MacroScope

Italy drifts back into the firing line

Following Silvio Berlusconi’s threat to demolish Mario Monti’s government, Italy will try to sell up to four billion euros of five- and 10-year bonds at auction today. It will get away but investors could be forgiven for being nervous. Monti was in Madrid yesterday and issued a veiled plea for Spain to seek help from the euro zone rescue fund, which would trigger ECB bond-buying, in the hope that would drive down Italian borrowing costs too. But Spain, with nearly all of its 2012 funding done, is in no hurry.

Monti continues to insist Italy doesn’t need to seek help itself but said the ECB needed to be seen in action, rather than just offer speculators the threat that it could intervene, in order to keep the euro zone shored up. One suspects that is true.

Also last night, Sicilian election results showed the centre-left Democratic Party and anti-establishment 5-Star movement cleaned up at the expense of Berlusconi’s party. Perhaps the most worrying figure was the record low turnout by an electorate disillusioned by constant austerity. The possibility of Monti retaining the premiership after spring 2013 elections has helped keep market attacks at bay. In reality, that looks unlikely although he could take over the presidency to retain some voice and influence. The fractured nature of Italian politics raises the threat of no solid government emerging from the general election. Fitch cut Sicily’s rating to BBB late yesterday and warned of more to come.

Spain may be in a comfortable position as far as its debt financing needs are concerned but its economy is in dire shape. After some ghastly retail sales figures on Monday, third quarter GDP data are expected to confirm its recession is deep and persistent, with GDP forecast to fall 0.4 percent on the quarter, the same pace as it contracted in Q2. For that reason, there are still powerful incentives to seek help at some point.

In Athens, there was a chink of light with the PASOK party, number two in the coalition, hinting it will support the government’s austerity package needed to secure the next tranche of EU/IMF money to keep Greece afloat. A final agreement to secure aid to save it from bankruptcy has been held up by the refusal of the Democratic Left party, the smallest partner in the three-party coalition, to back private-sector wage cuts. The bigger two parties could just carry the vote in parliament without the Democratic Left but any internal rebels will  make it too close for comfort. Today, lawmakers vote on a privatization law, the first in a series of votes to test the ruling coalition.

New Italian turbulence

With Spain content to sit on its hands for now (European Central Bank policymaker Nowotny highlighted the status quo on Sunday, saying Madrid is fully financed for the rest of the year), Greece and Italy will hold the euro zone spotlight for the next few days.

Yesterday, we reported that the EU and IMF have refused to offer any further concessions on the labour reforms they are demanding and which one party in Greece’s ruling coalition refuses to countenance. The government could just about carry a vote in parliament without the support of the Democratic Left but it would only take a handful of rebels within the New Democracy and PASOK parties to turn the tables. So we’ve got another standoff. The bill is due to go to parliament next week.

With the debt numbers clearly not adding up, more money – up to 30 billion euros –  is going to be needed, be that via lower interest rates and longer maturities on loans and/or a writedown on Greek bonds held by the ECB and euro zone governments. Athens looks set to get the extra two years it requested to make the cuts demanded of it.

Greek tragedy turns epic

The Greek standoff continues. The Democratic Left, a junior party in the government’s coalition, could not be swayed and said it would vote against labour reforms demanded by the EU and IMF, so a deal putting Greece’s bailout terms back on track remains elusive.

Just as worryingly, Reuters secured an advance glimpse of the EU/IMF/ECB troika’s report on Greece which showed the debt target of 120 percent of GDP in 2020 will be missed (surprise, surprise) and as things stand will come in at around 136 percent. In other words, more money – up to 30 billion euros –  is going to be needed be that via lower interest rates and longer maturities on loans and/or a writedown on Greek bonds held by the European Central Bank and euro zone governments.

We know the IMF is very keen on the latter, believing that is the only way the numbers can be made to add up. We also know that Germany and others are just as resistant. Other schemes, such as Athens using privatization proceeds to buy back bonds, which has inbuilt leverage since it can do so at a quarter of their face value, may yet come into the mix but don’t alone look like they’ll make enough of a dent in Greece’s debt mountain. Athens looks set to get the extra two years it requested to make the cuts demanded of it, which also falls into the “necessary but insufficient” category.

Enter the dragon

Big day in Berlin with European Central Bank chief Mario Draghi entering the lion’s den of the Bundestag to explain to German lawmakers why his plan to buy sovereign euro zone bonds in potentially unlimited amounts poses no threat to the ECB’s remit and the euro zone economy.
Former ECB chief economist Juergen Stark – one of Draghi’s most trenchant critics – told us yesterday that the ECB president must present much more convincing arguments than hitherto as to why the plan would not pile enormous risks onto the ECB’s balance sheet for which European taxpayers could have to pay.

The session, which will include 10-minute introductory remarks from Draghi followed by a lengthy Q&A and then short public statements from Draghi and Bundestag President Norbert Lammert, is a rarity. The hawks in parliament will demand to know how bond-buying is remotely in line with the ECB’s mandate. The more moderate will at least want to hear what sort of conditionality the ECB wants to see before it leaps into the breach, and the backdrop is coloured by continued Bundesbank opposition to the Draghi strategy. Angela Merkel is speaking at a separate event in Berlin in, as does Wolfgang Schaeuble later in the day.

Spain will probably loom largest for the German lawmakers but Greece continues to run it a close second with suggestions growing that it will get an extra two years to make the cuts demanded of it. But even that may not be enough for the EU/IMF/ECB troika of inspectors to conclude that Athens’ debt sustainability programme is back on track. The IMF appears to believe that only a writedown of Greek bonds held by the ECB and euro zone governments will do the trick. They, predictably, are not keen.

