MacroScope

A flaw in euro zone defences

Italy continues to dominate European financial markets and it looks like the best they can expect is populist Beppe Grillo supporting some measures put forward by a minority, centre-left government but refusing any sort of formal alliance. That sounds like a recipe for the sort of instability that could have investors running a mile. Outgoing technocrat prime minister Monti is speaking Brussels today. The markets’ best case was for him to support the centre-left in coalition, thereby guaranteeing continuation of economic reforms. But he just didn’t get enough votes.

Fresh elections are probably the nightmare scenario given the unpredictability of what could result.

The story of the last five months has been the bond-buying safety net cast by the European Central Bank which took the sting out of the currency bloc’s debt crisis. But now it has an Achilles’ Heel. The ECB has stated it will only buy the bonds of a country on certain policy conditions. An unwilling or unstable Italian government may be unable to meet those conditions so in theory the ECB should stand back.

But what if the euro zone’s third biggest economy comes under serious market attack? Without ECB support the whole bloc would be thrown back into crisis and yet if it does intervene, some ECB policymakers and German lawmakers will throw their hands up in horror. In that respect, the ECB’s previous, more patchwork SMP bond-buying programme was better because it  didn’t have conditionality attached.

There are a host of key euro policymakers sticking their heads above the parapets today besides the Italian premier. From the ECB we have Constancio and Praet. Dutch finance minister Dijsselbloem – the head of the Eurogroup – talks to the Dutch parliament ahead of Monday’s meeting of euro zone finance ministers which may begin to grapple meaningfully with a Cyprus bailout. (The pro-bailout Cypriot president will be sworn in later today.)

Italian elections may yet shake euro zone

Is Italy about to add some bite to its bark as far as the euro zone is concerned? Quite possibly. An opinion poll last night showed Silvio Berlusconi’s centre-right coalition is charging up along the rails, increasing the chances of a messy election result with the front-running centre-left unable to form a stable government.

Although it retains a strong lead, the way votes are carved up in the Senate could easily rob it of a majority in the upper house. The huge media coverage Berlusconi can command via his empire may be starting to tell. Technocrat premier Mario Monti, who could yet play a key part in a centre-left administration if his centrist grouping is needed in a coalition, responded to the polling evidence by launching a stinging attack on Berlusconi.

Markets have so far been utterly sanguine about the late February election but if Berlusconi’s resurgence continues, that could change abruptly. The favoured outcome would be a PD (centre-left) government supported by Monti who would act as guarantor of economic reforms needed to increase Italian competitiveness and growth. But a chunk of the Democrat Party (PD) want a sharp change of course from Monti’s austerity path, and its main coalition partner on the left, the SEL, are implacably opposed to his policies. So nothing is certain.

Greek bailout deal tantalisingly close

The Greek bond buyback has fallen a little short, leaving Athens and its lenders to plug a 450 million euro hole. The euro zone and IMF had given Greece 10 billion euros to buy back enough debt at a sharp discount so that it could retire 20 billion euros worth of bonds and knock that amount off its debt pile. Without that, the deal to start bailout loans flowing to Athens again would fall through.

Due to the discount working out slightly more generously than expected, Greece fell slightly short but it’s impossible to believe the currency bloc will throw itself back into turmoil over a few hundred million euros. Athens will confirm the state of play this morning. One source said German “bad banks” had not tendered most of their holdings and could be tapped again. A solution will be found and probably in time for the EU leaders’ summit on Thursday and Friday. IMF chief Christine Lagarde came close to saying as much last night, welcoming the bond buyback and leaving the loose ends to the Europeans.

More preparatory work for the summit gets underway today with EU finance ministers meeting to try and bridge a gap over plans to regulate euro zone banks cross-border – part one of building a banking union. The European Central Bank is set to be the overarching regulator but Germany wants its scope severely constrained, while others want it to be able to intervene in any euro zone bank, at least in theory. This does not have the power of Greece or Italy to move markets but an inability to agree on the least contentious part of a banking union would not send a good signal.

Italy gives new bite to euro zone crisis

Don’t start putting out the tinsel yet. Just when we thought we had a smooth glide path into Christmas the euro zone has bitten back.

Over the weekend, Italy’s Mario Monti called Silvio Berlusconi’s bluff and said he was pulling the government down which will mean early elections in February. The budget bill will be passed and then the country will be in a potentially precarious state of limbo as parliament is dissolved. Italian bond futures have opened more than a point lower, which denotes a reasonable measure of alarm, although the safe haven Bund future has only edged up so we’re far from panic mode.

The big question is whether a government results that will stick to Monti’s agenda and whether he himself will have a prominent role to play in the administration. There are constitutional difficulties to keeping Monti as prime minister since he has said he would not stand at the election, though he has also said he would be prepared to step in again if no stable government is formed. Most likely, presuming a government is elected that supports his reforms, is that he will play a key role but not take the top job.

