MacroScope

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.

If Gaspar is right and public opinion turns more hostile, given a deep recession looks unrelenting, things will get even more difficult. Passos Coelho has already said he may seek a further easing of debt-cutting goals for next year. The betting is firming on another bailout being required.

EU officials are increasingly concerned that the crisis is back after 10 months of calm. The markets are reflecting that very concern. German Bund futures have jumped almost half a point at the open and Italian bond futures have fallen by three quarters of a point.

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.

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?