MacroScope

IMF fires euro zone broadside

The IMF is ratcheting up the pressure on the euro zone again, telling it to deepen financial and fiscal ties as a matter of urgency to restore confidence in the global financial system. Despite the European Central Bank’s recent statement of intent, the Fund said the risks to financial stability had risen over the past six months and it raised its prediction of how much European banks are going to have to offload as part of a deleveraging process that has a long way to run.

An eye-watering $2.8 trillion of assets now needs to be cut over two years, which could further choke off credit to the currency bloc’s weaker members, deepen recessions and push up unemployment. Despite recent steps, the euro area is still threatened by a “downward spiral of capital flight, breakup fears and economic decline”.

Gloomy stuff and particularly noteworthy since the growing view in Europe is that on break-up fears at least, the ECB’s promise to buy sovereign bonds in unlimited amounts, once a country seeks help from the ESM rescue fund, had fundamentally turned a corner.

The Fund is also, of course, a key player in the interminable Greek bailout negotiations. Angela Merkel’s visit to Athens yesterday signalled Germany’s new commitment to keep Greece in the euro zone, at least until German elections in a year’s time. But the country’s debt numbers still look ghastly and the IMF and euro zone appear to be at odds about what to do. Greek finance minister Stournaras said last night that the lenders were considering giving two years more time to meet debt reduction targets but it seems the IMF is also pushing for euro governments to take a writedown on Greek government bonds they hold, which they are reluctant to do.

Big setpiece of the day is a Franco-Spanish summit featuring President Francois Hollande and Spanish premier Mariano Rajoy. We know the French have been pressing Madrid to seek sovereign help, presumably to reduce the chances of France getting dragged into the mire, but given all the mixed messages from the Spanish government it is in entirely unclear that it has yet reconciled itself to doing so. Its debt refinancing numbers still dictate that it will probably have to before the year is out.

Europe’s reactive leadership

Spain doesn’t need financial help. That was the verdict from euro zone ministers on Monday – quickly followed by a selloff in Spanish stocks and bonds on Tuesday. The trouble with that line of thinking is that it again leaves policymakers behind the curve, reacting to events rather than preempting them, write currency strategists at Brown Brothers Harriman in a research note:

For several weeks now Germany Finance Minister Schaeuble has argued against the need for Spain to request aid. France and Italy, in contrast, have been reportedly encouraging Spain to ask for assistance, which they assume would ease financial pressures within the region as whole. The Eurogroup meeting of euro area finance ministers endorsed Schaeuble’s position. Spain is taking necessary measures to overhaul the economy, they said.  Spain is able to successfully fund itself in the capital markets. Aid is simply not needed now.

While there is a compelling logic to the argument, the problem is that it prevents officials from being proactive rather than continue to its reactive function. It means that whenSpaineventually requests assistance, it will be in a crisis and the cost of assistance will be greater. It is penny-wise but dollar foolish. By failing to find a preventative salve, officials are not maximizing the breathing space that the ECB has created (intentionally or otherwise).

The Greek conundrum

Euro zone finance ministers, apart from formally launching the ESM rescue fund, made little headway yesterday evening, holding what they called “robust” talks about Greece’s prospects but not coming up with anything to continue the pretence that the country can get back on track. The report from the troika of EU/IMF/ECB inspectors looks likely not to be complete until next month’s Eurogroup meeting.

There are signs of divisions between the euro zone and IMF, with the latter convinced only dramatic measures such as a big writedown on the Greek bonds held by European governments will make the numbers add up. “More needs to be done,” IMF head Christine Lagarde said pointedly last night.

Angela Merkel, who is visiting Athens today and could stir up public Greek anger by doing so, is apparently set on returning to her increasingly critical Bundestag just once more – with a sweeping package to deal with Greece, Spain, Cyprus and maybe Slovenia. Ergo, the lack of Greek progress means any Spanish move for aid is probably some way off. And given the chaotically mixed messages coming from Madrid, it’s not clear that the government there has fully realized it will have to do so at some point.

Don Rajoy de la Mancha: Spain’s “quixotic” adventures

 

Spain will not seek aid imminently, says Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy. And by imminently, he means, not this weekend. Just the latest twist in a European crisis plot that now sees Spain as its primary actor.

The focus on Spain’s reluctance to see foreign aid, a pre-condition for additional European Central Bank purchases of its bonds, is ironic given the country’s record of goading weaker counterparts into similar rescue packages earlier in the crisis.

To Lena Komileva, chief economist at G+ Economics, the saga is all too reminiscent of the hapless meanderings of Don Quixote. Komileva argues that the country’s latest budget announcement marks only the beginning of a deeper, almost circular plight:

Spanish rescue could cause collateral damage for Italy

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Mounting speculation that Spain is prepping for a bailout begs the question – what happens to Italy?

Sources told Reuters Spain is considering freezing pensions and speeding up a planned rise in the retirement age as it races to cut spending and meet conditions of an expected international sovereign aid package.

Markets took this to mean it was preparing the ground for eventually asking for help. According to Lyn Graham-Taylor, fixed income strategist at Rabobank:

The pain in Spain … spreads to Italy

This morning, we exclusively report that Spanish Prime Minister Rajoy could be about to break another promise by freezing pensions and bringing forward a planned rise in the retirement age.

