MacroScope

Euro zone gymnastics

Sometimes, a week away from the fray can bring perspective. Sometimes, you miss all hell breaking loose.
My last day in the office saw European Central Bank President Mario Draghi utter his “we will do whatever it takes” to save the euro declaration. The markets took off on that, only to sag when the ECB didn’t follow through at last Thursday’s policy meeting.

In fact, it was never that likely that the ECB would rush to act, particularly since Draghi’s verbal intervention had started to push Italian and Spanish borrowing costs lower and the troika of lenders was still musing over Greece. But it seems to me that, despite German reservations, the ECB president has shifted the terms of trade, something market action is beginning to reflect.

There can be little doubt now that the ECB will intervene decisively if required – and the removal of that doubt takes away the main question that has kept markets on edge every since a bumper first quarter evaporated. Yes, there are caveats – notably the fact that Draghi said the ECB would only step in if countries first request assistance. With that will come conditionality and surveillance but it seems highly unlikely that Spain, for example, will be required to come up with any further austerity measures given what it is already doing. Spanish premier Rajoy seemed to soften Madrid’s opposition to seeking help last week, though he said he wanted to know precisely what the ECB might do in return. Until now, seeking sovereign aid has been a taboo for Spain. If that’s changed, it’s also big news.

The fundamentals of the crisis remain the same – a full Spanish bailout would all but wipe out the euro zone rescue funds while one for Italy looks completely unaffordable. All roads point to September, once the German constitutional court has presumably cleared the way for the bloc’s ESM bailout fund to come into being. At some point after that, Spain could ask for help from the fund to lower its borrowing costs rather than seek a sovereign bailout and, from what Draghi has said, the ECB could pile in behind. If that joint action turned the tide in Madrid’s favour it’s possible that Italy, which after all is running a primary surplus, would be taken out of the firing line. A caveat of my own here – next spring’s Italian elections cast a long shadow. Without a credible leader to replace Mario Monti, Italy would leapfrog Spain to the top of the crisis list.

There’s an awful lot of ifs and buts there, but with Spain facing big debt redemptions in October, September is the month.

Euro zone facing autumn crunch?

Spain remains the focus for the markets but here comes Greece racing up on the outside lane. Officials told us exclusively yesterday that Athens is way, way off the targets set by its bailout programme and a further restructuring will be needed. If so, it’s almost inevitable this time that euro zone governments and the ECB will have to take a hit. Are they prepared to? There’s little sign of it so far although a key ally of German Chancellor Angela Merkel said last night that a second haircut was an option.

CDU budget expert Norbert Barthle said Greece would do its level best to stay in the euro zone, and given the losses associated with its departure and the fact that it could also prove a tipping point for Spain, there are powerful reasons to hope that’s true. But, but, but it’s pretty apparent that Athens has little chance of delivering the cuts being asked of it without completely wrecking its economy even if it is cut a bit more slack. And the latter is a big “if” too. It’s hard to see Merkel telling the German public they are going to face another bill to keep Greece afloat. As Barthle said, a second debt write off “would cost us a lot of money”. He also flagged up another problem that has been aired in recent days – that the IMF would probably not stump up any more funds given Greece has not met its stipulations.

The euro zone has indicated it will keep Greece afloat through August while the troika of EU/IMF/ECB inspectors assess the situation but we could be approaching a crunch point in September or October and if we get there the big “contagion” question is back – would a full Greek default or euro zone exit (and by the way some policymakers have floated the possibility of allowing Greece to default within the euro zone because it would be slightly less chaotic) lead to a collapse of confidence in Spain?

Darker and darker

Moody’s put Germany on notice that it might cut its credit rating and did the same for the Netherlands and Luxembourg. It cited a growing chance that Greece could leave the euro zone, and the contagion and costs that could flow from that, as well as the possibility that Berlin might have to increase its support for Italy and Spain. Both are self-evident risks and markets have not really reacted though it’s interesting timing that Spanish Economy Minister de Guindos is meeting his German counterpart, Wolfgang Schaeuble, in Berlin later. The Moody’s warning could also feed into darkening German public opinion about the merits of offering any more help to its sick partners.

