MacroScope

What no crisis?

 

It seems eons since the euro zone finance ministers’ meetings which made such a hash of the Cyprus bailout but they were only two months ago. Monday’s Eurogroup will be altogether less eventful with some of the gathering probably a little jaded having spent part of their weekend at the G7 outside London where the usual differences about growth versus austerity and banking reform were aired.

No one will be sorry for a more routine meeting and there are no icebergs on the horizon but the agenda is still a full one. Featuring will be the economic situation on the basis of the Commission’s latest forecasts, the state of play in Cyprus, the decision already taken to release more bailout money to Greece, the new steps taken by Portugal to fill the gaps in its budget after the country’s top court struck some measures out, a review of European Commission reports on what is ailing Spain and Slovenia and a broad discussion about the merits of the ESM bailout being allowed to recapitalise bank retroactively from next year.

Italy offers a range of bonds at auction worth up to 8 billion euros which should be snapped up given the European Central Bank’s underwriting of the euro zone and Japanese money coursing through the financial system.

Germany’s Economy Ministry publishes its monthly report and Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble makes a speech, this ahead of Q1 GDP figures on Wednesday which are likely to show that of the bigger members of the euro zone club, only Europe’s largest economy returned to growth in the first three months of the year. The Bank of France has just forecast that the French economy will eke out growth of 0.1 percent in the second quarter.

Schaeuble, writing in the FT, has confirmed what we reported last week – namely that he wants a limited banking union based around cross-border supervision and only much, much later (never?) a bloc-wide system to deal with failing banks which he continues to insist will require treaty change. Build the timber frame first and the steel frame later, he says. Until then, euro zone countries would continue to deal with problem banks. This has the fortunate effect of preventing Germany from taking on liability for others but it’s nothing like the structure that was proposed last year and will continue to cause considerable angst elsewhere, not least France, Spain and the European Central Bank.

I’ll say it again…

 

European Central Bank chief Mario Draghi felt it necessary yesterday to depart from the script at a ceremony awarding an honorary degree to reiterate his message from last Thursday – that the ECB could cut interest rates again and was looking at pushing the deposit rate which it charges banks for holding their funds overnight into negative territory in an attempt to get them to lend again.

Nothing new in the message obviously but the fact he felt the need to repeat it at a forum at which nobody would expect him to could be telling. Draghi has form here. It was at a pre-Olympics conference in London last July that he delivered his “whatever it takes” to save the euro pledge that fundamentally shifted the terms of the currency bloc’s debt crisis.

That the recession-plagued euro zone economy could do with a shot in the arm is beyond question though Draghi insisted countries must not let up on their debt-cutting. Very different tone from the prime ministers of Italy and Spain who demanded action to cut unemployment though Italy’s Enrico Letta said growth could be boosted without increasing debt.

ECB poised to act … modestly

It’s European Central Bank day and we have it on very good authority that a quarter-point interest rate cut is on the cards, which will take rates to a record low 0.5 percent. A plunge in euro zone inflation to 1.2 percent, way below the target of close to but below 2 percent, has cemented the case for action.

In terms of reviving the euro zone economy this is pea shooter and elephant territory. The ECB has consistently diagnosed the key problem that already ultra-low interest rates are not transmitted to high debt corners of the euro zone, where lending rates are much higher and credit restricted. A rate cut won’t change that. It also illuminates the gulf in approach with the Bank of Japan and Federal Reserve who continue to print money at a furious rate.

The Fed said on Wednesday it would continue buying $85 billion in bonds with new money each month and added it would step up purchases if needed to protect the economy, dousing recent suggestions that the programme could be wound up in the months ahead. Nonetheless, a euro rate cut will help at the margins.

Taking stock

It’s May Day and most of Europe, barring Britain, is taking a holiday so maybe it’s a day to take stock.

But first, a nervous glance at little Slovenia. Last night Moody’s cut its debt rating to junk, forcing Ljubljana to abandon a planned bond issue which looked set to raise several billion dollars and making a fifth euro zone sovereign bailout much more likely. Given the ham-fisted effort to rescue Cyprus didn’t put markets into a spin, it’s unlikely Slovenia will upset the euro zone applecart but it’s a reminder that this crisis isn’t over and won’t be until the currency bloc gets serious about creating a banking union. Slovenia’s problems, like Cyprus’s, are rooted in the banking sector, which is stifled by about 7 billion euros in bad loans.

One bullet was dodged when the Cypriot parliament narrowly approved its bailout late yesterday, which will avert bankruptcy but at a painful cost.

No Let(ta) up for euro zone

Fresh from winning a vote of confidence in parliament, new Italian Prime Minister Enrico Letta heads to Berlin to meet Angela Merkel, pledging to shift the euro zone’s focus on austerity in favour of a drive to create jobs. He may be pushing at a partially open door. Even the German economy is struggling at the moment and the top brass in Brussels have declared either that debt-cutting has reached its limits and/or that now is the time to exercise flexibility. Letta will move on from Berlin to Brussels and Paris later in the week.

France, Spain and others will next month be given more time to meet their deficit targets and Berlin does not seem to object. Don’t expect Merkel to join the anti-austerity chorus but there are some hints of a shift even in Europe’s paymaster. Yesterday, it launched a bilateral plan with Spain to boost lending to smaller companies and said it could be rolled out elsewhere too. Details were very sketchy but something may be afoot. The European Central Bank, expected to cut interest rates on Thursday, is considering something similar although that is far from a done deal.

