MacroScope

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)

Nothing new there but it keeps up the drumbeat of pressure ahead of the EU get-together. We know French President Francois Hollande, with the backing of others, will press the case for common euro zone bonds at the summit and also know that German opposition will not weaken one jot on that score. Spain’s Rajoy is pressing for more ECB involvement, presumably by reviving its bond-buying programme. Given internal opposition to that within the ECB that is probably the least likely measure to be reactivated, yet anyway.

Despite money flowing out of Greek banks, and at least the threat of it spreading more widely if Greece bombed out of the euro zone, there is no hint yet of any planning for any scheme to underwrite bank deposits across the bloc, probably because the ECB and Germany will not countenance underwriting it. The golden rule of this crisis is that red lines have and will be crossed when it reaches breaking point. We’re not there yet.

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.

Austerity light? Maybe a shade lighter

There is a groundswell building in the euro zone that austerity drives should be tempered.

France’s Francois Hollande, favourite to take the presidency next month, said last night that  leaders across Europe were awaiting his election to back away from German-led austerity, and even ECB President Mario Draghi called yesterday for a growth pact.

He was rather opaque on how – although he was clear the European Central Bank would not be doing anything more — but his colleague Joerg Asmussen was a little more forthcoming, saying some EU structural funds could be funneled to countries in crisis to boost employment. These sort of ideas are actively part of the mix and could well be enacted at the June EU summit.

ECB to the rescue? Hold your horses

ECB policymakers from Mario Draghi down will come at us from all angles today. Expect a united front on the main theme of the moment; calls for it to consider yet more liquidity operations essentially creating money and/or resuming its government bond-buying programme. That call was first heard at the IMF spring meeting over the weekend and the ECB president’s response could hardly have been clearer, saying: “None of the advice of the IMF has been discussed by the Governing Council, in recent times at least”.

Since then a number of his colleagues have followed up. The message: they are looking more to inflation now and banks and governments have to put their own houses in order after the ECB gave them time with its colossal three-year money-creating exercise.
The ECB’s man in Spain, Gonzalez-Paramo, is already out this morning saying Spain will not struggle to meet its debt issuance target this year despite its rising yields.

The ECB will, of course, act if the crisis drives Europe right back to the brink, it’s mandate will pretty much demand it at that stage but we’re not anywhere near there yet – contrary to what many in the markets believe.

Spanish banks 1, Spanish mortgages 0

The trillion euros lent out by the European Central Bank for three years at a rock bottom interest rates were supposed to do two things –  throw a comfort blanket around Europe’s wobbly banks and pump money into  moribund economies. Some new data from struggling Spain confirms that while there may be a bit of a case for the former, the latter is still falling short.

Mortgage lending by Spanish banks  had their largest annual drop in more than six years in February – coming in at essentially half of what they were a year earlier. There are all kinds of reasons for this, not the least being that large numbers of Spaniards are out of work and house prices are still tumbling with at least one estimate being that they remain as much as 30 percent overvalued.

But given that Spanish lenders were among the biggest taker of the ECB’s largesse  (officially known as  LTROs, a name only a central banker’s mother could love) the lack of trickle down  is less than bracing.  The suspicion is that Spain’s banks are holding back on lending because of their wonky balance sheets, which is of course a good thing in itself it it keeps the financial system on its feet.

Roubini takes on the ECB

It was fun to watch. Nouriel Roubini, NYU economist and crisis personality, was one of just five carefully selected individuals at a large gathering in the International Monetary Fund HQ1 building’s towering atrium who actually got to ask questions of the policymakers on stage.

Roubini was characteristically biting in his critique of conventional orthodoxy, singling out the European Central Bank for not having done enough to stem the euro zone’s two-year financial crisis. He challenged the notion that the ECB is powerless to boost growth further, suggesting — to the clear discomfort of some policymakers in the room — that measures to weaken the currency could provide a badly-needed boost to exports:

I saw that on the panel there are four central bankers and the panel is about fiscal policy and sovereign debt. So the natural question is then to think maybe about what could be the contribution of central banks in resolving sovereign debt issues. Now, one simple answer would be to just monetize very large budget deficits and I understand why a central bank would say that’s a no-no.

A curate’s egg — good in parts

An action-packed weekend with both good and bad news for the euro zone, which may — net — leave its prospects little clearer.

Item 1: The IMF came up with $430 billion in new firepower to contain the euro zone-led world economic crisis, although some of the money will only be delivered by the BRICS once they have more sway at the Fund. Nonetheless, the figure at least matches expectations and could give markets pause for thought. The official line is that it is for non-euro countries caught up in the maelstrom but no one really believes that. If a Spain is teetering, IMF funds will be there. Together with the 500 billion euros rescue fund set up by the euro zone, there is still barely enough to ringfence both Italy and Spain if it came to it. But will it come to it?

Item 2: Socialist Francois Hollande came out top in the first round of the French presidential election and is now a warm favourite to win. Some fear that could weaken the Franco-German motor which must be humming smoothly if further crisis-fighting measures are to be convincing. Others say he is essentially a centrist who, either way, will be constrained by the realities of the euro zone situation. Domestically, his focus on tax rises over spending cuts and a slower timetable for cuts could drive up French borrowing costs. Attempts by Hollande and President Nicola Sarkozy to woo the substantial votes that went to the far right and far left could lead to some nerve-jangling campaigning messages for the markets to swallow in the run-up to the May 6 second round.

The dangers of a bloated ECB balance sheet

Central balance sheets across the industrialized world have increased rapidly in response to the financial crisis, as recently noted on this blog. In Europe, the balance sheet of the ECB and the 17 national central banks that share the euro currency has grown to around 3 trillion euros after the ECB injected more than a trillion into the market in 3-year loans and loosened its collateral standards.

At above 30 percent of gross domestic product, the ECB’s balance sheet has overtaken that of the Bank of Japan, which has been grappling with deflation for some two decades and started from a much higher level. It is also bigger than that of the U.S. Federal Reserve, which has aggressively responded to two financial crises in five years by tripling the size of its balance sheet to nearly $3 trillion today.

Historically, a central bank’s job is to maintain price stability and the value of its currency. The ECB’s non-standard measures have aimed to do just that as the euro zone debt crisis threatened the viability of the euro currency. But a growing and deteriorating balance sheet also comes at a price.

The pain in Spain – redux

Spain’s borrowing costs are likely to soar at an auction of 12- and 18-month T-bills after its 10-year yields were pushed through the totemic 6 percent level on Monday. The history of the euro zone debt crisis shows that once above 6 percent the spiral accelerates and before you know it you’re at 7 percent – the level generally seen as unsustainable for state financing.

Worryingly, Spain is dragging Italy’s yields up in its wake. But in Spain’s case, there are strong reasons for caution about imminent disaster. The government cannily used ECB-created benign market conditions in the first part of the year to shift nearly half its annual debt issuance needs already and the banks – which look like they will need recapitalization at some point – are well funded for now having also loaded up on the European Central Bank’s three-year liquidity splurge.

We also know Europe’s banks, too scared to invest elsewhere, are depositing 700-800 billion euros back at the ECB daily. If Madrid could engender a shift in confidence, some of that money could flow back into its bonds, particularly by Spanish banks.