This latest austerity policy will be political poison at home but will give Madrid more credibility with its euro zone peers since that was one of Brussels’ policy recommendations for the country back in May. We know that at the end of next week the government will unveil its 2013 budget and further structural reforms which all smacks of an attempt to get its retaliation in first so that the euro zone and IMF won’t ask for any more cuts if and when Madrid makes its request for aid.

The pensions shift could well be kept under wraps until regional elections in late October are out of the way. It is less likely that the government can defer a request for help from the euro zone rescue fund, after which the ECB can pile into the secondary market, for that long given some daunting debt refinancing bills falling due at the end of next month.

Spanish bonds on the block

Having done so with a t-bill sale on Tuesday, Spain will continue to try and cash in on the relatively benign market conditions created by the European Central Bank by selling up to 4.5 billion euros of 3- and 10-year bonds. It hasn’t tried to sell that much in one go since early March, when the ECB’s previous gambit – the three-year liquidity flood – had also imposed some calm upon the markets, albeit temporarily (there’s a lesson to be learned there).

Yields are likely to fall sharply from the most recent equivalent auctions but even so, it looks unlikely that Madrid can meet some daunting looking refinancing bills before the year is out, without outside help. Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy’s hesitation about making a request for bond-buying help from the ESM rescue fund, with the ECB rowing in behind, has already pushed Spanish 10-year yields back up towards six percent after a more than two-point plunge since ECB chief Mario Draghi issued his “I’ll save the euro” proclamation in late July.  They had peaked around 7.5 percent before that.

With the ECB having pledged to buy bonds if necessary, but only at the shorter end of the maturity scale, the three-year bonds should be snapped up. The 10-year issue may be a harder sell. The danger is that Spain (and Germany, which is saying Madrid shouldn’t take a bailout unless market pressure returns with a vengeance) dithers for so long that the positive sentiment created by Draghi dissipates completely.

No time for complacency

After a tumultuous fortnight where the European Central Bank, U.S. Federal Reserve, German judges and Dutch voters combined to markedly lift the mood on financial markets, we’re probably in for a more humdrum few days, although a raft of economic data this week will be important – a critical mass of analysts are saying that after strong rallies, it will require evidence of real economic recovery, rather than crisis-fighting solutions, to keep stocks heading up into the year-end.

A weekend meeting of EU finance ministers reflected the progress made, but also the remaining potential pitfalls. Our team there reported the atmosphere was notably more relaxed and Spain’s announcement that it would unveil fresh economic reforms alongside its 2013 budget at the end of the month sent a strong signal that a request for bond-buying help from Madrid is likely in October. If made, the ECB could then pile into the secondary market to buy Spanish debt  if required and hopefully drag Italian borrowing costs down in tandem with Spain’s.

BUT. The Nicosia meeting also exposed unresolved differences between Germany and others over plans to build a banking union. German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble said handing bank oversight to the European Central Bank is not in itself sufficient to allow the euro zone’s rescue fund to directly assist banks – another key plank of the euro zone’s arsenal. It sounds like that debate went nowhere.
Having largely been the dog that hasn’t barked so far, public unrest is on the rise with big marches in Portugal and Spain over the weekend against further planned tax hikes and spending cuts.

Do they they think it’s all over?

Is everything falling into place to at least declare a moratorium in the euro zone debt crisis?

Well the ESM rescue fund getting a go-ahead from Germany’s consitutional court and the Dutch opting to vote for the two main pro-European parties, following Mario Draghi’s confirmation last week that the European Central Bank would buy Spanish and Italian bonds if required, means things are starting to look a little rosier.

The risks? Next spring’s Italian election, and what sort of government results, casts a long shadow and it is just about conceivable that Spain could baulk at asking for help, given the strings attached, although the sheer amount of debt it needs to shift by the end of the year will almost certainly force its hand. If the Bundesbank mounted a guerrilla war campaign against the ECB bond-buying programme it could well undermine its effectiveness. That is a big if given broad German political support for the scheme. Key countries remain deep in recession with little prospect of returning to growth because of the imperative to keep eating away at their debt mountains, which could eventually trigger a dramatic public reaction. France could well get dragged into that category.

Get me to the court on time

Another blockbuster chapter in the euro zone epic.

Top billing today goes to Germany’s constitutional court, which is expected to give a green light to the euro zone’s permanent rescue fund, the ESM, albeit with some conditions imposed in terms of parliamentary oversight. The ruling begins at 0800 GMT. If the court defied expectations and upheld complaints about the fund, it would lead to the mother of all market sell-offs and plunge the euro zone into its deepest crisis yet.

Without the ESM, the European Central Bank’s carefully constructed plan to backstop the euro zone would be in tatters. It has said it will only intervene to buy the bonds of the bloc’s strugglers if they first seek help from the rescue fund and sign up to the strings that will be attached. The first rescue fund, the EFSF, could perhaps fill this role for a while but its resources are now threadbare, so without the ESM, markets would scent blood.

The Dutch go to the polls but with the hard-left Socialists seemingly losing support, the ruling Liberal party and moderate centre-left Labour are  neck-and-neck and look likely to form a coalition government committed to tight debt control and, more importantly, to the euro zone. So unless voters are lying to pollsters, some of the drama has leached out of this particular saga although it could take some considerable time to put a coalition together.