The end of austerity? Not likely

It was Bill Clinton who, after the 2000 U.S. election was thrown into turmoil by Florida’s hanging chads, said the American people had spoken but it was going to take a little time to work out what they had said.
No such dilemma in Greece. A plague on both your houses was the message for the traditional ruling parties PASOK and New Democracy, a result that makes a stable government look a remote possibility and puts a very real question mark over its bailout programme.

Today, the largest party New Democracy will try to form a coalition. Given what they’ve said, the left-wing Left Coalition which leapfrogged PASOK into second place cannot be part of a government committed to the bailout terms so it looks like the two traditionally dominant parties — two seats short of an overall majority between them — must seek support from elsewhere or face fresh elections which could well give an even more fractured result. One thing worth noting is that even the resurgent anti-bailout parties mostly say they want to stay in the euro zone so maybe there’s soom room for negotiation.

The euro has dived to a three-month low, Bund futures have posted yet another record high and European shares are down so we’re right back in fear mode.

Two big questions flow from all that:
1. Could this vote, and socialist Francois Hollande’s victory in France, shift the growth/austerity debate?
2. Does Greece, even its possible euro exit, still have the power to spread damaging contagion to the rest of the euro zone?

On the growth front, the answer is only up to a point because Berlin and the European Central Bank — and the markets — won’t wear anything that will dilute debt-cutting programmes much, whatever the more friendly rhetoric suggests.
Italian premier Mario Monti, a man desperate for growth, talked to Hollande, Germany’s Angela Merkel and Britain’s David Cameron among others after the elections last night, presumably to push that agenda and the argument is gaining force.

Tumultuous euro zone week

A week where every facet of the euro zone debt saga will come from all angles.

The major events are the French presidential run-off and Greek general elections on Sunday, May 6.
In the former case, a likely socialist Francois Hollande victory could cause some market jitters given his rhetoric about the world of finance. But we’ve looked at this pretty forensically and actually there may not be much to scare the horses. Yes he is making growth a priority (but even the IMF is saying that’s a good idea) yet his only fiscal shift is to aim to balance the budget a year later than Sarkozy would. And, contrary to some reports, he is not intent on ripping up the EU’s new fiscal rules. And of course, the bond market will only allow so much leeway.

If the two main Greek parties – PASOK and New Democracy – fail to win enough votes to govern together, they may have to turn to a fringe anti-bailout party which would put a big question mark over Athens’ ability to stick with the austerity terms demanded by its international lenders.

Even if fears about a hard Greek default or even euro exit result, the threat of contagion looks far smaller. With creditors already having taken a massive haircut, most non-Greek banks completely out or at least having written down anything they hold, a 500 billion euros rescue fund shortly in place and the IMF raising an extra $430 billion of its own, the power Greece has to start a domino effect in the euro zone is very much diminished.