MacroScope

More Greek elections?

Attempts to form a Greek coalition government appear to be running into the sand with no one prepared to dance with the two mainstream parties, New Democracy and PASOK, raising the probability of a fresh round of elections with all the uncertainty that will entail. The far-left Socialist Coalition will have a stab at forming an administration today but doesn’t really have the numbers to do it.

The only plan that looks like it offers a glimmer of hope is that put forward by PASOK leader Evangelos Venizelos. He is after a “pro-European” coalition and has pledged to spread the cuts Greece has been ordered to make under its bailout programme over three years not two. If a burst of realpolitik every takes hold in Athens (and it’s worth noting that nearly all the parties say they want to stay in the euro), that could just be enough to get others on board. BUT, Venizelos would then have to go to Brussels to persuade the EU to go along with this relaxation of its targets and, on and off the record, officials lined up yesterday to say there was no prospect of that happening.
And his PASOK was the party that was most badly humiliated at Sunday’s election so it’s hard to see how it has a mandate to rule the Greeks, a majority of whom voted firmly against austerity, even it is in a broad coalition.

So new elections next month are likely which leaves a very compressed timeframe and who knows what political landscape will result second time around. The EU/IMF/ECB troika is supposed to return in June and can’t negotiate on the next bailout tranche if there is no government. In any case, Athens is supposed to find 11 billion euros of extra cuts as part of the aid programme and none of the parties are in a position to do that as things stand.

One of the burning questions is whether Greece’s euro zone partners are in any mood to cut it some more slack — the atmospherics a few months ago when the second bailout deal dragged on and on suggested they certainly weren’t then. And even if they were, they would have to take into their calculations that any relaxation by Greece would presumably be demanded by Ireland and Portugal too, which could put markets back on alert.

However, the reaction yesterday — with stocks ending well up on the day — suggested that some markets have either bought into the theory that the contagion threat posed by Greece is significantly diminished (see yesterday’s note for reasons) or that they think that the euro zone will somehow muddle through again.
Safe haven Bunds have ticked up at the open and European stocks look set to open flattish so not much to go on there.

Europe in recession – an interactive map

Spain has become the latest European country to slip into recession joining the Belgium, Cyprus, The Czech Republic, Denmark, Greece, Italy, The Netherlands, Ireland, Portugal, Slovenia and the United Kingdom.

Click here to view an interactive map.

*Updated to include Romania and Bulgaria

 

This week in the euro zone

A new quarter dawns and although a holiday-shortened week isn’t likely to see dramatic investment decisions taken, the burning question is whether the strong ECB-fuelled rallies of the first three months of the year can continue. The consensus so far is yes, but at a more modest pace.

Markets will pick through the details of the Spanish budget and the euro zone’s decision on increasing the capacity of its firewall. Implementation risk in the first case, and shallow ambition in the second leaves scope for disappointment.

The standout events of the week are the policy meetings of the European Central Bank and Bank of England. No policy changes will result but within the former at least, there is growing internal debate about the long-term consequences of creating a trillion euros of three-year money which no doubt prevented a credit crunch, but according to monetarist theory at least, will inevitably fuel future inflation. There is also the conundrum of creating banks forever reliant on central bank support rather than being able to stand on their own two feet and start lending to each other again.

Today in the euro zone – a blizzard of bailout numbers

Brace yourself for a blizzard of numbers.

EU finance ministers gathered in Copenhagen are poised to decide precisely how much firepower their new rescue fund – to be launched mid-year – will have. A draft communiqué suggests that as of mid-2013, presuming no new bailouts have been required in the interim, the combined lending ceiling of the future ESM and existing EFSF bailout funds will be set at 700 billion euros (500 billion pledged to the ESM plus the roughly 200 billion already committed to Greek, Irish and Portuguese rescue programmes).

Up to mid-2013, if 700 billion proves to be insufficient — i.e. someone else needs bailing out — euro zone leaders will be able to bolster it with the 240 billion euros as yet unused in the EFSF, according to the draft, although German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble said last night that 800 billion should be the absolute limit.

Sorry, there’s more. Because the ESM will not have its full 500 billion euros capacity on day one – it will build up over time – the real available figure for the next year is more like 640 billion euros.
Confused? You should be.

Europe’s wobbly economy

Things are  looking a bit unsteady in the euro zone’s economy.  Just ask Olli Rehn, the EU’s top economic official, who warned this week of  “risky imbalances” in 12 of the European Union’s 27 members. And that’s doesn’t include Greece, which is too wobbly for words. 

Rehn is looking longer term, trying to prevent the next crisis. But the here-and-now is just as wobbly. The euro zone’s economy, which generates 16 percent of world output, shrunk at the end of 2011 and most economists expect the 17-nation currency area to wallow in recession this year and contract around 0.4 percent overall. Few would have been able to see it coming at the start of last year, when Europe’s factories were driving a recovery from the 2008-2009 Great Recession. And it shows just how poisonous the sovereign debt saga has become.

Not everyone thinks things are so shaky.  Unicredit’s chief euro zone economist, Marco Valli, is among the few who believe the euro zone will skirt a recession — defined by two consecutive quarters of contraction — in 2012. This year is “bound to witness a gradual but steady improvement in underlying growth momentum,” Valli said, saying the fourth quarter was the low point in the euro zone business cycle.

from Amplifications:

A centralized Europe is a globalized Europe

By Jean-Claude Trichet

The views expressed are his own.

