EU summit aftermath

After the EU summit exceeded expectations the more considered verdict of the markets will dictate in the short-term, certainly until the European Central Bank’s policy meeting on Thursday. Previous summit deals crumbled pretty quickly buying only a few days or even hours of market relief.

After strong gains on Friday, Asian stocks are up modestly and European shares have edged higher. However, German Bund futures are nearly half a point higher, so something’s got to give and more often than not it’s the stock market that thinks again. So maybe Friday’s rally was a one-off.

For it to have any legs, the ECB may well have to come up with something on Thursday, and a quarter-point rate cut – widely priced in – may not be enough. ECB policymaker Asmussen is already out saying Greece must should not loosen its bailout programme, Spain can restore confidence with a bank recap plan that builds in a large margin for error and dismissing calls for the ESM rescue fund, which comes into being next week, to get a banking licence so it could draw on virtually unlimited ECB funds. That all sounds fairly uncompromising.

No one is getting carried away. The agreement in Brussels to accelerate progress towards cross-border banking supervision after which the ESM rescue fund will be allowed to directly inject capital into banks was a big deal for Spain since it will keep its bank bailout of up to 100 billion euros off the government’s wilting balance sheet. The agreement that the ESM would not have preferred creditor status for Spanish loans, something that had spooked private investors who would have dropped to the bottom of the repayment pecking order, is also significant and will surely set a precedent.

But Spain remains in a whole heap trouble – deep in recession, unlikely to meet its deficit targets this year and facing some daunting looking debt refunding humps in the next few months.

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.

Spain … Of bonds, banks and bailouts

It’s well and truly a Spain day.
Its 10-year yields may have ducked back below the 7 percent pain threshold but Madrid’s auction of two-, three- and five-year bonds could still be tricky. It is only aiming to sell up to 2 billion euros and should manage to thanks largely to weak Spanish banks buying them up but the five-year bond is likely to command yields last seen in 1996.

After that, an independent audit of Spain’s stricken banking sector is due to be published which will give a guide as to how much of the 100 billion euros offered by the euro zone the banks need to take to be recapitalized. Madrid may then make a formal request for aid at a meeting of euro zone finance ministers later in the day. We’ve had from sources that the audit will say up to 70 billion euros is needed but Spain would be well advised to take more to try and convince markets that it has all bases covered.

The audit is expected to divide the banks into three groups: the weakest regional savings banks heavily exposed to bad property debts, a group of mid-sized banks which face temporary liquidity problems and two ‘good’ banks – BBVA and Santander – that won’t need any help.

Glacial progress flagged at G20

The G20 summit may have marginally exceeded the lowest common denominator of expectations with euro zone leaders pledging to work on integration of their banking sectors as part of a push towards fiscal union. But it’s not clear that a banking union will happen any quicker than we thought before.

Germany is happy for cross-border oversight, maybe in the hands of the European Central Bank, to be zipped through but on the really vital parts of the structure – particularly a deposit guarantee scheme to guard against bank runs – it has clearly said it would only be possible once the drive towards fiscal union is set in stone. It will also not countenance mutual debt issuance until the fiscal union is in place.

Onus was put on next week’s EU summit to put flesh on the bones, although no definitive decisions are expected there and EU Commision President Barroso he would present its plan on banking integration in September. Here’s the reality check: European Council President Van Rompuy spelled out the vision of a much deeper economic union to underline the irreversibility of the euro project and said it would take less than the 10 years that ECB chief Draghi has talked about. And for many countries, particularly France, the surrender of that much sovereignty will be very hard to take.

In the shadow of Greek elections

Italy, rapidly moving centre stage after the euro zone’s failure to assuage markets with a 100 billion euros Spanish bank bailout, faces a crunch bond auction. Having paid four percent to borrow for a year yesterday, it is likely to fork out over five percent for three-year paper although the smaller than usual target of up to 4.5 billion euros means the sale should get away. It will also issue a smattering of 2019 and 202 bonds.

Technocrat prime minister Mario Monti’s honeymoon period is over with even some he would have considered allies decrying the slow pace of his reform programme. Already this week he has appealed to Italy’s fractious political parties for support in keeping the austerity show on the road.
Today, Monti hosts France’s Francois Hollande. They agree on a lot – the need for a stronger growth strategy, a banking union established sooner rather than later and a longer-term goal of euro zone bonds. Berlin, with the possible exception of the first goal, definitely does not.

