MacroScope

Silvio’s trials

Italy’s Supreme Court last night upheld Silvio Berlusconi’s conviction for tax fraud and a four-year jail term, to the fury of the man who has dominated Italian politics for 20 years and throwing a fragile coalition government into peril.

The markets have been sanguine about Italy, maybe with good reason, since its reform and debt-cutting programme is well in train and no one seems to want fresh elections. But that could change for a country that has always been viewed as “too big to bail” by the euro zone.

Italian bond futures have even risen a little, taking a wait-and-see view. There is of course the little matter of the U.S. non-farm payrolls report looming later, with markets still fixated on the chances of the Federal Reserve slowing its bond-buying programme this year.

For investors, the equation that the bonds of countries like Italy offer a decent return and the European Central Bank has taken default risk off the table has held good for nearly a year. And to give some perspective, Italy can borrow for 10 years at about 4.4 percent having been forced to pay seven percent and more at the height of its crisis in late 2011.

Given his age, Berlusconi is unlikely to serve any jail time and the court ordered a review of the ban on him holding political office.

Spain on the way back … to stagnation

Spain heads the rest of the euro zone pack with second quarter GDP figures at a time when we’re seeing glimmers of hope, with surveys suggesting the currency area could resume growth in the third quarter.

The Bank of Spain has forecast a 0.1 percent drop in GDP from the previous three months. It is usually close to the truth which supports the government’s claim that the economy is close to emerging from recession.

Last week, the Spanish unemployment rate fell for the first time in two years, although at 26 percent of the workforce it remains alarmingly high, and PMI readings have begun to pick up.

Is Europe past the worst?

The PMI surveys take top billing today. China’s report showed a further slowdown in manufacturing activity with the index following to an 11-month low and well into contractionary territory.

Flash readings for the euro zone, Germany and France are due later. Whisper it, but it could just be that Europe’s economy is past the worst.

Beijing’s travails will obviously have knock-on effects for Europe, particularly Germany for which China is such a huge market. A Chinese “hard landing” – still not the central scenario – would be the last thing the world economy needs just as it shows signs of life.

Just a typical euro zone day

Spain will sell up to four billion euros of six- and 12-month treasury bills, prior to a full bond auction on Thursday. Italy attracted only anaemic demand at auction last week and Madrid has already had to pay more to borrow since the Federal Reserve shook up the markets with its blueprint for an exit from QE.

However, yields are nothing like back to the danger levels of last year and both countries have frontloaded their funding this year. Economy Minister Luis de Guindos, who declared over the weekend that the Spanish economy will grow in the second half of the year, speaks later in the day.

The political backdrop is also shaky, and getting shakier by the day, although that doesn’t always infect market sentiment. Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy rejected calls to resign on Monday over a party financing scandal and said his reform programme would continue unaffected.

Turkish trouble

How much time does massive central bank currency intervention buy? About a day at a time in Turkey’s case. It spent $1.3 billion of its reserves yesterday to stop the lira going into freefall having thrown a record $2.25 billion at the market on Monday.

So far this year, the central bank has burned over $6 billion of its reserves which have now dropped below $40 billion. So that can’t go on for long, meaning an interest rate rise which a slowing economy really doesn’t need must be on the cards. The lira hit a record low versus the dollar on Monday.

Much of this is to do with the global emerging market sell-off sparked by the Federal Reserve’s exit plan from money-printing but Ankara has sown the seeds of crisis too, first with the very public standoff with protesters in its main cities who railed against what they see as Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan’s increasingly authoritarian rule.

Banking on union

The European Commission will present its blueprint for a body to refloat or fold troubled banks, largely in the euro zone. As we’ve said ad nauseam, there is no chance of a great leap forward on this front ahead of Germany’s September elections. The question is whether Berlin’s line softens thereafter.

Brussels will suggest a cross-border body able to overrule national authorities. Germany is opposed and says that would require treaty change which could take many years. Beyond that the EU’s executive appears to have pulled its punches somewhat.

The new authority will have to wait years before it has a fund to pay for the costs of any bank closures since the plan foresees a levy on banks to build a war chest of up to 70 billion euros which is expected to take a decade, leaving the agency dependent on national schemes for years.

A day to reckon with

This could be a perfect storm of a day for the euro zone.

Portugal’s prime minister will attempt to shore up his government after the resignation of his finance and foreign ministers in successive days. The latter is threatening to pull his party out of the coalition but has decided to talk to the premier, Pedro Passos Coelho, to try and keep the show on the road.

If the government falls and snap elections are called, the country’s bailout programme really will be thrown up into the air. Lisbon plans to get out of it and back to financing itself on the markets next year. Its EU and IMF lenders are due back in less than two weeks and have already said the country’s debt position is extremely fragile.

Given the root of this is profound austerity fatigue in a country still deep in recession a further bailout is increasingly likely. Portuguese 10-year bond yields shooting above eight percent only add to the pressure; the country could not afford to borrow at anything like those levels. President Anibal Cavaco Silva’s will continue talks with the political parties today.

Oscar Wilde and the euro zone

To paraphrase Oscar Wilde, to lose one looks like misfortune, to lose two smacks of carelessness.
Portugal’s government has been plunged into crisis with the foreign minister resigning a day after the finance minister did, the latter complaining that the public would not tolerate his austerity drive.

Prime Minister Passos Coelho has refused to accept the second departure, essentially putting the government’s survival in the gift of Foreign Minister Paulo Portas, who objected to Treasury Secretary Maria Luis Albuquerque replacing Finance Minister Vitor Gaspar. Portas could pull his rightist CDS-PP party out of the coalition government, which would rob it of a majority. The opposition is calling for early elections, the premier says not.

All this is happening with the next review of Portugal’s bailout progress by its EU and IMF lenders just two weeks away and with euro zone borrowing costs already firmly on the rise again. Portuguese yields lurched higher after Portas’ resignation and doubtless will continue in that direction today.

One small step…

EU finance ministers succeeded last night where they failed last Friday and reached agreement on how to share the costs of future bank failures, with shareholders, bondholders and depositors holding more than 100,000 euros all in the firing line in a bid to keep taxpayers off the hook.

Germany and France had been at odds over how much leeway national governments would have to impose losses on those differing constituencies and, as with many EU deals, a compromise was reached whereby some flexibility is allowed.

This is not to be sniffed at. For the first time it sets a common set of rules (albeit with wiggle room built in) to deal with bank collapses but, as we’ve explained ad nauseam in recent weeks, it is only one building block en route to a comprehensive banking union which was promised last year and would amount to the last vital plank in the defences being built around the currency bloc to banish future existential threats.

Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?

Who guards the guards? In the case of Europe’s banks, the answer is still a work in progress given the faltering efforts to create a banking union.

Today, we interview Jaime Caruana, head of the Bank for International Settlements which said on Sunday that its central bank constituents should not be deterred by fears of market volatility when the time came to start turning off the money-printing machines. That moment was fast approaching, it said.

The big question is why it would not be safer to wait until the world economy is on a sounder footing before turning the money printing presses off, particularly since there is a notable absence of any inflationary threat.