PARIS – Whenever people seek a justification for European integration, they are always tempted to look backwards. They stress that European integration banished the specter of war from the old continent. And European integration has, indeed, delivered the longest period of peace and prosperity that Europe has known for many centuries.

But this perspective, while entirely correct, is also incomplete. There are as many reasons to strive towards “ever closer union” in Europe today as there were back in 1945, and they are entirely forward-looking.

Sixty-five years ago, the distribution of global GDP was such that Europe had only one role model for its single market: the United States. Today, however, Europe is faced with a new global economy, reconfigured by globalization and by the emerging economies of Asia and Latin America.

from Global Investing:

Hungary’s Orban and his central banker

"Will no one rid me of this turbulent central banker?"  Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban may not have voiced this sentiment but since he took power last year he is likely to have thought it more than once.  Increasingly, the spat between Orban's government and central bank governor Andras Simor brings to memory the quarrel England's Henry II had with his Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Becket, over the rights and privileges of the Church almost 900 years ago. Simor stands accused of undermining economic growth by holding interest rates too high and resisting government demands for monetary stimulus.  The government's efforts to sideline Simor are viewed as infringing on the central bank's independence.

So far, attacks on Simor have ranged from alleging he has undisclosed overseas income to stripping him of his power to appoint some central bank board members. But  the government's latest plan could be the last straw -- proposed legislation that would effectively demote Simor or at least seriously dilute his influence. Simor says the government is trying to engineer a total takeover at the central bank.  "The new law brings the final elimination of the central bank's independence dangerously close," he said last week.  
 
The move is ill-timed however, coming exactly at a time when Hungary is trying to persuade the IMF and the European Union to give it billions of euros in aid. The lenders have expressed concern about the law and declined to proceed with the loan talks.  But the government says it will not bow to external pressure and plans to put the law to vote on Friday. That has sparked general indignation - Societe Generale analyst Benoit Anne calls the spat extremely damaging to investor confidence in Hungary. "I just hope the IMF will not let this go," he writes.

Central banks and governments often fail to see eye to eye. But in Hungary, the government's attacks on Simor, a respected figure in central banking and investment circles,  is hastening the downfall of the already fragile economy. For one, if IMF funds fail to come through, Hungary will need to find 4.7 billion euros next year just to repay maturing hard currency debt. That could be tough at a time when lots of borrowers -- developed and emerging -- will be competing for scarce funds.  Central European governments alone will be looking to raise 16 billion euros on bond markets, data from ING shows. So Orban will have to tone down his rhetoric if he is to avoid plunging his country into financial disaster.

from Global Investing:

Can Eastern Europe “sweat” it?

Interesting to see that Poland wants to squeeze out more income from its state-owned enterprise (SOE) sector in the face of slowing economic growth and financing pressures.

Warsaw wants to double next year's dividends from stakes in firms ranging from copper mines to utility providers to banks.

Fellow euro zone aspirant Lithuania has also embarked on reforms aimed at increasing dividends sixfold from what UBS has dubbed "the forgotten side of the government balance sheet". It wants to emulate countries such as Sweden and Singapore where such companies are managed at arm's length from the state and run along strict corporate standards to consistently grow profits.

EU might treat itself to treaty change

By Robert-Jan Bartunek and Robin Emmott

French statesman Charles De Gaulle once famously said “Treaties are like roses and young girls — they last while they last.” Germany seems to have decided that the European Union’s Lisbon Treaty, which only entered into force after a fair amount of upheaval in December 2009, has lost its perfumes and must be reworked to ensure the euro zone’s debt crisis can never be repeated.

European Council President Herman Van Rompuy’s proposal to modify the treaty via a little-known section called protocol 12 has so far been unable to convince German government officials, who warned against a “bad compromise” of small steps or “little tricks.”

Van Rompuy’s sense is that changes to the protocol, which would strengthen legislation to prevent countries running up big budget deficits, could be agreed quickly and send a message to investors that the euro zone is embarking along a path to bring back confidence and resolve its crisis.

from Global Investing:

Phew! Emerging from euro fog

Holding your breath for instant and comprehensive European Union policies solutions has never been terribly wise.  And, as the past three months of summit-ology around the euro sovereign debt crisis attests, you'd be just a little blue in the face waiting for the 'big bazooka'. And, no doubt, there will still be elements of this latest plan knocking around a year or more from now. Yet, the history of euro decision making also shows that Europe tends to deliver some sort of solution eventually and it typically has the firepower if not the automatic will to prevent systemic collapse.
And here's where most global investors stand following the "framework" euro stabilisation agreement reached late on Wednesday. It had the basic ingredients, even if the precise recipe still needs to be nailed down. The headline, box-ticking numbers -- a 50% Greek debt writedown, agreement to leverage the euro rescue fund to more than a trillion euros and provisions for bank recapitalisation of more than 100 billion euros -- were broadly what was called for, if not the "shock and awe" some demanded.  Financial markets, who had fretted about the "tail risk" of a dysfunctional euro zone meltdown by yearend, have breathed a sigh of relief and equity and risk markets rose on Thursday. European bank stocks gained almost 6%, world equity indices and euro climbed to their highest in almost two months in an audible "Phew!".

Credit Suisse economists gave a qualified but positive spin to the deal in a note to clients this morning:

It would be clearly premature to declare the euro crisis as fully resolved. Nevertheless, it is our impression that EU leaders have made significant progress on all fronts. This suggests that the rebound in risk assets that has been underway in recent days may well continue for some time.