Spotlight back on Spain

After a May Day holiday lull, the euro zone roars back into life with Spain facing a game of chicken with the bond market as it auctions three- and five-year bonds and the ECB holding its monthly policy meeting in Barcelona, which lends it a certain poignancy.

Spanish yields will rise sharply compared with the previous equivalent sale and the auction is the first since S&P’s two-notch downgrade of Spain’s credit rating last week. Spanish banks, flush with three-year cash despite their horrendous bad loans problem, continued to load up on Spanish government debt in March while international investors backed off. Whether they will continue to do so is a very open question.

Three- and five-year yields on the secondary market are more than a percentage point higher than when this maturity was last sold earlier in the year. But 2.5 billion euros is a modest amount to shift and Spain has already sold half its debt issuance target for the year in the first four months.

France will also hold a bond auction, three days before its presidential election run-off.
Mario Draghi pulled a surprise rabbit out of his hat last week when he added his voice to calls for a European growth strategy. With no policy change in the offing from Barcelona anything he says about that will be closely scrutinized although it already seems that he and his colleagues don’t envisage the ECB doing much to help beyond keeping policy loose. What is being talked about is some extra lending power for the European Investment Bank and some reallocation of existing EU funds, along with much-heralded structural reforms. That may help a bit but it’s nothing like enough to turn the euro zone economy around. With monetary policy already ultra-loose, that would require serious fiscal stimulus.

Euro zone leaders, led by Merkel and Schaeuble, have made it quite clear they won’t tolerate any let-up in the austerity drive to cut debt. Nor are the markets likely to accept a big shift on that front.

Tumultuous euro zone week

A week where every facet of the euro zone debt saga will come from all angles.

The major events are the French presidential run-off and Greek general elections on Sunday, May 6.
In the former case, a likely socialist Francois Hollande victory could cause some market jitters given his rhetoric about the world of finance. But we’ve looked at this pretty forensically and actually there may not be much to scare the horses. Yes he is making growth a priority (but even the IMF is saying that’s a good idea) yet his only fiscal shift is to aim to balance the budget a year later than Sarkozy would. And, contrary to some reports, he is not intent on ripping up the EU’s new fiscal rules. And of course, the bond market will only allow so much leeway.

If the two main Greek parties – PASOK and New Democracy – fail to win enough votes to govern together, they may have to turn to a fringe anti-bailout party which would put a big question mark over Athens’ ability to stick with the austerity terms demanded by its international lenders.

Even if fears about a hard Greek default or even euro exit result, the threat of contagion looks far smaller. With creditors already having taken a massive haircut, most non-Greek banks completely out or at least having written down anything they hold, a 500 billion euros rescue fund shortly in place and the IMF raising an extra $430 billion of its own, the power Greece has to start a domino effect in the euro zone is very much diminished.

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.

Austerity light? Maybe a shade lighter

There is a groundswell building in the euro zone that austerity drives should be tempered.

France’s Francois Hollande, favourite to take the presidency next month, said last night that  leaders across Europe were awaiting his election to back away from German-led austerity, and even ECB President Mario Draghi called yesterday for a growth pact.

He was rather opaque on how – although he was clear the European Central Bank would not be doing anything more — but his colleague Joerg Asmussen was a little more forthcoming, saying some EU structural funds could be funneled to countries in crisis to boost employment. These sort of ideas are actively part of the mix and could well be enacted at the June EU summit.

ECB to the rescue? Hold your horses

ECB policymakers from Mario Draghi down will come at us from all angles today. Expect a united front on the main theme of the moment; calls for it to consider yet more liquidity operations essentially creating money and/or resuming its government bond-buying programme. That call was first heard at the IMF spring meeting over the weekend and the ECB president’s response could hardly have been clearer, saying: “None of the advice of the IMF has been discussed by the Governing Council, in recent times at least”.

Since then a number of his colleagues have followed up. The message: they are looking more to inflation now and banks and governments have to put their own houses in order after the ECB gave them time with its colossal three-year money-creating exercise.
The ECB’s man in Spain, Gonzalez-Paramo, is already out this morning saying Spain will not struggle to meet its debt issuance target this year despite its rising yields.

The ECB will, of course, act if the crisis drives Europe right back to the brink, it’s mandate will pretty much demand it at that stage but we’re not anywhere near there yet – contrary to what many in the markets believe.

Euro zone goes Dutch

So the euro zone debt crisis morphs again and there is a hint of schadenfreude about the Dutch, who lectured and hectored the Greeks, now falling into the same mire.

The Dutch premier, Mark Rutte, will probably try to cobble together an unholy alliance in parliament in order to meet an April 30 EU deadline for it to present budget plans for the next year. But with elections not until late June at the earliest, there will be an unnerving period of vacuum for the markets and no guarantee that opposition parties will play ball and allow a budget to be put together.

