MacroScope

What the euro crisis is not

With Southern Europe getting so much of the blame for the continent’s financial crisis, it is refreshing to see someone highlight the other side of the coin. That’s just what Joshua Rosner, managing director of Graham Fisher & Co., did in testimony on Thursday. Asked to discuss the potential risk to U.S. taxpayers of the ongoing political battle over a frayed monetary union, Fisher began his remarks by debunking the reigning narratives being used to describe the crisis:

To fully assess the risks to the United States and our proper role in the euro zone  crisis it must first be clear what the crisis is and is not. It is not a bailout of the populations of the weaker European economies such as Greece, Ireland, Portugal, Italy, Spain, Hungary or Belgium. After all, the populations of those countries are being forced to give up portions of their sovereignty in the name of austerity toward a fiscal union.

Rather, I would contend, it is a bailout of banks in the core countries of Europe, of their stockholders and creditors who, failing to gain sufficient access capital markets, would need to be recapitalized by their host country governments. It is a transfer of losses from banks and corporations onto the backs of ordinary people without requiring any recognition of losses by those banks whose risk management and lending practices created the problem. It is as much a tale of over lending as it is of over borrowing and, just as nobody should feel undue sympathy for those who miscalculated the amount of debt they could service, nobody should feel for those who miscalculated their lending risks.

Contemplating Italian debt restructuring

This week’s evaporation of confidence in the euro zone’s biggest government debt market — Italy’s 1.6 trillion euros of bonds and bills and the world’s third biggest — has opened a Pandora’s Box that may now force  investors to consider the possibility of a mega sovereign debt default or writedown and, or maybe as a result of,  a euro zone collapse.

Given the dynamics and politics of the euro zone, this is a chicken-or-egg situation where it’s not clear which would necessarily come first. Greece has already shown it’s possible for a “voluntary” creditor writedown of  the country’s debts to the tune of 50 percent without — immediately at least — a euro exit. On the other hand, leaving the euro and absorbing a maxi devaluation of a newly-minted domestic currency would instantly render most country’s euro-denominated debts unpayable in full.

But if a mega government default is now a realistic risk, the numbers on the “ifs” and “buts” are being crunched.

from Jeremy Gaunt:

Why is the euro still strong?

One of the more bizarre aspects of the euro zone crisis is that the currency in question -- the euro -- has actually not had that bad a year, certainly against the dollar. Even with Greece on the brink and Italy sending ripples of fear across financial markets, the single currency is still up  1.4 percent against the greenback for the year to date.

There are lots of reasons for this. The dollar is subject to its country's own debt crisis, negligible interest rates and various forms of quantitative easing money printing -- all of which weaken FX demand. There is also some evidence that euro investors are bring their money home, as the super-low yields on 10-year German bonds attest.

Finally -- and this is a bit of a stretch -- some investors reckon that if a hard core euro emerges from the current debacle, it could be a buy. Thanos Papasavvas, head of currency management at Investec Asset Management, says:

from Global Investing:

Are global investors slow to move on euro break-up risk?

No longer an idle "what if" game, investors are actively debating the chance of a breakup of the euro as a creditor strike  in the zone's largest government bond market sends  Italian debt yields into the stratosphere -- or at least beyond the circa 7% levels where government funding is seen as sustainable over time.  Emergency funding for Italy, along the lines of bailouts for Greece, Ireland and Portugal over the past two years, may now be needed but no one's sure there's enough money available -- in large part due to Germany's refusal to contemplate either a bigger bailout fund or open-ended debt purchases from the European Central Bank as a lender of last resort.

So, if Germany doesn't move significantly on any of those issues (or at least not without protracted, soul-searching domestic debates and/or tortuous EU Treaty changes), creditor strikes can reasonably be expected to spread elsewhere in the zone until some clarity is restored. The fog surrounding the functioning and makeup of the EFSF rescue fund and now Italian and Greek elections early next year  -- not to mention the precise role of the ECB in all this going forward -- just thickens. Why invest/lend to these countries now with all those imponderables.

Where it all pans out is now anyone's guess, but an eventual collapse of the single currency can't be ruled out now as at least one possible if not likely outcome. The global consequences, according to many economists, are almost incalculable. HSBC, for example, said in September that a euro break-up would lead to a shocking global depression.

from Global Investing:

Euro exit-ology

Whether or not it's likely or even a good idea, talk of Greece leaving the euro is no longer taboo in either financial or political circles.  What is more, anxiety over the future of the  single currency has reached such a pitch since the infection of the giant Italian bond market that there are many investors talking openly of an unraveling of the entire bloc. But against such an amplified "tail risk",  it's remarkable how stable world financial markets have been over the past few turbulent weeks -- at least outside the ailing sovereign debt markets in question.

Yet, focussing on the possible consequences for Greece of bankruptcy and euro exit has now become an inevitable part of investment reseach and analysis. In a note to clients on Tuesday entitled "Breaking Up is Hard to Do", Bank of New York Mellon strategist Simon Derrick sketched some of the issues.