Italy drifts back into the firing line

Following Silvio Berlusconi’s threat to demolish Mario Monti’s government, Italy will try to sell up to four billion euros of five- and 10-year bonds at auction today. It will get away but investors could be forgiven for being nervous. Monti was in Madrid yesterday and issued a veiled plea for Spain to seek help from the euro zone rescue fund, which would trigger ECB bond-buying, in the hope that would drive down Italian borrowing costs too. But Spain, with nearly all of its 2012 funding done, is in no hurry.

Monti continues to insist Italy doesn’t need to seek help itself but said the ECB needed to be seen in action, rather than just offer speculators the threat that it could intervene, in order to keep the euro zone shored up. One suspects that is true.

Also last night, Sicilian election results showed the centre-left Democratic Party and anti-establishment 5-Star movement cleaned up at the expense of Berlusconi’s party. Perhaps the most worrying figure was the record low turnout by an electorate disillusioned by constant austerity. The possibility of Monti retaining the premiership after spring 2013 elections has helped keep market attacks at bay. In reality, that looks unlikely although he could take over the presidency to retain some voice and influence. The fractured nature of Italian politics raises the threat of no solid government emerging from the general election. Fitch cut Sicily’s rating to BBB late yesterday and warned of more to come.

New Italian turbulence

With Spain content to sit on its hands for now (European Central Bank policymaker Nowotny highlighted the status quo on Sunday, saying Madrid is fully financed for the rest of the year), Greece and Italy will hold the euro zone spotlight for the next few days.

Yesterday, we reported that the EU and IMF have refused to offer any further concessions on the labour reforms they are demanding and which one party in Greece’s ruling coalition refuses to countenance. The government could just about carry a vote in parliament without the support of the Democratic Left but it would only take a handful of rebels within the New Democracy and PASOK parties to turn the tables. So we’ve got another standoff. The bill is due to go to parliament next week.

With the debt numbers clearly not adding up, more money – up to 30 billion euros –  is going to be needed, be that via lower interest rates and longer maturities on loans and/or a writedown on Greek bonds held by the ECB and euro zone governments. Athens looks set to get the extra two years it requested to make the cuts demanded of it.

Italy in market after Spanish downgrade

Italy is expected to pay slightly more than it did a month ago to borrow for three years at today’s auction of up to 6 billion euros of a range of bonds. Yields edged up at a sale of 11 billion euros of short-term paper on Wednesday but there is no immediate cause for alarm. Three year-yields have dropped from 5.3 percent to around 3.3 since the ECB declared its readiness to buy the bonds of troubled euro zone sovereigns and Italy has shifted about 80 percent of its debt requirements this year, so is on track in that regard.

The fact that it now seems possible that Mario Monti could continue as prime minister after spring elections can’t do any harm either although yesterday’s surprise cut in income tax muddies the waters a little.

The main problem for Italy is that Spain is in no rush to seek a bailout, a move that would alleviate pressure on Rome too. The IMF kept up the drumbeat of pressure for action in Tokyo, demanding “courageous and cooperative action”, having yesterday said the euro area was still threatened by a “downward spiral of capital flight, breakup fears and economic decline”.  German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble retorted that Europe was solving its problems and had done far more than appeared to outside observers.

The pain in Spain … spreads to Italy

This morning, we exclusively report that Spanish Prime Minister Rajoy could be about to break another promise by freezing pensions and bringing forward a planned rise in the retirement age.

This latest austerity policy will be political poison at home but will give Madrid more credibility with its euro zone peers since that was one of Brussels’ policy recommendations for the country back in May. We know that at the end of next week the government will unveil its 2013 budget and further structural reforms which all smacks of an attempt to get its retaliation in first so that the euro zone and IMF won’t ask for any more cuts if and when Madrid makes its request for aid.

The pensions shift could well be kept under wraps until regional elections in late October are out of the way. It is less likely that the government can defer a request for help from the euro zone rescue fund, after which the ECB can pile into the secondary market, for that long given some daunting debt refinancing bills falling due at the end of next month.

Bridge of Sighs

Greece announced late yesterday that it would need a bridging loan to tide it over until it finds the nearly 12 billion euros of spending cuts demanded by the EU/IMF/ECB troika of inspectors, after which the next tranche of bailout money can flow, probably in September. The troika is due to return next week. There’s no doubt Athens will get the interim money. Jean-Claude Juncker, who chairs the group of euro zone finance ministers, said last week that nobody should fret about Greece’s finances in August. They would be shored up.

Today, Finance Minister Yannis Stournaras is expected to put a draft list of cuts to the leaders of the three parties comprising the country’s ruling coalition, who are rather hemmed in by pledges to voters not to fire civil servants and shun sweeping pensions and public sector wage cuts.

Italian Prime Minister Mario Monti threw in a curve ball last night, saying there was a real prospect that the autonomous island of Sicily could default. It accounts for about 5.5 percent of Italian GDP so shouldn’t wreck the country’s finances but it’s not a step in the right direction. If Italy’s debt mountain of 120 percent of GDP started rising rather than falling, it could be taken very badly by the markets.

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.