MacroScope

The morning after the night before

After some perplexingly negative initial market reaction to the Draghi gambit everything turned around. European stocks leapt nearly 2.5 percent yesterday and Asian shares are set to bank their biggest daily gain in six weeks. Italian and Spanish borrowing costs have fallen markedly.

The fact that the ECB has set no limit on how many bonds it might buy marks this scheme out as very different to its predecessor but we’ve seen many false dawns before so it behoves us to keep an eye on what might prevent ECB President Mario Draghi drawing a line under nearly three years of debt crisis.

       1. Could Bundesbank chief Jens Weidmann, who remains strongly opposed, quit as his predecessor did last year? Very unlikely for now though there could be a later confrontation, on which more below. It was notable how many of Angela Merkel’s political lieutenants were deployed in public to back Draghi yesterday, although the German press have taken an altogether more negative view which could inflame German public opinion.

       2. The biggest risk is that Spain cannot stomach the sort of conditionality and outside intrusion that could be imposed if its seeks help from the euro zone rescue fund, after which the ECB can pile in. Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy declared in advance that he didn’t expect to have to jump through any extra hoops in order to get help. And of course if more austerity is demanded and adhered to, recession will deepen leading to  a Greek-style downward spiral.
       

        3. The German constitutional court could rule next Wednesday that the new ESM rescue fund should not come into being. That seems extremely unlikely but conditions could be imposed by the court giving the Bundestag more oversight and a growing number of German lawmakers are against doling out more help to euro zone weaklings.

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.

Get me to the court on time

Markets were a little unnerved yesterday by concern that Germany’s top court may take a long time to rule on complaints lodged against the euro zone’s permanent bailout fund, the ESM, which was supposed to come into effect this week. Finance Minister Schaeuble urged the constitutional court to reach a speedy decision. The judges are not expected to block it but Germany’s president says he won’t sign it into law without the court’s go-ahead. A minor delay will pose no problem. A lengthier one could jolt investors.

The head of the court raised the possibility of a review taking take two to three months. That could create a dangerous vacuum though he stressed that was just one option. Schaeuble is just out again saying he hopes for a verdict before the autumn.

Bundesbank head Weidmann said even rapid ratification may not stop the crisis escalating further. With only a maximum 500 billion euros (100 billion of which is earmarked for Spain’s banks) at its disposal, the ESM looks ill-equipped to tackle the bond market head on. When the European Central Bank intervened last year to lower Italian borrowing costs it was spending 13/14 billion euros a week. And even then, it bought only temporary leeway.

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.

Pre-summit discord

There is an unusually public level of disagreement going into a key euro zone meeting. EU leaders aren’t helping to foster a sense of united purpose which could calm investors a little.

Yesterday, Germany’s Angela Merkel said Europe would not share debt liability as long as she lived. Maybe she was playing to a domestic audience, but if she means it, one of the main planks of a structure that could eventually solve this crisis has just been reduced to ashes. On the other side of the fence, Italy’s Monti said he was in no mood to rubber stamp any conclusions in Brussels. He said the summit promised to be “very difficult”. Spain’s Rajoy is in accord with him.

There may be movement in other areas though with Merkel’s coalition parties suggesting the ESM rescue fund could lend direct to banks, which would remove the stigma from the Spanish government of having to ask for aid and may explain why Madrid has been dragging its feet over a bank bailout of up to 100 billion euros, waiting for something better to come along.

Euro gang of four – or three versus one?

The euro zone’s big four meet in Rome with Germany’s Angela Merkel likely to come under pressure from Italy’s Mario Monti, Spain’s Mariano Rajoy and France’s Francois Hollande to loosen her purse strings and principles.

Monti, with Hollande’s backing, has suggested using the euro zone rescue funds to buy Spanish and Italian bonds but Berlin is not keen and there are good reasons why it might not work, not least the ESM’s preferred creditor status which means that if it piled in, private investors may flee knowing they would be paid back last in the event of a default.

