MacroScope

Like over-hyped Olympian, Fed set to disappoint

Pity the Federal Reserve. Like an over-hyped Olympian, the U.S. central bank enters this week’s policy meeting with sky-high expectations and a high probability of disappointment.

Markets are salivating at the prospect of a decisive easing move when Fed policymakers emerge from their meeting on Wednesday. The S&P 500 is up 3.6 percent in the last four sessions as traders hold out hope the Fed will launch a third round of quantitative easing, or QE3, to blast the U.S. economy out of its funk. Stumbling job creation, manufacturing and spending, as well as a measly 1.5 percent GDP growth in the second quarter and serious spillover threats ahead from Europe’s debt crisis, all feed this thesis. Fed policymakers from Chairman Ben Bernanke on down the line to Cleveland Fed President Sandra Pianalto and James Bullard of St. Louis have also stoked the market with a more dovish tone the last little while. And yet, this is probably not the time for a big policy move.

Topping the list of reasons to disappoint – and to knock the market down to size – the Fed probably doesn’t want to front-run the July employment report that’s due on Friday, and which will give a fresh sense whether the spring-summer slump in the labor market is temporary or more permanent. Waiting until the Fed’s next scheduled meeting, Sept. 12-13, would give policymakers the added benefit of the August jobs report. And speaking of front-running, the U.S. central bank may not want to get out just ahead of the European Central Bank’s policy decision on Thursday. If, down the line, things get really ugly in Europe – or if the U.S. Congress sends the country off the so-called fiscal cliff – the Fed will probably want to have the QE3 bazooka ready in its arsenal.

Which brings us to other, less aggressive possibilities when the Fed issues its policy statement Wednesday afternoon. ”I think the Fed can structure the statement in such a way that it would reduce disappointment” by citing, for example, the recent extension of Operation Twist and saying it will act if things don’t get better, said Dana Saporta, an economist at Credit Suisse. Operation Twist, in which the Fed extends its Treasury maturities, is set to run through the end of the year, providing a useful excuse not to act before the November U.S. election. The central bank could also take the relatively modest step on Wednesday of extending beyond “late 2014″ its conditional pledge to keep interest rates near zero, which would give it more time to work on new policy tools that were hinted in minutes from the June meeting.

Credit Suisse estimates that a 33-percent chance of QE3 has been priced into the market, ahead of this week’s meeting. But if the central bank were to unveil such a large-scale asset-buying program, it would probably drop like a confusing thud, given that Bernanke has no scheduled press conference at which he could justify it. ”If they’re going to do something, they probably want time to explain it,” said Sam Coffin, U.S. economist at UBS. The annual Fed conference in late August in Jackson Hole, Wyoming offers that time to explain, as does Bernanke’s press conference set for the September policy meeting.

Euro zone facing autumn crunch?

Spain remains the focus for the markets but here comes Greece racing up on the outside lane. Officials told us exclusively yesterday that Athens is way, way off the targets set by its bailout programme and a further restructuring will be needed. If so, it’s almost inevitable this time that euro zone governments and the ECB will have to take a hit. Are they prepared to? There’s little sign of it so far although a key ally of German Chancellor Angela Merkel said last night that a second haircut was an option.

CDU budget expert Norbert Barthle said Greece would do its level best to stay in the euro zone, and given the losses associated with its departure and the fact that it could also prove a tipping point for Spain, there are powerful reasons to hope that’s true. But, but, but it’s pretty apparent that Athens has little chance of delivering the cuts being asked of it without completely wrecking its economy even if it is cut a bit more slack. And the latter is a big “if” too. It’s hard to see Merkel telling the German public they are going to face another bill to keep Greece afloat. As Barthle said, a second debt write off “would cost us a lot of money”. He also flagged up another problem that has been aired in recent days – that the IMF would probably not stump up any more funds given Greece has not met its stipulations.

The euro zone has indicated it will keep Greece afloat through August while the troika of EU/IMF/ECB inspectors assess the situation but we could be approaching a crunch point in September or October and if we get there the big “contagion” question is back – would a full Greek default or euro zone exit (and by the way some policymakers have floated the possibility of allowing Greece to default within the euro zone because it would be slightly less chaotic) lead to a collapse of confidence in Spain?

A summer lull?

It seems foolish to hope for a summer lull given recent history but in euro zone debt crisis terms at least, the next week looks quieter unless the markets turn savage again.

