MacroScope

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.

None of that is likely to be signed off tonight, particularly since so much hangs on the banking supervision plan. That is the nub of it. The summit deal was not unimportant but is on a much slower track than markets will countenance. There were also some notable absences from the discussion in Brussels, such as a euro zone deposit guarantee fund which could prevent any threat of a bank run.

In fact, there has already been signs of unraveling with the Finns and the Dutch resisting the ESM rescue fund being able to act in the secondary bond market (though not the primary) and Berlin making quite clear that claims from southern Europe that bond-buying support would not have strings attached for government are simply not true. The central question as to whether individual countries or the euro zone assumes liability for banks that are rescued by the ESM remains open. Monti blamed the latest widening of bond spreads squarely on the Finns, suggesting unity really is fraying.

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.

All eyes on Wednesday EU summit

After last week’s hefty losses, European stock gained yesterday and are up up again this morning, denoting some optimism about the Wednesday supper summit of EU leaders, which might well be unrealistic.

The European growth measures that we know are in the works – boosting the paid-in capital of the European Investment Bank and plans for ‘project bonds’ underwritten by the EU budget to finance infrastructure – might help a little but will fall a long way short of turning the euro zone economy around, so unless we get something more, on either the growth or the building defences fronts, there’s scope for investor disappointment.

Europe’s international partners continue to demand more dramatic crisis action. After the G8 summit, President Obama was out last night with four demands:
- firewalls to protect countries from Greek contagion (are the ESM and IMF funds now viewed as insufficient?),
- recapitalization of banks that need it (Spain to the fore here presumably),
- A growth strategy to run alongside tight fiscal measures (easier said than done),
- easy monetary policy to help the likes of Italy and Spain keep cutting debt (the ECB thinks its 1 percent rate is very loose and is unlikely to cut soon with inflation above target and will only flood the system with more liquidity in utter extremis)

Euro election fever

We will return on Monday knowing whether the Greeks have elected a pro-bailout government and probably to find socialist Francois Hollande – the man leading the growth strategy charge – as the new French president. 

An Hollande victory could cause some jitters given his rhetoric about the world of finance. But we’ve looked at this pretty forensically and there may not be much to scare the horses. Yes he is making growth a priority (but even the IMF is saying that’s a good idea) yet his only fiscal shift is to aim to balance the budget a year later than incumbent Nicolas Sarkozy would. Contrary to some reports, he is not intent on ripping up the EU’s fiscal pact and of course the bond market will only allow so much leeway.

The heavyweight Economist magazine may have labelled socialist Hollande “dangerous” but the reality is likely to be that he will rule from the centre and his demands for a dash for growth — and a change to the ECB’s mandate to aid it — will be tempered. Spain has shown everybody that too much fiscal loosening will be pounced upon by the bond market and while there is a lot of talk about a growth strategy for Europe, what we’ve heard so far amounts to tinkering.

“There are human beings involved” in austerity debate

The inventors of democracy and its greatest 18th century champions both go to the polls this weekend. Greek and French voters will try to elect governments they hope will help release their economies from the grips of the euro zone debt crisis.

While exercising their democratic vote, Europeans will also be contemplating another key issue: their basic economic survival.

That is why the debate about austerity versus growth has become so important.

Financial markets see fiscal discipline as crucial to get the euro zone’s debt burden back to sustainable levels. They are going into the Greek elections favoring triple-A rated bonds over peripheral counterparts.