MacroScope

What to do about Britain and Europe?

After a long, long wait, Britain’s David Cameron is poised to make his big speech on his country’s future ties with Europe.

It was supposed to be delivered in the autumn but has been delayed as the realization has dawned that there is no obviously good outcome for the ruling Conservative party’s leadership which faces implacable eurosceptics within its rank-and-file, many of whom want out of the EU completely. Cameron almost certainly doesn’t want out but may be pushed in that direction if he cannot deliver the repatriated powers from the EU that he has suggested are possible.

It’s hard to see other European leaders playing ball, particularly since Cameron took the unusual step of wielding Britain’s veto at a summit just over a year ago. Whatever he says, a bout of internecine warfare in his party is quite possible on an issue that has ripped it apart before.

America’s top man on Europe upped the ante yesterday, saying Washington wanted Britain to stay in the EU and retain a powerful voice. To do otherwise would damage U.S. interests (and therefore its own), Philip H. Gordon, assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian Affairs, told reporters in London.

With Washington increasingly interested in a free trade pact with the EU, if Cameron allowed Britain to slide towards the exit it could be even more damaging. Irish premier Enda Kenny has voiced similar concerns and we get another opportunity to put it to him and European Commission president Barroso at a news conference today. The timing of  all this is unlikely to have been coincidental. Cameron’s speech, we think, will be delivered next week.

Mario and Angela — the euro zone’s pivotal pair

European Central Bank chief Mario Draghi and Germany’s Angela Merkel – the two most important people in the euro zone debt crisis response – take to the stage today, the former giving lengthy testimony in the European Parliament, the latter holding a news conference with foreign journalists.

With Greece sorted out for now, Spain and Italy fully funded for the year and markets simmering down, the crisis is in abeyance, in no small part thanks to these two. Draghi provided the game changer with the ECB’s bond-buying plan late in the summer but Merkel has shifted profoundly too during the course of the year – most crucially from considering a Greek euro exit might be a good thing “pour encourager les autres” to realizing it would be a disaster and acting to rule it out and also in backing Draghi’s bold move and ignoring a large measure of German disquiet.

Germany continues to go-slow on future steps, at least in part largely for domestic political reasons, but look where we are now – with an ECB prepared to act in a way that horrifies the Bundesbank, a permanent euro zone rescue fund, a banking union in progress and multiple bailouts agreed and help for Spain likely to come soon – and it’s remarkable to see how far Berlin has moved.

Europe ends year on front foot

Credit where credit’s due, the EU has surprised on the upside over the last 24 hours or so, not only signing off on a revised Greek bailout plan to keep that show on the road and agreeing that the ECB will supervise 150 or more of the bloc’s biggest banks, but then pledging to set up a mechanism to wind down problem banks.

Now, there is many a slip twixt the cup and the lip as they say – not much more is going to be cemented until next autumn’s German elections are out of the way, the ECB only has direct oversight of 5 percent or so of euro zone banks (when we know from the financial crisis that smaller banks can be almost as lethal as the big boys) and there is no indication of how a bank resolution scheme would be funded (perhaps via a financial transaction tax although only 10 or so countries have so far committed to that). Also, direct recapitalization of banks by the ESM rescue fund, to take the burden of indebted states, is unlikely to happen before 2014.

Nonetheless, we shouldn’t be churlish. EU leaders are clearly using the window of calm created by the European Central Bank’s pledge to buy euro zone government bonds in whatever size is needed to shore up the currency area in order to press on with the permanent structures which will ensure the bloc’s future. So while Finnish Foreign Minister Alex Stubb’s assertion that the EU is in its best shape for years may be pushing it a little, his follow-up line that if you’d offered them this state of play at the start of the year they’d have snatched your hand off is hard to argue with.

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.

Calm after the storm

After months of bickering and struggle, the euro zone and IMF have agreed on a scheme which will notionally cut Greece’s mountainous debt to a level they view as sustainable in the long-term. Athens has now launched a buyback of its debt at a sharp discount from private creditors which should wipe 20 billion euros of its debt pile – a key plank of the plan.

Is the problem solved? Absolutely not. But has Germany achieved its goal of delaying any disasters, or really tough decisions, until after its elections in the Autumn of 2013? Almost certainly. So we could (famous last words) be in for a period of relative calm on the euro zone crisis front.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel and her finance minister have begun quietly hinting that euro zone government and the European Central Bank may eventually have to take a writedown on the Greek bonds they hold to make Athens’ debt controllable. That won’t happen for at least two years but in the meantime, bailout money will flow and Greece will survive.

If Greek talks are tough, check out the EU budget

The EU budget summit, which could turn into a marathon as it tries to nail down monies for the next seven years, begins today. With the euro zone repeatedly failing to nail down a Greek deal, the EU would be well advised not to let this negotiation fall apart too. Having said that, there is little sign of great concern in market pricing – presumably the ECB’s pledge to buy government bonds in whatever amount it takes to steady the bloc continues to suppress investor nerves and short sellers.

