MacroScope

Abe’s European spring break: Japan stimulus sends euro zone yields to record lows

It wasn’t just the Nikkei. Euro zone government bonds rallied following Japan’s announcement of a massive new monetary stimulus. That sent yields on the debt of several euro zone countries to record lows on bets that Japanese investors might be switching out of Japanese government bonds into euro zone paper, or might soon do so.

The Bank of Japan on Thursday announced extraordinary stimulus steps to revive the world’s third-largest economy, vowing to inject about $1.4 trillion into the financial system in less than two years in a dose of shock therapy to end two decades of deflation.

Austrian, Dutch, French and Belgian borrowing costs over ten years fell to record lows as investors piled into euro zone debt offering a pick-up over Germany. The bond rally was led by 10- and 30-year maturities after the BOJ said it would double its holdings of long-term government bonds.

According to one trader:

There is no question that Asian demand for semi-core is quite strong and I think, in light of yesterday’s BOJ move, the expectation is that that’s going to continue.

Philip Tyson, strategist at ICAP, told Reuters Insider there had been talk of life insurance companies switching out of Japanese bonds overnight in search of yield, potentially into European debt.

Europe’s ‘democratic deficit’ evident in Cyprus bailout arrangement

The problem of a “democratic deficit” that might arise from the process of European integration has always been high on policymakers’ minds. The term even has its own Wikipedia entry.

As Cypriots waited patiently in line for banks to reopen after being shuttered for two weeks, the issue was brought to light with particular clarity, since the country’s bailout is widely seen as being imposed on it by richer, more powerful states, particularly Germany.

Luxembourg has accused the Germans of trying to impose “hegemony” on the euro zone.  The country, whose banking system, like Cyprus’, is very large relative to the economy’s tiny size, fears that similarly harsh treatment could be imposed on its depositors.

Is Slovenia the next shoe to drop?

The Cypriot saga has thrown the spotlight on Slovenia, which is also a small euro zone country struggling with an over-burdened banking sector.

Slovenia’s mostly state-owned banks are nursing some 7 billion euros of bad loans, equal to about 20 percent of GDP, underpinning persistent speculation that the country might have to follow other vulnerable euro zone countries in seeking a bailout.

According to Standard Bank’s head of emerging market research Tim Ash:

The latest crisis in the euro zone, this time in Cyprus, continues to raise questions as to possible contagion effects throughout the region, and in particular which economies could be next.

Hopefulness, not confidence, is spreading through the euro zone

Optimism in Germany is roaring and consumers across the euro zone are starting to become less gloomy. But the latest hard economic data are a reminder of the difference between confidence that things are going to get better, and the hope that they will.

For the moment, we only have the latter.

Friday’s German Ifo business climate survey topped even the highest expectations, as did the ZEW economic sentiment indicator on Tuesday. Euro zone consumer confidence improved this month too, and the mood in financial markets has been largely buoyant since the start of the year.

The hope is that will translate into a growing euro zone economy, but that isn’t happening yet.

100-years of solitude in the euro zone

The euro zone slipped deeper into recession than economists expected in the fourth quarter of 2012 as Germany and France– the region’s two largest economies – shrank 0.6 percent and 0.3 percent respectively on a quarterly basis.

The data is a reminder of the plight still facing the euro zone as it struggles to shake off a three-year debt crisis, which the region has sought to fight with harsh, growth-crimping austerity.

The European Central Bank’s promise to buy the bonds of struggling sovereigns has spurred investors back into those markets and helped reduce borrowing costs. While one trillion euros of cheap funding made available to banks in late 2011 and early 2012 also gave investors greater confidence, the benefits of such policies have yet to translate into improvements in the real economy.

Ignore the noise around Britain’s GDP figures

One of two stories will probably emerge from Friday’s first reading on how the British economy fared at the end of last year.

If it shrank 0.1 percent in the fourth quarter as the consensus of economists polled by Reuters expects, or worse, we will hear it raises the disastrous spectre of a third recession in four years, or a “triple-dip”.

If it defies expectations by growing slightly, that risk is averted and the government will say it shows the economy is getting back on its feet.

Cameron’s moment of truth

Finally, finally, finally we get the much-vaunted David Cameron speech on Britain’s relationship with Europe.

So, what will Cameron say? Most bluntly he will promise a straight in-or-out EU referendum if he wins an election in 2015 and after he has negotiated a “new settlement”. He correctly notes that public disillusionment with Europe is at an all-time high, which is precisely why offering a referendum could lead to Britain leaving the bloc, something even Cameron doesn’t want, although he argues a vote could lance that boil.

A new EU must be built upon five principles, he says: competitiveness, flexibility, power flowing back to member states, democratic accountability and fairness. But there appears to be no detail on the powers he would attempt to claw back, after which he says he would campaign to stay in the bloc.

from The Great Debate:

The year ahead in the euro zone: Lower risks, same problems

Financial conditions in the euro zone have significantly improved since the summer, when euro zone risks peaked because of German policymakers’ open consideration of a Greek exit, and the sovereign spreads of Italy and Spain reached new heights. The day before European Central Bank President Mario Draghi’s famous speech in London in which he announced that the ECB would do “whatever it takes” to save the euro, bond yields in Spain and Italy were at 7.75 percent and 6.75 percent, respectively, and rising. When the ECB announced its outright monetary transactions (OMT) bond-buying program, the euro zone was at risk of a collapse.