That’s not to say things are getting better – Spain’s 10-year borrowing costs are still above the seven percent level which it cannot survive indefinitely — it’s just that things aren’t getting much worse at the moment. Certainly with the Spanish bank bailout signed off as far as it can be, there’s nothing on the policy front to shake things up for a while although the debt-laden region of Valencia’s call for help with its debt hardly inspires confidence that Madrid can get things back on track.

What there is next week is a welter of evidence coming up on the health, or lack of it, of the world economy.
Flash PMIs for the euro zone, France and Germany are swiftly followed by Germany’s Ifo sentiment survey and second quarter GDP figures from Britain. The Q2 U.S. growth figure also comes out on Wednesday as well as the Chinese PMI on Tuesday. The euro zone’s slide into recession is likely to be confirmed and of course Britain is already there and unlikely to clamber out despite government and central bank protestations that the country’s travails are all to do with the euro area.

Slow slow quick quick slow

Euro zone finance ministers meet later today to try and put flesh on the bones of the EU summit agreement 10 days ago. The trouble is there probably won’t be enough meat for markets which failed to rally significantly after the summit deal and are now unnerved by fresh signs of global slowdown.
Friday’s weak U.S. jobs report is the latest evidence to rattle investors so there is unlikely to be any let-up.

Spanish 10-year yields are back above seven percent. Madrid is fortunate not to face a heavy debt issuance month but August is a bit more demanding so time is short to turn things around. Italy’s Mario Monti said on Sunday the euro zone ministers must act now to lower borrowing costs and Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy more dramatically said the credibility of the entire European project rests here. He continues to do his bit, pledging on Saturday to produce further deficit-cutting measures, probably on Wednesday. They could include a VAT hike and cuts to public sector benefits.

The Eurogroup is unlikely to dramatically change the terms of trade. It has a lot on its agenda – the proposed bailout of Spanish banks of up to 100 billion euros, a much smaller bailout of Cyprus as well as firming up the summit agreement that the euro zone’s rescue fund should be tasked with intervening on the bond market to bring borrowing costs down and, once a cross-border banking supervision structure is in place (another highly ambitious plan which is supposed to take shape in an even more ambitious six months), to be allowed to recapitalize banks directly.

EU summit aftermath

After the EU summit exceeded expectations the more considered verdict of the markets will dictate in the short-term, certainly until the European Central Bank’s policy meeting on Thursday. Previous summit deals crumbled pretty quickly buying only a few days or even hours of market relief.

After strong gains on Friday, Asian stocks are up modestly and European shares have edged higher. However, German Bund futures are nearly half a point higher, so something’s got to give and more often than not it’s the stock market that thinks again. So maybe Friday’s rally was a one-off.

For it to have any legs, the ECB may well have to come up with something on Thursday, and a quarter-point rate cut – widely priced in – may not be enough. ECB policymaker Asmussen is already out saying Greece must should not loosen its bailout programme, Spain can restore confidence with a bank recap plan that builds in a large margin for error and dismissing calls for the ESM rescue fund, which comes into being next week, to get a banking licence so it could draw on virtually unlimited ECB funds. That all sounds fairly uncompromising.

Waiting for the summit

Cyprus became the fifth euro zone country to seek a bailout last night though its needs – maybe up to 10 billion euros – will not put a dent in the currency bloc’s resources. We’re still waiting to see precisely how much money Spain will take for its banks of the 100 billion euros offered. Moody’s cut the ratings of 28 of 33 Spanish banks by one to four notches last night, an inevitable consequence of the sovereign downgrade earlier this month.

Markets seems to have decided that they will be disappointed by the crunch summit at the end of the week. There was a somewhat discordant meeting between the big four euro zone leaders on Friday, with Germany’s Merkel refusing to budge in key areas, but she and French President Francois Hollande have the chance to strike a more positive note when they meet bilaterally on Wednesday abnd hot off the press we have a meeting of the finance ministers of Germany, France, Italy and Spain this evening — so maybe there is a concerted effort to get on the same page.

Lael Brainard, the U.S. Treasury guru who liaises with Europe, spoke for the rest of the world when she told us in an interview that EU leaders had to put “more flesh on the bone” of their ideas to resolve the crisis.

Law of diminishing returns

The law of diminishing returns?
The first euro zone bailout, of Greece, bought a few months of respite, the next ones bought weeks, latterly it was days. Now … hours. Spanish bond yields ended higher on the day and, more worryingly, Italy’s 10-year broke above six percent. It was always unlikely the deal to revive Spanish banks was going to lead to a durable market rally with make-or-break Greek elections looming on Sunday but there were other things at play.