Given all that, today’s Dutch bond auction, not normally a cause for alarm or excitement, is thrown into sharp relief. Expect yields to spiral although the small amount on offer means the paper will be sold. Italy is selling zero-coupon and inflation-linked bonds while Spain,  which remains front and centre despite the Netherlands’ travails, will probably see borrowing costs double when it sells up to 2 billion euros of 3- and 6-month treasury bills. Spanish 10-year yields poked above the pivotal 6 percent level again yesterday as the Dutch government collapse rocked markets. The Bank of Spain confirmed on Monday that a new recession has taken hold.

A curate’s egg — good in parts

An action-packed weekend with both good and bad news for the euro zone, which may — net — leave its prospects little clearer.

Item 1: The IMF came up with $430 billion in new firepower to contain the euro zone-led world economic crisis, although some of the money will only be delivered by the BRICS once they have more sway at the Fund. Nonetheless, the figure at least matches expectations and could give markets pause for thought. The official line is that it is for non-euro countries caught up in the maelstrom but no one really believes that. If a Spain is teetering, IMF funds will be there. Together with the 500 billion euros rescue fund set up by the euro zone, there is still barely enough to ringfence both Italy and Spain if it came to it. But will it come to it?

Item 2: Socialist Francois Hollande came out top in the first round of the French presidential election and is now a warm favourite to win. Some fear that could weaken the Franco-German motor which must be humming smoothly if further crisis-fighting measures are to be convincing. Others say he is essentially a centrist who, either way, will be constrained by the realities of the euro zone situation. Domestically, his focus on tax rises over spending cuts and a slower timetable for cuts could drive up French borrowing costs. Attempts by Hollande and President Nicola Sarkozy to woo the substantial votes that went to the far right and far left could lead to some nerve-jangling campaigning messages for the markets to swallow in the run-up to the May 6 second round.

Euro zone hopes for funds from the Fund

Focus for the euro zone is firmly on Washington with G20 policymakers gathering ahead of the IMF spring meeting. The Fund is seeking an extra $400 billion-plus in crisis-fighting funds which, tallied with the $500 billion euro zone rescue fund about to be established, adds up to a meaningful firewall for the markets to ponder before they consider pushing Spain and Italy to the edge.

But as many sage minds are saying – U.S. Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner among them – a firewall does not solve the root problems of the euro zone debt crisis. As our very own Alan Wheatley puts it, “It is not obvious why a stronger firewall should encourage anyone to enter a burning house”. Nonetheless, Reuters polling yesterday ascribed only a 25% and 13% chance respectively to Spain and Italy needing an international bailout.

If the IMF falls short, given the jittery mood in financial markets, that could be cue for a further sell-off. The IMF has pledges of $320 billion so far. The Chinese and British have yet to show their hands and the BRICS led by Brazil are demanding more power at the Fund before handing over extra cash. German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble told us earlier in the week that conflating those two issues was not acceptable so there is potential for a rift. The U.S. and Canada have already said they will provide no more funding. Finance ministers and central bankers from the Group of 20 advanced and emerging economies had dinner on Thursday night, ahead of a longer session on Friday.

Spanish Bond; a licence to kill?

Back to the familiar grist of a Spanish bond auction today. This one has real power to move global markets as it offers up a 10-year bond for only the second time this year. Because of the ECB’s three-year money glut and the general point that uncertainty rises the longer you stretch the timeframe, shorter-term paper has been a much easier sell.

10-year yields broke above the portentous 6 percent level for the first time since late November earlier this week though they have since ducked back down.

Madrid is looking to sell up to 2.5 billion euros of 2- and 10-year bonds – a relatively small amount which should attract the requisite demand. But yields will climb. The last 10-year auction went at 5.4 percent. On the secondary market those yields are now around 5.8.

The Italian job

As we exclusively reported last night, Italy will delay by a year its plan to balance the budget in 2013. That Rome is no longer aiming for a zero budget deficit next year is very different from Spain which has upped its 2012 deficit goal to 5.3 percent of GDP, way above the 3 percent EU limit (though it is aiming for that in 2013).

Italy’s move also makes eminent economic sense to find a little fiscal leeway given it is already in a recession that is likely to deepen. Initial market action suggests investors buy into the sense of it rather than viewing it as the wrong direction of travel.

The drive to find $400 billion or more of new crisis-fighting funds for the IMF seems to be slowly falling into place. The euro zone is good for about half of it. Japan, Sweden and Denmark committed a total of $77 billion between them yesterday and it is hoped that the British and others, most notably China, will also come to the table. Germany says the deal must be done at the IMF spring meeting at the end of the week. That is not a certainty.