Net contributors to the budget including Germany, France and Britain want to cut 100 billion euros from the European Commission’s draft budget proposal, but differ over which areas to cut. Meanwhile, the main beneficiaries of EU funding such as Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic oppose cuts. The meeting is intended to lay the groundwork for political agreement on the budget by EU leaders at their final summit of 2012 in December. It will last two days, maybe more and it could well be that no agreement is reached. Officials say only a cut in real terms – for the first time ever – is likely to do the trick.

Back to Greece and prime minister Samaras will meet Eurogroup chief Juncker in Brussels although he is now largely a passive, angry bystander in this process. While Juncker’s assertion in the early hours of Wednesday morning that a deal was only held up by complex technical matters has some truth to it, there is a far deeper split to be closed.

Greek show still on the road

The Greek government pulled it off last night, winning parliamentary approval for an austerity package which offers yet more deep spending cuts, tax rises and measures to make it easier and cheaper to hire and fire workers. But boy was it tight. With the smallest member of the coalition rejecting the labour measures, Prime Minister Antonis Samaras carried the day by just a handful of votes. The overall budget bill is expected to be pushed through parliament on Sunday.

So the show remains on the road and this government has shown more resolve than its predecessors which may buy it some goodwill from its lenders. Attention today turns to the monthly policy meeting of the European Central Bank, a key player in negotiations to put Greece’s debts back on a sustainable path.  Mario Draghi could well rule out taking a haircut on the Greek bonds it holds, something the IMF has pushed it and euro zone governments to do but which Germany and others won’t countenance.  However, the ECB could forego profits it has made on Greek bonds it bought at a steep discount. Those profits have to be funneled through national euro zone central banks and would only be realized when the bonds mature but it would still help.

Greece is set to get two more years to make the cuts demanded of it and EU economics chief Olli Rehn told us yesterday that lengthening the maturities on official loans to Greece and lowering interest rates on them could be done but a haircut was out. There is the possibility of a meeting of the Eurogroup Working Group (the expert officials who prepare for euro zone finance ministers’ meetings) but it seems less likely that a deal will be struck at next Monday’s Eurogroup meeting, with officials now giving themselves until the end of November to come up with something. There were suggestions that Washington had urged big decisions to be put off until after the presidential election. True or not, that roadblock is now out of the way.

The vote that counts for markets

The American people have spoken but for the markets the votes of 300 Greeks could be of even more importance in the short-term. German Bund futures have opened flat, not really reacting to Obama’s victory, while European stocks have eked out some early gains.
       
We await a knife-edge parliamentary vote in Athens on labour reforms to cut wages and severance payments, which the EU and IMF insist are a key part of a new bailout deal, but which the smallest party in the coalition government has pledged to vote against. That leaves the two larger parties – New Democracy and PASOK – with a working majority of just nine lawmakers and on a less contentious vote on privatizations, a number of PASOK deputies rebelled. Ratcheting up the pressure is a second day of a general strike which will see thousands take to the streets.

We know that the troika has advised that another 30 billion euros needs to be found to keep Greece afloat. We also know that the IMF has been pressing for the ECB and euro zone governments to take a writedown on Greek bonds they hold, which Germany refuses to do so (which means it won’t happen, for now at least). The Eurogroup is awaiting the troika’s final report and it’s looking less likely that a definitive plan will be signed off at next Monday’s meeting of euro zone finance ministers.

Nonetheless, it’s in no one’s interests to let Greece crash at this point so the presumption is a deal will be done, probably featuring Greece getting two extra years to make the cuts demanded of it, extending maturities on its loans and cutting the interest rates. Talk of the ECB foregoing profits on the Greek bonds it holds (rather than taking a loss, since it bought them at a steep discount) continues to do the rounds. A further German condition is for a ring-fenced escrow account to hold some Greek tax revenues to ensure that it services its loans. Greece will probably also be allowed to issue more t-bills to tide it over though that requires the ECB’s acquiescence since Greek banks are entirely dependent on central bank liquidity and have been offering those t-bills up as collateral. Mario Draghi is speaking today.

More pain for Spain

El Pais has seen tomorrow’s European Commission forecasts for Spain and they’re grim. The Commission predicts the economy will slide by 1.5 percent next year while Madrid’s forecast is for a 0.5 percent contraction. That puts the target of getting the budget deficit down to 3 percent of GDP  even harder to attain – the Commission predicts a deficit of 6 percent next year and 5.8 percent in 2014 while the Spanish government insists it will get it down to 2.8 percent in two years’ time.

Peering through the numbers, the key question is whether this vista will make it more likely that Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy will seek help from the euro zone rescue fund, after which the European Central Bank can intervene to buy Spain’s bonds.

Rajoy has been in no hurry to seek help and given Spain’s funding needs for this year will be met in full after an auction on Thursday there is no pressure on that front. But with the economy in dire straits its borrowing needs are likely to climb next year so a pre-emptive strike would have some merit. It would also give the euro zone the broader benefit of showing the ECB will put its money where its mouth is. ECB policymaker Ewald Nowotny said yesterday that the ECB’s bond-buying programme should be put into use to dispel market doubts – not that that is a consideration for Rajoy.