MacroScope

Do they they think it’s all over?

Is everything falling into place to at least declare a moratorium in the euro zone debt crisis?

Well the ESM rescue fund getting a go-ahead from Germany’s consitutional court and the Dutch opting to vote for the two main pro-European parties, following Mario Draghi’s confirmation last week that the European Central Bank would buy Spanish and Italian bonds if required, means things are starting to look a little rosier.

The risks? Next spring’s Italian election, and what sort of government results, casts a long shadow and it is just about conceivable that Spain could baulk at asking for help, given the strings attached, although the sheer amount of debt it needs to shift by the end of the year will almost certainly force its hand. If the Bundesbank mounted a guerrilla war campaign against the ECB bond-buying programme it could well undermine its effectiveness. That is a big if given broad German political support for the scheme. Key countries remain deep in recession with little prospect of returning to growth because of the imperative to keep eating away at their debt mountains, which could eventually trigger a dramatic public reaction. France could well get dragged into that category.

More generally, there is the previous history of this crisis which has shown that when the heat is lifted, policymakers can take their foot off the pedal. Surely they’ve learned that lesson by now, I hear you cry. Well, Spanish premier Mariano Rajoy was out yesterday saying he was still studying the price to be paid for seeking help but improved market conditions may make aid unnecessary. Spanish 10-year yields have tumbled from around 7.5 percent to 5.7 since Draghi first showed his hand in late July. That’s still too high for Madrid to manage indefinitely. After regional elections in late October, Rajoy may well jump.

Everything achieved in the past week has been about buying policymakers time to put the permanent structures in place to make the euro zone viable in perpetuity. None of it amounts to a permanent solution. Evidence yesterday of a growing row about the scope and powers of a cross-border banking union and a distinctly mixed reception for Barroso’s call for a properly federal Europe shows there’s a lot still to be done. The most profound parts of a banking union, particularly a joint deposit guarantee scheme to prevent bank runs, are not even on the table yet and are likely to take years to introduce.

Get me to the court on time

Another blockbuster chapter in the euro zone epic.

Top billing today goes to Germany’s constitutional court, which is expected to give a green light to the euro zone’s permanent rescue fund, the ESM, albeit with some conditions imposed in terms of parliamentary oversight. The ruling begins at 0800 GMT. If the court defied expectations and upheld complaints about the fund, it would lead to the mother of all market sell-offs and plunge the euro zone into its deepest crisis yet.

Without the ESM, the European Central Bank’s carefully constructed plan to backstop the euro zone would be in tatters. It has said it will only intervene to buy the bonds of the bloc’s strugglers if they first seek help from the rescue fund and sign up to the strings that will be attached. The first rescue fund, the EFSF, could perhaps fill this role for a while but its resources are now threadbare, so without the ESM, markets would scent blood.

The Dutch go to the polls but with the hard-left Socialists seemingly losing support, the ruling Liberal party and moderate centre-left Labour are  neck-and-neck and look likely to form a coalition government committed to tight debt control and, more importantly, to the euro zone. So unless voters are lying to pollsters, some of the drama has leached out of this particular saga although it could take some considerable time to put a coalition together.

Another euro zone week to reckon with

Despite Mario Draghi’s game changer, or potential game changer, the coming week’s events still have the power to shape the path of the euro zone debt crisis in a quite decisive way, regardless of the European Central Bank’s offer to buy as many government bonds as needed to buy politicians time to do their work.

The nuclear event would be the German constitutional court ruling on Wednesday that the bloc’s new ESM rescue fund should not come into being, which would leave the ECB’s plans in tatters since its intervention requires a country to seek help from the rescue funds first and the ESM’s predecessor, the EFSF, looks distinctly threadbare. That is unlikely to happen given the court’s previous history but it could well add conditions demanding greater German parliamentary scrutiny and even a future referendum on deeper European integration. For the time being though, the markets are likely to take a binary view. ‘Yes’ to the ESM good, ‘No’ very bad.

Dutch elections on the same day look to have been robbed of some of their potential drama with the firebrand hard-left socialists now slipping in the polls and the fiscally conservative Liberals neck-and-neck with the likeminded centre-left Labour party. But there are no guarantees and Germany could yet be robbed of one of its staunchest allies in the debt crisis debate.

The morning after the night before

After some perplexingly negative initial market reaction to the Draghi gambit everything turned around. European stocks leapt nearly 2.5 percent yesterday and Asian shares are set to bank their biggest daily gain in six weeks. Italian and Spanish borrowing costs have fallen markedly.

The fact that the ECB has set no limit on how many bonds it might buy marks this scheme out as very different to its predecessor but we’ve seen many false dawns before so it behoves us to keep an eye on what might prevent ECB President Mario Draghi drawing a line under nearly three years of debt crisis.

