably, are not keen.

Spanish waiting game

Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy secured an overall majority in regional elections in Galicia over the weekend but in the Basque country, the nationalists were the big winners. These polls have been identified as one reason why Rajoy has held off asking for sovereign aid and Catalan elections still loom next month. Rajoy is likely to have to offer politically poisonous pension reforms in return for outside assistance.

So far, we seem to be no closer to a bailout request, which could then trigger European Central Bank intervention, and with 10-year yields having dropped more than two percentage points from a 7.5 percent peak since Mario Draghi’s vow to do whatever it takes to save the euro, one could reasonably ask why Madrid should be in a hurry. Some officials are saying Spain could quite comfortably wait until the turn of the year, leaving a prolonged period of limbo.

The fact is that if market pressure comes back on, Spain can quickly approach the euro zone’s ESM rescue fund for help and the ECB can pile in thereafter. So what has happened is that a bit of fear has been put back into investors intent on shorting the euro zone periphery to their hearts’ content; fear that wasn’t there until recently. It looks increasingly likely that Madrid would seek a precautionary credit line from the ESM, with conditions attached, which in theory could allow the ECB to buy Spanish bonds without the government actually taking money from the rescue fund. That would be a much easier sell politically.

The worst is over for the euro zone? Shh! Stop saying that!

Folklore and modern horror are replete with tales of people summoning  ghosts by recanting their name or chanting a particular phrase. Centuries ago there was Bloody Mary. The 1980s brought us the Evil Dead trilogy and Beetlejuice, while Candyman appeared in the 90s.

And in the 21st century there is the euro zone debt crisis, conjured repeatedly by the phrase from Europe’s leaders, “The worst is over,” and variations thereof.

French President Francois Hollande was the latest to tempt the crisis apparition on Wednesday night:

Euro zone waiting game

Some interesting flesh to pick from the bones of the IMF gathering in Tokyo. Most notably, a clutch of high-up euro zone sources in Tokyo told us that Spain could ask for aid next month at the same time as the Greek bailout package and one for Cyprus are sorted out. All roads appear to be pointing to the Nov. 12 meeting of euro zone finance ministers. However, there are other voices saying that Spain could hold off until the new year, given the fall in its borrowing costs since ECB chief Mario Draghi declared he would do whatever it takes to save the euro.

Spain can cover a fairly heavy debt redemption hump at the end of this month but given its recession is deepening, and deficit targets are likely to be missed, the refinancing crunch could fall in January. Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy remains a difficult character to read but we know the French are pressing him to jump and Italy’s Mario Monti said on Friday that a Spanish request for bond-buying help would calm the markets.
For his part, Rajoy wants to know what sort of deal he will get. As we reported last week, and El Pais followed up on, he is asking how the ECB would intervene with a preference for it to commit to achieve and maintain a certain yield spread over German Bunds.

Nearly everybody, including, crucially, Angela Merkel, has come round to the view that Greece should stay in the euro zone for now. The possible exception has been German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble but late yesterday, in Singapore, he too seemed to fall into line saying that Greece will not default and that he wanted to shut down any talk of euro zone exit.
Greek PM Antonis Samaras put his foot on the accelerator over the weekend, predicting the broad outlines of a deal on a new austerity package in time for the EU summit at the end of this week, although he appeared to be talking about the troika of EU/IMF/ECB inspectors finishing their work on the ground, rather than a new deal being sealed in full.

IMF fires euro zone broadside

The IMF is ratcheting up the pressure on the euro zone again, telling it to deepen financial and fiscal ties as a matter of urgency to restore confidence in the global financial system. Despite the European Central Bank’s recent statement of intent, the Fund said the risks to financial stability had risen over the past six months and it raised its prediction of how much European banks are going to have to offload as part of a deleveraging process that has a long way to run.

An eye-watering $2.8 trillion of assets now needs to be cut over two years, which could further choke off credit to the currency bloc’s weaker members, deepen recessions and push up unemployment. Despite recent steps, the euro area is still threatened by a “downward spiral of capital flight, breakup fears and economic decline”.

Gloomy stuff and particularly noteworthy since the growing view in Europe is that on break-up fears at least, the ECB’s promise to buy sovereign bonds in unlimited amounts, once a country seeks help from the ESM rescue fund, had fundamentally turned a corner.