German Bund futures opened just 10 ticks lower and European stocks edged higher after a sharp Monday sell-off. A jump in China’s PMI index has helped sentiment a little. The euro remains on the back foot but if it continues to fall that should actually help euro zone economies, making their exports more competitive. We’re programmed to treat government statements with scepticism but it’s hard to argue with the German finance ministry which said last night that the risks cited by Moody’s were nothing new and the sound state of German public finances was unchanged.

Nonetheless, reminders of the depth of the debt crisis are close at hand. So dislocated is the Spanish debt market that is hard to gauge what costs Spain will be required to pay at today’s T-bill auction because a combination of summer holidays and worries about the country’s finances mean trading has virtually dried up. With benchmark bond yields hitting euro-era highs on Monday, however, the debt sale of 3 billion euros in 3- and 6-month bills is likely to be expensive.
Also last night, clearing house LCH.Clearnet SA  increased the cost of using Spanish and Italian bonds to raise funds via its repo service, which could put further upward pressure on already surging yields.

Bridge of Sighs

Greece announced late yesterday that it would need a bridging loan to tide it over until it finds the nearly 12 billion euros of spending cuts demanded by the EU/IMF/ECB troika of inspectors, after which the next tranche of bailout money can flow, probably in September. The troika is due to return next week. There’s no doubt Athens will get the interim money. Jean-Claude Juncker, who chairs the group of euro zone finance ministers, said last week that nobody should fret about Greece’s finances in August. They would be shored up.

Today, Finance Minister Yannis Stournaras is expected to put a draft list of cuts to the leaders of the three parties comprising the country’s ruling coalition, who are rather hemmed in by pledges to voters not to fire civil servants and shun sweeping pensions and public sector wage cuts.

Italian Prime Minister Mario Monti threw in a curve ball last night, saying there was a real prospect that the autonomous island of Sicily could default. It accounts for about 5.5 percent of Italian GDP so shouldn’t wreck the country’s finances but it’s not a step in the right direction. If Italy’s debt mountain of 120 percent of GDP started rising rather than falling, it could be taken very badly by the markets.

Slow slow quick quick slow

Euro zone finance ministers meet later today to try and put flesh on the bones of the EU summit agreement 10 days ago. The trouble is there probably won’t be enough meat for markets which failed to rally significantly after the summit deal and are now unnerved by fresh signs of global slowdown.
Friday’s weak U.S. jobs report is the latest evidence to rattle investors so there is unlikely to be any let-up.

Spanish 10-year yields are back above seven percent. Madrid is fortunate not to face a heavy debt issuance month but August is a bit more demanding so time is short to turn things around. Italy’s Mario Monti said on Sunday the euro zone ministers must act now to lower borrowing costs and Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy more dramatically said the credibility of the entire European project rests here. He continues to do his bit, pledging on Saturday to produce further deficit-cutting measures, probably on Wednesday. They could include a VAT hike and cuts to public sector benefits.

The Eurogroup is unlikely to dramatically change the terms of trade. It has a lot on its agenda – the proposed bailout of Spanish banks of up to 100 billion euros, a much smaller bailout of Cyprus as well as firming up the summit agreement that the euro zone’s rescue fund should be tasked with intervening on the bond market to bring borrowing costs down and, once a cross-border banking supervision structure is in place (another highly ambitious plan which is supposed to take shape in an even more ambitious six months), to be allowed to recapitalize banks directly.

Waiting for the summit

Cyprus became the fifth euro zone country to seek a bailout last night though its needs – maybe up to 10 billion euros – will not put a dent in the currency bloc’s resources. We’re still waiting to see precisely how much money Spain will take for its banks of the 100 billion euros offered. Moody’s cut the ratings of 28 of 33 Spanish banks by one to four notches last night, an inevitable consequence of the sovereign downgrade earlier this month.

Markets seems to have decided that they will be disappointed by the crunch summit at the end of the week. There was a somewhat discordant meeting between the big four euro zone leaders on Friday, with Germany’s Merkel refusing to budge in key areas, but she and French President Francois Hollande have the chance to strike a more positive note when they meet bilaterally on Wednesday abnd hot off the press we have a meeting of the finance ministers of Germany, France, Italy and Spain this evening — so maybe there is a concerted effort to get on the same page.

