MacroScope

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.

Today, the ECB releases its bi-annual report on risks facing the financial system. I’d imagine it will have a fair amount to say. For now, it seems content to let governments take all the strain of crisis management. Plenty of policymakers, Hollande, Merkel, Monti and Van Rompuy included, are speaking today but having done their bit for Spain over the weekend it’s really eyes down for the Greek election now, swiftly followed by a G20 summit and a key gathering of EU leaders at the end of the month.
There, some light will be shed on longer-term plans to make the euro zone a more durable economic union, although this is going to be a long haul – too late to address the current crisis. We’re expecting French and German briefings today, the latter on the Los Cabos G20.

There’s also a groundswell behind setting up a banking union, including a deposit guarantee fund, quickly. European Commission chief Jose Manuel Barroso, ECB policymaker Christian Noyer and French Finance Minister Pierre Moscovici are all espousing it today. Germany, where the bill will fall, is much more reticent and wants to see the drive to fiscal union, which will take many months even years of negotiation, treaty change and parliamentary ratifications, completed first.

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.

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.