The Eurogroup may have skirted the same problem with regard to the Spanish banking bailout last night by deciding to start the loans via the existing EFSF, which does not have seniority, before switching to the ESM. The EFSF’s rules will persist throughout.

Euro zone on the move … too slowly?

With Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy calling for a new euro zone fiscal authority to manage the bloc’s finances and send markets a signal that EU leaders mean business about defending the euro, it is clear that the push towards fiscal union, led by Germany, is gathering momentum. Germany has also conceded that Spain should get an extra year to make the spending cuts demanded of it, suggesting it is aware that the crisis is lapping at its door again.

But economic union, even if agreed (it runs contrary to generations of French political culture to relinquish that amount of national sovereignty) will take many months even years to put into practice, given the complex treaty changes that will be required.

The hope is that a strong signal of intent at the end-June EU summit will calm markets and encourage the European Central Bank to hold the fort in the meantime. The former looks like a somewhat heroic hope. On the latter? Well, the ECB has made it quite clear it wants government to sort out the mess but has also consistently proved itself to be the only institution capable of moving quickly enough when the crisis turns acute. So it will almost certainly intervene again if the bloc reaches the point of calamity, though that is more likely to take the form of an interest rate cut and a third round of three-year money creation than a serious revival of its bond-buying programme.

Time to get real?

Spain’s plans to revive Bankia with state money and sort out its regions’ finances have well and truly unnerved the markets. It seems that Plan A — to inject state bonds straight into the stricken bank so that it could offer them to the ECB as collateral in return for cash — was roundly rejectd by the European Central Bank, so Madrid rapidly produced a second plan which will involve the government raising yet more money on the bond market, not helpful to its drive to cut debt.

That leaves the impression that Spain is making up policy on the hoof, not something likely to endear it to the markets. That’s particularly unfortunate since it has actually done an awful lot on the austerity and structural reform front over the past two years. But not enough.

It’s not all one-way traffic. Madrid is pressing its insistence that the ECB should be the institution to deliver a decisive message to the markets that the euro is here to stay – presumably by reviving its bond-buying programme (highly unlikely at this stage).

Shifting euro zone sands

A telling moment. Before pretty much every showdown EU summit since the debt crisis exploded into life, the leaders of France and Germany have got together beforehand to agree a common strategy. It is a truism that the European motor only works efficiently when its two biggest powers are in accord.

This time, following the election of Francois Hollande as French president, there has been no such meeting. Instead he will talk with Spanish premier Mariano Rajoy in Paris before they head to the Brussels summit.
There, Hollande will press for the currency bloc to start issuing joint euro zone bonds and will run into implacable German opposition that will squash the plan for now.
But the plates are shifting and German Chancellor Angela Merkel looks somewhat isolated.

On euro bonds, Hollande can call on the support of Italy’s Mario Monti and the European Commission among others.
Nonetheless, Angela holds the purse strings so while we will see some modest pro-growth measures agreed (and no doubt trumpeted), there will be no pump-priming that requires extra deficit spending, certainly no mutualising of debt and probably no hint that the likes of Greece and Spain will be given longer to make the cuts demanded of them (though that policy’s time could soon come, depending on how the June 17 Greek elections go).

The pain in Spain – redux

Spain’s borrowing costs are likely to soar at an auction of 12- and 18-month T-bills after its 10-year yields were pushed through the totemic 6 percent level on Monday. The history of the euro zone debt crisis shows that once above 6 percent the spiral accelerates and before you know it you’re at 7 percent – the level generally seen as unsustainable for state financing.

Worryingly, Spain is dragging Italy’s yields up in its wake. But in Spain’s case, there are strong reasons for caution about imminent disaster. The government cannily used ECB-created benign market conditions in the first part of the year to shift nearly half its annual debt issuance needs already and the banks – which look like they will need recapitalization at some point – are well funded for now having also loaded up on the European Central Bank’s three-year liquidity splurge.

We also know Europe’s banks, too scared to invest elsewhere, are depositing 700-800 billion euros back at the ECB daily. If Madrid could engender a shift in confidence, some of that money could flow back into its bonds, particularly by Spanish banks.