MacroScope

Beware the Bundesbank

German newspaper Handelsblatt has got hold of a confidential Bundesbank report to Germany’s constitutional court, which sharply criticized the European Central Bank’s bond-buying plan. This could be very big or it could be nothing.

Bundesbank chief Jens Weidmann has made no secret of his opposition to the as yet unused programme and since the mere threat of massive ECB intervention has driven euro zone bond yields lower for months there is no urgency to put it into action. But the OMT, as it is known, is by far the single biggest reason that markets have become calmer about the euro zone, so anything that threatens it could be of huge importance.

The key point is not the Bundesbank’s stance but how the Constitutional Court responds. It is due to consider OMT in June. Through the three-year debt crisis, when Berlin has reluctantly crossed red lines it has had to get the court’s approval. So far, it has always been forthcoming, though sometimes with strings attached. But if it took the Bundesbank’s assertion that bond-buying could “compromise the independence of the central bank” at face value, it is almost certain to have a long hard look. We already know that the court is a potential stumbling block to banking union as it has ruled that any future euro mechanisms would only be in order if Germany’s maximum liability was clearly defined.

Angela Merkel is speaking again having surprised many yesterday by wading into monetary policy, saying if the ECB were setting interest rates for Germany alone, it would have to hike. Key ECB policymaker Joerg Asmussen is also appearing in public.

Spain will unveil a new slate of reforms today. The government is trying to get growth going while continuing to toe the austerity line so the likelihood is that none of this will be a game changer. Changes to the pension system, including a speeding up of an increase in the retirement age, are expected. So are a review of jobless benefits, measures to tackle a growing energy tariff deficit and Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy will have to renege on a previous promise by making permanent tax increases from the last two years which were labeled temporary.

Austerity — the British test case

First quarter UK GDP figures will show whether Britain has succumbed to an unprecedented “triple dip” recession. Economically, the difference between 0.2 percent growth or contraction doesn’t amount to much, and the first GDP reading is nearly always revised at a later date. But politically it’s huge.

Finance minister George Osborne has already suffered the ignominy of downgrades by two ratings agencies – something he once vowed would not happen on his watch. And even more uncomfortably, he is looking increasingly isolated as the flag bearer for austerity. The IMF is urging a change of tack (and will deliver its annual report on the UK soon) and even euro zone policymakers are starting to talk that talk. It was very much the consensus at last week’s G20 meeting.

The government can argue that it hasn’t actually cut that hard – successive deficit targets have been missed – and that it does have pro-growth measures such as for the housing market and bank lending. But the inescapable political fact is that Osborne and his boss, David Cameron, have spent three years arguing that they would cut their way back to growth and that to borrow your way out of a debt crisis is madness. In fact, it’s arguably perfectly economically sane, given that if you get growth going, tax revenues rise and will eat away at the national debt pile.

The limits of austerity

With debate about the balance between growth and austerity well and truly breaking out into the open, flash euro zone PMIs – which have a strong correlation to future GDP — are likely to show why a bit of fiscal stimulus is sorely needed. Talk of a European Central Bank rate cut is growing, euro zone policymakers at the G20 last week began to ponder loosening up on debt-cutting in an attempt to foster some growth and European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso added his voice to the debate yesterday, saying the austerity drive had reached its “natural limit”.

Crucially, we haven’t heard similar from Germany but something is afoot, starting with the certainty that the likes of Spain and France will get more time to meet their deficit targets when the Commission makes a ruling next month. Portugal has already been given more leeway and today its finance minister will spell out new spending cuts which are required after the constitutional court threw out Plan A.

It’s a coincidence, but an interesting one, that this debate – frequently voiced in private over many months – has gone public just as THE academic study from 2010 which asserted that as soon as debt exceeds 90 percent of GDP growth is crushed, has been called into question.

Why euro zone bond yield ‘convergence’ may be something to fear

 

Are European bond investors looking for love in all the wrong places?

The premium bankers demand to hold various types of euro zone debt over that of Germany has recently come down. In normal circumstances, this might suggest markets are no longer discriminating between the risks associated with different member countries’ bonds. But analysts say the recent convergence is based on a precarious belief of ECB action rather than any real improvement in economic fundamentals.

Spain and Italy still offer a comfortable premium over Germany. But a narrowing in yield spreads that is being driven by a fall in the funding costs of Spain and Italy, rather than by a rise in German yields, gives reason for pause.

According to Lyn Graham-Taylor, fixed income strategist at Rabobank:

The fact there is almost no movement from Germany and a huge movement in peripherals is indicative to us of this convergence for the wrong reason.

German ghost of inflations past haunting European stability: Posen

“Reality is sticky.” That was the core of Adam Posen’s message to German policymakers on their home turf, at a recent conference in Berlin.

What did the former UK Monetary Policy Committee member mean? Quite simply, that the types of structural economic changes that Germany has been pushing on the euro zone are not only destructive but also bound to fail, at least if history is any guide.

