Monthly Archives: April 2012

Risk assets rose slightly last week, and global equities are still trading within about 2 per cent of their highs for the year. The resilience of equities was slightly surprising in a week which saw both a disappointing set of US GDP data and a Fed policy statement which was on the hawkish side of expectations. Goldman Sachs’ economists commented that the US economy and financial markets are “moving into a tougher environment”, in which the economy is slowing and the Fed is shifting its policy reaction function in a less stimulative direction.

One reason why risk assets have remained firm recently, is that earnings in the latest company reporting season have once again been beating expectations in the US and the eurozone. According to Jan Loeys at JP Morgan, US corporate earnings per share for 2012 Q1 have come in 8 per cent higher than analysts’ expectations, while the drop in eurozone earnings has been 4 per cent less than feared. Clearly, corporate financial strength has been helping investment sentiment, but that would not persist for very long if the Fed really did change its tune on monetary policy. Read more

The UK GDP figures for 2012 Q1 are due to be published on Wednesday, and are likely to be followed by the usual out-pouring of angst about whether the economy is in a “technical” recession. This will clearly have important political connotations, but does not mean very much in a deeper economic context. The initial estimates for quarterly GDP are notoriously unreliable, and are no longer taken as the best estimate of UK economic activity even by the Bank of England.

No-one should read too much into the Q1 data, since the GDP outcome for the quarter is likely to be either slightly positive or slightly negative, depending on what happens in the construction sector. This volatile sector seems to have recorded a large drop in output in Q1, and since it represents 7.5 per cent of the economy, it is capable of being the swing factor which decides whether the Office for National Statistics prints a positive or negative GDP number for Q1. In the latter case, the media would probably scream “recession”, on the grounds that the economy would have experienced two back-to-back quarters of negative GDP growth.

In fact, most economists think that the figure will scrape into positive territory, but in any event no Chancellor deserves to be hanged on such flimsy grounds. Read more

In the second half of 2011, the twists and turns in the eurozone crisis dominated global markets to such an extent that nothing else seemed to matter. This remained true in January and February of this year, when the strong rally in peripheral bond spreads in the eurozone coincided with an equally strong rally in global equities. But in recent weeks, the umbilical link between the eurozone crisis and global risk assets seems to have broken down. As the graph shows, peripheral bond spreads (proxied by the average of Spanish and Italian spreads over German bunds) have returned towards crisis mode, while global equities have fallen only slightly. Read more

The Federal Open Market Committee of the Federal Reserve is no longer expected to announce a further round of monetary easing when it concludes its two day meeting in Washington on Wednesday. The fact that the hawks have lost enthusiasm for more quantitative easing is scarcely surprising, given the fall in unemployment, and the stickiness of inflation.

But until very recently the hawks have not been in control of the committee. What is more surprising is that the powerful group of doves which includes Ben Bernanke, Bill Dudley and Janet Yellen, and which normally has disproportionate weight on the FOMC, has also taken QE off the agenda .

 Read more

IMF Managing Director Christine Lagarde discusses global economic priorities at the Brookings Institution, April 12, 2012

IMF Managing Director Christine Lagarde discusses global economic priorities at the Brookings Institution, April 12, 2012

The Spring Meetings of the IMF and the World Bank will be the focus of market attention this week. IMF Managing Director Christine Lagarde has set the ball rolling, with a speech calling for policy makers to “seize the day”. She is asking for a repeat of the “London moment” in February 2009, when G20 leaders announced a co-ordinated plan to rescue the global economy.

However, while her recommendations for action are perfectly sensible, there is an air of familiarity about them. They include a call for more financial resources for the IMF; delayed fiscal tightening in some countries, combined with longer term plans for budget consolidation;  easy monetary policy in the developed economies; continued reform of the financial system; renewed labour market reforms; and measures to promote fairness and eradicate poverty. With no atmosphere of crisis surrounding the Spring Meetings, there seems little chance of anything dramatic emerging on any of these fronts this week. Read more

The wobble in risk assets in the past week has followed the Fed’s shift towards hawkishness, weaker US jobs data and the budget announcement in Spain. The fact that eurozone equities have once again underperformed US equities suggests that the Spanish budget was probably the dominant factor.

As the first graph shows, Spain’s sovereign bond yields and bank CDS spreads have recently widened to near their worst readings since the crisis started in 2010. What is even more worrying is the consistent upward trend which is apparent in the data. The eurozone rescue operation, mounted by the ECB and heads of government last December, reversed this deterioration only temporarily, and markets now seem to have resumed their earlier adverse trends. Everyone is asking whether this will trigger a new, and larger, eurozone crisis in 2012. Read more

The minutes of the Federal Open Market Committee meeting on March 13 have surprised the markets. The committee seems to have shifted in a markedly more hawkish direction than was reflected in the statement issued after the meeting, and the bar to quantitative easing 3 now seems to be rather high. Perhaps we should have expected this, given the fact that speeches by chairman Ben Bernanke and Bill Dudley since the meeting had given no hint of any further easing. But the breadth of the committee’s shift away from easing was certainly not expected.

It is easy to find hawkish phrases in the minutes. The US Federal Reserve staff has not only upgraded its real gross domestic product projections, and increased its inflation forecasts, but has also reduced its estimate of the output gap. Only “a couple” of FOMC members saw any case for further easing, and then only if growth falters or inflation falls below target. There was even some discussion of changing the guidance on keeping short rates “exceptionally low” up to the end of 2014, a move which would really shock markets.  Read more

Spanish workers demonstrate in Madrid during a national strike, 29 March 2012. Image by Getty

Spanish workers demonstrate in Madrid during a national strike, 29 March 2012. Image by Getty

It was always likely that Spain would prove to be the key battleground in the eurozone crisis this year, and so it is proving. If the eurozone’s austerity strategy, based mainly on the imposition of fiscal contraction in the peripheral economies, works in Spain, then it will probably work elsewhere. But if it fails in Spain, the long term outlook for the eurozone would seem ominous.

The EFSF/ESM “firewall” announced last week was at the low end of market expectations, providing new funding for future crises of only €420bn by July 2013, and €500bn a year later.  A medium sized Spanish crisis, involving both the sovereign and the banking sector, would comfortably absorb most of that, leaving nothing over for the many other potential calls on the eurozone’s bail-out funds. That is why the market was so focused on the Spanish budget announcements on Friday. Read more