Top of the list is that the bailout will inflate Spain’s public debt and the dangerous loop of damaged banks buying Spanish government bonds that are falling in value. There’s also the fact that Germany and others are keen to use the new ESM rescue fund to funnel money to Spain because of the greater flexibility it offers. That will make private investors subordinate to the ESM which could prompt another rush for the exits which Madrid can ill afford since this is the first euro zone bailout which keeps the recipient active in the bond market.
It’s for the same reason that a revival of the ECB’s bond-buying programme, which it still doesn’t fancy, could prove counter-productive.

Officials are already pondering that conundrum, suggesting that the loan to Spain could initially be made under the existing EFSF bailout fund then taken over by the ESM, though that sounds like the sort of creative thinking in Brussels that generally fails to convince investors.
Another cracking Retuers exclusive following our breaking of the Spanish bailout on Friday, showing European finance officials have discussed limiting the size of withdrawals from ATM machines, imposing border checks and introducing euro zone capital controls as a worst-case scenario should Athens decide to leave the euro, is unlikely to have settle market nerves.

Spain calls for bank aid

Things are on the move in Spain although nothing is set in stone yet.
Treasury minister Montoro’s call yesterday for “European mechanisms” to be involved in the recapitalization of Spain’s debt-laden banks – a reversal of Madrid’s previous insistence that it could sort its banks alone – unleashed a barrage of whispers in Europe’s corridors of powers.

Our sources say that the independent of audit of Spanish banks’ capital needs, the first phase of which is due by the end of the month, will be a key moment after which things could move quickly.

The hitch is that Madrid still doesn’t want the humiliation of asking for a bailout and Germany will not countenance the bloc’s rescue funds lending to banks direct. One possible solution floated last night –  the EFSF or ESM bailout funds could lend to Spain’s FROB bank rescue fund, which could be viewed as tantamount to lending to the state but would give the government some political cover to say it wasn’t asking for the money. This is anything but a done deal and there would still be some strings attached which could be tough for Prime Mininster Mariano Rajoy to swallow.

Brussels throws gauntlet down to Berlin

The European Commission leapt off the fence yesterday proposing many of the policies – a bank deposit guarantee fund, longer for Spain to make the cuts demanded of it and allowing the euro zone rescue fund to lend to banks direct (though there were some mixed messages on that) – that would buy a considerable period of time to move towards its ultimate goal: the sort of fiscal union that would make the euro zone a credible bloc much harder for the markets to attack.

The proposals would go a long way to removing Spain from the firing line, and suggests Brussels at least has decided it now urgently needs to shore the country up. But Germany opposition to all three still appears to be steadfast.

Time to dust off the golden rule of this crisis – dramatic decisions are taken only when the bloc is staring right into the abyss. We’re not quite there yet, though not far off, so there has to be a chance of something seismic resulting from the end-June EU summit which follows June 17 Greek elections. The leaders of Germany, France, Italy and Spain meet in between, just after a G20 summit which will presumably press Angela Merkel hard too. As European Commission President Barroso said yesterday, speed and flexibility will be of the essence although at least some of what is being discussed would require time-consuming treaty change.

Euro zone ying and yang

The ying.
Sources told us last night that Spain may recapitalize stricken Bankia with government bonds in return for shares in the bank. That would presumably involve an up-front hit for Spain’s public finances (it is already striving to lop about 6 percentage points off its budget deficit in two years) which might be recouped at some point if the shares don’t disappear through the floor.
The ECB’s view of this will be crucial since the plan seems to involve the bank depositing the new bonds with the ECB as collateral in return for cash. If it cries foul, where would that leave Madrid?

Spain’s main advantage up to now – that it had issued well over half the debt it needs to this year – may already have evaporated after the government revealed that the publicly stated figure for maturing debt of the autonomous regions of 8 billion euros for this year is in fact more like 36 billion. Catalonia said late last week that it needed central government help to refinance its debt.  If more bonds are required to cover some or all of Bankia’s 19 billion euros bailout, Spain’s funding challenge in the second half of the year starts to look very daunting indeed.

The yang.
Latest Greek opinion polls, five of them, show the pro-bailout New Democracy have regained the lead ahead of June 17 elections although their advantage is a very slender one. If the party manages to hold first place, and secures the 50 parliamentary seat bonus that comes with it, then it looks like it would have the numbers to form a government with socialist PASOK which would keep the bailout programme on the road … for a while.