Posen, who now heads the Peterson Institute for International Economics in Washington, argued Germany’s imposition of austerity on Europe’s battered periphery is the product of an instinctive but misguided fear of an inflation “ghost” that has haunted the country since the hyperinflationary spurt of the Weimar Republic in the 1920s and 1930s. However, Posen offers a convincing account of modern economic history that shows inflation episodes are rather rare events associated with major political and institutional meltdown — and not always around the corner.

ECB eclipsed by BOJ

The European Central Bank takes centre stage. While others in the euro zone are saying the way Cyprus was bailed out – with bank bondholders and big depositors hit – could be repeated, the ECB insists it was a one-off.

Fearful of any signs of contagion it will continue to talk that talk and there’s no sign of it having to do more so far, with no bank run even in Cyprus let alone further afield. But the last two weeks has reignited debate about what the ECB might have to do in extremis. It’s no nearer deploying its bond-buying programme but it could flood the currency area’s financial system with long-term liquidity again if called upon.

Interest rates are expected to be held at a record low 0.75 percent. Hints of policy easing further out are not out of the question. As ever, Mario Draghi’s hour long press conference will be minutely parsed but there will be nothing to match the Bank of Japan which earlier announced a stunning revamp of its policymaking rules – setting a balance sheet target which will involve printing money faster and pledging to double its government bond holdings over two years.

Firefighting in the euro zone

Money markets largely braved Cyprus’s bailout saga last week, but figures showing liquidity conditions are tightening suggest sentiment may not be as resilient the next time around.

Data from CrossBorder Capital, an independent financial firm that specialises in analysing global liquidity flows, shows the euro zone saw its biggest capital outflow in March since late 2011 – around the time the ECB injected liquidity into the financial system.

Financial institutions and governments took a net $175 billion worth of bonds and stocks, on an annualised basis, out of the euro zone in March – the biggest outflow since $201.4 billion in December 2011, according to the data.

Cyprus Plan B – phoenix or dodo?

They’ve only been looking for it for a day but Cyprus’s Plan B has already taken on mythical status. A myth it might remain.

Ideas being floated include nationalizing the pension fund (back of the envelope calculations suggest that will raise less than a billion euros) and issuing bonds underpinned by future natural gas revenues (but no one is really sure how much they are worth). So to avoid default it still looks like the Cypriots may have to return to the bank levy they rejected so decisively in parliament on Tuesday, to raise the 5.8 billion euros the euro zone is demanding in return for a bailout.

Finance minister Sarris is still in Moscow hoping for some change out of the Russians and is out this morning saying discussions are ongoing about banks and natural gas.

To print or not to print

It’s ECB day and it could be a big one, not because a shift in policy is expected but because journalists will get an hour to quiz Mario Draghi on the Italy conundrum after the central bank leaves monetary policy on hold.

To explain: The story of the last five months has been the bond-buying safety net cast by the European Central Bank which took the sting out of the currency bloc’s debt crisis. But now it has an Achilles’ heel. The ECB has stated it will only buy the bonds of a country on certain policy conditions encompassing economic reform and austerity. An unwilling or unstable Italian government may be unable to meet those conditions so in theory the ECB should stand back. But what if the euro zone’s third biggest economy comes under serious market attack? Without ECB support the whole bloc would be thrown back into crisis and yet if it does intervene, some ECB policymakers and German lawmakers will throw their hands up in horror, potentially calling the whole programme in to question.

In Italy, outgoing technocrat premier Monti is due to meet centre-left leader Bersani, the man still harbouring hopes of forming some sort of government. Whether he succeeds or not it seems unlikely that any administration can ignore the dramatic anti-austerity vote delivered by the Italian people.

Euro zone triptych

Three big events today which will tell us a lot about the euro zone and its struggle to pull out of economic malaise despite the European Central Bank having removed break-up risk from the table.

1. The European Commission will issue fresh economic forecasts which will presumably illuminate the lack of any sign of recovery outside Germany. Just as starkly, they will show how far off-track the likes of Spain, France and Portugal are from meeting their deficit targets this year. All three have, explicitly or implicitly, admitted as much and expect Brussels to give them more leeway. That looks inevitable (though not until April) but it would be interesting to hear the German view. We’ve already had Slovakia, Austria and Finland crying foul about France getting cut some slack. El Pais claims to have seen the Commission figures and says Spain’s deficit will will come in at 6.7 percent of GDP this year, way above a goal of 4.5 percent. The deficit will stay high at 7.2 percent in 2014, the point so far at which Madrid is supposed to reach the EU ceiling of three percent.

2. Banks get their first chance to repay early some of the second chunk of more than a trillion euros of ultra-cheap three-year money the ECB doled out last year. First time around about 140 billion was repaid, more than expected, indicating that at least parts of the euro zone banking system was returning to health. Another hefty 130 billion euros is forecast for Friday. That throws up some interesting implications. First there is a two-tier banking system in the currency bloc again with banks in the periphery still shut out. Secondly, it means the ECB’s balance sheet is tightening while those of the Federal Reserve and Bank of Japan continue to balloon thanks to furious money printing. The ECB insists there is plenty of excess liquidity left to stop money market rates rising much and a big rise in corporate euro-denominated bond sales helps too. But all else being equal, that should propel the euro yet higher, the last thing a struggling euro zone economy needs.