MacroScope

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.

Just before he takes the helm at the Bank of England, Mark Carney will hold a briefing wearing his other hat – head of the Financial Stability Board, the body charged with coordinating international banking regulation. Both he and Caruana could have interesting things to say about the Federal Reserve’s warning that the era of QE is drawing to a close. Both could also have some trenchant things to say about Europe’s banking plans.

Having failed to agree how the bill for future bank failures should be paid, EU finance ministers are scrambling to alight upon a plan and will meet again on Wednesday in an attempt to have something for their leaders to approve at a Thursday/Friday summit.
This was supposed to be in the bag. The more profound elements of banking union are shelved for now. It has been apparent for some time that a bank “resolution fund” with pooled risk has not got a cat in hell’s chance of being created in the foreseeable future, so the “doom loop” of weak banks and sovereigns weighing on each other will not be broken. Berlin will certainly not budge before German elections in September.

Just when you thought it was safe to get back in the water…

A worrying weekend for the euro zone.

Greece’s coalition government – the guarantor of the country’s bailout deal with its EU and IMF lenders – is down to a wafer-thin, three-seat majority in parliament after the Democratic Left walked out in protest at the shutdown of state broadcaster ERT.

Prime Minister Antonis Samaras insists his New Democracy can govern more effectively with just one partner – socialist PASOK – but the numbers look dicey, although it’s possible some independent lawmakers and even the Democratic Left could lend support on an ad hoc basis.

Samaras has ruled out early elections and says the bailout – without which default looms – will stay on track. If the government fell and elections were forced, the likely beneficiaries would include the anti-bailout leftist Syriza party which, if it got into government or formed part of one, really would upset the applecart.

The new reality

The Federal Reserve has spoken and the message seems pretty clear – unless the U.S. economy takes a turn for the worse the pace of money creation will be slowed before the year is out and it will be stopped by mid-2014.

That’s a fairly tight time frame, although interest rates won’t rise for some time after that, and it doesn’t take a crystal ball to see a further bout of market volatility is likely, centred again on emerging markets which could suffer big portfolio investment outflows as U.S. bond yields climb.

The markets certainly don’t seem confused, just alarmed. The German Bund future has plummeted by nearly a point and a half to its lowest point since February, mirroring the spike in U.S. Treasury yields. European stocks shed 1.5 percent at the start.

ECB in court

The major euro zone event of the week starts on Tuesday when Germany’s top court – the Constitutional Court in Karlrsuhe – holds a two-day hearing to study complaints about the ESM euro zone bailout fund and the European Central Bank’s still-unused mechanism to buy euro zone government bonds.

The case against the latter was lodged by more than 35,000 plaintiffs. Feelings clearly run high about this despite the extraordinary calming effect the mere threat of the programme has had on the euro debt crisis. Some in Germany, including the Bundesbank, are worried that the so-called OMT could compromise the ECB’s independence and would be hard to stop once launched.

A verdict won’t be delivered until later in the year but already there is already jockeying for position. Germany’s Spiegel reported that a limit had been set on the amount of bonds the ECB could buy – directly contradicting what Mario Draghi has said. That was swiftly and categorically denied by the ECB, then Executive Board Member Joerg Asmussen warned there would be “significant consequences” if Germany’s constitutional court rules the bond-buying programme was illegal.

The numbers don’t lie

Euro zone unemployment figures will emphasize just how far the currency bloc is from recovery while inflation data due at the same time could push the European Central Bank closer to new action. If price pressures drop further below the target of close to but below two percent we’re moving into territory where the ECB has a clear mandate to act, although the consensus forecast is for the rate to push up to 1.4 percent, from 1.2 in April.

Market attention is focused on the ECB cutting its deposit rate – the rate banks get for parking funds at the ECB – into negative territory to try and get them to lend. But will that do much? Despite being in a world awash with central bank money and stock markets in the ascendant, the fact that safe haven bond markets such as Bunds and U.S. Treasuries haven’t sold off much – and are now starting to climb after Ben Bernanke’s hint that the Federal Reserve could soon start slowing its money-printing programme — denotes ongoing nervousness among banks and investors. Data this week showed bank loans to the euro zone’s private sector contracted for the 12th month in a row in April.

Despite the (now waning?) European market euphoria – started by the ECB’s pledge to do whatever it takes to save the euro and given a further shot in the arm by Japan’s dash for growth – the economic numbers look grim. Euro zone unemployment is forecast to edge up to 12.2 percent of the workforce. Last night, official data showed French unemployment hit a new record. Germany is in better shape but even it will barely eke out any growth this year. Retail sales, just out, posted a 0.4 percent fall in April.

Franco-German motor

Today’s big setpiece is a meeting of German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Francois Hollande ahead of a June EU summit which is supposed to lay the path for a banking union. The traditional twin motor of Europe has sputtered – not least because the French economy is so much more sickly than Germany’s – but also because of real differences of opinion.