Europe’s reactive leadership

Spain doesn’t need financial help. That was the verdict from euro zone ministers on Monday – quickly followed by a selloff in Spanish stocks and bonds on Tuesday. The trouble with that line of thinking is that it again leaves policymakers behind the curve, reacting to events rather than preempting them, write currency strategists at Brown Brothers Harriman in a research note:

For several weeks now Germany Finance Minister Schaeuble has argued against the need for Spain to request aid. France and Italy, in contrast, have been reportedly encouraging Spain to ask for assistance, which they assume would ease financial pressures within the region as whole. The Eurogroup meeting of euro area finance ministers endorsed Schaeuble’s position. Spain is taking necessary measures to overhaul the economy, they said.  Spain is able to successfully fund itself in the capital markets. Aid is simply not needed now.

While there is a compelling logic to the argument, the problem is that it prevents officials from being proactive rather than continue to its reactive function. It means that whenSpaineventually requests assistance, it will be in a crisis and the cost of assistance will be greater. It is penny-wise but dollar foolish. By failing to find a preventative salve, officials are not maximizing the breathing space that the ECB has created (intentionally or otherwise).

Spanish bonds on the block

Having done so with a t-bill sale on Tuesday, Spain will continue to try and cash in on the relatively benign market conditions created by the European Central Bank by selling up to 4.5 billion euros of 3- and 10-year bonds. It hasn’t tried to sell that much in one go since early March, when the ECB’s previous gambit – the three-year liquidity flood – had also imposed some calm upon the markets, albeit temporarily (there’s a lesson to be learned there).

Yields are likely to fall sharply from the most recent equivalent auctions but even so, it looks unlikely that Madrid can meet some daunting looking refinancing bills before the year is out, without outside help. Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy’s hesitation about making a request for bond-buying help from the ESM rescue fund, with the ECB rowing in behind, has already pushed Spanish 10-year yields back up towards six percent after a more than two-point plunge since ECB chief Mario Draghi issued his “I’ll save the euro” proclamation in late July.  They had peaked around 7.5 percent before that.

With the ECB having pledged to buy bonds if necessary, but only at the shorter end of the maturity scale, the three-year bonds should be snapped up. The 10-year issue may be a harder sell. The danger is that Spain (and Germany, which is saying Madrid shouldn’t take a bailout unless market pressure returns with a vengeance) dithers for so long that the positive sentiment created by Draghi dissipates completely.

No time for complacency

After a tumultuous fortnight where the European Central Bank, U.S. Federal Reserve, German judges and Dutch voters combined to markedly lift the mood on financial markets, we’re probably in for a more humdrum few days, although a raft of economic data this week will be important – a critical mass of analysts are saying that after strong rallies, it will require evidence of real economic recovery, rather than crisis-fighting solutions, to keep stocks heading up into the year-end.

A weekend meeting of EU finance ministers reflected the progress made, but also the remaining potential pitfalls. Our team there reported the atmosphere was notably more relaxed and Spain’s announcement that it would unveil fresh economic reforms alongside its 2013 budget at the end of the month sent a strong signal that a request for bond-buying help from Madrid is likely in October. If made, the ECB could then pile into the secondary market to buy Spanish debt  if required and hopefully drag Italian borrowing costs down in tandem with Spain’s.

BUT. The Nicosia meeting also exposed unresolved differences between Germany and others over plans to build a banking union. German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble said handing bank oversight to the European Central Bank is not in itself sufficient to allow the euro zone’s rescue fund to directly assist banks – another key plank of the euro zone’s arsenal. It sounds like that debate went nowhere.
Having largely been the dog that hasn’t barked so far, public unrest is on the rise with big marches in Portugal and Spain over the weekend against further planned tax hikes and spending cuts.

Do they they think it’s all over?

Is everything falling into place to at least declare a moratorium in the euro zone debt crisis?

Well the ESM rescue fund getting a go-ahead from Germany’s consitutional court and the Dutch opting to vote for the two main pro-European parties, following Mario Draghi’s confirmation last week that the European Central Bank would buy Spanish and Italian bonds if required, means things are starting to look a little rosier.

The risks? Next spring’s Italian election, and what sort of government results, casts a long shadow and it is just about conceivable that Spain could baulk at asking for help, given the strings attached, although the sheer amount of debt it needs to shift by the end of the year will almost certainly force its hand. If the Bundesbank mounted a guerrilla war campaign against the ECB bond-buying programme it could well undermine its effectiveness. That is a big if given broad German political support for the scheme. Key countries remain deep in recession with little prospect of returning to growth because of the imperative to keep eating away at their debt mountains, which could eventually trigger a dramatic public reaction. France could well get dragged into that category.