MacroScope

Enter the dragon

Big day in Berlin with European Central Bank chief Mario Draghi entering the lion’s den of the Bundestag to explain to German lawmakers why his plan to buy sovereign euro zone bonds in potentially unlimited amounts poses no threat to the ECB’s remit and the euro zone economy.
Former ECB chief economist Juergen Stark – one of Draghi’s most trenchant critics – told us yesterday that the ECB president must present much more convincing arguments than hitherto as to why the plan would not pile enormous risks onto the ECB’s balance sheet for which European taxpayers could have to pay.

The session, which will include 10-minute introductory remarks from Draghi followed by a lengthy Q&A and then short public statements from Draghi and Bundestag President Norbert Lammert, is a rarity. The hawks in parliament will demand to know how bond-buying is remotely in line with the ECB’s mandate. The more moderate will at least want to hear what sort of conditionality the ECB wants to see before it leaps into the breach, and the backdrop is coloured by continued Bundesbank opposition to the Draghi strategy. Angela Merkel is speaking at a separate event in Berlin in, as does Wolfgang Schaeuble later in the day.

Spain will probably loom largest for the German lawmakers but Greece continues to run it a close second with suggestions growing that it will get an extra two years to make the cuts demanded of it. But even that may not be enough for the EU/IMF/ECB troika of inspectors to conclude that Athens’ debt sustainability programme is back on track. The IMF appears to believe that only a writedown of Greek bonds held by the ECB and euro zone governments will do the trick. They, predictably, are not keen.

Last night, two Greek junior coalition partners continued to oppose planned labour reforms despite a new draft document showing measures and targets agreed by the two sides said the austerity cuts would be spread over four years rather than two and an apparent concession by the troika – to row back on a plan to axe automatic wage rises. Proposals to cut wages and lower redundancy payments remain on the table.

Key ECB policymaker Joerg Asmussen is out saying that giving Greece more time means more money. The Nov. 12 meeting of euro zone finance ministers still looks to be the likeliest venue to try and finally agree a solution although there is talk of an earlier meeting doing the rounds. However, that is probably too early to tackle a Spanish sovereign aid request now with Madrid’s funding position looking manageable in the short-term and no signs of haste from that quarter. Today, parliament continues to debate the government’s budget with Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy slated to speak.

Spanish waiting game

Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy secured an overall majority in regional elections in Galicia over the weekend but in the Basque country, the nationalists were the big winners. These polls have been identified as one reason why Rajoy has held off asking for sovereign aid and Catalan elections still loom next month. Rajoy is likely to have to offer politically poisonous pension reforms in return for outside assistance.

So far, we seem to be no closer to a bailout request, which could then trigger European Central Bank intervention, and with 10-year yields having dropped more than two percentage points from a 7.5 percent peak since Mario Draghi’s vow to do whatever it takes to save the euro, one could reasonably ask why Madrid should be in a hurry. Some officials are saying Spain could quite comfortably wait until the turn of the year, leaving a prolonged period of limbo.

The fact is that if market pressure comes back on, Spain can quickly approach the euro zone’s ESM rescue fund for help and the ECB can pile in thereafter. So what has happened is that a bit of fear has been put back into investors intent on shorting the euro zone periphery to their hearts’ content; fear that wasn’t there until recently. It looks increasingly likely that Madrid would seek a precautionary credit line from the ESM, with conditions attached, which in theory could allow the ECB to buy Spanish bonds without the government actually taking money from the rescue fund. That would be a much easier sell politically.

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:

Another euro zone summit

The day before an EU summit that probably won’t come up with anything decisive in crisis management. If that sounds rather underwhelming beware. There’s an awful lot of jockeying for position over when Spain will seek sovereign help, the Greek troika talks continue to look messy with time running very short and the leaders would be very well advised to demonstrate that their longer-term plans for closer integration are not running out of puff – item one on that agenda is getting plans for step one of a banking union back on track.

We could get a decent crack at this today with a number of EU leaders, including Angela Merkel, Spain’s Mariano Rajoy and Greek premier Antonis Samaras, gathering in Bucharest for a centre-right political congress.

On the jockeying front, German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble has called for a leap forward in euro integration, particularly in terms of fiscal union with a commissioner given power over members’ budgets. That’s going to prompt some heated debate in Brussels on Thursday/Friday with France, in particular, likely to be aghast.

Italy in market after Spanish downgrade

Italy is expected to pay slightly more than it did a month ago to borrow for three years at today’s auction of up to 6 billion euros of a range of bonds. Yields edged up at a sale of 11 billion euros of short-term paper on Wednesday but there is no immediate cause for alarm. Three year-yields have dropped from 5.3 percent to around 3.3 since the ECB declared its readiness to buy the bonds of troubled euro zone sovereigns and Italy has shifted about 80 percent of its debt requirements this year, so is on track in that regard.

The fact that it now seems possible that Mario Monti could continue as prime minister after spring elections can’t do any harm either although yesterday’s surprise cut in income tax muddies the waters a little.

The main problem for Italy is that Spain is in no rush to seek a bailout, a move that would alleviate pressure on Rome too. The IMF kept up the drumbeat of pressure for action in Tokyo, demanding “courageous and cooperative action”, having yesterday said the euro area was still threatened by a “downward spiral of capital flight, breakup fears and economic decline”.  German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble retorted that Europe was solving its problems and had done far more than appeared to outside observers.

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.

The Greek conundrum

Euro zone finance ministers, apart from formally launching the ESM rescue fund, made little headway yesterday evening, holding what they called “robust” talks about Greece’s prospects but not coming up with anything to continue the pretence that the country can get back on track. The report from the troika of EU/IMF/ECB inspectors looks likely not to be complete until next month’s Eurogroup meeting.

There are signs of divisions between the euro zone and IMF, with the latter convinced only dramatic measures such as a big writedown on the Greek bonds held by European governments will make the numbers add up. “More needs to be done,” IMF head Christine Lagarde said pointedly last night.

Angela Merkel, who is visiting Athens today and could stir up public Greek anger by doing so, is apparently set on returning to her increasingly critical Bundestag just once more – with a sweeping package to deal with Greece, Spain, Cyprus and maybe Slovenia. Ergo, the lack of Greek progress means any Spanish move for aid is probably some way off. And given the chaotically mixed messages coming from Madrid, it’s not clear that the government there has fully realized it will have to do so at some point.

The pain in Spain … spreads to Italy

This morning, we exclusively report that Spanish Prime Minister Rajoy could be about to break another promise by freezing pensions and bringing forward a planned rise in the retirement age.

This latest austerity policy will be political poison at home but will give Madrid more credibility with its euro zone peers since that was one of Brussels’ policy recommendations for the country back in May. We know that at the end of next week the government will unveil its 2013 budget and further structural reforms which all smacks of an attempt to get its retaliation in first so that the euro zone and IMF won’t ask for any more cuts if and when Madrid makes its request for aid.

The pensions shift could well be kept under wraps until regional elections in late October are out of the way. It is less likely that the government can defer a request for help from the euro zone rescue fund, after which the ECB can pile into the secondary market, for that long given some daunting debt refinancing bills falling due at the end of next month.

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.