Spanish waiting game

Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy secured an overall majority in regional elections in Galicia over the weekend but in the Basque country, the nationalists were the big winners. These polls have been identified as one reason why Rajoy has held off asking for sovereign aid and Catalan elections still loom next month. Rajoy is likely to have to offer politically poisonous pension reforms in return for outside assistance.

So far, we seem to be no closer to a bailout request, which could then trigger European Central Bank intervention, and with 10-year yields having dropped more than two percentage points from a 7.5 percent peak since Mario Draghi’s vow to do whatever it takes to save the euro, one could reasonably ask why Madrid should be in a hurry. Some officials are saying Spain could quite comfortably wait until the turn of the year, leaving a prolonged period of limbo.

The fact is that if market pressure comes back on, Spain can quickly approach the euro zone’s ESM rescue fund for help and the ECB can pile in thereafter. So what has happened is that a bit of fear has been put back into investors intent on shorting the euro zone periphery to their hearts’ content; fear that wasn’t there until recently. It looks increasingly likely that Madrid would seek a precautionary credit line from the ESM, with conditions attached, which in theory could allow the ECB to buy Spanish bonds without the government actually taking money from the rescue fund. That would be a much easier sell politically.

Another euro zone summit

The day before an EU summit that probably won’t come up with anything decisive in crisis management. If that sounds rather underwhelming beware. There’s an awful lot of jockeying for position over when Spain will seek sovereign help, the Greek troika talks continue to look messy with time running very short and the leaders would be very well advised to demonstrate that their longer-term plans for closer integration are not running out of puff – item one on that agenda is getting plans for step one of a banking union back on track.

We could get a decent crack at this today with a number of EU leaders, including Angela Merkel, Spain’s Mariano Rajoy and Greek premier Antonis Samaras, gathering in Bucharest for a centre-right political congress.

On the jockeying front, German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble has called for a leap forward in euro integration, particularly in terms of fiscal union with a commissioner given power over members’ budgets. That’s going to prompt some heated debate in Brussels on Thursday/Friday with France, in particular, likely to be aghast.

Euro zone waiting game

Some interesting flesh to pick from the bones of the IMF gathering in Tokyo. Most notably, a clutch of high-up euro zone sources in Tokyo told us that Spain could ask for aid next month at the same time as the Greek bailout package and one for Cyprus are sorted out. All roads appear to be pointing to the Nov. 12 meeting of euro zone finance ministers. However, there are other voices saying that Spain could hold off until the new year, given the fall in its borrowing costs since ECB chief Mario Draghi declared he would do whatever it takes to save the euro.

Spain can cover a fairly heavy debt redemption hump at the end of this month but given its recession is deepening, and deficit targets are likely to be missed, the refinancing crunch could fall in January. Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy remains a difficult character to read but we know the French are pressing him to jump and Italy’s Mario Monti said on Friday that a Spanish request for bond-buying help would calm the markets.
For his part, Rajoy wants to know what sort of deal he will get. As we reported last week, and El Pais followed up on, he is asking how the ECB would intervene with a preference for it to commit to achieve and maintain a certain yield spread over German Bunds.

Nearly everybody, including, crucially, Angela Merkel, has come round to the view that Greece should stay in the euro zone for now. The possible exception has been German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble but late yesterday, in Singapore, he too seemed to fall into line saying that Greece will not default and that he wanted to shut down any talk of euro zone exit.
Greek PM Antonis Samaras put his foot on the accelerator over the weekend, predicting the broad outlines of a deal on a new austerity package in time for the EU summit at the end of this week, although he appeared to be talking about the troika of EU/IMF/ECB inspectors finishing their work on the ground, rather than a new deal being sealed in full.

IMF fires euro zone broadside

The IMF is ratcheting up the pressure on the euro zone again, telling it to deepen financial and fiscal ties as a matter of urgency to restore confidence in the global financial system. Despite the European Central Bank’s recent statement of intent, the Fund said the risks to financial stability had risen over the past six months and it raised its prediction of how much European banks are going to have to offload as part of a deleveraging process that has a long way to run.

An eye-watering $2.8 trillion of assets now needs to be cut over two years, which could further choke off credit to the currency bloc’s weaker members, deepen recessions and push up unemployment. Despite recent steps, the euro area is still threatened by a “downward spiral of capital flight, breakup fears and economic decline”.

Gloomy stuff and particularly noteworthy since the growing view in Europe is that on break-up fears at least, the ECB’s promise to buy sovereign bonds in unlimited amounts, once a country seeks help from the ESM rescue fund, had fundamentally turned a corner.

Greece versus Germany

Angela Merkel’s visit to Greece today was anything but low key.  Greek police fired teargas and stun grenades at protesters in central Athens when they tried to break through a barrier and reach  the German chancellor. There are lots of differences between the two countries. Here’s a look at some of the main ones:

 

 

The Greek conundrum

Euro zone finance ministers, apart from formally launching the ESM rescue fund, made little headway yesterday evening, holding what they called “robust” talks about Greece’s prospects but not coming up with anything to continue the pretence that the country can get back on track. The report from the troika of EU/IMF/ECB inspectors looks likely not to be complete until next month’s Eurogroup meeting.

There are signs of divisions between the euro zone and IMF, with the latter convinced only dramatic measures such as a big writedown on the Greek bonds held by European governments will make the numbers add up. “More needs to be done,” IMF head Christine Lagarde said pointedly last night.

Angela Merkel, who is visiting Athens today and could stir up public Greek anger by doing so, is apparently set on returning to her increasingly critical Bundestag just once more – with a sweeping package to deal with Greece, Spain, Cyprus and maybe Slovenia. Ergo, the lack of Greek progress means any Spanish move for aid is probably some way off. And given the chaotically mixed messages coming from Madrid, it’s not clear that the government there has fully realized it will have to do so at some point.