Moody’s slashed Spain’s rating to just one notch above junk last night. The power of the ratings agencies to shock is significantly diminished but if Spain’s sovereign rating drops further, more of whatever non-Spanish bank private investors are left will be forced to head for the exits. Moody’s noted that the bank bailout will increase Spain’s debt burden and the dangerous of loop of damaged banks being the main buyers of Spanish government debt which is falling in value. It repeated its warning that euro zone ratings could be cut further if Sunday’s Greek election were to increase the chances of that country leaving the euro.

The end of austerity? Not likely

It was Bill Clinton who, after the 2000 U.S. election was thrown into turmoil by Florida’s hanging chads, said the American people had spoken but it was going to take a little time to work out what they had said.
No such dilemma in Greece. A plague on both your houses was the message for the traditional ruling parties PASOK and New Democracy, a result that makes a stable government look a remote possibility and puts a very real question mark over its bailout programme.

Today, the largest party New Democracy will try to form a coalition. Given what they’ve said, the left-wing Left Coalition which leapfrogged PASOK into second place cannot be part of a government committed to the bailout terms so it looks like the two traditionally dominant parties — two seats short of an overall majority between them — must seek support from elsewhere or face fresh elections which could well give an even more fractured result. One thing worth noting is that even the resurgent anti-bailout parties mostly say they want to stay in the euro zone so maybe there’s soom room for negotiation.

The euro has dived to a three-month low, Bund futures have posted yet another record high and European shares are down so we’re right back in fear mode.

The Italian job

As we exclusively reported last night, Italy will delay by a year its plan to balance the budget in 2013. That Rome is no longer aiming for a zero budget deficit next year is very different from Spain which has upped its 2012 deficit goal to 5.3 percent of GDP, way above the 3 percent EU limit (though it is aiming for that in 2013).

Italy’s move also makes eminent economic sense to find a little fiscal leeway given it is already in a recession that is likely to deepen. Initial market action suggests investors buy into the sense of it rather than viewing it as the wrong direction of travel.

The drive to find $400 billion or more of new crisis-fighting funds for the IMF seems to be slowly falling into place. The euro zone is good for about half of it. Japan, Sweden and Denmark committed a total of $77 billion between them yesterday and it is hoped that the British and others, most notably China, will also come to the table. Germany says the deal must be done at the IMF spring meeting at the end of the week. That is not a certainty.

Italy up for auction

All eyes on Italy. After paying sharply higher yields to sell one-year paper on Wednesday, it faces the altogether trickier task of selling up to five billion euros of three-year bonds. Yields are expected to jump by a full percentage point from a month ago but, as with yesterday, demand will be there and the paper should get away.

German Bunds have opened flat and European stocks are set to edge up so the recent rush for the exits has at least temporarily abated.

After yesterday’s auction result, Italian officials were  quick to point the finger at “external factors” – code for Spain. That prompted Spain’s Mariano Rajoy to hit back, demanding European leaders choose their language with more care. The message from Madrid is that the government is doing everything asked of it on the austerity and structural reform front and needs stronger backing from its peers. It’s hard to argue with that. Italian premier Mario Monti has said similar about Italy. The difference is that he did not renege on an agreed deficit target without consulting Brussels.

Today in the euro zone – Bonds, strikes and firewalls

Big debt test for Italy which will sell 8 billion euros or more of longer-dated bonds. A short-term T-bill sale went okay on Wednesday but a day before, the secondary market reacted negatively to a sale of zero-coupon and inflation-linked bonds, pushing Italian yields higher.

The glut of ECB three-year money has ensured Italian and Spanish auctions have sailed out of the door so far this year but there will be no more largesse from the central bank so be on the look out for signs of that support fading. Analysts expect this sale to go well with Italian banks wading in again.

Euro zone money supply data on Wednesday showed Spanish and Italian banks stocked up on government bonds in February – and that was before the ECB’s second instalment of money creation to the tune of 500 billion euros. So bond sales should be underpinned for some time yet though it is clear that the central bank has bought policymakers time rather than solved the root problems.