MacroScope

In euro bond markets, world still upside down

Corporate bonds normally yield more than sovereign debt since companies are seen as more likely than states to go bust. But during the euro zone debt crisis, when various governments had to be bailed out, that relationship broke down in Spain and Italy.

Click here for graphic by Vincent Flasseur.

Madrid and Rome are paying more to borrow in the market than similarly-rated companies generally. Ten-year Spanish and Italian sovereign bonds offer a comfortable premium of more than 60 basis points over a basket of BBB-rated corporate debt, even though that gap has more than halved from this year’s highs.

Spain and Italy are also paying more to borrow in the market than BBB-rated companies in their own countries. Calculations by Fathom Consulting using Thomson Reuters data show the average yield for 10-year Italian corporate debt within the euro zone basket is 2.4 percent versus 4.06 percent in the equivalent sovereign. For Spain, the average BBB corporate yield is 2.00 percent – also below a sovereign yield of 4.03 percent.

This shows that even though the risk of a break-up in the euro zone has all but vanished,  the market, historically, is still in anomalous territory. Spanish and Italian sovereign yields overtook their equivalent on the basket of corporate debt in 2010 when the euro zone debt crisis took hold.

Does the European crisis need to get worse to get better?

Europe will do what it takes to save the euro, after it tries everything else. That seems to be the conventional wisdom about the continent’s muddled handling of a financial crisis now well into its third year.

The latest whipsaw came this week when, having hinted at aggressive action on the part of the European Central Bank, its president, Mario Draghi, backtracked a bit by saying the ECB “may” take further non-standard measures such as purchases of government bonds of countries like Spain and Italy, which have come under extreme market pressure.

John Praveen, chief investment strategist at Prudential International Investments Advisers, notes Draghi appears to have attached a new condition to ECB bond buys. Those countries must first ask for a formal bailout from the European Union, which they are reluctant to do because of the tough austerity measures that would then be imposed on them.

Goldman thinks market’s disappointment with ECB is premature

Financial markets on Thursday were starkly disappointed with the European Central Bank and its president, Mario Draghi. He had promised recently to do everything in his power to save the euro and yet announced no new bond-buying at the central bank’s latest meeting. Riskier assets sold off and safe-haven securities benefitted.

But Francesco Garzarelli of Goldman Sachs, Draghi’s former employer, has a different take on the matter:

We see a material change in the central bank’s approach to the crisis, and a coherent interplay between fiscal and monetary policy. The underwhelming part of today’s announcements lies in the lack of details on the asset purchases and other measures to support the private sector. But it appears that these will have more structure around them than the SMP (Securities Markets Program).

Spanish yield curve flattens, along with Europe’s fortunes

Ten-year Spanish government bond yields hit their highest levels since the euro was created – above 7 percent – on growing doubts that the euro zone’s fourth largest economy will be able to avoid a full-blown sovereign bailout.

News that Spain’s heavily indebted eastern region of Valencia would ask Madrid for financial help reinforced concerns the country may eventually run out of funds. The rubber-stamping of a rescue package for Spain’s troubled banking sector did little to allay concerns.

Short-dated bonds came under particular pressure, flattening the Spanish yield curve further in a sign of mounting credit worries. Five-year bond yields hit a euro-era high of 6.928 percent, flirting with the widely dreaded 7 percent mark.

Who expects euro bonds? Look outside the euro zone

It’s already been established that economists’ predictions about the euro zone’s future hinge largely on where their employer is based. Euro zone optimists tend to work for euro zone banks and research houses, and euro zone sceptics for companies based outside the currency union.

It somewhat undermined the idea their analyses are based purely on hard-headed economics, and less on national factors.

There was an echo of that in this week’s of economists and fixed income strategists, who were asked whether they expect euro zone leaders will agree to the issuance of a common euro zone bond, as backed by new French President Francois Hollande.

Euro zone survival is in the eye of the beholder

Despite all their years of experience and complex mathematical models, for economists the question of the euro zone’s survival really has them at the mercy of national bias… at least in terms of where their employer is based.

One of the key points from the latest Reuters poll was that a majority of economists from banks and research houses around the world – 37 out of 59 – expect the euro zone to survive in its current form for the next 12 months.

But behind that headline figure, the answers were skewed heavily by region.

Only 5 out of 24 economists from organisations based inside the euro zone thought it would fail to survive in its present 17-nation form over the next 12 months.

For insatiable markets, Spanish steps fall short

So much for the lasting power of the ECB’s 1 trillion euros in cheap bank loans. Spain is again looking like a basket-case, more because of market dynamics rather than any particular policy misteps.

Many observers have praised Spain for its willingness to implement reforms. And yet the markets have another idea. The cost of insuring debt issued by Spanish banks against default has risen sharply over the past month, as a tough budget this week did little to soothe concerns over the country’s deteriorating fiscal situation.

Default insurance for Santander is up 52 percent since March 1 to 393 basis points and the equivalent for BBVA jumped 54 percent over the same period. Both Spanish banks underperformed the Markit iTraxx senior financials index – which measures Europe’s financial institutions’ insurance, or credit default swap prices. It rose by 20 percent over the same period.

Vultures swoop on Argentina

Holdouts against a settlement of Argentina’s defaulted debt are opening a new front in their campaign for a juicy payout more than a decade after the biggest sovereign default on record.

Lobbyists for some of the investors who hold about $6 billion in Argentine debt are in London to persuade Britain to follow the lead of the United States, which last September decided to vote against new Inter American Development Bank and World Bank loans for Buenos Aires.

Washington believes Argentina, a member of the Group of 20, is not meeting its international obligations on a number of fronts. Apart from the dispute with private bond holders, Argentina has yet to agree with the Paris Club of official creditors on a rescheduling of about $9 billion of debt. It has refused to let the International Monetary Fund conduct a routine health check of the economy. And it has failed to comply with the judgments of a World Bank arbitration panel.

When 500 billion euros no longer pops eyes

There was a time when 500 billion euros in cash was truly spectacular.

But investors and speculators hoping for an even more eye-popping cash injection at the European Central Bank’s second and most likely last three-year money operation on Wednesday are likely to be disappointed, based on past Reuters polls of expectations.

"Here, have some cash"

Ever since the ECB started offering cheap, long-term loans to keep cash flowing through banks during the financial crisis, a clear pattern has emerged in the forecasts of money market traders attempting to gauge their size.

They have consistently underestimated the size of a given new loan tender the first time it is offered, only to overshoot on subsequent operations of the same maturity.

European rescue: Who benefits?

The words “European bailout” normally conjure up images of inefficient public sectors, bloated pensions, corrupt governments. But market analyst John Hussman, in a recent research note cited here by Barry Ritholtz, says the reality is a bit more complicated:

The attempt to rescue distressed European debt by imposing heavy austerity on European people is largely driven by the desire to rescue bank bondholders from losses. Had banks not taken on spectacular amounts of leverage (encouraged by a misguided regulatory environment that required zero capital to be held against sovereign debt), European budget imbalances would have bit far sooner, and would have provoked corrective action years ago.

In other words, even if state actors mishandled government finances, Wall Street was, at the very least, an all-too-willing enabler.