Since then, risks have abated significantly, thanks to a number of factors:

    The ECB’s OMT has been incredibly successful in reducing the risks of breakup, redenomination and a liquidity/rollover crisis in the public debt markets of Spain and Italy. Although the ECB has yet to spend a single additional euro to buy the bonds of Spain and Italy, both short-term and longer-term sovereign spreads against German bonds have fallen substantially. Following a number of political and legal hurdles, the successful operational start of the European Stability Mechanism (ESM) rescue fund provides the euro zone with another €500 billion of official resources to backstop banks and sovereigns in the euro zone periphery, on top of the leftover funds of its predecessor, the European Financial Stability Facility (EFSF). Realizing that a monetary union is not viable without deeper integration, euro zone leaders have proposed a banking union, a fiscal union, an economic union and, eventually, a political union. The last is necessary to resolve any issue of democratic legitimacy that might result from national states transferring power from national governments to EU- or euro zone-wide institutions. This transfer of power also would have to involve the creation of such institutions to ensure solidarity and risk-sharing are developed in the banking, fiscal and economic unions. The open talk in the summer by some German authorities about an exit option for Greece has turned into a tentative willingness to prevent and postpone such an exit. There are several reasons for this. First, Greece has done some austerity and reforms in spite of a deepening recession, and the current coalition is holding up. Second, an orderly exit of Greece is impossible until Spain and Italy are successfully isolated. Such an exit would lead to massive contagion, which would hurt not only the euro zone periphery but also the core, given extensive trade and financial links. Third, an economic disaster in Greece would be damaging to the CDU Party’s chances of winning the German elections. Thus, even when Greece inevitably underperforms on its policy commitments, Germany and the troika (the IMF, EU and ECB) will hold their noses and keep the funds flowing as long as the current coalition holds up.

Given these developments, the risk of a Greek exit in 2013 has been significantly reduced, even if the risk of an eventual Greek exit from the euro zone is still high, close to 50 percent by my estimation. Meanwhile, the narrowing of Spanish and Italian sovereign spreads has significantly diminished the risk that either country will fully lose market access and be forced to undergo a full troika bailout like Greece, Portugal and Ireland. Both Spain and Italy may in 2013 opt for a memorandum of understanding (MoU) that opens the taps of ESM and OMT support, but such official financing would inspire confidence as it would not be associated with rising, unsustainable spreads and a loss of market access.

While there is a much lower likelihood of disorderly events in the euro zone, there are still significant obstacles to deeper integration, as well as country-specific economic and political vulnerabilities. The biggest obstacle to the formation of a banking, fiscal, economic and political union is that Germany is pushing back against the time line for action, with the initial skirmish on ECB supervision of euro zone banks. This backpedaling reflects deep German skepticism on whether the resolution of the euro zone crisis requires a move toward greater union. Without a more credible commitment to austerity and reforms from euro zone periphery countries, lurching forward would imply that risk-sharing will turn into a large, long-term transfer union, which is unacceptable to Germany and the core. Thus, Germany will do whatever is necessary to delay the integration process, at least until after elections in fall 2013.

What to do about Britain and Europe?

After a long, long wait, Britain’s David Cameron is poised to make his big speech on his country’s future ties with Europe.

It was supposed to be delivered in the autumn but has been delayed as the realization has dawned that there is no obviously good outcome for the ruling Conservative party’s leadership which faces implacable eurosceptics within its rank-and-file, many of whom want out of the EU completely. Cameron almost certainly doesn’t want out but may be pushed in that direction if he cannot deliver the repatriated powers from the EU that he has suggested are possible.

It’s hard to see other European leaders playing ball, particularly since Cameron took the unusual step of wielding Britain’s veto at a summit just over a year ago. Whatever he says, a bout of internecine warfare in his party is quite possible on an issue that has ripped it apart before.

Europe’s reactive leadership

Spain doesn’t need financial help. That was the verdict from euro zone ministers on Monday – quickly followed by a selloff in Spanish stocks and bonds on Tuesday. The trouble with that line of thinking is that it again leaves policymakers behind the curve, reacting to events rather than preempting them, write currency strategists at Brown Brothers Harriman in a research note:

For several weeks now Germany Finance Minister Schaeuble has argued against the need for Spain to request aid. France and Italy, in contrast, have been reportedly encouraging Spain to ask for assistance, which they assume would ease financial pressures within the region as whole. The Eurogroup meeting of euro area finance ministers endorsed Schaeuble’s position. Spain is taking necessary measures to overhaul the economy, they said.  Spain is able to successfully fund itself in the capital markets. Aid is simply not needed now.

While there is a compelling logic to the argument, the problem is that it prevents officials from being proactive rather than continue to its reactive function. It means that whenSpaineventually requests assistance, it will be in a crisis and the cost of assistance will be greater. It is penny-wise but dollar foolish. By failing to find a preventative salve, officials are not maximizing the breathing space that the ECB has created (intentionally or otherwise).