One issue he pointed out,  and one raised in the September Spiegel online report, was the chance of invoking Article 143 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union, which permits certain countries to "take protective measures" and which could be used to allow restrictions on the movement of capital in order to prevent a flight of capital abroad.

from Jeremy Gaunt:

Democracy and Chaos are both Greek

It seems as if almost everyone was surprised by Prime Minister George Papandreou's decision to hold a referendum on the euro zone's bailout package for his country. At the very least, it can probably be said that he is weary of being hammered from all sides --  his own party, the opposition, the people on the street, Germany, the tabloid press, you name it.

A lot will obviously depend on what question is asked. Do you want an end to austerity, would get a clear yes vote. Do you want to leave the euro zone -- perhaps not.

Financial markets, however, do not initially appear content to wait.  Talk of an end-of-year rally is off the table (at least for now).  It's not exactly χάος (chaos) out there, but Papandreou's  experiment  in δημοκρατία (democracy) has sent the whole euro zone project into a new, risky phase.

Europe sobers up after Italian auction

After a hopeful couple of weeks and the ”euphoria” caused by an agreement to tackle the euro zone debt crisis, financial markets got a reality check from Italy’s sale of 7.94 billion euros of government bonds. The debt met lower demand than at previous auctions, forcing the country to pay the highest premium since joining the single currency to sell 10-year debt.

The results suggest markets did not think the euro zone rescue deal — which includes an agreement on the write-down of Greek debt, recapitalisation of European banks and leveraging of the euro zone rescue fund – went far enough to restore investor appetite for Italian debt.

Italian yields rose as high as 6.03 percent near levels not seen since early August, when the European Central Bank first began purchasing Italian and Spanish bonds in the secondary market to bring funding costs down to more affordable levels. Brian Barry, analyst at Evolution Securities, says that move alone speaks volumes:

from Global Investing:

Trash heap for sovereign CDS?

For all the ifs and buts about the latest euro rescue agreement, one of its most profound market legacies may be to sound the death knell for sovereign credit default swaps -- at least those covering richer developed economies. In short, the agreement reached in Brussels last night outlined a haircut on Greek government bonds of some 50 percent as a way to keep the country's debt mountain sustainable over time. But anyone who had bought default insurance on the debt in the form of CDS would not get compensated as long as the "restructuring" was voluntary, or so says a top lawyer for the International Swaps and Derivatives Association -- the arbiter of CDS contracts.

ISDA general counsel  David Geen said there would be no change in the ruling to account for the size of the haircut:

As far we can see it's still a voluntary arrangement and therefore we are in the same position as we were with the 21 percent when that was agreed (in July)

New twist in Hungary’s Swiss debt saga. Banks beware.

A fresh twist in Hungary’s Swiss franc debt saga. The ruling party, Fidesz, is proposing to offer mortgage holders the opportunity to repay their franc-denominated loans in one fell swoop at an exchange rate to be  fixed well below the market rate.  This is a deviation from the existing plan, agreed in June, which allows households to repay mortgage installments at a fixed rate of 180 forints per Swiss franc (well below the current 230 rate). Households would repay the difference, with interest, after 2015.

If this step is implemented and many loan holders take up the offer, it would be terrible news for Hungary’s banks. The biggest local lender OTP could face a loss of $2 billion forints, analysts at Budapest-based brokerage Equilor calculate.  Not surprisingly, OTP shares plunged 10 percent on Friday after the news, forcing regulators to suspend trade in the stock. Shares in another bank FHB are down 8 percent.

But Fidesz’ message is unequivocal.  ”The financial consequences should be borne by the banks,”  Janos Lazar, the Fidesz official behind the plan says. The government is to debate the proposal on Sunday.

Hungary’s central bank in policy bind

Pity Hungary’s central bank. If ever there was a country that needed an interest rate cut, here it is.  With the euro zone in the doldrums, the Hungarian economy is taking a big hit, with April-June growth coming in at a measly 1.5 percent on an annual basis, well below expectations. Quarter-on-quarter growth was in fact zero. Data last week showed annual inflation at two-year lows last month. Despite a cut to personal income tax rates this year, household consumption is stagnating. Unemployment is running at 11 percent. 

Yet the central bank’s hands are tied. A rate cut would weaken the forint currency and that would hurt the Hungarian families, municipalities and companies that are struggling with tens of billions of dollars in Swiss franc-denominated loans. The surging franc has already lopped half a percent off  Hungarian growth this year as families cut back on consumption to keep up loan repayments, Nomura analysts calculate. Another reason Hungary cannot really afford a weaker forint at this stage is its dependance on imports — they make up some 75 percent of GDP, far higher than in neighbouring Poland, says Neil Shearing at Capital Economics

Bond markets are betting on a rate cut — swaps are pricing in a half point cut over the next year. But will the central bank bite the bullet any time soon? ING Bank analysts think not. Hungary could need the protection of high interest rates in event of a global market selloff, they note. Hence the bank can afford to cut rates only next year. Shearing of Capital Economics agrees: “The central bank is in a bind. Provided the euro zone doesn’t melt down, there could be room for one or two rate cuts next year but at the moment its hands are tied by the currency issue.”