MacroScope

Market/economy disconnect?

Italy comes to the market with a five- and 10-year bond auction today and, continuing the early year theme, yields are expected to fall with demand healthy. It could raise up to 6.5 billion euros. A sale of six-month paper on Tuesday was snapped up at a yield of just 0.73 percent. Not only is the bond market unfazed by next month’s Italian elections, which could yet produce a chaotic aftermath, neither is it bothered by the scandal enveloping the world’s oldest bank, Monte dei Paschi, which is deepening by the day.

Even before this week (it also sold nearly 7 billion euros of debt on Monday), Italy had already shifted 10 percent of its annual funding needs. Clearly it, and Spain, is off to a flying start which removes a lot of potential market pressure.

But the disconnect with the miserable state of the two countries’ economies should still give pause for thought. Flash Q4 Spanish GDP figures, out later, are forecast to show its economy contracted by a further 0.6 percent in the last three months of the year, with absolutely no end to recession in sight. That looks like a good opportunity to detail the state of the Spanish economy and how it could yet push Madrid towards seeking outside help. Italian business confidence data are also due.

Banks will settle the 137 billion euros of cheap three-year European Central Bank money that they intend to pay back early, which raises another interesting angle. Some of them will avail themselves of shorter-term ECB money to compensate but there are concrete signs that the ECB’s balance sheet is shrinking on a trend basis. That amounts to a slight policy tightening at a time when other central banks around the world are printing money furiously, or at least not reversing course. Talk of a currency war may be overdone but in that environment, upward pressure on the euro could well persist – not good news for a currency bloc back in recession. The double whammy is that there is little sign that banks are prepared to increase their lending.

If markets are to turn tail, the catalysts are more likely to come from the United States courtesy of a Federal Reserve policy meeting, December jobless figures and Q4 GDP this week. But the macro news has been fairly consistently good from the States in recent weeks and the Fed, with its lower unemployment target, is unlikely to even hint at an end to ultra-loose policy yet. So it really comes down to how far ahead of reality markets have got. World stocks are up the best part of four percent since the turn of the year.

from The Great Debate:

The year ahead in the euro zone: Lower risks, same problems

Financial conditions in the euro zone have significantly improved since the summer, when euro zone risks peaked because of German policymakers’ open consideration of a Greek exit, and the sovereign spreads of Italy and Spain reached new heights. The day before European Central Bank President Mario Draghi’s famous speech in London in which he announced that the ECB would do “whatever it takes” to save the euro, bond yields in Spain and Italy were at 7.75 percent and 6.75 percent, respectively, and rising. When the ECB announced its outright monetary transactions (OMT) bond-buying program, the euro zone was at risk of a collapse.

Since then, risks have abated significantly, thanks to a number of factors:

    The ECB’s OMT has been incredibly successful in reducing the risks of breakup, redenomination and a liquidity/rollover crisis in the public debt markets of Spain and Italy. Although the ECB has yet to spend a single additional euro to buy the bonds of Spain and Italy, both short-term and longer-term sovereign spreads against German bonds have fallen substantially. Following a number of political and legal hurdles, the successful operational start of the European Stability Mechanism (ESM) rescue fund provides the euro zone with another €500 billion of official resources to backstop banks and sovereigns in the euro zone periphery, on top of the leftover funds of its predecessor, the European Financial Stability Facility (EFSF). Realizing that a monetary union is not viable without deeper integration, euro zone leaders have proposed a banking union, a fiscal union, an economic union and, eventually, a political union. The last is necessary to resolve any issue of democratic legitimacy that might result from national states transferring power from national governments to EU- or euro zone-wide institutions. This transfer of power also would have to involve the creation of such institutions to ensure solidarity and risk-sharing are developed in the banking, fiscal and economic unions. The open talk in the summer by some German authorities about an exit option for Greece has turned into a tentative willingness to prevent and postpone such an exit. There are several reasons for this. First, Greece has done some austerity and reforms in spite of a deepening recession, and the current coalition is holding up. Second, an orderly exit of Greece is impossible until Spain and Italy are successfully isolated. Such an exit would lead to massive contagion, which would hurt not only the euro zone periphery but also the core, given extensive trade and financial links. Third, an economic disaster in Greece would be damaging to the CDU Party’s chances of winning the German elections. Thus, even when Greece inevitably underperforms on its policy commitments, Germany and the troika (the IMF, EU and ECB) will hold their noses and keep the funds flowing as long as the current coalition holds up.

Given these developments, the risk of a Greek exit in 2013 has been significantly reduced, even if the risk of an eventual Greek exit from the euro zone is still high, close to 50 percent by my estimation. Meanwhile, the narrowing of Spanish and Italian sovereign spreads has significantly diminished the risk that either country will fully lose market access and be forced to undergo a full troika bailout like Greece, Portugal and Ireland. Both Spain and Italy may in 2013 opt for a memorandum of understanding (MoU) that opens the taps of ESM and OMT support, but such official financing would inspire confidence as it would not be associated with rising, unsustainable spreads and a loss of market access.

While there is a much lower likelihood of disorderly events in the euro zone, there are still significant obstacles to deeper integration, as well as country-specific economic and political vulnerabilities. The biggest obstacle to the formation of a banking, fiscal, economic and political union is that Germany is pushing back against the time line for action, with the initial skirmish on ECB supervision of euro zone banks. This backpedaling reflects deep German skepticism on whether the resolution of the euro zone crisis requires a move toward greater union. Without a more credible commitment to austerity and reforms from euro zone periphery countries, lurching forward would imply that risk-sharing will turn into a large, long-term transfer union, which is unacceptable to Germany and the core. Thus, Germany will do whatever is necessary to delay the integration process, at least until after elections in fall 2013.

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.

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.