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.

We interviewed EU competition chief Almunia late yesterday who said Spain may need to wind down one of its bailed-out savings banks and later we get data on how much Spain’s banks borrowed from the ECB last month.

On Greece, plans must be afoot for the aftermath of the election. It looks likely that the bloc will give Athens an extra year to make the spending cuts demanded of it if there is any sort of government which will continue with the bailout. Spain has just been granted the same with Germany’s blessing. PASOK leader Venizelos asked for precisely that while New Democracy chief Samaras wants two years more.
Most sane judges think a third bailout and a fundamental reappraisal of the austerity programme will be needed to stop Greece falling off the rails at some point, but there’s not much prospect of that coming quickly. And what will the ECB do? Presumably it stands ready to prime Greek banks with even more liquidity.

Euro zone: Steps forward, steps back

Steps forward and steps back…

The Netherlands’ fractured political class managed to unite enough last night to reach a deal on a 2013 budget which they say will cut the deficit to 3 percent of GDP as required by new EU fiscal rules. Failure could have undermined the EU fiscal pact before it was even born and undermined the efforts of Italy and Spain to pull clear of the debt supernova.

Shortly afterwards, Standard & Poor’s  put the boot in by downgrading Spain two notches to BBB+, saying it could cut the rating further. Most tellingly, it cited the increasing likelihood that the government will have to provide further funds to the banking sector which is beset by property bad debts. Madrid insists it will not have to do so, nor will it look to the euro zone for help. Something will have to give since there is no prospect of troubled banks raising capital themselves.

However, S&P did note the structural reforms already undertaken which should support growth in the long-term and the fact that the ECB’s three-year money operation had reduced the banking risk for now.