When the Franco-German relationship was running smoothly, the two countries’ leaders routinely met before EU summits to prepare a joint position which more often than not prevailed (much to the annoyance of some of their partners). But Merkel and Hollande have conspicuously not done so on a number of occasions since the latter took power a year ago.

Hollande wanted a banking union including a structure to wind up failing banks and common deposit guarantee. The latter is already dead in the water and Germany is wary of the liabilities the former might impose upon it. The European Central Bank may have taken euro break-up risk off the table – though its pledge to save the euro is still to be tested – but banking union is still a huge issue. Without it the seeds of a future crisis, or even a revival of this one, will have been sown.

A change of tack

Today sees the release of the European Commission’s annual review of its members’ economic and debt-cutting policies. It’s a big moment.

This is the point at which we get confirmation that France, Spain, Slovenia and others will be given more time to get their budget deficits down to target. We already know that France will get an extra two years, while Spain will get another two extra years (to 2016) to bring back its deficit below 3 percent. That comes on top of the 1-year leeway given last year.

This is the austerity versus growth debate in action. But let’s be clear, whatever the rhetoric, this is anything but an end to austerity. What it is, is an invitation to cut more slowly for longer. And in return, there will be extra pressure to press ahead with structural reforms to make economies more competitive and help create jobs. Spain already has, France has barely started and it is there that a lot of the concern rests. If Europe’s second largest economy fails to revitalize itself it will be a big blow to the EU project and further erode France’s political ability to drive it in tandem with Germany.

Central bankers everywhere after Bernanke warning

It’s raining central bankers today which is well-timed after Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke dropped the bombshell that the Fed could take the decision to begin throttling back its money-printing programme at one of its next few policy meetings. If that’s the case, and it’s not yet a done deal, then it will be the Fed that will move first in that direction, presumably putting further upward pressure on the dollar and send financial markets into something of a spin.

European stock futures look set to open sharply lower – 1.5 percent or more down – buffeted by suggestions that the Fed could soon change tack. Safe haven German Bund futures have opened higher for the same reason, though in a much more measured fashion. One of Bernanke’s colleagues, James Bullard, speaks in London today. Another, Charles Evans, is in Paris.

The European Central Bank has never got into the realms of QE but it did produce the single most important intervention over the past three years. Ten months after his pledge to save the euro fundamentally changed the dynamics of the currency bloc’s debt crisis, ECB chief Mario Draghi returns to the scene of his game-changing promise – London – to deliver a keynote speech. Draghi does not speak until the evening but his colleagues – Weidmann, Noyer, Coeure, Liikanen and Nowotny – all break cover earlier in the day. Draghi has said the ECB is prepared to act further if the economy worsens, having already cut interest rates to a fresh record low this month and ECB chief economist Peter Praet said last night that its toolkit could be expanded if necessary. But what?

Euro zone week ahead

It looks like a week short of blockbusters, particularly today with much of Europe on holiday. But there will be plenty to chew over over the next few days on the state of the euro zone and whether newly-printed central bank money lapping round the world risks throwing things off kilter.

Flash PMIs for the euro zone, Germany and France for May, plus the German Ifo index, follow first quarter GDP data which showed Europe’s largest economy just about eked out some growth but nobody else in the currency bloc did. That trend is likely to be reaffirmed with the harsh winter, having curbed German activity in Q1, allowing for a rebound in sectors like construction in Q2. France and the rest of the pack are unlikely to be so lucky.

For the markets, this leaves all sorts of assets in demand since if the economy worsens, central bank largesse will stay in place for longer and could be enhanced and if recovery finally shows up, well then that’s good for stock markets at least. The only real losers so far have been in the commodities and energy arena. The 500-pound gorilla in the room is how the world economy will cope when the big central banks finally halt and even start to reverse their extraordinary stimulus policies but that looks like a question for 2014 at the earliest. Interestingly, both the IMF and Bank for International Settlements issued warnings about this on the same day.

There is no sovereign debt crisis in Europe

Evidence that Europe’s austerity policies are not working was in ample supply this morning. The euro zone as a whole is now in its longest recession since the start of monetary union. France has succumbed to the region’s retrenchment. Italy’s GDP slump is now the lengthiest on record. And Greece, still in depression, shrank another 5.3 percent in the first quarter.

To understand why this is happening, Brown University professor Mark Blyth says it is necessary to forget everything you think you know about the euro zone crisis. The monetary union’s troubles are not, as often depicted, the result of runaway spending by bloated, profligate states that are finally being forced to pay the piper. Instead, argues Blyth, it is merely a sequel to the U.S. financial meltdown that started, like its American counterpart, with dangerously-indebted risk-taking on the part of a super-sized banking sector.

In a new book entitled “Austerity: The history of a dangerous idea,” Blythe writes that sovereign budgets have come under strain primarily because taxpayers of various nations have been forced to shoulder the burden of failed banking systems.