MacroScope

Ireland: bailout poster child, but hardly textbook

Amid the euphoria surrounding Ireland’s removal from junk credit rating status, it’s easy to get swept along by the consensus tide of opinion that the Emerald Isle is the “poster child” for euro zone austerity.

But were another country to find itself in Ireland’s unfortunate financial predicament now, few would suggest it follow the path Dublin took.

The Irish government assumed the entire nation’s private banking sector debt in 2008 after then finance minister Brian Lenihan explicitly guaranteed all bank debt in the country. It was hailed as a masterstroke at the time, but in an instant Ireland’s hands were tied and its options all but evaporated. Even the stuff that posed no systemic risk was put on the government’s – the taxpayers’ – books. This prevented the collapse of the financial system, but at a price: the country’s sovereign debt load almost doubled to around 100% of annual economic output, and in order to do that it was forced to take an €85 billion bailout from international creditors two years later.

Ireland has come through the other side. But for an open, flexible economy with attractive tax environment on the doorstep of a much larger economy in the UK, it could be argued that was never in doubt. The question is, at what cost.

By many measures, the economic cost has been high, as the following two charts show:

Davos Day Two — Rouhani, Lew and Lagarde

Day one in Davos showed the masters of the universe fretting about Sino-Japanese military tensions, the treacherous investment territory in some emerging markets and the risk of a lurch to the right in Europe at May’s parliamentary elections which could make reform of the bloc even harder.

Today, the focus will be on Iranian President Hassan Rouhani (and his main detractor, Israel’s Netanyahu). Presumably he’s there to woo the world of commerce now sanctions are to be relaxed in return for Tehran suspending enrichment of uranium beyond a certain level. Anything he says about Syria’s peace talks, which have so far been more hostile than conciliatory, will instantly be headline news.

Other big name speakers are U.S. Treasury Secretary Jack Lew, IMF chief Christine Lagarde, who is going around warning about the threat of European deflation, Australian premier Tony Abbott, who is running the G20 this year, and a session featuring the BRICS finance ministers.

A moment of truth for Turkey

Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan will make his first visit to Brussels for five years where he will meet EU Council President Herman Van Rompuy, European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso and European Parliament President Martin Schulz.

The EU has been critical of Erdogan’s response to a sweeping corruption inquiry, clearing out hundreds of police officers and raising concern about a roll-back of reforms meant to strengthen independence of judiciary.

That will put a new round of EU membership talks which began two months ago into a rather tricky light. They had already been delayed after Brussels took a dim view of the way Erdogan cracked down on anti-government demonstrators over the summer.

Spain ascendant?

Spain appears to be on the road to recovery, if you can call it that with around a quarter of the workforce without a job.

The government says growth hit 0.3 percent in the final quarter of the year, the second quarterly expansion in a row, and may upgrade its forecast for 0.7 percent growth in 2014.

Its borrowing costs have tumbled to four-year lows in a new year bond rally and today Madrid will try to cash in by selling up to 5.5 billion euros of bonds following an above-target sale last week.

Hollande talks the talk

Francois Hollande managed to bat off questions about his private life (how successful he is in holding that line depends on the attitude of the French media which yesterday was nothing but respectful) and focus instead on a blizzard of economic reforms.

Skating past the French president’s call for an Airbus-style Franco-German energy company which left everyone including the Germans bemused, there was some real meat.

Hollande reaffirmed his “responsibility pact” to cut taxes and red tape for companies, saving them 30 billion euros, in return for a commitment to hire more people and increase training.
He also promised a further 50 billion euros in spending cuts in 2015-17 on top of a planned 15 billion this year, saying they could be achieved by making national and local government more efficient while preserving France’s generous social model.

Hollande’s moment of truth

This afternoon, French President Francois Hollande will expand upon his New Year announcement that French companies who agree to hire more workers could pay lower labour taxes in return and find themselves less tied up in red tape. Unemployment is running near to 12 percent and Hollande’s vow to get it falling by the end of 2013 fell short.

Unfortunately, the announcement has been eclipsed by his threat of legal action after a French magazine reported he was having an affair with an actress. France tends to overlook its politicians’ peccadilloes but with the economy in a hole, Hollande risks facing the charge that he should be focusing squarely on that.

To complicate matters his partner, Valerie Trierweiler, has been admitted to hospital following the reports. She will stay there for a number of days yet.
Given this is one of only two news conferences that Hollande has promised to give each year it’s hard to see how he can avoid it being hijacked by his personal life. As boxing promoter Don King was fond of saying: there are two chances, slim and none and Slim just left town.

New face at the ECB

The European Central Bank held a steady course at its first policy meeting of the year but flagged up the twin threats of rising short-term money market rates and the possibility of a “worsening” outlook for inflation – i.e. deflation.

The former presumably could warrant a further splurge of cheap liquidity for the bank, the latter a rate cut. But only if deflation really takes hold could QE even be considered.
Sabine Lautenschlaeger, the Bundesbank number two poised to take Joerg Asmussen’s seat on the executive board, breaks cover today, testifying to a European Parliament committee. A regulation specialist, little is known about her monetary policy stance though one presumes she tends to the hawkish.

Iran and the EU announced on Sunday that a deal between Tehran and six major powers intended to pave the way to a solution to a long standoff over its nuclear ambitions will come into force on Jan. 20. Thereafter, negotiations will begin on a final settlement. Brent crude has fallen in response. It’s early days but if oil falls significantly this year, that will factor into fears about deflation taking hold in Europe.

Lew’s comes to Europe airing concerns

U.S. Treasury Secretary Jack Lew moves on to Berlin then Lisbon after spending yesterday in Paris. There, he urged Europe to do more to build up its bank backstops and capital, a fairly clear indication that Washington is underwhelmed by the German model of banking union which has prevailed.

Lew may also press for more German steps to boost domestic demand, after indirectly criticising Berlin for its policies during his last visit in April. If he does, he can expect a robust response from Schaeuble, at least in private.

Lew moves on to Portugal later in the day with Lisbon’s planned exit from its EU/IMF bailout presumably top of the agenda when he meets Prime Minister Pedro Passos Coelho.

That sinking feeling

Euro zone inflation, or deflation, is the focus of the moment.

Germany’s HICP rate fell to 1.2 percent last month, Italy’s hit 0.6 percent and Spain’s just 0.3 in December (not to mention Greece’s -2.9 percent). Today we get the figure for the euro zone as a whole. Forecasts for it to hold at 0.9 percent may now look a little toppy.

It’s too early for any dramatic moves but the European Central Bank, which has a policy meeting on Thursday, may well be pushed into easing policy if inflation refuses to pick up and/or the banks clam up ahead of this year’s health tests.

A shock fall in euro inflation to 0.7 percent prompted an interest rate cut to 0.25 percent in November followed by a chorus of denials that deflation was a threat. ECB chief Mario Draghi adhered to that last week but added that he and his colleagues had to make sure inflation didn’t get stuck in the “danger zone” below one percent.

Data to shape ECB week

Euro zone service sector PMIs and German inflation (with the euro zone number to follow on Tuesday) will lay the ground for the European Central Bank’s first policy meeting of the year.

The surveys are likely to show the currency bloc ended the year on a reasonably robust note with Germany leading the way as always, Italy and Spain showing signs of life and France looking worryingly weak.

Ireland’s reading is already out and has posted its fastest services growth in seven years. Much more importantly for the world, growth in China’s services industries slowed in December, confirming that the world’s second-largest economy lost steam at the end of last year.