Monthly Archives: November 2011

It has suddenly become respectable to ask the question: what would happen if the euro broke up? Last week’s rise in German bond yields signals that a euro break-up is being taken more seriously by investors. I am told that London law firms are allocating large amounts of time to examining the validity, following a break-up, of cross-border contracts written in euros. And, to judge from my own inbox, asset managers are beginning to ask about the economics of how it could occur. 

American flag over the NYSE

American flag draped over the New York Stock Exchange. Getty Images

Such has been the intensity of the market’s focus on events in the eurozone in recent weeks that the performance of the American economy has barely merited any attention. At least, that has been the case in this blog, which usually tries to concentrate on the key events in global macro which are dominating market sentiment at any given time. So I have been looking across the Atlantic to check on what I might have missed.

In sharp contrast to the eurozone, the US economy has been performing better than was generally expected a couple of months ago, but it remains very vulnerable to the fiscal tightening which now seems likely next year, and to a worsening in the eurozone financial shock. This shock has not yet crossed the Atlantic with any force, but might do so before too long. 

The debate about whether the ECB should engage in open-ended purchases of eurozone sovereign debt rages on, and the financial markets continue to follow every twist and turn with rapt attention. This debate has legal, economic and political aspects, none of which have been confronted before in exactly this form. The custom and practice of central banking, and of the relationships between central banks and fiscal policy, is being rewritten under the glare of a global spotlight, and in the harshest of circumstances. 

Jens Weidmann, President of Bundesbank

Jens Weidmann, Bundesbank president. (c) Tim Wegner

There was a time, before the existence of the euro, when the financial markets hung on every syllable uttered by the president of the Bundesbank. Not only was the German central bank the most respected institution in global finance, it was a founder member of the awkward squad, and was frequently willing to stare down politicians, no matter what the temporary costs in market turbulence. Macro traders, who were routinely dismissive of public officials throughout the world, never found that it paid to be dismissive of the Bundesbank.

Since monetary union, the Bundesbank has lost some of its lustre, which is inevitable given that its president now has only a single vote on the ECB’s 23-member governing council, the same as the head of the central bank of Cyprus. However, this week it has been just like old times, with Jens Weidmann, president of the Bundesbank, setting the entire agenda for the financial markets with his FT interview on November 13, in which he appeared to torpedo hopes that ECB bond buying would soon become open ended in order to support the new government in Italy. Mr Weidmann not only argued that such buying would be inadvisable, he went as far as to claim that an unlimited extension of the SMP to hold down bond yields would be illegal, which is another matter entirely. 

Mario Monti looks poised to become the new Italian prime minister. In sharp contrast to what happened in the last days of Silvio Berlusconi, there will be a strong political desire in Berlin, Paris and Frankfurt to help him stabilise the Italian crisis, and the markets may bounce on this mood. However, the eventual outcome will be determined not by personal relationships at the top of politics, but by economic fundamentals and by the way in which they interact with much wider political forces. On these grounds, Mr Monti’s Italian job looks to be facing daunting odds. 

In recent days, a chorus of investors has argued that only one institution, the European Central Bank, now has the firepower needed to solve the eurozone’s debt crisis. That firepower consists of newly printed money, which is viewed as being almost limitless in scale.

If the ECB uses this resource to purchase Italian and Spanish sovereign debt, advocates claim there is no amount of market speculation which could overcome the resources of the central bank. That, after all, is what the Swiss National Bank has shown by threatening to intervene without limit to prevent the Swiss franc from appreciating. Why cannot the ECB use the same silver bullet to place a ceiling on Italian bond yields? 

The G20 summit last Friday certainly did not measure up to the billing it was given by the UK Chancellor in September, when he said that policymakers had “six weeks to save the world”. Nevertheless, equities and other risk assets have risen markedly over the same period. As Goldman Sachs’ Jim O’Neill argues this weekend, this is probably due to improvements in economic data in the US, and to the rising prospects of a soft landing in China. A less optimistic way of summarising recent news is to say that Europe has now decoupled from the rest of the world. It is already in recession, which may prove to be a deep one, and the debt crisis is arguably getting worse, not better. 

Mario Draghi

Mario Draghi — Getty Images

In Mario Draghi’s first meeting as the new president of the ECB on Thursday, he already faces a decision which could determine the eventual fate of the euro. This is not a decision about whether to cut short term interest rates. They will be cut, decisively, before the year end. Nor is it a decision about the maintenance of non-standard measures to inject liquidity into the eurozone’s banking sector. These measures will be maintained and increased.

Instead, his historic decision will be whether to use the balance sheet of the central bank to purchase the troubled debt of countries like Italy and Spain, and thus effect a large transfer of resources between the member states of the eurozone – a transfer which the political leaders of the zone have so far been unable to undertake. It is becoming increasingly clear that, among European institutions, only the ECB has the constitutional authority and the financial muscle to undertake such a transfer. But is it appropriate territory for a central bank to enter? That is President Draghi’s dilemma.