Forgotten about Cyprus, which only last month had financial markets in a lather and threatened to reignite the euro zone debt crisis? Today, Cypriot politicians vote on the terms of the bailout offered by the euro zone. It should pass but it could be tight. No single party has a majority in the 56-member parliament, and the government is counting on support from members of its three party centre-right coalition which have 30 seats in total.

Finally, an Italian government

A weekend packed with action to reflect on with more to come.

Top of the list was the formation (finally) of an Italian coalition government. Market reaction is likely to be positive, although Italian assets rallied last week, and today’s auction of up to 6 billion euros of five- and 10-year bonds should continue this year’s trend of being snapped up by investors. Italian bond futures have opened about a third of a point higher.

Prime Minister Enrico Letto will seek a vote of confidence in parliament at 1300 GMT, which presumably should go without a hitch. But a coalition with the centre-left and Silvio Berlusconi does not necessarily look like a recipe for smooth government. It is quite possible that the leftward part of the centre-left will find it too hard to stomach, eventually leading to a split. Letta is expected to try to pass at least a few basic reforms quickly including a change to Italy’s much criticised electoral laws and a cut in the size of parliament

As far as the markets are concerned, there shouldn’t be any nerve-jangling economic policy shocks although Letta has said debt-cutting is self-defeating. New economy minister Fabrizio Saccomanni said on Sunday he plans to cut taxes and public spending and lower borrowing costs. The rhetoric may have shifted but the reality for the euro zone’s high debtors is many more years of pain to come. But it’s probably true that more emphasis will now be placed on structural reforms.

Beware the Bundesbank

German newspaper Handelsblatt has got hold of a confidential Bundesbank report to Germany’s constitutional court, which sharply criticized the European Central Bank’s bond-buying plan. This could be very big or it could be nothing.

Bundesbank chief Jens Weidmann has made no secret of his opposition to the as yet unused programme and since the mere threat of massive ECB intervention has driven euro zone bond yields lower for months there is no urgency to put it into action. But the OMT, as it is known, is by far the single biggest reason that markets have become calmer about the euro zone, so anything that threatens it could be of huge importance.

The key point is not the Bundesbank’s stance but how the Constitutional Court responds. It is due to consider OMT in June. Through the three-year debt crisis, when Berlin has reluctantly crossed red lines it has had to get the court’s approval. So far, it has always been forthcoming, though sometimes with strings attached. But if it took the Bundesbank’s assertion that bond-buying could “compromise the independence of the central bank” at face value, it is almost certain to have a long hard look. We already know that the court is a potential stumbling block to banking union as it has ruled that any future euro mechanisms would only be in order if Germany’s maximum liability was clearly defined.

Austerity — the British test case

First quarter UK GDP figures will show whether Britain has succumbed to an unprecedented “triple dip” recession. Economically, the difference between 0.2 percent growth or contraction doesn’t amount to much, and the first GDP reading is nearly always revised at a later date. But politically it’s huge.

Finance minister George Osborne has already suffered the ignominy of downgrades by two ratings agencies – something he once vowed would not happen on his watch. And even more uncomfortably, he is looking increasingly isolated as the flag bearer for austerity. The IMF is urging a change of tack (and will deliver its annual report on the UK soon) and even euro zone policymakers are starting to talk that talk. It was very much the consensus at last week’s G20 meeting.

The government can argue that it hasn’t actually cut that hard – successive deficit targets have been missed – and that it does have pro-growth measures such as for the housing market and bank lending. But the inescapable political fact is that Osborne and his boss, David Cameron, have spent three years arguing that they would cut their way back to growth and that to borrow your way out of a debt crisis is madness. In fact, it’s arguably perfectly economically sane, given that if you get growth going, tax revenues rise and will eat away at the national debt pile.

Austerity, the ECB and Osborne

There’s been a lot of noise surrounding the rhetorical shift away from austerity in the euro zone in recent days, the notable exception being Germany. It is now widely acknowledged that monetary policy alone cannot turn economies around. But of course it has a vital part to play.

That puts the focus on the European Central Bank and growing expectations that it will cut interest rates to a new record low next month. Yesterday’s poor German PMI could have been the tipping point. On three of the four times the survey reading has fallen below 50 since the collapse of Lehman Brothers a rate cut followed the month after. Germany’s PMI duly slipped into contractionary territory yesterday.

In all this, we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that a quarter-point rate cut may move markets but will have only a small impact on the euro zone economy. It’s also true that the ECB has shown no signs of wanting debt-cutting drives to be mothballed. Its reaction to any shift in that direction remains to be seen.

The limits of austerity

With debate about the balance between growth and austerity well and truly breaking out into the open, flash euro zone PMIs – which have a strong correlation to future GDP — are likely to show why a bit of fiscal stimulus is sorely needed. Talk of a European Central Bank rate cut is growing, euro zone policymakers at the G20 last week began to ponder loosening up on debt-cutting in an attempt to foster some growth and European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso added his voice to the debate yesterday, saying the austerity drive had reached its “natural limit”.

Crucially, we haven’t heard similar from Germany but something is afoot, starting with the certainty that the likes of Spain and France will get more time to meet their deficit targets when the Commission makes a ruling next month. Portugal has already been given more leeway and today its finance minister will spell out new spending cuts which are required after the constitutional court threw out Plan A.

It’s a coincidence, but an interesting one, that this debate – frequently voiced in private over many months – has gone public just as THE academic study from 2010 which asserted that as soon as debt exceeds 90 percent of GDP growth is crushed, has been called into question.