Lael Brainard, the U.S. Treasury guru who liaises with Europe, spoke for the rest of the world when she told us in an interview that EU leaders had to put “more flesh on the bone” of their ideas to resolve the crisis.

Spain … Of bonds, banks and bailouts

It’s well and truly a Spain day.
Its 10-year yields may have ducked back below the 7 percent pain threshold but Madrid’s auction of two-, three- and five-year bonds could still be tricky. It is only aiming to sell up to 2 billion euros and should manage to thanks largely to weak Spanish banks buying them up but the five-year bond is likely to command yields last seen in 1996.

After that, an independent audit of Spain’s stricken banking sector is due to be published which will give a guide as to how much of the 100 billion euros offered by the euro zone the banks need to take to be recapitalized. Madrid may then make a formal request for aid at a meeting of euro zone finance ministers later in the day. We’ve had from sources that the audit will say up to 70 billion euros is needed but Spain would be well advised to take more to try and convince markets that it has all bases covered.

The audit is expected to divide the banks into three groups: the weakest regional savings banks heavily exposed to bad property debts, a group of mid-sized banks which face temporary liquidity problems and two ‘good’ banks – BBVA and Santander – that won’t need any help.

No Greek relief for pain in Spain

There was no Greek relief rally (though at least we had no meltdown) and Spanish 10-year yields shot back above seven percent as a result, setting a nasty backdrop to today’s sale of up to 3 billion euros of 12- and 18-month T-bills.

Madrid has had little problem selling debt so far, particularly shorter-dated paper, but it’s beginning to look like the treasury minister’s slightly premature assessment two weeks ago that the bond market was closing to Spain is beginning to come true.
The 12-month bill was trading on Monday at around 4.9 percent. As last month’s auction it went for a touch under three percent. If that is not hairy enough, Spain will return to the market on Thursday with a sale of two-, three- and five-year bonds.

We’re still awaiting the independent audits of Spain’s banks which will give a guide as to how much of the 100 billion euros bailout offered by the euro zone they need. Treasury Minister Montoro was out again yesterday, pleading for the ECB to step in – presumably by reviving its bond-buying programme – something it remains reluctant to do, although a strong sense of purpose and commitment on economic union at the EU summit in a fortnight could embolden the central bank to act.

Battening down the hatches

There’s a high degree of battening down the hatches going on before the Greek election by policymakers and market in case a hurricane results.

G20 sources told us last night that the major central banks would be prepared to take coordinated action to stabilize markets if necessary –- which I guess is always the case –  the Bank of England said it would  flood Britain’s banks with more than 100 billion pounds to try and get them to lend into the real economy and we broke news that the euro zone finance ministers will hold a conference call on Sunday evening to discuss the election results – all this as the world’s leaders gather in Mexico for a G20 summit starting on Monday.
Bank of England Governor Mervyn King said the euro zone malaise was creating a broader crisis of confidence.

The central banks acted in concert after the collapse of Lehmans in 2008, pumping vast amounts of liquidity into the world economy and slashing interest rates. There is much less scope on the latter now. The biggest onus may fall on the European Central Bank which may have to act to prop up Greek banks and maybe banks in other “periphery” countries too although the structures to do so through the Greek central bank are in place and functioning daily. In extremis, we can expect Japan and Switzerland to act to keep a cap on their currencies too. As a euro zone official said last night, a bank run might not even be that visible and start on Sunday night over the internet rather than with queues of people outside their local bank on Monday morning.

Euro zone survival is in the eye of the beholder

Despite all their years of experience and complex mathematical models, for economists the question of the euro zone’s survival really has them at the mercy of national bias… at least in terms of where their employer is based.

One of the key points from the latest Reuters poll was that a majority of economists from banks and research houses around the world – 37 out of 59 – expect the euro zone to survive in its current form for the next 12 months.

But behind that headline figure, the answers were skewed heavily by region.

Only 5 out of 24 economists from organisations based inside the euro zone thought it would fail to survive in its present 17-nation form over the next 12 months.