       1. Could Bundesbank chief Jens Weidmann, who remains strongly opposed, quit as his predecessor did last year? Very unlikely for now though there could be a later confrontation, on which more below. It was notable how many of Angela Merkel’s political lieutenants were deployed in public to back Draghi yesterday, although the German press have taken an altogether more negative view which could inflame German public opinion.

Fund managers also fall prey to economists’ euro zone bias

If Reuters polls onthe euro zone this year have proved anything, it’s that forecasts concerning the future of the currency union really boil down to national bias and not just plain economics.

Last week’s global polls of fund managers proved that’s just as true of investors as it is for analysts.

It’s a well-established trend: economists working for institutions based inside the euro zone are far more optimistic about its future than those from Britain or the United States.

Draghi engineers August lull, but wait for September

Having not enjoyed a summer lull for a good few years, we might as well take advantage of this one which appears set to last for another couple of weeks yet (famous last words).

European Central Bank President Mario Draghi’s pledge to do whatever it takes to save the euro zone continues to underpin markets who view a litany of grim economic evidence as increasing the likelihood of further central bank action, not just from Europe but China and the United States too, thereby leaving them somewhat becalmed. (Remember the Greenspan put?)

The ECB chief’s intervention remains strictly in the realms of the rhetorical for now. The proof will come in September at the earliest – an ECB policy meeting in the first week is likely to set out the parameters as to how it might act to lower Spanish and Italian borrowing costs, a week later the German constitutional court rules on the viability of the euro zone’s permanent rescue fund, then euro zone finance ministers gather in Cyprus for a key meeting. Also in September, the troika of Greek lenders will return to decide whether Athens has done enough to secure its next bailout tranche.

Euro zone gymnastics

Sometimes, a week away from the fray can bring perspective. Sometimes, you miss all hell breaking loose.
My last day in the office saw European Central Bank President Mario Draghi utter his “we will do whatever it takes” to save the euro declaration. The markets took off on that, only to sag when the ECB didn’t follow through at last Thursday’s policy meeting.

In fact, it was never that likely that the ECB would rush to act, particularly since Draghi’s verbal intervention had started to push Italian and Spanish borrowing costs lower and the troika of lenders was still musing over Greece. But it seems to me that, despite German reservations, the ECB president has shifted the terms of trade, something market action is beginning to reflect.

There can be little doubt now that the ECB will intervene decisively if required – and the removal of that doubt takes away the main question that has kept markets on edge every since a bumper first quarter evaporated. Yes, there are caveats – notably the fact that Draghi said the ECB would only step in if countries first request assistance. With that will come conditionality and surveillance but it seems highly unlikely that Spain, for example, will be required to come up with any further austerity measures given what it is already doing. Spanish premier Rajoy seemed to soften Madrid’s opposition to seeking help last week, though he said he wanted to know precisely what the ECB might do in return. Until now, seeking sovereign aid has been a taboo for Spain. If that’s changed, it’s also big news.

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?

Darker and darker

Moody’s put Germany on notice that it might cut its credit rating and did the same for the Netherlands and Luxembourg. It cited a growing chance that Greece could leave the euro zone, and the contagion and costs that could flow from that, as well as the possibility that Berlin might have to increase its support for Italy and Spain. Both are self-evident risks and markets have not really reacted though it’s interesting timing that Spanish Economy Minister de Guindos is meeting his German counterpart, Wolfgang Schaeuble, in Berlin later. The Moody’s warning could also feed into darkening German public opinion about the merits of offering any more help to its sick partners.

German Bund futures opened just 10 ticks lower and European stocks edged higher after a sharp Monday sell-off. A jump in China’s PMI index has helped sentiment a little. The euro remains on the back foot but if it continues to fall that should actually help euro zone economies, making their exports more competitive. We’re programmed to treat government statements with scepticism but it’s hard to argue with the German finance ministry which said last night that the risks cited by Moody’s were nothing new and the sound state of German public finances was unchanged.

Nonetheless, reminders of the depth of the debt crisis are close at hand. So dislocated is the Spanish debt market that is hard to gauge what costs Spain will be required to pay at today’s T-bill auction because a combination of summer holidays and worries about the country’s finances mean trading has virtually dried up. With benchmark bond yields hitting euro-era highs on Monday, however, the debt sale of 3 billion euros in 3- and 6-month bills is likely to be expensive.
Also last night, clearing house LCH.Clearnet SA  increased the cost of using Spanish and Italian bonds to raise funds via its repo service, which could put further upward pressure on already surging yields.

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.