MacroScope

Battle lines drawn

Germany's Minister of Finance Wolfgang Schauble speaks during a discussion during the World Bank/IMF annual meetings in Washington

The predictable battle lines were drawn at the G20/IMF meetings in Washington – most of the world urged Europe to do more to foster growth while Germany warned against letting up on austerity. The argument will doubtless be reprised today when euro zone finance ministers meet in Luxembourg.

Given a ghastly run of German data last week and sharp cuts to its growth forecasts by the IMF and Germany’s economic institutes, Berlin’s stance looks increasingly odd but Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble continued to make it abundantly clear he will not countenance any more public spending in the one European country that could really afford it.

Writing cheques won’t fix Europe, he stated bluntly.

If there was anything new it appeared to be the intensity of the response. This from European Central Bank chief Mario Draghi: “For governments that have fiscal space it makes sense to use it. You decide to which countries this sentence applies.”

Jyrki Katainen, the former Finnish premier poised to become the EU’s top official for growth and jobs, said Germany, France and Italy must focus on public investment to revive their economies.

Most outspoken was former U.S. Treasury Secretary Larry Summers, sharing the stage with Schaeuble. Europe risked sliding into an era of Japan-style deflation without a “substantial discontinuity in policy”, he said. Europe, and Germany in particular, should follow recent advice from the IMF to invest in infrastructure projects.

EU ratings day: Portugal modest thumbs up, Dutch unscathed, Ireland awaited

Friday is European ratings day since EU rules took force requiring ratings agencies to say precisely when they will make sovereign pronouncements and to do so outside market hours.

S&P has already shifted its outlook on Portugal’s rating from creditwatch negative to negative. The rating remains at BB, one notch below investment grade. That sounds obscure but it’s actually something of a vote of confidence though probably short of what the market had been hoping for.

The ratings agency said it expects Lisbon to meet its budget deficit target this year based “partly on indications that the economy has been showing signs of stabilization since mid-2013” – another fillip as Lisbon tries to follow Dublin out of the bailout exit door this year.

S&P’s year-end broadside

Any sense of euphoria EU leaders felt about agreeing a plan to underpin Europe’s banks – which should have been muted anyway – may be tempered by S&P’s decision to cut the bloc’s credit rating to AA+ from AAA.

In global terms that’s still rock solid but the rationale – flagging “rising risks to the support of the EU from some member states” has some resonance. On the upside, the agency affirmed its rating of Ireland following its bailout exit and kept its outlook positive. Presumably, S&P is clearing the decks before Christmas because it also reaffirmed the UK’s top notch AAA rating, and reaffirmed South Africa too.

The EU quote packs a punch following a banking union deal where Germany successfully saw off plans for euro zone countries to help each other in tackling problem lenders.

Moments difficiles

Breaking news is S&P’s downgrade of France’s credit rating to AA from AA+ putting it two notches below Germany. Finance Minister Pierre Moscovici has rushed out to declare French debt is among the safest and most liquid in the euro zone, which is true.

What is also pretty unarguable is S&P’s assessment that France’s economic reform programme is falling short and the high unemployment is weakening support for further measures. There’s also Francois Hollande’s dismal poll ratings to throw into the mix.

As a result, medium-term growth prospects are lacklustre. Euro zone GDP figures for the third quarter are out next week and France is expected to lag with growth of just 0.1 percent.

Portugal, ECB, Turkey — trials and tribulations

How to pull defeat from the jaws of victory in one easy lesson; look no further than Portugal.

After the resignation of both finance and foreign minister last week, Prime Minister Paolo Passos Coelho salvaged things by making the latter – Paulo Portas – his deputy and putting him in charge of dealing with the country’s EU/IMF/ECB lenders.

That could have created tensions and problems but we never got to find out because the president then rocked the political class to its foundations by throwing the deal out.

Possibility of Spanish downgrade looms over euro zone

Spanish government bonds have had a good run since the European Central Bank said it would protect the euro last year. But some analysts say the threat of a rating downgrade to junk remains an important risk.

Credit default swap prices are discounting such a move, according to Markit. Spain is only one notch above junk according to Moody’s and Standard & Poor’s ratings, and two notches above junk for Fitch. All three have it on negative outlook.  Bank of America-Merrill Lynch says it sees a “high probability” of a sovereign rating downgrade in the second half of the year.

As the table above shows, a cut to sub-investment grade would prompt Spanish sovereign debt to fall out of certain indices tracked by bond funds, resulting in forced selling, which could drive Spanish borrowing costs higher.

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.

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.

S&P statement on Greece

S&P on Monday cut Greece’s ratings to “selective default” but said it would consider the default “cured” after Greece completes its debt exchange. At that point, S&P plans on upgrading the country to CCC. Here is the full statement S&P issued alongside the decision:

Standard & Poor’s Ratings Services said today that it has lowered its ‘CC’ long-term and ‘C’ short-term sovereign credit ratings on the Hellenic Republic (Greece) to ‘SD’ (selective default).

Our recovery rating of ’4′ on Greece’s foreign-currency issue ratings is unchanged. Our country transfer and convertibility (T&C) assessment for Greece, as for all other eurozone members, remains ‘AAA’.

Wall St. downplays downgrade. Will markets listen?

Reporting for this post was done by the U.S. markets team in New York.

A number of Wall Street analysts have reacted to the historic downgrade of the U.S. AAA rating on Friday evening with a shrug. Some argue the ratings firm’s warnings about the U.S. debt deal offered an early signal, while others dismissed the action, questioning the company’s record of giving AAA ratings to housing assets that turned out to be toxic.

Vassili Serbriakov, currency strategist at Wells Fargo in New York, said:

It’s not entirely unexpected. I believe it has already been partly priced into the dollar. We expect some further pressure on the U.S. dollar, but a sharp sell-off is in our view unlikely.

Paul Dales, chief U.S. economist at Capital Economics in Toronto:

I don’t think it will mean too much to be honest. There will probably be an initial market wobble — FX markets might struggle and Treasury yields might fall a bit. The bigger picture is really that the world is not much different.