MacroScope

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:

Tonight, I have the confirmation that the worst is behind us.

Economic nightmares have followed for policymakers who’ve made similar statements in the past.

In April, European Central Bank board member Joerg Asmussen said, ”the worst of the crisis seems to be over,” shortly before Spanish government borrowing costs started soaring to new heights.

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.

Get me to the court on time

Another blockbuster chapter in the euro zone epic.

Top billing today goes to Germany’s constitutional court, which is expected to give a green light to the euro zone’s permanent rescue fund, the ESM, albeit with some conditions imposed in terms of parliamentary oversight. The ruling begins at 0800 GMT. If the court defied expectations and upheld complaints about the fund, it would lead to the mother of all market sell-offs and plunge the euro zone into its deepest crisis yet.

Without the ESM, the European Central Bank’s carefully constructed plan to backstop the euro zone would be in tatters. It has said it will only intervene to buy the bonds of the bloc’s strugglers if they first seek help from the rescue fund and sign up to the strings that will be attached. The first rescue fund, the EFSF, could perhaps fill this role for a while but its resources are now threadbare, so without the ESM, markets would scent blood.

The Dutch go to the polls but with the hard-left Socialists seemingly losing support, the ruling Liberal party and moderate centre-left Labour are  neck-and-neck and look likely to form a coalition government committed to tight debt control and, more importantly, to the euro zone. So unless voters are lying to pollsters, some of the drama has leached out of this particular saga although it could take some considerable time to put a coalition together.

Another euro zone week to reckon with

Despite Mario Draghi’s game changer, or potential game changer, the coming week’s events still have the power to shape the path of the euro zone debt crisis in a quite decisive way, regardless of the European Central Bank’s offer to buy as many government bonds as needed to buy politicians time to do their work.

The nuclear event would be the German constitutional court ruling on Wednesday that the bloc’s new ESM rescue fund should not come into being, which would leave the ECB’s plans in tatters since its intervention requires a country to seek help from the rescue funds first and the ESM’s predecessor, the EFSF, looks distinctly threadbare. That is unlikely to happen given the court’s previous history but it could well add conditions demanding greater German parliamentary scrutiny and even a future referendum on deeper European integration. For the time being though, the markets are likely to take a binary view. ‘Yes’ to the ESM good, ‘No’ very bad.

Dutch elections on the same day look to have been robbed of some of their potential drama with the firebrand hard-left socialists now slipping in the polls and the fiscally conservative Liberals neck-and-neck with the likeminded centre-left Labour party. But there are no guarantees and Germany could yet be robbed of one of its staunchest allies in the debt crisis debate.

Biggest analyst split on ECB rate decision since euro launch

Some say the European Central Bank will cut rates. Some say they won’t.

The odds that either prediction could turn out to be true on Thursday are more even than since Reuters first began polling on ECB rates in 1999.

Even during the highly volatile, uncertain time that followed the collapse of Lehman Brothers, Reuters polls of ECB watchers always resulted in a clear majority of economists leaning toward one particular rate cut size.

In the Reuters poll taken last week, 36 of 70 economists expected the ECB to leave the refi rate at 0.75 percent, while almost as many, 34, said it would cut it to 0.50 percent.